Friday, December 7, 2012

Paradise Lost: The Faith of Evolutionary Psychology

This is another re-post from The Valve, July 2009. In it I argue that the adaptive account of literature given by Joseph Carroll, and based on an idea of E.O. Wilson, has the same abstract form as a trope in Christian apologetics and so is, in effect, a religious idea in naturalist camouflage.
Recent proponents of the biocultural study of literature and the arts have devoted a fair amount of intellectual energy to explaining why literature is biologically adaptive: How does literature originally contribute to species survival? No one has been more vigorous in this effort than Joseph Carroll, perhaps the central figure in what he calls literary Darwinism. A few weeks ago Carroll posted “The Adaptive Function of Literature and the Other Arts” at the blog for On the Human, a website sponsored by the National Humanities Center, and a number of people showed up to discuss it, including several prominent Darwinians, Ellen Dissanayake, Robert Story, and Brian Boyd. I was there as well. The resulting discussion went on for 40 comments, some of them quite long.

Since then I have continued to think about Carroll’s position and have concluded that his argument is too vague to support meaningful truth claims. Beyond that, I have begun to suspect that this argument may be better understood as a pseudo-biological rationalization of Christian tropes, original sin and the expulsion from Paradise. The purpose of this post is outline that argument. First I quote Carroll’s argument; then I explain why its biology is rather thin; finally, I point out the underlying Christian tropes.

Carroll’s Hypothesis

Carroll’s hypothesis is derived from one that E. O. Wilson made in Consilience, which I have not read. In the following selection from Carroll’s blog post I have underlined some passages and inserted identifying numerals (0) to facilitate discussion:
The distinguished sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson offers a very different vision of human cognitive evolution. In Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998), Wilson poses the same question posed by Pinker:
If the arts are steered by inborn rules of mental development, they are end products not just of conventional history but also of genetic evolution. The question remains: Were the genetic guides mere byproducts—epiphenomena—of that evolution, or were they adaptations that directly improved survival and reproduction? And if adaptations, what exactly were the advantages conferred? (224)
(1) Wilson’s answer to this question draws a decisive line between the mental powers of humans and other animals. Other animals are “instinct-driven” (225). Humans are not. “The most distinctive qualities of the human species are extremely high intelligence, language, culture, and reliance on long-term contracts” (224). The adaptive value of high intelligence is that it provides the means for behavioral flexibility—for generating plans based on mental representations of complex relationships, engaging in collective enterprises requiring shared mental representations, and thus producing novel solutions to adaptive problems. Behavioral flexibility has made of the human species the most successful alpha predator of all time, but achieving dominance in this way has come with a cost. (2) Wilson speaks of the “psychological exile” of the species (224-25). To the modern human mind, alone among all minds in the animal kingdom, the world does not present itself as a series of rigidly defined stimuli releasing a narrow repertory of stereotyped behaviors. It presents itself as a vast and potentially perplexing array of percepts, inferences, causal relations, contingent possibilities, analogies, contrasts, and hierarchical conceptual structures. The human mind is free to organize the elements of cognition in an infinitely diverse array of combinatorial possibilities. (3) And most of those potential forms of organization, like most major mutations, would be fatal. Freedom is the key to human success, and it is also an invitation to disaster. This is the insight that governs Wilson’s explanation for the adaptive function of the arts. “There was not enough time for human heredity to cope with the vastness of new contingent possibilities revealed by high intelligence. . . . The arts filled the gap” (1998, p. 225). (4) If instincts are defined as stereotyped programs of behavior released automatically by environmental stimuli, we can say that in humans the arts partially take the place of instinct. Along with religion, ideology, and other emotionally charged belief systems, the arts form an imaginative interface between complex mental structures, (5) genetically transmitted behavioral dispositions, and behavior.
The argument can be summarized thus: Animals are behaviorally coupled to the world through instincts (1). Humans lack instincts (1, 4) and so need the arts to establish a behavioral connection to the world. Note that Carroll says nothing about why or how humans lost instinctive behavior, though perhaps Wilson covered that in his exposition. For the moment, let’s take the argument at face value.

What’s Wrong with Learning?

This argument implies that the arts were already in place by the time humans lost their instinctual connection to the world. If that were not the case, then the loss of instincts would have been the death of the species as individuals would no longer have been able to orient themselves to the world and to one another. Carroll knows this and makes some relevant remarks in his comments at On the Human, though I find those comments a bit obscure.

He asserts “that higher intelligence—the capacity for making complex plans that involve abstract reasoning—co-evolved with the powers of imagination” and thus would have been ready and waiting to create art as the instincts dissolved away. He thus seems to assume the independent existence of “higher intelligence” and “imagination,” as though they are distinctly different mental faculties (embodied in different brain modules?) rather than two aspects of the same complex of neural circuits. And perhaps that is the case, but it is an assumption, not something the Carroll has argued. However, Carroll says nothing about why those things evolved prior to the loss of instinct. What’s their adaptive value? After all, he also argues that high intelligence, in fact, has a fatal flaw (at 3 above) that art remedies. If that is so, then how could it have gotten off the ground prior to the emergence of art? Nor does he tells us what the imagination was doing prior to its valiant service in rescuing the species from the loss of instinct. Perhaps it was working with intelligence to get art prepared to take over the behavioral reins from instinct.

