Is creativity in our genes? The self-made scholar Ellen Dissanayake thinks so, but it has taken her a lifetime of experience outside the academy to find out why.
Suppose there were a person who saw, before almost anyone else, that the most important concept in modern biology could be applied to the arts. Suppose, however, that this person studied biology only as an undergraduate, never took a class in anthropology, and never received a Ph.D. Suppose, in fact, that she were a homemaker for a dozen years and then spent fifteen years in the Third World, where it was difficult for her to gain access to the research libraries and social networks that most professors take for granted. Nevertheless, over the past two decadeswith no more institutional support than a few years of adjunct teaching, several grants, and a couple of visiting professorshipsshe has managed to publish three books setting forth her ideas. And today a new field of study has sprung up where she pioneered. Suppose, in addition, that some people think a scholarly framework based on her insights will displace much of current aesthetic theorythat future generations will understand literature and the arts as she does, thereby reconciling the humanities to the science of human nature.
From the shape of her career alone, you might think this is the description of an intellectual hero. Or you might be tempted to dismiss her as an amateur. After all, you’ve probably never heard of Ellen Dissanayake.
The best-known scholars of evolution and human behavior, however, speak of Dissanayake with admiration and respect. “She is a true pioneer,” says Harvard University’s Edward O. Wilson, one of the founders of sociobiology, who cited her in his 1998 book, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. MIT’s Steven Pinker, author of How the Mind Works, calls her “ahead of her time.” The University of New Mexico’s Geoffrey Miller, author of The Mating Mind, believes that her books were “the first to take a serious Darwinian look at art and human ornamentation as genuine adaptations”the first since Charles Darwin, at any rate.
“Most people are too chicken to do what she’s doing,” says Leda Cosmides, a psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “Ellen is one of the bravest people I know, because she was willing to go after an interesting question early on, before the more timid would touch it.”
Dissanayake posed that question boldly in her first book: “Since all human societies, past and present, so far as we know, make and respond to art, it must contribute something essential to human life. But what?” A biologist, she proposed, would consider art a set of behaviors rather than a class of objects. Dissanayake was more interested in sculpting than in marble statues and even more intrigued by dynamic arts like singing and dancing. She reasoned that if natural selection had shaped these behaviorsas it had shaped every other functional aspect of human designthen the behaviors must result from predispositions that gave hominids an advantage over their competitors as they evolved. What was that advantage? Dissanayake has looked for it in children’s play, premodern ritual, and mother-infant attachment. There is no consensus among evolutionary psychologists that she has discovered the definitive answer. But there is a widespread belief that she has found the right way to ask the question.
However fierce Dissanayake may be as a thinker, she is gentle in person. “She has a real talent for not getting people mad,” says Michelle Scalise Sugiyama, an assistant professor at the University of Oregon, “for not triggering a hostile reaction to a biological approach to the function of art.” Dissanayake’s voice is mild, as if she were saying good-bye to you before she was quite ready to. Often she gives her declarative sentences the intonation of questions. She is a grandmother, and she offers to share with a reporter the lentil soup she has cooked for lunch.
In the living room of her Seattle apartment, an upright piano has pride of place. (Her office is tucked into a converted closet, where a window originally designed to air clothes gives light.) Every corner of the apartment holds art, ranging from premodern to postmodern. A wood carving of a female fertility figure from a yam ceremony in Papua New Guinea peers over the shoulder of a visitor who sits on the couch. Hanging on a wall is a sculpture given to her by the Alaska-based artist Don Mohr, who constructed it from an old Dictaphone by replacing one side of the exterior with Plexiglas and the innards with a paperback of Dissanayake’s first book. When plugged in, wheels inside whir smoothly.
Ellen Dissanayake, née Franzen, was born in Illinois and raised in Walla Walla, Washington, where her father was an engineer and her mother a homemaker. “We had a neighbor with a piano, and I was one of those little girls who could pick out stuff by ear,” she says. She took lessons, and when she set off for Washington State University in Pullman, she chose to major in music. In collegeand later as wellshe found that her feelings during a concert could be startlingly intense. “I would be listening in an audience, and suddenly I would feel like I had been taken over,” she recalls.
In those days, Washington State required all students to study science. Dissanayake took two courses in biology. “I found I really liked it,” she says. “If I hadn’t taken those classes, I don’t think my life would have been the same.” She graduated in 1957. She had met an aspiring biologist named John F. Eisenberg, and two weeks after her twenty-first birthday they were married. They moved to Berkeley, where Eisenberg began graduate school.
