IGEL 2000

Symposium: Evolutionary approaches to literature

Co-Chairs: David S. Miall, Willie van Peer

Other links: IGEL 2000 Conference | Reader Response (Miall & Kuiken)


morning, 9:00-10:30

Evolution, Speciation, and Extinction of Artistic and Literary Styles

Colin Martindale (Department of Psychology, University of Maine)

I have elsewhere proposed a theory of the history of art and literature patterned after Darwin's theory of sexual or hedonic selection. Artists are under many selection pressures, but most of these are not constant enough to produce evolutionary trends. For example, puritanical liturature is not fit in liscentious eras; liscentious literature is not fit in puritanical eras. Thus, fitness cannot explain aesthetic evolution as there are not consistant selection criteria. On the other hand, a work of art in any tradition must always be new or different from all preceeding works. Though the pressure for novelty is weak, because it is consistent it ends up explaining around half of the variance in any artistic tradition. In the case of poetry, let us define a style as an acceptable lexicon of words and acceptable ways of combining them. In order to produce a novel work of art, one must move toward a state of primordial cognition (concrete and reverie-like thought). Such thought leaves its marks on the content of poetry. Within a given style, we should then expect more and more evidence of primordial thought. Eventually, all possible word combinations with have been used. This calls for a style change: simplifying the rules and using new words. This allows novelty or unpredictability to increase at a cost of less primordial cognition. I have gathered a good bit of evidence that novelty or unpredictability increases across time in any artistic tradition, whereas evidence of primordial cognition oscillates.

On the Origins of Style

Willie van Peer (Institut für Deutsch als Fremdsprache, University of Munich)

A brief state of the art in stylistics leads to an appreciation of the strength and weaknesses of current stylistic approaches. My own view is that progress has been made on a number of local levels, where the power of text analysis has been greatly increased over the past 20 years. On a more global level, however, where general models and theories of style are concerned, progress is much less evident. I will propose that somehow or other we seem to have lost track of the more general questions and that we urgently need to reframe them again. As an example of what we could do in this respect, I will argue in favour of an interdisciplinary approach that applies insights and reasoning from the field of evolutionary psychology. One basic question that such an approach might answer (or at least begin to look at in more detail) is the question of the origins of style, of stylistic perception and sensitivity. Why, in other words, is it that human beings are able to discriminate between different styles? I will argue that the answer to such questions may meaningfully be related to the evolution of the species during the Pleistocene. I will extend and partly reformulate hypotheses that have been advanced some decades ago and which I believe need to be invigorated again. I also believe that such hypotheses and their investigation will cast light on larger theoretical problems which haunt the discipline.

Lament and Liminality

Ellen Dissanayake (Independent Scholar, Seattle)

In a highly social primate like ourselves, the loss of a child, mate, or close friend through death generally results in an emotional state of sadness or distress, called grief, often characterized by weeping and mourning. In many if not most human societies -- in Eurasia, the Mediterranean, Highland New Guinea, Africa, China, tribal India, Indonesia, and the Americas -- the "natural" (innate) emotional response is transformed into a "cultural" (both learned and improvised) performance, the lament. Mourners do not just weep uncontrollably, as might be expected with their intolerable loss, but structure their sobs into conventionalized, highly expressive vocalizations. Just as laments occupy a liminal state between nature and culture, they exist somewhere between song and speech, emotional speech and poetry, the everyday and the spirit worlds, and -- since the lament is meant to be acknowledged and even echoed by others -- between private self-expression and public occasion. Occurring widely, performed by both sexes, and sharing universal features, the lament provides an illustrative prototype in a literary genre (i.e., oral or sung poetry) of five theoretical notions I have developed elsewhere about the evolution of a "behavior of art": (a) the arts originally arose from emotional investment in biologically important but uncertain (liminal) occasions; (b) art performance or making ("artification") was a way of controlling anxiety about these occasions; (c) in artification, ordinary experience is formalized and elaborated, thereby becoming extraordinary or "special"; (d) artification is drawn from and works upon experience that is nonverbal and bodily as well as conscious; (e) the aesthetic transformations accomplished by artification often result in emotional transformations of individuals and unification of participating social groups. As such, they are felt to be both individually and culturally meaningful.

afternoon, 1:00-3:00

The first poetry? The stylistics of babytalk

David S. Miall (Department of English, University of Alberta)

The incentive to respond to poetic features of language may occur as early as the first few weeks of life. In this paper (prepared in part with the help of Ellen Dissanayake) I examine the nature of the mother-infant interaction commonly called "babytalk" and suggest that its stylistic features contain the precursor of later aesthetic response. Babytalk is spontaneously generated by mothers, using temporally-organized behaviors (special infant-directed vocalizations, facial expressions and gestures) to engage their preverbal infants' attention and to regulate their emotional state. For their part, preverbal infants appear to be innately ready to prefer and respond to these features. The mother's speech exhibits a systematic use of metrical stresses and other rhythmic features, and phonetic variations and contrasts, to facilitate the mutual regulation of affective and perceptual interaction.

