Saturday, December 15, 2012

January 2013 ASEBL Journal online

The editor and editorial board of ASEBL are pleased to announce the publication of the January 2013 issue, available on the St. Francis College website. The table of contents follows.
† Eric Luttrell, “Modest Heroism: Beowulf and Competitive Altruism,” p. 2
† Dena R. Marks, “Secretary of Disorientation: Writing the Circularity of Belief in Elizabeth Costello,” p.11
† Margaret Bertucci Hamper, “’The poor little working girl’: The New Woman, Chloral, and Motherhood in The House of Mirth,” p. 19
† Kristin Mathis, “Moral Courage in The Runaway Jury,” p. 22
William Bamberger, “A Labyrinthine Modesty: On Raymond Roussel and Chiasmus,” p. 24
† St. Francis College Moral Sense Colloquium:
- Program Notes, p. 27
- Kristy L. Biolsi, “What Does it Mean to be a Moral Animal?”, p. 29
- Sophie Berman, “Science sans conscience n’est que ruine de l’âme,” p.36
† Book Reviews:
- Lisa Zunshine, editor, Introduction to Cognitive Cultural Studies. Gregory F. Tague, p. 40
- Edward O. Wilson, The Social Conquest of Earth. Wendy Galgan, p. 42
Contributor Notes, p. 45

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Book Review - E.O. Wilson and the Conquest of Earth

Edward O. Wilson. The Social Conquest of Earth. NY: Liveright/Norton, 2012. Hardcover. 352pgs. 978-0871404138. $27.95US

