Saturday, December 31, 2016

Inborn Knowledge - Book Review

Colin McGinn. Inborn Knowledge: The Mystery Within. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015. 9780262029391. 152 pages. $32U.S. Hardcover.

Colin McGinn’s book Inborn Knowledge offers a succinct and easy-to-read introduction to what evolutionary psychologists have known for quite some time: innate concepts are inherited over generations and knowledge is not re-learned anew with each individual. I would not, however, classify McGinn’s book as science, much less as evolutionary or cognitive science. He writes as a philosopher for philosophers, and that’s where the great value of his book lies. Philosophers who might resist evolutionary approaches to the human mind will find comfort in McGinn’s lucid and organized style, discovering that, contrary to what preconceived notions they might have, biological evolution does not equate to determinism nor does it eliminate free will and individuality. To a large extent, McGinn sets out in this very short work to delineate how the brain can help to explain the mind.

The key question concerns the provenance of ideas. From early on, McGinn makes clear that his argument will demonstrate how we are born with ideas, a nativist approach, and that we do not simply acquire ideas from objects, an empiricist approach. I suppose it’s worth noting that an evolutionist might quibble with parts of McGinn’s title, once his claim is staked. It might not be wholly fair or accurate to say that we are born with knowledge per se, and certainly from a biological perspective any innate capacities for applying concepts from within the mind to the outside word is not really a mystery. While McGinn knows his subject, from both the philosophical and evolutionary sides,  I notice that his bibliography is very light, leans more to philosophy, and includes Jerry Fodor and Noam Chomsky, not known as mighty defenders of evolutionary approaches where continuities are shared among human beings, great apes, and other primates. But based on my reading of McGinn’s book, he has absorbed and is able to transmit much scientific thinking not necessarily represented in his bibliography.

Nativists, or those who see ideas as internal, include Plato, Descartes, and Leibniz. There is an innate, inner nature. Empiricists, or those who see ideas as external, include Aristotle, Aquinas, and especially, Locke. The mind is, according to Locke’s famous dictum, a tabula rasa or blank slate onto which sensations from objects inscribe ideas. Not surprisingly, McGinn spends much time discussing Locke, from beginning to end, who insists that all of our knowledge is founded in experience, in our observation of items external to us. For Locke, the source of ideas comes from things, from the objects themselves that create subjective impressions.

McGinn makes a further subtle distinction between internal and external empiricism. For the internal empiricist, ideas do not depend so much on external causes but more on our subjective impressions. McGinn says that Hume might fit into this category. For the external empiricist, however, ideas indeed stem direct from physical things. For Locke, external objects generate impressions and ideas on the mind. Therefore everything ideational and all qualities come down to physical objects. Our interaction with things is what creates our impressions and ideas. A Cartesian nativist would say ideas are innate – put there by God. Others might say that ideas derive externally not from objects but from what others tell us.

There could be combinations of impression/idea-nativism and idea/impression-empiricism, raising questions about whether innate ideas are (or not) from external impressions. Locke is a proponent of both ideas and impressions as rooted in objects. Hume sees impressions as originating from within the mind. If impressions are internal, and if ideas come from impressions, then ideas too are internal, notes McGinn. Empiricists would say, however, that simple and not complex ideas come from the senses. All of this reminds me of how Emerson says nature is to soul as seal is to print. But while Emerson is transcendental, Locke is mechanistic. For Locke, there is no mystery in how ideas are formed. For the nativist, senses help evoke what is innate; sense does not simply manufacture ideas.

McGinn offers easy examples to follow, but he spends much time on color, a secondary quality, and the view is a bit anthropocentric. A chimpanzee does not know the difference between what we call yellow and black, only that ripe fruit looks a certain way. We don’t need any linguistic labels to know that a color is different from one we’ve seen before. Understanding is inborn. As the philosopher Schopenhauer says, perception is the product of understanding, not sensation. The primate brain knows to avoid putrid looking food resources. McGinn also talks about where geometric ideas come from and whether one can have the idea of a triangle by seeing only a straight line. An empiricist says no but a nativist says yes. I might add that we consider how Homo habilis created stone tools. A simple idea can become more complex in mind without external stimuli, since the mind is a maker. Just as there is a straight edge, if one can mentally see a straight edge in a round stone, the mind has created the tool before it is physically manufactured.

And of course Australopithecines prior to Homo may have made tools, so the idea was floating around literally and physically. As only a philosopher can do, McGinn has a long riff about a brain in a vat and what it’s capable of or not. But brains did not evolve to be in vats but in bodies in the world. Of course McGinn knows this; his argument is against ideas stemming only empirically, for he says that a brain in a vat can be stimulated to have impressions and to generate ideas. Not until page twenty does McGinn use the word gene, as a source of ideas, and he does not utter the word evolution or refer to Darwin until pages thirty six and thirty eight.

I can understand what McGinn says about a purely mental life of ideas as not necessarily deriving from the physicality of things, but we evolved to live in and interact with a world of objects, other persons, and events. Many of our ideas are about things; most of our ideas are about people. McGinn appears to denigrate ideas coming via social empiricism, but we evolved to be in large groups. We imitate and learn from others as an adaptive shortcut. If we tried to have all ideas about everything on our own we’d not survive. But McGinn seems to focus his anti-empiricist criticism on linguistic learning. Yet in our evolved past, seen too in other species, there is no need for grammatical language to interact, perceive, and have ideas. See, for example, early work done by Wolfgang Köhler and Robert Yerkes who conducted experiments with great apes. He says, for instance, “Concepts are detachable from...extraneous conditions” (21). Okay, maybe so, but that might be abstracting a bit too much from our evolved capacities and abilities. While we can be philosophical, we did not evolve to be philosophers. We use ideas to explain things. Using ideas to explain other ideas is a much more recent development, no doubt.

McGinn finds a contradiction in Locke. Ideas come from objects themselves but yet secondary qualities like color are projected onto an object from within the subjective storehouse of the mind. So how, according to Locke could the mind be a blank slate if it has the inborn ability to color the world? McGinn says impressions of primary and secondary qualities cannot be separated, though Locke does so.

McGinn supports Chomsky and how the mind already has the elements to enable language, but we know Chomsky presents a human uniqueness angle. McGinn’s point is how stimuli are not potent enough in themselves, in spite of what empiricists say, to generate ideas. Descartes, he notes, was at least correct to say how the world is made of scattered bits of information that our mind assembles. In other words, Locke is wrong to say ideas move wholesale from objects to minds. McGinn does acknowledge that each species processes the world differently according to its biological requirements, but no species copies the external world as idea into the brain.

Concerning the empiricist position, McGinn rightly asks how we move from the particular to the universal. How does the empiricist account for abstract ideas? How do we generate large, general ideas from small and particular things? Empiricists cannot account for such general ideas, only particular. The empiricist claims that the mind has an ability to abstract, but that would be innate. McGinn tells us how Locke did not believe animals capable of mentally abstracting, but that leaves open the problem of why infants do in fact have ideas, to say nothing of the continuity between us and apes. One cannot say that particulars give rise to impressions and that the mind later abstracts because of the particular. The mind can abstract, innately, on its own.

