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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Nature Culture Tweedledum Tweedledee

Posted by Bill Benzon on 05/19/09 at 01:46 PM

I’ve been going round and round with Brian Boyd’s new book, On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction (Harvard 2009). My copy is festooned with small yellow post-it notes (for whatever reason I decided not to write in the page margins); I’ve written several long emails to my manga-anime buddy, Tim Perper (who was trained as a biologist); and have so far dumped 5000+ plus words about the book into a Word file. I’m doing this because Boyd is playing in an important game, one that interests me a great deal: Reconstructing Literary Studies.

As that subject is of interest here at The Valve, I decided that I just had to blog about this book. But how? I believe the book is important. That suggests a positive review. But I also believe that Boyd’s arguments have deep flaws. That suggests a negative review. I have undertaken to write both.

Good Stuff

Let’s start on the positive tip. Boyd devotes his last major discussion to Horton Hears a Who!, giving it 59 pages out of 414 pages of body text. That’s 14% of a book that’s intended to revolutionize literary studies by reconciling it with the Darwin-touched sciences, from biology itself through psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, economics, and who knows what else.

14 percent! 

Why is this a big deal? Because literary studies was conceived as the study of High Culture and remains fundamentally High Culture despite the recent inroads of cultural studies. Dr. Seuss is decidedly pop cultural; he wrote for children – yes, adults dig his work (especially, it seems, adults learning English as a second language); and he used pictures, lots of them. And he does this without apology or excuse, as though it were the most natural thing in the world.

Boyd’s discussion considers Theodor Geisel’s (i.e. Dr. Seuss) career in advertising, his love of drawing, his extensive reworking of materials, the visual rhetoric in a particular two-page spread (the “confrontation scene”), and the grain-of-sand irritant that sparked the story, a post-war trip to Japan that got Geisel thinking about democracy. Boyd moves though these materials using a problems-and-solutions method (from film-critic David Bordwell) that seeks explanations in universal terms (human nature and basic social life), local factors (cultural and social), the individual artist, and the particular work. He concludes by arguing that Horton Hears a Who!, and other fictions too, has many meanings.

That view, of course, belongs to the default operating mode of literary studies, and has been there for years. But it has always been vigorously opposed by some critics, generally by invoking authorial intention. Boyd’s colleague in the evolutionary trenches, Joseph Carroll, is one such critic (see his chapter on “Human Nature and Literary Meaning” in Gottschall and Wilson, The Literary Animal, 2005). That Boyd thus differs from him on this central issue is evidence that, whatever it may be, evolutionary criticism is not a school for imitative orthodoxy.

It is, however, a school that has been too exclusively focused on the biological underpinnings of social life at the expense of mental life. Boyd has done important work in rectifying that deficiency in the first half of the book, roughly 200 pages. To be sure, he does review work on social life, especially cooperation (and punishment) and status; but he’s not so concerned about sex, gender, and mating. He gives a great deal of attention to so-called Theory of Mind: how we understand other people’s actions, intentions, and beliefs. While the term itself irritates me – it has an aura of explanation (“how’s it work? why TOM!”) that’s not, so far as I know, backed up by a rich account of actual mechanisms – it is a standard usage and Boyd’s discussion of the literature is interesting and satisfying. He also discusses the psychology of play, in animals as well as humans, ontological categories (our basic sense about animal, vegetable, or mineral?), memory and recall, and narrative. These discussions are shot through with an interest in pattern and our attention to it.

Biological Adaptation

True to his evolutionary calling, Boyd wraps it all in adaptationist explanation, the master-key of evolutionary biology. Much of the time Boyd is simply making the point that the human mind in general is the product of a deep phylogenetic history of interaction with the natural world, hence the many examples of animal behavior. The human mind is not a blank slate; it has evolved capacities and preferences that are species-wide.

I have no problem with this.

The problem comes with the more specific argument that story-telling and, in particular, telling stories about fictional creatures, things, and events, that the telling of such stories is biologically adaptive. The fact that fiction has a biological substrate doesn’t make it biologically adaptive, for everything we do has a biological substrate. Nor does the fact that it is useful in many ways, which I believe Boyd has established. Reading and iron-mongering are also useful, but no one argues that either is a biological adaptation. Boyd certainly knows this.