“John and I were both among the top ten students of our graduating class,” Dissanayake explains. “But no one said that I should go to graduate school, and if they had, I probably would have turned it down.” She worked briefly as a secretary and then raised the couple’s two children. She was, she admits, “a 1950s housewife.”
Informally, though, her education continued. Because her husband studied zoology, she was exposed to the principles of natural selection and their influence on animal behavior. “I had this social world of ethology,” Dissanayake says. “We’d sit around and talk with the graduate students and make these links,” sometimes comparing the behavior of animals and humans. She also picked up ideas while typing her husband’s papers and translating articles he wanted to read.
After John earned his doctorate, the Eisenbergs moved to Vancouver. Two years later, when Eisenberg was offered a position at the University of Maryland, they moved to the East Coast. Not long after, the Smithsonian Institution named Eisenberg director of research at the National Zoo. He brought animals home from his new job: At various times, a pangolin, a cavy, hedgehogs, pocket mice, desert rats, and a genet lived in their house. “City boy,” she teases when a reporter asks what a cavy is. “It’s a rodent that looks like a little deer, with these big brown eyes.” She bottle-fed it. “Living with John,” she says, “I really came to realize that humans are animals in a way that I would not have otherwise.”
With her husband’s encouragement, she began work toward a master’s degree in art history at the University of Maryland. Then, in June 1968, the Smithsonian sent Eisenberg to Sri Lanka on a project that included a census of the island’s wild elephants. The family settled for a year in Kandy, one of Sri Lanka’s ancient cities. While John was in the jungle, Ellen homeschooled the children. She also rented a piano. “I hadn’t played for years,” she recalls. “I’d stopped when we left Berkeley.” She began playing music with a group of expatriates and Sri Lankans, and soon she was part of their circle. “This was before television” came to Sri Lanka, she explains. “It was very much a Victorian atmosphere.” The group met once a week to play music together. “These were well-educated, broadly educated people,” she says. Many were doctors. One of them, S.B. Dissanayake, a professor of dentistry with an interest in public health, would become her second husband.
After finishing her master’s degree in Maryland in 1970, Ellen returned to Sri Lanka. She had hoped to bring her children with her, but she was unable toa circumstance she describes as “the one regret in my life, the one blot that will never be washed away.” Trying to explain her decision today, she focuses on what drew her to the country. “I don’t know whether you’ve ever talked to anybody who’s been to countries where they wanted to go native,” she says. “To me it was a kind of awakening to a world of nature and a premodern world.”
In her second husband’s home, which he had designed himself, the windows were always open. In photographs, in fact, they look less like windows than like the strategic omission of walls. Bats flew in and out. When it rained, you could hear the water hitting the giant leaves outside. A Buddhist temple stood nearby. “There was always some tree in bloom,” she recalls, “with fragrance that would waft into the house.” They had to boil the water they drank, they slept under mosquito netting, and they had no running hot water. Yet they had a record player, a subscription to the Times Literary Supplement, and “bookshelves with Proust and stacks of French film magazines.”
Sri Lanka made Shakespeare intelligible to Dissanayake: It was a world with fools and omens. The arts saturated everyday life. People offered flowers at the temple and drew symbols on the floor before bullocks threshed the rice. She observed the rituals closely. The experiences started her on a new train of thought.
But she still had not openly embraced an intellectual career. “It was a hidden life,” she says. In 1974, however, Dissanayake succeeded for the first time in publishing her work. Thanks to a favorable reader’s report from Desmond Morris, author of The Naked Ape, a version of a master’s seminar paper she had written about art and play appeared in a new Paris-based journal called Leonardo. Morris also invited her to contribute to a book he hoped to edit on art and biology.
“I was really, really thrilled, right?” Dissanayake says. “I wrote back to him, and I was very bold.” She told Morris about her new interest in ritual and explained that to educate herself she needed access to a library with a first-class anthropology collection. Without consulting her husband, she offered to work as Morris’s secretary in England in exchange for access to Oxford’s library. Morris put her in touch with the Rutgers University anthropologists Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox, who were then in charge of the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. They awarded her a six-month fellowship.
