#172 Joseph Carroll: Literary Darwinism, Postmodernism, And The Humanities

#172 Joseph Carroll: Literary Darwinism, Postmodernism, And The Humanities



hello everybody welcome to a new episode of the dissenter I'm your host Ricardo Lopez and today I'm joined by dr. Joseph Carroll he is a scholar in the field of literature and evolution is currently curators professor at the University of Missouri st. Louis where he has taught since 1985 dr. Carroll's evolution and literary theory was one of the first literary studies to take the cue from important developments in disciplines such as evolutionary psychology evolutionary anthropology and sociobiology singing evolutionary biology as an alternative to post structuralism he's also the author of books like literary Darwinism evolution human nature and literature reading human nature graphing Jane Austen and produced an edition of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species and also Co edited volumes 1 & 2 of the evolutionary review and co-edited evolution literature and film reader so dr. Carroll thank you a lot for taking the time to be here with us today okay great so the first question I would like to ask you is what is really a literary Darwinism and that was it first developed it's a school of literary theory and criticism that grounds itself in current knowledge about evolved behavioral and cognitive characteristics of the human species it's a school like other schools marks his own for you ISM deconstruction feminism but it aims at being all comprehensive ultimately subsuming or assimilating integrating all other possible approaches to literary theory it's meant to be a comprehensive paradigm for understanding everything about how imaginative verbal constructs are produced what functions they have what characteristics they have so it's a combination of all people have learned over millennia about literature and the kind of specialized knowledge that has emerged in the past 40 or 50 years from the application of evolutionary biology to human behavior experienced right okay so when you first got across disciplines like sociobiology and evolutionary psychology what were really the insights or the knowledge that you got from them that made you really think that perhaps you could apply it in literary studies and perhaps improve upon certain approaches like post structuralism and the constructionism and others well the the one main thing that bothered well there are two main things that bothered me about the post structuralism the general theoretical vision that preceded literary Darwinism and is still current one thing was the belief that language makes the world that we are only what language or culture makes us into the we can see in feeling they what our languages or our cultures have designed for us and the other was the the the general rationalism the the belief that it wasn't possible to gain real knowledge about the world old the there was just an infinite player signs or relativity of culture so Darwinism appealed to me at first in part because it restored a real-world world in which organisms human organisms interact with an environment so the restored reality and restore the possibility of gaining objective scientifically valid knowledge about reality right ok and I mean a field like literary irony Darwinism I mean it has several different aspects to it on the one hand we have the adaptations of the human mind or how the human mind evolved cognitively and that give the basis to what we produce in terms of literature but on the other end it's also an aspect of human culture and so perhaps there are at least some aspects aspects of it that operate at the cultural level and must be really difficult to reduce to their biological basis or to a biological level one of the most important developments in evolutionary Social Sciences over the past 20 or 30 years has been the gradual development of a more bio cultural understanding of human behavior realization that humans are cultural animals there had before there has been a dichotomy the nature-nurture dichotomy there the nursery people said it's all nurture and then the biology people tended to try to reduce everything to biology but there's been an increasingly sophisticated understanding that humans are a peculiarly cultural species social learning the ability of shared attention the necessity for humans to develop a an imaginative construct of the world and to operate through that so from the beginning I've argued that there are levels of a literary Darwin Darwinistic analysis there's a universal level human universals things that people all over the world share and then there's a cultural level and the universal level includes culture but then at the cultural level what I'm calling the cultural level there are variations where individual cultures take all the elements of human nature the biological biases dispositions propensity x' and develops them in different ways under the influence of environmental constraints and traditions but there's the the cultural level that's never divorced from a biological level there's always human motives evolved human motives and dispositions that are constraining in channeling cultural forms and then there's a third level which is individual variation individual persons so the biological and the cultural are never strictly separated from one another right now they're not no mm-hmm okay so when it comes to literature and literary studies what would you say are really some of the main aspects of human psychology that we have to take into account when when making those kinds of studies well the first thing I point to are basic motives and emotions and there's something called human life history theory which is a subset of a general biological theory called life history theory and it's about birth growth reproduction social organizing organization if there is any parenting if there is any old age death and