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While I was grading papers

I noticed that my review of Brian Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories has been published in American Scientist.  Also available in an Intertube near you!  And check this out—I even got to write my very-first-ever caption for an accompanying illustration.

I’ll be back on Monday with an announcement of some kind.

Posted by on 12/11 at 12:36 PM
  1. "I’ll be back on Monday with an announcement of some kind.”

    Congratulations?

    Posted by  on  12/11  at  02:30 PM
  2. I have no idea what you are talking about, Stacey.  But this guy might have a clue.

    Posted by  on  12/11  at  02:46 PM
  3. Michael’s pregnant?!

    On a more serious note, I have Boyd’s book sitting in a stack next to my bed of Books That I Have Not Gotten To… Yet (as in Evil Dead 2), but I wonder about the “stumble out of the gate” that you describe. An “informed knowledge of human nature” means (1) a recognition that there may in fact be something like a “human nature” and (2) a recognition that many social ills have some of their roots in that human nature. It seems to me to be a way of saying that in our desire to make our world better, it would be wise to keep in mind our inborn desires, fears, prejudices, and the like — in short, our evolutionary psychology. To take a concrete example, the “obesity epidemic.” We should recognize the cultural, economic and political factors (from corn subsidies that fuel cheap corn syrup to effective viral advertising for Burger King), but we should also realize that our eating habits evolved when food was always scarce, so we will always want to eat more than we should. That kind of knowledge can be abused in a “dictator’s dream,” but it can also be used to have a more effective discussion about how to solve the problem. Any solution that ignores the biological and evolutionary part of the equation will fail as much as Nancy Reagan’s “just say no.” (The right wing’s idea of “pure will” as in abstinence-only sex-ed is equally uninformed by the biological and the evolutionary.) The brain doesn’t just say no to pleasure, not without a lot of help (much of it repressive and disciplinary in nature).

    I think Boyd here simply wants to contend that admitting some biological and evolutionary “human nature” in doesn’t mean giving up on social change—it just means having a better sense of where social ills come from (aggression and violence, sexual jealousy, cheating, both sexual and economic, and so on). While the right wing has tended to regard everything as a pure “choice,” unconstrained by anything, there has been a tendency on the left — most visible in the extreme forms of social constructionism — to regard people as complete automata, utterly manipulated by “society.” Neither version is capable of describing subjects that have limited but meaningful freedom. And the left-wing dreams of social engineering to achieve its ends are not necessarily either benevolent or wise—that is, the “dictator’s dream” can be for or against the status quo, left or right, for or against change.

    Posted by  on  12/11  at  03:02 PM
  4. this guy might have a clue

    ? I can only surmise that you have either been elected Governor of a large midwestern state or will be taking on Hulk Hogan in a pay-per-view steel-cage grudge-match for the Belt.

    But seriously, American Scientist? A publication of Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society. Great to read your words over in my bailiwick. Couple of comments on the review:

    “[Richard] Dawkins points out that he could with equal validity, though with less impact, have called his famous first book not The Selfish Gene but The Cooperative Gene.” Well, that’s nice to know after all these years, now that three decades of popular-science enthusiasts have convinced themselves that Nature herself speaks in the language of Ayn Rand.

    Not clear who you think is responsible for this mistaken convincing, but honestly, anybody who had actually read (and, I guess, understood) the book knew that all along. I’d go further: anyone who actually understood the title of the book knew that all along.

    I share Boyd’s hope that someday our fellow humanists will be less averse to thinking in terms of the species-wide universals we’ve inherited as part of the legacy of life on Earth.

    Heartening and much-appreciated words.
    However,

    we’re all too familiar with the follies of sociobiology, and we’ve suffered through lectures claiming that our species is hardwired for middle-aged guys dumping their wives for young secretaries and students (I sat through that lecture myself)

    Thing is, there are excellent reasons (theoretical, empirical, and comparative) to think that such hard-wiring (which term does not imply ineluctability, btw) is likely to be one of those inherited universals.

    the conventions of courtly love...are culturally and historically specific variations on our underlying (and polymorphous) biological imperatives

    Indeed, but why do think the same is not true of taking a Trophy Wife?

    Posted by  on  12/11  at  03:06 PM
  5. Robert @ 3:  I think Boyd here simply wants to contend that admitting some biological and evolutionary “human nature” in doesn’t mean giving up on social change—it just means having a better sense of where social ills come from (aggression and violence, sexual jealousy, cheating, both sexual and economic, and so on).

