Loading ...
Sorry, an error occurred while loading the content.

Re: [CogLAs] [biopoet] Bé rubé r eview Boyd

Expand Messages
  • Jeff P. Turpin
    Norm--On the one hand a necessary question, but on the other hand it sometimes reminds me of the old where s the missing link? argument against evolutionary
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 22, 2009
      Norm--On the one hand a necessary question, but on the other hand it sometimes reminds me of the old "where's the missing link?" argument against evolutionary theory itself.  The amount of empricial and anecdotal information suggesting that reading stories is adaptive is huge; rigorous experimental data from cognitive studies shows that listening to, constructing, and circulating stories is integral to mental health and social function; and I am not aware of any experiments showing that reading is maladaptive across populations, (although Carroll's post on Stoneking might prove informative).  Sometimes science doesn't "prove" a hypothesis by first proving it, but by failing to disprove it over time, until only one hypothesis is left standing.  In either case a concrete standard of proof and methodological control are necessary to definitively answer the question to the satisfaction of all.
             Again, the question tends to focus on "reading stories" rather than listening to them or watching them (which, according to ToM theory and mirror neuron experiments, could provide some of the same benefits), and the sorts of experiments necessary to "prove" the point are difficult to construct, probably illegal, and certainly unethical.  One can imagine a hypothetical group of spandrel-worshippers depriving their children of books for a few generations, but how would they keep them from listening to or watching stories, or writing their own stories in their heads, or deriving them from casual events, as a large and growing group of psychological experiments show we all do instinctively?  At which point detractors then tend to single out reading per se, to assert that we only need to sense information or order it in some manner, and that reading a book or creating a story isn't the "only" way, thus reading exclusively is not adaptive.  This strikes me as sort of a desperate argument, and one which focusses on media more than on storie manipulation.
          People like Keith Oatley and Philip Davis are trying to map formal brain changes that result from reading "good" books, but even these would only satisfy cynics if they could be proven to increase survivability, or be inheritable, etc.  This is the familiar and long-lived "play" argument, and an attractive warm fuzzy response (I think it is the right argument), but not yet rigorously proven, so . . .
          And of course we get a lot of important information from reading, either fiction or non-fiction, and to argue that the data received there was not potentially adaptive would be irrational.  But until we can deprive an experimental group of reading, listening to, watching, or creating stories, and then track their adaptive success over a few generations, the burden of proof will probably fall on neuro-science.
          Gotta go . . . baby wants me to read him a story . . . ;-).jt

      Jeff P. Turpin, President
      Turpin and Sons Inc.
      Cultural Resource Management
      2047 Lakeshore, Canyon Lake, TX 78133
      (512) 922-7826
      ----- Original Message -----
      Sent: Monday, December 21, 2009 3:15 PM
      Subject: Re: [CogLAs] [biopoet] Bé rubé review Boyd

      To Jeff Turnpin:

      I know the claims and arguments for an adaptive function for stories and other literature are many and widespread.  But where is the evidence?  Sure, people claim that stories let us try out solutions, create bonds in groups, or enhance theory of mind and empathy--but where is the experimental or other evidence that this is so?  I think Pinker's review of B. Boyd's book are quite apropos here.

                            --With warm regards,

      Norm Holland

      On Sun, Dec 20, 2009 at 1:22 PM, Jeff P. Turpin <jpturpin@...> wrote:

      Bèrubè on Boyd—


                  I feel like a howler monkey at the border.

                  Various responses:


                  To Norman Holland: I haven’t read your book yet (busy busy), but I thought the verdict was in on adaptive functions of writing with Pennebaker and Seagal’s 1999 “Health Narratives” and subsequent corroborations  Some adaptive functions of story-telling and circulation are found in Bender and Winer’s (2001) Contested Landscapes (see esp. Basu).  Adaptive functions of reading texts are so ubiquitous that I’m not sure where to start, unless your question is very much more specific, ie: functions exclusive to reading stories, functions that alter brain structure or chemistry, stories that directly affect reproductive success or status, social vs. personal functions, etc.  And of course B. Boyd and J. Carroll have responded effectively to this same query.  I’ll try to read your text and narrow down the field of possible responses.