Empiricists seem to say that the furnishings of consciousness, not the actual mind itself, come from perceptible particulars in the world. Consider how from birth all species have intent and agency. Todd Feinberg and Jon Mallat, in The Ancient Origins of Consciousness (MIT 2016), have recently demonstrated that sensory consciousness is widespread across species and evolutionarily very old. Species evolve to fit into a niche and so have different ways of perceiving the world. A fish on the bottom of the ocean need not see and so is blind. A bat that swoops in darkness needs echolocation in spite of blindness. Species evolve behaviors linked to a consciousness of the environment. McGinn’s point, no secret to biologists, is that different species’ responses prove their minds are not blank at birth. But instead of adaptation he uses the odd expression original endowment. The mind is conscious from birth, and so blank-mind empiricists cannot account for instincts and drives. In many ways, also not necessarily a new thought, consciousness across species is cognitive and the mind is inherently working towards physical and social survival, not on instincts alone. McGinn wonders why species do not inter-mate (36). That is the subject of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. But McGinn understands that there are species specific and cross species cognitive ideas about actions built into animal minds.

Darwin comes into McGinn’s picture in terms of inheritance, and there is quite a nice précis, including some comments about the adapted mind, beginning on page thirty eight. I do believe, though, that McGinn should have cued his readers much sooner, perhaps in his Preface, to his evolutionary leanings. Simply by using, in a philosophical way, the word nativist in the first thirty five pages is misleading. McGinn’s affirmation of biology could have been better foreshadowed. That the book makes an essentially scientific claim means some of its grounding ideas could have been cataloged sooner. Nods to Descartes and others might confuse readers into thinking there is, in fact, creative evolution.

The pillars of Darwin’s natural selection are variation, competition, and inheritance. There is no spiritus mundi, no élan vital, and nothing mysterious. McGinn spends a little time on variation when he talks about individuality, ignores competition, but does cover inheritance. Locke and Hume think consciousness but not its content is innate; contents are acquired and accumulate. Knowledge can vary across cultures over time but there is an innate mental structure for cultural knowledge. Some knowledge is acquired and becomes a memory. There is other knowledge we are born with, such as the concepts of addition and subtraction.  The nature of mind is that it is both innate and acquired: the external environment of objects, places, and events only stimulates the mind to form impressions. Why should we be surprised to find intelligence, emotions, and sentience in other animals?

At this point in his discussion McGinn claims that nativism is unintelligible and a mystery (60-61). But it is not. On his bibliography, while he includes Pinker, he cites The Language Instinct but not How the Mind Works. Without going down the list, there are a number of cognitive or evolutionary psychologists and neuroscientists who could have been marshaled to demonstrate how this is not a mystery. Granted the author says, early on, he does not want to write a heavily researched book, but credible backing would have helped his claims about why knowledge is innate and how this is physically and evolutionarily so. I suppose, though, one of the virtues of McGinn’s book is its simple directness.

Essentially, McGinn is circumventing the so-called hard problem. Certainly, how do consciousness and thought arise from molecules? That too has been addressed by, among others, Feinberg and Mallat. By using the word mystery McGinn is making somewhat supernatural a natural process that has evolved over time, much as the complexity of the eye has evolved from a simple photoreceptor cell. Like his delay to invoke evolution, this language undercuts his central argument. We know apes have ideas of things. Chimpanzees and orangutans will try to figure out how something mechanical works. Creationists make a special case for human uniqueness, so how then to explain theory of mind and intelligence of apes. Why would God have made a chimpanzee as smart as a four-year-old child? McGinn relies here on Chomsky who claims human uniqueness in terms of language, but meantime apes can use and understand our sign language, so say nothing about their own sophisticated forms of bodily and vocal communication.

And why would the inheritance of ideas, according to McGinn, be any more mysterious? Consider how mating preferences that require mentality get passed on. It is not only instinctual but cultural, seen too in the generational evolution of bird songs. He says that “Thinking is not an organic process...”(65). But has not that been his whole argument, the organic nature of the mind? Thinking and consciousness are organic, because when one dies they stop. McGinn might be looking for answers not so much in gene coding but in gene switching, so-called junk DNA. So while we are ninety-nine percent similar to chimpanzees genetically, there is a massive amount of switching genes that accounts, perhaps, for our significant differences. This does not make us special, only different in how the ecological niche we have filled is much larger and required new forms of gene expression. In others words, it’s not a supernatural mystery. There really is no mind/body problem, as he suggests (70) since the mind is part of the body, almost as one. The brain in the vat is still embodied – eighty five billion neural cells and a trillion or so neural connections are as one body.

McGinn’s book is a valuable primer for philosophers who are interested in non-metaphysical theories about the mind. Because of its small size and limited scope, there is much not covered, including mutation, drift, and sexual or social selection. There is no mention of cultural evolution, also an important component related to primate evolution. There are many hominid and hominin species that have not survived. This does not give us or chimpanzees special status. On average, Neanderthals had brains larger than ours. Adaptations are a matter of selection pressures. At some point near the end of the book McGinn talks about human nature, but such terminology can be problematic. We have not been so created, with a human nature. Rather, we have evolved, and have survived over other species like ours, in a way that seems to make us appear to have a human nature. While there are continuities across species, there is also something distinct about a species. We human beings are a composite of multiple dimensions of evolution that have channeled adaptations from all our preceding primate ancestors and organisms before them.

Towards the end of the book McGinn suggests an important point that needs more emphasis in today’s culture.  Many great ideas in human history are completely external but have become manifest through innate, inherited parts, what Michael Tomasello would call the ratchet effect. Scientific thinking, then, is not wholly objective but contains at least a soupçon of innate ideas. Just as we need philosophers like McGinn to shed scientific light on philosophy, we need scientists to acknowledge how some big ideas come from within, contrary to a purely scientific method. That is, there is a certain amount of creativity and imagination involved in scientific thinking. McGinn handily covers this by noting how we are “born referring” (88). Reference is built into us (or at least the ability) and not dependent on external stimulus. We can make complex ideas from basic, innate ideas. And in reverse, as McGinn proves, an able writer can render complex ideas through history understandable.

