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?