humans have a very specific life history they evolved in how the particular ways as a social species with a long childhood long infant dependency and postmenopausal survival all kinds of special aspects and they involved in a distinct dishonourable set of basic motives that are activated by basic emotions and one of my starting points for studying any literary text is to ascertain one of the or the main driving motives and concerns of the depicted characters or the author and what way are they appealing to motives and emotions in their in their readers so that's motives and emotions is one big area in cognitive dispositions the way the mind makes sense of things the developmental psychology is now teaching us and neuroscience teaching us quite a lot about how the human mind is put together how it develops in childhood and all the different aspects of cognition and imagination so you need to be aware of things like episodic memory and semantic memory putting together an autobiographical narrative for each individual person a theory of mind or perspective taking that's crucial for literary study it's a it's a form of peering into other people's minds and then when I teach for example now I'm teaching a course in short stories and the main emphasis I give apart from motives and emotions is on the interplay of perspectives what the author thinks about the characters or the narrator's how the characters think about one another what the author thinks the reader is thinking and one thinks and so the interplay of perspectives is a crucial aspect one other main area is formal organization is style and there again a cognitive neuroscience can take us a long way into understanding the forms of literary representation the way that the mind processes certain kinds of information so yeah those three things I would say are the most important things right and so I mean in in the way that social science and the humanities traditionally operated people tend to talk a lot about what they called social or cultural constructions and perhaps we could refer here to the term that with the cosmides and john tooby kind that was the standard social science model where they really refer that one aspect of it is that it really appealed to social and cultural constructivism or constructions and so well do you think that with these new approaches that come from disciplines that are biologically based like evolutionary psychology social biology and so on that we can still talk about cultural constructions without putting them at a level that is sort of a purely symbolic or purely cultural order that perhaps the arrived from processes that occur exclusively at a cultural level I think you have to then the earlier some of the earliest efforts and biologically based literary criticism came far too little emphasis to culture and just trying to talk about Universal mating strategies Universal survival strategies that doesn't thank you very far all people live in a culture and they have myths forms of imagination narrative styles they that largely shaped the way they see the world those myths and narrative styles forms of imagination are themselves infused with evolved passions emotions motors but they nonetheless very a good deal if you think about medieval Christian vision of the world people are still they're motivated by hunger and sexual passion and parenting motives and social status and all the standard reparatory basic motives and emotions but they have a vision of life and the afterlife that profoundly influences how they behave and what they feel and think and the kind of experiences they go through and you couldn't begin to understand medieval literature without understanding that whole worldview if you go through any any big museum that's historically art museum that's historically organized you run into several hundred years in the in the Medieval and Renaissance phases in which people are totally preoccupied with images of Christ especially Christ on the cross and then there are other cultures like that of ancient Greece in which those images would be bizarre and incomprehensible so in order to understand the literature of either of those periods you have to understand the forms of imagination that are characteristic of that culture and when it comes to very specific approaches like for example the one that was put forth by authors likely the cosmides and john tooby and that was supported by authors like Steven Pinker where even it very even talks about the arts and literature sure more specifically as being cheesecake for the mind right something like that what do you think about that well I think that evolutionary psychology which emerged in the early 90s 1992 book the adapted mind was the major document wasn't an early phase in the development of evolutionary Social Sciences it was a step forward from something of biology which tried tended to reduce everything to inclusive fitness reproductive motives and just ripped out a huge array of human social and cultural experience and an evolutionary psychology tried to advance on that by talking about modules in the mind specific parts of the mind that were shaped by adapted pressures selective pressures than a Pleistocene forager culture and it was a little further than sociobiology and identifying a wider range of possible evolved characteristics but it was far too rigid in its emphasis on the Pleistocene environment it turned for example declared that the everything since agriculture about 2,000 years ago was basically a mismatch to our evolved psychology and that was just a mistake people have been evolving ever more rapidly over past 300 thousand years and that hasn't stopped since agriculture and people have adapted the agricultural rose as a result of the evolved and adapted capacities of human beings and then they continued to evolve and adapt in response to the new demands of a highly concentrated population with our article