For Dissanayake, it was a dream come true. “I would go to the Bodleian Library at nine in the morning and come home at five at night,” she recalls. “I’d walk there and back again and just feel joy rising in my throat. I was so happy to be able to do that, and just to do that.” She took masses of color-coded notes. And when she returned to Sri Lanka, she began to write her first book.
“In hindsight, it almost seems as if everything were leading up to writing the books,” Dissanayake says of her life story. Indeed, her theory of the arts draws both on what she learned about natural selection and animal behavior while living with her first husband and on what she learned about ritual, the arts, and premodern cultures while living with her second.
It’s difficult to discuss her first book, What Is Art For? (1988), without reference to her other two, Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why (1992) and Art and Intimacy: How the Arts Began (2000). The three are not so much distinct works as snapshots of a single theory at different stages of development. That theory starts with a striking set of observations.
First, the arts appear to be universal. No one has found a culture that lacks them. Second, they consume a large portion of available resources. Among the Owerri in Nigeria, for example, the artists who build and paint ceremonial mbari houses are exempted for up to two years from the workload normally expected of healthy adults. Third, the arts give pleasure. Our internal motivational systems reward us for making and appreciating the arts the same way they reward us for having sex, spending time with friends, and eating nutritious food: The experiences feel good. And fourth, young children engage in the arts almost spontaneously. With only gentle encouragement, children will sing, move to music, make believe, scribble, and play with words. Together, these four facts suggest to Dissanayake that natural selection long ago rendered the arts a standard component of human behavior.
But is art a well-defined category for biological study? In its freedom from social rules, art resembles play, while in its emphasis on display and embellishment, it resembles ritual. To focus her inquiry, Dissanayake has picked out a common element: During all these activities, humans make something special. That is, they distinguish an object or action from the ordinary. “What’s interesting about humans,” Dissanayake says, “is that they gild the lily. They do more than is necessary.” “Making special,” rather than “art,” is what Dissanayake studies.
What does making special accomplish? Something that has been made special is more likely to attract and engage the attention of others. Dissanayake offers as an example the hand axes fashioned by Homo erectus between 1.6 million and 200,000 years ago. Flat and almond-shaped, with both front-back and left-right symmetry, the axes fit comfortably in the hand and have sharp cutting edges that meet in a point. They were clearly useful, but they cannot have been merely toolsthey are too attractive. Some are made from pieces of flint with embedded fossil shells that figure on the sides of the hand axes as ornaments. Others, under inspection by electron microscope, show no evidence of the wear and tear of use. Even a plain, well-worn hand ax is the result of far more care than would be required to produce a stone capable of cutting, and the pains taken by Homo erectus hundreds of thousands of years ago can stir strong feelings in Homo sapiens today.
At the simplest level, making special might involve choosing a raw material with a bright color or an impressive sheen. But any process that assists in conveying emotion may help to make a thing special. Dissanayake writes about rhythms and modesreferring to the ways a work of art unfolds in time and space and to the variety of textures and sensations it deploys. For example, a singer may establish a relationship with his audience through patterns of anticipation, delay, and satisfaction. It is probably no accident that these patterns are also characteristic of mother-infant bonding and adult lovemaking. Dissanayake speculates that the techniques of making special are part of the standard human equipment for creating and maintaining affectionate relationships. Like mothering and courtship, they are affiliative behaviors.
To see how making special might have aided human survival in the Pleistocene, Dissanayake looks to rituals performed in hunter-gatherer societies that were documented by early-twentieth-century anthropologists. Those rituals were multimedia syntheses of song, dance, and visual ornamentation. These arts, she believes, would have helped to elicit a greater emotional response to whatever ritual they embellished, and the ritual in turn would have reinforced “group one-heartedness (belonging) and like-mindedness (meaning).” As Dissanayake explains in What Is Art For?: “A society that performed communal rites that bound its members in common beliefs and values would presumably have been more cohesive and therefore more equipped for survival than one that did not.” The tribe that prayed together stayed together (and caught more ungulates and had more children).
Each of Dissanayake’s books concludes with an exhortation. In What Is Art For? she argues that the arts should be integrated into modern life, as they are in premodern cultures, not set aside as the fiefdom of specialists self-conscious about their outsider status. In Art and Intimacy, she calls for more art education in schools. And in Homo Aestheticus, she takes aim at the hyperliterate credo of poststructuralism: The arts are a part of our evolved nature, she explains; literacy, a recent invention, isn’t. She diagnoses the Derridean notion that there is nothing outside the text as a delusion typical ofand flattering tosomeone overinvested in the skill of writing. She dismisses as “poppycock” the notion that there cannot be thinking or experience without language. Split-brain studies, she points out, plainly document the contrary; patients with no link between their left and right hemispheres can use drawings to answer questions they cannot respond to with language. Until language stamps it with meaning, Gayatri Spivak once argued, the “shudder in the nerve strings” is “a direct sign of nothing.” Dissanayake retorts: “Nothing? Fire is hot. Hunger is bad. Babies are good.”