Further, the fact that some animal species have culture, which Boyd properly insists upon, suggests that the cultural transmission of traits from one generation to the next is itself a biological adaptation. That is certainly true of human culture as well, for it is our cultural capacity that allowed our species to spread beyond the tropics, the only higher primate to do so. Yet, this is a trivial generalization. We would not, on that account, look for a biological explanation for the origins of agriculture, easel painting, the internal combustion engine, or the sonnet. Biological substrates, yes; origins, no.

Part of my problem, I fear, is rooted in reflexive laziness. It is easy to think in terms of some relatively narrow period of time during which humankind finally emerges. Everything before that is nature, everything after is culture. But that is not so. Biological evolution has not utterly stopped in the last 50,000 years or so. And our ancestors were certainly cultural beings long before we had finally become homo sapiens sapiens.

That chimpanzees are cultural animals suggests that our cultural heritage may considerably older than the stone artifacts that are the oldest evidence of human culture. Perhaps, then, cultural behaviors were themselves a driving force in our evolution – an argument I associate with Terrence Deacon’s The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain (1997). In particular, cultural behaviors were in place and changing before the brain had reached its full development. Boyd himself speculates that music may have been the first of the arts to emerge (76, 188) while fiction is likely the last. Increasingly rich cultural activities were thus part of the social environment to which the brain adapted and in which imaginative story-telling finally emerged. I suggest that any attempt to disentangle nature and culture on this point may prove pointless.

And perhaps Boyd himself thinks so. In his introduction to the second half of the book he reminds us: “In Book I I outlined a naturalistic account of art and fiction and argued that both are adaptations . . . “ (209). He goes on to assert that those views require empirical tests “but an evolutionary approach to literature does not depend on them or on any other hypotheses that claim art, literature, or fiction as adaptive” (209-210).

There we have it. After all that, it really doesn’t matter whether or not fiction is biologically adaptive. I agree, we can look for and examine specific mechanisms without having to figure out whether or not “fiction is an adaptation, byproduct, or some combination of the two” (210).

The Review Thickens

Once we’ve read that introduction we’re into Boyd’s account of Homer’s Odyssey, his other example text. First he looks at how Homer attracts and manages the reader’s attention. Chapter 14 is subtitled “Natural Patterns: Character and Plot” while chapter 15 looks at “Open-Ended Patterns: Ironies of Structure.” Much of the latter reads like it might have been inspired by Stanley Fish’s aborted call for an affective stylists (“Literature in the Reader: Affective Stylistics”). It’s not that I think or suspect that Boyd was so inspired – he says nothing about Fish anywhere in the book – but only that someone inspired by Fish might have done what Boyd has done, look at how Homer directs the reader’s attention to patterns in the text, both global and local. Thus there is a possible line of connection between Boyd’s work and reader response criticism.

Moving on, let’s look at chapters 18 and 19, where Boyd takes up cooperation. These discussions are grounded in biological ideas that emphasize the difficulty of engineering cooperation, but also its ubiquity. Chapter 19 is on the role punishment plays in cooperative groups (e.g. the slaughter of the free-loading suitors), while Chapter 18 is about hospitality and reputation. It is here that I want to sit and think a bit.

Boyd observes that “there has not been time in the 10,000 years or so since the agricultural revolution for the slow workings of evolution to reconfigure human emotions to the point where we could automatically trust even strangers” (294). That’s biology. He goes on to note that now we often do trust strangers because our world has “a whole system of legal safeguards” that kicks in if things go wrong. That’s culture. Homeric Greece didn’t have such a legal system, but they did have norms of xenia, hospitality, and those norms are very important in the Odyssey. Those norms dictated that, when a stranger arrives at my home, I am obligated to feed him and offer him a bed. When he leaves, I should give him a valuable and helps him on his way. Should I ever arrive at this person’s home, he is obligated to reciprocate. Further, this bond extends to our descendants. Xenia is thus a very exacting set of norms, one that makes sense for a nation of sea-faring traders.

Boyd’s discussion is, of course, more extensive than my summary and is illustrated with examples from the Iliad as well as the Odyssey. What I find a bit curious is that he does not suggest that the circulation of texts such as Iliad and Odyssey and their component tales and precursors might well play a role in the social process by which these norms are promulgated. Later in the chapter he talks about the role of reputation – “an inevitable feature of social life in a species whose members monitor and report on one another” – in spreading norms, he talks of cultural amplification, but makes no mention of stories themselves as cultural amplifiers.

