An Evolutionary Mind
Close your Deleuze; open your Darwin.
â€”Robert Storey, Mimesis and the Human Animal
Of Two Minds
Not that long ago, for about a year, I dated a cute, left-wing economist off-and-on (though mostly off). We found each other attractive and exotic and perhaps even fascinating, but we didnâ€™t get along or get each other one bit. It was a frustrating and futile experiment in the chemistry and mathematics of pairing with someone so different in every wayâ€”even our horoscopes said we were disastrous for each other. (That I would even mention the word horoscope in a piece for public consumption would no doubt make him cringe and clear his throat a few times.) But in the process of going toward something so foreign and at once attractive and repellent, I solidified my worldview that there really are two different kinds of minds.
Recently, the New York Times ran an article titled â€œThe Political Brain.â€ The piece suggested that the liberal mind and the conservative mind are quite different, and that this difference is related to the differences in the way their limbic systems (in particular, the amygdala) respond to particular stimuliâ€”particularly suffering and violence. The author made clear to point out that it was difficult to parse if liberals were born with more sensitive/reactive amygdalae or if their experiences, etc., shaped the patterns of response; and that indeed it was probably a little of both, as these things often are.
Of course, in the game â€œthe nature/nurture debate,â€ where anyone over the age of 13 knows the answer is: â€œitâ€™s both,â€ you are really being asked: To which side do you lean or, perhaps, which side do you defend? And in this game my answer is nature; though I consider myself an interactionist, informed by an epigenetic, evolutionary model (EM). Essentially, the Evolutionary Social Science Model (ESSM)1 is the application of evolutionary theory to the human mind and behavior, often referred to as evolutionary psychology (EP) â€” the almost-2-decade-old â€œscience of the mindâ€ founded by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby. (EP is the daughter of the 30-year-old discipline Sociobiology. 2) Though there is somewhat of a confusion over the term â€œEPâ€ because Cosmides and Toobyâ€™s EP is quite specific and not all EPs (evolutionary psychologists) strictly adhere to some of its â€œorthodoxy,â€ it still appears to be the most popular term for an adaptationist/evolutionary approach to our psyche and behavior, and so, for purposes of this essay, I will use it. (Note: EP is also the term for an evolutionary psychologist.)
So, why do I defend an innatist/nativist position (while maintaining that the environment has shaped adaptations and hardwiring and that weâ€™re influenced by the environment)? Because I feel it is trueâ€”that much is innate in usâ€”and because others feel it is true, and because there is some scientific evidence that it is true (e.g., behavioral genetics). Perhaps Iâ€™m an innate underdoggist with a sensitive amygdala! Because, although being on the nature side these days may seem fashionable to some, in fact, it hasnâ€™t been fashionable for most of my reading, thinking, and writing years.
The economist on the other hand (or brain) is a social constructionist/environmentalistâ€”big on Freud (and Marx) and early childhood experiences as forming personality traits and very big on the narrative. (â€˜Environmentalistâ€™ is a confusing term because of its other, more common meaning related to efforts to preserve and care for the natural environment. But in this context, of course, it means nurture proponent.) He attributed my sympathy with innatist/essentialist models to a rebellion against my parents! Yet, Iâ€™m an older sibling, and thereâ€™s empirical evidence to suggest that older siblings tend to conform, somewhat, to their parents’ beliefs. That was the case with me. It felt awful to feel â€˜the truthâ€™ and to go â€˜againstâ€™ their social constructionist view of things. It took a very long time to individuate. A much better explanation (to me) is that I have a kind of brain that pushes me in that direction. Thereâ€™s no question to me that the male/female; left-brain/right-brain; western/eastern dichotomy is a valuable one for trying to understand our differences; it may even be better than scanning amygdalae.
Hereâ€™s the thing: Itâ€™s a phenomenological certainty that the economist and I canâ€™t see any other way but the way we do; and indeed, our explanations for things have everything to do with our cognitive style. You see, I can’t help think the way I do because of something deep and essential and realâ€”my brain. And this thought in itself I believe comes from my essential nature/brain. I literally cannot get out of it. And he cannot get out of the way he sees the way he does, due to his brain/nature. I am right-brain dominant, female and lean toward an eastern/collectivist worldview. (Iâ€™ll call it a Dionysian mind, after Nietzscheâ€™s distinction between the Dionysian and the Apollinian in The Birth of Tragedy.) I think Iâ€™m also old-brainy and heâ€™s new-brainy. This all seems obvious to me. But he’d probably call it a story, a tall-tale or fiction. Heâ€™d say, nice narrative, Alice! when perhaps this difference lies in our blood and brains. Or genes. Or souls. Or maybe I just have access to something that he doesnâ€™t always have; or doesn’t want to have. It’s hard to know.
Indeed, the brainâ€™s organization may well be what accounts for the difference between my Dionysian mind and the economistâ€™s Apollinian mind. Chris McManus, in his awards-winning book Right Hand, Left Hand (2002), explains that although thereâ€™s oddly little research done on the genetics of handedness, and â€œbrainedness,â€ there is good reason to believe there are genes responsible for hemispheric dominance, lateralization and organization.
According to McManus, there is a left-handed gene and it is known as the C gene; the right-handed geneis known as the D gene. Three manifestations of the alleles are possible: CC, DC and DD. Most CC individuals will be left-handed but also may be susceptible to such things as dyslexia, stuttering, autism, and schizophrenia. These individuals make up about 4% of the population. Most DD individuals will be right-handed and make up 64% of the population. And finally the DC individuals (32% of the population), will be right-handed and left-handed.
â€œIn looking for an advantage for the C geneâ€”and specifically for the DC genotypeâ€”a good starting place is the most striking feature of the C gene: its ability to confer randomness on the organization of the brain, not only for manual dexterity and language . . . but almost certainly for a host of other cerebral symmetries, such as those for reading, writing, visual-spatial processing and emotion. Although it might seem paradoxical, randomness, at least in small amounts, can benefit complex systems.â€
His theory of random cerebral variation â€œprovides an explanationâ€¦for the lay belief that some people literally â€˜think differentlyâ€™ or have their brain â€˜wired differently.â€™â€ In a nutshell, McManus characterizes the DD brain/mind as â€œthe standard textbook descriptionâ€ and having the â€œcold certainty of an ice crystal.â€ For McManus, every DD brain is effectively built the same way and that about 2/3 of the population have such brains/mind. The DCers, in contrast, have modules all over the place, their brains neither lateralized nor compartmentalized the way DD-brainersâ€™ are. What this randomness means is that thereâ€™s a good chance you get a kind of creativity you might not have gotten otherwise. Why? Here are a couple of his examples, but there are many:
Say a DC individual has â€œa module specialised for understanding emotions located in the left hemisphere rather than the right, so that it now sits alongside left-hemisphere modules involved in the production of spoken or written language, that might be beneficial for writing poetry or being an actor….Or â€œimagine that a module for understanding three-dimensional space is in the left hemisphere rather than the right, so that it is now located alongside modules involved in fast, accurate, precise control of the hand; that might well benefit drawing or the visual arts, or perhaps ball control in sport.â€ (p.231)
Itâ€™s somehow reassuring to me that I may be the way I am because of an old C gene. And it is old. The C gene, according to McManus is more primitive than the D gene. Indeed, this fits in with my sense of the economist, who I think of as a neo-culturalphile. His mind is attracted to new thingsâ€”even shiny thingsâ€”from his need to see the latest hippest film, to his postmodern apartment and trendy metrosexual style. I, on the other hand, am attracted to old things. My house is old and so are the things I put in it. I liked vintage clothes 20 years ago and I still wear retro-clothes, though newâ€”since such clothes exist now, Iâ€™m a grown-up, and they fit better. Mr. economist hardly ever goes back in time to understand the world and humans, but when he does, he goes back hundreds and sometimes thousands of years and studies men and systems; whereas when I search for answers I go back 30,000 to 300 million years, and study our distant primate relatives and even microbes. (I should add that I am also fairly neophilic, but in the way Geoffrey Miller (2000) discusses neophilia in The Mating Mind.)