S.B. Dissanayake’s work in public health took the couple to Nigeria in 1979 and to Papua New Guinea in 1982. Ellen had not yet found a publisher for her book, and as she revised, observations of premodern rituals in both countries found their way into her manuscript.
Her scholarly luck changed, however, after an essay of hers appeared in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism in 1980. She received a fan letter from David Mandel, a retired labor lawyer in New York with an interest in art and human evolution, who soon became her “fairy godfather”: In 1983 he offered to sponsor a lectureship for her at the New School’s graduate program in liberal studies. For three years, she would receive an annual stipend of ten thousand dollars.
In New York, Dissanayake found that she loved teaching and loved the NYU library, to which New School faculty have access. Unfortunately, Mandel’s support did not continue as planned. Sympathetic administrators offered to fund Dissanayake for a second year, at about half the sum that Mandel had provided. But after that, she would receive only the standard New School rateless than half of that half, and not enough to support life in Manhattan and pay for a round-trip ticket to Sri Lanka. In the spring of 1985, Dissanayake again faced a choice. “I realized that if I went back to Sri Lanka, I wouldn’t be able to do this anymore.”
She stayed. “It was a difficult decision,” she says quietly. She had been “a closet scholar,” as she puts it, for years, but now her livelihood would depend on it. She found an inexpensive Manhattan apartment and took a job at a transcription agency to make ends meet. In October of that year, What Is Art For? was at last accepted for publication, by the University of Washington Press.
Over the next three years, her teaching duties became more burdensome. She sold the rights to her next book, Homo Aestheticus, to the Free Press for five thousand dollars and lived on the advance for six months, but she needed to find a new way to support herself as a scholar. Serendipitously, when What Is Art For? was finally published, in 1988, it was embraced by an audience she had not reckoned on. Art educators, art therapists, and craftspeople welcomed her conclusion that the arts were essential to human nature. In 1991, the National Art Education Association invited Dissanayake to give the keynote speech at its annual convention in Atlanta. She received a standing ovation. Over the next decade, she says, she gave more than a hundred paid lectures.
“I used to long to be at a university,” Dissanayake recalls. “I’d just feel this ache. I would think, This is how women must feel who’d like to have a baby and can’t.” She has come close to returning to academe. She has held visiting professorships at Ball State University (1997) and at the University of Alberta in Edmonton (1998). In 1993, she won a fellowship to study mother-infant bonding with Colwyn Trevarthen at the University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities. It was in Scotland that Dissanayake learned more of the details concerning mother-infant affiliative behavior that distinguish Art and Intimacy from her earlier workand from nearly all other studies of evolution and the arts.
After Scotland, Dissanayake spent three years writing Art and Intimacy at her parents’ house in Port Townsend, Washington, before settling in Seattle. Today, for the first time, she owns her home. “Maybe I’m ready just to play chamber music and read Emerson for the rest of my life,” she suggests. But then she names two more books she wants to writean evolutionary analysis of music and a rebuttal to evolutionary psychologists who in her opinion have underestimated the arts.
Dissanayake is not the first to speculate that the arts are an evolved behavior. In The Descent of Man, Darwin noted that humans share the sense of beauty with other animals. Bowerbirds, for example, ornament “their playing-passages with gaily-coloured objects.” He believed that if apes could give their opinion, they “would probably declare that they could and did admire the beauty of the coloured skin and fur of their partners in marriage.”
But although Darwin wondered about natural selection and the arts more than a century ago, Dissanayake’s most attentive criticsher loyal opposition, as it werebelong to a school of thought so young that it did not exist when she started to write on the topic: evolutionary psychology. The discipline’s manifesto, written by Leda Cosmides and her husband, the UC-Santa Barbara anthropology professor John Tooby, appeared in 1992 as the first chapter of an anthology titled The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture (Oxford). Tooby and Cosmides proposed to examine how natural selection shaped human behavior. In this, their field resembled sociobiology, its controversial predecessor. But evolutionary psychology disavowed any comprehensive explanation of present-day human behavior by emphasizing that natural selection designed humans to succeed on the African savanna of the Pleistocenean environment radically unlike the urban, industrialized, literate world where most of us now live.