- Gregory F. Tague, Ph.D., Professor, St. Francis College, N.Y. Author: Making Mind: Moral Sense and Consciousness (2014) and Evolution and Human Culture (2016)

Copyright©2016 Gregory F. Tague – All Rights Reserved

Published courtesy of the Consciousness, Literature and the Arts journal, Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe, editor

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Passion, Logic, and Thinking

Pretending and Lying: The Nature of Humankind and Rhetorical Theory Choices

Alexandra Glynn

Working Paper October 2016

When Chaim Perelman and L. Olbrects-Tyteca begin their New Rhetoric, they assume that people do not argue about the obvious. Perelman and Olbrects-Tyteca make the case that the scientific and intellectual revolutions of the Enlightenment have brought about a situation in which facts reign, and the reign of facts has spread out to most of the sciences and most of the departments in the universities, and therefore, why argue? One needs to only assert facts. “What is important to the partisans of the experimental and inductive sciences is not so much the necessity of propositions as their truth, their conformity with facts” (2, italics in original). Now I take Perelman and Olbrects-Tyteca to mean the realm of science more than the realm of ideology but they do mean both. Basically, they are saying that since Descartes, non-mathematical/formal logic reasoning and argumentation have been pushed further and further away from the public discussions. You could almost say that what someone who is not in an obviously scientific/mathematical discipline (a hard science) is encouraged to do to win rhetorically is to scentificize/mathematemetize, get categorized as a fact discipline and thereby never have to argue anything. One in such a position only needs to assert facts. Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca take issue with this overwhelming reign of “facts” and see a place for non-mathematical/formal logic reasoning and argumentation, because our thought processes do not make the distinction between passion and formal logic, or imagination and evidence, that the post-Cartesian world-view suggests they do.

Now I would not disagree with Perelman and Olbrects-Tyteca’s description of our current situation and the reasons for it. For they say, “It is the idea of self-evidence as characteristic of reason, which we must assail, if we are to make place for theory of argumentation that will acknowledge the use of reason in directing our own actions and influencing those of others. Self-evidence is conceived both as a force to which every normal mind must yield and as a sign of the truth of that which imposes itself because it is self-evident” (3, italics in original). I only would like to emphasize that Perelman and Olbrects-Tyteca assume normal minds yield to self-evident truths. This might be true, for the most part, in science, and I lay the hard sciences aside and devote myself exclusively to the realm of ideology. And it may be true that even in ideological realms normal minds yield to self-evident truths. However, do they confess them? There may be a great gulf between what is thought in the mind and what is spoken as self-evident truth. Perelman and Olbrects-Tyteca go on, “the object of the theory of argumentation is the study of the discursive techniques allowing us to induce or to increase the mind’s adherence to the theses presented for its assent” (4, italics in original).

In other words, I accept that Descartes is acceptable to take in terms of his discussion of self-evidence. I only argue that Perelman and Olbrects-Tyteca are leaving something out—the element of deceit. If people do adhere to self-evident truths, but they do not like to admit them to themselves, then argumentation and rhetoric are not about trying to increase any adherence to a thesis. Argumentation and rhetoric assume that in the realm of ideology, the major theses are already adhered to on some level in each person. However, people do not articulate them. They speak other ideologies other than the ones that they know to be true. People hold these “solid beliefs” that are “admitted without proof [and] very often not even made explicit” (8), but they do not admit them. To believe is not the same as to teach.

Poets and novelists have a reputation as truth-tellers precisely because they assert truths that are self-evident but that people do not necessarily like to confess. Indeed, the more self-evident and deeply held the truth, the less likely people are to want to confess it, in many cases, especially ideologically charged cases. People like to hide.

One truth-teller, Robert Louis Stevenson, wrote a whole book on the topic, we might say. For in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, it is said of one of the main characters, Gabriel John Utterson, in the second line of the novel that “something eminently human beaconed from his eye” (1). So the lawyer Utterson is characterized as human. But very shortly after this, when we find out about the evil act that Mr. Hyde committed, Mr. Enfield says “I saw that Sawbones turned sick and white with the desire to kill [Hyde]. I knew what was in his mind, just as he knew what was in mine; and killing being out of the question, we did the next best” (3). You begin to be suspicious of yourself when you read this, that you are human, you are Hyde. But we all don’t like to talk about this, as Mr. Enfield says, we also say, “I feel very strongly about putting questions; it partakes too much of the style of the day of judgment. You start a question, and it’s like starting a stone. You sit quietly on the top of a hill; and away the stone goes, starting others; and presently some bland old bird (the last you would have thought of) is knocked on the head in his own back garden, and the family have to change their name. no, sir, I make it a rule of mine: the more it looks like Queer Street, the less I ask” (4).

We all may have a “volume of some dry divinity” on our reading desks (6), but we, like Utterson, are human. And therefore when Hyde is described as that “human Juggernaut” that hurt a child (8), we are all also possibly that kind of human, not necessarily the Utterson kind, if there is such a kind. For of Utterson we find that it can be to him as it was for Hyde that “lo! there would stand by his side a figure to whom power was given, and even at that dead hour, he must rise and do its bidding” (8). We, like Utterson, care about and are in touch with our “fellow creatures” (28), in good times and bad because we are both Jekyll and Hyde.

Throughout the book the characters struggle with whether or not they should call Mr Hyde human. For example it says “God bless me, the man seems hardly human! Something troglodytic, shall we say?” (10). Hyde is described as trampling “with ape-like fury” (15). He cries out “like a rat” (30). He jumps “like a monkey” (32). He is said to have “ape-like spite” (54). Hyde is called “it” but then they say they heard “it weeping” and “weeping like a woman or a lost soul” (32).

So the fact remains, Mr. Hyde is Mr. Jekyll. And Mr. Hyde is likely to be human, and so is Mr. Utterson, and therefore we are likely also to be Mr. Hyde, if we are human, whether we wish to think of ourselves as Gabriel John Utterson or Dr. Jekyll. Utterson describes Dr. Jekyll in sympathetic terms because it is familiar to himself, and to all of us, “[Jekyll] was wild when he was young; a long while ago…Ah, it must be that; the ghost of some old sin, the cancer of some concealed disgrace; punishment coming pede claudo, years after memory has forgotten and self-love condoned the fault” (11). Now the book seems to imply that “the majority of men” are a little higher than Hyde, (42), that the “vast majority of my fellows” would choose to do the right thing, not the wrong thing, in most cases (49). But by whatever percentage, Hyde is there.

The book, we can say, is in places religious in its allusions. For example, it says, “if ever I read Satan’s signature upon a face” (10). Jekyll also in one place quotes Apostle Paul, saying “I am the chief of sinners” (23; 1 Timothy 1:15). But the book tries to understand man in a way that is beyond religion, in a sort of natural law way. The book talks about “man’s dual nature” in almost a Freudian sense, saying they “contended in the field of my consciousness” (43). But in this context there is again the allusion to Paul’s “war among my members” (42, Romans 7). And in another case there is the reference to Daniel; Jekyll says, “This inexplicable incident, this reversal of my previous experience, seemed, like the Babylonian finger on the wall, to be spelling out the letters of my judgement” (48). I would call the book ideological in its truth-telling.

So, why are poets truth-tellers? Because they will tell truths that others, we regular people, who like to hide, do not wish to tell. This obviously has implications for rhetoric and the teaching of rhetoric. To go back to Perelman and Olbrects-Tyteca,

It is to be observed that where rational self-evidence comes into play, the adherence of the mind seems to be suspended to a compelling truth, and no role is played by the processes of argumentation. The individual, with his freedom of deliberation and of choice, defers to the constraining force of reason, which takes from him all possibility of doubt. Thus, maximally efficacious rhetoric, in the case of a universal audience, is rhetoric employing nothing but logical proofs (32).