       To William Benzon: I can’t remember if Zunshine or Baron-Cohen said anything about malfunctioning or over-active TOM, but it looks like you (along with Dr. Fradenburg) have inferred some things that weren’t in my post, and occluded some things that were in it.  I actually said some nice things about the review, and agree with much of it . . . but that was not my point.  I was trying to talk about status hierarchies in critical schools and academe (Amanda Anderson’s comments on charismatic arguments, which follow Bèrubè’s on student professionalism in 2009 Profession, are relevant).  You know that evolutionary and other psychologies analyze the functions (rather than expressed intentions or goals) of personal behaviors and cultural phenomena, and that these functions are frequently invisible to those performing the behaviors.  My comments were about one posited adaptive function of Bèrubè’s review (which was executed competently), and about how Darwinists and other critics should be conscious of the status-related functions of our own documents and critiques.  

      Your reminder that earlier critics have called for meta-critique of the social implications of schools of thought is presented as if it refutes my call, rather than supporting it as it does. Many of us in academia have become so used to self-serving critical ideologies and untested or untestable assertions that we no longer address the ethics or social meta-functions of our own stories, much less condemn self-serving behavior.  This is one reason for the disciplinary malaise, and the call for new methods.  Self-serving behavior is instinctive, but that doesn't mean that it is right.  Hoary as it may sound, the goal is supposed to be truth (even if that is just an unreachable ideal we aim towards) rather than guarding our intellectual turf and advancing our own causes.  In aesthetic judgments and scientific results self-profit indicates bias, and bias perverts results.  Yes, I know, Utopian ideals . . . but what else should we aspire to?


                  P.S.  I love conversations in bars (particularly when someone else is buying ;-).


                  To Aranye Fradenburg: I’ll assume this means my application for your 2010 post-doc fellowship has moved from your desktop into your waste bin . . . ;-).

      Yes, of course, the original sense of Machiavellianism is pejorative, but I think the modern sense is more value-neutral, in the same way that the term “reciprocal altruism” somewhat coyly acknowledges selfish motives behind putatively selfless acts.  Let’s keep in mind Bèrubè’s quip about Dawkins calling his book The Cooperative Gene instead of The Selfish Gene with equal theoretical justification.  I think the problem here is that you are attributing moral judgment or condemnation exclusively to my post, where I am describing a possible function, a deft adaptive move, by Bèrubè. 

      It is a common-place in psychology that human beings are incredibly competent at missing or hiding evident truths.  Hence the call for empirical testing, and rigorous methodology, especially in critical opinions.  Again, one problem with deconstruction is that it is always already applicable to every text, so that if we rely on it exclusively we end up with an endlessly regressing critique ala The Purloined Poe.  Your recent post on Derrida, where he at least concedes the external facts of various ecologies, shows that he recognized this problem, and had to concede something (ecology) outside the text to offset it.  Anyone can read between the lines.  As the various commentaries on my post indicate, it takes discipline (method) to read and analyze the lines themselves (facts), and even when the route is circuitous and/or tedious, using rigorous method and empirical facts usually (at least in the sciences) brings the various discussants to an agreement that is verified in the outside world and verifiable by other analyses.  No endlessly regressing, equally unverifiable critiques.  The adherence to empirical testing tethers the discussion to verifiable conclusions.  My coupling of rudimentary deconstruction with modern theory on Machiavellian intelligence was simple meta-critique, asking us all to look at the social functions (not expressed motives, intentions, desires, but actual functions) of our stories and, again, was more than anything a call to attention for new critical schools to attend to their/our own Machiavellian tendencies. 

                  As to claims about tepid results of adaptationist criticisms, the jury is still out on this topic.  The discipline is young, and is still trying to fight free of the gravity (and criticism) of its predecessors.  I won’t stoop to plugging my own pubs here, but there are very productive new critiques out there for the interested reader, and I am confident that the new methodologies will bear more palatable fruit.


