spring/summer 2006, no. 7
By Way of an Introduction
Let’s say you’re a writer, just
suppose, that has heard a little something, or more than a little
something, about evolutionary psychology. Maybe you tanked in high
school science classes and found your niche on the school literary
magazine, fled to a liberal arts school like a conscientious objector
on draft day, and never took so much as Physics for Poets. Maybe you
even lived with a bunch of science folks and, well, you kind of liked
their approach, not necessarily to matters academic but to meal
preparation, their way of perceiving the world around them, their
wonderment at real, living things like bats and cormorants, the way
they tricked you into eating raisins because they offhandedly told you
they contained vasopressin, the memory hormone. Let’s say you picked
yourself up from the toilet seat eventually and laughed at yourself
and went back to reading Hegel and Wittgenstein, and sometimes went
foraging through the library stacks looking for that philosopher
overlooked by history who had maybe gotten it right and could save
your life. And never found him.
Now, let’s suppose that one evening you attended a lecture sponsored jointly by the Philosophy department and the Cognitive Science department, something about epistemology. Let’s just say that the speaker, an eminent cognitive scientist, had slides, unheard of in your little agora, and that you found her representations of the mind as a set of boxes with input and output arrows, her unwavering commitment to materialism (“eliminative?!”) and her glowing red laser light at once seductive and chilling. Let’s say that you found these even more threatening than your previous nemesis, sophistry, and decided that you had to Refuse and Resist this strain of ugly, dehumanizing Flowchartism, and that you secretly cheered when your philosophy professors challenged the speaker on precisely the grounds of its being ugly and dehumanizing.
But let’s say that you had a set of experiences that led you to the inescapable conclusion that the mind had a physical, material basis that was anything but trivial. Your curiosity, perhaps, drove you to want, even need, to know more not only about the mind, but about the brain. You started tacking the prefix neuro- in front of everything, liking the way it made things sound. Travel, hygiene, spelunking, okay, sure, but neurotravel, neurohygiene, neurospelunking, yeah, sign me up! And when your neurotravels led you eventually to the metaphorical Galapagos, and to Darwinism, you found yourself reading Pinker and then Tooby and Cosmides, and then suddenly lo and behold one day in Santa Barbara in a scene reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland, your bookshelf came to life and there you were, talking to John Tooby himself about your favorite film, The Saragossa Manuscript, which he, too, is fascinated by for its stories-within-stories-within-stories (times about ten).
Now, let’s say you are that writer, or someone remotely like that writer, or can recognize some of his features in yourself. It wouldn't be surprising if one question that haunts you, too, from day-to-day is: How is the understanding of human nature and behavior emerging from this hotbed of scientific work relevant to my art and my writing? Exactly how much do I need to know about waist-hip ratios and symmetry and lekking and modularity versus g-intelligence and reciprocal altruism and the dreaded Wason Selection Task in order to tell a story that sends my readers reeling or stops them dead in their hominid tracks and makes them turn back to the opening sentence or head out for a long ramble just to clear their heads?
One answer: while a writer can diligently subscribe to Evolution and Human Behavior and try to stay abreast of all the latest experiments and hypotheses, nothing will replace the tried-and-true methods of reading first-rate books and paying attention, undue and usually unreciprocated, to one’s life and the world. Examining hunter-gatherer societies and the stories they tell, Michelle Sugiyama makes a compelling case that narrative originated as “an information exchange system designed to amplify experience." While “information exchange system” might sound ominously Flowcharty, the phrase “amplifying experience” is bound to strike a familiar chord for most people who call themselves creative, whether poets, fiction writers, nonfiction narrative writers, painters, or blues singers. And maybe "information exchange" oughtn't to repel us either; what we now call "information" was probably once entangled with wisdom — the migratory patterns of animals, the shape of the landscape, the history of the group, the way to intuit that a trickster, or a lover, was lying.
So ultimately, I see no problem if a writer wants to scan through dense, statistics-heavy scientific papers, or even the headline versions that the media pounces on. Sometimes that’s me. But an evolutionary inclination should also call upon us to open our eyes and ears, to celebrate the way our evolved psyche craves and extends itself toward color, touch, and interaction, its experience-tropic nature. And while we might be torn when, about to crack open the latest evpsych tome on the plane, we find ourselves sitting next to the goateed guy, early twenties, reading the 1950s-era guide to billiards, in the end we probably ought to shut our book, turn to him and say, “So, ah, you gonna shoot some pool in Vegas?”<
Tim Horvath received his MA in English Education from Teachers College, Columbia University, and will soon finish his MFA in Creative Writing at the University of New Hampshire. He taught high school English for nine years, and currently teaches Creative Nonfiction at UNH. Tim is a three-time finalist in Glimmer Train's New Writers Competitions, and recently his story "The Understory" won the 2006 Raymond Carver Prize sponsored by Carve Magazine. His interest in cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary psychology has led him to give talks at various conferences, including ones with co-editor Jason Ronstadt on the dreaming brain and literature. He is currently working on a novel, tentatively entitled Spectra
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