    That’s a generous reading of Boyd, and I hope that’s what he meant to say.  The way it comes across in the book, though, is like so:  “social constructionism” = “blank slate-ism” = Lysenkoism = the view of human beings and entire societies as infinitely manipulable.  This is bad and wrong.  But evolutionary psychology lets us change human behavior knowledgeably!  And that’s good!  It’s infelicitous, is what it is—or, if you like, a stumble.

    Sven @ 4:  Stupid, uninformed misunderstandings of The Selfish Gene are all the fault of That Guy.  Yes, him over there.  Don’t pretend you don’t see him—he’s been saying “selfishness is in our genes” for more than 30 years now.  As for Trophy Wives, second wives, Januarie-May fabliaux, and Roger Sterling’s marriage to Jane:  yes, I suppose the excuse “the genome made me do it” is always available.  But you get my point, right, that ev-psych gets trotted out as the Just So justification for all kinds of gender inequities, and this is one reason why feminists are suspicious of it?

    Posted by  on  12/11  at  03:37 PM
  6. we’ve been endowed with all kinds of cleverness to compensate for the fact that we’re slow, weak, flat-toothed and clawless

    ...and bored.

    Posted by  on  12/11  at  03:51 PM
  7. Actually, I have a rather different problem.  Since I was 22, I’ve taken it upon myself to read thirty major novels a year.  Now that I’m forty, I’ve begun to run out of important novels.  Where do I find more important novels of word literature?

    Posted by  on  12/11  at  07:27 PM
  8. At which point, after the 350th New Historicist reading of The Tempest,

    Either you are choosing to sneak in a plug for an upper-division English course (at several universities and colleges), or you holding firm on the climate change commitment goals and giving props to 350.org; all to which i say “Bravo sir, Bravo.”

    One of the new blossoming components of graduate degrees in the overall field of consciousness studies has been the efforts of those brave few discoursing on the evolution of religious thought.  Not having Boyd’s book, i wonder if he mentions any of that recent work.  From my reading of their papers, they argue that humanity’s earliest works of fiction began with the very human effort to organize the cosmos with meaning and purpose.  As the captcha says: it ain’t ‘easy.’ Or was it just another black obelisk?

    Posted by  on  12/11  at  10:08 PM
  9. you get my point, right, that ev-psych gets trotted out as the Just So justification for all kinds of gender inequities, and this is one reason why feminists are suspicious of it?

    Of course. As far as I can tell it’s the chief reason why feminists are suspicious (and often way, way beyond “suspicious") of it.

    And I’m sure you get mine too: there’s a baby in that bathwater. (And she’s a mammal.)

    I also think that accusations of trotting-out-as-justification-for-teh-patriarchy are frequently misdirected, such that even the best of the science gets lumped with the vast mediocrity of popular treatments and the worst of the polemics.

    But this is probably not the Kind of Blog for that discussion, and I have an odious stack of lab reports to attend to.

    Posted by  on  12/12  at  01:28 PM
  10. in reaction to the surprising but not to the expected

    Something like this is an important element in Leonard Meyer’s Emotion and Meaning in Music (1950).

    Posted by  on  12/12  at  02:33 PM
  11. Another review of your book popped up on Book Forum via ALDaily. Forgive me for being hotlink-illiterate:

    http://www.bookforum.com/inprint/016_04/4694

    Seems fair and balanced…

    Cheers!

    Posted by  on  12/12  at  03:41 PM
  12. Sven @ 9—yes, I take the point.  Thanks!

    Ric @ 11—thanks for noticing.  It is indeed fair and balanced, and I ran into Mattson a few days after it appeared.  I came up to him at an AAUP meeting and asked him if his neck was OK.  It was.

    My only quibble is with this bit:  When Bérubé recounts exchanges with wacky-left commenters on his blog, I wonder: Well, what did you expect? In the book, I explain pretty clearly why I recount the exchange that begins with comment 18 in this thread.  You have to read comment 32 in the knowledge that it was written by the director of an International Studies Program at a real university.

    Posted by Michael  on  12/12  at  05:20 PM
  13. how self-replicating molecules persevered over a few billion years until they reached the telos of existence, at which point they were capable of producing Everybody Loves Raymond.

    Delightfully Barry-esque, Professor.