stratification and then urbanization cities and Pinker based his work I still think still does on the general vision of the mind that was formulated by to be in cosmides and people like David buss and Don Symons are early in the movement for evolutionary psychology and since that the emphasis there was always on still on survival and reproduction what looked like culture especially the more advanced forms of sophisticated culture of the emerged since agriculture seemed irrelevant it seemed not to have any real function within the basic scheme of survival reproduction that was a really fundamental misunderstanding about the significance of culture in human life it's only fair to say that in 1990 I believed to being cosmides published I'm sorry mm so eight years after the adapted mind published a frequently cited essay called forget the title of it but the hard beauties in the in the title and the idea is that they had revised their basic belief that the arts were maladaptive or or non adaptive that they were just side-effects paper hands and I believe much changed his mind but you still run into a fair number of people probably I won't say the majority even a large proportion of the people in the community of evolutionary Social Sciences to pay no attention to the arts or culture or believe that it's not really very relevant the only things that matter are a food shelter parenting social life they don't they don't understand the importance of the imagined but evolutionary cultural theory has been developing steadily over the past 20 or 30 years and we now know a lot more and there's a greater tendency towards a convergence between humanists to focus on culture but leave the cultures grounded in biology and evolutionary social scientists who focus on evolved motives and behavior but believe that the cultural imagination is part of human evolved characteristics when you talk about evolutionary cultural theory are you referring to the work of people like for example dr. Robert Boyd and Peter Richardson and Joseph Eric and people like that yeah I am right I am Boyd and Richardson have two lines of theory one focuses on gene-culture co-evolution and that that idea you know Wilson was a pioneer in and in the early eighties he published a book two books on that as continue to talk about it the boy in Richardson that's one of their ideas and Henrik goes along in that idea he was born stewed and the other idea is culture what they call cultural evolution the tremendous amount of confusion in the area simply because of the confusion of terms people use the term cultural evolution well often when they mean gene-culture co-evolution the cultural evolution in the strictest sense means that culture evolves in a way parallel to the evolution of biology and that there's a what they call it a dual inheritance system and that we inherit certain things biologically I mean here are certain things culturally there's in that model there's far too little interaction between culture and biology so there's gene-culture co-evolution which i think is the the way I think it's the truth in that it's what's going to lead us into a full and adequate theory of human culture and then there's cultural evolution which i think is a confusing byline that's probably going to peter out as more research reveals that culture is never independent of biology mm-hmm so you've already referred several times to dr. Yeoh wilson and as far as i know he also put forth at nyeport aziz i guess we could call it that he called imaginative virtual worlds while referring to perhaps the the features of our mind that really allowed for us to simulate worlds or events in our heads and web thought experiments without the need to really go through those same experiments in the real world and avoiding getting in danger and things like that and necessarily of course so what would we have to say about that way of thinking about perhaps fiction and fictional literature and things like that right yeah yeah distinction needs to be made Wilson and his book conciliate publishers in 1997 or 1998 put forward the idea that imagination was imagination manifesting itself in myths and rituals religious beliefs all the culture was particularly human adaptation imaginative culture a peculiarly human adaptation that enabled us to cope with the world once our minds had become so flexible that we were no longer guided by instinct alone that's one idea and then there's another idea which is that scenarios that we can play play out in our minds possible events and think about how to deal with them and that idea actually even Pinker supports and how the mind works is 1997 book in which he talks about the arts is mental cheesecake there are quite the same idea that I mean they're they're related clearly and the the difference is the imaginative culture is broader it's not just thinking about things that might happen and then figuring out how you'll deal with what they do it's having a whole vision of the world so that you think about gods and planetary systems and supernatural agencies and you develop ethical systems and you have a conception of how humans behave in their relation to the plant and animal world and all of that is an imaginative virtual world and it's not just a single scenario for an event that what would happen if I suddenly came upon a saber-toothed tiger how would I deal with it that's a very small practical specific scenario but an imaginative world view which is what Wilson had in mind is a much bigger vision of the whole world and the idea is that all of our behavior is ultimately lodged within an imaginative worldview and then what we we do what we do on the basis of our suppositions about what the gods will think about it or how nature works or what our moral norms in our culture are or what would be an ideal way to live or we have various ways in which having an imagined world view guides our behavior ok so just before