Thursday, May 12, 2016

Dear Friends:

I am pleased to announce the publication of Evolution and Human Culture: Texts and Contexts, my fourth monograph and sixth scholarly book. Evolution and Human Culture represents three years of sustained work, and I am grateful to St. Francis College for a Spring 2015 sabbatical which enabled me to navigate significant progress toward completion of the text. I'd also wish to thank my editors, Francesc Forn i Argimon and Eric van Broekhuizen for their generous support. The book is published by Brill, a European publisher with a distinguished history that extends back three hundred years. More importantly, the book is now part of the prestigious Value Inquiry Book Series/Cognitive Science, edited by Prof. Argimon. 

You can find the Preface, Table of Contents, and chapter subheadings, as well as a link to the Brill site, here:  https://sites.google.com/site/gftague/ Please ask you library to order a copy of this important book and, if applicable, consider it as a course text or recommendation.

Evolution and Human Culture will be valuable to students and scholars of the arts, humanities, and cultural studies, as well as moral philosophers, who would be interested in reading about key intellectual developments in their fields. Biologists and social scientists would benefit too, since the book provides a window into how scientific research contributes to understanding the arts and humanities. The book offers a comprehensive entry into evolutionary cultural studies. The take-home point is that culture does not transcend nature; culture is human nature with moral sensations at bottom.

Subject headings applicable to the book, according to the publisher, include: 1. Philosophy;Ethics and Moral Philosophy; 2. Biology;Zoology; 3. Art History;Archaeology; 4. Philosophy;Philosophy of Mind; 5. Social Science;Sociology and Anthropology.

As an early, anonymous reader points out, my book argues for the interaction of biological and cultural levels relying on an impressive amount of data from the natural and social sciences that show how certain culturally-related behaviors contribute to the selection of certain biological traits and vice versa; this thesis is supported by reference to abundant comparative studies with several species of nonhuman primates relatively close to our own.

The book is the second half of my definitive work begun over a decade ago. The first half of the project was published as Making Mind: Moral Sense and Consciousness in Philosophy, Science, and Literature (Rodopi 2014). Where Making Mind mostly examines the prehistory of narration in consciousness and feelings of approval/disapproval, Evolution and Human Culture more broadly looks at moral emotions and cognition underlying the arts. For a concise version of my endeavor of examining the arts and humanities in light of evolution, readers are directed to my more accessible and far less expensive book, Art and Adaptation: A Primer from Notes (Bibliotekos 2015). [Disclosure: Bibliotekos is my wife's imprint.]

*Testimonials and Reviews for Evolution and Human Culture*

“Professor Tague has mapped out the paths taken by anthropologists, primatologists, evolutionary psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers who have traveled where human culture and human biology intersect. Different disciplines have discovered different areas of this biocultural landscape and have returned with different ideas; Evolution and Human Culture provides an impressively-complete account of these diverse explorations. An intrepid explorer himself, Professor Tague provides his own take on the importance of culture to human evolution – that culture emerged as a means of creating and maintaining the norms that enable us to be so highly cooperative – but only after laying out the full spectrum of perspectives so clearly that he enables his reader to entertain interpretations differing from his own.” -Christopher X J. Jensen, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolution, Pratt Institute.

Evolution and Human Culture is a milestone piece bringing together philosophy, the sciences and the arts in an original and stimulating read. Culture, art, morality and evolution – a striking unification that is unique to this work.” -Kathryn Francis, Fellow, CogNovo Institute, Plymouth University.

Evolution and Human Culture provides a very well written account of evolutionary theory across the spectrum of relevant disciplines...addressing...the most challenging questions that face humankind.” -Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe, Ph.D., Professor, University of Lincoln.


Saturday, April 23, 2016

Conference of Interest

Morality, Moral Philosophy, and the Humanities in the Age of Neuroscience - Kent State University, 17-20 November 2016. 

Kent State University Neuro-Humanities.   

Call here.  

Saturday, February 27, 2016

We are pleased to announce the publication of Volume 12.1, February 2016, of the ASEBL JournalThis issue includes two provocative papers along with reaction from the scholarly community. The process of assembling and editing began in May 2015. Join with me in celebrating the accomplishments of our authors, anonymous readers, and other contributors. 

You can read the issue HERE.

In addition to two hefty co-authored research papers by prominent researchers, there are a number of comments by a range of distinguished academics. Lead paper authors also respond to comments. The issue concludes with a spirited look at a controversial book by an important Indian author. 

Here's a condensed version of the table of contents of the issue.

† Lesley Newson and Peter Richerson“Moral Beliefs about Homosexuality: Testing a Cultural Evolutionary Hypothesis.” -- With Comments and a Reply.

† Craig T. Palmer and Amber L. Palmer“Why Traditional Ethical Codes Prescribing Self-Sacrifice Are a Puzzle to Evolutionary Theory: The Example of Besa.” -- With Comments and a Reply.

† Aiman Reyaz and Priyanka Tripathi“Fight with/for the Right: An Analysis of Power-politics in Arundhati Roy’s Walking with the Comrades.”

-Gregory F. Tague, editor

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Art and Aesthetics

Tone Roald. The Subject of Aesthetics: A Psychology of Art and Experience. Leiden: Brill, 2015. Paper. 174 pages. $57US. ISBN: 978-9004308718.

Alva Noë. Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature. NY: Hill and Wang, 2015. Hardcover. 287 pages. $28US. ISBN: 978-0809089178.

These two books examine the question of artistic behavior and especially the nature of our human experience of art. Drawing from Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method, Tone Roald proposes that knowledge of and understanding in art culture is part of a historical tradition separate from truth claims made in the natural sciences. Alva Noë takes a similar stance, arguing that while evolutionary studies and neuroscience are part of the conversation about art culture, personal experience and context weigh more in appreciating and understanding the nature of art. While Roald is interested in the psychological dimensions of a persistent art experience, Noë is clear that any aesthetic experience cannot be limited to brain activity. When we talk about artwork, as far as both authors are concerned, we need to accommodate the wider realm of the thinking viewer’s engagement with art as it occurs in a world of other people. However, whereas Roald treats the aesthetic experience on a personal level, Noë finds the experience of art engaging a range of personal and cultural ideas.

Relying on Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, Roald asserts that empirical descriptions of art experience are more valuable than classifications or abstractions from philosophers. Indeed, a large part of her book reports on and discusses interviews Roald conducted with a number of people and their encounters with paintings and sculpture over the course of time. In 1986 Arthur Danto famously said that we have reached the end of art since it does not make anything happen. If that were so, why would we still create and participate in art? Roald steers away from a philosophical exercise of abstracting art and instead offers a project where art gives meaning in life.

Well versed in the history of aesthetics and the philosophy of art (from Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten to Martin Seel), Roald looks at the psychology of one’s encounter with art and tries to find what the aesthetic signifies. The title of her book is deliberately misleading – the subject of aesthetics is not necessarily in the artwork, certainly not in some philosophical idea, but is the viewer herself. Indeed, moving away from the “transcendental ego” of Edmund Husserl, Roald following Merleau-Ponty will emphasize “phenomenological descriptions of the personal in encounters with art, and not social, economic, or historical explanations” (22). This approach pretty much goes against Immanuel Kant and his transcendental, metaphysical aesthetics, his notion of disinterested, cognitive contemplation. Over the rational philosopher who does not allow for ambiguity, a phenomenologist like Merleau-Ponty puts the perceiving subject of artwork in the world, since the sediments of experience in one’s body are crucial in any meeting with art.

While at times dense, the early chapters in Roald’s book offer a comprehensive history of aesthetics, phenomenology of art, and psychological aesthetics. Here, Roald is capable of interpreting and explaining some complex ideas from John Dewey, Lev Vygotsky, V.S. Ramachandran and William Hirstein, Semir Zeki, Kurt Koffka, Sigmund Freud, Georg W.F. Hegel, and Martin Heidegger (as well as those previously mentioned). Roald suggests that on the subject of aesthetics, philosophy is inadequate in comparison with psychology. This attitude does not exactly coincide with Alva Noë’s. For Roald, in line with Gadamer, the arts and humanities are not precisely scientifically legitimate but as an alternative investigate human questions in cultural contexts. This thinking is what led Roald to conduct twenty-five interviews to gather and explain data on different people’s art experiences in chapter four, “Stories of Art.”

