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October 29, 2002

Continuing Ed 1 -- evo bio and aesthetics

Friedrich --

Another new rubric!

I'm always impressed by how many people maintain intellectual and artistic interests despite the hecticness of daily life. Yet, after high school or college, these people often become frustrated; they're busy and distracted, and don't have the chance to turn up the kinds of gems of thought and information that you and I, geeks both, are passionate about finding. But why, in the age of the web, should anyone settle for the crap they were given at school, and the crap that journalists and the popular culture pass along? And why shouldn't geeks like us pass along a little of what we know?

So, herewith the inaugural posting of a new 2blowhards department: tips for those interested in keeping their brains alive.

Topic for today: evolutionary biology and its impact on thinking about pleasure, art and aesthetics. The politicized, Frenchy-and-Marx derived ways of thinking about art that have done such damage over the last 20 years have pretty much played themselves out -- about time, and cause for celebration. As Harold Bloom once observed, the decon people who moved into the college and foundation lit-and-art departments don't like art; if they did they wouldn't be so devoted to dismantling them. What they really like is politics.

I'm guessing, from the standpoint of having followed writing and publishing for a few decades, that what we'll start seeing a lot of soon is evo-bio-derived ways of thinking about art. And hallelujah for that. Unlike the decon/structuralist rape of the arts, which leaves idiocy and devastation in its wake, evo-bio approaches respect the existence and nature of the arts. Does evo-bio answer every question one might raise about art? No, but what does? Is it timely, provocative and helpful? You bet.

The best quick-and-easy place to start is the chapter on art in Steven Pinker's new The Blank Slate (buyable here) -- 15 or 20 pages that do a heroic job of laying the approach out and giving tips for further reading and thinking. The book is well worth reading in its entirety for many other reasons.

Denis Dutton's great Arts & Letters Daily website (after a brief hiccup, it's back again here) does a fabulous job of keeping readers up to date on the latest evo-bio observations, theories and ideas. It'll also give you a sense of how lively the field is.

Of all the books devoted entirely to the topic (I'm a buff), the one that seems to me the most helpful for someone dipping a toe in the water is Ellen Dissanayake's Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why (buyable here).

Dissanayake: Art has its roots in human nature

I can't do a better job of summarizing the book's thesis than Publishers Weekly did: "Dissanayake argues that art was central to human evolutionary adaptation and that the aesthetic faculty is a basic psychological component of every human being. In her view, art is intimately linked to the origins of religious practices and to ceremonies of birth, death, transition and transcendence."

Sample passage from Dissanayake:

In society after society we find practices that indicate the esteem given to the opposite of spontaneous and "natural" behavior or appearance. Aristocracies all over the world distinguish themselves by public signs of self-control, complex systems of etiquette, and other unnatural elaborations of behavior and speech...

Even in traditional societies without strict social hierarchies or classes, the distinction between human control and natural disorder is nevertheless made. The African Basongye distinguish between "music," which consists of sounds that are human, organized, and patterned, and "noise," which is nonhuman sound.

Sensible, open-ended, non-political, informed by science, anthropology and history -- evo-bio is a breath of fresh air that might help even the arts revive. And here, by the way, is an online review by Dissanayake of Joseph Carroll's excellent "Evolution and Literary Theory." Freebies rule.



posted by Michael at October 29, 2002



Since you are a self-proclaimed GEEK, maybe you can help me understand something. I attend a weekly discussion group with about 8 men and women who are intelligent liberal & spiritual. We read a book by Wendell Berry called LIFE IS A MIRACLE. I was the lone person who practically spilled my stomach contents all over the floor upon reading this short book. Berry basically maligns another book called CONSILIENCE by Edward O. Wilson. (Even though Berry tries to say he's not addressing any one author- coulda fooled me!)

I had never read CONSILIENCE. But I was so annoyed by Berry's fontal and immature attack on Wilson that I had to buy it and read it. I am still reading... It is long and not in a field I'm used to: but it seems like a wonderful book. Unfortunately I can tell that even when I do finish reading it, I won't (and don't) have enough depth of knowledge on the subject to know if it is deserving of Berry's HARSH criticism or not.

Are you or anyone out there familiar with these books??? Can you tell me what is so wrong with the concept outlined in CONSILIENCE?

Posted by: Laurel on October 29, 2002 6:11 PM

Hey Laurel

I can't imagine why Wendell Berry took off after E.O. Wilson's "Consilience," which, like you, I enjoyed. But I haven't read the Berry. I do know that Berry (whose writing I don't enjoy much) can get terribly pious and moral. And I also know that Wilson does see the world through the lens of evolutionary biology, which does enrage some people -- back in the '70s, Wilson (a very responsible scientist, as well as a courageous guy) was the target of a lot of really vicious attacks.

What was your impression of what so angered Berry?



Posted by: Michael on October 30, 2002 11:05 AM

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