Out of Africa, Chris Else

In the second of a two-part series, Chris Else examines the case for an evolutionary explanation of art argued in two recent books.

Back in my university days I had a friend called Murray, a sardonic sort of bloke with a conventional exterior that belied an inner recklessness. One day he confessed to me, with a touch of pride, that he had just passed his stage two Eng Lit exams without having opened a single text. All he had read was the critics. I think he did this to prove a point and, no doubt, to impress people. I was impressed, although not in the way he wanted. I thought it was a clever thing to do but also oddly nihilistic. Murray’s attitude was the opposite of mine. The whole point of studying literature, as far as I could see, was to engage with the work itself – responding to it and thinking about it and articulating one’s response. Who cared what the critics thought? They were just a bunch of other readers giving their opinions.

Behind this anecdote is a question about the purpose of criticism. In The Origin of Stories (2009), Brian Boyd suggests it is to help us understand the work. This is fair enough, although, as the philosophers of my youth were fond of pointing out, it depends what you mean by “understand”.

For Boyd, understanding involves an explanation in terms of evolutionary psychology – that new branch of science that seeks to account for human behaviour in terms of the biological adaptations our distant ancestors made to their environment back in Africa during the Pleistocene Age. Evolutionary psychology is, no doubt, a respectable scientific discipline. However, in the hands of some of its enthusiasts, many of whom are not biologists, or even scientists, it sometimes seems like a cultural ideology set to take over the world.

No aspect of human life is immune to this encroachment – love, religion, art, politics, economics, fashion, everything is grist to the reductionist mill. If human culture and psychology can be reduced to biology, and biology can be reduced to chemistry, and chemistry to physics, then, indeed, in Stephen Hawking’s phrase, a “theory of everything” might be within our grasp. An example of the many contributions to the grand Darwinian programme is Denis Dutton’s The Art Instinct (2009), the very title of which, with its deferential nod to Stephen Pinker’s The Language Instinct (1994), confidently proclaims its allegiance.

In fairness to Boyd, he has only one foot in the Dutton camp. His aim is not just to demonstrate once again how cleverly applied Darwinism can conquer some new aspect of culture and behaviour. He also wants to enlist the support of science, in the form of evolutionary psychology, in a different battle.

His main target is Theory or Cultural Critique, which rejects any commonsense notions of great literature – notions like timeless significance and individual genius – and focuses instead on the text as a product and a reflection of a culture at a specific location in space and time. These doctrines, derived from the work of Barthes, Derrida and Foucault, with their abstruse vocabulary and modes of thought have become what Boyd calls “a graduate student boot camp for the intellectual officer corps”.

Against the excesses of this approach, Boyd develops what he calls “evocriticism”.  His argument, derived from evolutionary psychology, leads him to the conclusion that: (1) art begins as solitary and shared patterned cognitive play whose self-rewarding nature reshapes human minds, and that it intensifies its impact by raising (2) the status of individual artists and (3) our general inclination to cooperate closely with one another … . Out of these three functions, there gradually emerges another … at odds with the social-cohesive role of traditional art: (4) creativity.

From here, he rescues many familiar critical concepts. The obverse of conferred status, for example, is the artist’s need to seek the attention of an audience. How does a writer get and hold our attention? Through great characters and a well-constructed plot, through unity of action, compelling imagery, subtle irony and so on.

Much of this discussion feels forced, however. Boyd offers a 100-page analysis of Homer’s Odyssey, a rewarding exposition from an attentive reader. Throughout it, though, the subtlety of his analysis contrasts sharply with his clunky attempts to tie everything back to his argument. He keeps reminding us that this literary device or that aspect of structure is how Homer gets our attention (and, presumably, enhances his status) or that some aspect of the poem has a biological dimension. He notes, for example, that the love between Odysseus and Telemachus has “deep evolutionary roots and neural routes”, which is to say that the bond between fathers and sons is particularly strong, an observation that is probably worth a mark or two in NCEA but not much more.

In the end, Boyd’s enterprise feels misguided. I can applaud any attempt to knock Theory from its high horse but to replace an explanation of a novel in terms of Derrida’s “différance” with one based on Darwinism does nothing to deal with what I think is the central problem of academic literary criticism – the tendency to equate understanding with explanation. If understanding a work is no more than explaining it, then my friend Murray was right. You don’t have to read Bleak House in order to explain it, any more than you have to jump out of an airplane in order to explain terminal velocity. For most writers and readers, I suspect, explanation is irrelevant. Applying Freudian or Derridian or Darwinian theories to literature may be an interesting exercise, but it is not what writing and reading is ultimately about.

Let’s suppose Boyd is right and that art and literature are forms of play. To an observer, play is subject to any number of explanations – dramatic, political, psychological – but all of these somehow miss the point, which is the actual experience of being in the game. There are two perspectives here. One is that of the scientist, observing the game and explaining it in terms of some theory. The other is that of the agent engaged in the game and absorbed by its world.

Art is not unique in being open to the kind of explanation Boyd offers. We can take the observer’s stance with regard to any aspect of human culture. For example, evolutionary psychology, and even science in general, can also be seen as “solitary and shared patterned cognitive play whose self-rewarding nature reshapes human minds, [which] intensify their impact by raising the status of individual [scientists and academics] and [their] general inclination to cooperate closely with one another …”

No doubt, too, out of “these three functions, there [sometimes, at least] emerges another … – creativity”. Following Boyd’s argument, we could go on to say that when Einstein, for example, came up with the theory of relativity he was seeking to gain the attention of his fellow physicists in order to enhance his status. This is arguably the case, true, but I suspect it does little for anyone who wants to join the game of physics, and it would have been of even less interest to the game’s main players, like Einstein himself.

What we need, I suggest, is criticism based not on the point of view of the observer but on that of the agent. There is a difficulty here, of course. If I am going to talk about how I react to reading Yeats or Curnow or Austen or Lloyd Jones, I have already made the first move in shifting my attention from the work itself to my experience of the work. I am already observing the game rather than engaging in it. The more I make this move, the more I reflect on my experience, the more I begin to deploy a set of specialised concepts to describe that experience, the more I slip gradually from one game into another.

Of course, there is no harm in this as long as it does not go too far. On the contrary, the tension between engaging in a work of art and reflecting on that engagement is precisely what enriches the experience for a sophisticated audience. The problems begin to arise when the attempt to articulate the response slips away into an explanation of it – whether that explanation be psychological, political or biological. Once this happens, it seems to me, criticism has lost its way.


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