Perhaps Boyd thought the notion so obvious that it needn’t be said; or that he’d covered it in the first half of the book (p. 196) and so there was no need to recall it here. Or perhaps he has so thoroughly assimilated stories to the biological that, now that he is deep in the analysis of a story, he thinks of culture as something over there, in the world represented in the story, but not as something acting in and on that world, something that might actually contribute to and shape that world.

Mind on Brain in History

I sense a similar, perhaps deeper, blindness in the previous two chapters, 16 and 17, where Boyd takes up arguments offered by Bruno Snell and Julian Jaynes that Homer had little concept of mind. According to Boyd those claims are based on three kinds of evidence, of which only two interest me at the moment: 1) a relative lack of mental terms, and 2) that “Homer has fewer ways of rendering mental states than Horace or Montaigne, let alone Tolstoy or Proust” (256). (The pervasive attribution of action to godly prompting is the third kind of evidence.) I don’t know Snell’s work at all, but I am familiar with Jaynes, The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976), and find it as brilliant as it is bizarre. Though his argument that Homer lacked consciousness is just silly, I find aspects of his work on Homer – which is only part of Jaynes’s argument – have more value than Boyd is willing to grant.

Boyd points out that Homer shows us the workings of Odysseus’s mind through his actions and his words, the way he responds to and interacts with others (Theory of Mind). Yes, of course. But these techniques for dealing with mind are more computationally expensive (to use a formulation Boyd occasionally calls upon) requiring longer and more complex linguistic devices, than reference to a rich pre-existing vocabulary of mental states or a rich repertoire of tactics for mental representation. As the vocabulary and tactics have already been invented they can be disseminated, used and accumulated so that the repertoire of techniques increases over time.

But this accumulation is not free; it requires resources. In particular, children must be educated in the use of these terms and techniques. Those who have learned their lessons will have the words and tropes available for instant and easy use in their conversation and reflection, their reading and writing. Educational investment early in life thus yields computational ease in adulthood. Does this socio-culture effort have any benefits that justify the costs? What kind of benefits could those possibly be?

Another Research Tradition

To answer those questions I believe we need to consider whether or not how we think about ourselves and how we conceptualize our mental, motivational, and emotional states has any effect on how we in fact act, think and feel. In thinking about those matters we need to consider a long line of research suggesting, for example, how such conceptualization could have some bearing on emotion, for example. The locus classicus is William James, The Principles of Psychology, chapter 25, where James argues that cognitive appraisal of bodily states is part of the process producing emotional experience rather than being an external and detached label. It is not as though the organ that categorizes and conceptualized behavior is on one planet while the organ that executes it is on another. They are one and the same organ.

This research tradition has continued in the experimental and theoretical work of George Mandler, Mind and Emotion (1975), Andrew Ortony, Gerald Clore, and Allan Collins, The Cognitive Structure of Emotions (1988), Antonio Damasio’s notion of the somatic sign (Descartes’ Error, 1994) and others – I recommend the collection edited by Jennifer M. Jenkins, Keith Oatley, and Nancy L. Stein, Human Emotions: A Reader (1998) as a source on this and other traditions of emotion research, including the Darwinian tradition. Patrick Colm Hogan draws on this tradition in The Mind and Its Stories, especially the Afterward and I have incorporated it into my extended discussion of Coleridge’s “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison.”

Given this tradition I find it reasonable to speculate that cultures with access to a large and highly differentiated vocabulary of emotions and of other mental states might in fact have different inner experience and that literary texts provide evidence that must be taken into consideration. I do not hereby mean to dismiss the evidence for universals of emotion, not at all. But I do want to suggest that, even in the domain of emotion, that there is more to human experience than the universal and that these differential elaborations accumulate over time. Obviously these accumulations can differ from one tradition to another as well.

* * * * *

Our task is to bring careful textual analysis and criticism into conjunction with a wide variety of empirical evidence, models, and theories from the social and psychological sciences. On the Origin of Stories is an important contribution to that effort. But, as Boyd knows, it is only a preliminary effort. As the work moves forward our theories and models will become richer even as they gain explanatory power. Perhaps one day we will reach the point where some future master can survey the literary field, as Darwin once did the biological, and find a unifying principle within its manifold forms arrayed in intertwined variety over mere thousands of years of change through historical time and cultural space. We are not there yet.