How does a new, Apollinian mindâ€”or DD (left-brain dominant) mind work? The culture at this very moment in time says that (for a female) having a bit of a tummy (as opposed to very flat or muscley) is nice, and so this is what he likes now. But when it didnâ€™tâ€”just a few summers agoâ€”he didnâ€™t. (This â€œbit-o-tummyâ€ meme may change by the summer, though!) There are some men who have a hair-trigger sensitivity to cultureâ€™s ebbs and flows and laws and fashionsâ€”while some men listen to something much more deep and primal; who listen to the â€œnatureâ€ within. (Again, Iâ€™m not sure if itâ€™s a question of listening to the depth within, or a question of having it there to listen to or not.)
[N.B. 8/2007. The gene that may confer left-handedness may have been discovered. See: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/6923577.stm.
This essay was originally published in 2005 before this possible discovery. ]
In social psychology there is something called attribution theoryâ€”dispositional attribution versus situational attribution. A dispositional attribution (inference) is when a person identifies or attributes someoneâ€™s behavior to the personâ€™s disposition, nature, and personality. A situational attribution (inference) is when a person identifies or attributes someoneâ€™s behavior to the personâ€™s situation/environment. The tendency for people to attribute a particular behavior or trait to oneâ€™s essential nature and not to the situation, more often, and therefore, more often erroneously, is what is known as â€œcorrespondence biasâ€ and more specifically â€œthe fundamental attribution errorâ€ (Ross, 1977). Most thinking people are aware of the fundamental attribution error. The right-wing typically is identified with this kind of less reasoned, more automatic attribution; the left typically with more reasoned and fairer situational attributions. There is no social psychological term (as of yet, and probably there never will be) for the tendency for folks who are hyper-sensitive to the fundamental attribution error or who have a tendency to make situational attributions more often than dispositional ones; their number are so few. (One again wonders if this dichotomy, this difference in attribution style can be located somewhere . . . in the brain or genes . . . Actually, I wonder. My economist wouldnâ€™t.)
As essentially more Dionysian, my mind is oodles and oodles more fluid and boundary-less, and uncontrolling and feminine and eastern, and artistic and nonjudgmental and non-labely, and okay, a little bit more nutty than Mr. economist’s Apollinian mind. When I think of the people I know who are social constructionists, these are people who are very masculine, logical, judgmental, critical, controlling, rigid, etc. Why is this so? It doesnâ€™t make sense! Especially since the EP (evolutionary psychology) model is innatist and positivist and male, whereas the social-constructionist model is relational and female. Maybe there is something to his thing about rebellion! Maybe we adopt these views as reaction formations?
A â€œreaction formationâ€ is a kind of defense mechanism which protects oneâ€™s self-concept. The classic example is of the homophobe who is, in fact, a latent homosexual. Although Tom feels Id-y homosexual longing and desire (having something to do with nature and nurture, no doubt, though probably more to do with nature), he also feels a strong Superego-y injunction against homosexual behavior (having something to do with nature and nurture, no doubt, though probably more to do with nurture). So how does Tom, with his strong moral judge/Superego defend himself from acting on these Id-y impulses that do not jibe with his self-concept? He reacts against them most fiercely. And he does so because he knows about the foot-in-the-door phenomenon. He knows that once you open the door a little to something, you are just a few more steps from acting on something. So the door must be completely shut; the smallest opening, the barest light shining through, and itâ€™s all over. He would love and get in a bed with a man; Tom would be a gay man.
I suggest the same thing happens with fierce social constructionists. So, the question is, does the economist cling to his social constructionist view because his real view frightens him? He is very decent and has a highly developed moral sense and conscience. Perhaps he doesnâ€™t like what or the way he thinks naturally, and so he pushes it away and goes in the complete opposite direction because he doesnâ€™t feel comfortable with himself and he doesnâ€™t like the real, implicit, deep-down views he holds because they flow from the way his male, left-brain works: judging, labeling, boxing in, always truly committing the fundamental attribution error at an automatic, unconscious level. (See later discussion on genetic determinism and free-will. My economist is perhaps doing the best thing he can, given his nature!) I, on the other hand, donâ€™t do this by nature, as far as I can tell. I feel open to stuff, and donâ€™t generally feel the need to cover up how I feel about people, things, etc. I feel fairly comfortable with myself and my true feelings and views about people, etc. And so I feel free and easy to be open to all kinds of information. Information that suggests things are innate or hardwired is very threatening to people whose minds naturally have heuristics and algorithms which are male and compartmentalized. My openness to knowledgeâ€”and often what is considered â€œdangerous knowledgeâ€ is treated by aggressive male social constructionists as, indeed, dangerous. But itâ€™s as if the ideas really donâ€™t matter that much, but that what matters is their (the social constructionistsâ€™) domination in the ideology war. (Here, maybe some memesâ€”contra memetic-theoryâ€”are in service of some genes (DD).)
As J. Phillippe Rushton 3, an evolutionary theorist points out:
â€œIt would appear that people are able to detect genetic similarity in others and act accordingly. Religious, political, and other ideological battles may become as heated as they do because they have implications for genetic fitness; genotypes will thrive more in some cultures than others. From this perspective, Karl Marx did not take the argument far enough in the distal direction: ideology serves more than economic interest; it also serves genetic purpose.â€
Truth versus Fiction
There appear to be several critiques of EP from the social structuralists/social constructionists/poststructuralists/environmentalists.
Superficial straw-man argument
The argument that EP doesnâ€™t consider the environment an influence or even a cause of human behavior and psyche, that itâ€™s solely about genes and therefore erroneous because the Standard Social Science Model has proven time and time again that the environment plays a large role in influencing human behavior and psyche, fails because it doesnâ€™t take into account that “evolutionary theory [psychology] represents a truly interactionist framework. Human behavior cannot occur without two ingredients: 1. evolved adaptations and 2. environmental input that triggers the development and activation of these adaptations” (Buss, 1999).
Social Structural/Social Role Theory
Deeper, well-informed etiology argument
Arguments that recognize that evolutionary psychologists are not committing a fallacy of false dichotomy about nature and nurture, go back farther in time and argue about origins. Here is Alice Eagley (1999), a proponent of the social structural/role theory:
â€œOne important feature is shared by these two origin theories: Both offer a functional analysis of behavior that emphasizes adjustment to environmental conditions. However, the two schools of thought differ radically in their analysis of the timing of the adjustments that are most important to sex-differentiated behavior . . . in the origin theory proposed by evolutionary psychologists, the critical causal arrow points from evolutionary adaptations to psychological sex differences. Because women and men possess sex-specific evolved mechanisms, they differ psychologically and tend to occupy different social roles. In contrast, in the social structural origin theory, the critical causal arrow points from social structure to psychological sex differences. Because men and women tend to occupy different social roles, they become psychologically different in ways that adjust them to these roles.â€
We will probably never be able to answer with authority who is right here. I think we can, however, say that EP has more explanatory power than social structural/role theory. It attempts to answer why â€œmen and women tend to occupy different social rolesâ€ not just describe it. Evolutionary psychologists do study innate, evolved psychological mechanisms, but the model admits that those mechanisms have been selected for and have been shaped by the environment through natural and sexual selection, and also, that those mechanisms are subject to huge variability within environmentsâ€”that we are quite adaptable and plastic.
Social Structuralist/Social Constructionist/Environmentalist
EP = genetic determinism/immutability begs-the-question argument
Certainly the desire to dispute EP comes from an understandable fear (historically) that nativist arguments are akin to genetic determinism and immutability, which they are not. The feminist psychologist Hilary M. Lips (2005) writes:
“The [sociobiological] theory implies that such human social behaviors as war, rape, and racism have been â€œbuilt inâ€ through our evolution and that it is impossible to make fundamental changes in the relations between the sexes.” (p.77)
Yikes. The theory neither implies this, nor do evolutionary psychologists (or sociobiologists) say this. In fact, they say quite the opposite. Iâ€™ll return to this question later, but hereâ€™s evolutionary psychologist, David M. Buss (1996, p. 306):
â€œContrary to common misconceptions about evolutionary psychology, documenting that sex differences originated through a causal process of sexual selection does not imply that the differences are unchangeable or intractable.â€
Knowledge is socially constructed; there is no Truth; EP-is-a-narrative argument.