But what if the individual is not doubting, what if he is submitting to the logical proofs, or the assertions of what is self-evident, but he will not admit them? This makes the role of rhetoric not to persuade but to gain a confession. It strikes me in this 500 year anniversary of the Reformation to notice that Martin Luther had this kind of view of rhetoric’s role. And Luther is “the man about whom more has been written than any other western figure of the Common Era except Jesus Christ” (Leroux 1-2). And Luther, in The Bondage of the Will, repeatedly claims that Erasmus, his opponent, actually agrees with him, Luther, but will not admit it. Luther says right in the second paragraph, “I thought it outrageous [for you, Erasmus] to convey material of so low a quality in the trappings of such rare eloquence; it is like using gold or silver dishes to carry garden rubbish or dung. You seem to have had more than an inkling of this yourself, for you were reluctant to undertake the task of writing; because, I suppose, your conscience warned you that, whatever literary resources you might bring with you into the fray, you would not be able to impose on me, but I should see through all your meretricious verbiage to the vile stuff beneath” (Luther 63). And again, “But, as I said, let the words go; for the moment, I acquit your heart; but you must write no more in this strain. Fear the Spirit of God, who searches the reins and heart, and is not deceived by stupid speeches. I say this in order that from now on you may stop accusing our side of obstinacy and stubbornness. By so doing, you merely let us see that in your heart…” (Luther 70). In other words, Luther asserts that Erasmus thinks one thing but says another. Erasmus pretends. Indeed, Luther uses this very word: “This bombshell knocks ‘free-will’ flat, and utterly shatters it; so that those who want to assert it must either deny my bombshell, or pretend not to notice it…” (Luther 80). And it isn’t just Erasmus, but all the people who disagree with Luther, who are pretending. “But those who wished to seem wise argued themselves out of it till their hearts grew dark and they became fools, as Rom 1 says (vv 21-22), and denied, or pretended not to know, things which the poets, and the common people, and even their own consciences held as being most familiar, most certain, and most true” (Luther 83).
As the above quote from Luther marks, there are truths that people know but argue against. And if you agree with me that this is the case, then you must also agree with me that there is a problem in teaching rhetoric as “persuasion” or telling students to write a paper that “grabs the reader’s attention” in order to convince them of a truth that they do not know. To do rhetoric is, as poets know, to tell truths to people in ways that remind them and stick with them and haunt them.
Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca say, “The very nature of deliberation and argumentation is opposed to necessity and self-evidence, since no one deliberates where the solution is necessary or argues against what is self-evident” (1). I don’t think so. I think more like Locke,
It is evident how much men love to deceive and be deceived, since rhetoric, that powerful instrument of error and deceit, has its established professors, is publicly taught, and has always been had in great reputation: and I doubt not but it will be thought great boldness, if not brutality, in me to have said thus much against it. Eloquence, like the fair sex, has too prevailing beauties in it to suffer itself ever to be spoken against. And it is in vain to find fault with those arts of deceiving, wherein men find pleasure to be deceived” (Locke 827).
If the discipline of rhetoric is in tatters because people who use rhetoric on audiences so often do so deceitfully, then why don’t we not only question the rhetorician but the audience? If the rhetoricians are liars, why are the audiences always characterized as so pure? Why aren’t they liars too?

Aristotle said in his Rhetoric, “that which is true and better is naturally always easier to prove and more likely to persuade” (13. Book 1.12). Indeed. Aristotle also said in “On Sophistical Refutations” that,

Furthermore, you should seek for paradoxes in men’s wishes and professed opinions. For they do not wish the same things as they declare that they wish, but they give utterance to the most becoming sentiments, whereas they desire what they think is to their interest. They declare, for example, that a noble death ought to be preferred to a pleasurable life and honorable poverty to discreditable wealth; but their wishes are the opposite of their words ([172b] Loeb 71).

Indeed. And one only need to go to our criminal justice systems and notice that almost all incarcerated criminals claim that they are not guilty. Or at least, that they are Dr. Jekyll and that Mr. Hyde did it. But the vast majority of them are truly guilty. And so the persuasion is not to get them to learn the truth, but to get a confession of it.


Aristotle. “On Sophistical Refutations [4th century BC],” in On Sophistical Refutations, On Coming-to-be and Passing Away, On the Cosmos. E. S. Forster (transl 1955) Loeb 1955. Pp 11-155.
Aristotle. Rhetoric [4th century BC]. John H Freese (transl 1939). Loeb 2006.
Leroux, Neil. “Luther’s Am Neujahrstage: Style as Argument,” Rhetorica. 12:1, Winter 1994. Pp 1-42.
Locke, John. “From An Essay Concerning Human Understanding [1689],” in The Rhetorical Tradition. 2nd ed. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg (eds). Bedford/St Martin’s 2001. Pp 817-827.
Luther, Martin. The Bondage of the Will [1524]. J. I Packer & O. R. Johnston (transls). Baker 2009.
Perelman, Chaim, and L. Olbreects-Tyteca. The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation [1958]. University of Notre Dame Press 1971.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde [1884]. Dover 1991.

- Alexandra Glynn lives in Minnesota. She has a Master's in Old Testament Theology and a Master's in English Literature.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Can $5 send a student to college and save rain forests? Yes!

Dear Friends:

We’re campaigning to raise funds for a single 4-year scholarship for a deserving Indonesian student as part of the successful Orangutan Caring Scholarship Program through The Orang Utan Republik Foundation. The purpose of the program is to award tuition funding to talented and needy Indonesian students on a competitive basis enabling them to attend local universities in the fields of Forestry, Biology and Veterinary Science.

We ask that you make a donation of $5-$10 dollars and that you share this funding campaign on social media. Our goal is to raise $1500 by January 2017.

We are participating in this program since it aligns with a number of our core beliefs:
1. Education is the most powerful way to impact culture positively;
2. Deserving and qualified young people should have an education that helps them improve their community;
3. Climate change is a distressing reality that must be acknowledged and addressed on a local as well as a governmental level;
4. Rain forest protection is vital to the wellbeing of future generations globally;
5. Sustainable farming in some regions is a realistic goal;
6. No species, especially not one as close to us as the orangutan, should have become critically endangered because of its habitat loss at our hands.

If you agree with any of these principles, please consider making a donation and sharing our request on social media.

To make a donation to the scholarship fund, go HERE.

For more information about The Orang Utan Republik Foundation, go here:

Gregory F. Tague, Ph.D.
Founder, Evolutionary Studies Collaborative
Editor, ASEBL Journal
General Editor, Bibliotekos

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Origins of Consciousness and the Hard Problem

Todd E. Feinberg and Jon M. Mallat. The Ancient Origins of Consciousness: How the Brain Created Experience. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016. ISBN: 9780262034333. Hardcover. $35U.S. 392 pages. Illustrated.