I haven’t read Boyd’s book, and I was (I admit) hoping that Bill Benzon would give me a reason to rush out and get it—but I guess not. Evolutionary literary studies are not my area; I’ve written a lot about romance, courtship, and about how people fall in love, and, more recently, about manga and anime. But from Bill’s review, it seems that Boyd’s book is closer to an optimistic view of what literary evolutionism might become than a work meriting comparison to the other book with a title starting “The Origin of...”

I do have a few questions. How can one leave out romance if one is dealing with a putative adaptive origin of story-telling? Now, by “romance,” I mean much more than True Romances comics, or Robert Louis Stevenson’s wonderful essay on how to write a romance (from 1882, if memory serves), or even erotica, though I’ll include them all. If the male-female dynamic is basic to “the romance”—no, I’m not excluding gay romances; I’m merely setting them to one side for the moment—then assuredly The Odyssey must be accounted one of the first works of fictional imagination to deal extensively with the complexities of male-female dynamics.

The ancient Greeks, if I may include both Homer and Plato, had more than one way to deal with those dynamics. One is Diotima/Socrates’ analytically abstract “philosophical” technique, where the writer seeks general principles that underlie all such dynamics, e.g., Diotima’s Erotic Ascent. The other is Homer’s technique of reifying the principles by wrapping a character and narrative around them, thereby to use the characters and narratives as a pars pro toto way of saying “‘twas ever thus.” Then Nausicaa and Penelope are as much imagined individual actresses in a romantic drama as they are exemplars that illustrate principles held implicitly to be recognizable universally. But, if so, then by omitting Nausicaa and Penelope, Boyd has an immensely thinner analytical broth than we need—unless we want to argue that it is “biologically” irrelevant how we depict romance and sex.

My second question is why does Boyd want to analyze Horton?  Mind you, I’m not knocking Dr. Seuss—I love Dr. Seuss. But if one is writing a book with a title borrowed so strikingly from the flagship document of evolutionary biology, wouldn’t one want to cast a wider net? Why not The Tale of Genji? Or Goliard poetry? Or Ovid? Or even Madame Bovary? If the rhetorical implication is that of it (=literary evolutionism) “works” for The Odyssay and for Horton, then (a fortiori) it has to work for everything in between. Well, maybe—or maybe not.

Grist for the mill, but definitive it does not seem. At least not to me.

Tim Perper

By on 05/19/09 at 05:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Oh, Boyd does talk about Penelope and Nausicaa and what it means that Odysseus would refuse Nausicaa so that he could return to a wife he hasn’t seen in years. There’s no Helen Fisher or Robert Sternberg; there is, however, a page or two on John Bowlby and the EP literature on mating. But he doesn’t make those relationships the focus of extended literary analysis and marshalling of psychological evidence.

As for that title, I’d like to believe his editor twisted his arm really really hard and perhaps even got his wife to threaten him with divorce if he didn’t do it. Setting aside the propriety of the implied comparisons, literary studies isn’t ready for a Darwinian figure. Darwin was working on three centures of descriptive and analytic work on the world’s flora and fauna; the naturalist community knew a great deal about the biological world in meticulous detail. It is over that detail that Darwin cast his inductive net. As I indicated in my concluding paragraph, I don’t think literary studies is there yet. We’ve spent too much time looking for meaning and not nearly enough time trying to analyze the formal properties of our texts. Just why I think that, well, that’s a long story. I’ve written some of that here.

By Bill Benzon on 05/19/09 at 06:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I am glad Bill Benzon likes as much as he does in my book, but his main criticism is that I do not deal with things I deal with centrally, like the power of a story such as the Odyssey to strengthen the value of xenia in the culture of his time and after (e.g. p. 316, but 287-317 passim), or to strengthen the value of curiosity (exemplified in Odysseus) and even the search for a panoptic vision of the world (exemplified in Homer and made available through him to the audience) (e.g., p. 281: “These qualities in Homer may have hothoused the flowering of Greek thought in the centuries that followed, when his work was the center of Greek education, thought, pride, and confidence. Homer has not only focused on a hero who embodies human intelligence, but he may have advanced intelligence itself, by increasing the confidence of his heirs within Greek culture that the whole world can in principle be known by the human mind”). Does this underplay culture? I stress the difference stories can make to human motivations throughout Parts 3 (Evolution and Fiction), 4 (The Odyssey) and 5 (Horton Hears a Who!), the three parts of five that focus on fiction.