Evolutionary psychologists have found evidence that seems to confirm Darwin’s hunch that human aesthetic preferences have been shaped by natural selection. For example, most people find a grassland with scattered trees to be the prettiest kind of landscapeno surprise, since that’s how the African savanna looked during the Pleistocene, and it would make sense if our predilections encouraged us to seek out the terrain we are best equipped to survive in. When eight-year-olds are shown photos of a rain forest, a deciduous forest, a coniferous forest, an East African savanna, and a desert, they overwhelmingly pick the savanna as the place they would most like to live.
For the aesthetics of mate selection, evolutionary psychologists have even sharper theories and even better evidence. A preference for symmetrical features and blemish-free skin, they explain, probably lowers the chance that the future parent of your children will be riddled with parasites and mutations. Men generally prefer women with a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.70 or lower, presumably because the ratio correlates with high fertility. Women seem to prefer men who are six to seven inches taller than they are, most likely because height correlates with power, status, and wealth. (Human penises are larger than those of other primates because human females appear to fancy a few more inches in that department too.) But do a set of evolved preferences amount to the evolution of art? A skeptic might find apropos this line from Glenway Wescott’s novel The Pilgrim Hawk: “No doubt art is too exceptional to be worth talking about; but sex is not.”
No such skepticism afflicts Geoffrey Miller. Like Dissanayake, Miller has a proposal to explain what art is for. In The Mating Mind (Doubleday, 2000), he suggests that the artsand many other aspects of human culturefirst developed as a way of showing off to prospective mates. The more complex and delicate the arts became, the more taxing they were of brainpower and the better they functioned as indicators of an individual’s vigor. In Miller’s view, “the peacock’s tail, the nightingale’s song, the bowerbird’s nest, the butterfly’s wing, the Irish elk’s antlers, the baboon’s rump, and the first three Led Zeppelin albums” are all forms of romantic excess. They advertise good health and good genes (and the prospect of good sex) by throwing effort away as conspicuously as possible.
But most evolutionary psychologists doubt that either Miller or Dissanayake has discovered the adaptive function of the arts, because they doubt that the arts have an adaptive function at all. We have evolved preferences that help us choose mates, real estate, and things to eat. And “we’re good at making things,” explains Steven Pinker. “Put those two facts together, and you’ve got a species that’s smart enough to know how to concoct artificial stimuli to push its own pleasure buttons.” Pinker likens the arts to pornography, strawberry cheesecake, and drug abuse. Drug abuse, for example, is present in almost every culture, consumes gross amounts of an individual’s energy and resources, and is intensely pleasurable. But it is not a behavior that anyone would call adaptive.
Pinker is not persuaded that there is a close enough fit between the behavior Dissanayake describes and the benefit she thinks it offers. Art probably does coordinate an audience’s emotions, he concedes, but to prove that it evolved specifically for that purpose, you would have to show that art was one of the most efficient ways imaginable to achieve it. If you were going to design group cohesion from scratch, he asks, “Is there any compelling reason that you would smear pigment on a cave wall or make rhythmic and tonal noises?”
Pinker believes the arts are a by-product of other adaptations. Cosmides shares many of his reservations, but lately she has begun to reconsider. “Ten or fifteen years ago, I would have said that obviously the arts are a by-product and I haven’t heard any interesting arguments otherwise,” Cosmides says. “I think that’s changed.” What provokes her is something she calls “off-line thinking.”
“When you’re in a movie theater watching Jaws, your emotion system is actually engaged, but your motor system is not,” Cosmides explains. “Nobody has to hold you back from the screen.” That’s odd, given that emotions are what spur us into action, and it suggests that humans are well designed for appreciating fictional narratives. Furthermore, we have a strong appetite for off-line experiences: We watch sitcoms and dramas more often than news programs and documentaries. And that’s odd, because those shows contain very little accurate information about the world. What might the evolutionary advantage of fiction be? Cosmides doesn’t rule out Dissanayake’s proposal, but she offers a few of her own.
