Saturday, April 05, 2008

E2.0: Jonathan Gottschall: Literary Science

This is the 30th in a new series of weekend posts taken from the presentations at the Salk Institute’s "Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0.". I have placed an index of essays in this series in an introductory post, Enlightenment 2.0: Introduction.

We are on a general theme of linking science and the humanities which has taken a number of different forms. The next speaker at the Beyond Belief 2 conference, Jonathan Gottschall of Washington and Jefferson College, is interested in literary studies.

Gottschall thinks that the discipline of literary studies is in trouble. The main problem is that it does not produce anything of lasting value. More specifically, literary scholars are not building up a body of knowledge, the way that scientists are. Darwin’s theory of evolution gets linked to genetics which gets linked to the study of various health issues and possible treatments. Literary theorists throw everything out with each generation and build anew. There is enough ‘evidence’ in the available literature to confirm just about any theory that anybody wants to propose, and enough evidence to refute it.

Gottschall wants to change this and introduce something like science into literary studies.

One of his examples is the hypothesis that the difference between the way women are presented in stories, and the way men are presented, is a part of our patriarchal culture. Gottschall mentions a study that aims to either confirm or falsify this theory. If it is a cultural phenomenon, then we can expect to see differences across different cultures, or across the same culture over time as the culture changes. If, on the other hand, there is some deep-seated reason built into human nature, then we can expect to see less variation across culture and across time.

So, these researchers got busy looking at stories produced in a number of different cultures, and counted the references to female appearance as opposed to male appearance. What they discovered is that all cultures universally paid much more attention to female beauty than male beauty – mentioning the former over the latter at a 6:1 ratio.

So, now we have some empirical evidence that counters the feminist theory that the differences in the way women are treated in literature when compared to men is cultural in nature. It appears to be more basically biological. This can then be incorporated into a body of literary studies that, like any science, has the capacity to grow over time.

From an ethical perspective, there is something that I would like to add to this description – something that might provide suggestions for future research. The fact that we have a particular tendency does not imply that it is a good thing that we have a particular tendency. In fact, if a tendency is one that tends to significantly thwart the desires of half of the population, this suggests that we might want to do something to counter that tendency – to weaken it, so that more people can enjoy a better life.

In other words, the fact that research shows that literature everywhere and everywhen shows such a strong emphasis on female beauty does not imply that literature should show such an emphasis, or that it is permissible or good to treat women as mere objects of beauty and not as persons with interests of their own to include in the social calculus.

So, is it possible to impose certain changes in literature – to use moral standards to promote certain types of literature away from our natural inclinations. And is there good reason to do so?

Remember, there is no such thing as intrinsic value. The only type of value exists is relationships between states of affairs and desires. Literature is good insofar as it either appeals directly to good (or neutral) desires, or indirectly helps to bring about states that tend to fulfill good (or neutral) desires. So, if our new discipline of literary science is going to tell us the value of literature, it is going to have to tell us about the relationships between that literature and various desires. No other type of value exists.

This brings us dangerously close to another area of concern where Gottschall thinks that contemporary literary studies has failed. Literary theory is plagued by an attempt on the part of many of its participants to advance certain political goals. Science, in contrast, is more objective (or at least tries harder to be more objective) and uses procedures that aim – imperfectly, but not without some success – to remove these biases. The example that I gave above seems to be in conflict with Gottschall’s goals.

Though not entirely.

There are two ways in which values infect the study of science which in no way interferes with the objectivity of science (or the greater objectivity of science when compared to other disciplines).

One of these two ways is that scientists study what scientists are interested in. A scientist does not choose his area of expertise as a result of an experiment that yields a determined result given the best theory available. The scientist chooses his profession according to what will fulfill the more and stronger of the scientist’s desires, given her beliefs. If she likes whales, she studies whales. If he finds some measure of success and public praise due to his work on stellar physics, then he may focus more of his energies on stellar physics. If she gets a bright idea in the field of fetal development, than she may pursue the studies of fetal development.

