James Wood: great literary critic, not-so-great evolutionary biologist

September 20, 2009 • 9:26 am

James Wood is a well known literary critic, based at Harvard, who writes for The New Yorker. A while back I went after one of his articles, which was a critique of both the “new atheists” and the faithful. I was distressed that Wood not only criticized atheists unfairly (raising the usual canard that our view of theology is unsophisticated), but also proposed a middle-of-the-road “solution” that was both smug and ineffectual. As he said:

What is needed is neither the overweening rationalist atheism of a Dawkins nor the rarefied religious belief of an Eagleton but a theologically engaged atheism that resembles disappointed belief.

Professor Wood kindly responded on this site, defending his own atheism but getting deeper into the mire by saying things like this:

As I made quite clear in the piece, I am on the side of Dawkins and Hitchens if I have to be, but I dislike their tone, their contempt for all religious belief, and their general tendency to treat all religious belief as if it were identical to Christian fundamentalism. Dawkins always sounds as if he wouldn’t mind too much if the European cathedrals were razed. For anyone, like myself, who loves literature and music, so saturated in religious belief and disbelief, one can’t simply dismiss this history it as if it were at the level of astrology or Gypsy Rose Lee.

I discussed Wood’s views with a friend in the humanities, who assured me that Wood was not only a good literary critic, but perhaps our nation’s preeminent literary critic. That intrigued me, and so I read one of Wood’s better-known books of criticism, How Fiction Works (2008; see reviews here, here, and here).

I’m a passionate reader of fiction — granted, hardly as passionate as Wood, who seems to have read everything — but not an analytical one. I am moved by novels, but often can’t articulate why. For those like me, Wood’s book is great. In this short (194-page) volume, he takes apart many of the world’s novels, making the case (I hope I’m accurate here) that the merit of fiction is not so much in conveying truth about the world as in conveying what it feels like to be on the inside of a situation. And he analyzes the various devices writers use to convey those feelings, telling us why some devices succeed more than others. It’s a fascinating read that will make you go back to the novel with renewed vigor. (Wood provides a four-page appendix of all the novels he cites, and I intend to essay many of these. He even mentions Make Way for Ducklings, by Robert McLoskey!) And it’s a fascinating look at the mind of a man who apparently lives for literature.

That said, I have one plaint, for near the end of the book Wood decides to go after evolutionary biologists.

On page 129, he mentions a “quaintly antique” notion of the municipal president of Neza, a crime-ridden area of Mexico City. In 2006, the president gave his police a reading list of great novels to expand their knowledge of the world and promote their morals. Wood notes, “One does not have to be as morally prescriptive as the Mexican police chief to feel that he has taxonomized three aspects of the experience of reading fiction: language; the world; the extension of our sympathies towards other selves.” And then Wood adds a footnote:

We don’t read in order to benefit in this way from fiction. We read fiction because it pleases us, moves us, is beautiful, and so on — because it is alive and we are alive. It is amusing to watch evolutionary biology tie itself up in circularities when trying to answer the question, ‘why do humans spend so much time reading fiction when this yields no obvious evolutionary benefits?’ The answer tend either to be utilitarian — we read in order to find out about our fellow citizens, and this has a Darwinian utility — or circular: we read because fiction pushes certain ‘pleasure buttons.’

Well, the first part is fine, but really, Professor Wood, we evolutionary biologists hardly tie ourselves up in knots about this question. Although I’m a professional in the field, I have never encountered a discussion of the adaptive significance of reading fiction, even from those evolutionary psychologists who love to masticate ideas like this. No respectable evolutionist would bother with the question, “What was the adaptive value of ‘novel-reading’ genes?” In contrast, Wood implies that this kind of story-telling is a major preoccupation of our field. Perhaps he’ll supply us with an extensive list of evolutionary studies of fiction-reading.

Reading is a recent innovation: it appeared about 5000 years ago, 0.07% of the time since we branched off from the lineage that lead to our closest living relatives. Fiction is even younger: many regard the first novel as The Tale of Genji, written about a millenium ago.

