Friday, October 22, 2010

Readings: Are You Positive About That?

I am currently about one-third of the way through Marilynne Robinson’s interesting book of essays, Absence of Mind: the Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self. Specifically, I am on the second essay, entitled “The Strange History of Altruism.” In this chapter, Robinson briefly recalls the history and cultural influence of positivism, and offers her thoughts on the pernicious effects positivism has had on the concept of the self, in science as well as in art and literature.

Since Darwin, Comte, Freud, et al. and the advent of what she labels “parascientific thought,” the notion of persons acting to benefit others at a real cost to themselves has been discredited, she argues, at a huge cost to the idea of an essential human nature.

I shall post an excerpt from this chapter below, and ask that my readers—particularly the writers and poets among you—to contemplate the significance of this kind of parascientific thought on your creative life project:

…[evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey] Miller states, ‘Evolution cannot favor altruistic information-sharing any more than it can favor altruistic food-sharing. Therefore, most animals’ signals must have evolved to manipulate the behavior of another animal for the signaler’s own benefit.’ And other animals have evolved to ignore them, because it didn’t pay to listen to manipulators. Ergo, it seems, we, alone among the animals, have language. Why the complexity of language and our adeptness in the use of it? Gazzaniga says, “Considering this conundrum, Miller proposes that language’s complexities evolved for verbal courtship. This solves the altruism problem by providing a sexual payoff for eloquent speaking by the male and female.”

Is it true? Are the astonishing sonnets of Shakespeare and the elegant word-play of a Dylan Thomas or a Sandra Agricola (plug!), nothing more than grand elaborations on such classic pickup lines as “Fuck me if I’m wrong, but isn’t your name Martha?”

Is a poet essentially of a kind with the short-lived and behaviorally hard-wired moth on its herky-jerky flight towards an artificial light?


Tracie O'braks said...

Laughing hard!! Oh my god... this is so funny! I do think it might be true to a point.

Intelligence has always been a carrot dangled before a prospective mate. It also plays quite a role when luring the possible mate away from a competitor. How could it be any other way?

We are animals after all.. no matter how we like to package ourselves. Sex is part of our equation.

To go back to the Altruism part though... the fact that we cannot evolve as a speicies with altruistic thinking...I think that is way off base. I think now, in today's day and age, that if we dont' start acting with more altruism towards all beings, we are more apt to be stunted in growth. We might continue to evolve physically...but emotionally and spiritualy we will be stunted.

Rodak said...

Well, Tracie--both Marilynne Robinson and I would agree with you 100% on the subject of altruism.
I thought that there might be a kernel of truth in the positivist view of verbal dexterity in attracting mates, too. Robinson doesn't want to admit that, but she has yet to blow the theory out of the water, imo. To be fair, though, I haven't finished the essay yet. I just had to stop and get that idea on the table, because I got such a kick out of it.

lissla lissar said...

Oooh. Is that a new Robinson book?

It is. Now I know what I want for Christmas.

Sorry. I love Marilynne Robinson, and am sad that she's written so few books.

The psychologist's quote reminds me strongly of the quote from Orthodoxy,

"The determinists come to bind, not to loose. They may call their law the "chain" of causation. It is the worst chain that ever fettered a human being. You may use the language of liberty, if you like, about materialistic teaching, but it is obvious that this is just as inapplicable to it as a whole as the same language when applied to a man locked up in a madhouse. You may say, if you like, that the man is free to think himself a poached egg. But it is surely a more massive and important fact that if he is a poeached egg, he is not free to eat, drink, sleep, walk, or smoke a cigarette. Similarly, you may say, if you like, that the bold determinist speculator is free to disbelieve in the reality of the will. But it is a much more massive and important fact that he is not free to raise, to curse, to thank, to justify, to urge, to punish, to resist temptations, to incite mobs, to make New Year resolutions, to pardon sinners, to rebuke tyrants or even to say "thank you" for the mustard."

The evolutionary psychologist seems in a similar bind regarding the reason for Art- he must make it evolutionarily advantageous. It can't simply be good, or beautiful, or created from a a desire to share experience.

Rodak said...

Hello, Lissla, thanks for dropping by. I know that we've met before...on Pentimento's blog, maybe?
At any rate, thank you for the quote. It is certainly pertinent.
I'm now on to the third essay in Robinson's little book, which is on Freud. Very interesting. Do get it for Christmas, if you can wait that long!

lissla lissar said...

Yes. I haunt Pentimento's blog but don't post very often.

I certainly will get the new Robinson. The year I read Gilead I forced it on (I think?) ten people as a Christmas present. Her writing is luminously beautiful.

Rodak said...

I totally agree, Lissla. I'm a big, big fan of Marilynne Robinson.
Have you read any of the novels of Ron Hansen? If you're not already familiar with his work, you should check him out. I think you might like him.