In his latest book, The Social Conquest of Earth, the biologist and naturalist Edward O. Wilson attempts to answer the three questions posed by Paul Gauguin in the title of what is arguably his most famous work:  “D’où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous” (Where do we come from?  What are we?  Where are we going?). According to Wilson, these “central problems of religion and philosophy” cannot be solved by those disciplines, and until the three questions are answered, humankind will continue to be “terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life.”
How, then, does Wilson (professor emeritus at Harvard University, discoverer of pheromones, author of the seminal work Sociobiology) propose to answer these questions?  Through an examination of the evolution (in both the metaphorical and Darwinian meanings) of humanity into what biologist call “eusocial” – truly social – creatures.
As might be expected, such an undertaking has stirred up considerable debate, not only because of Wilson’s final conclusions (more on those later) but also because of the evolutionary theory of natural selection underpinning his attempt to formulate a “theory of everything” (à la quantum physics) that explains all of human nature and behavior, at least in the aggregate. Wilson dismisses the field’s prevailing theory, kin selection, or inclusive-fitness theory (proposed by William D. Hamilton), in favor of multi-level (or group) selection theory. He first did so, with co-authors Martin Nowak and Corina Tarnita, in a 2010 article published in the journal Nature. This article, “The Evolution of Eusociality,” claimed that the dominant interpretation of Darwin’s theory of natural selection – that living beings evolve in such a way so as to help each individual propagate its own genes and those of other individuals most closely related to it (hence, the “kin” in kin selection), and that a by-product of this is the continuation of behavior that is good for the group as a whole – is incorrect, and that the older, long-dismissed group selection theory – where genes evolve in ways that specifically benefit one group’s existence over another’s – provides a better way of understanding where humankind came from and what we are.
The reaction was swift and, in large part, negative. Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene) and more than 100 others wrote to Nature claiming that Wilson and his colleagues were wrong, that their methodology was flawed and their interpretation of data incorrect. When Wilson published The Social Conquest of Earth two years later, Dawkins wrote a scathing review (“The Descent of Edward Wilson”) in Prospect magazine accusing Wilson of, among other things, publishing his flawed theory in a book to gain popular acceptance when it became apparent that it would not be accepted within the scientific community. Wilson has given interviews refuting Dawkins’s assertions, other scientists have weighed in, and the debate continues.
How, then, does Wilson attempt to answer Gauguin’s questions?
Writing in a clear, engaging voice (as befits an author twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize), Wilson traces the evolution of humankind from when the first species of Homo split off from our common ancestral line to “The Sprint to Civilization” and the Neolithic revolution. Drawing on a number of theories from anthropology, biology and sociology, Wilson weaves together a compelling timeline for the emergence of human beings as eusocial animals. From fingers, fire and (cooked) food through the development of language to the crucial component, the establishing of a defensible “nest” or campsite, Wilson proposes that both genetics (the human hand, with its spatulate fingers and opposable thumb) and environment (lightning strikes sparking fires that our ancestors then took advantage of) helped drive later evolutionary changes that eventually resulted in the emergence of Homo sapiens sapiens. The campsite, as a location where a group establishes a permanent home, is particularly important in the development of eusociality, which Wilson defines as a group “containing multiple generations and prone to perform altruistic acts as part of their division of labor.”  This means that offspring stay at the campsite with their parents, at least until such time as they need to find mates (and then, generally only one of the two sexes will look outside the group for partners), and the group members generally act in ways that promote the well-being of the group. The basic definition of this altruism is that non-reproductive members of the group will assist parents in the care and feeding of their offspring, but in a more general way it means that individuals will more often than not behave in ways that benefit the group as a whole, even if such behavior does not benefit the individual.
What this means, in terms of Wilson’s thesis, is that there is “multi-level selection” occurring, with some “forces of selection” targeting individual traits and others targeting traits of the group; thus, the “evolutionary dynamics” of each group “is driven by both individual and group selection.”  In order for groups to survive, they must work together; those groups that work together best thrive, while those that do not cooperate within the group fade away.
Wilson then turns to the insect world, examining the ways in which ants (his specialty), termites and other invertebrates became social insects, a precursor to true eusociality. He provides examples of natural selection, altruism, and evolutionary innovations that helped these insects form lasting, even thriving, colonies. (This is not to say that eusociality is common. Wilson states that of the 2,600 “taxonomic families of insects and other arthropods,” only 15 of those families have been found to include eusocial species. It is even rarer in vertebrates.)  He then discusses the ways in which insect altruism and social instincts developed through group selection, and ends this first half of the book discussing the ways in which kin selection theory is flawed, and why multi-level selection is a better explanation for how eusociality arises.
Having laid the groundwork by answering the question “Where do we come from?” in the first nearly-two-thirds of The Social Conquest of Earth, Wilson now moves on to the more difficult question, “What Are We?”  He begins with the question, “What Is Human Nature?”  He contends that economists, philosophers, theologians and others have tried in vain to define human nature, and that the “very existence of human nature was denied during the last century by most social scientists.”  Wilson states that his belief is that joining “multiple branches of learning in the sciences and humanities. . .allows a clear definition of human nature.”  For Wilson, “[h]uman nature is the inherited regularities of mental development common to our species. They are the ‘epigenetic rules,’ which evolved by the interaction of genetic and cultural evolution that occurred over a long period in deep prehistory.”  Humankind, then, has been formed by both nature and nurture working together, what Wilson and Charles J. Lumsden termed (in 1980) “gene-culture coevolution.”  Wilson states that psychologists and anthropologists have found many examples of gene-culture coevolution, and these are what “make up much of what is intuitively called ‘human nature.’”  Cultural mores, language and cultural variation are all influenced by this coevolution – it is what makes us who we are.
Wilson then tackles one of humankind’s thorniest issues, “The Origins of Morality and Honor.”  In his formulation, the “dilemma of good and evil was created by multilevel selection,” where individual selection and group selection are both acting upon each group member. Individual selection “shapes instincts in each member that are fundamentally selfish with reference to other members,” while group selection works to “[shape] instincts that tend to make individuals altruistic to one another within the group.”  This comes dangerously close to assigning a presupposed morality upon each type of natural selection – when we say a gene is “good” or “bad,” it is generally understood to mean that the gene either helps the individual perpetuate its own genome or does something to prevent that perpetuation (i.e. early death from disease, sterility, stillbirth due to mutation), not that it promotes good or bad behavior. Wilson does not stop there, however. He then goes on to explicitly assign what seems to be a moral “choice” (albeit one determined by genetic natural selection):  “Individual selection is responsible for much of what we call sin, while group selection is responsible for the greater part of virtue. Together they have created the conflict between the poorer and the better angels of our nature.”  This is particularly troublesome given an earlier chapter, “War as Humanity’s Hereditary Curse,” where he states that, “Our bloody nature, it can now be argued, in the context of modern biology, is ingrained because group-versus-group was a principal driving force that made us what we are. In prehistory, group selection lifted the hominids that became territorial carnivores to heights of solidarity, to genius, to enterprise. And to fear,” a fear which led to warfare. In this instance, at least, group selection seems to have come down upon the side of the poorer angels of humankind’s nature.
After brief chapters on the origins (and dangers) of religion and the origins of the creative arts, Wilson ends his book by addressing the question, “Where Are We Going?”  In the eleven-page chapter, “A New Enlightenment,” he makes the case for studying not only history, but prehistory and, by extension, biology in order to come to an understanding of where we should be going. “Humanity is a biological species in a biological world,” and as such has a responsibility to be good (in both senses of the word) and careful stewards of that world. People must heed the genetic-cultural “pull of conscience, of heroism. . .of truth. . .of commitment.”  We must, in Wilson’s view, set aside religion, its sacred myths and godheads, because “they are stultifying and divisive” and foster bigotry. We must turn to science and its rational explanations of how the world works, of the reality in which we live. We must understand that the Earth is our home, and that climate change and the “obliteration of biodiversity” pose real threats to both the planet and all her inhabitants. We must abandon any thoughts of manned space travel and its concomitant “dangerous delusion” of colonizing other planets as a way to escape a dying Earth, an Earth we human beings are killing through our actions.
There are places throughout the book where Wilson discusses the ways in which the rapid rise of human beings has strained, to put it mildly, our world’s natural resources. Here, in his conclusion, he points the way toward what he believes is the direction humankind’s journey must take if we are to continue to evolve upon the planet Earth.
- Wendy Galgan

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Thursday, May 3, 2012

Student Feedback on Moral Sense Colloquium

Editor’s note: The following are comments from students (of St. Francis College) who attended a recent Moral Sense Colloquium. The ASEBL blog posting of 17 March details the colloquium and speakers. The comments have been edited only for grammatical clarity. These comments do not represent the opinions of the Editor or the Editorial Board of ASEBL Journal and are provided as Guest Postings.
“A question that Dr. Kristy Biolsi proposed during her presentation was, ‘Does one have to be self-aware to be moral?’ In my opinion, humans must be self-aware to be moral. Hypocrisy would reign in a society where self-awareness was insignificant or disregarded. Since people speculate that morality is learned, I believe the first step is recognizing one’s self. Dr. Sophie Berman quoted Descartes as saying ‘All sane people know they have a body.’ Once a rational being can reason that she has a body, she becomes self-aware. Furthermore, once she is self-aware, a sense of morality will ensue.”

“A claim that Dr. Berman made which I found interesting was that humans are free, but held accountable for their actions. For example, humans are held accountable for unethical actions by the legal system. But since this is a moral-sense colloquium, it can be viewed as humans being held accountable by a higher power: God. Animals, on the other hand, are not held accountable for their actions in a justice system. In support of Dr. Berman’s claim, animals are not rational beings and will not be held accountable for immorality since animals are incapable of being moral or immoral. Since humans are the only rational beings on earth, they have a higher expectancy for moral-sense understanding.”

