Other Memes, Other Minds

William Flesch


     1. David Hawkes's manifesto is an ambitious attempt to counter the eliminative materialism that he sees infecting and debasing recent literary theory -- ambitious because he gives an account of materialism starting all the way back with the pre-Socratics. He sees materialism as committed to a monistic idea that entails various baleful commitments, chiefly a commitment to denying the existence of what, for short, we can call the human soul. Hawkes asks his most important question, at the end of part II: "Is it true that human beings have no soul?"

     2. I should note at the outset that I think his history is partial: monism need not be materialist, and a different history of monism might mention Parmenides on the pre-Socratic end of the hyperbolic trajectory Hawkes charts, and Donald Davidson near the contemporary end. In fact Hawkes doesn't cite any Anglo-American philosophy at all, though he might have found some comfort there, for example in Davidson's "anomalous monism" which takes both mind and matter equally seriously, and doesn't reduce either to the other.1

     3. I'll return to this point below, but first I want to declare that I am in very deep sympathy with Hawkes' main complaint about materialism, at least the way he puts that complaint in the first two thirds of the piece. The last third seems a somewhat nervous non-sequitur, a kind of assurance that although materialism may commit you to certain ideas that you might not wish to endorse, an idealist alternative really doesn't prevent radical politics of a sort that had seemed committed to materialism. (I should say that I am using these terms -- materialism and idealism -- as a kind of approximate and simple shorthand, more or less as Hawkes does. An older, scholastic vocabulary -- that of nominalism and realism -- might be more useful here.) Indeed you can continue to use materialist vocabulary, at least if you're Hawkes. The last third of his essay uses the word "colonize" several times, a prejudicial metaphor which appeals to the materialist political-economic theory he usually rejects. That metaphor gives his argument considerable but perhaps unearned rhetorical power: the power comes from the appeal to a leftist materialist vocabulary, even as he chastises others for using other variants of that vocabulary. I don't object to Hawkes's learning from and using that vocabulary; I object to his opportunistic objections when other people do.

     4. Since he sees me as one of the people committed to materialist reduction, I'll comment on the way I think he gets my work wrong, and why I think he also misconstrues some of the ways of thinking that I find helpful and powerful. What prompted me to write Comeuppance,2 which he cites on p. 19, was my (Kantian) desire to defend an idealist point of view despite the Darwinian demands that constrain the development and the activity of any biological entity. I wrote Comeuppance to challenge the massive reductiveness of Literary Darwinism, as the movement now styles itself. The so-called Darwinian approach to the humanities (whose godfather is the breath-takingly literal-minded founder of Sociobiology, E. O. Wilson) seemed to me to be so massively reductive in its ideas about literature and literary theory, and in its ideas about philosophy, as to be self-contradictory.3 The literary Darwinists were denying that literature could be about the things that critics and theorists and philosophers and psychologists and students thought it was about because, they said, evolution, parsimonious and efficient, just would have no reason to make either writers or readers interested in those things. We could only be interested in what ministered to our own reproductive success, goes the argument. That's all we're designed to think about.4

    5. But lo! if you just looked around you found all these writers and students and philosophers and psychologists and critics and theorists (including me!) fascinated by just the things the literary Darwinists said we could not possibly be moved by. And yet we were moved.

     6. To take an example, the literary Darwinist Michele Scalise Sugiyama thinks that what psychoanalytic critics call Oedipal anxiety is inconsistent with evolutionary parsimony, and so, well, can't exist. On her view, it would seem that not only Freud but Aristotle too are wrong (she says so in so many words, though she doesn't mention this particular instance) about the power of Sophocles's Oedipus.5 He says that one of the things that make Sophocles's Oedipus great is that just learning the plot of the play would be enough to fill you with terror and pity (Poetics, XIV). The fact that the bare outline of the story is so powerful suggests (as it did to Freud) that the story itself strikes us very deeply. But Sugiyama thinks that the anthropological evidence shows that Oedipal desire is extremely rare, and that it had better be rare to avoid the genetic diseases that result from incestuous inbreeding. Her view is that we're instinctively uninterested in those we think of as near kin. But she doesn't see that the psychological reasons for this surprising rarity might need explaining. From the psychoanalytic perspective she scorns, it seems clear that the horror the story awakens in us is one of the reasons we avoid oedipal or incestuous situations, avoid even thinking about them, and the intensity of this horror measures the natural, and naturally indiscriminate, sexual desire it counters. This is a very basic point about human experience and human motivation, but one which her mechanical biologism ignores. Where does our horror at the very thought of Oedipus's story come from? How does such instinctive horror affect our views of those whose images it tinges? Without acknowledgment of this horror, and the way it affects how we project various roles onto the dramatis personae of our own familial lives, there is practically nothing interesting to say about the play that makes it a tragedy. It would be much closer to a farce gone awry. And indeed she does have almost nothing to say about the power of the play.