It seems pretty safe and reasonable to say that ideology and subjectivity can shape our epistemological framework; ideology and subjectivity color our assumptions and premises, our research methodology, and the way we interpret evidence and data. However, even social constructionists admit:
“We need not turn away from scientific research. Rather, we must remain conscious of the ways in which the research process and its results are shaped and limited by social context,” (Lips, 2004, p.126)
Admitting knowledge is socially constructed is not tantamount to throwing away the epistemic baby with the bath water. That is, the truth of social constructionism does not in-and-of-itself necessarily negate epistemological advances or make knowledge gathered from the sciences inert.
Karl Popper, who along with Thomas Kuhn forever changed the way we see â€œtruthâ€writes:
“Here then is the similarity between my own view (the â€˜third view’) and essentialism; although I do not think we can ever describe, by our universal laws, an ultimate essence of the world, I do not doubt that we may seek to probe deeper and deeper into the structure of the world or, as we might say, into properties of the world that are more and more essential, or of greater and greater depth. (1957, p.166-7)
Some things are fiction and some things are true, and some things are closer to truth than fiction. Thatâ€™s what EP is, closer to truth. When it comes to â€œknowledgeâ€ gained from the social sciences (and perhaps, all sciences) it is virtually impossible to say it is â€œtrue.â€ The â€œsoftâ€ science of psychology can never be a pure, objective hard science, by dint of what it is. But even in the hard sciences there is recapitulation and â€œtruthâ€ changes. (E.g., Kuhnian paradigm shifts, such as Ptomelaic to Copernican to Keplerian model (planets), or Newton to Einstein (general relativity).)
Talking about narratives, then, becomes a semantics game. I would be willing to see the differences as different narratives, if I knew exactly what my friend the economist really meant by narrative. But if he means that EP is a narrative because everything is a narrativeâ€”even our hardest sciences are narratives and metaphorsâ€”then, sure, okay, EP is a narrative. But it belongs in a particular spot on the narrative spectrum, in terms of its explanatory power. Of course, this is a subjective spectrumâ€”he might see it quite differently (i.e., he might not see it as a spectrum at all, or he might order it in a different way).
But as far as disciplines advancing our knowledge and getting a better understanding of human nature, Iâ€™d order the â€œnarrative spectrumâ€ something like this:
(Literature and Religion can be interchanged in terms of order, depending on the specific literature or religion. Indeed, some Eastern religions also have â€œexplanatoryâ€ power that would have them in the next levels, possibly.)
[examples: moral, philosophy of mind, existential, Eastern, metaphysics, etc.]
SSSM (Standard Social Science Model)
[examples: sociology, social psychology, cognitive/behavioral psychology, psychoanalytic/Jungian]
(Or ESSM â€” Evolutionary Social Science Model)
[a synthesis of: evolutionary biology, primatology, anthropology, cognitive science, computer science, ethology, neuroscience, behavioral genetics, archeology, social psychology, Jungian/Freudian psychology]
(EP also flirts with literatureâ€”Adaptationist Literary Studies, Darwinian Literary Criticism, Darwinian Literary Science, Evolutionary Fictionâ€”and much from the disciplines in the social sciences, philosophy, and religion.)
*Note that â€œscienceâ€ figures ever more prominently as you move â€œdownâ€ the spectrum.
So, the big-picture critique from the social constructionists/structuralists/ environmentalists goes something like this:
Since there is no truth, and since we construct our truth/narratives, and since we are not genetically determined, and since the genetic-determinist narrative is dangerous as it suggests that we cannot change, or that the environment canâ€™t ameliorate certain social problems, etc., we should reject its use-value as a narrative.
This critique doesnâ€™t stand up because:
the premise that there is no truth is specious;
the premise that EP is genetically determinist is false; and
the premise that EP is patently false because the social environment plays a more central role, is questionable.
Again, EP is the closest to truth that we can get to an understanding of human nature. But just as itâ€™s not nature or nurture but an interaction, itâ€™s also not a question of positivism versus social constructionism, or science versus just-so-stories. Itâ€™s not the absolute truth; but it most certainly is not a just-so story, either. As narratives go, we might argue it is a truer oneâ€”richer and deeper in explanation, than others.
Why EP is Where Itâ€™s At (on the Narrative Spectrum)
Evolutionary psychology is a synthesis of many sciencesâ€”some fairly hard ones, as shown in the â€œnarrative spectrumâ€ above: cognitive science, evolutionary biology, anthropology, behavioral genetics, primatology, neuroscience, archaeology, ethology, to name just a few. It is an integrative and synthetic social science, which stands on the shoulders of various sciences and accumulated â€œknowledgeâ€ and uses its own relatively young parent, psychology, to make predictions and to generate hypotheses. In essence, it weaves a synthetic interpretation from all these sciences to understand our nature, offering us the best model (story) weâ€™ve ever had for understanding human nature. It is far beyond a Just-so story. It is a very good and compelling story, in the same way Darwinâ€™s â€œstoryâ€ is â€œbetterâ€ and more â€œtrueâ€ than the Bibleâ€™s. (But, of course, there is much disagreement about that, too.)
In fact, I don’t see EP as a sub-discipline of psychology at all, the way it is now taught in introductory psychology courses. As a powerful meta-theory, I see it as Psychologyâ€”as a consilient, synthetic, interdisciplinary social science, which not only uses other disciplines and sub-disciplines to understand the human mind and human behavior, it also sometimes helps to explain certain phenomena in sub-disciplines. As an example, take evolutionary psychology and social psychology. While social psychology sometimes explains and predicts behavior, it also does a fair amount of just describing it. Evolutionary psychology, however, explains further and deeper.
From David Meyers’s widely used Social Psychology textbook:
“Men are more likely than women to attribute a woman’s friendliness to mild sexual interest. This misreading of warmth as a sexual come-on (called misattribution) can contribute to behavior that women (especially American women) regard as sexual harassment or rape . . . Men more often than women think about sex. Men also tend to assume that others, including women, share their feelings. Thus, men can easily overestimate the sexual significance of a woman’s courtesy smile. What Jane intends as â€˜just a smileâ€™ may give John the wrong idea.” (p. 85)
Compare that, which is fundamentally descriptive, to David Buss’s treatment of the courtesy smile, which has a little more explanatory power. Evolutionary psychology doesn’t disagree with social psychology, it just explains why such a misattribution might exist.
“When in doubt men infer sexual interest according to studies (Abbey, 1982; Saal, Johnson, & Werber, 1989) (DeSouza, Pierce, Zanelli, & Hutz, 1992)]. Men act on their inferences, occasionally opening up sexual opportunities. If over evolutionary history even a tiny fraction of these led to sex, men would have evolved lower thresholds for inferring women’s sexual interest. (p. 315-6)
One can think of other ways to look at this, using evolutionary psychology, social psychology, learning theory, and feminist models: The smile as a universally submissive sign. Or, the smile as a secondary reinforcer; and as such, it probably lights up reward centers in the brain of the observer. The simple heuristic/algorithm might then be: â€œWhen she smiles, that means I am valued; when Iâ€™m valued, I am â€˜wanted.â€
In addition, some evolutionary psychologists not only describe and explain; they also discuss ways in which their theories might be helpful in reducing human behavior that may be painful or harmful to others.