That’s not enough time for a “fiction-reading module” to evolve. (And would those who read novels really have more offspring than those who ignore the printed page in favor of seeking mates?) Further, diligent novel-reading is hardly a fixed trait in the human species. Even when novels are available, few people “spend so much time” reading them. The average American, for example, reads four books per year (not all fiction!), and one person in four reads none. With this much variation in the human species, no evolutionist save a bored evolutionary psychologist would even ask the question of adaptive significance. One gets the impression that Wood is talking about his own voracious reading, not that of our species as a whole

It seems likely that, as Wood states, reading fiction does push certain “pleasure buttons” in our evolved brains. It may, in that respect, resemble drinking alcohol, smoking, masturbating, or doing sudoku: things that we like to do (and obviously stimulate something in our brain), but need not be regarded as direct adaptations instilled by natural selection. They’re spandrels. (And, by the way, this is not a circular explanation, since in some cases we can, at least theoretically, find out which pleasure centers are being stimulated, and perhaps understand how they evolved in the first place. It is not circular to say that we masturbate because natural selection built in a system of getting extreme pleasure from copulating, and we’ve learned how to short-circuit the system.)

Why do I spend so much time on a footnote? Because Wood’s readers are not likely to know a lot about evolutionary biology, and so might very well conclude that we’re all a pack of morons who waste our time trying to explain the unexplainable. With this gratuitious swipe, Wood gives a bad — and false — impression of our field. And then, of course, there are the supercilous words “amusing” and “tie itself up in circularities,” as if Wood sees himself superior to those of us who muck about in the swamps of science. Right when I was getting all amiable toward Wood, he goes and ruins it with another display of hauteur.

56 thoughts on “James Wood: great literary critic, not-so-great evolutionary biologist

  1. Jerry, I think the problem may come from Wood being from the genteel school of atheism who’s time has passed. The more I read of him, the more I think he will be forgotten as an atheist as Russell Wallace was forgotten as an evolutionist in his waning years. Sorry to stand on a platform, but history has taught us accomidationism does not work.

  2. Dawkins has spoken at length on the beauty of cathedrals, religion-inspired music and painting, and the like. (Clearly, Wood never read Unweaving the Rainbow.) Dawkins doesn’t attack the beauty and the satisfaction of religiously laced architecture and song: he attacks the superstition and the nonsense *associated* with those physical and literary structures.

    Unfortunately, while Wood and many like him disapprove of the “tone” of Dawkins and Hitchens, this does not serve as any form of counter-argument.

    Going after the tone of an argument is to speak nothing of the substance of said argument. If Wood wants to criticize the “effectiveness” of their tone, fine. But brutally pointing out that religion is dangerous, a falsity, and inherently (and comically) hypocritical in its own writings is to point out the truth.

  3. “Although I’m a professional in the field, I have never encountered a discussion of the adaptive significance of reading fiction, even from those evolutionary psychologists who love to masticate ideas like this.”



    Pinker’s The Blank Slate is where I first encountered this notion, and if he isn’t in the mainstream of evolutionary psychology, I don’t know who is.

    1. Sorry, but neither of these look like what I’m talking about–the idea that the tenacious reading of fiction is an adaptation directly instilled in the human brain by natural selection. And remember that Wood said “evolutionary biology,” not “evolutionary psychology.”

      1. Jerry, I think you’re splitting hairs. Pinker, for example, talks about the adaptive value of fiction reading, and I don’t see how it makes sense to claim that unless one argues that we are in fact adapted to do so. For the record, I think this is an idiotic Just-So story typical of evo-psych, but that doesn’t gainsay the notion that there are indeed people who argue that fiction provides an adaptive advantage, and thus that we have an evolved propensity toward fiction.

    2. Thanks for your comments and references.

      I don’t remember Pinker saying this, so I can’t comment on his views. Perhaps there are one or two evolutionary psychologists who claim that the reading of fiction is a directly adaptive trait, though I find this an insupportable claim for the reasons I mentioned. But my main plaint was that, contra Wood, this is NOT a major preoccupation of “evolutionary biology” (and for very good reasons!), and that Wood’s footnote unfairly casts aspersions on all of evolutionary biology.

      Remember that there are all sorts of self-styled “evolutionary psychologists” who make the most ludicrous claims about human behavior. It isn’t fair to tar the whole field of evolutionary biology by singling out such claims, especially when they are not widely accepted. Perhaps Wood should have said “a few evolutionary psychologists” instead of “evolutionary biology.” But even if he’d said that, what would be his point?

      And really, is our field tying ourselves up in knots over this issue?

