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The Play’s the Thing

Michael Bérubé

ON THE ORIGIN OF STORIES: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction. Brian Boyd. xiv + 540 pp. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009. $35.

Let me explain a thing or two about humanists like me. There are legions of us who reach for our guns when we hear the word genome. That’s because we’re all too familiar with the history of eugenics, and we flinch whenever someone attempts an “evolutionary” explanation of Why Society Is the Way It Is; we suspect them, with good reason, of trying to justify some outrageous social injustice on the grounds that it’s only natural. Likewise, there are legions of us who clap our hands over our ears when we hear the term evolutionary psychology. That’s because we’re all too familiar with the follies of sociobiology, and we’ve suffered through lectures claiming that our species is hardwired for middle-aged guys dumping their wives for young secretaries and students (I sat through that lecture myself) or that men run the world because women have wide hips for childbearing, whereas men can rotate three-dimensional shapes in their heads (okay, that one is a mash-up of two different lectures).

Brian Boyd is here to change all that. On the Origin of Stories attempts an evolutionary explanation of the appearance of art—and, more specifically, of the utility of fiction. From its title (with its obvious echo of Darwin) to its readings of The Odyssey and Horton Hears a Who!, Boyd’s book argues that the evolution of the brain (itself a development of some significance to the world) has slowly and fitfully managed to produce a species of primate whose members habitually try to entertain and edify one another by making stuff up.

If this sounds reductive, don’t worry: Boyd patiently explains that this isn’t your father’s sociobiology or your great-grandfather’s eugenics. To say that something is genetic is not, despite decades of bad science followed by decades of bad popularizations of bad science, to say that it is genetically determined, if “determined” means (as it usually does) “inevitably fated.” Boyd expresses some exasperation at the idea of genetic determinism, arguing that

the notion that genes shape us is less deterministic than the notion that we are the product of our environment, since the complexity and randomness of genetic recombination in sexual reproduction means that we are each the result of an unpredictably generated variation unique to each of us rather than of anything imposed from without.

Thus, writes Boyd, “we should see genes less as constraints than as enablers,” just as “we should see genes not as deniers of the role of the environment but as devices for extracting information from the environment.” Boyd acknowledges that “those uneasy about applying evolution to human behavior often assume that doing so must require stressing selfishness and competition at the expense of altruism and cooperation,” but notes that it ain’t necessarily so: “[Richard] Dawkins points out that he could with equal validity, though with less impact, have called his famous first book not The Selfish Gene but The Cooperative Gene.” Well, that’s nice to know after all these years, now that three decades of popular-science enthusiasts have convinced themselves that Nature herself speaks in the language of Ayn Rand. One hopes the word will get around.

Indeed, one of the virtues of On the Origin of Stories is that its author is up to speed on recent work in neurology, genetics and evolutionary theory. He is therefore ideally positioned to persuade his fellow humanists that a “biocultural” approach to art and literature doesn’t entail any Just So stories about how humans came to love Just So stories, or any triumphant tales of how self-replicating molecules persevered over a few billion years until they reached the telos of existence, at which point they were capable of producing Everybody Loves Raymond. For as Darwin insisted, evolution doesn’t have a telos. It consists of a series of open-ended experiments with no final end in sight: “A Darwinian system . . . remains open, unpredictable, and free. It cannot presuppose a best option, an ideal fit, a goal that can be precisely determined beforehand.”

Regrettably, Boyd stumbles out of the gate, working himself into a nasty and unnecessary self-contradiction in the first chapter, where he argues that “the cultural constructionist’s view of the mind as a blank slate is ‘a dictator’s dream,’ [quoting Steven Pinker],” for “if we were entirely socially constructed, our ‘society’ could mold us into slaves and masters, and there would be no reason to object.” This is a shallow conception of social constructionism (admittedly, a conception often promulgated by social constructionists), in which saying that “X is socially constructed” is tantamount to saying “X can be changed at will.” But what makes Boyd’s critique so unfortunate (and self-contradictory) is that he immediately proceeds to insist that, unlike social constructionism, “an evolutionary view allows for informed social change.” He goes on to note that “Owen Jones compares the law to a lever to change human behavior, and an informed knowledge of human nature to the fulcrum the lever needs to exert its force.” I’m sorry, but I think I might have missed something here. How is this evolutionary view of how to change human behavior not a dictator’s dream?