Hereâ€™s David Bussâ€™s prescriptive â€œtakeâ€ on the smile:
“Evolutionary psychology provides a heuristic to identify the contexts more likely to trigger conflict between the sexes. In my own research, for example, I have examined the cues that cause men to infer greater sexual interest on the part of a woman than may be the case . . . a woman smiling at a man, being friendly to a man, and going to a bar alone . . . [and] have identified signals that do not appear to cause misunderstanding such as dancing closely and prolonged eye contact. This work thus reveals the contexts in which intervention would be most likely to succeed at reducing conflict between men and women. For example, men as a group could be apprised of the finding that, as a group, they tend to overestimate the sexual intentions of a woman who smiles at them and thus may want to be more cautious before acting on the basis of a mere smile. After all, a woman might simply be trying to be friendly (Abby, 1992).â€ (Buss, 1996, p. 315)
Choosey Minds, Whorish Modules, and the Politics of Darwin
We can empirically prove that hydrogen has one proton with one electron orbiting it. But wait, apparently, we shouldnâ€™t say â€œorbitingâ€ anymore, because that would be seeing things from the outdated and discredited Rutherford model, and we would be closer to the â€œtruthâ€ if we said â€œmore or less hovering around it in a fuzzy sort of way.â€ But still, we can feel wonderful epistemic certainty (see below about â€œepistemic anxietyâ€) that Hydrogen has one proton and one electron more or less hovering around it in a fuzzy sort of way. Quantity and numbers we can have certainty about, description and movement is another thing.
We cannot empirically prove that men tend to have an evolved psychological mechanism that prefers youth and beauty because youth and beauty conferred particular reproductive payoffs over millions of years of natural and sexual selection; and that those characteristics (youth and beauty) were (and still are) a signal of fecundity, reproductive value, developmental stability, health, etc. But EPâ€™s theoretical and scientific explanation is pretty close to empiricalâ€”as empirical as youâ€™re likely to get studying the human mind and behavior.
The EP-model explains this particular male propensity deeply and more scientifically, going back further in time and using many more disciplines than the SSSM (standard social science model)â€”which in this case would be the feminist view. Feminism argues that this male propensity has been learned and is the result of menâ€™s historical and current domination over women; that the culture reflects that misogyny and that men react and learn from it. EP theory doesnâ€™t necessarily argue against that view, but rather views such an assertion as limited in scope.
Hereâ€™s an example of how an understanding of our human nature through an evolutionary lens, with an historical and environmental/cultural approach, can be the most powerful, and why I am, frankly, irked by knee-jerk feminists who know little about what EP is about, yet make claims against it. We can actually take an EP approach to the question of men and their evolved preferences for youth and beauty and admit feminist ideology. How so? First we must look at what it means when we say youth and beauty. What is generally considered beautiful and attractive in females tends toward the neotenous and gracile spectrum; that is, youthful and â€œfeminineâ€ features. Of course, what is thought of as feminine in this culture is, to some degree, in flux. But let us for a moment think of it in absolutist terms, more like yin, at least so there can be a discussion.
One can imagine, from an EP view, that our male ancestors had (as males have today) a strong desire not to be cuckolded. There is a good deal of evidence in the literature to defend this assertion, having to do with â€œpaternity uncertainty,â€ hidden ovulation, and the male desire to not invest resources to mother and offspring, if the offspringâ€™s genes are someone elseâ€™s. From this position of epistemic anxiety (see beginning of essay about male/female dichotomy), which all men have (and women necessarily donâ€™t haveâ€”we know when our kid is our kid), one could imagine that men might select as sexual partners women who were relatively submissive and docile. As it happens, there is probably a correlation between oneâ€™s disposition (aggressive/passive) and oneâ€™s endocrine system, as well as a connection between oneâ€™s hormones and oneâ€™s fitness indicators. That is, large eyes, full lips, small nose, small chin, low face and large forehead may indicate and signal various hormones (e.g., estrogen, oxytocin) which may signal high fecundity and high maternal behavior. These features may also signal low testosterone, which might signal a relatively lower sex drive which would be desirable in a female mate, as it could result in her not seeking out other sexual partnersâ€”and receptivity/passivity generally. The idea is, that these features would be selected for (unconsciously, of course, having to do with a femaleâ€™s behavior and personality) so that men could dominate physically and perhaps even in some other domains.
So it should be apparent how one could adopt an evolutionary lens to understand why men prefer young and beautiful women, while at the same time holding a feminist perspective. Unfortunately, the popular culture has generated some shallow and spurious EP sound bites which have had an influence even on social scientists. Hereâ€™s what a feminist academic psychologist just asked me the other day: â€œBut isnâ€™t it dangerous to teach that womenâ€™s sexual strategies are monogamous and menâ€™s are not?â€ Ah! But this is not at all what I teach, nor is it what evolutionary psychologists teach. Evolutionary psychologists devote much theorizing as to why, in fact, women are often not monogamous. In David M. Bussâ€™s Evolutionary Psychology (1999, p.176-7) textbook, under the heading: â€œHypotheses about the Adaptive Benefits to Women of Short-term Mating,â€ he lists five classes of benefits which have been proposed, and goes on to describe them in detail: resources, genes, mate switching, mate skill acquisition, and mate manipulation. EP teaches that both men and women employ both long-term and short-term mating strategies, including non-monogamous strategies. Evolutionary psychologists, I donâ€™t think, ever say that women are more monogamous than men, only that, from an adaptationist perspective of menâ€™s biology (from a geneâ€™s-eye view), it might have been more adaptive and fitness-maximizing (replicating more genes) for men to have evolved a strong propensity (a psychological mechanism) for wanting sex with lots of women, and women to have evolved a psychological mechanism for being choosier. This says nothing about what women in fact do, or what they ought to do. And evolutionary psychologists certainly never make the claim that itâ€™s womanâ€™s essential nature to be monogamous.
The great initial parental investment of females makes them a valuable reproductive resource (Trivers, 1972). Gestating, bearing, lactating, nurturing, protecting, and feeding a child are exceptionally valuable reproductive resources that are not allocated indiscriminately. Economics 101 tells us that those who hold valuable resources do not give them away haphazardly. Because women in our evolutionary past risked investing enormously as a consequence of having sex, evolution favored women who were highly selective about their mates. Ancestral women suffered severe costs if they were indiscriminatingâ€”they experienced lower reproductive success, and fewer of their children survived to reproductive age.â€
But he also says this, which should be interesting to my feminist colleague: â€œWhen it comes to long-term mating or marriage, however, it is equally clear that both men and women invest heavily in children, and so the theory of parental investment predicts that both sexes should be very choosy and discriminating.â€ (p. 102-3)
The bottom line is this: men and women both engage in short- and long-term mating strategies, but when it comes down to it, it is probably not just enculturation that makes a woman much less likely to say â€œyesâ€ to a strangerâ€™s sexual advances than a manâ€™s to a strange womanâ€™s. In fact one study had 50% of both men and women saying yes to a date with a stranger, but when asked for sex, 75% of males and 0% of females agreed (Clarke and Hatfield, 1989).
The feminist academic psychologist also asked me if it was not dangerous to our students to teach that â€œmotherhood is innate and that the only way to be happy is to be a mother.â€ My goodness! What does she think Iâ€™m teaching, Spencerian anti-feminist, fundamentalist essentialism? That most women are equipped to be mothers is a biological truth. That we have a particular evolved psychological mechanism for attachment and nurturing is also a truism I think anyone would be hard-pressed to deny. But so what? We have many â€œdevelopmental programsâ€ within us that donâ€™t get activated by the environment and donâ€™t â€œneedâ€ to be. A woman can be just as happy without children as she can be miserable with them! One thing evolutionary psychologists and EP supporters must continue to explain to people is that theyâ€™re not in the business of committing the naturalistic fallacy!