      1. Jerry, I’m certainly not going to defend the view that humans have an evolved propensity to read fiction. And I agree that, to the extent that it is addressed by researchers and writers, it is a very minor concern compared to other issues in the field. My original comment was only to point out that, contrary to your passage quoted above, Wood is correct that there are indeed people who write about this issue (however much he may implicitly overstate its relative importance in the field).

      2. Tulse,

        If you get a chance, could you make sure that Pinker really does assert that there is a brain module (or selected genes) for “tenacious reading of fiction”? That’s different, of course, from a module for plain curiosity.

  4. “And would those who read novels really have more offspring than those who ignore the printed page in favor of seeking mates?”

    Probably less – add “I just want to finish this chapter” to “I’m too tired tonite”

  5. Would it be fair to say Woods’ grasp modern of evolutionary biology has nothing to do with primary research and everything to do with popular evolutionary psychology books?

  6. I think Wood makes an odd contrast if he says fiction conveys not truth, but “what it feels like to be on the inside of a situation.” Why is the latter not “truth”? People can be ignorant or mistaken about what it feels like to be guilty of a crime, or obsessively in love, or dirt poor, or…etc. By reading novels, you can know more (truths) about such things.

    1. By reading novels you can also know more falsehoods about such things. (That’s part of the subject matter of Madame Bovary, also of Don Quixote, also of Northanger Abbey, also perhaps of any biography of Diana Spencer.) Writers of fiction can be just as mistaken about what it feels like to be guilty of a crime, or obsessively in love, or dirt poor as anyone else, so what they write about it isn’t automatically by the nature of the genre somehow “truth” – it’s only as good as it is. That’s one reason it’s a good deal too simple to say fiction conveys truth.

      1. All fiction is not illuminating. But I take it James Wood is talking about the fiction that is illuminating. He’s saying at most fiction succeeds by telling us “what it feels like to be on the inside of a situation.” And then he contrasts that with telling us about “truth.” I don’t see the contrast. If a novel could tell me what it’s like to be a bat (to take a famous example) then I’d have some truths about bats I didn’t have before. The contrast between “what it feels like” and “truth” strikes me as spurious.

      2. But a novel (of course) could tell you what it’s like to be a bat – by doing what novelists do – by imagining it. That’s all any of them do – they are imagining what it would be like to be X in situation Y. That’s why I say that what they write is only as good as it is. Some of it is very very good – but none of it is anything other than one person imagining what it is like to be another. (T. H. White as a matter of fact did spend some time imagining and writing what it is like to be various animals – a hawk, a badger, a goose, a pike, an ant. It’s fascinating, illuminating stuff – but true? Well who knows?!)

        The contrast is not between “what it feels like” and “truth”; it is between “what author X imagines it feels like to be another person” and “truth” – and I think that contrast is not spurious. I think it is meaningless to say that Jane Austen’s account of what it feels like to be Emma Woodhouse is true – and I say that as someone who yields to no one in my admiration for Austen’s account of what it feels like to be Emma Woodhouse! Austen’s account has verisimilitude, but that is not the same thing as being true.

      3. Just to nail it down a little bit more, just in case it’s not obvious enough – there is no truth about what it is like to be Emma Woodhouse (or Hamlet or Murasaki or Huck Finn) because they are not real people. We may or may not think that the author’s account is true to what it would feel like to be a person like the author’s character – but that doesn’t add up to (what we normally mean by) truth. We don’t normally imagine things and then claim that they are true.

      4. What reading fiction for more than 50 years has done for me is to provide me with a very wide range of alternative hypotheses to test regarding their utility in operating in ‘real’ life situations.

        Fiction does not teach truths, it (at its best, anyway) describes possibilities. To the extent that those possibilities are more varied than not, one has more (potential) flexibility in dealing with ‘real’ life.

      5. I haven’t read Wood’s book, but I’m taking JC’s quote literally. Wood is conceding that fiction conveys “what it feels like to be on the inside of a situation.” He didn’t soften this to fiction just conveying what authors imagine. He’s allowing fiction to be more powerful than that. And then I see no contrast between saying fiction conveys “what if feels like…” and saying it conveys truth.

        OK, so authors use their imaginations, and they talk about non-existent characters. How can fiction convey truth? I think fiction about non-existent characters tells us about types of people. You recommended that I read “A Fine Balance,” and I don’t think I just learned about a couple of unreal Dalits by reading it. I think I probably learned some things about the general class of Dalits–the real ones. You also recommended Emma. Aside from being totally entertained and learning about the non-existent Emma, I think I learned about a certain type of real provincial women.

