Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Darwinian Literary Studies

Happened on the brief interview with Steven Pinker in the New York Times Book Review a few weekends ago and got set on a little research project on one of the authors he mentions as a particular favorite: Jonathan Gottschall. Gottschall is a literary scholar who is interested in bringing evolutionary theory to bear in his work.

So far so good. But Gottschall has a tendency to push things a bit. First, he seems unable to see what is good in literary studies without the benefit of evolutionary theory. He's big on making apocalyptic proclamations about the current state of literary theory and touting the salvation to be achieved only through subjugating literature to science.

To some degree I get this: I bet Gottschall had a tough time in grad school. He ended up having David Sloan Wilson, a biologist (and son of a novelist) as his dissertation director, and I bet he was damn lucky to have had the opportunity to take this sort of interdisciplinary route. English departments can be unkind to those who insist on certain standards of logical discourse and on the importance of other fields when they have no obvious revolutionary or liberationist allegiances. I had problems in the same direction when I was a English grad student in the 1990s.

But it is important to separate justified resentment at the internal politics of English departments from our analysis of the best work that gets done there.

Similarly, we cannot let our resentment drive our evaluation of alternatives to the status quo in literary studies.

Gottschall sees natural selection as the magic wand with which he can turn literary studies into something important again, and he tends to characterize anyone who objects as anti-science. But there are very good reasons to doubt that some kind of "evolutionary literary studies" is the way forward. And it's not because natural selection is racist or because we have to run from anything that seem "reductionist." It's because it just doesn't seem to produce much in the way of interesting, novel insights.

Why not? Well, in large part because from the standpoint of narrative structure, natural selection just isn't so different from the common sensical observations people were making about the nature of competition that had been made by important Darwinian inspirers like David Ricardo, Mandeville, Adam Smith, Machiavelli and loads of others.

The Darwinian theme had been pretty extensively worked for millennia before Darwin systematized it.  That's not to minimize Darwin's accomplishment: it was enormous. It just that the theme itself was not novel. What was novel was that Darwin systematically applied the idea of competition as an explanatory mechanism to account for biological diversity.

Too many biologists seem to believe that Darwin's great achievement was discovering competition as a central theme to life. This isn't so. Many people recognized this. And some people even saw and celebrated the constructive role competition could play in a system. Darwin's contribution was that he systematized these general, thematic observations and applied them systematically to a particular object whose development across vast expanses of history and geography he could trace.

Darwin's gift was NOT miraculous insight. His gift was that he was BOTH a steadfast stamp collector and a theoretician of a high order.

Darwin's gift was that he could take the insights of others and raise them to the level of systematic explanation.

But loads of more literary figures had had the basic insights Drawin built into a system.

The idea of subjugating the literary to the biological is wrongheaded for just this reason: it is our job to provide the non-systematic insights that will fuel productive inquiry of a more systematic nature. Just as Mandeville fed Darwin, so should present day literary studies and literary thinking feed future Darwins--not by slavishly applying Darwin's principles but in pushing current thinking along in one direction or another in a way that, to non-systematic but rigorous thinkers, seems like fruitful paths of inquiry . . .

For instance, on the Iliad . . .

While, in general Gottschall's writing on the Iliad can seem pretty maddeningly slavish, there can be no doubt that the general idea of returning the Iliad to its setting--the beginnings of civilization--is an inspiring idea. And I sincerely commend him for it.

Where he goes wrong, to my mind, is precisely where he plays from the Evolutionary Psychology playbook--in his use of twentieth-century work with hunter-gatherers as a sort of cultural benchmark to guide our understanding of the Iliad. This move carries a lot of baggage--first it assumes that the cultural characteristics of twentieth-century tribes pretty directly reflect innate drives that are more hidden by modern culture. Second it assumes that those tribal cultures are essentially part of the hidden "base" of modern culture over which the superstructure of most things we know and love and deal with every day. Third it assumes that this tribal culture also is the key to understanding the early civilized culture we see depicted in the Iliad. I'm not sure any of these assumptions is true in any simple sort of way. Of course, scholars like Gottschall are always careful to acknowledge what I'm writing now. But the acknowledgement is merely symbolic, for they then proceed as if the simple base-superstructure relationship is in fact the case.