Once we get past that little tangle, however, the first half of On the Origin of Stories is exhilarating. Boyd rehearses the history of the rapid growth in hominin brain size over the past couple of million years, showing that with the development of the neocortex we’ve been endowed with all kinds of cleverness to compensate for the fact that we’re slow, weak, flat-toothed and clawless. We are thoroughly social creatures, and when we work together we can be formidable predators; accordingly, we’ve evolved various attributes that enable mutualism, such as shared attention, mirror neurons and theory of mind. The latter allows us access to something no other animal seems aware of, namely, the notion that other members of our species might have false beliefs. The survival value of art, then, is that it hones and enhances those functions of mind that in turn enhance our capacity for social interaction and exploration: “Art develops in us habits of imaginative exploration, so that we take the world as not closed and given, but open and to be shaped on our own terms.”

By refining and strengthening our sociality, by making us readier to use the resources of the imagination, and by raising our confidence in shaping life on our own terms, art fundamentally alters our relation to the world. The survival consequences may be difficult to tabulate, but they are profound. We have long felt that art matters to us. It does, objectively as well as subjectively. By focusing our attention away from the given to a world of shared, humanly created possibility, art makes all the difference.

This is rousing stuff. Not only does it reassure us that all our museum-brochure rhetoric is telling the truth, it also confirms that Friedrich Schiller was right to propose, in On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1794), that humans possess a “play-drive” that leads us to create and be amazed by art:

For, to declare it once and for all, Man plays only when he is in the full sense of the word a man, and he is only wholly Man when he is playing. This proposition . . . will, I promise you, support the whole fabric of aesthetic art, and the still more difficult art of living.

It is no slight to Boyd, surely, to say that On the Origin of Stories sometimes reads like Schiller combined with a few graduate courses in neuroscience. Whether one prefers to say, with Emily Dickinson, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry,” or, with Boyd, “Neurons in the substantia nigra and the ventral tegmental areas of the brain secrete dopamine in reaction to the surprising but not to the expected,” is surely a matter of taste.

The second half of the book, however, probably won’t go over as well with the humanists Boyd is trying to reach. He opens that half by assuring us that “a biocultural approach to literature simply requires that we take seriously that evolution has powerfully shaped not just our bodies but also our minds and behavior.” This much is incontrovertible, and I share Boyd’s hope that someday our fellow humanists will be less averse to thinking in terms of the species-wide universals we’ve inherited as part of the legacy of life on Earth. But Boyd’s application of the principle seems to me to have two weaknesses.

2010-01BREVBerubeFA.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageThe first, upon which some reviewers have already remarked, is that the resulting readings of The Odyssey and Horton Hears a Who! don’t appear to be entirely worth the journey. Much of Boyd’s approach consists of explaining how Homer and Dr. Seuss manage to win and keep our attention, and Boyd castigates contemporary literary criticism for failing to attend to this important matter. But might it not be that “Homer organized the poem in this way so as to win and keep your attention” is the kind of thing that, in literary criticism, literally goes without saying? Similarly, readers for almost three millennia have recognized that Odysseus is one crafty fellow, and that one indication of his craftiness is that he does not act on impulse; even when he’s trapped in a cave with a one-eyed giant eating his men, he takes a deep breath and comes up with a well-considered plan. Boyd explains precisely what this means in neurological terms: “Rapid-fire reactions have to be inhibited (in the orbitofrontal cortex) so that there is time to formulate and assess new options (in the dorsolateral cortex) before acting on them.” Personally, I am tremendously pleased that my species has gotten to the point at which it understands things like this. But how much is added to the history of criticism, finally, by the realization that Odysseus was doing his crafty plotting in his dorsolateral cortex?