“I actually went into the Colloquium having a tight grasp on what I felt moral sense was, but after, I was rather unsure. I know that one’s moral sense isn’t inherited but can be learned from social situations. I don’t agree that morality is a level conscience, but I agree that it is to be determined by the human experience. The most relatable argument, in my opinion, came from Dr. Nolan. I agree that the basic human drive is primitive but is also weighed by cause and effect. The reward and punishment system does seem related, similar to cooperation versus selfishness and altruism versus spite. How will what I do for you ultimately affect me, and do the means justify the end? I think everyone makes a choice; it’s just dependent upon the chooser.”

“There has been some research by the Darwinian psychologists and they claim to have been developing a unified theory of human nature. Underlying all of human behavior, they say, is one fundamental commandment, the same law which shapes the lives of all the birds and beasts.”

“There is evidence to prove that science and philosophy should be studied closely together. There are many questions that can be asked to bring philosophy, psychology and especially biology together.”

“Human beings are different than any other being – we have the ability to make choices. Therefore, because our intuition allows us to make moral acts of right and wrong, we have full control over what we should and should not do.”

“Morality is what we know to be right from wrong. As human beings, moral behavior becomes questionable in different scenarios. For example, is there a distinction between moral behavior done to avoid punishment or earn reward? As humans, this becomes a choice we make. It is subconsciously done and choosing to commit acts to avoid punishment – is that being moral? Is it being moral that we do things because we are rewarded for them?”

“If we define moral behavior as doing the right thing, wouldn’t the intent become necessary? In other perspectives in psychology, there is also the question of are we human beings born into morality or is moral behavior developed over time?”

“Evidence shows a moral sense is innate and can be seen between the interactions of other species, such as dogs and their ‘play pose’ or chimpanzees and their apologetic grooming. The only downfall present when it comes to animal psychology and morality is that if a moral sense is defined as the ‘intent’ to do the ‘right thing,’ we may never truly know the intricate workings of morality in the mind of other animals.”

“Dr. Sophie Berman’s philosophical approach to the question of morality was harder for me to truly understand. From what I could gather, she spoke of nature showing us a world of inequality where the strong triumph over the weak. However, when it comes to human beings, they have a choice and the ability to make decisions regarding the morality of their actions. For people, it isn’t simply a matter of being triumphant over a weaker opposition, like a lion taking down a gazelle. Instead, we have an infinite freedom of choice, possibly from a divine being, that allows us to go against the basic law of nature that basically says, do whatever you need to in order to survive.”

Saturday, March 17, 2012

M o r a l ~ S e n s e
St. Francis College
26 April 2012

2pm ~ 4pm

Founders Hall

Free and Open to the Public with Refreshments after the presentations

Our purpose in organizing this Colloquium is threefold: to mark the unveiling of the forward-looking improvements to the science center; to bring together the community of learners at St. Francis College; to demonstrate how science and philosophy (or science and other disciplines) work together.

We envisioned a small Colloquium with faculty members sharing ideas with a much larger audience on the themes and subjects outlined below (and issued a Call, May 2011). We encouraged faculty with a focus in science to read philosophy, and faculty with a focus in philosophy to read science (using some of the guides we provided here).

The focus of the colloquium is the notion of moral sense, which has been variously defined, by philosophers and scientists (from the seventeenth century up to the present) as an approval faculty, or conscience, or sympathy, or compassion, or as an instinctual social emotion. In Darwin’s century, while Herbert Spencer and T.H. Huxley famously defended Darwin’s ideas, they also confounded his notion of morality by pitting it against nature. After Darwin, prominent biologists of the twentieth century have tackled the question of why cooperation extends beyond kin: R. Haldane (in 1932) uses the term altruism; in the 1960s W.D Hamilton addresses the evolution of social behavior, and George C. Williams writes of social donors; by 1971 R.L. Trivers pens his famous article on the evolution of reciprocal altruism. Since then there has been a steady flow of articles and books (popular and academic) on what it means to be moral (and from whence such behavior arose). What follows are some thought-provoking questions and background information that stimulated ideas for the Colloquium.

Do we have an inherited (evolutionary, adapted) moral sense?

How are emotions related to morality?

Is there a biological explanation for morality?

In what way do disciplines outside of biology and philosophy (e.g., pyschology, sociology, economics) help explain the various loci of moral decision making?

How (according to developmental psychologist Paul Bloom) do we reconcile humanist values with a mechanistic explanation of the brain?

These important questions (and certainly others by implication) bring together philosophy, psychology, and especially biology.

Philosophers (mostly British) of primarily the eighteenth century (in reaction to a number of complex events – religious, social, and scientific – of the seventeenth century), developed a notion of the moral sense. These philosophers, working in an increasingly secular age, posited very strongly that any human goodness was not bestowed from a divinity but was driven by innate human feelings of benevolence or sympathy. Marc Hauser, as a Harvard research psychologist (as well as others, notably Joshua Greene), has written extensively about this very issue: from an evolutionary and biological perspective, we do in fact have a so-called moral sense. Taking the lead from the British Moralists, Darwin, in The Descent of Man, has a chapter on moral faculties and employs the term moral sense. There is a rich history of philosophy that focuses on morality and ethics; now, science is helping us understand much better those concerns (and the connections of ancient, human caring to morality).