Tim Perper has a clear reason for thinking I do not focus on Penelope or Nausicaa: Bill Benzon does not mention them. But I am puzzled why he assumed that therefore I do not (Bill has since corrected him). He also wonders why I use only Homer and Dr. Seuss as detailed examples, when an evolutionary approach, if valid for any stories should be valid for all. Indeed it should, and initially I planned to write at length about tragedy and comedy, the “classical” and the modernist novel, and a postmodern story (Hamlet, Twelfth Night, Pride and Prejudice, Ulysses, and Maus). As I explain (p. 389) I decided eventually that it was better to deal with fewer examples in depth, to show some of the many sides of a couple of sample stories that could be illuminated by an evolutionary approach. In order to counteract the reflex charge that evolutionary criticism must be reductive, I wanted to be expansive—and made explicit that there were other elements of even the stories I chose that I could also have elaborated on from an evolutionary perspective. “Romance”--and Helen Fisher et al.--will certainly feature when I discuss Twelfth Night, Pride and Prejudice, and Ulysses.

There was a clear and explicit reason for focusing on the Odyssey and Horton Hears a Who! In a book called On the Origins of Stories, I decided to focus in depth on a masterpiece each from near the phylogenic origin of story (Part 4 is entitled “Phylogeny: The Odyssey”) and the ontogenic (Part 5 is “Ontogeny: Horton Hears a Who!”). The Odyssey rather than the Epic of Gilgamesh because the latter is fragmentary and, to me, less than a masterpiece; the Odyssey rather than the Iliad because it still appeals widely, more so than the Iliad. Tim Perper might have more justified opinions on my book if he read it.

Allusive titles are a common way of catching attention. Surely the many Odysseys in literature do not imply the author of each has staked a claim to being another Homer?

By on 05/22/09 at 06:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

No, I haven’t read Brian Boyd’s book—on the other hand, I wrote one of the first modern scholarly books using a biological/evolutionary/functionalist framework for analyzing and organizing empirical data on human courtship: “Sex Signals: The Biology of Love” (1985; Philadelphia: ISI Press). It has a fair amount of analysis of literary examples, including essays written by students, stories by James Joyce, ancient Egyptian love poetry… but my interests have moved away from such things. I’m glad that Boyd discusses Penelope and Nausicaa in his book. How about an evolutionary theory of the origin of romantic-erotic fiction?

Why romance? Because sex—along with food—is one of the fundamental, basic, rock-bottom things organisms do to make more of themselves and to spread their genes. If there will be any aspect of human literary invention that ought to show the effects of our evolved heritage, it should be stories about love, sex, romance, and how men and women interact when they collide in efforts to make more of themselves. I don’t object to including Horton, but I do think that a more relevant choice would have been an Archie comic book, because it centers on males and females and all the things they do when they collide in efforts to make more of themselves… Or Rumiko Takahashi’s “Maison Ikkoku,” if you’d like an example from Japanese cartooning (manga).

My basic point is that I expect a book dealing with evolution to focus on certain specific behavior patterns and adaptations, romance and sex being a closely related pair of such patterns. If the book doesn’t do that—and from Bill’s comments and the other comments I’ve seen on the internet, Boyd’s book doesn’t deal extensively with these areas—then there doesn’t seem to be much in it that is relevant to the work I have done over the decades, some of it in an area very closely related to the evolutionary topics Boyd wants to address.

Tim Perper

By on 05/22/09 at 08:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Hmmmm . . . it seems we have a different sense of what my “main” criticism was, Brian. You seem to be responding to what I said in “The Review Thickens” and, yes, I was a bit sloppy there. But the possible effect of Homer on the Greek will-to-inquiry, powerful though it may have been, doesn’t respond to the objection I raised in “Mind in Brain on History” and “Another Research Tradition.” My focus was a bit narrower there, yes, but it’s also a bit closer to the issues I raised in an old essay on “The Evolution of Narrative and the Self", which is concerned with larger issues of narrative form and how it shapes our sense of ourselves and, perhaps, the structure of the mind, but not, of course, of the brain.

No, I’m not advocating a dualism between the material brain and an immaterial mind; what I’m up to is a bit more subtle, and, alas, beyond the scope of a blog comment. See my discussion of “Neural Weather: The Musical Mind” in chapter 4 of Beethoven’s Anvil and “Computation: Literature in the Mind” in this article in PsyArt.

By Bill Benzon on 05/23/09 at 04:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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