     7. And yet there can be no rational doubt about the basic truth of the Darwinian theory of evolution (more particularly, no doubt about the basic truth of the modern synthesis of Darwinian ideas and genetics). I assume Hawkes doesn't doubt the truth of Darwinian evolution either. The only real question is its relevance to thought about such things as knowledge, subjectivity, and being -- well, really, its relevance to thought about thought. I was perfectly happy to think that human minds were so complex that the quantity of complexity transformed into quality (as the Hegelians say). We've evolved to have profoundly complicated minds, and out of this complexity emerged a capacity to think that had nothing to do with survival. Why shouldn't it have? We evolved to a point where we could think about souls.

     8. But despite the central fact that thought is a domain irreducible to its biological origins and owing fealty only to truth and to insight, I found myself finding recent evolutionary thinking fascinating. I found it fascinating for the same reason that I found psychoanalysis and philosophical psychology fascinating. Recent work done on evolutionary game theory and on the evolution of cooperation began to engage with what people really did in real life.6 Evolutionary game theory, when applied to human beings, started rediscovering the insights of certain invigorating forms of moral philosophy. Some of us unreconstructed literary idealists thought that those insights -- ideas from domains such as literature and from moral psychology -- might be useful to the theorists of cooperation.7 Not as explicanda (things to be explained) but as explicantes (things that could help explain such things as cooperation in an evolutionary context).

     9. So let me say where and how Hawkes gets me wrong. He writes:

William Flesch suggests that narrative fictions trained human beings in 'social scanning', and that realism in literature enables evolutionary advantage: '[e]ffective narratives are therefore likely to be accurate representations of human interactions, just because genuine human interactions are what we are so attuned to monitor'.

I hope it's clear that the sentence he quotes actually says the converse of his introductory summary: I am starting off with the non-controversial claim that our ability to follow what happens in a fictional narrative derives from our ability to follow what happens in real life. I do not, in fact, believe that realism in literature enables evolutionary advantage. (To be clear, by "effective" I am using standard aesthetic vocabulary, not asserting some efficacy within evolutionary competition.) I am on record as being strongly against the art-as-training-to-survive view to be found in a lot of the more simplistic applications of Darwinian thinking to literary theory. I am a proud Wildean in aesthetic matters, which puts me squarely in the idealist and idealizing camp of the debate Hawkes outlines.

    10. What I do believe is this: it is or should strike a Martian anthropologist as very strange that we are interested in fictional characters and in their fates; it should strike her as strange that this interest will sometimes grow into intense emotional involvement; it should strike her as strange that we become so absorbed in the lives of fictional characters as to forget that the very fact that we are witnessing those lives (through a fourth wall or through narrative omnipotence, or through reading a text written not for us but for a narratee), since if we remembered that fact we would be aware of the strange and unreal asymmetry whereby fictional characters are present to us but we are not present to them. These striking facts must say something about how we think about each other and how we care about each other and about how others think about each other and about us. Although evolutionary thinking has been very good at explaining our motivations to care for, love, protect, honor, defend those who can do things for us or for our genes: parents, children, siblings, lovers, kin, and kin of our kin, it has had conspicuous difficulty explaining true altruism of the sort to be found everywhere and in countless ways in human society. I believe that one aspect of this altruism is to be found in the universal fact that audiences become emotionally involved in the fates of fictional characters, characters who have no genetic relationship to us at all -- partly because they have no genes.

     11. The idea Hawkes saddles me with, that fiction thrives because it trains us well for real life situations where reciprocal altruism might come in handy, is, I completely agree, a pretty feeble attempt to explain away literary experience. I wrote Comeuppance partly to challenge that idea. Indeed nothing in human history or in individual human behavior backs up the idea that consumption of fiction serves this kind of training in human sociability. Even if Richard Rorty is right that novel readers are marginally likely to be kinder to others because of the novels they read than non-readers (if this is true it would almost certainly be an example of the difference between correlation and causation) -- even if he's right, and novel reading makes you a marginally better person, the marginal utility would hardly seem worth the immense resources that go into fiction or literature or art in general, therefore hardly likely to be selected for by evolutionary processes. And this is only to consider "realism in literature" which is of no greater interest to me than other literary modes.