I mean this as a real and not a rhetorical question. Boyd closes On the Origin of Stories by remarking that “evocriticism” will have to make its way by devising compelling and convincing readings of works of literature, attending not only to the universal features of human minds but also to the cultural and historical particularities of time and place. On one hand, this school of criticism will provide a desperately needed justification for literary study: “If storytelling sharpens our social cognition, prompts us to reconsider human experience, and spurs our creativity in the way that comes most naturally to us”—as it surely does—“then literary studies need not apologize.” On the other hand, evocriticism comes bearing not only a rationale but also a sword: As Boyd remarks time and again, the enemy to be vanquished is Theory,

which cuts literature off from life by emphasizing human thought and ideas as the product of only language, convention, and ideology—although Theory then tries to compensate for severing literature from three-dimensional life by insisting that it is always political or ideological.

Well, Theory-bashing can be good fun, I suppose, and some forms of theory deserve it. But it is odd to suggest that stressing “language, convention, and ideology” somehow cuts one off from “life.” And it’s even odder to note that “a fine work of art not only expresses creativity but also inspires it in those who enjoy it” but fail to consider that “theoretical” readings of language and literature caught on in the 1970s and 1980s because they were, back in the day, compelling and creative. Everyone who, like Boyd, believes that Alan Sokal killed theory dead really should go back and read Barbara Johnson on Melville’s “Billy Budd” or Paul de Man on the famous rhetorical (or is it real?) question that closes Yeats’s “Among School Children.” Even though I’ve never been a card-carrying deconstructionist myself, I was fascinated by those readings because they taught me that Melville’s novella was even more extraordinary than I’d thought, and that when you’re trying to determine whether a question is real or rhetorical, even an utterance like “Eh, what’s the difference?” can open onto a hall of mirrors. Boyd never stops to consider that maybe, just maybe, the clever human minds responsible for literature are the same clever human minds responsible for literary theory; if he had, he might have been able to say, more plausibly, that theory started (as do all our endeavors) in the impulse to play and create, and only became routine and stultifying after many weary iterations. At which point, after the 350th New Historicist reading of The Tempest, neurons in the substantia nigra and ventral tegmental areas of the brain stopped secreting dopamine.

More important, Boyd is sometimes reluctant to give culture and history their due. He scoffs, for example, at the idea that romantic love was invented at some point in the 12th century, because “cross-cultural, neurological, and cross-species studies have demonstrated the workings of romantic love across societies and even species.” This just won’t wash. Other species might court and mate for life, but they do not engage in romantic love in the sense that humanists employ the term, save perhaps for the cartoon skunk Pepé Le Pew. “Romantic love” does not mean “mammals doing it like mammals”; it refers to the conventions of courtly love, which were indeed invented in the European middle ages and cannot be found in ancient literatures or cultures. Those conventions are culturally and historically specific variations on our underlying (and polymorphous) biological imperatives, just as the institution of the Bridezilla and the $25,000 wedding is specific to our own addled time and place. Nothing about the evolutionary record, from amoebas to Homo sapiens sapiens, is denied or contravened in acknowledging this.

On the Origin of Stories is a fascinating book, even a necessary book. At its best, evocriticism can help to reorient the arts and humanities, renewing (or, in some benighted quarters, sparking) our appreciation for the creative works of human minds and hands, and leading humanists to take a fresh look at the rich evolutionary record. But it will accomplish this, I suspect, only if it is complementary to, and not sweepingly dismissive of, the intellectual traditions humans have devised for the study of human cultures.

Michael Bérubé is the Paterno Family Professor in English Literature and Science, Technology, and Society at Penn State University. He is the author of, among other books, Rhetorical Occasions: Humans and the Humanities (University of North Carolina Press, 2006) and The Left at War (New York University Press, 2009).

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