The Yanomamo are not remnants of our own past--they are Yanomamo. They have their own history and customs. They have their own environment to deal with. They are first and foremost themselves.

And even our own Pleistocene ancestors are first and foremost themselves, not keys to understanding ourselves.

My own thought is that while our biological heritage is there, while it is important, it is simply not the skeleton key to understanding everything. In fact, I don't believe there is any skeleton key. At the time of the Iliad, it is not our heritage from the peacock that is most crucially important to our understanding of events--it is the conditions prevailing at the time of the Iliad. Achilles and Agamemnon were not Yanomamo, they were leaders in a culture that had far-flung trade networks and military alliances, and that carried out war over the course of years and over great expanses of territory. As with Darwin's work, this is the mark of systematization.

All of the civilized "superstructure" necessary to accomplish the war in Ilium is not merely incidental to what motivated the men who fought it. For in getting and keeping those biological goods--food, shelter, warmth, security, sex--that they no doubt sought, they had to use the levers made available by that superstructure. Not every man in Ithaca was a candidate to lead the hundreds to war seeking to secure more of those goods. Agamemnon was. And not due to his superiority as a biological specimen, but due to his position within that superstructure.

And so the key question is not "how are Agamemnon and Achilles just like the animals?" and in turn "How are we just like Achilles and Agamemnon?" The key question is how are they distinct?

By denigrating that difference, science-driven research is not motivated by some essential truth. It is motivated by a lust for power.

When I urge the importance of distinction, detail and difference in explaining human phenomena, I am ultimately setting myself up for a fall--I will (sooner rather than later when talking about things like the late-Bronze-Age) eventually reach a point where I have to say "I don't know" or "We don't know yet" or "We may never know that." This doesn't (God forbid) stop us from speculating and making guesses and filling in blanks as seems appropriate, but it does (or should) stop us from making strong claims.

Thus the cliche scientific horror at the non-systematic nature of the humanities and some social sciences. (For living instances of this cliche horror, see EO Wilson, or practically any Evolutionary Psychologist in the 1990s.)

Now, the non-systematic thing does indeed sometimes get out of hand (see, for instance, L'Affaire Sokal). But the solution to it is not science. The fact that the humanities is a non-systematic pursuit is based on two big difficulties: 1) as mentioned above the insufficiency of the existing evidence to give any real shape and direction to the discussion of it; and 2) the insufficiency of any "first principles" for interpreting all the evidence.

Problem 1 is one which, at least in some fields, might be conquered. Problem 2 isn't. Suppose we ask "Why isn't biology characterized, driven and shaped by a first principle from a more basic order of knowledge, as some biology fans now suggest that the humanities be structured? Why isn't Newton celebrated as the key to understanding the finer points of evolutionary theory or cell biology? Because the key to understanding cells is not understanding them as bodies in motion. Though Newton's laws apply to cells and cells wouldn't exist without those forces Newton explained being in play, Newton isn't the key to understanding cells. Observing cells and abstracting from those observations is the key to understanding cells. So again with people and their works. While we are of course beasts. While we are often driven by the same basic biological needs as animals, the complexities of society, culture, language, trade etc. are best understood by looking at those things themselves and abstracting from them, not by reducing them to epiphenomena of lower order processes.

Science-oriented critics are always, always, always bringing up human self-regard as their excuse for refusing to acknowledge the fact that humanity is a special phenomenon. The war on human self-regard has to know limits. Are we more important than everything else in the universe? No. Are we better than the animals? No. Are we no different than the animals? No, we are different. And it's the difference that is interesting. We won't explain much of that difference by fixating on our biology or by fixating on those who refuse to fully acknowledge it. Physics, chemistry, geology, geography and biology all enter into the explanation of the remains of Troy's walls. None of them, nor all of them together, explain them fully. Nor does Homer. But he's the only reason we're interested in an explanation.

So what would be a better application of context to this story? First, forget the Pleistocene for the moment. Forget the Yanomamo. Let's start with the most obvious facts of the story: the central conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon.  A conflict between a young, potent but unestablished male and an older, richer, more influential one.