As I write this review, an old story has been circulating on social media about a Frenchman who has 50-75% less than a normal size brain, an IQ of 75, and who yet functions normally, has a family, and is employed. [1] That is, he has all the requisite brain parts, but each one has been miniaturized. How is it possible for someone with so little brain to function normally? To some extent neurologist Todd E. Feinberg and biologist Jon M. Mallat address this fascinating question in their book, The Ancient Origins of Consciousness. Organisms do not need overly complex brains to survive. In fact, sensory consciousness dates back to as long as 560 million years ago (mya) in tiny brains, according to these authors.

Of course the subject of Feinberg and Mallat’s book is not so straightforward. Indeed, they tackle philosopher David Chalmers’ hard problem of consciousness: How do the functions and mechanisms of the brain result in phenomenal, subjective experience? How is being in function? Here is a book by research scientists laden with data about, at base, philosophy of mind. On the spectrum of 1 to 10, where at 1 sit those who claim consciousness from material properties to 10 where we find the non-materialist metaphysicians, these authors clearly lean to 1. They claim to have cracked Chalmers’ hard problem, which won’t sit well with many near the 10 spectrum.

The Ancient Origins of Consciousness is a copiously illustrated with figures and tables, fairly easy to read for the non-specialist, well organized in ten chapters, and offers a cogent argument for the early origin of primary consciousness. The book includes a comprehensive index and boasts a robust bibliography. It is important to emphasize that their angle is on sensory consciousness and the authors are careful to state on a number of occasions that their mission is not to find the origins of, for instance, theory of mind (or other high functions of mind like reflection or intelligence). They do not claim that higher order consciousness is 500 million years old. Instead, they chart a careful and precise genealogy of primary consciousness using fossil evidence and research data. There’s nothing to dislike about this book, and it is worth owning for anyone interested in evolutionary or consciousness studies.

The authors rightly begin with Thomas Nagel, and his notion of something it is like to be. Phenomenal experience or qualia don’t depend on super intelligence or large brains, they assert; and contrary to Chalmers, they set out to prove that they can detail objectively neural pathways and so explain subjective, primary consciousness. And they do. In terms of the evolution of sensory consciousness Feinberg and Mallat go beyond qualia and explain referral or the projection of neural states, mental unity via massive neuronal activity, and mental causation or how neurons effect action. In essence, the authors are looking for both the origin of affective consciousness and the hard problem itself – how the emergent what it is to be like is reducible to its components. The stages of consciousness run from the biological aspects of all organisms, to reflexes in the nervous system, to attention, which is more specialized and from which consciousness eventually arose.

Consciousness is embodied – it needs the physicality of a particular brain to exist. Consciousness is a lively process of brain functions – it is not a structure. They quote Evan Thompson: “‘A living being is not sheer exteriority...but instead embodies a kind of interiority, that of its own immanent purposiveness’” (19). While a reflex is not consciousness, in the neural reactions we find the beginnings of the connections that will form consciousness. Reflexes constitute different cell types where neurons differ in types and functions, and the growing complexity, speed, and cellular diversity in turn created hierarchies (27). An example of a hierarchy would be how the function of the skin (touch) is represented in the brain or how the external visual field is mapped (i.e., various sense stimuli are taken together) in the brain. These mental sensations become part of what it is like to be.

The explosive proliferation of animal life in the Cambrian Period is crucial to the argument presented by Feinberg and Mallat. However, they are keen to point out that before the Cambrian a very small brain had evolved in the predecessors to vertebrates. These non-vertebrate chordate ocean feeders, such as amphioxus, were able to detect chemicals and had a touch sense. While extraordinarily small, the brain of the amphioxus includes a forebrain, neurons, and primitive brain regions that control different functions. This brain is a precursor to that found in vertebrates. The neurons in amphioxus are not connected in synapses with neurotransmitters but use chemicals that modulate neurons, and this is the model for a simple, primitive pre-vertebrate brain. Not until the evolution of sense perceivers in vertebrates (eyes and ears) is there more complex sensory processing in the brain. Nonetheless, we see in the pre-Cambrian the birth of the brain.

The Cambrian explosion runs from about 560-520mya and introduces vertebrates which then evolve complex nervous systems. Predation began in the period before the Cambrian, the precursor to the evolution of senses for defense and elusiveness, and these in turn became more complex behaviors and system in terrestrial vertebrates with the environment’s wealth of oxygen and more opportunities for foraging better types of resources. The cost of evolving such mental sensory maps was high in terms of energy needs, and only the clades of arthropods (mostly predators) and vertebrates (in Cambrian early fish) evolved sensory systems; it was less costly for others not to evolve complex systems, and this explains why we still have, for instance, clams (64).

Even before the Cambrian, sensory consciousness was possible, as with the amphioxus. It’s just that in vertebrates the brain parts become not only larger but also more precise in segmentation and neural hierarchies. As the vertebrate brain evolved, so did its cerebrum and cortex, areas dealing with, among others, memory and decision making. Eyes went from forming images to forming spatial images, and any complex mental images needed to be processed and interpreted across several brain regions. Sensory processing of images, smells, and sounds are recalled, referenced to, and modified as necessary with new inputs. While the hippocampus brain region (memory and selective attention) is not apparent until the vertebrates, the genes to express it existed much earlier. Furthermore, the authors go as far as saying that in the Cambrian vertebrate brain not only were predictions made but simulations, that is, the manipulation of mental images.

Based on the foregoing, Feinberg and Mallat move to sentience (and devote two chapters to the subject). Sentience is “when an organism becomes consciously aware of its own internal bodily and affective feelings,” like pleasure or pain (129). The affective limbic system, not in contact with the environment, is involved in attraction (pleasure), aversion (displeasure) and so employs valence; there is self, good/bad feelings, sadness and joy, and fear; there are motives. Affective consciousness (compared to exteroceptive, external mental images, and interoceptive, visceral pain), is found in subcortical limbic areas going back 560mya. That is, they do not find affective consciousness originating in cortical regions, which come later.

What are the behavioral criteria for affective consciousness, they ask. Beyond any reflex response, the answer would include any non-reflexive response of valence, a decision about cost/benefit, frustration, and self-medication (as in awareness of acute pain so as to alleviate it). They insist, however, that some goal-driven rewards could reflect an unconscious behavior (153). Simple affective neuro-structures can be found in lampreys (still present but of ancient origin) and other fish.

Must an organism have a backbone to experience simple consciousness? What about insects, mollusks, flatworms, etc.? The authors set out criteria for consciousness: 1. Complexity. Insect brains are too tiny. 2. Multisensory neuronal hierarchies. We do find this in insects. 3. Isomorphic (topographical/physical) sense pathways. Yes for insects. 4. Reciprocal neural interactions. They say yes for insects but debatable for other organisms without a backbone. 5. Separate sense pathways that merge in a brain for unity of experience. This is highly debatable in insects. 6. Memory. Yes for insects. 7. Selective attention. Also yes for insects. In all, insect consciousness is debatable. However, they claim the main criterion of sensory consciousness is mental image formation, and this is evident in bumble bees and so therefore in other arthropods. Clearly consciousness evolved to benefit vertebrates more than other organisms.