        I think fiction succeeds in conveying truth because novelists are extra perceptive people. They don’t tell you in the novel all the evidence that they have for the way they describe the inner lives of characters, but they themselves have it. Once a novel goes out in the world, the characterizations get checked by readers. The novels that survive and get to be acclaimed have essentially been corroborated. (Yes, it really is like that someone in that situation, at that time, etc. etc., would feel like that.)

        So you can’t go reading just any old fiction and think you’re getting truths about types of people in certain situations. But if you choose your reading well, you can be reasonably confident that you are getting some truth out of novels.

        Obviously, one doesn’t want to make no distinction between fiction and science. Once I ran into a post-modernist type English professor who said there was no difference between the New York Times and fiction. I thought that was fantastically stupid. In fact, mind-boggling. Yet, I still think fiction readers know more truths about what life is like for a wide variety of people than non-fiction readers.

        By the way, there isn’t any good bat fiction that I know of. But I think there are some novelists about animals who might actually be pretty good at getting into their heads. The problem is that we don’t get much by way of corroboration, what with animals not being readers. Still, there’s something to be said for a novelist’s efforts to empathize with animals. Hmm–I never read any T. H. White. Am I missing something good?

      6. Yet, I still think fiction readers know more truths about what life is like for a wide variety of people than non-fiction readers.

        That may or may not be true (only a good scientific study could find out) but it is completely irrelevant.

        There is no competition between fiction and non-fiction and certainly there is no competition between fiction and science.

        Any piece of writing can contain facts and truths but only the scientific process is geared to and good at finding objective reality.

      7. I think fiction succeeds in conveying truth because novelists are extra perceptive people.

        Ah, that’s the nub of it perhaps! I don’t. At least not without a lot of qualification and explanation first. I do think that the practice of trying to imagine yourself into the head of another person can foster some skill at that (can make you extra perceptive) – but only if you already have some insight to work with; not if you’re interested purely in adventure or mystery; and so on.

        I agree about learning about types of people though. I do feel that I learned something (quite a lot even) from reading A Fine Balance. But I would still feel hesitant to call it knowledge – especially, for instance, if I were talking to someone with a lot more knowledge. I think I learn from (good) fiction, I think I get understanding from it; I don’t think of what I learn as exactly knowledge or truth. I also don’t think this is just a matter of idiom – I think it reflects a real distinction.

        The point about corroboration is good. I think you’re right about the ‘Yes that’s what it’s like.’

        I never read any T. H. White. Am I missing something good?

        Oh yes – The Once and Future King. Neglected classic.

      8. And what RBH said, too. Possibilities rather than truths. (Though I would agree that one can often get a lot of broad truth about customs, culture, what is acceptable and what isn’t, etc – about the stuff that authors take for granted and that readers separated in time or space or both read as tourists, and learn from.)

  7. …that the merit of fiction is not so much to convey truth about the world as to convey what it feels like to be on the inside of a situation.

    That’s exactly what I was groping at in my post on Rosenau and ‘ways of knowing’ and fiction the other day –

    “no actually we can’t all agree that literature offers a different “way of knowing” because I don’t agree that literature offers a way of knowing at all. I think knowledge is the wrong word for what literature offers. I think it offers (sometimes) understanding, including understanding of what it might be like to be a different person, what it might be like to be in a different situation, what other people feel like, and so on – but not really knowledge.”

    I think some people (though not many) read that as if understanding were lower on some imaginary scale than knowledge – but I wasn’t saying that at all. I think understanding is really really important. I think understanding what it might feel like to be Huck Finn in Huck Finn’s situation, Hamlet in Hamlet’s situation, Isabel Archer in her situation, Thea Kronborg in hers – is immensely important and valuable. It doesn’t have to be a kind of knowledge to make that cut!

  8. “as if Wood sees himself as superior to those of us who flail about in science.”

    That’s a terrible occupational hazard of people in the literary branch of the humanities – an absolutely inexplicable tendency to see oneself as just that. It makes me cringe.

    I wrote a little about this apropos of Andrew Ross, in Why Truth Matters. Ross wrote some stuff about the Sokal hoax that made it very clear that he thought he was much cleverer than any mere physicist. Godalmighty.

    (Chatty this morning, aren’t I!)

  9. As I said last time Wood made his laughable comments, he should stick to fiction. His brain is not suited for the serious world.

