Posted by Ginny on February 25th, 2005 (All posts by Ginny)
Shannon’s discussion has been remarkably fruitful. Several contemporary scholars in fields influenced by evolution have noted the inconsistency she describes; rather than rejecting Darwin they have applied his insights, ones honed in evolutionary psychology, to the humanities. Harold Fromm’s “The New Darwinism in the Humanities” (Hudson Review.com) is a useful introductory bibliographic essay. This link to Hudson Review includes both Part I: From Plato to Pinker from Spring 2003 and Part II: Back to Nature Again from Summer 2003. Fromm spends much time on Pinker’s The Blank Slate which was then climbing the best-seller lists.
Fromm begins his argument with a provocative context:
Platonic idealism—the view that Mind is more real than Body—may have been an epochal contribution to the lifting of mankind a few notches above the savagery of the flesh, inspiring Christianity with the sense of a “higher” and less carnalized reality that led to the Cartesian establishment of Mind as autonomous and supreme. But after twenty-five hundred years of grand, self-flattering illusions about the “spirituality” and autonomy of man’s unconquerable mind, a case could be made for spirituality as another, more genteel, covert form of savagery and control, another sort of narcissistic power-ploy.
Indeed, as he later observes:
Although the amazing hominid brain took billions of years to evolve from the beginnings of life, human narcissism, both religious and secular, has tried to cut it loose, as Mind, from its material origins and treat it as a magical self-sustaining faculty with few predispositions.
One of the lessons that Pinker’s discussion most brought home to me was how culture – most especially Western culture, most especially religious culture – found ways to “tame” the savage who was hardly noble. I love his bar graph comparing homicide rates in primitive societies to those safer times in the West–especially in the not-so-bloodless 20th century. And he observes that homicide rates in European societies have declined a hundredfold since the Middle Ages. (Obviously, western culture has been good for us–and we are reminded of the Puritan belief in the liberty that comes through restraint, of the great paradox that in submission lies freedom.) This was markedly true in the quite constrained reign of Victoria, a time during which all improved their lots–especially women but also men and children. The documentation of this increasingly domestic and increasingly law-abiding culture is documented by Martin J. Wiener in Men of Blood: Violence, Manliness and Criminal Justice in Victorian England.
These works may signal changes to come. But Fromm has clearly spent much time around people to whom the “blank slate” is not some extreme hypothesis but rather central to their vision; indeed, it is a meme that underlies most of their interpretations of reality. (Not, I suspect, when they look at their own little ones and say, ah, he has my smile and your eyes. . . but, then, this mind/body dichotomy cloaks them as they return to their desks and ponder theories and interpret their theoretic reality.) And they aren’t kidding.
Fromm points to earlier works than Pinker’s in this field. One is a collection of essays, The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture, published in 1992. The central theme of these essays, Fromm argues, is the “Standard Social Science Model” (SSSM) which assumes the “blank slate.” As Fromm sums up the editors’ (Cosmides and Tooby’s) argument:
The appeal of the SSSM is that it provides a rationale for social engineering and political correctness, for promulgating such egalitarian absurdities as the doctrine that there are no substantive psychological differences between the sexes, a doctrine that has finally run its course. Or as Cosmides and Tooby put it, “A program of social melioration carried out in ignorance of human complex design is something like letting a blindfolded individual loose in an operating room with a scalpel—there is likely to be more blood than healing.”
Unfortunately, it has not run its course. My second daughter’s boyfriend forwarded this link to a Swedish account. The government cannot acknowledge, can not publish, any work that indicates a difference between men and women. (This is not, of course, banning – but certainly makes a difference in the availability of opposing views.) This may appear Utopian to Nancy Hopkins but some of us have our doubts.
Fromm argues that
Pinker and E. O. Wilson are virtuoso science thinkers who have mastered the basics of contemporary humanistic culture. To accuse them of not speaking with the more subtle and complex voices of critics and theoreticians from inside the humanities would be unfair—they aren’t insiders. They speak as super-intelligent polymath outsiders, and they do a pretty good job of it.
He argues that while “we don’t have to accept their aesthetic judgments as the last word” they “do a much more impressive job with the humanities than any humanist I know has been able to do with the sciences. They practice the consilience they recommend to others.”
Shannon’s post has argued from a scientist’s perspective and we without that perspective can be pleased by the unity and logic she offers. And we can see the applications of such unity in several works that arise from a Darwinian perspective. Probably the best practitioner of this in terms of literary criticism is Joseph Carroll, especially his Literary Darwinism: Evolution and Literary Theory. Fromm notes Carroll’s point is that “artistic representation is a natural extension of an adaptive human capacity for creating cognitive models.” He then quotes Carroll “I would argue that the primary purpose of literature is to represent the subjective quality of experience.” So, Carroll notes
They correspond to the world not because they “construct” the world in accordance with their own autonomous, internal principles but because their internal principles have evolved as a means of comprehending an actual world that exists independently of the categories.