In a recent article in the journal SubStance, Cosmides and Tooby have suggested that telling and enjoying stories might be the ways that human brains build the mental components responsible for managing social behavior. Most such assembly processes finish their task and then disappear (babbling, for example, subsides after infants learn to speak), but it may be that social behavior is so complex and vital that humans never stop tinkering with this particular weapon in their psychic armamentarium. “It might be that a cheap way of learning about the social world is to run simulations,” says Cosmides. “So if you’re reading Lord Jim, you’re learning about what happens in a social community when somebody does what’s considered to be an act of cowardice.”
To describe the brain’s architecture, evolutionary psychologists like Miller, Pinker, and Cosmides borrow heavily from the vocabulary of cognitive psychology, which can have the disembodied tone of computer programming. While Dissanayake is wondering how art would make a group of hunter-gatherers feel, her critics sometimes seem to be daydreaming about how to program social robots. Naturally enough, her replies to their objections call on the emotions and lived experience.
Although she agrees in part with Miller’s thesis that the arts serve the purposes of sexual display and competition, she says, “I think that the arts observably do more than that.” In her opinion, Miller’s thesis doesn’t account for all the feelings and social effects caused by art. Nor, she feels, is sexual display always relevant to artistic effort. She points out that in many traditional cultures, innovation and competition are not at issue. “Australian Aborigines had to make their sand paintings and designs exactly the same as they had been painted before,” she explains. “No one was going to be better at painting all those dots along the path to the water hole.”
What about Pinker’s doubt that visual stimulus and rhythmic interaction are efficient ways of engineering group cohesion? “Well, it works between mothers and babies,” Dissanayake says. Mothers and infants establish and maintain their bond by mimicking each other’s facial expressions and exchanging singsong speech. Between them, timing and intensity are delicate matters, as is clear from a charming experiment by Daniel Stern that Dissanayake describes in Homo Aestheticus. Normally, if a mother jiggles her baby’s bottom, he will continue to play as if nothing has happened. But Stern found that if he asked a mother to mistime her jiggle, even slightly, so as not to match her estimate of the child’s excitement level, the baby would stop playing and give her a questioning look. However unwieldy and complex they may seem, Dissanayake’s “rhythms and modes” may be the standard way that humans build and maintain a sympathetic connection. “That’s the feeling of connectedness you have with anybody when your rhythms are in sync,” she says. “It occurs in lovemaking. It occurs in good conversation when people are on the same wavelength. And other animals don’t do it.”
As for Cosmides’s hypothesis that fiction is social learning by means of simulation, Dissanayake is not convinced that the gain in strategic knowledge would justify the trouble and expense of making art. Nor does the hypothesis explain what would motivate an artist to share his work, nor how aesthetic elements command an audience’s interest. Dissanayake gives an example: If Tolstoy’s short story “The Kreutzer Sonata” were condensed into a police-blotter report, all the social facts would appear in the summary: A jealous husband murders his wife because he hears her love for another man expressed in her piano playing. But even when readers know how it ends, they insist on enjoying the story itself. “Why do you not get the same thing from just that plot that you get from the fiction?” she asks. Perhaps because the story becomes art only after Tolstoy has made it special.
Whatever their differences, Dissanayake and evolutionary psychologists agree with Darwin that the arts are rooted in a common human nature inflected by age and gender and that the variations among the human races are trivial. “My intimate life with Sri Lankans,” Dissanayake writes in Art and Intimacy, “made me the opposite of a fanatical cultural relativist: I have in fact become more impressed with the deeper human similarities that underlie cultural difference.”
In humanities departments of late, faith in a universal human nature has been fairly beleaguered. But evolutionary psychologists believe in it with a vengeance. They assert that culture has organization, structure, and content only because individual human brains do. And they have started to make converts.
After the Temple University English professor Robert Storey realized to his chagrin that he “could apply psychoanalytic theory any way I chose,” he found himself attracted to “the empirical steadiness” of evolutionary psychology. His Mimesis and the Human Animal: On the Biogenetic Foundations of Literary Representation (Northwestern, 1996) speculates about the emotional “biogrammars” that inform the genres of comedy and tragedy. The University of Oregon’s Michelle Scalise Sugiyama says she turned to evolutionary psychology “due to my failure to be convinced by postmodernist theory.” Her dissertation for the UC-Santa Barbara English department analyzed in Darwinian terms the choices faced by women in Ernest Hemingway’s fiction. (Mate choice, sexual fidelity, and hunting prowess are, after all, more than a little relevant to “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”) Ian Jobling, a graduate student in comparative literature at SUNY Buffalo, has written about the way Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe satisfies the naturally selected but currently maladaptive desire for murderous revenge. His Ivanhoe essay appeared in the spring 2001 issue of Interdisciplinary Literary Studies, which was devoted to literary biopoetics. The issue was edited by the Texas A&M Russian professor Brett Cooke, who is also responsible, with UT-Dallas’s Frederick Turner, for the anthology Biopoetics: Evolutionary Explorations in the Arts (Paragon House, 1999).