Paul Ekman (a psychologist of emotions) helps us understand social-moral decision making in terms of our individual biological construction. Neuroscientists (such as Michael Gazzaniga and Antonio Damasio), biologists (such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett), as well as, for instance, a psychiatric lawyer (Laurence Tancredi) have written on these controversial topics – i.e., the connection between the biology of the brain and moral decisions or moral behavior. While eminent primatologist Frans de Waal has consistently insisted on the continuities (in evolutionary terms) of sociality and cooperative behavior between primates and human beings, he has had many detractors (such the noted developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan, who stresses the biology of morality but aims for something distinctive in being human). Philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum, in her book Poetic Justice (and even in The Fragility of Goodness), suggests (contrary to Plato and more to Aristotle), that the emotions (over and above reason) have the potential to be good, moral guides. In fact, the evolutionary psychologist Leda Cosmides and anthropologist John Tooby have strongly suggested that reason is an evolved instinct. Meanwhile, philosophers such as Antony Flew and Alvin Plantinga have argued (against naturalism) that there is a rational basis for theism. There is no better time than now, and no better place than St. Francis College, to enter into and engage in this conversation.

Pairings of biology and philosophy on this subject that come to mind include, notably, the team of scientist Maxwell Bennett and the philosopher Peter Hacker. The philosopher John Searle is a noted materialist and Darwinian. What is happening in other disciplines? There is: evolutionary psychology; the biology of emotions; neuro-philosophy (recent work by Patricia Churchland). In literary studies, Suzanne Keen has used science to focus on emotions and empathy; Joseph Carroll has single-handedly, beginning in the early 1990s, started literary Darwinism.

A related focal point is social behavior:

What happens to us - biologically - when confronted by a moral dilemma?

What role does the brain play - in its various parallel parts - in helping make a moral decision?

What do disciplines (other than philosophy and biology, though drawing from them) tell us about moral decision making?

How do individual differences - biologically and environmentally - account for moral decisons?
Speakers and Presentation Topics:

Dr. Kristy Biolsi (Psychology): What Does it Mean to be a Moral Animal?

Dr. Kathleen Nolan (Biology): Altruism, selfishness and spite – and the costs and benefits of each.

Dr. Irina Ellison (Biology): The changing pulls of biology and morality in the formation of life.

Dr. Sophie Berman (Philosophy): “Science sans conscience n’est que ruine de l’âme” (“Science without conscience is but ruin of the soul”).

Grateful Thanks:
This Moral Sense Colloquium is generously supported by Dr. Timothy Houlihan,
Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, St. Francis College.

Additional Support From:
Offices of Special Events, Government and Community Relations

Colloquium Organizer (and contact): Gregory F. Tague, Ph.D.

St. Francis College – 180 Remsen Street, Brooklyn Heights, NY

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Self and Soul: Biology meets Philosophy

Recently, a rather intelligent psychology student was told by a humanities professor that there is no self. Not surprisingly, the professor in question would probably not object to being camped with post-structuralism, so we could probably discard, along with self, a notion such as the good. Like goodness, self has (at least for human beings), biological imperatives. As psychologist Thomas J. Bouchard, Jr. has demonstrated, personality variance is an adaptation to group interaction and sociality. In fact, John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick (discussing the work of psychologists Wendi Gardner and Marilynn Brewer) indicate that any self has three facets (depending on the situation): private, relational, collective.
Neither self nor goodness is necessarily a transcendental signified: granted we could not put either one on a table, but we can clearly define (from real life) aspects of each one. As social creatures who spent most of their heritage as hunters and gatherers (the Pleistocene era spans over 2.5 million years), being fit meant having a sense of self (in the context of others) and being good to others (at times). Cost versus benefit is not the only consideration in terms of being good: research on apes (e.g., Frans de Waal) and on insects (e.g., E.O. Wilson) demonstrates that there can be unconditional gestures of benevolence or instinctual self-sacrifice for the benefit of another (and clearly there are cases of such benevolence in human history).
Any reading in contemporary psychology (e.g., Steven Pinker) would demonstrate that a person (building a sense of personhood) has a conscious mind that creates (for many personal and social reasons) a self. In fact, evolutionary psychologists (e.g., Leda Cosmides and John Tooby) would say that the human mind is to a great extent a product of evolution and still contains responses to our ancient past. Therefore, the mind is not empty at birth, and the self is not constructed entirely from external environment: rather, since the mind has built-in adaptations (e.g., to cooperate, to select a mate, to nurture a child), there are pre-formed building blocks from infancy related to self in a group. Additionally, to say that there is no self denies the biological fact of frontal lobes (especially a prefrontal cortex) where (as often cited by scientists) one’s attitudes, values, and beliefs reside, where individual (self) decisions are made. Without self a human being would be either an automaton or some simple organism whose basic instinct is only to grovel for survival. Self is riddled with memories, emotions, feelings, and most importantly, the ability to plan (abstractly) for the future.
Goodness is mentioned (above) in this note for a reason (since the aforementioned professor has an interest in ethics with a focus on the philosophy of the middle ages – i.e., religious “philosophy”). Our ability to be good, kind, and benevolent is not divinely inspired. Just a little reading in evolutionary biology or evolutionary psychology would reveal – as clear as day – that there is a biological notion of self: we could not survive as human individuals in human groups if we had no (human) sense of self. Likewise, for anyone to study morality and ethics and confine oneself to the middle ages (for all of its wisdom) overlooks the advances of the intervening six hundred years – and quite a bit has happened since then, from David Hume and Adam Smith, to Charles Darwin and Antonio Damasio. That is, while we tend to be self-centered creatures, we are able to act kindly toward others for practical reasons that quite often have nothing to do with teleological or divine reasons (e.g., Robert Trivers).
On a related note (since medieval philosophy has been mentioned), two philosophers were recently overheard discussing whether or not souls could have a conversation. While one need not agree with how Daniel Dennett argues that there is no special ingredient (i.e., a soul) in being human, at the same time, to imagine that a soul is somehow self-embodied to the point that it can recognize, think, and converse with another soul ignores completely any findings in science. So, on the one hand, we have someone denying the existence of self (which is more than quantifiable), and, on the other hand, we have others assuming the existence of soul (which is not quantifiable). If there is a special ingredient in being human, most likely it is individually based and has something to do with gene combinations and variations in brain chemicals (i.e., self). Psychologist Jerome Kagan (building off ideas about personality types first advanced by Carl G. Jung) has spent nearly his entire career researching and writing about individualized temperament, concluding that each person is different and special in this sense alone.
In terms of the human species, clearly any special ingredient would include, collectively, certain brain chemicals and the more developed brain functions and parts. Coming back to what initiated this posting, there are parts of the human brain that enable us to conceive of (and to construct, individually) a sense of self. We are creatures that live well beyond any mere sensation of self-awareness – we are aware that we can be aware, and we organize (individually) memories, feelings, and our capacity to plan and direct attention in order to create a self. While not all aspects of the self are (yet) scientifically explainable, no thinking, contempoary person should deny that most of who we are is biologically based. Some naturalistic philosophers before Darwin (e.g., Schopenhauer) argued for uniqueness of character, and now psychologists such as Kagan (and neuroscientists such as Michael Gazzaniga) are proving what has been common knowledge: each of us is an individual self, with different degrees of consciousness and caring. While there is a biological basis for us to be good (since it helps us survive in a group), not everyone is good in quite the same way. Environmental factors have the potential to aid in shaping us, but we comprehend (and create) self from the essential uniqueness of our individual temperament susceptible to such shaping (or not).
Returning to our main point: what are we teaching our college students – many of whom are serious and eager scholars – if we neglect evolutionary biology that clearly complements philosophical ideas? One cannot be only a biological or a (medieval) philosophical thinker: findings in science elucidate many of the core ideas in philosophy and vice versa. The death of the humanities (as Joseph Carroll has so eloquently explained in his books) derives from these very scenarios that create sealed, solipsistic towers of words simply referring to other words (or using words to ignore physical reality) without any reference to the findings of evolution. Let us now begin a conversation where evolutionary science and philosophy are equally engaged.
- Gregory F. Tague