These are perfectly legitimate ways in which values may influence scientific study. They are also perfectly legitimate ways in which values may influence literary studies, even where literary studies are trying to become more science-like. It is still the case that people are free to study those specific areas that interest them most, or best fulfills their desires, whatever those desires may be.

Another way in which values influence scientific research is in terms of usefulness. What gets funded? The focus on medicine, agriculture, climate change, and those aspects of geology relevant to finding and extracting natural resources, are all driven to a large degree by the fact that there is money to be made, or harms to be avoided, by work in these specific fields of study. It’s a little easier to get funding if one shows that some good can come out of it – and easier still if one can show that the results will give the user information that is useful.

There may also be some concern over the phrase that I used earlier with respect to ‘imposing certain changes’ on literature for moral reasons. Is this somehow objectionable?

Actually, what I am talking about in terms of literature is much like what already happens in other parts of our lives. We put iodine in salt to prevent rickets, put vitamins and pre-packaged cereal in order to promote kid’s health, put floride in toothpaste to promote dental health, and put disinfectant in soap to inhibit the spread of disease.

If we can identify certain aspects of literature that help to make our culture better than it would otherwise be – that affect the likelihood that people will engage in violence or make stupid decisions because they ‘learned’ something from literature that simply is not true – then there is good reason to promote those features in literature. (Or, in the case of features that do harm, inhibit the promulgation of literature with those features.)

I am not talking about censorship here. I am not talking about outlawing literature when some government “books and broadcast board” determines that it does not meet the board’s standards. I am talking about literary scholars taking it upon themselves to do the scientific research to determine the effects of different properties within literature and to make their recommendations based, in part, on that research. I am talking about literary scholars identifying literature as good or bad and backing their claims up with empirical research that provides proof as to what the effects of those qualities are.

In this area, like in several others, there are people who seek to distort and twist the empirical research to promote a particular agenda. In just the same way that creationists distort the theories of biology in order to try to drive their religious myths into the gap, people with political agendas have long been distorting the empirical research on the effects of various forms of literature. We have had commissions on pornography discover evidence of harms that is just as imaginary as Bush’s evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Yet, the fact that people engage in dishonest manipulation of the facts for political purposes is not an argument against the claim that the field of study is legitimate and the information it provides is important. It is simply a fact that good people must keep in mind at all times and be ready to trounce on these abuses. We need to do that in biology. We need to do that in medicine. The fact that we will also need to do that in a scientific version of literary studies is no solid objection against the practice.

1 comment:

beckie lough said...

I realize this is a very old post, but I came across it by chance and I had a few thoughts to share. I love the premise of your blog and I'm really interested in reading more.

Thanks for the post on Jonathan Gottschall -- I am finishing an MA in English right now, and I can tell you that to my dismay, hardly anyone in my admittedly small program has shown anything other than disdain, severe skepticism, or at best disinterest in the ideas of Literary Darwinism. I'm not sure where the field is going, but I at least find it a fascinating area to explore, and it's a shame that it has been met with such resistance.

Anyway, in consideration of your ethical angle, I think a different way to look at it is that scientific literary research can help us identify and understand aspects of our nature, allowing us to assess ourselves and decide what tendencies we might want to do away with. Instead of labeling entire books as "good" or "bad," we could identify traits expressed in literature and try to determine if they are cultural or species-wide. Books that display a focus on female appearance are not necessarily political texts that are reinforce the patriarchy, so it is not as if we must purge it from our literature. Instead of thinking of this finding as a characteristic of our unchanging, deep-seated natures to be eliminated, I think we should consider the focus on female appearance as a clue into our evolutionary history, which is always changing.

In terms of ethics, though, our unique position in the framework of natural selection gives us some freedom in modifying our behavior. Therefore, it would be the work either of literary scholars or philosophers of any kind to raise discussions of how we can best live as a cultural species in light of what we discover about ourselves through literature. Furthermore, instead of writing prescribed, didactic texts in favor of these new or refined philosophical ideas, thoughtful writers can choose to express these philosophies through the art of fiction just as we have done throughout our literary history.

Thanks again for the great post!