    Posted by  on  12/13  at  12:06 AM
  14. Ah yes those “wacky-left commenters”. The nerve of us, not agreeing with all the right wars by and against the right countries, with an occasional “overreaction”, the most to be admitted. (Not a dig at Michael who’s usually making a serious attempt to engage, but at the reviewer. In the specific case, McIntyre was indeed “overreacting” to Michael’s “latest provocation”.)

    Posted by  on  12/13  at  08:59 PM
  15. Agree pretty much with Sven, other than I think that this could well be the Kind of Blog for that discussion, but maybe not right now. I will add that I hate to see lines like, “we’re all too familiar with the follies of sociobiology” without some acknowledgment that the application of sociobiological concepts to non-human species is hardly controversial at all (yes, it becomes incredibly fraught when applied to humans; yes, it has been abused by those with political agendas; but yes, it is an incredible success story in the larger context of evolutionary understanding).

    Anyway, I’ve chosen to start my journey with Boyd with his Nabokov’s Pale Fire which has been great so far, although circumstances have limited me to but a tantalizing nibble of it.

    “I was the shadow of a science demeaned
    By the false allure of the selfish gene”

    Posted by  on  12/14  at  11:24 PM
  16. From Michael’s review:

    Boyd acknowledges that “those uneasy about applying evolution to human behavior often assume that doing so must require stressing selfishness and competition at the expense of altruism and cooperation,” but notes that it ain’t necessarily so: “[Richard] Dawkins points out that he could with equal validity, though with less impact, have called his famous first book not The Selfish Gene but The Cooperative Gene.” Well, that’s nice to know after all these years, now that three decades of popular-science enthusiasts have convinced themselves that Nature herself speaks in the language of Ayn Rand. One hopes the word will get around.

    I’d like to sing a note of agreement with Sven, JP, and the rest. It seems a bit disingenuous to say that “evolutionary” perspectives on human nature are only now begrudgingly admitting that human beings are not irredeemably selfish, that Darwinian explanations do not condone selfishness, and that “genetic” is not the same thing as “deterministic.”

    Without launching an argument of my own, I would just leaders back to decades worth of books, popular and otherwise: Wright’s The Moral Animal, Axelrod’s The Evolution of Cooperation, Ridley’s The Origins of Virtue and Nature Via Nurture, Singer’s A Darwinian Left, Pinker’s recent work on violence and his length discussion against determinism in The Blank Slate, Marc Hauser’s Moral Minds, De Waal’s Primates and Philosophers, Hamilton’s work on affiliative impulses, George Williams’ Adaptation and Natural Selection—and even Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, which (as Sven points out) says little about human selfishness, and even less promoting it. 

    I’m sure I haven’t listed a single work that is new to you.  So why the dismissive tone, especially in the opening of the review?  Why act as if people have not been saying such things for years and decades?  Why present such an oversimplified version and history of “evolutionary psychology” (or whatever)—especially when you then take Boyd to task for presenting a “shallow conception of social constructionism”?

    That said, let me make my own blanket statement.  I found Boyd’s book—like so much Darwinian literary theory (e.g., Barash, Carroll, etc.)—a disappointment and a bore.  Every one of these books falls flat when it comes to saying something interesting about particular literary texts, as opposed making sweeping statements about character types and boilerplate narrative patterns.  (Are these critics really doing any better than the kind of dull ideas about “art” found in Pinker’s and Wilson’s work?)

    Darwinian literary theory has had interesting things to say about why we like stories (see Zunshine), but it seems to say almost nothing of note regarding why we like this story.  Michael, you also say that Boyd’s work fails in just this regard; I would say that this is the only regard worth regarding.  What’s left worth caring about?

    Has anyone done better?  I would nominate, in this vein, Elaine Scarry’s Dreaming by the Book and some of Bordwell’s “Post-Theory” school of film study.  Are there others?

    Posted by  on  12/18  at  11:21 AM
  17. So why the dismissive tone, especially in the opening of the review?  Why act as if people have not been saying such things for years and decades?

    Because I was picking up on Boyd’s defensiveness in “those uneasy about applying evolution to human behavior often assume that doing so must require stressing selfishness and competition at the expense of altruism and cooperation,” that’s why.  As for whether anyone can do better than Boyd, I’m looking forward to reading William Flesch’s Comeuppance.

    Posted by  on  12/18  at  03:36 PM
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  20. Congrats on the publication, really great work!

    Posted by 4G LTE Phones  on  11/16  at  11:21 PM
  21. I share Boyd’s hope that someday our fellow humanists will be less averse to thinking in terms of the species-wide universals we’ve inherited as part of the legacy of life on Earth.
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