“You wine sack, with a dog’s eyes, with a deer’s heart. Never
once have you taken courage in your heart to arm with your people
for battle.” (from Book I of Richard Lattimore's translation of the Iliad.)

So says Achilles to Agamemnon. And this is not just the cry of the fighter against the general. This is the cry of the young warrior against the old King.

As Gottschall points out, we shouldn't think of the kings of the Iliad as a bunch of rather rougher-hewn Louis XIVs. Their city-states were relatively small. They were more like warlords than kings. But we shouldn't fail to recognize either that they were civilized: they did live in substantial, fortified cities with allegiances to other fortified cities. They engaged in and enriched themselves through trade. They weren't merely tribal elders. And they used the mechanisms of civilization to extend their authority far beyond what their personal prowess would have commanded. Civilization created economies of organized violence, wealth and prestige which tended to give older men more power. And to deny social goods to younger men, like Achilles.

The relevant background to the prestige struggle between Achilles and Agamemnon is not who gets to reproduce with Briseis. Whether or not Achilles will be judged by the biologically minded on his "reproductive success," men have no direct biological impulse to have children. They have a drive to have sex. It so happens that procreation is often a consequence of sex, so the indirect drive to sex is sufficient for the purposes of natural selection. But the fact is, Achilles could easily have found someone else to have sex with, so why risk a potentially fatal conflict with a powerful warlord over a particular sex partner?

Because there are all kinds of experiential drivers (that is, impulses that we actually experience directly) that we can freely acknowledge are based on selective pressure. One of these is agon--competitiveness. Once we've taken a catalog of these more proximate drives--toward drunkenness, glory seeking, lust, etc.--we soon find ourselves in a position where knowing that all these drives, ultimately, were put in place to make it more likely that these men would reproduce really doesn't enrich the story at all. In fact it tends to flatten it out--all the interest is in the layers of indirection on top of the ultimate cause.

It's kind of like being asked to tell the story of the American Civil War and responding "Well, everyone involved died in the end." This is true. And it reflects a pretty fundamental truth about us all--we're all going to die. But it doesn't tell us anything about the Civil War. What matters about the Civil War is the how--who dies when, under what circumstances. Whose cause won the war? Whose lost? What was the legacy that was passed on to those who lived beyond the passing of the last Civil War contestant?

Similarly, reproductive success is a major determinant of much else that we concern ourselves with. But like our ultimate mortality, it is an ultimate, general truth with very little explanatory power or interest. To deny that such truths are interesting is not to deny their truth. It is to deny their applicability to the questions the text elicits.

And this struggle between old leaders and young warriors, coming as it does at a crucial early phase of human development as real institutions arise and struggle against the decidedly anti-institutional values of the warrior culture, is interesting.

Imaging how all this might reflect natural selection just isn't. Any more than wondering how the story of the Iliad reflects the fact that the characters are composed of atoms is interesting.

And this is not a case of moral exceptionalism. I am not saying people are too noble to be thought of as mere genetic reproducing machines. I'm saying my life is too short to read simplistic unenlightening explanations of complex phenomena. I am no more interested in this biological explanation for literature than a biologist would be interested in an explanation for mating ceremonies based on quantum theory. And I have no idea why anyone would feel otherwise.

Gottschall's work is not insensitive to the text of the Iliad, but it also isn't particularly original. Aside from the window dressing of new jargon to present it in, Gottschall's Iliad is very much the Iliad we've been discussing for hundreds of years. Basing his interpretation in biology doesn't make it more interesting, adds no no facets to the text itself, doesn't make his interpretation unassailable, and points the way to no glorious revolutions in literary criticism.

Much behind the theory of natural selection has been part of our common sense of our existence for quite a long time. The themes of agon, display, violence and even reproductive success have been with us for a long time; long before Darwin. And as the Iliad itself shows us, social structure brings whole new complications to these themes--the war in Troy may be dominated by the manly display of Achilles, but it wouldn't exist as a context for that display without the institutional connections of Agamemnon. It may (or may not) all boil down to sex in the end, but the interest isn't in what it boils down to. Who cares what gummy mess is left in a wineglass once you boil away all the fruit esters, water & alcohol? It may make a contribution to the glass, but that gummy mess is not a synecdoche for the original wine.