Hereâ€™s another example of how the social structural/role perspective can be misleading, from Questions of Gender (1998), a textbook that is generally a little more balanced than some of the other Gender/Psychology of Women textbooks:
â€œIn traditional heterosexual dating relationships, there are roles assigned to male and females. Typically men initiate the date, make the plans, and pay for both his and her expenses. Women respond to male initiatives. Of course, not everyone follows these social roles. When these roles are violated, however, people are often acutely aware that their behavior or the behavior of others is in violation of a social expectation. Clearly, these social roles have no biological mandateâ€”we are not hardwired to either pay or not pay for a movie or dinner, to respond â€˜yesâ€™ or â€˜noâ€™ to an invitation to a party, or to open doors or smile at bad jokes.â€ (Anselmi & Law p. 2)
Though we are not hardwired to pay or not pay for a date, there is some reason to suspect that we may have algorithms or decision rules to prefer paying or being paid for; and that, statistically-speaking, what oneâ€™s sex is (not just gender) has something to do with such preferences.
If learning and the environment are more powerful than biology, as the above quote very clearly expresses, and in fact, hardwiring has nothing to do with my behavior or psyche on a date, why would I, having grown up on a solid diet of postmodern feminism and Marxism from the moment I could babble and somewhat understand all the grown-ups around me, and with all the people around me supporting â€œequality of the sexesâ€ in such things as paying for dates, etc., still have this general, unamorous feeling deep inside when a man on a first date (it hasn’t happened oftenâ€”okay, it happened once!) doesnâ€™t offer to pay 4, but then wants a goodnight kiss. (“The kiss for example, has its probable source in the caretaker’s mouth-to-mouth feeding” writes Robert Storey.) This dark and not-so-nice response I experienced goes against what I believe in and everything my subculture believes in. I refuse to believe that itâ€™s because the dominant culture has so deeply embedded these feelings of value and meaning into my psyche. I am not that weak. The voice I hear is not the voice of Madison Avenue. It is the voice of my ancestral mothers; all those women before me who were clever and resourceful and sexy enough to extract some form of payment (meat, care for young, etc.) in exchange for sexual favors/access. Such an understanding of womanâ€™s nature is actually liberating to me . . . it helps to understand the cognitive dissonance I have so often felt. And with time, it could help me to work against such hardwiring, if I so desired.
Which brings up, again, the notion of genetic determinism and free-will. Steven Pinker, in the Blank Slate, writes eloquently in defending the position that it is logical to say that we can have both innate propensities (evolved psychological mechanisms) and free-will. David Berlinski, of the Discovery Institute (an anti-Darwinian “Intelligent Design” think-tank), thinks otherwise:
â€œThus, when Steven Pinker writes that ‘nature does not dictate what we should accept or how we should live our lives,’ he is expressing a hope entirely at odds with his professional commitments. If ordinary men and women are, like the professor himself, perfectly free to tell their genes ‘to go jump in the lake,’ why then pay the slightest attention to evolutionary psychologyâ€”why pay the slightest attention to Pinker?” (Commentary, 2004)
I will turn to this existential, transcendental question again, but one point should be made here. Cognitive psychology and social psychology have â€œdiscoveredâ€ some interesting things about our brains and minds. One such interesting thing is our dual attitude system. “We can have differing explicit (conscious) and implicit (automatic) attitudes toward the same target.” (Meyers, 2004, p. 337) I would argue that these implicit automatic attitudes, preferences, or responses are very deep and reflect millions of years of adaptations to the environment via natural and sexual selection. But part of the automatic system is also laid down during one’s early years. Here’s where there is hope, though, even for automatic thinking:
“Although explicit attitudes may change dramatically with education, implicit attitudes may linger, changing only as we form new habits through practice.” (Meyers, 2004, p. 337)
So, an â€œimplicitâ€ racist can change. But it takes work, at the individual level and at the societal level. But first we must be honest about our hardwiring, our â€œprogram.â€ Social psychology, evolutionary psychology, and cognitive psychology have shown us that we are wired to be prejudiced; that thinking in such ways is a simple heuristic device that was actually helpful to our ancestors. But we all have the ability to think â€œout of the simple box.â€ Weâ€™re not fated to our automatic impulses and instincts.
Even if we could determine with certitude (an unlikely possibility) that we have particular archetypal, modular, algorithmic, â€œstructures,â€ say, a mother-infant system, or a heterosexual-system (father-mother archetypes), we would be very mistaken to extract any ethical, moral values from such, and certainly to go further toward social policy would be disastrous. Social constructionists/environmentalists are often alarmed at particular research or even speculation on such hard-wired systems/algorithms. They write things like: “. . . Sociobiologists in general reach the conclusion that women should do the childcare (p. 24) . . . The use of sociobiology to ‘justify’ a role for mothers as exclusive child caretakers is unjustified. (p. 42)” (Sternglanz, Nash, 1988). I agree it is unjustified and would like to know who these sociobiologists are who say this.
Hereâ€™s why social constructionists and environmentalists shouldnâ€™t fear research or speculation on hard-wired systems:
1. Evolutionary psychology simply is not genetic determinism, as was discussed earlier. 2. An epistemically open society is better than an epistemically repressed society. With research and speculation comes opposing assertions and models. If people are driven to hide their speculations, it only festers and gains momentum and power in a kind of underground, communal memetic sphere. But if research is out in the open, it provides open-dialogue with an opposition, which is good. (Recall reaction formation from an earlier discussion and why it is valuable for the individual and society for an individual to be open and unrepressed. For example, some hate crimes are the result of repressed, reaction formations.) And, if researchers somehow â€œdiscoveredâ€ a heterosexual-system, say, it could perhaps invoke a response to dispute it, or to perhaps search for a hardwired homosexual-system, or some other kind of archetypal system.
Hereâ€™s Helena Cronin, a feminist EP (2000):
â€œCertainly, human nature is fixed. But the behaviour that it generates is richly varied. Our evolved minds are designed to help us to react appropriately to the different environments that we find ourselves in. It is thanks to our genetic endowment, not in spite of it, that we can generate our rich behavioural repertoire. Change the environment and you change the behaviour. So an understanding of the evolved psychology of our speciesâ€”of our motivations and desiresâ€”is vital for political action; we need to know which aspects of our environment have to be altered in order to achieve the desired ends. The task, then, is to understand human nature, not to change it.â€
Of One Mind?
In terms of evolved psychological mechanisms/innate releasing mechanisms (IRMs) and manifest behavior or traits, I would like to be able to argue for a universal human nature, even in the face of huge individual differences. However, say I wanted to argue that, along with our hierarchical nature, we also have the capacity to be nonhierarchical. Now, right there it almost sounds nonsensical to say it is our human nature to be hierarchical but that we have the capacity not to be that way. (This was Berlinskiâ€™s point against Pinker.) But I do understand Cosmides (1992), I think, and I’m willing to view it as an epigenetic structure that can be turned up/on, or not, which has great variability, etc. However, it seems to me, that we’d be better off talking about multi-phylogenetic modes along the lines of Paul MacLeanâ€™s triune brain model (1976) or Jim Henryâ€™s four-brain system (1977) instead of a universal human nature. Homo Sapiensâ€™s hierarchical mode (Appolinian) is probably a lot newer than Homo Sapiensâ€™s spiritual/connected-to-everything-feeling/nonhierarchical mode (Dionysian)â€”which must represent, phylogenetically, something olderâ€”even though we think of the hierarchical mode as being more primitive and the connected/spiritual as being more â€œevolved.â€ In terms of a time-line it might go something like this:
Pre-reptiles (beginning of reptiles)â€”nonhierarchical
Reptiles and hominidsâ€”hierarchical
EEA cousinsâ€”nonhierarchical and hierarchical
Modern homo sapiens sapiensâ€”hierarchical and nonhierarchical
EP and behavioral genetics are at odds sometimes, but they neednâ€™t be. And now it looks like that they’ve found the genes controlling spiritual â€œfeeling.â€ And my suspicion that some people have it and some don’t, appears to be true.
From my novel, Trine Erotic (2002):
â€œShe suspected these romantic, fate thoughts they both had were â€˜designedâ€™ for a reason. That there had to be some kind of belief-in-fate module, a mental organ in the brain, just as there is a belief-in-God module. Some peopleâ€™s are â€˜setâ€™ very high. Others donâ€™t even have them. Perhaps this fate module was even close to the God module, some kind of Belief area, maybe near the amygdala or hypothalamus.