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Biology and Creativity - Guest Post

The “Beyond-Selfness” and Neurobiological Substrates of Poetry

The venerable journal Poetry is commemorating its one hundredth year in publication this year, and part of the celebration is a fascinating series of contributions by poets in the “Comments” section of the journal each month. The February, 2012, issue includes a section by poets describing and reflecting on their experience in the process of writing, with a particular focus on the relationship between poetry, spirituality, and prayer. This is certainly not unusual or novel territory, but I was struck by the coherence of the comments by many poets around certain themes. For example, the poet Carolyn Forché states that “the more you’re there writing [poetry], the more you realize you are not writing it . . . This is an experience close to revelation, to the realm of prophetic language” (Poetry, February 2012, p. 462). Similarly, Kazim Ali avers (with regard to writing poetry about spirituality and religion):  “If you talk all the time about something, you stop knowing anything about it” (Ibid., p. 436). Further, Jean Valentine makes the connection between poetry, meditative prayer, and dreaming, regarding all of them as healing processes, and “all being out of our hands” (Ibid., p. 438). She maintains further that “the poetry I like best is mostly silence . . . that it seems to have come out of silence, to exist in the midst of silence, and to go toward silence” (Ibid., p. 439). Finally, Eleanor Wilner proposes that “the poet must relinquish a certain kind of control, and attain a kind of self-forgetfulness” (again relating the writing of poetry to the process of prayer) and declares that “the poem is never just about experience, it is an experience” (Ibid., p. 448).

What are all these poets talking about? What kind and quality of experience are they referring to? Why the attribution of the process of writing poetry to realms of cognition that are beyond personal control, beyond self, and more proximal to some form of altered state of consciousness? Actually, I believe that the answer to these questions is fairly simple, in a way: The creative process of poetry – and very likely other fields of creative and artistic endeavor – seems to call upon, or even to require, a shift in consciousness, a move toward “letting go,” a yielding to some aspect of mind that feels “beyond self” or closer to some sense of otherness or greaterness (which some refer to as god).

In a previous post on this site, Jason Wirtz suggests the usefulness of the concepts of plasticity and automaticity, which derive from cognitive theory, in explicating what he refers to as the “Muse phenomenon.” He proposes that this phenomenon, in which “writers feel that they are channeling a source outside of themselves,” can be understood in terms of the combination of plasticity (the brain’s ability to adapt to new information by developing novel neural connections) and automaticity (the tendency of practiced skills to become “procedural,” or not requiring conscious awareness to function). Certainly, this is an interesting point of view, and worthy of further investigation, although I do not believe it goes far enough in addressing the experience described by the poets quoted above. Their experience is beyond just that of “channeling,” and seems to include a strong sense of being beyond themselves, outside themselves, or lacking a relationship to a personal “self” at all when they are in the process of poetic creation.

To my mind, the relevant and fascinating question here, however, is how this state of consciousness or being – and its compelling nature in the creative process – came to develop in the human species, and what evolutionary function it has served (and perhaps still does). We as a species have known about this cognitive shift for millennia, as Wirtz noted in reference to the ancient Greek conceptualization of the Muse, but we have little to say about why it exists. We tend to think of it in terms of a religious perspective, and there is a risk, then, in some circles, that it will be “thrown out with the bathwater”; that is, that we will regard this highly valued and central experience as a vestigial or ancillary epiphenomenon to our development as a species.