Biopoetics, also known as Darwinian literary criticism, seems to have as many versions as practitioners. But its chief theorist may be the English professor Joseph Carroll of the University of Missouri at St. Louis. Carroll conceives of literature as “a form of knowledge” or “cognitive mapping.” Aesthetic concerns, he admits, are not his primary interest. “I occasionally remind myself to go pay a little attention to the stylistic and formal aspects of literary art,” he jokes, “but it always takes a little bit of an effort.” What drew him to biopoetics was the prospect of a model of human nature grounded in empirical science that he could set against poststructuralism. In his 518-page Evolution and Literary Criticism (Missouri, 1995), Carroll argued with encyclopedic thoroughness that by the lights of evolutionary psychology, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida do not offer intellectual frameworks for literary criticism as instructive as those of M.H. Abrams, who spread his critical attention across the artwork, the artist, the audience, and nature, or Hippolyte Taine, who followed Darwin in understanding culture as a product of biology. “Why do you study the shell, except to represent to yourself the animal?” Taine wrote. “So do you study the document only in order to know the man.”
If Carroll is pope, then in the University of New Orleans’s Nancy Easterlin, bio-poetics may already have a doubting Thomas. “I wouldn’t say that’s a wrong characterization,” Easterlin says cautiously. Easterlin is associate editor of Philosophy & Literature, which is planning to mark its twenty-fifth anniversary with an issue dedicated to evolutionary and cognitive psychology. “Do cognitive predispositions predict or determine literary values?” she asked in an essay in the Biopoetics anthology. Her answer: “a qualified ‘no.'” The human appetite for plot appears to be a result of natural selection. But whether a work of literature satisfies or frustrates that appetite is no indication of its quality, Easterlin suggested. In the recent special issue of Interdisciplinary Literary Studies, she expressed her doubts even more forcibly: “We need to step back and consider for a moment whether science has any actual value for literary studies.” Biology may be able to enhance speculation about literature, she argued, but will never replace it. Criticism willand shouldremain subjective. After all, she clarifies by telephone, for the most part “we still teach appreciation.”
Dissanayake shares some of Easterlin’s skepticism about Darwinian criticism of the arts. “Is there more to it than just identifying evolutionarily relevant themes?” she asks. “I don’t know.” But she does believe that biopoetics might help critics to avoid dead ends like post-structuralism. “I think you will save yourself a lot of bullshit and hot air if you can always bring it back to what literature has been for and that it comes out of our nature.”
Though Dissanayake the evolutionary theorist avoids making value judgments about works of art, personally she does believe that some experiences of art are richer than others. “In any tradition, there’s a kind of fullness and resonance in a great work of art,” she explains. “What the Darwinians are talking about, preferences, are the lowest level. It merely gets your attention.” A ripe fruit may spark a viewer’s appetite, but to turn an image of fruit into art, “something more has to be done with it.”
When Dissanayake accompanies a reporter to Seattle’s Frye Art Museum, she stops in front of a nineteenth-century oil painting by Adolf Schreyer of horses trying to escape from a burning stable. The melodramatic subject matter, with its direct solicitation of the viewer’s emotions, doesn’t much appeal to her. Dissanayake spends most of the visit admiring a group of egg-tempera scenes of Brooklyn painted by the contemporary artist Doug Safranek. As a medium, egg tempera demands patience, Dissanayake explains. To achieve its delicate colors, a painter has to apply coat after coat. And Safranek’s fastidious draftsmanship has made his task no easier; he renders even the refuse in vacant lots in exacting detail, and he likes to set himself challenges like slush on pavement at twilight and laundry hung out to dry as seen from a bird’s-eye view. It’s this evidence of Safranek’s care that Dissanayake seems to like and the way he has arranged his rooftop perspectives and sharply slanting clotheslines to draw the viewer in, so that you have the dizzy sense that you are about to fall into another, more carefully observed world.