As a young scholar, Joseph Carroll took as his subject Matthew Arnold and he is clearly grounded in Victorian fiction. This character-rich, ethics-rich, multi-level genre implicitly made an argument for the importance (and pleasure) of studying human nature. Not surprisingly, a modern novelist and critic who appreciates the Jamesian ambiguities is David Lodge, whose Consciousness and the Novel acknowledges that such approaches are likely to meet with some criticism, but, in the end, offer a real truth about what we are.
Back to Fromm: He goes on to note two collections of essays which have reinforced and applied Darwin. The first was Biopoetics: Evolutionary Exploration in the Arts, (1999) which was edited by Brett Cooke and Frederick Turner. Fromm describes their introduction:
“The evidence is steadily mounting . . . that if we wish to understand our profound and long-standing impulse to create and enjoy art we are well advised to attend to our evolutionary heritage. . . . Even if art is for art’s sake, it follows that we seriously consider what that purpose means in Darwinian terms. Not for nothing, we assume, as have many before us, is art found in every society, living or dead.” Thus the origins and rationale for the production and consumption of art are represented here by a wide, if uneven, range of essays, all of which have some connection with Darwinian adaptation and its physical and cultural consequences.
While this bibliographic essay does not dwell on what would seem the obvious similarities and differences that arise from the biological needs of the sexes, he notes how Cooke (whose discipline is Russian literature) uses insights he gained from his interest in evolutionary theory to better explicate Pushkin:
Many of the underlying drives behind reproduction and nurturing may seem to be “common sense” or “logical,” but evolutionists find their pervasiveness across cultures to be more than just a funny coincidence. Of course, it is possible for people “to buck the often obsolete trends of biological adaptation, but they usually will pay an emotional price for doing so,” given the lingering power of atavisms
The second collection is edited by Nancy Easterlin as a special issue of Philosophy and Literature (Vol. 25, No. 2 October 2001). And Fromm concludes with a discussion of the work of Dissanayake, who is concerned with the biological basis of aesthetics. Her works include Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why and What Is Art For?,
Certainly, like everything in this essay, I find these interesting. I will now offer the appropriate apologies: I haven’t taken a science class in forty years ago and have not absorbed contemporary literary criticism (we can leave talk of different roads for different people and the mommy track some other time – though, of course it is not unrelated to this discussion). But I believed a post that gave another context (and appreciation of) Shannon’s arguments needed to be made. And for those of you who think that the blank slate was/is a straw-man, all I can say is you don’t know how revolutionary the works that Fromm discusses are. Nor do some of you seem aware of how they are seen in social science departments today.
This approach, like such others as Freudian or Marxist or deconstructionist, may be applied too literally and too often in the future. It will not be richly generative if it is narrowly and dogmatically used. But it offers those of us from the old school a new way to reach what many of us went into literature to find: a better understanding of human nature. It helps us understand what makes us human, implicitly what the good life is, what is tragic and what is comic about human experience.
And of course there are complexities. Many of us feel that man is not merely body, not merely animal. For now, we have seen what is wrong by dividing these as if they had no relation to one another. But we also know that problems lurk in seeing only the body, primarily the body, as well.
I can certainly see my more religious friends deeply offended by the conclusions Fromm draws and admit I’m not completely comfortable with his conclusion myself. But I come from the state in which all the old bones were dumped as the glaciers began their slow retreat. We were the state of William Jennings Bryan, but also of the Children’s Zoo in Lincoln. As I remember, the sign beside the drawing of a dinosaur noted that as it had become extinct, so, too, we may be superseded by another, higher being. This never seemed to me all that comforting to children. Nor perhaps does it seem true to adults–although I can imagine faiths that might accept that thought. This vision does have some advantages in terms of realism; it is not a perspective that posits the noble savage. And it does, indeed, bring us closer to religious humility, a humility I find quite a bit more attractive than that of the twentieth century’s Engineers of Human Souls.
So, I will use Fromm’s last words to conclude this essay – and you can see how far he, if not the critics he discusses, go.