     12. So I had three goals in writing the book. First of all, I was appalled by the sometimes overtly prescriptive views of E.O. Wilson and his legion of acolytes about what literature had to be about. I wanted to show that nothing in the truth of evolution precluded the independence, subtlety, power, depth, and reality of the literary experience that Wilson and his admirers were attempting to discredit. (As near as I can tell, they have to treat the myriad reports that literary experience is something other than what they thought it could be as so many cases of self-deception or of preening self-assertion.) And despite the claims of the literary Darwinists, it turned out to be fairly easy to show that nothing powerful that literary criticism can discover in a literary text is disallowed by evolution. And a good thing too, since if evolution did disallow these powerful insights, the only alternatives would be to say that their power was illusory (as literary Darwinists claimed) or that it was sacred, in a literal, fundamentalist sense, and that evolution wasn't true. But to say that literary power isn't disallowed by evolution is no way the same thing as saying that literary power arose because it conferred evolutionary advantage. This is a very basic point that both literary Darwinists and some of their more fulminating critics seem to miss.

     13. Now this doesn't mean that evolutionary history can't give insight into literary experience. To say so would be equivalent to saying that psychoanalysis or anthropology can't give insight into literary experience.

     13. For human societies to work as they do, certain evolutionary problems had to be overcome. In particular the age-old problem of cooperation had to be solved. Humans had to be able to trust one another, and therefore for human societies to work, evolution had to come up with a mechanism that was not biased against trust. I am putting my formulations in teleological terms ("evolution had to solve the problem of trust") not because I am arguing that evolution is teleological but because once a solution is established you can understand it by retroactively deducing the problem it solved. (This is a process of reverse-engineering not conceptually distant from the method of deconstruction.)

     14. This brings me to a second goal for writing the book. Our experience of fiction, on every level, seems to offer a mine of insight into the kinds of interest we take in each other, interest that cannot be reduced to genetic selfishness. In particular, interest in fiction takes the form of interest in characters, in quasi-characters like the narrator and even more interestingly the narratee, interest in the purveyors of the fiction (the prize-winning authors, the accomplished actors), and interest in other audience members. These interests are simultaneously competitive and cooperative, and our experience of literary interest (we want to know what happens, but we don't want to be told in advance; we trust the author but also threaten to withdraw our love from her if the story she tells deceives our hopes too gratuitously) might tell us a lot about our social dispositions and attitudes that would not be otherwise obvious. Since an interest in fiction is a unique anomaly in the animal kingdom, the fact that we are universally interested in it might tell us something about how evolution solved the problem of cooperation. Not, as Hawkes thinks I say, that fiction solved that problem. Rather fiction gives us insight into certain features of human behavior that in other domains might have helped solve that problem. Human cooperation might require the kind of thinking about each other in which literature (and philosophy too, I hasten to add) will flower.

     15. So it's not the case that literature provides evolutionary advantage. If anything, evolutionary advantage, along one particular pathway, happened to provide the conditions of possibility (not only economic and linguistic but also psychological) for literature.

     16. To put it very schematically, the altruism upon which cooperation depends requires that humans do things not for selfish reasons but for their own sake. In literature we care about non-existent characters for their own sake. In philosophy we care for truth for its own sake.

     17. This happens because every or almost every human competes to be altruistic, to do an enormous number of things for their own sake, rather than for the sake of his or her self interest. The dynamics of cooperation can arise only when such competition is altruistic; cooperation can only become self-sustaining when we altruistically reward altruists. This isn't a way of saying there's no true altruism: rather true altruism makes us reward true altruists (and punish self-dealers), and so true altruism becomes self-sustaining in human societies.

     18. I am in no way making a naïvely polyannish or ahistorical point here: true altruism can be very barbarous indeed, most clearly in the central and essential practice of altruistic punishment, which easily leads to the irrational and excessively violent retribution people demand from those perceived to be self-dealers, most spectacularly in the case of bloodthirsty revenge. Unregulated altruism is hard to control. To allude to Pascal's famous lament, it is altruism that makes us leave our rooms when we don't have to, and so it is altruism that leads to all our grief and pain and violence as well as to all our glory.