    Jerry, what is that about fiction starting a millennium ago:

    Fiction is even younger: many regard the first novel as The Tale of Genji, written about a millennium ago.

    Fiction started at least 3500 years ago with the first novel as the old testament. sheesh!

  10. I think it’s “stories” we enjoy–not necessarily fiction. We are a story telling species– we learn by seeing or hearing or extrapolating the “big picture”. Stories are a good framework for transmitting knowledge (memes)… especially in a time before print and formalized methods of obtaining knowledge. Stories convey emotions so that we know what to stay away from and what to seek. It teaches morals and cultural lessons and empathy– things that may be hard to convey in words. Stories sway peoples opinions by swaying their emotions. We are more likely to learn lessons if they have an emotional component–any story that evokes strong emotions is more likely to be remembered and used to shape behavior.

    Selfish “memes” would “evolve” to become more likely to spread amongst it’s replicators (humans). Hence “stories”, religions, fields of knowledge, parables, legends, myths, etc.

    Why do all the arguments against atheism sound like they are straw men coming from people who don’t seem to know any of the atheists I know? The need to see us as “shrill” or “robotic in emotion” biases perception so that the faitheist can feel superior without actually adding anything to the discussion at all. I am so sick of this pretender “moderation” between facts and feelings. Boy Woods must feel mighty special for slaying that straw man about Dawkins, eh?

    Facts are what we used to determine what is objectively true. Feelings are a means of interpreting the facts. New Atheists don’t have less feelings or less transcendent feelings than faitheists and the believing hordes– they just don’t attribute it to a magical or mystical source!

    Ugh… this is another one of those popular faitheist straw man arguments–they always sound like they are saying “you atheists should be more like me.” No thanks. My role models tend to be the people Wood denigrates in order to elevate his own delusions of grandeur.

    This boils down to another non-argument about “tone”. Woods may have elevated his own opinion of himself, but he has fallen into the Mooney-muck-magisteria-mixing as far as I’m concerned. I wonder if the faitheists understand each other or if they each think they are so much smarter and more well reasoned than the others of their ilk?

    I’m disgusted that Woods would sink so low as to claim people said things they didn’t say, implied things they didn’t imply, and have motives they do not have. He made allegations via a straw man in an attempt to poison the well regarding outspoken atheists. Shame on him.

  11. And I don’t see Dawkins treating all religion like Christian fundamentalism… I see him treating all religion like myths or superstitions– which they are! I’m sure he treats them the same way that Woods would treat superstitions that claimed knowledge they had no right to claim in his area of expertise-especially if the delusion held his kind in contempt.

    I think that people are shielding themselves from understanding this when they mischaracterize Dawkins and evolution the way Wood’s does.

  12. It can get really tiresome to have to explain to people over and over again, “No, evolutionary biology does not propose that every aspect of life must have some kind of survival advantage. It’s the DNA which leads to the entire organism which survives. It can always carry along plenty of features which are not in themselves adaptations.”

    I’ve heard quite a few creationists pick out some aspect of human behavior (art, music, etc.), claim that it’s not adaptive, and then claim that this somehow causes a problem for evolution. My response is always, 1.) How do you know it’s not adaptive? and 2.) Even if it’s not adaptive, so what?

    I do actually think that one could make a plausible argument that producing fiction is a type of cultural (rather than genetic) adaptation. The genetic aspect is in how our brains are wired up to learn. But what we learn, and how we convey that information, can vary widely without need for genetic change. Producing fictional stories which can be relayed to others might persist because it is a useful way to communicate information from one person to another. It can easily be observed that we (and other cultures) certainly use fiction that way all the time. There’s probably no “fiction gene” or “fiction module” just like there’s no “hand axe gene”–but cultures who learn how to do these things might be able to gain an advantage and prosper because of it.

  13. There is Pinker on music, etc, as ‘cheesecake’, which is the sort of thing that is obviously designed to get up the noses of people in the humanities (I confess to being one – though not one of those whose noses were got up – I just don’t take SP very seriously here); and then there is Joseph Carroll, a relentlessly serious literary critic, who labours away relating literature to evolutionary themes (E.O. Wilson praises him), and certainly some of what he says is interesting, though I don’t find it especially illuminating to have it demonstrated, with reference to evolutionary theory, that Tess of the Durbevilles is a greater novel than certain other nineteeenth-century novels. Beneath the quarrel between Pinker and Carroll, however, there does lie the assumption, on both sides, that if something can be shown to confer some kind of evolutionary advantage then it is ‘serious’ and needs to be taken seriously, and if this cannot be shown, then that something is essentially meaningless or superficial. The whole argument strikes me as very silly.