Frankly, none of this makes much sense. It’s hopelessly vague. There is, furthermore, a different problem: Why wouldn’t learning be sufficient to compensate for the loss of instincts? Presumably lost instincts directed the ordinary activities of animal survival: finding and ingesting food and water, fleeing or fighting predators, securing a place to spend the night, courtship and mating, rearing infants, and so forth. Among the higher primates that are our close biological relatives these activities involve considerable learning. The young observe their elders and play at these activities (including mating). Given that, do we have any reason to believe that learning would have been inadequate to compensate for the loss of those final components of instinctual behavior? In the absence of any evidence and argument about the inadequacy of learning – Carroll offers none – why invoke a whole order of new mechanisms – higher intelligence, imagination, and art?

Consider a behavior typical of some groups of chimpanzees. A chimp spots a termite nest. In response, the chimp finds a short twig, strips it of leaves, and then inserts the twig into the nest. Now the chimp withdraws the twig and proceeds to eat the termites crawling on it. This is learned behavior, and not all chimpanzee troops learn it. However, there can be little doubt that this activity is the expression of a genetically transmitted behavioral disposition (5), namely, the disposition to eat. However it is that some chimpanzees learn termite fishing, it has nothing to do with art or higher intelligence. They don’t need to hear stories, sing songs, or see pictures in order to learn how to use a stick for fishing termites out of a nest.

If chimpanzees can learn termite fishing, is there anything in the basic primate behavioral repertoire that is beyond learning? I’m not talking about body painting, or animist ritual, or cooking meat, or making clothing, just the basic activities of physical and reproductive survival. No, I’m afraid that, at this point, the notion that art functions as a replacement for lost instincts is a non-starter.

What’s an Instinct Anyhow?

Having gotten this far, let’s ask some more questions: What’s an instinct? How do instincts work? Here’s a passage from the Wikipedia:
Technically speaking, any event that initiates an instinctive behavior is termed a key stimulus (KS) or a releasing stimulus. Key stimuli in turn lead to innate releasing mechanisms (IRM), which in turn produce fixed action patterns (FAP). More than one key stimulus may be needed to trigger a FAP. Sensory receptor cells are critical in determining the type of FAP which is initiated. For instance, the reception of pheromones through nasal sensory receptor cells may trigger a sexual response, while the reception of a "frightening sound" through auditory sensory receptor cells may trigger a fight or flight response. The neural networks of these different sensory cells assist in integrating the signal from many receptors to determine the degree of the KS and therefore produce an appropriate degree of response. Several of these responses are determined by carefully regulated chemical messengers called hormones. The endocrine system, which is responsible for the production and transport of hormones throughout the body, is made up of many secretory glands that produce hormones and release them for transport to target organs. Specifically in vertebrates, neural control of this system is funneled through the hypothalamus to the anterior and posterior pituitary gland.
When an instinct is “lost,” just what in all of that is lost? And if art really is necessary to make up the loss, just how does art interface with those mechanisms? Carroll certainly doesn’t address these issues. He says nothing at the level of detail in that Wikipedia article; that is to say, he does not connect with the level of detail needed to understand the mechanisms of animal behavior.

Further, as that Wikipedia article indicates, the term “instinct” has all but disappeared from the technical literature, though it remains in use in the popular literature. Thus it is not at all clear to me that any of the uses of “instinct” in Carroll’s argument has a proper technical usage. At 2 Carroll seems to be invoking the ideas of a key stimulus (“rigidly defined stimuli”) and a fixed action pattern (“stereotyped behaviors”), but that’s all he offers as explication for the idea of instinct. When an instinct is lost, just what is it that is lost, the ability to identify the stereotyped stimulus, the stereotyped behavior, the connection between them, the motivation to engage in the behavior? Carroll doesn’t say.

Yet it is clear that, following Wilson, he regards animal behavior as rigid and fixed. Even a cursory reading of ethological accounts of primate behavior (e.g. Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth, Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind, Chicago 2007), however, casts considerable doubt on the notion that our ancestors were automata blindly executing “stereotyped programs of behavior” (5) in response to “rigidly defined stimuli” (2). Yes, primates do have “genetically transmitted behavioral dispositions” (5) but there’s nothing fixed and rigid about their overall patterns of behavior. For example, their response to one another’s signals ¬– vocal, gestural, and postural – is quite flexible. An individual’s response to some signal emitted by another individual depends on the general relationship between the two individuals, the current state of that relationship, their physical proximity, and the current state of their relations with other individuals. Bits and pieces of primate behavior are innate, but the way those bits and pieces are strung together reflects months and years of social learning.

On the other side of the great divide between humans and animals I can think of at least one human behavior that qualifies as an instinct in the terms Carroll proposes, the infant’s suckling reflex. When you place a neonate at the breast she’ll turn her head so she can grasp the nipple in her mouth and she’ll begin sucking and swallowing. The stimulus is narrowly defined and the response is stereotyped. Without this instinct the infant would starve to death.