These fascinating stories of how works of art can penetrate someone’s life are central to Roald’s book, since she seeks to “give form and meaning to aesthetic experience” (99), and especially how one’s experience with art can develop over an extended period of time – in sharp contrast to Kant who finds the aesthetic experience in one’s first encounter. Roald develops this chapter from the thinking of Hans Robert Jauss. First, there is an initial aesthetic reading; second there in a retrospective interpretation; third, there is a historical reading. Rather than the work of art as being the constant, “it is the most significant experience that is investigated...” (100), especially the moment when there is subject-object ambiguity. I found this chapter compelling, easy to read, and helpful in my own understanding about art and aesthetics.

In the end, Roald talks about art as what she terms intrapellation: “The participants...incorporate the work of art into their subjectivity, wherein the aesthetic experience becomes a background tone or color...” (131). Of course much of this might depend on the person, and the person’s proclivities to view certain art; that which resonates with an individual might be something she was drawn to (even unconsciously) in the first place. In this way, intrapellation or cognitive perception of the subject is “a projection of feelings and imaginings onto the work of art...” – while art is outside one’s body it somehow supports and yet challenges what’s inside one’s psyche.
Alva Noë’s wide-ranging analysis of engagement with art is not distant from Tone Roald’s. He too (at time drawing from Dewey or Merleau-Ponty) emphasizes the individual in the world. The aesthetic experience is not brain activity per se; rather, the aesthetic experience depends upon the whole person’s biography, social history, intelligence, and environment. But over Roald, Noë perceptively makes a connection between art and philosophy – how both are a means for us to question who we are and what we do. That is why art is, as Noë proclaims, a strange tool, for it forces us to ask how we are organized and then pushes us to consider how to reorganize our literal and figurative vision. The implication is that the manner in which we see impacts on our ability to function in the world. Noë can rightfully say that art is like philosophy since the two practices bring shape and organization to what is not in clear view.

What is refreshing about this book is how Noë brings art back to the humanities and away from its current preoccupation with scientists, notably neuroscientists. While an fMRI can indeed measure hot areas in the brain, there is no telling what the outcome will be. Like Roald, Noë suggests that art is or can be an extension of one’s mind – awareness and behavior cannot be fully accounted for by a machine. Not to be reductive, but art can function like an implement to help achieve what we might be thinking. In some respects thought is not just in our heads but also in objects. Or, more precisely, art displaces what we assume we know and therefore makes us reconceive people, places, and events. While his focus is on the visual, Noë also ably covers writing (with a perceptive reading of a poem by Walt Whitman) and music. Writing, too, is a tool: it is not merely to register items and happenings but a means for us to contemplate, to pose questions, and to engage with problems.

In chatty and colloquial prose that tends to wander, the book at times wavers from its focus. For instance, Noë is dubious of any evolutionary explanation of art and very critical of neuroscientific explanations of the aesthetic experience. While he makes a nod to biology and anthropology and acknowledges the naturalness of art, he says we are predominantly cultural. The question, though, is where in his discussion does he address the evolutionary biology of culture? He admits that culture is not simply dropped upon us. Surely – we evolved culture. If one is going to bring up evolutionary or neuro-biological areas (Roald does not), one should treat them rather fully. For example, I do not see any timeline or chronology here, much less any discussion of prehistoric artifacts. So one can dismiss evolutionary perspectives, but what precisely is being dismissed? While there is passing mention of cave art (earlier in the book), I see nothing specific about the dating differences between Lascaux and Chauvet (work by Genevieve von Petzinger), and there is no mention of rock art. Needless to say, there is no talk of the many authors who have worked in these areas – Steven Mithen, Sally McBrearty and Alison Brooks, April Nowell, to name only a few who have actually discovered and discuss prehistoric artifacts related to the evolution of art.

Evolutionary approaches must deal not just with the past, but with prehistory – going all the way back – and must make mention of studies in comparative primatology and Hunter-Gatherer societies. I don’t see that here. At this point in our history some aspects of art behavior are purely cultural – what to make as “art” and where to include (view) it. But underlying any cultural capacities are fitness-enhancing mechanisms for the individual to survive in a group. These are aspects of what Ellen Dissanayake recently calls artification, e.g., objects as part of social rituals. In any case, Dissanayake’s adaptive notions of artification as well as her earlier view of making special are much less prevalent today since, in our societies for many hundreds of years, survival as our prehistoric ancestors grappled with it is not as difficult. There is some discussion of Dissanayake, who gets treated badly in my opinion (and where Noë relies only on her earlier idea of making special). No one theory of evolutionary adaptations will make full account of art behavior, and even Darwin knew that. The evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, who banks everything on sexual selection is also considered (where is Denis Dutton in Noë’s discussion?), and he has been criticized for leaving out chronology and reference to artifacts. Indeed, a more thorough response to Miller has been offered by Kathryn Coe’s The Ancestress Hypothesis, not referenced.

I find it telling that Noë pretty much relies on Stephen Davies (a philosopher) who does not ascribe to art as truly adaptive and who is reluctant to buy into aesthetic sensibilities as continuous in human beings and other species (and therefore light on sexual selection). However, he does argue with Davies who talks about perceptual seeing in animals; Noë says that there is too wide a gulf between mere perception and aesthetic seeing. But there is no charting here as to how we arrived at aesthetic seeing: it had to evolve from something somewhere, as even Darwin knew. The neural leap hypothesis has been questioned, so that’s not the answer. Aesthetic seeing could not have been inborn in humanity – that’s creationist. Noë says: “it is highly unlikely that aesthetic seeing would confer enhanced fitness on those capable of exercising it” (55). A cultural anthropologist might disagree, citing the social benefits and prestige one could gain in a group.

This account does not consider the prehistory of what we now call art. As in his chapter on writing, Noë might be focusing too much on what is high art and not on the prehistoric material culture that gave rise to what we not call art. I’d not even raise this point were it not for a chapter that has the word evolution in it and a book that has as part of its subtitle human nature. Noë says art (on the same page he references paintings) is “revelation, transformation, reorganization...” (64). Few would argue with this assertion, but from an evolutionary standpoint – variation, competition, and inheritance – it took a long time in human history to arrive at paintings.

Noë spends lots of time on Western art of the past five hundred years or so. Where is the discussion of ochre (used at least 300,000 years ago) and body painting, bead making and sharing (even among Neanderthals), or even stone tools (which get scant treatment) from over one million years ago? Although we are, in the words of Terrence Deacon, a symbolic species, artistic traits didn’t just suddenly appear. One could say that art behaviors are a byproduct of cognition (as Davies and others, like Pinker, suggest). Okay, but does that then mean that all aspects of, say, intelligence are byproducts? We did not just evolve one capacity called Intelligence but many traits we lump under intelligence, including reason, comprehension, understanding, and judgment. This is where evolutionary psychologists such as Leda Cosmides and John Tooby have been instructive. It’s not fitness that survives: adaptive traits and characteristics that contribute to survival and reproduction, no matter how small but which get passed on, survive. At any rate, I am happy to see that Noë does consider and discuss the work of Richard Prum and how the taste for color and sound can evolve with the evolution of the colors and sounds themselves.

Nevertheless, don’t misread what I say. Chapter five on art and evolution is useful in that it helps evolutionists think harder about adaptive claims in relation to the arts. I think there’s room at the table for all of these disciplines (from philosophy to neuroscience) to contribute to our understanding of the arts and humanities. While Noë is correct, now, to say that art is not just about arousing feelings, that might not have been true early on when it was not yet art and it might have been a signal (affection), then a sign (family), then a symbol (group). Prum is not the only biologist to discuss gene/culture co-evolution in this regard. As one instance, I see no mention of the work by the team of Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd.