  14. As silly as trying to show that the worth of science lies in its being derivable ftom genetic predispositions and in its conferral of evolutionary advantage.

  15. People don’t turn yellow when they have jaundice because of a selective advantage… it’s a byproduct of physical processes– The only tendency a trait needs to have in order to spread in a population is to not disadvantage the carriers of the genes involved as compared to non-carriers of said genes.

    We evolved to be programmed by the language and culture of our environment.

    Creationists like to invent “problems with evolution” that only they seem to think of as a problem. And dualists always call materialism the “hard problem” though I’ve never met a materialist who considers it a problem at all.

    Yes, there are things science can’t explain (yet)… but that sure as hell doesn’t mean someone else can. Moreover, some people are incapable of “hearing” plausible explanations when it interferes with their pet delusions or imagined superiority.

    Woods needs to see himself superior to Dawkins et. al. So he builds a straw man, knocks it down, and pronounces himself a victor in a battle that never existed.

    1. I wonder if the building of strawmen is an adaptation. Perhaps a straw-homunculus module boosted the fitness of our ancestors when the last Ice Age ended, and this module is now running amok?

  16. The novelist Greg Egan recently wrote of reviewers and critics who don’t know science, and what happens when they try to review stories full of it:

    [H]uman nature being what it is, a reviewer in this situation will be obliged by their ego to start hallucinating genre-spanning competence, and will emit various kinds of bluster or venom as compensation for the unwelcome experience they’ve been forced to endure.

    This can be entertaining at times. The various spiritual heirs of A.H. Trelawney Ross have convinced themselves that the particular set of half-digested factoids in their possession perfectly delineates the proper amount of science that can be known by a truly civilised person and discussed in polite company — where “polite company” might mean “among Doctor Who fans down the pub” or “in the English Department common room” or whatever particular social milieu the reviewer identifies with most strongly.

    Wood is dishing up just this sort of entertainment.

    1. But in the interests of congeniality, I should add that a while back I found How Fiction Works at my local library (whilst I was looking for something else), and I read a hefty chunk of it then and there, finding it quite enjoyable and well-argued.

  17. While searching my local library’s website for_How Fiction Works_, I found
    _The Book Against God_ by Wood, James, 1965- (New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004, c2003. 2004, c2003.)

    Truthfulness and falsehood — Fiction.
    Children of clergy — Fiction.
    Graduate students — Fiction.
    Fathers and sons — Fiction.
    Authorship — Fiction.
    Young men — Fiction.
    Atheists — Fiction.
    Humorous fiction.
    Domestic fiction.

  18. Sounds like Wood does have some interesting things to say. This discussion makes me feel like having a look at some of his work, even if he’s gone a bit overboard on a couple of points (but on points where it is sooo predictable).

  19. Professor Coyne, if you get a chance would you please comment on the “language module” (Pinker and the like). Your opinion about the “literature module” seems to apply to language as well. Is there no time to evolve a language module?

    1. Pinker and others make a pretty good case that elements of language comprehension and production are indeed genetically based. I’m not saying I COMPLETELY ACCEPT all that, but the evidence is a LOT more plausible than that for reading fiction! And of course we’ve certainly had language for a lot longer than we’ve had writing.

      1. Thank you. I understand that you’re a busy man but if sometime in the future you can write about the kind of evolutionary psychology research that you find convincing, it will be very educational. A review of Why Evolution Is True by Liddle & Shackeford (in Evolutionary Psychology. 7(2): 288-294) complains that you are too unfriendly to evolutionary psychology. Any comments?

    2. Deacon’s stance that language rules evolved to fit the symbolic capacities of a big primate brain is a better explanation. That is, language rules have to be easily acquired by human children or they will die out. Far less plausible to me is the idea that humans have been recently selected for a perfect and by any measure extraordinary ability to acquire whatever language rules are found in their environment.

  20. The impression I get with this “ways of knowing”, is that it gets interpreted in two different ways. There is the how do we as humanity know something interpretation and there is the how do I as a person know something. Put in an other way, we have knowledge producing methods and knowledge transferring methods.

    Science is a knowledge producing system that does so reliably, so when people say that science is not the only way of knowing this is naturally understood as there being other knowledge producing methods of some reliability.