The final chapter is a mega-conclusion that reiterates and pulls together much of what came before. They offer and discuss in detail three postulates. 1. Sensory consciousness is emergent with emphasis on the hierarchy of sense modes across and in network with brain areas. 2. Consciousness arrives through a continuum of species and adaptations. There is a diversity of consciousness (i.e. no single emergent process) in the brain and interaction among: exteroceptive consciousness (images/sensation, distance senses); interoceptive consciousness (mental images/body senses); affective consciousness (inner feelings). 3. Concerning the hard problem, consciousness and mental unity are adaptive. Behavioral choices spring from unified mental maps that evolved over time and selection pressures to benefit certain organisms. Others did not evolve consciousness since it is costly, and they were able to survive without it.

In terms of the hard problem, the authors are clear to emphasize that no machine can explain (since it only observes) one’s subjective what it is like experience. While an adaptation, consciousness is a process and “not a material thing” since it does not reside in one brain area (224). But there is no hard problem, because the brain does create personal experience and how the brain does so is explainable by virtue of scattered but interlocking physical matter.

[1] See “Man with tiny brain shocks doctors.” New Scientist, 20 July 2007. Web. The article reports on findings from the journal Lancet.

- GregoryF. Tague, Ph.D. is professor of English at St. Francis College, N.Y., and the author of Evolution and Human Culture (Brill 2016) and Making Mind: Moral Sense and Consciousness (Rodopi 2014). Copyright©Gregory F. Tague 2016. Reprinted courtesy Consciousness, Literature and the Arts journal, August 2016.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Dear Friends:

I am pleased to announce the publication of Evolution and Human Culture: Texts and Contexts, my fourth monograph and sixth scholarly book. Evolution and Human Culture represents three years of sustained work, and I am grateful to St. Francis College for a Spring 2015 sabbatical which enabled me to navigate significant progress toward completion of the text. I'd also wish to thank my editors, Francesc Forn i Argimon and Eric van Broekhuizen for their generous support. The book is published by Brill, a European publisher with a distinguished history that extends back three hundred years. More importantly, the book is now part of the prestigious Value Inquiry Book Series/Cognitive Science, edited by Prof. Argimon. 

You can find the Preface, Table of Contents, and chapter subheadings, as well as a link to the Brill site, here: Please ask you library to order a copy of this important book and, if applicable, consider it as a course text or recommendation.

Evolution and Human Culture will be valuable to students and scholars of the arts, humanities, and cultural studies, as well as moral philosophers, who would be interested in reading about key intellectual developments in their fields. Biologists and social scientists would benefit too, since the book provides a window into how scientific research contributes to understanding the arts and humanities. The book offers a comprehensive entry into evolutionary cultural studies. The take-home point is that culture does not transcend nature; culture is human nature with moral sensations at bottom.

Subject headings applicable to the book, according to the publisher, include: 1. Philosophy;Ethics and Moral Philosophy; 2. Biology;Zoology; 3. Art History;Archaeology; 4. Philosophy;Philosophy of Mind; 5. Social Science;Sociology and Anthropology.

As an early, anonymous reader points out, my book argues for the interaction of biological and cultural levels relying on an impressive amount of data from the natural and social sciences that show how certain culturally-related behaviors contribute to the selection of certain biological traits and vice versa; this thesis is supported by reference to abundant comparative studies with several species of nonhuman primates relatively close to our own.

The book is the second half of my definitive work begun over a decade ago. The first half of the project was published as Making Mind: Moral Sense and Consciousness in Philosophy, Science, and Literature (Rodopi 2014). Where Making Mind mostly examines the prehistory of narration in consciousness and feelings of approval/disapproval, Evolution and Human Culture more broadly looks at moral emotions and cognition underlying the arts. For a concise version of my endeavor of examining the arts and humanities in light of evolution, readers are directed to my more accessible and far less expensive book, Art and Adaptation: A Primer from Notes (Bibliotekos 2015). [Disclosure: Bibliotekos is my wife's imprint.]

*Testimonials and Reviews for Evolution and Human Culture*

“Professor Tague has mapped out the paths taken by anthropologists, primatologists, evolutionary psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers who have traveled where human culture and human biology intersect. Different disciplines have discovered different areas of this biocultural landscape and have returned with different ideas; Evolution and Human Culture provides an impressively-complete account of these diverse explorations. An intrepid explorer himself, Professor Tague provides his own take on the importance of culture to human evolution – that culture emerged as a means of creating and maintaining the norms that enable us to be so highly cooperative – but only after laying out the full spectrum of perspectives so clearly that he enables his reader to entertain interpretations differing from his own.” -Christopher X J. Jensen, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolution, Pratt Institute.

Evolution and Human Culture is a milestone piece bringing together philosophy, the sciences and the arts in an original and stimulating read. Culture, art, morality and evolution – a striking unification that is unique to this work.” -Kathryn Francis, Fellow, CogNovo Institute, Plymouth University.

Evolution and Human Culture provides a very well written account of evolutionary theory across the spectrum of relevant disciplines...addressing...the most challenging questions that face humankind.” -Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe, Ph.D., Professor, University of Lincoln.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Conference of Interest

Morality, Moral Philosophy, and the Humanities in the Age of Neuroscience - Kent State University, 17-20 November 2016. 

Kent State University Neuro-Humanities.   

Call here.  

Saturday, February 27, 2016

We are pleased to announce the publication of Volume 12.1, February 2016, of the ASEBL JournalThis issue includes two provocative papers along with reaction from the scholarly community. The process of assembling and editing began in May 2015. Join with me in celebrating the accomplishments of our authors, anonymous readers, and other contributors. 

You can read the issue HERE.

In addition to two hefty co-authored research papers by prominent researchers, there are a number of comments by a range of distinguished academics. Lead paper authors also respond to comments. The issue concludes with a spirited look at a controversial book by an important Indian author. 

Here's a condensed version of the table of contents of the issue.

† Lesley Newson and Peter Richerson“Moral Beliefs about Homosexuality: Testing a Cultural Evolutionary Hypothesis.” -- With Comments and a Reply.

† Craig T. Palmer and Amber L. Palmer“Why Traditional Ethical Codes Prescribing Self-Sacrifice Are a Puzzle to Evolutionary Theory: The Example of Besa.” -- With Comments and a Reply.

† Aiman Reyaz and Priyanka Tripathi“Fight with/for the Right: An Analysis of Power-politics in Arundhati Roy’s Walking with the Comrades.”

-Gregory F. Tague, editor

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Art and Aesthetics

Tone Roald. The Subject of Aesthetics: A Psychology of Art and Experience. Leiden: Brill, 2015. Paper. 174 pages. $57US. ISBN: 978-9004308718.

Alva Noë. Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature. NY: Hill and Wang, 2015. Hardcover. 287 pages. $28US. ISBN: 978-0809089178.