Noë’s book is immensely valuable, has had a tremendous impact on me, and has actually brought me back to some of my philosophical roots. I just think that if you are going to raise an objection, you should cover it more thoroughly. Noë does, however, cover neuroscience and art more completely, though here too he is a bit hard on pioneers in the area, like Semir Zeki. While one might disagree with his quibbles about art and evolution (with such thin coverage), it’s hard to disagree with what he concludes about art and neuroscience. For example, what Noë says about context is vital: we need art history to understand art; the arts have meaning and significance only in a cultural perspective. Importantly, Noë admits that culture can change the genome and that culture might have organized parts of the brain (60). Culture and biology are connected. Of course there is a whole theory about the evolution of culture, especially in its so-called particulate elements, but I see no mention of that, either (authors such as social psychologist Roy Baumeister, evolutionary psychologist Alex Mesoudi, and biologist Mark Pagel).

So where does this leave us. Noë is not a reductive materialist. Like David Chalmers he believes that science will not and cannot answer everything. Science has its limits (though most scientists I know might agree with this evaluation). Art cannot be reduced to natural sensibilities, since what we label as aesthetic sense covers a wide spectrum. As Noë says: “Art investigates the aesthetic” (71), which in turn makes art philosophical. At this point, Noë begins a launch against neuroscientific approaches to understanding art, and this part of the discussion helps illuminate much of what has come before. Visual perception (even consciousness) is not, according to Noë, reducible to brain activity. Nonetheless, even cognitive mechanisms are most likely adaptive, and I don’t see any recognition of that here. At any rate, Noë is on point to assert that an aesthetic experience occurs not just in our brain but outside of it – in a social environment. You can see why I now include Tone Roald and Alva Noë together – there is some curious overlap. As Noë so nicely puts it, recalling Ludwig Wittgenstein’s dictum that we are not minds trapped in bodies, art offers the “opportunity to catch ourselves in the act of encountering the world...” (80).

Many neuroscientists, according to Noë, claim that the brain in us is what thinks. (An obvious exception would include Francisco Varela.) But the value of Noë’s book is in reminding us that while the brain indeed performs work, it is the whole person, her history and circumstances, who thinks and feels in relation to artworks. Art does not simply exist to elicit a response; art arouses in us complex thought processes and the ability for us to put our consciousness in the artwork and outside of it. Importantly, though, Noë remarks that our visual perception of the world and art involves the effort of our intelligence in a historically cultural context. Rather than treating the perception of art as a bodily function, we need to consider an aesthetic experience as a means to study the people, places, and events of the world. Perhaps summing up Noë’s thinking is John Dewey, who says “Artists don’t make things. They make experiences” (205).

The value in these books by Tone Roald and Alva Noë is great. While it might sound cliché, I found Roald’s book interesting and Noë’s book challenging. Roald proposes a new method of evaluating art experience by employing the reception theory of Jauss; Noë unnerves us to reconsider how art is a resource for new ways of thinking about and organizing our lives. Even if you know quite a bit about art behavior and aesthetics, these authors will ask for a reconsideration of the priority of your ideas. That is, both authors emphasize less the work of art and emphasize more the outcome of viewing art, the broader parameters of the art experience. The subject of the aesthetic experience (or of art itself) is not narrowly defined by historical subjects; the aesthetic experience is akin to the practice of philosophy and its method of trying to know, of questioning knowledge itself.


 - Gregory F. Tague, Ph.D. Editor ASEBL and author of Art and Adaptation.

Copyright©2016 Gregory F. Tague – All Rights Reserved

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Dangerous Liaisons - Review

Dangerous Persuasions

I’m not sure a correspondence with you is something a woman of honour could permit herself.  —Madame de Tourvel, to Vicomte de Valmont

Formidable! Is “Dangerous Liaisons” (1988) the best costume drama ever? Yes or no, it presents an amazing fictional demonstration—almost a primer or casebook study—of what cognitive scientists and primatologists call “Machiavellian Intelligence.” In brief, that is the idea that success for smart social animals such as rhesus macaque monkeys or Homo sapiens depends on sophisticated abilities to make long-term plans, to surmise the motives of others, and hence to favorably influence the behavior of both friends and foes.[1] It is closely related to “Theory of Mind,” an understanding of the internal drives, fears, and desires of one’s conspecifics. DL features most of the clashing elements that make communal life inherently a soap opera. What causes it to stand out are the meticulous care its creators put into making the main characters brilliant and then setting them in conflict, the luxurious wardrobes and locations, and finally the performances of the actors, with John Malkovich as le Vicomte de Valmont stealing the show.[2]

DL is based on the epistolary novel Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782) by Choderlos de Laclos.[3] It takes place in France during the last years of King Louis XVI’s reign, just before the French Revolution (begun in 1789). The screenplay by Christopher Hampton, which won an Academy Award, derives from his contemporary dramatic version. It was directed by the talented Stephen Frears, and it was filmed in and around magnificent French estates, such as the Château Maisons-Lafitte. James Acheson served as Costume Designer, and his haute couture deserves a shout-out. The dressing of the two principals Valmont and la Marquise de Merteuil at the beginning, shown via cross-cutting as they’re enveloped in their accouterments and finery by squadrons of attendants, intentionally parallels soldiers arming for battle:
A bizarre paper cone with gauze-covered eyeholes conceals Valmont’s face as the perruquier blows powder at his wig. As the powder drifts away, Valmont slowly lowers the cone and we see for the first time his intelligent and malicious features. Another angle shows the complete magnificent ensemble; or not quite complete, for Azolan now reaches his arms round Valmont’s waist to strap on his sword. (2s.d.)

Valmont is a suave, cunning rake: “he is conspicuously charming, [and] never opens his mouth without first calculating what damage he can do” (4). There’s something feline about the way he moves, which is quite ‘intriguing’ and as interesting as his affected, outwardly nonchalant line readings. The three leading ladies (with the actresses’ ages at the time of the film’s release in parentheses) are Glenn Close as la Marquise de Merteuil (41), Michelle Pfeiffer as Madame de Tourvel (30), and Uma Thurman as Cécile de Volanges (18; her character “is a demure fifteen-year-old blonde”). Besides being skilled thespians and very beautiful, another factor in their casting must have been that they all have ivory skin, pale blue eyes, and golden locks. And though each has at least one passionate meltdown moment, there’s an ‘ice queen’ quality they all share.

DL’s idle, refined, ultra-privileged characters spend their considerable time, energy, brainpower, and other resources plotting amongst themselves. Some of their favorite pastimes include, of course, arranging, setting up, and foiling intrigues, seductions, and other assorted erotic liaisons. In conjunction with these (dis)honorable pursuits, they engage wholeheartedly in manipulation, blackmail, and revenge; they write, receive, and intercept billets-doux; and they spread rumors and guard their reputations. In Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, primatologist Robin Dunbar contends that gossip is fundamental to the genesis of human speech and moreover integral to society.[4] Anyone who remembers the savage jungle of high school will recall that it functions as a two-edged sword. On one side, it enforces collective judgment and acts as a conservative impediment to misbehavior. Ignoring propriety gets one talked about; thus, fear of infamy compels individuals to maintain the public norms of their peer group. But conversely it can operate as a Machiavellian tool useful for character assassination, subtle self-promotion, and the accrual of social capital. In general, and not unlike chimpanzees, the protagonists are engaged in an all-out fight for power and sexual access—the ability to control weaker parties and to get away with whatever they want. Yet all of the dramatis personae retain their subtlety and humanity, something rare among even quality Merchant-Ivory productions or the sharpest, glossiest American teen shows.[5] They’re “round,” not just cleverly deployed chess pieces, and each has gaps in their understanding of social codes and others’ motives, as well as limits to their own self-awareness.[6]

The gist of the story revolves around the seigneurial Valmont’s relationships with de Tourvel and Cécile; these affairs are of the utmost concern to la Marquise, and they strongly affect her attitude, feelings, and conduct towards him. The braininess, particularly of la Marquise de Merteuil and Valmont (who are ex-lovers and allies or antagonists depending on the circumstances of the moment), shine through during their repartee, which is razor-sharp (an overdetermined ironic adjective here, given how war-like be the battle of the sexes, and the duel that climaxes the action) as well as through their ability to delay gratification in pursuit of victory. La Marquise reveals how she managed to invent herself in a de facto policy speech to Valmont:
I had no choice, did I? I’m a woman. Women are obliged to be far more skillful than men. You can ruin our reputation and our life with a few well-chosen words. So of course I had to invent: not only myself but ways of escape no one has ever thought of. And I’ve succeeded, because I’ve always known I was born to dominate your sex and avenge my own. … In the end, I distilled everything [I learned] down to one wonderfully simple principle: win or die. … When I want a man, I have him; when he wants to tell, he finds he can’t. That’s the whole story. (25-26)

It seems she has indeed distilled the wisdom of Machiavelli, Ovid, Freud, and all the other grandmasters of human foibles.