                  To Joe Carroll: Yes, the excerpts you sent are in the same vein as my attempted discussion of critical (and academic) hierarchies, if more specific about attributing value.  But I was actually thinking in a more abstract sense.  We know that much human behavior is about managing status, and that status is important from an adaptive standpoint for various reasons.  We also know that human status systems are very complex.  Without attributing negative or positive valance to any given entity in the system, we can study actions and note when an entity is trying to move up or maintain position in a given hierarchy, or when it is in danger of dropping in position—when it is performing adaptive behaviors.  This is applicable at the corner bar, at the UN, or at MLA. In my read Bèrubè’s review was, to paraphrase Paul Ohler, “the perfectly modulated performance of encoded competitiveness in the arena of [lit crit].”  The same phrase, sans “perfectly modulated,” could be used to describe some of the responses to my post.  This is simply how humans behave in status hierarchies, particularly when there is a potential threat (like lit Darwinism) at the territorial border.  This aspect of Bèrubè's review, or of my post, or of the various replies, would be obvious in the social sciences. This behavior is ubiqitous, is frequently adaptive, is self-serving, and is a part of our evolutionary heritage (along with being very howler-monkey).  And sometimes it is maladaptive.  My point was to foreground the self-serving aspects of any and all critical essays and schools, in the hope that the various proponents would recognize their own Machiavellian behaviors, and try to rein them in when they were maladaptive.  But this point is certainly applicable to all social groups, all bureaucracies, etc.


                  Thanks for the feedback, and happy holidays (even for those of you attending that cold but adaptively necessary status-shuffle in Philadelphia.  Try Monk’s Café in Center City to get warm and happy . . . ).  JT

      Jeff P. Turpin, President
      Turpin and Sons Inc.
      Cultural Resource Management
      2047 Lakeshore, Canyon Lake, TX 78133
      (512) 922-7826
      Sent: Friday, December 18, 2009 7:08 PM
      Subject: RE: [CogLAs] [biopoet] Bé rubé review Boyd

      For a commentary on the various positions that have been adopted with respect to the adaptive function of the arts, see the attached (forthcoming) article.  Here are the last two paragraphs:


      Consider the reality of our experience. We live in the imagination. For us, humans, no action or event is ever just itself. It is always a component in mental representations of the natural and social order, extending over time. All our actions take place within imaginative structures that include our vision of the world and our place in the world—our internal conflicts and concerns, our relations to other people, our relations to nature, and our relations to whatever spiritual forces we imagine might exist. We live in communities that consist not just of the people with whom we come directly into contact but with memories of the dead, traditions of our ancestors, our sense of connection with generations yet unborn, and with every person, living or dead, who joins with us in imaginative structures—social, ideological, religious, or philosophical—that subordinate our individual selves to some collective body. Our sense of our selves derives from our myths and artistic traditions, from the stories we tell, the songs we sing, and the visual images that surround us.

      We have all had moments in which some song, story, or play, some film, piece of music, or painting, has transfigured our vision of the world, broadened our minds, deepened our emotional understanding, or given us new insight into human experience. Working out from this common observation to a hypothesis about the adaptive function of literature requires no great speculative leap. Literature and the other arts help us live our lives. That is why the arts are human universals. In all known cultures, the arts enter profoundly into normal childhood development, connect individuals to their culture, and help people get oriented to the world, emotionally, morally, and conceptually.




      I recently wrote an encyclopedia piece on evolutionary studies in the arts.  The entry includes a condensed version of the article (attached here) on the adaptive function of the arts. Here is that condensed version:


      The Controversy over the Adaptive Function of Literature and the Other Arts


      The most hotly debated issue in evolutionary literary study concerns the adaptive functions of literature and other arts—whether there are any adaptive functions, and if so, what they might be. Steven Pinker (1997) suggests that aesthetic responsiveness is merely a side effect of cognitive powers that evolved to fulfill more practical functions, but Pinker also suggests that narratives can provide information for adaptively relevant problems. Geoffrey Miller (2000) argues that artistic productions serve as forms of sexual display. Brian Boyd (2009) argues that the arts are forms of cognitive “play” that enhance pattern recognition. Boyd and Ellen Dissanayake (2000) also argue that the arts provide means of creating shared social identity. Dissanayake, Joseph Carroll (2008), and Denis Dutton (2009) all argue that the arts help organize the human mind; the arts give emotionally and aesthetically modulated form to the relations among the elements of human experience. The idea that the arts function as means of psychological organization subsumes the ideas that the arts provide adaptively relevant information, enable us to consider alternative behavioral scenarios, enhance pattern recognition, and serve as means for creating shared social identity. And of course, the arts can be used for sexual display. In that respect, the arts are like most other human products—clothing, jewelry, shelter, means of transportation, etc. The hypothesis that the arts help organize the mind is not incompatible with the hypothesis of sexual display, but it subordinates sexual display to a more primary adaptive function.