    Literature is not such a method. At most you can say that literature is a way of knowing by jumping to the other interpretation as saying that literature can transfer knowledge from the author to the reader and as such can be a way of knowing for the individual.

  21. Do the “ways of knowing” correlate with the unreliability of eyewitness accounts. To put it differently, are eyewitness accounts one of the better “ways of knowing”?

    “Christian values”, “American values”, “ways of knowing” could anyone that promotes such language provide an inclusive list of such?

    On a related subject, one of the reasons I decided, as a child, that English was a stupid language. From Wood’s quoted footnote:
    [read fiction]…”because it is alive and we are alive” I wish English didn’t have so many words that have definitions that include completely contradictory meanings. That is, fiction is certainly not alive, in any way, the same way we are alive. Christians habitually use those words to deceive sheeple.

    Note that all of that is on-topic in a contradictory off-topic sort of way. 🙂

    P.S. Scientific values Rule!

  22. Many thanks to Jerry Coyne for his kind words (so different to the tone of many of his more fanatical correspondents). He is quite right — I should have written “evolutionary psychologists,” not “evolutionary biologists.” And of course, I meant only that when such people write about fiction, they tend to become a bit circular, not that they spend their whole time working on fiction!
    I don’t know as much about science as I should, but I certainly respect it: my father was (is) a zoologist. I was also one of the editors of Professor Coyne’s terrific piece, published in The New Republic a few years ago, which gave this website and his recent book (if I’m not mistaken) its title.
    –James Wood
    p.s. Can I recommend “Saving God,” by Mark Johnston, a philosopher at Princeton who believes in some kind of God-like Force, but thinks that most religious tradition is a species of idolatry? It’s a wonderful book.

  23. If you want to know what people actually have done in the field of evolutionary literary studies, here is a link to an article giving an overview of the subject. The article contains a section on the debates over the adaptive function of the arts. The article is followed by responses from scholars and scientists, and then a rejoinder to the responses.


    Evolutionary psychologists, anthropologists, and biologists who have written seriously on the question of the adaptive function of the arts include E. O. Wilson, David Sloan Wilson, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, Donald Symons, Catherine Salmon, Steven Pinker, Donald Brown, Geoffrey Miller, David Barash, Jaak Panksepp, and Terrence Deacon. Humanists who have made serious use evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology include Brian Boyd (On the Origin of Stories), Denis Dutton (The Art Instinct), Ellen Dissanayake (Art and Intimacy), Jonathan Gottschall (The Rape of Troy), Joseph Carroll (Literary Darwinism), Harold Fromm (The Nature of Being Human), and Brett Cooke (Human Nature in Utopia).

    For introductions to this subject, you could look at the anthology, The Literary Animal, edited by Jon Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson. Boyd, Gottschall, and I have an anthology in press (Evolution, Literature, and Film: A Reader, Columbia UP). Alice Andrews and I have in press the first volume of a new annual journal: The Evolutionary Review: Art, Science, Culture. Contributors to all three of these collections include both evolutionary scientists and scholars in the humanities.

    When people write about the adaptive function of literature, they always put in some such qualification as “literature and its oral antecedents.” No one supposes that literacy, so recent an acquisition, could itself be an adaptation. The adaptation, if there is one, is an adaptation for producing and consuming imaginative verbal artifacts in oral form. Literacy is just a cultural technology extending the capacities for oral communication.

    In a nutshell, there are three forms of evidence adduced in support of the hypothesis that dispositions for art are adaptive: the arts are human universals (Donald Brown); dispositions for art develop reliably and spontaneously in all normally developing children; and humans display cognitive aptitudes specifically geared toward the production and reception of art—dispositions, for instance, for organizing pitched sounds in rhythmically and emotionally expressive sequences, for constructing visual designs that produce distinct moods and states of contemplative attention, and for constructing fictional narratives that generate excited, empathic responses in audiences.

  24. Have you read James Wood’s article “Is That All There Is?” in the August 15&22, 2011 issue of The New Yorker? He refers to “popular evolutionary psychologists…of the kind who argue…that we are like novels because storie must have taught us…how to negotiate our confusing hunter-gatherer society…” I wonder if he is referring to Brian Boyd’s “On the Origin of Stories”. If you have read Boyd’s book and Wood’s article, I would appreciate your thoughts. Thanks! Patti

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