To be sure, there has been much written about the creative process, and its nature and quality have been much examined and articulated – from literary, philosophical, and religious perspectives, among others – but its neurobiological and presumed evolutionary bases are much more difficult to access or delineate. Some exciting recent research has been done in this regard using functional MRI (fMRI), with some progress in delineating the areas of the brain that “light up” or shut down under conditions of creative flow. For example, Limb and Braun, in a study of musicians, found that the dorsolateral and lateral orbital areas of the prefrontal cortex are relatively more deactivated during jazz improvisation, while the medial prefrontal cortex is more active. The former areas are associated with self-monitoring, conscious volitional control, and effortful problem-solving (colloquially the seat of the “ego”), while the latter is more associated with stimulus-independent, internally-motivated behavior. In other words, the brain of a musician in improvisation suggests a diminishing of a sense of “self,” and an increase in the allowance of “unfiltered, unconscious, or random thoughts . . . to emerge” (Limb & Braun, p. 4). The authors of this study also note that this pattern of deactivation and activation appears in hypnosis, meditation, day-dreaming, and REM (i.e., dream) sleep.

These are fascinating findings, and certainly with parallels to the (improvisational) process of writing poetry. They are also confirmed phenomenologically in the descriptions of the poetic process quoted above. In fact, in a sense, these findings should not be surprising to those of us who participate in creative endeavors, nor to those who study the process of creative inspiration. Moreover, most can likely hypothesize regarding the evolutionary benefits of the shift in consciousness that apparently accompanies – or is even requisite for – the creative process. However, the core question remains unanswered, perhaps because in an age in which such “epiphenomena” of neurally-based brain function make uncomfortable bed-fellows with “hard science.” To date, then, a full understanding of the meaning of this creative consciousness in the development of the mind, the evolution of our species, is left as just that: a compelling question in need of an answer if all of our experience as humans is to be understood in relation to its functional and adaptive neurobiological substrates.

- James K. Zimmerman

Works Cited

Limb, Charles J. and Allen R. Braun (2008). “Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation.” PLos ONE 3(2): e1679.

Poetry (Feb., 2012). Vol. CXCIX(5). Chicago, IL:  The Poetry Foundation.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

On the Nature of Being Human

This is the PREFACE to the just-published literary anthology , 
Being Human: Call of the Wild. [copyright 2012 Editions Bibliotekos]

We are primarily interested in stories that deal with human character. Who are we as a species and as individuals? What is our human nature? While we have constructed, over thousands of years, a vast cathedral of scintillating, rational humanity, we can be primal and shadowy with visceral emotions. We can profoundly love and superficially hate. Though we are by nature social creatures, we can commit acts of aggression (either against ourselves or others). And yet, quite often, we seek through rituals a natural peace with ourselves in unison with our family or the larger environment.

What is our evolved human essence? What makes us tick as a species? At one point in history, as many as ten different hominid species roamed the planet, but only we endured. There is even speculation that seventy thousand years ago only a few thousand of our species were alive. Why do we struggle on, survive, build cathedrals (and yet hurt each other)? Why do we have rituals, and why do we create and sometimes destroy relationships? What is (in the phrase of one of our contributors) the human factor? What does it mean to be (simultaneously) a deeply meditative and a yet a spontaneously feeling human being?

The fact(or) of being human means recognizing that there is in each of us a call of the wild, however subtle. There is something elemental in us that lingers. Who hears the ancestral call? Who answers the call? What is the response of any individual to the force of being human? For most of our human history, we have not lived in cities but have developed from hunters and gatherers (roaming in small clusters) into engineers of sophisticated national languages and intricate cultures. How much of the old nature lingers in us still? Apparently quite a lot.

We are in a natural world from which we emerged; we are part of a large universe of nature; and we wrestle with aspects of our own human nature. Our history is such that we are social creatures who have evolved very complex emotions not only of sympathy and compassion, but also of jealousy and hatred. So the call of the wild does not mean running off into the woods and hunting fish with one’s teeth; it means acknowledging our deeper connections to the earth beyond concrete buildings, and more importantly, our essential connection to each other.

There are aspects of our psyche (feelings and instincts) and of our physical structure (teeth and fingernails) with which we must reckon. While we have evolved superstructures of civilization, there are darker moments in our collective and individual histories, mostly (as this volume investigates) on a personal or inter-personal level. While familial creatures who create loving bonds, we are also capable of inflicting harm.

For this book we received quite a corpus of submissions – well over one thousand pages. We have tried to cull from that mass just enough material to make our literary point, but keep in mind that the stories between these covers consist of many different styles and voices. Much of the writing is poetic, magical, contemplative, and even humorous. We are sure that after having read this small book, you too will be captivated by the question, Who are we, individually and collectively?

- Gregory F. Tague and Fredericka A. Jacks

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Biology of Inspiration - Guest Post

Reclaiming the Muse: Biological Processes Underlying the Muse Phenomenon

Oh for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention.
            ~William Shakespeare

A few weeks ago I attended the premiere of a film titled Margin Call. After the showing the audience was privy to a Q&A with writer and director, J.C. Chandor. Chandor commented that it took him several months of writing dialogue for the characters to become recognizable in his mind, several months in order for the characters to take shape and begin to have voices of their own. This took me back several years—twelve years, to be exact—to a Q&A with writer Charles Baxter who had recently published the novel Feast of Love (2000). Baxter shared an anecdote in which he began hearing the characters from his novel speak to him while driving on the freeway, leading him to pull over immediately and write down what they were saying.

The Muse phenomenon is an elusive strategy of invocation wherein writers feel that they are channeling a source outside of themselves, that they are acting as a privileged medium. One of the first to mention the Muse phenomenon is Plato, who relates in the Ion:

The Muse first of all inspires men herself; and from these inspired persons a chain of other persons is suspended, who take the inspiration. For all good poets, epic as well as lyric, compose their beautiful poems not by art, but because they are inspired and possessed. […] For the poet is a light and winged and holy thing, and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his senses, and the mind is no longer in him: when he has not attained to this state, he is powerless and is unable to utter his oracles.