      According to the hypothesis that the arts function as media for psychological organization, the uniquely human need for art derives from the unique human powers of cognition. To all animals except humans, the world presents itself as a series of rigidly defined stimuli releasing a narrow repertory of stereotyped behaviors. For human minds, the word presents itself as a vast and potentially perplexing array of percepts, inferences, causal relations, contingent possibilities, analogies, contrasts, and hierarchical conceptual structures. High intelligence enables humans to generate plans based on mental representations of complex relationships, engage in collective enterprises requiring shared mental representations, and thus produce novel solutions to adaptive problems. Humans do not operate automatically, but neither do they operate on the basis of purely rational deliberations about means and ends. Art, like religion and ideology, is charged with emotion, and indeed, religion and ideology typically make use of the arts to convey their messages in emotionally persuasive ways. In all known societies, humans regulate their behavior in accordance with beliefs and values that are made vividly present to them in the depictions of art, including fictional narratives.

      Ways of exploring and evaluating hypotheses about the adaptive function of the arts include paleoanthropological research into the evolutionary emergence of symbolic culture, cross-cultural ethological research into artistic practices among hunter-gatherers and tribal peoples, neuroscientific research into the way the brain processes artistic information, psychological research into the way art and language enter into childhood development, and social science research into the systemic social effects produced by shared participation in imaginative experience.




      Joe Carroll






      From: b.boyd@... [mailto:b.boyd@...]
      Sent: Friday, December 18, 2009 6:11 PM
      To: William Benzon
      Cc: Jeff P. Turpin; Biopoetics; EvPsych; Cog Lit Assn; CogLit; Michael Bérubé; Carroll, Joseph C.
      Subject: Re: [CogLAs] [biopoet] Bé rubé review Boyd


      My claims in On the Origin of Stories that storytelling is an adaptation begin with the benefits to individual minds of the compulsiveness of story, from pretend play to old age, in training in social cognition, in shifting perspective, in extending the capacity of the imagination beyond the here and now.

      I see art in general as cognitive play with pattern, in different key human perceptual and cognitive modes (aural and kinetic, in music and dance; visual in the visual arts; social and event cognition in story), which derives from physical play in other animals.

      I draw on evidence for neural plasticity, and the effects of play on animal minds, and the effects of music (the best-studied of the arts in neurocognitive terms) on human minds. Those with even some early musical training, even if it didn’t “take” nevertheless process musical sound better than those with none (of course, in no normal child do pretend play and story not “take”). Those with extensive musical training can follow conversations better in noisy environments than those without. Those with more inclination to read stories fare better on tests of social cognition, and those tested on Chekhov’s “Lady with the Little Dog” had their minds changed more (their sympathies extended and their perspectives shifted more), than those exposed to an apparently factual report of the same events (in the form of divorce court proceedings) that was independently rated to have the same interest value as the story (Mar, Djikic and Oatley 2008; see in general the work of Keith Oatley and colleagues).

      After discussing the individual cognitive benefits I also note and provide evidence for other benefits of storytelling and other arts in terms of the individual status benefits to artists, the socially cohesive benefits to groups, and the long-term effect of creativity.