“Back to Nature, Again” is, of course, sheer irony. You can’t return to something you can’t leave. Siamese twins, although they may not be an ideally viable life form, are as “natural” as you and I, produced by the same “laws” of chemistry, biology, and physics. There aren’t any others. All of “us” who survive are “mutations” who have been turned into members of a species because of the serendipity of “our” adaptability. I envision a cartoon in which a group of chimps, our closest cousins, behold the first Homo sapiens and exclaim, “WOW! Like weird, man!” The view that we are not, in some respect, “weird” but that everything else is—as they all strive to evolve into paragons like us—is simply human arrogance and blindness. All life forms are the most natural of freaks. And our own particular freakishness is the raw material of the arts and humanities. Because they are so aware of all this, the Darwinians strike me as more “religious” than conventional religions, lacking the narcissism and hubris that can for a moment suppose that fifteen billion years of the universe and quintillions of creatures born and dead—millions at this very moment crawling all over my exterior and interior, without whom I wouldn’t even exist—were produced in order to immortalize my “transcendent” little soul. (Does the universe really need my soul around forever? Do I need it?) Everything is “nature,” produced from the finite materials of our planet and shaped by an aimless history with no favorites. Culture is just nature in artful and elaborate drag. In reminding us of our origins, in connecting ourselves and our arts to our biological development instead of to the heavens, the Darwinians, for me at any rate, are engaged in a long overdue hubris-crunching mission of natural piety.
End of Post.
Update: Ridiculously long and not necessariliy well-informed answer to Michael Hiteshew that I am putting here because our system won’t let me put it in comments. Perhaps Jonathan has programmed it so we aren’t constantly inundated with incest sites. (Exactly how do you know if you are looking at incest or merely a regular porn site? Does anyone out there know? If you do know, can your comment be cleared?) If so, good for Jonathan. But Michael you may think this doesn’t answer your comment but I can’t figure out what is obscene.
(sorry it’s so long; I always get carried away.)
First of all, I don’t think anyone arguing here (and probably anywhere in 21st century America) wants to bar women from these fields. I can partially understand the fear, but there is a catch. If we don’t acknowledge that women are different, we can’t fix the things that make it harder for women while still keeping the playing field equally challenging.
Indeed, people ignore the third aspect Summers would like to weight: how mis-matched are the rhythms of the academic hiring/tenure/research world and that of women’s lives? If mis-matched, how can both the needs of good scientific research and such women’s rhythm be better matched? It is easier for women who do not wish to pursue child-raising now get hired (and stay hired). Perhaps there is no other way. But as long as that third factor is ignored, the dialogue will not include others. And that is a loss.
I do not disagree with your point about deaths at the hands of religious believers (we call them fanatics but this is an understandable if unattractive byproduct of strong belief in an absolute). I probably put it too strongly, still I suspect religion has had a strong influence on the fact that murders have gone down a hundredfold since the medieval era. And, remember, the noble savage meme has been firmly if illogically linked the blank slate; I overstate out of irritation. (This is Pinker’s argument but one that has permeated the assumptions my students bring from high school & social science courses.)
Perhaps the post-medieval death rate has also gone down because variety has made it harder to accept a vision as absolute or the religious wars of that period wore everyone out. This is not something I could argue about intelligently. But that the rate decreased is interesting and – I believe – important.
Also, I suspect religions (at their best–or what I perceive as their best) that see others as potential believers and also as endowed by their God with souls work against seeing the “other” as so “other” as not to be human. Of course, I agree with you – that laws that bring order must transcend the particulars, the tribal. How many of us come from groups that at one time had one word for our own that could be roughly translated as human and another for others that could be roughly translated as non-human? I think that is your argument and I agree with it. However, religion at its best works against that. (At its worst, of course, it works towards that. But my impression is that it was more pagan tribalism than Christian beliefs that drove the Germans to want to destroy the whole gene pool of Jews and Gypsies and to have their rather unattractive attitude toward Slavs. Certainly, the genocides in Africa appear more often tribal than religious.)
Sure, the Swedish position is dogmatic. You see it as different in what way from the debacle at Harvard followed by the reparations and apologies?
I agree with your fear of dogma, although few teachers would be honored by having others know they taught me math. (Every math teacher I ever had was a woman – but if you go to the kind of school where the same person teaches all four levels of high school math and you never have to take another math class, that doesn’t say much. The fact that I did okay on the math GRE says something about the low math standards in this country.)
Shannon and I (clearly coming from quite different worlds) have blasted the opposition to Summers. The men on the blog may have hesitated out of chivalric deference. Nonetheless, I chose this battle in part (I can’t speak for Shannon) because I am a woman. I’ve always respected Richard Rodriguez for his style, his thought, his wit, his emphasis upon what we all have in common while celebrating his gay, Catholic, Indian/Mexicanness uniqueness. Such values led him to reject the road he felt was being smoothed for him because of his color, his factionalism. I don’t want people to pat me on the head and say, nice, that’s good for a woman. I want people to engage with me as an equal. And I want that for my daughters. People like Nancy Hopkins want to take that right away from me – and them.