For Plato, the Muse phenomenon is a physical act of inspiration in which the poet is literally possessed by the Muse. It’s fascinating to me to mark the similarities and differences between this classical view of the Muse and more contemporary views of the Muse as we see in the examples of J.C. Chandor and Charles Baxter. For example, I’m sure that Chandor and Baxter do not think of an actual Muse goddess inhabiting their spirits, and I’m even more certain they have not built any altars to the Muse, yet their experiences are certainly characteristic of channeling voices that exist independent and autonomous to their own thoughts and minds.

I’ve been fascinated with the way writers invent, and for over a decade now and in the past few years I’ve taken this fascination more seriously by interviewing successful writers about their processes of invention. Most recently, this research led me into the fields of evolutionary biology, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience as I continue to act as reconnoiter of insights into the invention process of writers, all the while willfully and necessarily crossing artificial yet artfully crafted and well-guarded disciplinary boundaries. In this essay I want to look more closely at the Muse phenomenon to unpack and understand its contours more completely by viewing some of the biological processes at work—in particular, how two coordinated biological processes, plasticity and automaticity, account for the Muse phenomenon as related by writers and other artists. My aim is to enrich our understanding of this phenomenon which has been an invention strategy of writers since the invention of writing.

Plasticity references the brain’s epigenetic ability to alter its own architecture in response to the cognitive demands and choices made in response to one’s environment—in other words, our brains are continuously changing and adapting throughout our lifetimes in response to experiences so that, for example, your brain’s architecture will be slightly altered as a result of reading this essay. Plasticity is evidence that the brain has created new connections—specifically, an increased number of connections among axons and dendrites—in order to operate at a higher rung on the cognitive ladder.

A neuroscientific study that illustrates plasticity most effectively is a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI ) study of London taxi drivers (Maguire, et al.). This study, conducted on 16 London taxi drivers with experience ranging from 1.5 to 42 years, demonstrated that a part of the hippocampus responsible for spatial awareness was larger in those taxi drivers with more experience. In sum, those drivers with the greatest experience navigating the London roadways actually grew larger brains in the location related to the spatial awareness. Another study illustrating such plasticity of the brain was conducted on dancers. This electroencephalography (EEG) study showed that professional dancers had greater alpha synchronization than those of novice dancers, indicating that their brains actually patterned thought differently as a direct result of dancing experience (Fink, et al.). Similar studies have been conducted on stringed musicians (Kandel, 217) and jazz musicians (Limb).

The second concept I want to relate—automaticity—is a type of procedural knowledge that we use in order to gain mastery over a skill and push ourselves beyond what we are already capable. A good example of this is playing the piano or typing wherein key location has been internalized, has become automatic, to the extent that one no longer needs to search for the keys in order to play a melody or type out a paragraph. In my interview with notable scholar Mike Rose he spoke to this process of automaticity:

If you think about any learned skill, whether it’s being a     defensive tackle on a football team or a dancer or a race car driver or a surgeon or a skilled plumber, at the beginning stages all of this stuff is so very conscious and filled with concentration and trying to master these various moves and as you become more and more expert it becomes more and more routine and more and more just a part of the way you function so that your cognitive space, if you will, is freed up to do other things.

In my estimation, automaticity is evidence of plasticity. As a learned skill becomes automatic, such automaticity is evidence that the architecture of the brain has transformed to aid the completion of the chosen skill.

What do plasticity and automaticity have to do with the Muse phenomenon? I believe plasticity and automaticity are primary biological processes at work behind the Muse phenomenon and help to explain why writers, and various other artists, feel as though they are channeling something external to themselves. With practice and experience the architecture of the brain adapts to function at a higher level of cognition, internalizing procedural structures so that we may reach higher ground. Writers working with character development, as the opening examples of J.C. Chandor and Charles Baxter illustrate, develop mental representations of these characters to the extent that their brains have actually reached a point where these mental representations can begin to feel as though they have taken on a life of their own. In fact, I would argue that their brains—via the biological processes of plasticity and automaticity—have created independent, autonomous characters in the form of representations that are complete enough to operate and exist within their own framework of drives and desires. An illustration of this would be the way archetypes function within the larger culture. Archetypes are characters who have been developed to such an extent in a given culture that they are easily represented as having their own drives and desires. If I ask you to tell me what the wicked stepmother, prodigal son, or vampire might do in a given situation you would have a pretty good idea as to how to respond.

I believe it is to our great advantage to take the Muse phenomenon from its outdated, alchemical moorings and reinvigorate its heuristic usefulness for contemporary writers and artists. The way to do this is to further our understanding of the Muse phenomenon via an interdisciplinary approach marshalling knowledge and evidence from both the humanities and sciences. Plasticity and automaticity are two examples of biological processes among many potentials that cut across these disciplinary boundaries to help explain and explore the Muse phenomenon.

- Jason Wirtz

Works Cited
Fink, Andreas, Barbara Graif, Aljoscha C. Neubauer. “Brain Correlates Underlying Creative Thinking: EEG Alpha Activity in Professional Vs. Novice Dancers.” Neuroimage, 46, pgs. 854-862. 2009. Print.
Kandel, Eric R. In Search of Memory, The Emergence of a New Scientific Mind. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company. 2006. Print.
Limb, Charles J. and Allen R. Braun. “Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation.” PLos ONE 3(2): e1679. 2008. Print.  
Maguire, Eleanor A., Davig G. Gadian, Ingrid S. Johnsrude, Catriona D. Good, John Ashburner, Richard S. J. Frackowiak, and Christopher D. Frith. “Navigation-Related Structural Change in the Hippocampi of Taxi Drivers.” Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, Vol. 97, No. 8. 2000. Print.
Rose, Mike. Personal interview. 14 February 2010.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Do you EvoS?