      Gordon Burghardt, author of the most complete recent biological study of play, The Genesis of Animal Play, writes in his review of my book in the first issue of The Evolutionary Review:

      Boyd proposes that stories, and all the creative arts, are the result of curiosity and play, with their emphases on novelty, variability, and flexibility in attainment of goals not immediately important for survival. Play can be both a product and cause of evolutionary selection and change. Boyd is very good on play. I know because my own book on play, though not cited by Boyd, reaches many similar conclusions after an understandably more detailed review. Play is widespread among animals but, in more cognitively adept species, and especially people, mental play and rehearsal of alternatives can replace actual behavior. Boyd sees cognitive play reaching an apogee in art, though many, most notably Huizinga (uncited), see play as the origin of many aspects of human civilization, including science. Just as Boyd argues for a bottom up approach to the study of fiction, I have in rather similar fashion argued for a bottom up approach to play. The typical focus on trying to determine the adaptive function of play by extensive study of the most elaborate and unequivocal examples led to play researchers adopting speculative and unsupported, though plausible, claims for play—claims that lacked virtually any supporting data. As Pellis’ recent book documents, we are only now beginning to hone in on the adaptive function of play. That advance has been made possible by illuminating studies into what play actually is, who plays, how it develops, the contexts in which play occurs, the neural bases of play, and the role of surplus resources in facilitating play.

      Focusing prematurely on adaptationism might have set many heading in the wrong direction, missing opportunities for treasures that might actually help attain the Holy Adaptationist Grail. Boyd, like Carroll, takes seriously the ethological view of Tinbergen that to understand any behavioral phenomenon we need to be concerned with its underlying mechanisms, development, evolution, and adaptive function. A fifth aim is necessary, the private experiences or personal response of individual animals, since Tinbergen, a bit cowed by behaviorists, was not at all sympathetic to the mental or subjective in ethology, including the study of play! In this light it is clear that scientists study all kinds of features of organisms even in the absence of the ability to confirm their current or even past function. Critics of Boyd have missed this. The ability to unequivocally show, through modern scientific methods, the specific adaptive function of a trait in terms of reproductive success is actually quite recent for all but the most obvious cases. Tinbergen pioneered this type of study for behavior late in his Nobel Prize winning career. For the study of play, I have outlined six major methods to study adaptive hypotheses; all are applicable to art, but all have problems. Of these, the “design feature” method is often used in humanistic evolutionary studies; important as this may be to the generation of testable hypotheses, it is also important to get beyond the “my design is better than your design” speculation to specific tests. Boyd envisions comparative cross-cultural studies, another one of the six basic methods. . . . Boyd gets so much right!

      Back to me. Bill Benzon asks Jeff Turpin rhetorically: “Do you think Brian Boyd was doing anything but supporting ideas he favors in writing his book? Do you think, for example, that Boyd actually believes that Theory of Mind is nonsense, but he made favorable use of it in his book because he wanted to toss some points to Lisa Zunshine?”

      Might I point out that seeing Theory of Mind as important to explaining storytelling did not start with Lisa Zunshine. I wrote about it in “The Origin of Stories: Horton Hears a Who” in Philosophy and Literature, 2001. I also reviewed Zunshine’s Why Do We Read negatively in the same journal (2006), because she was not up to date with the scientific literature on Theory of Mind, because she used one narrow aspect of it as it if offered  a complete explanation for fiction, and because her analyses of the fiction she chose as examples often misconstrued what was happening in the passages she spotlighted.

      Brian Boyd


      On 19/12/2009, at 5:04 AM, William Benzon wrote:

      LOL! Remarks below.


      on 12/18/09 9:47 AM, Jeff P. Turpin at jpturpin@... wrote:

          I've finally gotten time to review the Bérubé post and attachment, and it reminds me of a plaint I have harbored for some time.  Someone in the lit dar fold needs to pen a succinct and incisive critique (or metacritique, per Bérubé) of criticism and the hierarchization of critical schools.  

      To what end? & how would you establish the hierarchization of critical schools? My crude impression — from remarks made at The Valve and elsewhere — is that New Historicism is the current default methodology in lit crit these days. That’s a pretty diffuse school. Bérubé’s own favorite is cultural studies out of Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams (& there was a recent web contretemps over his advocacy of that school). I don’t recall that cultural studies gets much, if any, mention in his review, and it’s rather poorly represented on this year’s MLA program.