â€˜Caleb, I think this fate idea, or feeling that we have is some kind of mechanical, deep evolutionary thing. You can see the value as far as reproduction, right? . . . Our ancestors who had thoughts like this were probably tenacious . . . and could beat out their rivals for their desired mate . . . and would care for their loved offspring in a passionate way. The survival of the belief-in-fate gene.â€™â€ (p.136)
Now, that doesn’t mean that someone who doesn’t have all the genes that might make someone feel spiritual naturally, can’t get to that place. But it would probably take concerted effortâ€”lots and lots of meditation and will, and indoctrination, and mushrooms, etc. And then still, it may not be the same thing as the natural Dionysian manâ€”not even close.
How would the universal human nature argument proceed, then? We all have psychological evolved mechanisms/structures to feel connected/spiritual, Dionysian, etc.? But, again, what about people who don’t feel this way and don’t have these genes? Do they have this potential/structure? What does that look like? If nonspirituals (Appolinian types) don’t have genes that seem to carry such a disposition and their brains don’t appear to reflect it either, how can we say it is there for everyone? Especially when, despite powerful forces like models (parents), school, peers, society, some people have no spiritual feeling or religiosity, etc. And the reverse is also true. Is it that the â€œspiritualâ€ program isn’t universal, because even the environment doesn’t seem to be able to kick it in? Or that it is a part of universal human nature, because if it’s not there innately, it is possible for people to feel such feelings given the right set of circumstances? Is it semantic and political? If we say there’s no universal human nature, but then make nativist claims here and there via behavioral genetics, do we get closer to right-wing ideology?
I think we have two choicesâ€”but we can choose both if we want.
1. We can say here is human nature warts and all and itâ€™s taken millions of years of mother natureâ€™s â€œfine-tuningâ€ to get it where it is and itâ€™s not likely to change in any dramatic way anytime soon, so letâ€™s, with our knowledge and understanding of who we are and where we came from, try to change (as Cronin and others suggest), our environment, to make it more compatible with our hunter-gatherer minds. (An example would be to focus on creating more cohesive communities and less fractured alienated ones, since we know that 99% of our â€œbrain-timeâ€ as a species evolved in small hunter-gatherer tribes.) This is the practical, pragmatic, active approach. The idea would be to try to create a world that by and large helps to activate certain modules/bioprograms.
However, this could sound, to some, like on the path to right-wing ideology or whacky Luddite utopia. But it doesn’t have to be either. We neednâ€™t not be realistic nor give up freedoms and individual rights and choice. Freedom and individual rights trump the notion that there may be an inherent, archetypal, mother-father system, say. If we maintain as the ultimate goal, though, the pursuit and experience of happiness and democracy, then other ways will not only be tolerated, but embraced and supported. What the project in this case would do would be to try to support peopleâ€™s innate archetypal goals and programs. (My own opinion regarding an archetypal mother-father system is that if there is such an archetypal module (Price/Stevens), it is not so much a question of sex (i.e., man and woman), but of an inherent need of a developing person (i.e., child) to have the two modes of masculine and feminine principles exhibited. In homes with two moms and two dads, there is usually one parent who plays the role of nurturer and merger of boundaries (more passive) and one who plays the role of fixed boundaries and the law (more active). Aside from all the obvious reasons why being a single parent is so tough (I am one), it may in part have to do with the dual roles one has to play more often than not. A better understanding of such an innate system could yield ways in which to support the developmental needs of childrenâ€”and to support single parents and parents in same-sex relationships, etc. (But this is very speculative.)
2. And/or we can take the more existential, romantic, transcendental, dualistic route, not terribly postmodern position and say, one of human natureâ€™s features is that it is binary: Reason and passion, Id and Superego, reptilian brain and neocortex, feeling and thought, left-brain and right-brain, head and heart, Dionysian and Appolinian, agonic and hedonic (Chance, 1970), hierarchical versus affiliative, instinct and rationality, animalness and godliness, nature and culture, individualistic/separate-feeling vs communitarian/connected-feelingâ€”I could go on. We are every bit of one as we are the other. And we can choose to act on instinct or not. When we are hit, we can choose, through thinking first, whether we wish to do what feels good (limbically and reptiliany) and â€œrightâ€â€”which is, generally, to hit back. Our prefrontal lobes give us the gift of not hitting back, running away, or freezing. We can reason, we can ask why, we can negotiate, we can forgive. The mass-proliferation of Eastern traditions, philosophies, and spiritualities (by way of prayer, meditation, yoga, belief, etc.) in the West over the past three decades attests to our yearning for this way of being.
The â€œscience of spiritualityâ€ is hot right now:
â€œThe deeper that people descend into meditation or prayer, Newberg found, the more active the frontal lobe and the limbic system become. The frontal lobe is the seat of concentration and attention; the limbic system is where powerful feelings, including rapture, are processed. More revealing is the fact that at the same time these regions flash to life, another important regionâ€”the parietal lobe at the back of the brainâ€”goes dim. It’s this lobe that orients the individual in time and space. Take it off-line, and the boundaries of the self fall away, creating the feeling of being at one with the universe. Combine that with what’s going on in the other two lobes, and you can put together a profound religious experience.â€ (Time, 2004)
The capacity to feel spiritual or feel connected, self-transcendent, is probably a part of human nature. But, as with many things that evolutionary psychologists call a part of our universal human nature, in every individual there is variance, due to nature and nurture. Writes John Steadman Rice in his article â€œRomantic Modernism and the Selfâ€:
“The Transcendentalists, for example, maintained that humans possess, by nature, a divine inner being, an innate and benevolent spirituality. As such, individuals must be free to develop these innate capacities through â€˜a process of growth, unfolding and ripening, a gradual realization of inherent qualities latent in the organism from its very birthâ€™â€”a process, again, believed to be â€˜thwarted in its development by a . . . conformist society.â€™”
As I suggested, the above two choices, though quite philosophically dissimilar (the first one practical, with an emphasis on environmental factorsâ€”a materialist, empirical, almost revolutionary view; and the second one, transcendental, rational, with an emphasis on internal, subjective existential factors, need not be mutually exclusive. It is interesting to note that these two positions closely resemble a division in the adaptationist field, which Robert Storey describes in Mimesis and the Human Animal: On the Biogenetic Foundations of Literary Representation:
â€œIt is between theorists who regard the human being as a â€˜hodgepodgeâ€™ (to use E.O. Wilsonâ€™s word) of various psychological adaptations to an ancient environment that no longer exists, and those who look upon the human being as a â€˜fitness-maximizingâ€™ organism, each of whose capacities may be assumed to have evolved to turn social environments to its genetic advantage.â€ (Storey, 1996, p. xix)
If one leans toward a â€œhodgepodgist, â€œ ultimate view, one might lean toward choice number one (the materialist, practical, environmental program). Whereas, if one leans toward a more fitness-maximizing, proximate view, one might lean toward choice two, with its emphasis on rational, subjective choices. (One could almost apply a nature-nurture dichotomy/continuum here; where hodgepodgists are more nativist and â€œfitness-maximizistsâ€ are less so.) I believe (as does Storey) that the answer lies on both sides of the division, and therefore, I see no reason to choose between programs, and so ultimately think choosing both is best.
Interestingly, E.O. Wilson (who holds a hodgepodge view), argues against the transcendental position in an Atlantic Monthly article â€œThe Biological Basis of Morality.â€ In it he argues that the â€œnaturalistic fallacyâ€ is not a fallacy but a problem; that the Kantian formulation that thereâ€™s a separate domain for making reasoned moral decisions, those which transcend instinct and reptilian Id-y desire, is wrong. â€œFor if ought is not is, what is?â€ he asks. Wilsonâ€™s point that much of what are moral codes and laws can be found hardwired into our biology because thatâ€™s the way evolution works, is important and I think true. He writes:
â€œFrom the consilient perspective of the natural sciences, they are no more principles of the social contract hardened into rules and dictatesâ€”the behavioral codes that members of a society fervently wish others to follow and are themselves willing to accept for the common good.â€
One can be, like Wilson, an empiricist and recognize that our morality has been hardwired, while at the same time a transcendentalist, recognizing that our free will and bifurcated/triune brains enable us to go against what is, whatever the is is.