There is nothing new under the sun, and DL has its roots in other writings produced in the salons of Paris by las précieuses, and the coffeehouses of London by gallant wits, during (roughly) the Long Eighteenth Century. Two of its closer theatrical cousins, William Congreve’s scintillating Restoration play The Way of the World (1700), and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1895-99) both, I think, have dialogue a bit more sparkly, but they are romantic comedies.[7] The perfect catfight scene between Gwendolen Fairfax and Cecily Cardew in Wilde is so great because it is so deadpan hilarious, and likewise the pointed clever stichomythia in both is, ostentatiously, a labor of the playwright’s sprezzatura and artifice. In contrast, the tragic (or at least deadly) dénouement and nasty, cutting overall tone of DL seems to render it more “real”—though obviously very few people have actually lived like decadent French aristos during the Ancien Régime.

To return to themes of a cognitive nature, the understanding of “headology” is simply extraordinary, extending to internal ambivalence (“the battle between Love and Virtue,” to quote just one of the script’s Ovidian tropes), jealousy, meanness, and painful lessons. The phrase “It was beyond my control,” to take a key example, which could be trite, here contains a whole world of connaissances (knowledges), probably enough to merit its own essai in ultra-close reading. The depiction of oh so polite, oh so nasty competitiveness, particularly the female rivalry, is, again, pitch-black-perfect. For example, the piqued Merteuil has this to say about de Tourvel: “I see she writes as badly as she dresses” (63). The leads’ “Theory of Mind” is hyper-sensitive, but no one is omniscient nor omnipotent; even the central pair make mistakes, errors in judgment, and have plans go awry. To take one signal case, Valmont inadvertently falls in love with Madame de Tourvel, precipitating unhappy outcomes for several parties.

In an earlier brief, emblematic episode, Valmont knows that he is being spied on because he’s directed his servant Azolan to conduct an affair with Madame de Tourvel’s chambermaid Julie. Thus alerted, he allows himself to be surreptitiously observed extending much-needed financial assistance to a decent but down-on-his-luck peasant near his aunt’s estate who’s in arrears over taxes.[8] He does this as part of his plot to seduce de Tourvel, who is known for (and who prides herself on being known for) her uncommon virtue and purity. She is also pulchritudinous, but Valmont’s ostensible motive is to earn renown for his Casanovan supremacy by winning her in spite of her principled resistance. He’s become a bit bored; he needs a major challenge.
Valmont: To seduce a woman famous for strict morals, religious fervour and the happiness of her marriage: what could possibly be more prestigious? … You see, I have no intention of breaking down her prejudices. I want her to believe in God and virtue and the sanctity of marriage and still not be able to stop herself. I want the excitement of watching her betray everything that’s most important to her. Surely you understand that. I thought betrayal was your favourite word.
Merteuil: No, no, cruelty: I always think that has a nobler ring to it. (7-8)

The manufactured act of charity succeeds as planned, earning Valmont favor in her eyes. In this chapter we have so much: the keen monitoring of others and their opinions, the attempts at deceit, the importance of reputation, the uses/abuses of kindness, the sheer “acting” involved (e.g. when Valmont pretends to be modestly discomfited and embarrassed when found out in de Tourvel’s presence). The segment ends when Valmont, in an aside, compliments his assistant Azolan for selecting an appropriate clan—a finely detailed, cynical twist of the knife: “I must say the family was very well chosen. Solidly respectable, gratifyingly tearful, no suspiciously pretty girls” (15).

A skeptic might suggest that the extreme mannerism and noticeable sterility permeating DL invalidates reading it in terms of evolutionary psychology. It is true that their society is flagrantly unproductive economically and biologically. Monsieur de Tourvel, who works in law, is never present, and the only pregnancy, accidental and illegitimate, ends in a miscarriage. Also, the one marriage arranged is not a love match (Cécile hasn’t even met her older husband-to-be, again, never seen), and the action centers around her illicit premarital sex life, which la Marquise arranges to settle a personal grudge by pre-cuckolding the fiancé: “His priority, you see, is a guaranteed virtue. … he’d get back from honeymoon to find himself the laughing-stock of Paris” (6-7). I would, nonetheless, suggest two items: first, the environment, free from mundane concerns, has unchained the characters to explore and indulge basic human instincts which are usually not so forefronted or played with quite so much ruthlessness. Paradoxically, the artifice permits the rawness. Second, the story can’t help but function as an implicit critique of their fundamentally unnatural, overly extravagant misbehavior. Audiences, I’d posit, impose such morals, regardless of intentions. Thus, the depravity and barrenness of their world do signal its degeneration; and of course, during the impending Revolution, emphatically signaling the end of Enlightenment in history, numerous nobles were fated to meet their end courtesy of the guillotine.

I’ve tried to suggest some of what makes DL such an ab-fab success. To reiterate, there’s an intrinsic pleasure in watching a superb storyteller present such nasty behavior, especially when it’s played with such élan and ferocity. This factor permits ready elucidation. There seems to be more going on, however, a quality that strains my critical vocabulary to impart. It’s an element entwined with the story itself, a simultaneous meta-criticism happening as we see things through the eyes of such savvy social players. To this reader, Beowulf, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and even The Simpsons (created by Matt Groening) share this feature—in part due to their ironic narrators (played by the camera in DL), plus an implication that we’re privileged viewers of life lessons of the utmost import.[9] None of these texts, of course, should be reduced to didactic little morality plays, though, again, their involving conflicts (including the internal fights) play a part in their aesthetic achievement. To borrow a term from the great anthropologist Clifford Geertz, DL adds up to almost being a kind of “thick description,” a (fictional) ethnographical portrait of an Ancien Régime that was wicked fun while it lasted.[10]