These two books examine the question of artistic behavior and especially the nature of our human experience of art. Drawing from Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method, Tone Roald proposes that knowledge of and understanding in art culture is part of a historical tradition separate from truth claims made in the natural sciences. Alva Noë takes a similar stance, arguing that while evolutionary studies and neuroscience are part of the conversation about art culture, personal experience and context weigh more in appreciating and understanding the nature of art. While Roald is interested in the psychological dimensions of a persistent art experience, Noë is clear that any aesthetic experience cannot be limited to brain activity. When we talk about artwork, as far as both authors are concerned, we need to accommodate the wider realm of the thinking viewer’s engagement with art as it occurs in a world of other people. However, whereas Roald treats the aesthetic experience on a personal level, Noë finds the experience of art engaging a range of personal and cultural ideas.

Relying on Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, Roald asserts that empirical descriptions of art experience are more valuable than classifications or abstractions from philosophers. Indeed, a large part of her book reports on and discusses interviews Roald conducted with a number of people and their encounters with paintings and sculpture over the course of time. In 1986 Arthur Danto famously said that we have reached the end of art since it does not make anything happen. If that were so, why would we still create and participate in art? Roald steers away from a philosophical exercise of abstracting art and instead offers a project where art gives meaning in life.

Well versed in the history of aesthetics and the philosophy of art (from Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten to Martin Seel), Roald looks at the psychology of one’s encounter with art and tries to find what the aesthetic signifies. The title of her book is deliberately misleading – the subject of aesthetics is not necessarily in the artwork, certainly not in some philosophical idea, but is the viewer herself. Indeed, moving away from the “transcendental ego” of Edmund Husserl, Roald following Merleau-Ponty will emphasize “phenomenological descriptions of the personal in encounters with art, and not social, economic, or historical explanations” (22). This approach pretty much goes against Immanuel Kant and his transcendental, metaphysical aesthetics, his notion of disinterested, cognitive contemplation. Over the rational philosopher who does not allow for ambiguity, a phenomenologist like Merleau-Ponty puts the perceiving subject of artwork in the world, since the sediments of experience in one’s body are crucial in any meeting with art.

While at times dense, the early chapters in Roald’s book offer a comprehensive history of aesthetics, phenomenology of art, and psychological aesthetics. Here, Roald is capable of interpreting and explaining some complex ideas from John Dewey, Lev Vygotsky, V.S. Ramachandran and William Hirstein, Semir Zeki, Kurt Koffka, Sigmund Freud, Georg W.F. Hegel, and Martin Heidegger (as well as those previously mentioned). Roald suggests that on the subject of aesthetics, philosophy is inadequate in comparison with psychology. This attitude does not exactly coincide with Alva Noë’s. For Roald, in line with Gadamer, the arts and humanities are not precisely scientifically legitimate but as an alternative investigate human questions in cultural contexts. This thinking is what led Roald to conduct twenty-five interviews to gather and explain data on different people’s art experiences in chapter four, “Stories of Art.”

These fascinating stories of how works of art can penetrate someone’s life are central to Roald’s book, since she seeks to “give form and meaning to aesthetic experience” (99), and especially how one’s experience with art can develop over an extended period of time – in sharp contrast to Kant who finds the aesthetic experience in one’s first encounter. Roald develops this chapter from the thinking of Hans Robert Jauss. First, there is an initial aesthetic reading; second there in a retrospective interpretation; third, there is a historical reading. Rather than the work of art as being the constant, “it is the most significant experience that is investigated...” (100), especially the moment when there is subject-object ambiguity. I found this chapter compelling, easy to read, and helpful in my own understanding about art and aesthetics.

In the end, Roald talks about art as what she terms intrapellation: “The participants...incorporate the work of art into their subjectivity, wherein the aesthetic experience becomes a background tone or color...” (131). Of course much of this might depend on the person, and the person’s proclivities to view certain art; that which resonates with an individual might be something she was drawn to (even unconsciously) in the first place. In this way, intrapellation or cognitive perception of the subject is “a projection of feelings and imaginings onto the work of art...” – while art is outside one’s body it somehow supports and yet challenges what’s inside one’s psyche.
Alva Noë’s wide-ranging analysis of engagement with art is not distant from Tone Roald’s. He too (at time drawing from Dewey or Merleau-Ponty) emphasizes the individual in the world. The aesthetic experience is not brain activity per se; rather, the aesthetic experience depends upon the whole person’s biography, social history, intelligence, and environment. But over Roald, Noë perceptively makes a connection between art and philosophy – how both are a means for us to question who we are and what we do. That is why art is, as Noë proclaims, a strange tool, for it forces us to ask how we are organized and then pushes us to consider how to reorganize our literal and figurative vision. The implication is that the manner in which we see impacts on our ability to function in the world. Noë can rightfully say that art is like philosophy since the two practices bring shape and organization to what is not in clear view.

What is refreshing about this book is how Noë brings art back to the humanities and away from its current preoccupation with scientists, notably neuroscientists. While an fMRI can indeed measure hot areas in the brain, there is no telling what the outcome will be. Like Roald, Noë suggests that art is or can be an extension of one’s mind – awareness and behavior cannot be fully accounted for by a machine. Not to be reductive, but art can function like an implement to help achieve what we might be thinking. In some respects thought is not just in our heads but also in objects. Or, more precisely, art displaces what we assume we know and therefore makes us reconceive people, places, and events. While his focus is on the visual, Noë also ably covers writing (with a perceptive reading of a poem by Walt Whitman) and music. Writing, too, is a tool: it is not merely to register items and happenings but a means for us to contemplate, to pose questions, and to engage with problems.

In chatty and colloquial prose that tends to wander, the book at times wavers from its focus. For instance, Noë is dubious of any evolutionary explanation of art and very critical of neuroscientific explanations of the aesthetic experience. While he makes a nod to biology and anthropology and acknowledges the naturalness of art, he says we are predominantly cultural. The question, though, is where in his discussion does he address the evolutionary biology of culture? He admits that culture is not simply dropped upon us. Surely – we evolved culture. If one is going to bring up evolutionary or neuro-biological areas (Roald does not), one should treat them rather fully. For example, I do not see any timeline or chronology here, much less any discussion of prehistoric artifacts. So one can dismiss evolutionary perspectives, but what precisely is being dismissed? While there is passing mention of cave art (earlier in the book), I see nothing specific about the dating differences between Lascaux and Chauvet (work by Genevieve von Petzinger), and there is no mention of rock art. Needless to say, there is no talk of the many authors who have worked in these areas – Steven Mithen, Sally McBrearty and Alison Brooks, April Nowell, to name only a few who have actually discovered and discuss prehistoric artifacts related to the evolution of art.