We donâ€™t need to choose between these two options of pragmatism and transcendentalism. We can have an understanding of our transcendental nature, and every day put it into practice. (This is often the domain of faith and religion, but it doesnâ€™t have to be, it can be very practical. Recall an earlier discussion about the â€œdual attitude systemâ€ and implicit and explicit/automatic and conscious attitudes; recall, too, Mr. left-wing economistâ€”we can, albeit slowly, change our ancient habits of mind through practice.)
And on the other side, empirically and pragmatically, we can view our bifurcated nature as somewhat fixed and that rather than relying on religion, the law and hope, we can actually change our social structure in some radical way to fit our human nature, rather than the other way around. Wilson might argue we have the systems we have because of our nature, which may be true, but they are only some of the possible ones to have come out of our hierarchal nature. And thatâ€™s where the two kinds of minds come in again. We are hierarchal. And that kind of way of categorizing the world seems to be especially a left-brain (DD-mind), Western, male, individualist, language-dependent thing. Whereas the non-hierarchal mode seems to be more a feature of a right-brain (DC-mind), Eastern, female, collectivist, emotion-dependent way. Some evolutionary psychologists would have us believe that it is our nature to be hierarchal, but thatâ€™s only one side/part of us. Itâ€™s there to be sure, but we have the capacity for getting out of it.
So the program might be: Letâ€™s have people do more of what they can do to activate the underdog side, since we all can clearly see where the uber-dogs are taking us. And, let us bravely engage in the best science we can to understand our human nature, especially the part that makes life so interesting and difficult. Because it is from our sound understanding of ourselves that we will be better equipped to make better decisions about social policy, and which may even help inform us on how to design better worlds and communities to live in. As one leading evolutionary psychologist wrote to me in a personal correspondence:
â€œA social agenda that isn’t grounded in an accurate understanding of human nature has always been worse than useless.â€
Of course, any attentive social constructionist would get up in arms about such a statementâ€”an accurate understanding of human nature. Talk about positivist! Though Iâ€™m very sympathetic with such a statement, I would probably say a â€œmore accurate understanding.â€ He and Iâ€”unlike my ex, the economistâ€”share a similar worldview. But I suspect that that tiny distinction regarding certitude, once again, could have something to do with the essential differences of our nature and minds.
A Mind for Evolutionary Fiction
(And Biofiction and Meta-seductive Fiction)
Man must be a liar by nature, he must be above all an artist. And he is one.
Metaphysics, religion, morality, scienceâ€”all of them only products of his will to art, to lie, to flight from â€˜truth,â€™ to negation of truth . . . Art is worth more than truth . . . Art as the real task of life.
â€” Nietzsche, The Will to Power
The continuous development of art is bound up with the Apollinian and Dionysian duality . . . The balance of these ideas, and thus the balance of the individual and the whole, leads to the development of higher forms of art, specifically an equally Dionysian and Apollinian form of artâ€”Attic tragedy.
â€” Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy
Critical theory and aesthetics are kind of dry, namby-pamby sub-disciplines relative to other forceful and real-world sub-disciplines such as political theory, say, or evolutionary theory, arenâ€™t they? And yet, who hasnâ€™t gotten excited and furious at least a couple of times in life over defending a film, painting, or book? What is the reason for this â€œaesthetics passionâ€? The reason we so often come alive when interpreting, defending, judging, and assigning (or not assigning) value or merit to (aesthetic) cultural products, I would argueâ€”and willâ€”is that these judgments are really, in the end, battles; and not just battles of wit and ego, but blood and gene battlesâ€”for what and who survives. Not so namby-pamby. (The battles of wits and egos are also, ultimately, about what and who survives.)
In Michelle Scalise Sugiyamaâ€™s abstract, from her article, â€œThe Origins of Narrative: Storyteller Bias as a Fitness-Enhancing Strategyâ€ she writes:
â€œStories consist largely of representations of the human social environment. These representations can be used to influence the behavior of others (consider, e.g., rumor, propaganda, public relations, advertising). Storytelling can thus be seen as a transaction in which the benefit to the listener is information about his or her environment, and the benefit to the storyteller is the elicitation of behavior from the listener that serves the former’s interests. However, because no two individuals have exactly the same fitness interests, we would expect different storytellers to have different narrative perspectives and priorities due to differences in sex, age, health, social status, marital status, number of offspring, and so on.â€ (p.403)
I think this is true not only of the storyteller, but of the transmitter and promoter and detractor of the story (its content and form/style). So critic, editor, publisher, mother, all have much more at stake (in terms of fitness-enhancing, i.e., in terms of their genes) than we usually imagine.
Someone on an e-listserv I belong to wrote:
â€œI am abandoning reality for fiction and will stop reading non-fiction books. I think I know pretty much, at least in outline form, what is actually known about human nature from the biological and social sciences. Novelists have a way of getting at the complexities of the human condition that scientists have not.â€
This is the romantic, seductive view, and pretty much any lover of fiction subscribes to this. â€œYou can learn more or get more from a novelâ€ so goes the fictphilia meme, â€œthan say, a psychology textbook.â€ And thereâ€™s much truth to this. Cognitive psychologists and evolutionary psychologists tell us that stories are an ancient heuristicâ€”theyâ€™re how we learn best. Our brains actually have story algorithms (or modules, if you will) because the narrative format probably helped our ancestors to remember invaluable informationâ€”information that was necessary for our survival. But the traditional fictiphiles are purists who seem to believe that once we become aware of a lesson or of information in the story, once the author starts â€œtelling usâ€ instead of â€œshowing usâ€â€”itâ€™s all over: The pleasure is gone, its power is gone, and subsequently, the storyâ€™s merit and value are gone. The romantic fictiphiles believe the only good fiction is fiction shrouded in a kind of Dionysian mystery. Itâ€™s hard not to be sympathetic to this literary, artistic, romantic view. The character, Hermione, in D. H. Lawrence’s, Women in Love characterizes the view quite well:
“When we have knowledge, don’t we lose everything but knowledge?” she asked pathetically. “If I know about the flower, don’t I lose the flower and have only the knowledge? Aren’t we exchanging the substance for the shadow, aren’t we forfeiting life for this dead quality of knowledge? And what does it mean to me, after all? What does all this knowing mean to me? It means nothing.” (p. 34-5)
At one point does art become science? At one point do we lose the Dionysian mystery? How much telling and how much science before a story, a novel, becomes less pleasurable, less powerful and less valuable? Hero, in Shakespeareâ€™s Much Ado About Nothing says: â€œSome Cupid kills with arrows, some with traps.â€ Traditional fictiphiles believe fiction gets its power from trapsâ€”from hiding and mystery. Just as the lover who is never quite in reach seduces and compels, good narrative, the argument goes, seduces by hiding, by appearing not to seduce. Of course, itâ€™s human nature to be drawn in and affected by what is elusive and not transparent; to want to search beyond whatâ€™s offered and available; to always want a little more. Distant, enigmatic, and maybe even a little commitment-phobic, traditional fiction evokes desire and passion by â€œexploitingâ€ our evolved psychological mechanisms and preferences.