Notes


[1] See Frans de Waal, Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes, rev. ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1998); Richard Byrne and Andrew Whiten, eds., Machiavellian Intelligence: Social Expertise and the Evolution of Intellect in Monkeys, Apes, and Humans (Oxford: Clarendon, 1988); and Dario Maestripieri, Macachiavellian Intelligence: How Rhesus Macaques and Humans Have Conquered the World (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2007).
[2] Christopher Hampton, Dangerous Liaisons: The Film (London and Boston: Faber & Faber, 1989). Quotations will be referenced parenthetically to page numbers in this screenplay.
[3] Other versions of the novel have been filmed. Cf. “Cruel Intentions” (1999), which sets DL’s plot among upper-crust prepsters: this viewer found it tepid and disappointing after a promising opening. N.b. Swoosie Kurtz, who played Cécile’s mother in DL, has a clever intertextual cameo in CI.
[4] Robin Dunbar, Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997). On “Sins of the Tongue,” see also M. Gluckman, “Gossip and Scandal,” Current Anthropology 4 (1963): 307-16; F. G. Bailey, Gifts and Poison: The Politics of Reputation (Oxford: Blackwell, 1971); Ralph Rosnow and Gary Fine, Rumor and Gossip: The Social Psychology of Hearsay (New York: Elsevier, 1976); Patricia Meyer Spacks, Gossip (New York: Knopf, 1985); Robert Goodman and Aaron Ben-Ze’ev, eds., Good Gossip (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1994); and Jerome Barkow, “Beneath New Culture Is Old Psychology: Gossip and Social Stratification,” in The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture, eds. Jerome Barkow, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 627-37.
[5] The unbelievable precociousness of these femmes fatale in training can be highly entertaining—witness the following recent teen black comedies: Mean Girls, Pretty Persuasion, Heathers, Election, Superbad, Wild Things, Clueless, Easy A, Brick, Assassination of a High School President, or St. Trinian’s, and their television derivatives: Gossip Girls, Pretty Little Liars, et al.
[6] N.b. I found a very brief note (about one paragraph) on gender and deception in DL from an evolutionary psychology p.o.v. by Prof. William Tooke on his blog (dated Aug. 12, 2009): www.darwingoestothemovies.blogspot.
[7] Valmont uses the expression “It’s the way of the world” (66); it is impossible to determine if an allusion to Congreve is intended. For that matter, the sincerity or sarcasm is difficult to judge when Mertuil states that Cécile’s income of “sixty thousand a year” plays no part in Bastide’s calculations—“None whatso-ever”—in his wishing to marry her (6).
[8] Besides this brief episode (“These days, my lord, you can find half a dozen [ruined families] like that, any village in the country,” 15), there is little in the way of socioeconomic criticism. It is perhaps noteworthy that Madame de Tourvel’s husband is away practicing law, indicating their bourgeoisie status, and the unobtrusive presence of myriad attendants is an obvious class marker. The historical irony of an idle elite on the verge of destruction from the masses below, is, from a modern vantage point, clear enough.
[9] I’m imagining specifically something like Beowulf in its original setting, performed by a bard for a receptive, illiterate band of Anglo-Saxon warriors, rather than later, literary editions/contexts far removed from the heroic pagan world of the comitatus.
[10] Honorable mention: period/costume dramas that capture the glamorous, refined atmosphere, crumbling mansions, restrictive social codes and all:
Shakespeare in Love
The Name of the Rose
The House of Mirth
La Princesse de Montpensier
Vanity Fair
Lady Jane
Dangerous Beauty
I, The Worst of All (Yo, la mas peor)
The Tudors [multi-episode cable tv series]
Elizabeth I: The Virgin Queen? (with Anne-Marie Duff?)
Sense and Sensibility (?)

Michael A. Winkelman studied Chemistry at Kalamazoo College and received a Ph.D. in Renaissance English Literature from the Claremont Graduate University. He is the author of Marriage Relationships in Tudor Political Drama (2005) and A Cognitive Approach to John Donne’s Songs and Sonnets (2013). He has also written reviews and essays from a New Humanist perspective. He teaches at Owens Tech in Ohio.

Copyright©2015 by Michael A. Winkelman – All Rights Reserved

Saturday, December 19, 2015

A case for the right hemisphere

Recently, my daughter (who is an artist) came home and started talking about how we have two brains, right and left. Other than the difference between our limbic system (the so-called mammalian brain) and our cortex, I had not thought much about the bilateral brain. Carole Brooks Platt has proved me wrong.

Platt’s In Their Right Minds: The Lives and Shared Practices of Poetic Geniuses (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2015) is a cogent and lucid argument for the origin of creativity in the brain. Platt is multi-knowledgeable across various disciplines, including the literary arts, neuroscience and consciousness studies, and psychology. The book offers a fascinating account about how the brain works in terms of inspiration: for some the fine line between transcendence, dreams, and wakefulness, the blurring between oneself and a literary creation. The book is packed with scientific details and biographical information (in a parallel form) about William Blake, John Keats, Victor Hugo, Rainer Maria Rilke, W.B Yeats, James Merrill, David Jackson, Sylvia Plath, and Ted Hughes. Looking to prehistory, Platt notes that we became fully human when our emotional side developed as much as our rational, and with these poets the emotional goes far beyond anything typical.

Of course it’s more complicated than saying the left hemisphere equals language, math, and logic while the right hemisphere equals spatial ability, facial recognition, and visual/musical imagery. So Platt gets down to the individual level, how childhood trauma, mood disorders, and dissociative thoughts act as a springboard for right-hemispheric dominance in some people. The right hemisphere, borrowing from Arthur Koestler (according to Platt), puts thinking aside. So while the left hemisphere produces syntactical speech, the right hemisphere deals with subtleties. Referring to neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, Platt notes that the right hemisphere (contextual perception) sees reality while the left hemisphere (textual detail) interprets reality. Nevertheless, in order to completely understand anything, the right hemisphere is ultimately important.

In terms of these writers dealing with dissociation, Platt covers reincarnation, séances, automatic writing, the Ouija board, telepathy and other paranormal events. Normally I’d be skeptical about all of this, but Platt has convinced me that in line with highly sensitive and creative right-hemispheric individuals these were truly crucial exercises as part of the process in their imaginative output. That is, the metaphorical-driven right hemisphere takes control for those who, because of early trauma (like the loss of a parent), are seeking emotional balance.

I’m not exaggerating by saying this is one of the most remarkable books I’ve recently read. There is a surprising blend of interest in poetic creativity and neuroscience, invaluable for anyone engaged in the making or interpretation of the literary arts. D.H. Lawrence once said something about how Cézanne did not just paint apples but went behind the apples to show us what was there. Platt does not just chronicle the visions of poets and their inspiration but goes behind the scenes of their brains – she shows us how the mind of poetic genius works. While Platt focuses on the writers mentioned above, she is also well versed in many others. The book is a goldmine for the interdisciplinary synthesis of scientific and literary matter related to the brain as a creative mechanism.

- Gregory F. Tague, Ph.D., author of Making Mind: Moral Sense and Consciousness

Copyright©2015 by Gregory F. Tague

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Neuroscience, art and the aesthetic experience

On Thursday, 10 December 2015 I attended a debate between G. Gabrielle Starr and Alva Noë who addressed the question, Can neuroscience help us understand art? The debate was sponsored by the New York University Center for Mind, Brain and Consciousness and held at the Casa Italiana to a packed, attentive audience. Directors of the Center, Ned Block and David Chalmers, posed other questions: Can understanding the brain reshape our conceptions of the arts? Is there a viable field of neuroaesthetics?

In attendance were my wife and our daughter, who is an artist. The lively and sometimes humorous debate was more like a conversation that, in spite of similarities between the perspectives of Starr and Noë, pointed to some sharp differences in their approaches to defining and understanding the aesthetic experience. Based on the amount of audience participation after the debate, those in attendance had strong reactions (both positive and negative) to both sides of the presentation.

What follows are notes I took during the talks; any errors in how I might represent the speakers’ positions are entirely my own. For more clarity and depth, I’d recommend reading, by Starr, Feeling Beauty: The Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience; by Noë, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature.

G. Gabrielle Starr, Seryl Kushner Dean of the College of Arts and Science at NYU and Professor of English, was the first to speak. On its most basic level in response to the debate question, her claim is that neuroscience can indeed help us engage with the arts. (In fact, Starr might use the word arts broadly, since some of her recent work deals with the neuroscience of aesthetic response to poetics and music.) Starr says her approach is probabilistic and therefore not necessarily focusing on one work of art or an individual. She gives us, instead, the story of art about individuals and cultures. What neuroscience can tell us about art deals with perception, emotion, and imagery. Especially with imagery, neurons associated with movement are activated, and Starr quoted William Empson who rightly says that poetry is a kinetic art.

Important for a neuroscientist would be delineating what neurons can tell us about art and an aesthetic experience versus an everyday experience. In art, we value what is unpredictable, Starr says. The aesthetic response is beyond preference or pleasure, a complex experience, and “often mixed in valence.” So what neuroscience tries to do is answer the question about whether or not there is something in common about experiences of art or what might unify aesthetic experience. Starr emphasizes that her work it is less about “special qualities” in art and more about “approaches.” So in lab/research work she does with a team subjects are asked not only what is liked but how much agreement there is about any object or perception. For example, most people will agree (in descending order) about facial expressions, followed by natural scenes, abstract images, paintings, and finally haiku. The conclusion is that “all visual beauty doesn’t get the same treatment” in the brain. Visual systems in the brain prioritize consistently, but higher order processes differentiate later.

Emotions play a part in the perceptual experience, but there is a difference between perception and feeling, where we can separate representation from feeling. Both routine and aesthetic emotions overlap in neural reference space. Concerning individual differences, there is much disagreement among aesthetic responders and, moreover, the agreement on art might be more about “the status of the liking” and less about the object itself. Starr spent some time talking about the brain’s default mode network, a resting state with few distractions or the focus on a task where the undertaking need not be specific, such as engagement with the arts. Similarly, the default mode network is implicated in theory of mind, self-reflection, and spontaneous cognition.