Evolutionary approaches must deal not just with the past, but with prehistory – going all the way back – and must make mention of studies in comparative primatology and Hunter-Gatherer societies. I don’t see that here. At this point in our history some aspects of art behavior are purely cultural – what to make as “art” and where to include (view) it. But underlying any cultural capacities are fitness-enhancing mechanisms for the individual to survive in a group. These are aspects of what Ellen Dissanayake recently calls artification, e.g., objects as part of social rituals. In any case, Dissanayake’s adaptive notions of artification as well as her earlier view of making special are much less prevalent today since, in our societies for many hundreds of years, survival as our prehistoric ancestors grappled with it is not as difficult. There is some discussion of Dissanayake, who gets treated badly in my opinion (and where Noë relies only on her earlier idea of making special). No one theory of evolutionary adaptations will make full account of art behavior, and even Darwin knew that. The evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, who banks everything on sexual selection is also considered (where is Denis Dutton in Noë’s discussion?), and he has been criticized for leaving out chronology and reference to artifacts. Indeed, a more thorough response to Miller has been offered by Kathryn Coe’s The Ancestress Hypothesis, not referenced.

I find it telling that Noë pretty much relies on Stephen Davies (a philosopher) who does not ascribe to art as truly adaptive and who is reluctant to buy into aesthetic sensibilities as continuous in human beings and other species (and therefore light on sexual selection). However, he does argue with Davies who talks about perceptual seeing in animals; Noë says that there is too wide a gulf between mere perception and aesthetic seeing. But there is no charting here as to how we arrived at aesthetic seeing: it had to evolve from something somewhere, as even Darwin knew. The neural leap hypothesis has been questioned, so that’s not the answer. Aesthetic seeing could not have been inborn in humanity – that’s creationist. Noë says: “it is highly unlikely that aesthetic seeing would confer enhanced fitness on those capable of exercising it” (55). A cultural anthropologist might disagree, citing the social benefits and prestige one could gain in a group.

This account does not consider the prehistory of what we now call art. As in his chapter on writing, Noë might be focusing too much on what is high art and not on the prehistoric material culture that gave rise to what we not call art. I’d not even raise this point were it not for a chapter that has the word evolution in it and a book that has as part of its subtitle human nature. Noë says art (on the same page he references paintings) is “revelation, transformation, reorganization...” (64). Few would argue with this assertion, but from an evolutionary standpoint – variation, competition, and inheritance – it took a long time in human history to arrive at paintings.

Noë spends lots of time on Western art of the past five hundred years or so. Where is the discussion of ochre (used at least 300,000 years ago) and body painting, bead making and sharing (even among Neanderthals), or even stone tools (which get scant treatment) from over one million years ago? Although we are, in the words of Terrence Deacon, a symbolic species, artistic traits didn’t just suddenly appear. One could say that art behaviors are a byproduct of cognition (as Davies and others, like Pinker, suggest). Okay, but does that then mean that all aspects of, say, intelligence are byproducts? We did not just evolve one capacity called Intelligence but many traits we lump under intelligence, including reason, comprehension, understanding, and judgment. This is where evolutionary psychologists such as Leda Cosmides and John Tooby have been instructive. It’s not fitness that survives: adaptive traits and characteristics that contribute to survival and reproduction, no matter how small but which get passed on, survive. At any rate, I am happy to see that Noë does consider and discuss the work of Richard Prum and how the taste for color and sound can evolve with the evolution of the colors and sounds themselves.

Nevertheless, don’t misread what I say. Chapter five on art and evolution is useful in that it helps evolutionists think harder about adaptive claims in relation to the arts. I think there’s room at the table for all of these disciplines (from philosophy to neuroscience) to contribute to our understanding of the arts and humanities. While Noë is correct, now, to say that art is not just about arousing feelings, that might not have been true early on when it was not yet art and it might have been a signal (affection), then a sign (family), then a symbol (group). Prum is not the only biologist to discuss gene/culture co-evolution in this regard. As one instance, I see no mention of the work by the team of Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd.

Noë’s book is immensely valuable, has had a tremendous impact on me, and has actually brought me back to some of my philosophical roots. I just think that if you are going to raise an objection, you should cover it more thoroughly. Noë does, however, cover neuroscience and art more completely, though here too he is a bit hard on pioneers in the area, like Semir Zeki. While one might disagree with his quibbles about art and evolution (with such thin coverage), it’s hard to disagree with what he concludes about art and neuroscience. For example, what Noë says about context is vital: we need art history to understand art; the arts have meaning and significance only in a cultural perspective. Importantly, Noë admits that culture can change the genome and that culture might have organized parts of the brain (60). Culture and biology are connected. Of course there is a whole theory about the evolution of culture, especially in its so-called particulate elements, but I see no mention of that, either (authors such as social psychologist Roy Baumeister, evolutionary psychologist Alex Mesoudi, and biologist Mark Pagel).

So where does this leave us. Noë is not a reductive materialist. Like David Chalmers he believes that science will not and cannot answer everything. Science has its limits (though most scientists I know might agree with this evaluation). Art cannot be reduced to natural sensibilities, since what we label as aesthetic sense covers a wide spectrum. As Noë says: “Art investigates the aesthetic” (71), which in turn makes art philosophical. At this point, Noë begins a launch against neuroscientific approaches to understanding art, and this part of the discussion helps illuminate much of what has come before. Visual perception (even consciousness) is not, according to Noë, reducible to brain activity. Nonetheless, even cognitive mechanisms are most likely adaptive, and I don’t see any recognition of that here. At any rate, Noë is on point to assert that an aesthetic experience occurs not just in our brain but outside of it – in a social environment. You can see why I now include Tone Roald and Alva Noë together – there is some curious overlap. As Noë so nicely puts it, recalling Ludwig Wittgenstein’s dictum that we are not minds trapped in bodies, art offers the “opportunity to catch ourselves in the act of encountering the world...” (80).

Many neuroscientists, according to Noë, claim that the brain in us is what thinks. (An obvious exception would include Francisco Varela.) But the value of Noë’s book is in reminding us that while the brain indeed performs work, it is the whole person, her history and circumstances, who thinks and feels in relation to artworks. Art does not simply exist to elicit a response; art arouses in us complex thought processes and the ability for us to put our consciousness in the artwork and outside of it. Importantly, though, Noë remarks that our visual perception of the world and art involves the effort of our intelligence in a historically cultural context. Rather than treating the perception of art as a bodily function, we need to consider an aesthetic experience as a means to study the people, places, and events of the world. Perhaps summing up Noë’s thinking is John Dewey, who says “Artists don’t make things. They make experiences” (205).

The value in these books by Tone Roald and Alva Noë is great. While it might sound cliché, I found Roald’s book interesting and Noë’s book challenging. Roald proposes a new method of evaluating art experience by employing the reception theory of Jauss; Noë unnerves us to reconsider how art is a resource for new ways of thinking about and organizing our lives. Even if you know quite a bit about art behavior and aesthetics, these authors will ask for a reconsideration of the priority of your ideas. That is, both authors emphasize less the work of art and emphasize more the outcome of viewing art, the broader parameters of the art experience. The subject of the aesthetic experience (or of art itself) is not narrowly defined by historical subjects; the aesthetic experience is akin to the practice of philosophy and its method of trying to know, of questioning knowledge itself.

 - Gregory F. Tague, Ph.D. Editor ASEBL and author of Art and Adaptation.

Copyright©2016 Gregory F. Tague – All Rights Reserved