we move on to another topic I would also like to ask you what would you say is the relevance that an approach like the one coming from Joffrey Miller when he talks about the role that sexual sin action might have lived in the development or the evolution of artistic behavior what that kind of approach might have to play a might have as a role when it comes to perhaps analyzing literature and and related things well NORs idea is that literature and other artistic performances intellectual performances in general are forms of sexual display and there's some truth to that since humans are good at turning anything they do in two forms of display sometimes sexual sometimes social status signaling there are all kinds of signals that you can send you can send signals of being weak and helpless which is an appeal for help for other people so almost anything you do can be turned into a signal and literatures one of the things that you do I think it's it's the kind of idea that evolutionary psychologists who don't think about culture much and don't think about the arts much naturally gravitate toward because it comes up with what looks like an easy causal explanation for why people engage in the arts but it doesn't even begin to give an adequate account of imaginative virtual worlds of the way people have evolved the ability and the necessity of forming an imaginative virtual world in order to function at all people really can't escape from that and it and their their motives impulses that are manifested in literature and the other arts are certainly sex is the main part of it since X is a main part of human behavior but it's certainly not the only part of it parenting is important social life is important growing up and developing relations with your family is important developing an understanding of the whole world is important there are lots of ways in which people do things in literature that have almost nothing to do with sex okay so let's talk a little bit now about universals in literature and literary studies so what what are the some of the main universals that we have already identified in literature yeah and do they fall under certain categories like for example themes genres character types and things like that right well how many reversals is a field in itself Don Brown still has the definitive book or the book that's most important than that that area and that's 30 years old now it's called human universals and human Universal's is a little tricky as a term because it doesn't mean behavior or cognitive dispositions that is displayed by every human it means cognitive dispositions or behavioral dispositions that are prevalent in every known culture so there can be individuals who are in one way or another outside of that pattern but just to take one of his examples marriage some form of recognized sexual access to publicly acknowledged legitimate access to sexual behavior with another person that's if that's a human universal though the forms of marriage obviously differ from polygamy to polyandry to monogamy all over the world there are many different forms for literary study Universal is include what I was talking about earlier all the life history characteristics the basic motives social relationships everything about emotions and cognitive dispositions there universals of neurological organization perspective-taking empathy theory of mind there are people who aren't able to do that like autistics for example trouble with theory of mind but theory of mind is a distinguishing species typical characteristic that appears in all all societies and it's one of the features that is a human cognitive architecture that's most important for studying literature so you look for it you look for as I said when I approach the nurture all the first things I do is look for basic motives and emotions and those are human Universal and in terms of character types and themes that are explored in literature are there any really big human universals that we know about oh sure yeah a lot of speculative work on those kinds of categories with Carl Jung and then in the mid century period last century Northrop Frye had a book called anatomy of criticism and it was the foundation of archetypal literary criticism study of myths the belief in universal kinds of characters like the heroic quest ER or the wise old man or the rich figure there those theories I was tempted by though I was a and and my early student days was much drawn to young partly because of the recognition of deep-seated universal character types and genres yeah so the anatomy of criticism is a genre theory is a set of genres that enter into it tragedy comedy heroic quest irony and satire I believe that that there's a lot to that but there was so much and young and then also in Frey that was made up out of bits and pieces of traditional thinking and religious thinking and weren't solidly grounded and it involved a few of the evolved and adapted characteristics of the human mind so that was probably better to start over to build rather than to try to adapt young and fry it was better to start over and work out from human life history theory and cognitive neuroscience to develop a better model I don't think that there are any absolute types I think that literature and the arts are on our like language in a way they're composed of all kinds of elements new elements are introduced the elements combine in all kinds of weird ways and they interact with new social and economic and ecological circumstances to form new patterns so you can find common patterns based on species typical characteristics but they don't form a closed system they don't form a kind of finite set of categories it's not it's not quite like a chemical system of elements where you've got categories that are grounded in atomic weights and the number of electrons in an outer shell it's not that finite and firm in its shape so when it comes to young and the