We are cerebrally bifurcated and lateralized creatures. So, unlike music and visual art which are limbic and right hemispheric (“emotional”), and Dionysianâ€”language is not. One way to make language a little more artistic and Dionysian (without music) is to write poetry, another is through story. And we know from Gazzanigaâ€™s studies with split-brain patients how the left brain has an endless capacity to make stuff up. What lies between truth and lies? What lies between science and art? What lies between the-thing-in-itself and mystery? Between knowing and being? Between reason and feeling? I think thereâ€™s even more pleasure to be had than with the traditional pleasure of seductive fiction. And that pleasure, I think, can be found in the arrows of what I call â€œmeta-seductive fictionâ€â€”traditional fictionâ€™s sexy contender. Meta-seductive fiction seduces (if itâ€™s successful) by countering the seductive “hiding” strategy, with its opennessâ€”with hiding from hiding. Meta-seductive fiction flirts with truth and intimacy by telling the reader what itâ€™s doing and by expressing ideas openly, unafraid of logicâ€™s potential to prevent feeling. It isnâ€™t afraid of wanting to affect (and having a relationship with) the reader. It is male and positivist (in terms of content and epistemic project), while at the same time female and relational (in terms of form and affective project). But meta-seductive fiction doesnâ€™t say: â€œTell, donâ€™t show.â€ But rather: â€œtell and show; reveal and conceal.â€
So how can you â€œhave the flowerâ€ in fictionâ€”or in any language art? You canâ€™t. Itâ€™s as simple as that. Again, thatâ€™s the nature of language and of knowledge. Once you give up trying to make language something itâ€™s not, you are free to do something much more worthwhile and rather Dionysian: Meta-seductive fictionâ€”a synthetic literary Attic art that is informed by science and â€œtruthâ€; that fuses the Apollinian (science and ideas, rationality) with the relatively Dionysian art of storymaking and lovely, euphonious, musical words. I am not afraid to push literature over to the edge of Apollo to burn. In fact, I believe the more we let in the light from certain Appolinian universals or â€œtruths,â€ it becomes more Dionysian, or at the least, an Attic balancing of these principles. My novel, Trine Erotic, I believe comes close to marrying these two cultures of the humanities and the sciences (C.P. Snow)â€”what some refer to as third-culture art (Brockman; www.edge.org).
Critical theorist Barry Laga writes: Deconstruction â€œwants to reveal the ideology of the binaries that govern a text (Who benefits from keeping these terms separate? Who benefits from the present polarity?) and open up new paths, reveal opportunities and possibilities, and offer a new way of perceiving the world.â€
I want to do this, too! Who benefits from keeping art separate from science? From judging one kind of art as better than another art? Meta-seductive â€œevolutionary fictionâ€â€”fiction which is informed by evolutionary theory, EP, ethology, Jung, neuroscience, etc., (but also â€œevolutionaryâ€ in a transcendent sense), is to me “better” than most stories which are just straight narratives, uninformed by a â€œscience of the mind.â€ Now, â€œbetterâ€ for me only means that it gives me pleasure. It gives me pleasure because it lights up parts of my brain that have come to understand the world and human nature the way such writers of this infant genre have. Why such writers and I have this similar way of viewing the world, etc., is of course as complicated as all of these questions are; having to do with our essential nature, where our nature takes us, and also our â€œnurture.â€ There is a mathematics to the pleasure I get from reading evolutionary fiction; as if my algorithms are working in synch with the writersâ€™, as if all the choices I have made to take in or discard information, add up (neuronally), and I am left with the same lens and languageâ€”and that sameness lights up the reward system in my brain. Because, after all, we have an ancient heuristics for digging things that are similar and the same. It makes things simpler and easier.
I think there is a little battle just beginning between people who are social scientists and passionate about understanding the mind, yet who are creative and write stories, versus â€œwritersâ€ without such a knowledge or drive to understand our human nature in such a particular way. I would not go so far as to say that evolutionary fictionâ€”fiction that is informed and written through the lens of an evolutionary understanding of human natureâ€”is better. But I can say that I enjoy immensely reading a story that is infused with the ideas of evolutionary theory/psychology, because that is how I understand the world.
In terms of aesthetic merit and valuation, I believe it’s phenomenologicalâ€”that there is only one’s subjective valuation. I see the labeling of what is good art versus what is not as a â€œmale,â€ left-brain, Western, controlling activity; one that is meant to shape and control reproductive strategies, etc. “This is beautiful and should be hung up on a wall, or put in a magazine for all to see.” The masses see it, imbibe it, and process what is beautiful and make reproductive choices (which is favoring some genes and brains over others). This idea is cogently expressed in George Heresyâ€™s The Evolution of Allure. In rephrasing a quote by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing he writes: â€œBeautiful statues reacted upon their creators, and beautiful men and women selected each other when they looked like those statues. Because of this, beautiful children were born.â€ Heresyâ€™s thesis is about visual art and how the artist, influenced by already-created art and his or her experience of people (bodies/faces), creates art. The Platonic â€œlovers of lifeâ€â€”people who view this artâ€”are then influenced by it, shaping sexual selection and reproductive choices based on the art. I think we can look at all art in this way. As everyone knows, in literature, film, etc., the artist/writer can venerate a certain â€œtypeâ€ by all sorts of methods (some subtle, some not so subtle). I can only imagine, for example, that the selection for nebbishy, neurotic Jewish men has risen since Woody Allenâ€™s films.
As a character (a Darwinian socialist) in Trine Erotic writes (p.68):
â€œBecause thatâ€™s one of artâ€™s missions. It pushes us. It reveals. It pries us open little by little, exposing us, in a comfort zone. Itâ€™s about normative values. And power, of course. If you rule art, you rule the world. Forget about the means of production. Art changes the strategy of reproduction. We are the product of art. Our minds, our bodies. What cultural products are valued? Rejected? What survives? Who survives?â€
I do believe there is a difference between saying: â€œThis story gives me more pleasure than that one because that is my worldview and closer to my sensibility and corresponds to my synaptic connections,â€ or what-have you, as opposed to a more positivist, authoritative/authoritarian approach which proclaims: â€œThis story is better; this story is good art and that one isnâ€™t; this story is valuable; this story is. . . .â€ without qualification or a relativist/subjective position. Even with qualification, it is just a form of domination and exaltation of oneâ€™s own particular aesthetic preference.
Ironically, I am distinctly aware that by creating an attractive forum (my online journal Entelechy) for the kind of art that I valueâ€”I am participating in the battle. So be it. The kind of writing I value has sometimes been undervalued, depreciated and unrecognizedâ€”and after all, weâ€™re talking about a kind of complex meme (third-culture, meta-seductive, evolutionary fiction meme) which is somehow related to a certain set of genes (in me!); and of course these genes help maintain and support this meme (and vice-versa, ad infinutum).
Perhaps this all sounds like I’m contradicting myself, but I feel thereâ€™s a difference between being the underdog and saying, “We’re okay, too” versus being the dominant aesthetic and saying “We are the only good and true art.” In the end, it probably is a battle for what and who survives; though I kind of wish it werenâ€™t. I think itâ€™s all valuable. I want it all to survive.
1To parallel and contrast the Standard Social Science Model (SSSM), my neologism â€œEvolutionary Social Science Modelâ€ (ESSM) might be useful.
2 EP is the descendant of the 30-year-old discipline sociobiology, founded by Harvard entomologist E.O Wilson. According to David Buss (1999, p. 17) sociobiology is â€œa synthesis of cellular biology, integrative ethology, comparative psychology, population biology and behavioral ecologyâ€ and is basically the study of the genetic and evolutionary basis of animal and human behavior.
3 J. Phillippe Rushton is controversial. Some have called him a racist, yet in reading some of his work, I see no evidence on which to base such a label.
4 The event was more complicated than that; hereâ€™s how it really occurred:
I was out on a second or third date with a man and his older female colleague. The older female colleague and I went to sit down at a restaurant while the man in question, Iâ€™ll call him â€œTed,â€ bought tickets for a film. Later, after Ted dropped his colleague at her house, he drove me to mine. Sitting in the car in front of my house, I mentioned his paying for the film and began to look for $6 to repay him. But, rather pathetically, I could only find a dollar and, as it was in my hand, I offered it to himâ€¦and he took it. Immediately after this, we said goodnight and he tried to kiss me. I turned my head away. It was in this moment that I saw there was something innate in my decision not to give him a kiss. Granted, had Ted been a female friend, I also would have been displeased, as I would have viewed her taking the dollar as rather peculiar and perhaps petty. But, still, I think there was something at work here, in terms of the exchanges between the sexes.
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