Submissions to the EvoS Journal
Call for Papers

EvoS Journal: The Journal of the Evolutionary Studies Consortium is preparing a special issue on teaching evolutionary theory in the higher education classroom. We especially welcome pedagogical pieces from disciplines not traditionally associated with evolution, such as the humanities, social sciences, and the arts. The online medium of this peer-reviewed journal allows us to post graphics, audio, and video files along with traditional text articles. We are seeking submissions in one of the following formats (particularly curriculum articles):

Curriculum Articles, that include teaching materials for implementing innovative teaching ideas related to evolutionary studies in your own classroom.
Research Reports, that report original research from the classroom, using experimental or non-experimental methods.
Theoretical/Review Contributions, that provide insights into issues tied to evolutionary studies in higher education.

Please submit ideas for articles to Rosemarie Sokol Chang ( This issue is scheduled for a 2012 publication date, therefore submissions must be received by May 31, 2012 for consideration.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Darwin & Davenport - Guest Post

Guy Davenport on Darwin, Agassiz, Faith and Metamorphosis.

For the late Guy Davenport—author, essayist, one of the translator-editors of The Sayings of Jesus/The Logia of Yeshua[1]Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution “was born in some sense prematurely.” By this he means that geology had not yet “given Darwin the time needed,”[2] nor had Mendel’s work yet been rediscovered. This was only one of a number of comments he made about Darwin’s work, some of which may be of interest to readers here.

In one of Davenport’s early stories “The Dawn in Erewhon” a young Dutch philosopher, Adriaan van Hovendaal, comments that “Man has a history rather than a nature. . . . He has to be taught. Otherwise his nature is the same as an animal’s.”[3]  This is one of the reasons Davenport doesn’t embrace received Darwinism; it has nothing to say to what is most important, most human, about man, that which sets him above simpler animals.

Writing of the immediate post-World War I years, when artists began embracing the archaic, Davenports points out that,

We had a new vision that death and life were a complementary pattern. Darwin and Wallace had demonstrated this, but in ways that were more disturbing than enlightening, and Darwin’s vision seemed destitute of a moral life.[4]

Elsewhere, Davenport contrasted Darwin to the 19th century Swiss-American naturalist Louis Agassiz, a contemporary of Darwin and Thoreau—he and Thoreau discussed the mating habits of turtles at Emerson’s dinner table. But when Agassiz read The Origin of Species not long after it appeared he didn’t agree with Darwin’s theories. In his essay “Louis Agassiz,” Davenport writes,

Hindsight instructs us to wonder why Agassiz could not see the truth of Evolution. But hindsight also reminds us that Agassiz consistently located intelligence in or behind nature . . . rather than live with the miserable confusions of nineteenth-century mechanism. Darwin’s superimposition of Progress upon the process of Evolution taxes pure empiricism more than Agassiz’s finding an intelligent plan or even a divinity in nature. If Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection has the merit of doing away with a single act of creation, it nevertheless leads to the embarrassment of introducing both purpose in nature and cognition in the evolutionist as dei ex machina.[5]
Agassiz felt that Creation had come about by way of the Divine Intellect, which didn’t mean that he denied change, but that he sought to find “premeditation prior to the act of creation. . . .” “The more we look into his work,” Davenport writes, “the more we realize that, in a sense, he did see the truth of Evolution.”

[Agassiz] had Darwin’s facts before him and saw with different eyes the pattern they made. . . . . For Agassiz, evolution meant the growth of the embryo in the egg. . . . This was the classic sense of the word until the Darwinians applied it to the entire organic world. Where [Darwinian] science now sees a linear development in time, Agassiz saw a lateral spread of design, somehow modified over long undulations of the eons.[6]
That is, Agassiz’s interest in form lay along a different axis. So, in the end, for Davenport, Agassiz is only “a poet,” with a mind of intense brightness, while Darwin is the distiller of an epoch-altering theory.

Does all of the above indicate that Davenport preferred Agassiz to Darwin? No, because Agassiz looked for a detached Divine Intelligence, was unwilling to let Nature be responsible for itself. Davenport for his part looked for the actions of Nature’s own intelligence. In this, Darwin was much closer to Davenport, both of them interested in form, neither conventionally religious. Davenport acknowledges his respect for Darwin’s achievement by naming him, with Ovid and Picasso, one of his “Three Students of Metamorphosis.” Agassiz and Darwin are, in Davenport’s mind, descendents of Ovid, “and fairly soon we may find both [Agassiz and Darwin] on the shelf with Ovid, splendors of imagination,”[7] but Davenport doesn’t place Agassiz among the exceptional three, the most deserving students.

Ovid studied men turning into animals; Darwin animals into men. Between these two brilliantly imaginative perceptions the subject of metamorphosis stands as one of the most lyric of natural facts.[8]

Darwin, Davenport observed approvingly, placed the forms of nature “in a time-order, and invited scientists to find the serpent halfway in metamorphosis toward being a pterodactyl, the pterodactyl becoming bird. . . . The Origin of Species was a misnomer. Darwin’s Metamorphosis would have been better. . . .”[9]

- W. C. Bamberger

[1] The Sayings of Jesus/The Logia of Yeshua, Guy Davenport and Benjamin Urrutia (Washington, D. C.: Counterpoint, 1996).
[2] Guy Davenport. The Hunter Gracchus and Other Papers on Literature & Art (Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1996), 168.
[3]  ____. In Tatlin! (N.Y.: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1974), 149.
[4]  ____. The Geography of the Imagination (San Francisco: North Point, 1981), 27.
[5]  Ibid., 241-243.
[6]  Ibid., 243.
[7]  Ibid., 246.
[8]  Ibid., 245.
[9]  Ibid., 245-246.