archetypes do you think that because it was interested in their universality that he was also trying to give them sort of biological basis in the sense that you when universals are one but not the only criteria that we use to decide that some sort of human behavior or human cultural manifestation as biological basis yeah no there's a there's a lot of biology and young but young came of age in a period in which people tended to highly intellectual Europeans tended to still be synthetic merging two separate streams of intellectual history one the Darwinian stream naturalism ecology evolution and the other a transcendental stream coming out of German speculative philosophy and Contin ISM Karl Popper the philosopher of science mentioned I believe is popper that over his father was a lawyer and over his father's desk was an intellectual behind his behind him there were two paintings and one was a Charles Darwin and the other was a manual cut and that that struck me is as typifying a whole generation or several generations of thinkers konrad lorenz has a book the the ethologist the german ethology has a book called behind the mirror in that book he talks about the contents having understood that humans had evolved structures in their minds but not yet having understood that those evolved structures were a result of an adaptation to to an environment and I think that there's a lot of confusion and that appears in both young and northrop frye their results from trying to integrate a transcendental or religious tradition with naturalistic evolutionary tradition okay so I would also like to ask you what you think about approaches of content analysis like the ones that were then and that were exposed by people like dr. Gant's said in their books that are related to consuming behavior consumer consumer behavior where he refers to the fact that the four biggest modules that underlie the themes or the things that people pay the most attention to in fiction are related to survival reproduction kin selection and reciprocal altruism so when it comes to that type of approach of content analysis what what would do you make of its importance when it comes to really studying literature I think it's a a usable rough-and-ready set of categories roughly based on biology on an understanding of human motives the weakness and the set of categories are just mentioned is clear when a human sociality for example is turned into reciprocation and their their multiple aspects of human social interaction reciprocation is only one of them that's a kind of crude mmm popular version of human social interaction is I used I use a set of categories that takes and the ones that God saw mentions that's their part of human life history so I am or the short story course that I'm teaching right now is organized on the basis of categories from human life history and I give one or two class periods to each of six or seven major categories and reproduction or mating pair bonding that's one of them parenting behavior there's another social interaction there's another but then there are growing up there's a whole phase of human life it's focused on the problems of children and growing up and gaining a personal identity and forming a personal autobiographical narrative and then there's another category of human cultural curiosity the need for forming an imaginative vision of the world so I think you have to have a taxonomy Linnaeus is still still out there still functional still part of our whole biological understanding of things taxonomy is crucial but it's important to get your taxonomy straight and not to simplify it too quickly too crudely and when it comes to the aspect of meaning in literature do you think that we really have good enough scientific tools to explore it on a purely scientific level or with the pure scientific approach or that we also have to resort to for example philosophical tools I think we we know enough certainly to explore it scientifically if we had the if the academic literary establishment by some miracle were suddenly transformed into an establishment that was sympathetic to evolutionary biology and the evolutionary Social Sciences and was eager to acquire methods of empirical research so that instead of having half a dozen of us doing that kind of thing there were several hundred or many thousands doing it the there's nothing in literature that would not be accessible to some form of empirical research the work that's been done already has managed to get at some fairly sophisticated forms of meaning the in practical reality what the the position we're at now is that there's a little empirical research being done a little more being done at any given time I mean I'm aware of one or two empirical projects being conducted somewhere in the world as opposed for example to the field of psychology in which there are tens or hundreds of thousands of experiments empirical studies being conducted in any given time so there's just a trickle of empirical literary research going on there's more being done by people who are still doing interpretive speculative literary criticism informed by their reading in the evolutionary Social Sciences we're doing a kind of blended work at the present time and I I think it's it would be the case that even if the whole literary establishment were transformed and had become sympathetic and actively involved and empirical work there would still be room for discursive interpretive commentary but it would be much more fully integrated into empirical research ok so just one last question before we go I would like to ask you and now borrowing perhaps a term from your Wilson that is concealed Ian's what do you think should be the impact that Darwinism and evolutionary theory should have on the humanities and do you think that since the development of fields like sociobiology roughly four decades ago that they are ready they already have an impact on the humanities