The conversation with Adam Gopnik continues

April 23, 2021 • 9:15 am

Over at The Conversation site, I’ve posted a response (“Letter 7”) to New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik in our continuing debate about the question posted by the title below (click on screenshot). This is my last response, as I started the sequence and each of us gets four “letters”.

In his last letter (“Letter 6”), Adam emphasized that I hadn’t answered several of his challenges, including his demand that I weigh in about two sub-fields of evolutionary biology: epigenetics as a means of adaptation, and evolutionary psychology. As Adam said, “there are plenty of good biologists who think evolutionary psychology is an outright fraud, and others who think  epigenesis is significant in ways you strongly don’t.”

I didn’t have the space to respond to both of these, as they’re tangential to our exchange, but I did defend the field (though of course not all the work) of evolutionary psychology. As for epigenetics, I don’t think it’s been shown to be an important cause of adaptive evolution in organisms, although there are cases where environmentally-induced epigenetic modifications of the DNA can persist for several generations.

Adam’s last letter also began his defense of the claim that abstract art and music can convey “knowledge”. I took issue with that, as I think it’s palpably false. But you can see my arguments in Letter #7.  I also issued my own challenge to Adam:

But maybe I’m wrong. So here are my challenges to you: please give me the “knowledge” conveyed by abstract paintings like “Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)” by Pollock, “Cossacks” by Kandinsky, or Malevich’s monochrome “Black Square.”  And what is the knowledge we gain from non-programatic or “absolute” music like Beethoven’s first piano trio and his first string quartet?  If, like science, art is a “way of knowing”, these questions shouldn’t be hard to answer.

Needless to say, I am not denigrating the value of literature, music, and art, as those who follow this site know that I’m a big booster of the arts. I am simply arguing that neither the purpose nor the effect of art like this is to convey “knowledge”.

I look forward to Adam’s final letter. After that, our discussion will have reached its end.

9 thoughts on “The conversation with Adam Gopnik continues

  1. Well that was a pretty good summary, IMO. I don’t expect a home run in response, though. But I might be wrong.

  2. You leave the other fellows argument in a twist. If you believe real knowledge is gained from these things then list them. And do this without changing the definition of knowledge.

  3. Very nicely written. This bit struck me:

    [JAC quoting Adam] we “mischaracterize the situation if we focus on individual objects, as though paintings or even phrases of music came to us as units, rather than as elements in ongoing narratives, histories.” [JAC’s commentary on quote] If I read you right, then perhaps the “knowledge” in art lies not in the works themselves but in the history of painting and music, a “history of discovery, progress, exploration, every bit as stirring as the subsequent scientific revolution”.

    It seems problematic to me to say art yields knowledge not in bits but in ongoing narratives. How many pieces do I need to view before I get the narrative? Is there any way to evaluate or answer this question definitively? If I view a series of pieces and conclude some ‘knowledge’ contradictory to the ‘knowledge’ you got from viewing it, are we now going to engage in some Courtier’s Reply exchange? I.e. “well of course eric you didn’t get the knowledge. You’d have to view at least five more of the pieces I’ve viewed before the ongoing narrative yield’s up it’s truth to you…”

    In terms of home runs, weeeeelll…I expect I’ll have the same complaint about the last reply that I’ve had all along. He’s going to ignore the difference between hypothesis/idea and knowledge/conclusion. He’s going to talk about all the wonderful ideas art and music have given us – some of which we have found to be important, and true! Which is a true statement. But ignores the point that it’s the testing and work on those art-given ideas that creates knowledge – the springing-forth of the idea from the art merely produces hypotheses to be explored, not knowledge.
    I set up monkeys at typwriters in a gallery. They type. It’s art. They might type E=mc^2. But we don’t know E=mc^2 simply because somebody typed it – neither monkeys nor Einstein. We know E = mc^2 because after Einstein typed it, we tested it and it turned out to be right. The typing didn’t give us knowledge, the testing did.

  4. “Stirring, yes. An expansion of the way we can express our emotions, sure. A history in which we can see how some artists influenced others, certainly. But expansion of knowledge about the world—nope” – very well put. Like other commentators above, I’m not anticipating a home run in response to our host’s most recent letter.

    In my ignorance, I didn’t know who Adam Gopnik was until very recently – then last week I was looking for a particular quote about commas in James Thurber’s The Years with Ross (Thurber and Harold Ross, the editor of The New Yorker, had many humorous arguments over punctuation) and discovered that Gopnik had written the introduction in my paperback edition of the book.

  5. Kudos Prof Coyne for an insightful exchange. I really loved your sincere and heartwarming closing which I find so many writers try to do but it comes off as contrived or trite. Yours was perfect – a simple baseball analogy and a show of respectful deference toward your discussion partner – and a hint of righteous irony as the scientist waxes literary. If only more of today’s “debates” between people could be rehabilitated into discussions as you and Gopnik have modeled here by showing good faith, civility, and mutual respect, our world wouldn’t feel so balkanized.

  6. “there are plenty of good biologists who think evolutionary psychology is an outright fraud, and others who think epigenesis is significant in ways you strongly don’t.”


    Since humans have this big brain which allows for complex behavioural responses which impact on survival, and which may override underlying genetic imperitives, it seems obvious that human psychology must have evolved. It is therefore worthy of study.
    To discount it as “fraud” and even “outright fraud” by making reference to “plenty” of “good” biologists is without proof or argument and a claim to un-named authority.

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