     19. In more ordinary contexts the shapes that altruism can take are still manifold and extremely subtle, because human altruism is a very subtle thing. The subtle insights of idealist literary criticism and theory and philosophy can therefore have much to offer evolutionary theorists in their attempt to understand how human altruism works and how it evolved. Again a very obvious example can help make this point.

     20. I started thinking about evolutionary psychology when I read some accounts of costly signaling among all kinds of different organisms. Peacocks produce their excessive, dangerously unbalancing tails, flamingoes seek out toxins to produce their pink pigmentation, yeasts actively create poisonous environments for themselves, all as a way of signaling their own capacity to tolerate the excesses they create. Excess is a sign of the ability to afford excess.8 It advertises fitness. This idea was for me a very familiar one from anthropology, the anthropology of gift exchange and in particular of potlatch or the destruction of one's own wealth as a signal of power (the power to be able to afford such destruction). It was apparent to me that the evolutionary biologists were reinventing the anthropological wheel, a couple of generations later. The anthropology of gift exchange had a lot to offer evolutionary biology, if only the biologists had known. In particular the central idea that human altruism is a costly signal makes it possible to understand how genuine altruism could evolve and become independent of the circumstances that caused it to evolve.

     21. But of course the biologists can return the anthropologists' favor now: they've seen features of costly signaling that anthropologists might have missed, and also they've generalized the theory. This leads to my third purpose in writing the book, which is the mutual illumination that the kind of Darwinian theory I am interested in -- the evolution of cooperation -- and literary criticism and theory can offer each other. The theory of cooperation can help us notice literary phenomena we might otherwise have missed. I am glad to have had a way of seeing a connection between The Winter's Tale and Oliver Twist in the way both Shakespeare and Dickens manage the audience's temporal experience so as to make an audience accept a character's remorse. That is to say I learned a lot about what makes literary contrition possible from thinking about the relation of literature to altruistic punishment and what would constitute a proper response to such punishment. Evolutionary thinking gave me a genuine literary insight I doubt I would have otherwise come up with.

     22. I suspect that Hawkes might claim that this is all still a baleful form of materialism, nevertheless. I suspect he would because of his strong assertion of the idea that the exchange-value (as Marx called it) which leads to economic inequity and injustice is necessarily a species of materialism. Hawkes (like Baudrilliard) equates exchange-value with Epicurean simulacra, and with what he takes to be the pre-Socratic idea that "appearance is equated with essence: what seems to be is identified with what is" (p. 27). This leads to Marx's commodity fetishism, where labor power is also treated as a commodity, hence as a symbol of use-value, so that all of human life may be reduced to the material existence of the totally fungible commodity. (At least I think this is what he's saying and how he's making common cause with some central aspects of classical Marxism: as I suggested above he seems to be doing some acrobatics in this section.)

     23. But one thing that the anthropology of gift exchange demonstrated, against Marx's historical claim that exchange or barter was pegged to the value of a commodity (measured by the amount of average human labor that went into it), is that exchange-value can in fact be separated from use-value and can exist in the domain that Hawkes's vocabulary would call the ideal. In gift exchange, the gifts exchanged may have no use value whatever. Their very exchange may be purely notional, volatilizing matter into the realm of thought (like an immovable rock on one Pacific island which exists only to be given back and forth as a gift, or the dukedoms King Xavier I of the Island of Redonda gives out to literary worthies like the Duke of Convexio), and utterly useless for individualistic self-advancement. The more useless they are, the less indemnification their holders and givers receive for their costs. Thus in the cases that I am thinking of, appearance isn't equated with essence: these entities have only exchange value and are therefore always symbolic in the sense of pointing away from all material interaction. In this they appear somewhat similar to the other pre-Socratic tradition I mentioned: Parmenidean monism, where what merely seems to be, all matter and all motion included, is so completely empty of any essence as to fail even to seem to be what it seems to be. (Thus Plato's fictionalized Parmenides refutes Socrates by asking whether there is a form for mud: the world of matter being nothing but mud at best.)