an important impact since then yeah well I have a an idea just a hypothetical imaginary Institute of Graduate Studies in literature this is what I would like to see and I would like to see the whole the whole of the academic literary establishment transformed into something integral with the Institute and the Institute would have a range of activity in which at one end you would have people who are heavily involved in biology and psychology and empirical research and but who were taking literary studies as their primary subject matter and we actually do have that now there's a field called the psychology of fiction there's cognitive rhetoric cognitive literary studies as a fair amount of work being done by people mostly with a psychology background people like Keith ugly Raymond Marr and then at the other end of the spectrum they would there would be people who are mainly doing a scholarship historical scholarship or literary criticism but who are fully conversant with all the work being done by the the empirical researchers and there's a few dozen people who fit that description at the present time I would like to see all of literary study ultimately fully integrated with compatible with interactive with psychology anthropology biology evolutionary social theory evolutionary cultural theory I think that that would not be a a fad or a fashion I think it would actually be a development towards the necessary integration of all human knowledge and is it the case that nowadays approaches like the postmodern once post-structuralism deconstructionism and others still play a very important role role in the humanities in the sense that perhaps they are still mainstream mainstream the Modern Language Association of America has 30 or 40,000 members I think and it's the it's the establishment they meet once a year that would big conference they fill up two or three big conference hotels that's a job fair and then there there are hundreds of papers that are they're given in little bells and probably less than 1% of the people who attend those conferences are sympathetic to the idea of literary Darwinism or or the evolutionary Social Sciences in general they're still grounded fundamentally and European speculative philosophy and they're fundamentally constructivist and that's that's a peculiar lag time lag there's a gap there between the state of knowledge in the world in general and the state of knowledge in the humanities the humanities are more and more isolated from what's actually known and thought by most people in the social sciences and even by the educated general public I read a column in The New York Times yesterday by David Edsel EDSA ll I was on a survey about partisanship and the United States politics and the the column are kept quoting to being cosmides and Jonathan hight and Robert Kurtz band and evolutionary social psychologist and that's the commonplace knowledge at the present time it's what the generally educated public knows about and people in the academic literary establishment would be shocked and indignant if you went to the MLA and quoted those same people okay so let's hope that the picture improves in the near future and just before we go dr. Carroll would you like perhaps to make reference to any good places on the internet where people could go to know more about your work well I'm Co editing a journal at the present time called imaginative evolutionary studies and imaginative culture and that's a it's got a nice big website with their resources and we put up pictures of the copies of all the books that we review and there are a lot of open access articles that would be one place to go I have my own website Brian Boyd as his own website he's a he's a major contributor to this field Mathias claisen studies horror research or literature and he's one of the editors for imaginative studies and culture um my website my best the best place to go for my work would be my academia ed u website I've got everything I have written there okay so I will be leaving links to all of that in the description box of the interview dr. Carroll and again thank you a lot for taking the time to be here with us today and it was really a pleasure to have on the show well thanks thank you for calling hi everybody thank you so much for watching this interview until the end as you might have noticed I've started this channel in February 2018 and they've been putting out regular interviews with academics and intellectuals from a variety of fields so to keep the channel sustainable I would really like to ask you to please pay a visit to my patreon page and to consider making a pledge there otherwise if you don't like patreon you can also go to PayPal or subscribe star all of the links are in the description box of the video and also on my channel and apart from that you can also of course leave a like share the interview and eat the subscription button I would also like to give a huge thank you to my patrons Karen Lipsky and Blanchett paralegal Larsson la Carrera Chantal Salinas Jim Frank Francis Ford and Fredriksson the Brian Rivera Lucca Stefaniuk Sergio Condren and my first producer is our web thank you for all

4 thoughts on “#172 Joseph Carroll: Literary Darwinism, Postmodernism, And The Humanities

  1. Thank you for this interview! It has helped me to understand better sociobiology and human behaviour.

  2. Wow this interview came just at the right time. I was dissecting the idea that many people have on how old stories are more valuable because they've gone through a pseudo-evolutionary process of distilling wisdom in some form. Either in the narrative structure or in a symbolic sense. I believe what he said about Carl Jung was very insightful and I'll check out a lot of his material for further reading. To base literary analysis on life history concepts is such a no-brainer once he introduces the concept.

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