For Starr, an aesthetic experience is not necessarily first order and there is no single profile (a position shared with Noë). Neuroscience gives us information about the aesthetic experience so that we can move forward. Contrary to what some might suggest, the work of art does not disappear in any neuroscientific study – the participant does indeed experience the art. There is no natural space to appreciate art – that space can shift. Even with representations of art in books, we can still appreciate the images and have some type of aesthetic experience.  

Alva Noë is Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. Noë opened with a joke about how people mispronounce his name as “No” and how he does not like to be on the no-side of any debate, including this one. In other words, he does not epitomize “no” to the investigations of neuroscience in aesthetic experience, but more emphatically he is on the yes side of art.

Noë began with a selection from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (“I hear the trained soprano”). He used this poem, with a nice reading of it, to demonstrate how his focus is less about the neuroscientific explanation of art (the nuts-and-bolts of what happens where in the brain) and more about the complex experience of art. In this particular poem, for example, Whitman’s art is engaged with music so that art is engaged with other art. We need ideas, information, values, and beliefs to experience art. As another instance, Noë showed a slide of a Rodin sculpture. He followed this quickly with a slide of a Brâncuşi sculpture. Early in his career, Brâncuşi worked with Rodin, so the point is that art is in dialogue with art. It just so happens that these two sculptures were in close proximity in a Texas museum Noë visited. Noë admits that art has roots in our biology, but “not exclusively and not exhaustively.” Rather, there is a “cultural space” of practice and appreciation.

The reading and the sculptures brought Noë to philosophy and the puzzle of our being. Art or aesthetic experience is not just a stimulus to a response but affords us a wide array of experiences. The aesthetic experience is not fixed data points (as Starr agrees). Instead, an aesthetic experience is changeable and can wane, as part of the dialogue influenced by cultural experiences and biases. We can engage in a “dispute” about our disagreements, but the aesthetic experience has “no clear temporal boundaries.” Noë says that in the aesthetic experience there is no first order response; the aesthetic experience is consequent to the art (reflective) and more like an activity or process dependent on species and individual neural differences. At this point, Noë tried to make an analogy between the engagement of art and having a good meal, dependent more on reflection than on ingredients. (In the group discussion, this analogy, however, was questioned.)

Like philosophy, Noë says that “art unveils us to ourselves.” He is critical of any strategy to look for aesthetic experience in neural correlates. That is, he positions (akin to Starr) thought, intelligence, and understanding over perception (as in Semir Zeki). What is distinctive about art lies less in the object and more in the experience, says Noë. While neuroscience seems to hover over the trigger responses, art represents states like sympathy and empathy. In other words, the emphasis should not be on the trigger response but what we make of art and the aesthetic experience – how it helps us understand ourselves.

As an example, Noë recounted his experience of fully engaging with Andy Warhol’s soup cans in a museum – being confronted with true art – where others simply took selfies of themselves with the art as background. Noë was emphatic that there was a huge difference between standing with the art and years of having seen those same images represented in books. In this setting, says Noë , “works of art are problematic for viewers” since they do not know what to expect. He is therefore critical of neuroscience as “idealistic” in how it suggests that the world is made in one’s brain. Noë insists that we are looking for art in the wrong place. Art is not necessarily the object; it has more to do with the character of the experience (not really addressed by neuroscience). One does not “get it” just by looking.

All in all, there was an abundance of ideas and reactions, almost too much for me to have recorded in these few notes. Someone was filming the event, but I am not sure where (if at all) that tape might appear. The website for the NYU Center for Mind, Brain and Consciousness is Here – and I do see video links for some past events.


-- Gregory F. Tague, Professor of English at St. Francis College and editor of ASEBL. [Information about my book, Art and Adaptation (noted among books in brief in the December 2015 Art in America) can be found Here, available from Amazon.]

Copyright©2015 by Gregory F. Tague

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Drama of Evolution

Kirsten E. Shepherd-Barr. Theatre and Evolution from Ibsen to Beckett. NY: Columbia UP 2015. ISBN: 978-0-231-16470-2. Hardcover; Illustrated. 400 pgs. $50U.S.

Kirsten Shepherd-Barr offers a fascinating and sweeping study of the impact of evolutionary ideas on the dramatic arts. She says that theatre and evolution ask similar questions and have similar aims in terms of probing the nature of being human. She says that the immediate directness of theatre and its emphasis on the action of human form provide an apt venue for scientific ideas. Theatre especially has the capacity to present history in real time. Shepherd-Barr says that the purpose of her book is twofold: to enumerate references to evolution in the playwrights under discussion and to examine how the writers engage, directly or not, with evolutionary ideas.

Her book is not precisely about any intersection between evolution and literary influence, and she specifically criticizes literary Darwinism (which examines human behavior, principally in its narrative form, in terms of evolved adaptations). Her concern is that the literary Darwinists try to justify art by characterizing it as an evolved behavior (and not as a byproduct of some other adaptation). Additionally, she makes it clear that she will not address any How or Why questions concerning the adaptive functions of the arts. Nor do we get, with all the emphasis on the moving human body, any ideas concerning mirror or motor neurons or theory of mind. This is not a book about the science of evolution. Rather, it is a demonstration of how the arts borrow (and at times twist) scientific ideas.

Shepherd-Barr is skillful in showing how playwrights actively employ, whether in agreement or not, scientific ideas of their time.  The scope and depth of her dramatic knowledge is impressive, and while much discussion of the plays can tend to summary rather than analysis, such information is quite helpful. This book is not only beneficial to students and scholars who study the interrelation of drama and science, but I’d venture to say that the book could be quite useful to playwrights who are writing in this area. From a historical perspective concerning modern drama, the book is invaluable and provides a social history about how theatre gives voice to evolutionary ideas of science, eugenics, male/female relationships and marriage, women’s issues, sex and birth control, motherhood, and parenthood.

Shepherd-Barr declares that in contrast to how a novelist (such as Thomas Hardy) can utilize the length of a novel to unravel evolutionary ideas, the playwright has to use the human body on stage as a symbolic text to address and question the audience. And this stage-to-audience dialogue worked well for the Victorians, since they were engaged with evolutionary ideas not only because of Charles Darwin (the conversation started much earlier) but because of the popularizing (and sometimes distortion) of Darwinian ideas by thinkers such as T.H. Huxley, Herbert Spencer, and Ernst Haeckel. Shepherd-Barr’s understanding of evolutionary ideas and processes, from Lamarck to Lyell through Haeckel, is sound. She does an exceptional job explaining these often differing ideas concerning evolution (as she has written other books on theatre and science). For instance, there is Haeckel’s incorrect theory of recapitulation where the development of the embryo mimics the evolutionary process. While this idea turns out to be bad biology it works well on stage and was picked up by G.B. Shaw in Back to Methuselah. And that’s the point she makes and the core around which she hovers in the book – not the question of how perfectly imaginative writers understand evolutionary ideas but how imaginative writers contextualize any of these ideas (accurately or not) in their plays.

The Victorians were curious people who valued spectacle as a means of learning, evidenced in the growth and popularity of zoos, museums, lectures, and public experiments. There was a sense of the theatrical in how knowledge is thus acquired, and the Victorians were quite concerned with the implications of science, and especially evolution, on the notion of the individual and the meaning of life. Shepherd-Barr offers a thorough historical perspective with detail concerning Victorian attitudes, values, and beliefs, particularly in how discoveries in the biological sciences, geology, and anthropology filtered into the theatrical arts. For example, freak shows became popular as do exhibits of indigenous people from far-off lands, such as the Fuegians. Animals, too, became the subject of dramatic interest. Shaw in Man and Superman anthropomorphizes nonhuman creatures with human characteristics.