      It seems to me that, in addition to this being a potable review of Boyd's book, it is also a deft positioning and stabilizing of Bérubé's position in the lit crit hierarchy.  He acknowledges the viability of adaptationist approaches, and expresses hope that some aspects of 'evocriticism' will be more broadly accepted but, with his dismissals of sociobiology and Just So stories, and claim that Brian's results don't live up to his claims, keeps several arrows in his quiver in case a larger hole appears in the lit dar case, in which case he can rest solely on the latter position, and agree with lit dar opponents.  

      So? Do you think he doesn’t actually believe that Boyd’s results “don't live up to his claims,” that he’s just saying that to give himself an out? Bérubé’s not the first one to make that claim about Boyd, nor is this a new claim to be advanced against Darwinian lit crit. Steven “Mr. Evolutionary Psychology” Pinker made the same observation in his review of The Literary Animal, as did Rebecca Goldstein. It’s one thing to read a bunch of psychology and put it together into an interesting and compelling synthesis. Analyzing literary texts is a different kind of intellectual activity.

      Again, this is not to say that the article is simply self-serving, or to target Bérubé specifically.  The article is at points witty and incisive, and in my opinion worth reading.  However . . .

      What’s all this concern about being “self-serving”? Isn’t Bérubé allowed to serve those intellectual interests he believes important? Do you think Brian Boyd was doing anything but supporting ideas he favors in writing his book? Do you think, for example, that Boyd actually believes that Theory of Mind is nonsense, but he made favorable use of it in his book because he wanted to toss some points to Lisa Zunshine?


           But metacritique and deconstruction combine to require us to analyze the Machiavellian underpinnings of any critical essay, approach, or school, including literary Darwinism.  How does the criticism affect (or effect) the position of the critic or school in the academic or philosophical hierarchy?  

      Um, err, this sort of discussion happens all the time in bars. And it was raised to an intellectual art long before deconstruction. In his 1949 Social Theory and Social Structure Robert Merton has a section devoted to Karl Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge, which is about how ideas make their way in the world, not on their merits as ideas, but in service of the interests of those who propound them. Come to think of it, Karl Marx (the horror! the horror!) had an account of ideology that addressed this.

      And how, as literary Darwinists, are we serving self, along with a just cause, in our critical efforts? Or is this play within the play best ignored . . . (and if someone has already written the succinct and incisive metacrique, I extend my apologies, plead my ignorance, and humbly request the citation). JT

      Sorry, but that’s how the world works. There’s nothing particularly nefarious or dishonest about Bérubé’s review.

      Jeff P. Turpin, President
      Turpin and Sons Inc.
      Cultural Resource Management
      2047 Lakeshore, Canyon Lake, TX 78133
      (512) 922-7826

      ----- Original Message -----
      From:  William  Benzon <mailto:bbenzon@...>  
      To: Biopoetics <mailto:biopoet@yahoogroups.com>  ; EvPsych <mailto:evolutionary-psychology@yahoogroups.com>  ; Cog Lit  Assn <mailto:CogLAs@...>  ; CogLit <mailto:coglit@yahoogroups.com>  
      Cc: Brian Boyd <mailto:b.boyd@...>  ; Joseph Carroll <mailto:jcarroll@...>  ;  Michael B é rub é  <mailto:mfb12@...>
      Sent: Saturday, December 12, 2009 7:06  AM
      Subject: [biopoet] Bérubé review  Boyd


      Bérubé on Boyd's Origin of Stories

      Michael Bérubé has now  reviewed Brian Boyd's On the Origin of Stories:
      Evolution, Cognition, and  Fiction. His review is online at American


      Discussions  ongoing at:


      and  at:



      William L. Benzon, Ph. D.
      708 Jersey Avenue, Apt. 2A
      Jersey  City, NJ 07302
      201 217-1010

      Mind-Culture Coevolution: http://asweknowit.ca/evcult/
      The  Valve (cultural blog): http://tinyurl.com/ormqg
      Flickr:  http://flickr.com/photos/stc4blues/
      YouTube:  http://www.youtube.com/user/STC4blues



      CogLAs mailing list


      CogLAs mailing list


      CogLAs mailing list

    Your message has been successfully submitted and would be delivered to recipients shortly.