In literary language such rhythmic and phonetic features are considered "aesthetic" and can be analyzed for "poetic diction." I consider how far the mother's speech patterns offer a prototype of such diction, serving to create an aural texture that enables foregrounding of features and coherence at several different levels, and I suggest how the infant's reception might anticipate and prepare for later poetic response. In a wider sense, the significance of babytalk can be seen within an evolutionary perspective that points to the power of the arts to dehabituate and retune cognitive and affective processes.

Hero and Villain as Human Universals

Ian Jobling (Comparative Literature Department, State University of New York)

The account of a universal, biologically rooted human nature given by evolutionary psychologists enables us both to describe the figures of hero and villain in world narrative better than has been done before and also to explain why people universally tell narratives with heroes and villains in them. Evolutionary psychologists argue that human ethics is rooted in a relationship of cooperation or reciprocal altruism in which two or more humans perform actions which are costly to themselves and beneficial to others in the expectation that that benefit will be reciprocated. Human morality and immorality are, in part, defined by this cooperative relationship. One is moral if one participates in cooperative relations with others. One is immoral if one violates the cooperative relationship either by refusing to cooperate with others or by taking something from someone for one's own benefit and not giving anything back, e.g., by stealing something from someone, by taking someone's life, or by cheating someone. Furthermore, Alexander and others have argued that we evolved to overestimate the extent of our altruism and strength: as Robert Trivers says, we overestimate our "beneffectance".

These insights from Darwinian ethics enable us to describe and account for a narrative one finds universally -- my examples are the African Epic of Sundiata, the medieval French Song of Roland, and the North American Native story "Blood-Clot-Boy". In this narrative a villain commits a violation of the cooperative relationship against someone, either by refusing to cooperate with that person or by committing an act of aggression or cheating against him. The villain is then punished by a hero who is supernaturally strong and who represents a moral ideal. We tell this story because it reinforces the illusions about ourselves that evolutionary psychologists have described: the hero presents an ideal image of the self as altruistic and strong with which we identify.

Within a tradition, styles can become extinct because the relationship betweeen novelty and primordial cognition is an inverted-U one. Too much primordial cognition leads to diffuse and holophrastic thought that decreases rather than increases unpredictability. Late English metaphysical poetry is an illustration. Entire traditions can become extinct because all possible styles and words have been used. Who reads modern poetry? Who listens to modern atonal classical music? No one.

Narrative and natural selection: Where stories come from and why

Michelle Scalise Sugiyama (University of Oregon, Eugene)

Storytelling is likely to have emerged at least 30,000 years ago. Yet the study of how and why the mind generates narrative has not been conceptualized in terms of human evolutionary history and the ancestral problem(s) to which storytelling may be a response. Cognitive psychologists have long sought to understand narrative design-i.e., the rules by means of which it is assembled--but the resultant models (known as story grammars) have been developed without consideration of narrative function. At the other end of the spectrum, literary scholars offer numerous hypotheses regarding the function of narrative, but their premises are uninformed by an understanding of cognitive design-i.e., the conditions under which the mind evolved and the tasks it was designed to perform. I propose that narrative functions as a virtual reality: by simulating the environment, it enabled our ancestors to acquire information useful to survival and reproduction without undertaking the costs and risks of first-hand experience. One class of knowledge obviously integral to our Pleistocene ancestors' survival was subsistence information. Interestingly, the oral traditions of modern hunter-gatherers (whose living conditions approximate those of the Pleistocene) contain significant quantities of foraging and related information. In this paper, then, I (1) sketch the conditions under which storytelling evolved; (2) demonstrate how various literary devices (e.g., setting, description, mimicry, anthropomorphism) can be used to transmit subsistence information; and (3) present quantitative evidence from a survey of several hunter-gatherer groups that narrative is commonly used to exchange this information.

The Negotiation of Scenarios in Five Novels of Female Development

Joseph Carroll (Department of English, University of Missouri--St. Louis)

A relatively naive form of sociobiological literary criticism consists in examining fictional texts and pointing out that the characters follow certain basic patterns of behavior in areas such as survival, status seeking, mate selection, reproduction, parent-child interaction, and nepotism. Psychologically more sophisticated interpretive efforts have extended this list to include other topics in mainstream psychology such as the theory of emotions, development, and individual differences in personality. The most advanced form of sociobiological criticism integrates the analysis of represented behavior with the analysis of specifically literary structures such as verse forms, the organization of narrative, tonal organization, the use of symbolic motifs, and the manipulation of point of view. I shall argue that this latter category--point of view--has a special status. Literary representations are communicative acts, and meaning is always meaning for some specific person, from some specific point of view. Drawing on Anatonio Damasio and E. O. Wilson, I shall designate literary representations as "scenarios" or interpretive models of reality, and I shall argue that literary meaning emerges out of the interaction from among three sets of scenarios: the author's own (generally privileged) version of truth and reality; the versions formulated by the characters depicted, and the version implicitly attributed to the putative audience. The author negotiates with the divergent and often conflicting meaning systems of his characters, and he or she negotiates simultaneously with the expectations, values, sympathies, and antipathies of his or her putative readers. To illustrate these claims, I shall be comparing five novels that depict the personal development of young women: Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Bronte's Villette, Cather's O Pioneers!, Bennet's Anna of the Five Towns, and Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles. These novels have been chosen to illustrate specific differences in the authors' relations to their subject.


Document created February 21st 2000 /revised May 24th 2000