Friday, May 17, 2013

Evo / Cog Science and Lit

I decided to start off the summer with a flurry of essays about brain science and literature: Steven Pinker, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, Denis Dutton, and a few others. I still have much to read, but a few initial thoughts:

These authors are quick to scold Literature professors for not being open enough to the Sciences and the ways scientific thought can enlighten the understanding of literature and the Humanities in general. It's a fair statement and I'm sure there are many Lit profs who could stand to be more open to the sciences. What's ironic though is that the same authors who are doing the scolding are clearly publishing essays about writing and reading fiction without seriously consulting someone who actually writes, closely reads, or teaches the writing of fiction. If they had, they might have avoided giving the impression throughout their essays that writing and reading fiction is something our brains do easily. 

Those of us who teach story and the writing of stories can tell you quite confidently that constructing a clear and engaging narrative, whether fictional or nonfictional, is a skill that many very smart people struggle with. We can also assure you that people are very capable of reading a book or watching a film without formulating a hypothesis regarding its meaning -- or they might formulate an understanding that is demonstrably illogical, but persist in believing it, etc.

Perhaps if these essays had been written with the difficulty and rareness (what percentage of any population are its storytellers?) of the deed in mind, they might have begun to tackle the question of why people devote themselves to narrative-building and meaning-making (rather than procreation and resource acquisition). 

They might also have addressed the fact that while fiction can be seen as a "safe space" for would-be dangerous vicarious experiences, people very often seek out fiction that is not "safe" for them. There are novels banned because people think the ideas contained in them are dangerous, and there are stories that genuinely freak people out and make them uncomfortable -- sometimes through content, but sometimes through structure! There are many highly acclaimed and admired books and stories that disturb our understanding of the real and unreal and muddle the line between them. I would suggest that the thinkers I've read so far are speaking primarily about children's stories, but children's stories seem "safe" only to adults, or perhaps to children who know the story by heart. The way we talk about fiction is different depending upon whether we are close to it or looking at it from the outside, and I don't think outsiders have an advantage in their understanding here.

None of the essays I've read so far are as interesting as the 11th chapter of Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene, written in the 1970s, where he introduces the concept of memetics as an analog to genetics and suggests that information in the form of ideas can behave just like information in the form of DNA. Ideas (memes) that are longer-lasting and more prone to replication will be over-represented in the ecosystem, compared to ideas that lack these traits.

I'd like to read a continuation of this idea, rather than mush about poetry lending a male status among females or that imagination is just a side effect of the survival-relevant ability to anticipate the future. Or even the story-aggrandizing theories that place fiction on the high altar of vicarious wisdom. 

Stories, like genes, can seem to have a life of their own. To what extent are there units of thought floating around in the "cultural soup" of our minds (and in the shared mind-soup created by our communications -- our shared experience of the world) and how do these ideas persist, and how do they replicate? How different, really, is the idea of "star-crossed lovers" from a chemical unit of information: a gene for skin pigmentation or long legs or a well-structured heart? The essential difference is that one is physical and the other is not. 

But DNA, while physical, is hardly tangible like a toad or a tomato. We learn about it indirectly, through instruments. Perhaps people are instruments through which stories can be known? I don't know. I'm going to keep reading... 


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