Likewise, there would be elaborate shows such as Birds, Beasts and Fishes (1854) where people mimic animals. In fact, in the nineteenth century there are many instances of animals appearing on stage. One of Darwin’s important books is The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) which features strange and nearly grotesque photographs of human faces. An actor such as Henry Irving in The Bells was expert in wild facial expressions that denote atavism (54). In light of evolution, Shepherd-Barr notes, many taboo subjects, such as sex, violence, and insanity are open to public discussion. At the same time, any survey of the scientific literature of the time will demonstrate that some thinkers questioned any aspects of evolution or simply misunderstood the processes of evolution.

Early attempts to integrate evolutionary ideas in drama examined how the natural environment offstage would impact the human action on stage. Examples of this, notes Shepherd-Barr can be seen in James A. Herne who was influenced by Henrik Ibsen where there is, echoing Darwin, a struggle for existence. One needs to adapt to his or her environment. The American realist, Hamlin Garland, like Herne, was familiar with evolutionary ideas, mostly via Herbert Spencer, and also demonstrated how the environment could determine aspects of an individual’s life.

Spencer popularized though often distorted Darwin’s ideas. It was Spencer who coined the expression “survival of the fittest.” Fitness, as a biological term, can be ambiguous. Traits and characteristics enhance fitness; the traits that contribute to better survival and reproduction survive. Spencer also promulgated a quasi teleological vision of evolution. He imagined that, especially for human beings, we are evolving up a ladder of progress. Nothing could be further from biological truth. Spencer is responsible for firing up the public imagination and dramatic writing in terms of eugenics and so-called social Darwinism. Henry Arthur Jones actually referred to Spencer in plays, but Shepherd-Barr notes that the Lord Chamberlain (i.e., licensor/censor) removed any such references, though the published version includes them.

Shepherd-Barr underscores how the reality of extinction fascinated Victorians and playwrights. Of course extinction had been known and talked about long before, but after Darwin there was a human connection. Dramatists symbolically built off what Victorians would have witnessed in museum fossil exhibits – the termination of a family line or a whole class of people, such as aristocrats. Moreover, another popularizer of Darwin, Thomas Henry Huxley, vexed Victorians with the question of where morality would fit into the picture of evolution. Huxley too misrepresents Darwin, claiming that there is progress in human morality.

Fundamental to evolution by natural selection are random variations, adaptations, and inheritance. To see moral progress in humanity is akin to Spencer’s eugenics. In line with Steven Pinker, to be more precise, societies can improve and individuals can exercise more care, concern, and self-control. But the elements of morality, still evident in our living, non-human primate cousins (viz work by Frans de Waal) do not progress teleologically. They can only evolve according to selection pressures. Certainly cultural evolution has an enormous impact on human behavior. Shepherd-Barr is familiar with all of these applications and explains them well. In chapter two, she presents an excellent discussion of acting/emotions and psychological realism in light of Darwin’s Expression of Emotions. George Henry Lewes, commenting on actors, says that rather than a more traditional, stylized acting, one needs to act naturally so as to capture nature. This would be, as Shepherd-Barr suggests, especially epitomized in a woman like the actress Eleonora Duse. The human body and especially the face is a container of primitive emotions. Rather than a grand gesture there would be emphasis on individual body parts and movements.

After the opening, introductory chapters, Shepherd-Barr begins to focus on specific playwrights. For chapter three, it is Ibsen, who touches on breeding, sexual selection, heredity and women, and adaptation. Beyond exploring evolutionary themes, Shepherd-Barr is good at discussing theatrical elements, dramaturgy, and staging. In order to show how evolutionary elements, sometimes perverted, end up in plays, she need to rely on plot summary. In an 1887 speech Ibsen essentially declares himself a Darwinist; but there are other ideas mixed in the speech, such as synthesis, which is not Darwinian since natural selection culls out.  Shepherd-Barr’s repeated point is that many of the playwrights, because their work is an artistic representation of reality, will take ideas from science and manipulate them in new ways. In other words, writers who work within the span of staging action within a few hours mainly look to the “broader implications” of Darwinian thought and not minute, biological details (71).

Shepherd-Barr credits Ross Shideler with noting how August Strindberg and Ibsen question patriarchy and the family so that there is a Darwinian struggle for existence seen in social, familial, and especially spousal conflicts. Men as much as women struggle against traditional roles; women often reject a weak husband (68-69). In spite of his emphasis on families and close human interactions, there are many references in Ibsen to laws of nature. In fact, Shepherd-Barr says that long before Richard Dawkins’ notion of the meme, Ibsen clearly hints at the power of ideas to thrive, spread, or die. It is not clear how much or how carefully Ibsen read Darwin. Ideas might have come from other sources, and Ibsen might have been more influenced by Haeckel. At any rate, early plays such as Ghosts and The Lady of the Sea seem to express some Darwinian ideas such as origin and descent and our compelling connection to the sea (77).  Ibsen seems turned against any notion of human progress and sees, rather, hereditary degeneration and extinction as more likely. Similarly, eugenics, says Shepherd-Barr, comes up in Doll’s House and Enemy of the People. But Ibsen’s engagement with these ideas from Galton might be satirical. Or he is simply engaging with the ideas of the times, such as so-called social Darwinism.

In chapter four Shepherd-Barr notes how many plays at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century address gender issues, especially the supposed call to motherhood. What is a woman’s role in life, in marriage, in society? Is motherhood “inevitable” for the progression of the species (92)? Theatre became a battleground of ideas related to the women’s movement, gender biology, male/female parenting, and male/female socialization and education. Near the end of The Descent of Man, according to Shepherd-Barr, Darwin suggests an essential mental difference between men and women, and surely this is the conventional and popular perception. Some Feminist thinkers, however, seized on Darwin’s notion of evolutionary change and how woman are adaptable; i.e., how women need not only be made for motherhood according to nature (95).

Shepherd-Barr then goes off on a long but interesting tangent about James A. Herne’s Margaret Fleming, perhaps the only play to stage breast feeding. The big question for the Victorians was how breast feeding, so motherly, could also be so atavistic. The Victorians were overly concerned with regression, the pulling away from their civilization to the primitive, and any instincts portrayed in women heightened those fears. Shepherd-Barr explains how by 1879 babies were pretty much outlawed on the U.S. stage. Glass milk bottles with rubber nipples were manufactured mid nineteenth century, with milk sterilization later on, so people might have been surprised by breast feeding. Of course there would be class issues as well. Families and women of means would use wet nurses. The play hits directly the question of motherhood and especially for women any “instinctual, biologically driven behavior” (113).  In later Victorian times women would be criticized for neglecting the family and motherhood if they chose to work. (See for instance George Gissing’s novel, The Odd Women.)

Yet, as Margaret Fleming demonstrates, women are criticized because of their devotion to their children. Margaret Fleming nurses at the opening of the play her own child; later, she nurses the bastard baby of a dying, poor woman with whom her husband had an affair. Margaret is clearly middle class, so there is a question about “what is natural” for a mother (120). Popular Victorian culture showed indigenous people naked, with women bare-breasted near children, suggesting for Europeans something savage in their own, natural tendencies. So there are very complex emotions concerning motherhood in breast feeding, which becomes sanitized and less prevalent with advances in science and technology. 

In chapter five Shepherd-Barr says that Strindberg’s interest in evolution and science influenced later playwrights from George Bernard Shaw to Susan Glaspell. Contrary to Ibsen, Strindberg’s evolutionary interest was more academic and Darwinian; however, as a creative writer he was also captivated by Haeckel’s mysticism (128). Strindberg went through several phases. In the 1880s he was naturalistic and fashioned characters according to survival. See, e.g., Miss Julie. Then there was an “inferno phase” from about 1892-98 where emphasis was placed on the importance of science. By 1907 Strindberg is religious and rejects evolutionary thinking with an unfounded fear of regression since he was under the mistaken notion that human beings descended directly from apes. In contrast to Strindberg and Shaw who skirt with Intelligent Design, Ibsen did not see any agency in nature. At the same time, says Shepherd-Barr, it is Anton Chekov who completely and unequivocally embraces the science of evolution.