     24. Richard Dawkins is one of the people I try to oppose in Comeuppance, so I agree with Hawkes's views about him in general. Still, it's worthwhile considering what his idea of a meme is, since Hawkes treats memes as another example of materialism run rampant. For reasons that are unclear to me, Hawkes seems to equate them with the theory of mirror neurons, a theory of which I am very skeptical. But memes are better thought of as ideas, pure and simple (or ideas and their expression). Memes may be selected for, but they are selected for by minds, not by nature. This selection by other minds is central to the idea of costly signaling. For humans, who are the subtlest signalers in the universe, costly signaling requires an astonishing cultivation of human judgment -- judgment about the true and the beautiful and about the judgments of other minds about what's true and what's beautiful. (All this requires the central and irreducible idea of other minds, which unites such otherwise strongly disparate contemporary philosophers as Wittgenstein, Galen Strawson, Richard Moran, Stanley Cavell, Béatrice Longueness and Thomas Nagle, among many others against the eliminativism of people like Daniel Dennett.)

     25. Even in the highly schematic and simplified theory of memes, you can see how this works. A joke or nursery rhyme or scientific theory or idiom gets around because people like it and repeat it to other people who like it and repeat it. No material intervention is necessary except for what Wittgenstein called "forms of life." We talk to each other and understand each other and interact with each other because we share the same form of life.

     26. This is not materialism, at least not the eliminativist materialism that Hawkes is attacking, but does suggest how attention to the kind of form of life we are might yield insight into how we think and what we think about and why we think those things. And it might turn out that the main reason we think is to communicate with each other, to think with and for others, for the sake of others, for the sake of what they think, for the sake of what they care about, and for the sake of truth. If insights from economics or science or evolutionary game theory can help describe how and why we think about each other's thinking, what our attitudes to other minds are, there's every reason to use these insights to help understand and appreciate the irreducible depth and complexity of the human soul.



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1 See Donald Davison's 1970 essay, "Mental Events," in his Essays on Actions and Events, New York: Oxford U.P., 2001, pp. 207-227.

2 Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Our Interest in Fiction, Cambridge, MA, Harvard U.P., 2007.

3 See E.O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, New York: Vintage, 1999. Wilson is by no means the worst offender when it comes to the reductive reading of literature. His language reaches considerable rhetorical heights, but in the end his theory of literature is a theory of the manipulation of decorative elements, drawn from the natural world and interesting to us only because they imitate the natural objects we evolved to assess and evaluate, to embrace or condemn. What seems missing is a sense of the unpredictable complexity and subtlety of intersubjective interactions.

4 See, for example, David P. Barash and Nannelle R. Barash, Madam Bovary's Ovaries: A Darwinian Look at Literature. New York: Delacorte, 2005; Brian Boyd: On the Origin of Stories, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009; Joseph Carroll: Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature, New York: Routledge, 2004; and Robert Storey: Mimesis and the Human Animal: On the Biogenetic Foundations of Literary Representation. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1996. Evolution, Literature, and Film: A Reader, edited by Brian Boyd, Joseph Carroll, and Jonathan Gottschall, New York, Columbia U.P., 2010 (which includes an excerpt from Comeuppance) gives a pretty good sense of the somewhat hardscrabble intellectual territory Literary Darwinism covers. More useful, more subtle, and more committed (via Raymond Williams's ideas) to the "relative autonomy" of the human cultures supported by but transcending their materialist base, is the rival anthology, frankly antagonistic to Literary Darwinism, edited by Lisa Zunshine, Introduction to Cognitive Cultural Studies, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U.P., 2010.

5 Michelle Scalise Sugiyama, "New Science, Old Myth: An Evolutionary Critique of the Oedipal Paradigm," in Evolution, Literature, and Film: A Reader (see previous footnote). I am proud to say that Sugiyama gave Comeuppance a negative review, "How an interest in Fiction could have evolved," Evolution and Human Behavior 29 (2008): 370-373.

6 See Robert Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation. New York: Basic Books, 1984, and The Complexity of Cooperation: Agent-Based Models of Competition and Collaboration. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997.

7 See, e.g., Blakey Vermeule's magnificent book on evolutionary psychology and eighteenth century moral philosophy, The Party of Humanity: Writing Moral Psychology in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U.P., 2000

8 The central and revolutionary work on this idea has been done by Amotz and Avishag Zahavi. See their summation in their book The Handicap Principle: A Missing Piece of Darwin's Puzzle, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. The point is that their work is suggestively and unsettlingly close to such extreme theorists as Roger Caillois (see, e.g. Le mythe et l'homme. Paris, Flammarion, 1987) and Georges Bataille (see, e.g., La Part Maudite, Paris, Editions de Minuit, 1967).



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