I submit that Carroll’s “decisive line between the mental powers of humans and other animals” thus fails on both sides. Humans have at least one so-called instinct while relatively little of the behavior of higher primates is governed by such so-called instincts. Monkeys and apes have already lost most of their instincts, with learning being quite adequate to make up for whatever it is that’s been “lost.” In the absence of detailed analysis of real behavior and of neuro-biological mechanisms, I see little alternative but to consider that particular “decisive line” to be a creature of myth, of intellectual desire, of ideology.

Paradise Lost

Let us now consider the very suggestive phrase that Carroll is at pains to quote from Wilson, “psychological exile” (2) – a phrase that others have picked-up, see this Google query: Wilson “psychological exile”. In Wilson’s view and in Carroll’s we are not only cut off from the world but exiled from it. In contrast, animals are directly linked to that same world (through instinct).

Notice that the phrase focuses our attention on the relationship between our species as a whole and the rest of the world. The species is somehow cut off from the world – what about interactions among different individuals and groups, has that disappeared from view? That is to say, the phrase does not accurately invoke our biological nature, much of which concerns relationships between individuals and coalitions of individuals, not relationships with the physical and biological worlds external to the population.

Further, “exile” is a transitive verb. It requires an agent that does the exiling and an object that is the recipient of the exiling. Our species is obviously the recipient. But where is the agent?

One could of course argue that at this point I’m looking for something that isn’t there. The word is merely suggestive and shouldn’t be taken literally. But isn’t that the point of using that word in this context, to be suggestive? And what it suggests is the Judeo-Christian origin myth in which Adam and Eve are exiled from Paradise for committing the obscure sin of eating of the Tree of Knowledge.

In the current version of the myth, the one promulgated by Wilson and Carroll, the Forbidden Fruit is the mind’s ability to “organize the elements of cognition in an infinitely diverse array of combinatorial possibilities” most of which “would be fatal.” In effect, we-as-a-species are the agent of our own exile (3).

It’s a strange formulation, this key insight of Wilson’s. Would replacing lost instinct have been easier if then mind were not so rich and various? Is it really the mind’s power that cripples it for this task? Tell me how, in detail, not through mere assertion. This talk may well pick up some rhetorical resonance from the fact that we often have difficulties in making decisions, but that resonance is irrelevant to the actual argument. That resonance plus the undertone of Christian myth is what makes the argument compelling.

In making this argument I am not, of course, arguing that either Carroll or Wilson are attempting to sneak Christian doctrine into otherwise secular hypothesis. Not at all. Rather, I am suggesting that they are captive to habits of thought so deeply embedded in our culture that they work on us without our conscious awareness. This implies that those of us who bought the hypothesis may also have been captive to the mythology. In particular, I include myself in that group, as I endorsed that hypothesis at one time (“Rock Art in Darwin’s Cathedral” (PDF)), though I set it aside sometime later. The hypothesis seemed to make sense at the time, it was sufficient for my purpose, so I didn’t bother to think about it very deeply. I accepted it at face value and went on with my own observations and arguments.

So What?

Let us be clear, my criticism of Carroll’s hypothesis is that, in various ways, the biology is vague and incoherent. It simply doesn’t make biological sense.

My argument that his hypothesis is the expression of tropes deeply embedded in the culture of the Judeo-Christian West, that is something else. It is not a critique of the biology.

Rather, it is an attempt to understand why someone would be attracted to and defend a biological argument that is so weak. If the biology were stronger, the mythological subtext would be irrelevant. In the absence of even superficial biological plausibility one must wonder whether or not the argument is, in fact, being driven by that subtext.

If that is the case, then what of Carroll’s intellectual enterprise? The issue – the biological function of art – after all, is not a minor one. Rather it is central to the enterprise. If Carroll’s approach to that central issue owes more to unconscious myth than to conscious science, then one has to wonder whether or not Carroll is, in fact, committed to the open-ended pursuit of the truth.

There is no dishonor is saying that, central though the issue is, we’re not yet in a position to address it. But that isn’t what Carroll is saying. Rather, he’s insisting that we can address the issue now, and that he’s got the best hypothesis. He’s wrong.


  1. The alternative would seem to be that the "psychological exile" is a materialist insight which sneaked into theological doctrine, or perhaps rather, a way of formulating a materialist insight about the difference between man and animals in theological terms (originally in mythical terms). The biological function of art would seem to be a subset of the biological function of culture at large—and it does not seem as if we haven't made any progress in understanding that function "ever since Darwin". Along with that understanding there may come new insight into the ways previous discourses or epistemes dealt with what is, from our perspective, a fundamentally biological or ecological problem—and these attempts to deal with a real, material problem that is now perceived as such would count in a way as proto-materialist insights.

    1. But for that alternative to have any traction Wilson's and Carroll's biology has to be plausible. Alas, it isn't.

  2. It bears at least a surface comparison to one of Nebuchadnezzar's medieval children.

    Discussion of a psychological exile does seem to be in the same ballpark as 12th century variants on the notion of divine madness.