In spite of his intellectual affinity to Ibsen, Shaw, from his preface to Back to Methuselah, opposed the science of natural selection, viewed it as inhumane, and accused Darwin of presenting life as random and sporadic. Shepherd-Barr emphasizes how Shaw is, however, not a determinist. For Shaw, it is the power of the human will (from Schopenhauer and Nietzsche) that is paramount, as in Man and Superman. Shaw’s worldview, embracing Lamarck and Spencer, was more self-organizing – which is contrary to evolution by natural selection with its reliance on random variation. Shaw did, however, prefer sexual selection since it affords a sense of agency. In this way Shaw is a Lamarckian where acquired characteristics are inherited or not by use and disuse. Biologically this is not possible, because then there would be a blending of traits, and ultimately there would be a continuum of only a few traits and no spectrum.

But as Shepherd-Barr points out, in discussing Shaw and feminism, nothing can take away from Shaw’s comic genius or the fact that he engages in vital moral questions (though, like many of his day, on the wrong side of science). By the end of Man and Superman, Shaw rejects the Victorian idea (perhaps from Spencer) of a woman marrying a man to ennoble him.

Compared with the Victorians, the Edwardians are even more concerned about inheritance and try to find genetics as “malleable and mutable rather than fixed” (156). Perhaps this explains Virginia Woolf’s famous statement that character changed somewhere around 1910. Not coincidental to an almost negative obsession about inheriting bad characteristics, eugenics peaks in 1918 with Arthur Wing Pinero’s The Freaks, which postulates a question about how we can alter human genes. With a focus on aristocrats and “freaks” on stage, Pinero used real-life giants, contortionists, and diminutive people, related in some way to the devastation of WWI and how human actions can change humanity (157). Shepherd-Barr tells us that The Freaks is eugenic since the naturally distorted people (as opposed to war victims) are not allowed to marry.

Chapter six deals with issues of reproduction. For instance, around 1904 there are concerns from women about how much childbirth they should endure, and this unease plays out on stage. In fact, Shepherd-Barr asserts that sex and reproduction are, across theatrical history, prime subjects. She provides many examples from Ibsen to Shaw and notes how in 1922 Eugene O’Neill’s First Man featured the offstage screams of a woman dying in childbirth. There were no scenes of childbirth on any stage. By 1918, from the aftermath of WWI, a play such as Maternity by Eugene Brieux was not licensed since the English wanted to focus on repopulation (169). Only by the 1930s were hospital births more usual. For the Victorians and Edwardians, Shepherd-Barr reminds us, husbands were often present during childbirth since there was often a chance of maternal death.

Shepherd-Barr notes how some plays, with an emphasis on women’s concerns, mark a sharp distinction between marriage and motherhood. There of course was sex outside of wedlock, and this could be referred to theatrically. Sexual selection according to Darwin is dramatic by virtue of the male antics, colors, songs, and displays. But consider the patriarchal Victorian/Edwardian positon concerning all of this. They were immensely repelled by Darwin’s notion that sexual selection is the result of female choice. There are, then, many attacks on traditional notions of marriage in the early twentieth century, such as Shaw’s Misalliance or H.M. Harwood’s Supplanters. From 1904 onward with more women in the workforce, there was open-minded thinking about premarital and extramarital sex. Shepherd-Barr recounts how Darwin, in The Descent of Man, discusses male and female individuals who mate and then depart, a random act after a female choice.

Certainly, in the context of reproduction, eugenics comes up again, says Shepherd-Barr. Take for instance the play by Elizabeth Robins, Alan’s Wife, which includes infanticide by a woman consumed not by motherhood but by her marriage. Contraception and abortion, topics that came into direct conflict with the censors, were also subjects of plays. For example, Susan Glaspell in Chains of Dew argued to legalize contraception, and Harley Granville-Barker in Waste tackles illegal abortion that leads to death. In 1907 Edward Garnett’s The Breaking Point, which argued for easier abortions, was banned. These subjects are relevant to evolution since they touch on female sexual desire and choice. We see this especially in Votes for Women! By Elizabeth Robins where the female character acknowledges her physical needs that lead to her pregnancy and abortion. Of course there is Eugene O’Neill’s 1914 one-act play, Abortion, where the woman never appears since she’s dead from a botched abortion before the action of the play. The play is about the upper class young man who faces status disgrace from his family and subsequently commits suicide.

In chapter seven Shepherd-Barr focuses on Susan Glaspell and Thornton Wilder. Glaspell engages with biology and evolutionary thinking but does not evince a deep or complete understanding. She mixes and matches, according to Shepherd-Barr, elements of Lamarck, Spencer, and Darwin. In plays such as The Verge and Inheritors there is a preference for a type of punctuated leap, saltation, rather than the gradualism of natural selection. This is a dramatic device that permits for the sudden development of an individual. A more serious poetic liberty is Glaspell’s leaning toward “human destiny” (205). There is no destiny in the natural world, only cause and effect. From about 1909-10 Glaspell worked for the U.S. Forest Service and so we can see “the unspoiled earth throughout her work...” in different and at times incompatible environments, such as the edge between sea and forest (208).

Shepherd-Barr says Glaspell’s liberties and focus on physical nature enable her to create metaphors of humanity. In Close the Book from 1917 Glaspell suggests that the strength of the future of a family line is not in purity but in the blending of new blood. Glaspell sees agency in nature and expresses a creative evolution leading to human perfection, as in The Verge (210). Glaspell tries to encompass ideas about evolution through the individual, how a single person’s conversion can represent the much larger social or environmental change (220). In The Verge we have a woman scientist who rejects her proscribed social and professional roles; there is mutation theory of plants as a metaphor of women’s issues (211).

Thornton Wilder seems to accept Darwinism in The Skin of Our Teeth, but at the same time, like Shaw, his idealism forces him to reject the random blindness of natural forces. In Skin of Our Teeth, says Shepherd-Barr, there is an “almost mystical invocation of women...” as pivotal to human evolution, hearkening back to Ibsen seeing women as the salvation of the human race. This is “progressive” thinking that runs counter to the “ambivalence” we find in Robins and Glaspell (229). On the other hand we have Eugene O’Neill’s anthropological The Hairy Ape about a coal stoker in a ship’s engine room. He is dark and muscular with strong arms. By the end of the play he is killed by a gorilla. The play touches on life’s origins and how atavism lingers in more advanced civilization (232).

In her final chapter Shepherd-Barr discusses Samuel Beckett, whose highlights how human beings in their misdirected concerns about god (as in Waiting for Godot) have become alienated from the natural world. Like the other playwrights Shepherd-Barr discusses, Beckett also does not report evolutionary science; instead, he takes what he needs and fashions those ideas to line up to his own. We don’t know how much of Darwin Beckett read, though he does quote Darwin’s Origin of Species in his notebooks and in a letter writes dismissively of Darwin (244). Similar to Wilder in The Skin of Our Teeth and J.B. Priestly in Summer Day’s Dream, Beckett’s Happy Days provides a scathing assessment of environmental devastation dramatizing how we are destroying the planet.

Clearly Beckett echoes Darwin’s geological concerns, Shepherd-Barr stresses. As with Darwin, Beckett emphasizes variation, not fixity; see, e.g., how the tree in Godot changes during the course of the play. In All That Fall Beckett touches on reproduction, hysterectomy, menopause, and abortion. In Breath we witness an entire life in a matter of seconds. In Rough for Theatre I and Endgame there is a sense of human end-time and the destruction of earth or human extinction and universal entropy (253). As Shepherd-Barr says, Beckett is “a dramatist of the end of nature, of our great alienation from our natural surroundings...” (254). He embraces primitive characters, their biological needs, and even “anti-creation” (267).

In her epilogue, Shepherd-Barr mentions some contemporary playwrights who also deal with retro-Victorian themes of genetics, eugenics, reproduction, and climate change. The difference with contemporary productions is that they implicate the audience in our evolutionary concerns and environmental problems. I’d venture to say that the contemporaries might try to be more true to the science. But we cannot expect a playwright to offer a scientific paper; the wisdom and entertainment of drama is in how ideas from the scientific community are reinvented on stage.


- Copyright©Gregory F. Tague 2015. St. Francis College (NY). Thanks to Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe, editor Consciousness, Literature and the Arts journal, for permission to cross-post.