MLA 97 in Toronto: Special Session 196
Sunday 28 December 1997
1:45 - 3:00 pm, New Brunswick, Royal York
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Evolutionary Psychology and Literature
The Significance of Evolved Cognitive Structures for the Study of Early Modern Culture

In Home at Grasmere, Wordsworth writes of the "blended might" of the mind and the external world--a phrase that suggests a selective and synergistic working together of the psychological and the natural. We would like to recover a sense of this "great argument": the sense of how, and to what extent, "the individual Mind (And the progressive powers perhaps no less Of the whole species) To the external world is fitted," as well as how "the external world is fitted to the mind," and to begin to explore how this joint "creation" enters into and constitutes culture.

Cultural Studies performs the explanatory work of situating the individual within the cultural matrix, thus placing individual years or decades within the broader temporal framework of centuries or millennia, and accounting for cultural practices through prior cultural forms. However, culture did not spring fully formed like Venus from the sea; while the early Hebrews adequately dated the advent of agriculture to some five to six thousand years before the current era, they severely underestimated the time our ancestors spent in the edenic phase of hunting and gathering: some five to six million years, if we go back to the start of the hominid line in the woodlands of East Africa. To recover a sense of the relation between mind and nature, and thus to provide a context for culture as their joint creation, we must situate the few millennia that usually pass for history within this extended context. It is in the human ancestral environment we must look for the unique set of cognitive adaptations that constitute the conditions of possibility of culture--in Mark Turner's term, for the literary mind.

Already Maupertuis, anticipating Darwin by a century, had proposed in The Earthly Venus (1745) that organic form emerges through chance variation and differential survival and reproduction--a natural dialectic that permits a steady accumulation of functional adaptations. Specified jointly in the genes and by the stable characteristics of the developmental environment, such adaptations exemplify nature's "untidy design," characterized not by rigidly deterministic pathways but by what the neuroscientist Gerald Edelman calls "target values," reached in the course of normal growth and experience. Thus, the "progressive powers" of the human species--the ability to fashion complex tools, to acquire grammatical language, to empathize and in other ways to actualize the benefits inherent in cooperation, and to narrate and be emotionally moved by absent, hypothetical, or purely fictional scenarios--are plausibly considered outcomes of an historical process of evolution and target values of the developing human mind.

The supposition of such cognitive adaptations constitutes a powerful heuristic tool for investigating cultural forms in the light of its emerging dimension: the neurological. We propose this represents a significant supplement to the explanatory repertoire of contemporary Cultural Studies, and that it will throw light on cultural practices and patterns that have been previously overlooked or inadequately understood. In particular, we wish to explore and present evidence for the relevance of evolved modes of understanding reality to the culture of the early modern period in England.


Session Leader: Richard Nash
University of Indiana
Complexity: Mini-worlds versus complex adaptive systems 
Mark Turner

University of Maryland
Modular Processing: The epistemological crisis of early modern iconoclasm 
Ellen Spolsky

Bar-Ilan University
Learning to take sides: Coalitional thinking in early modern children's literature 
Lisa Zunshine

UC Santa Barbara
Evolved benevolence: Hutcheson and the moral engines of community 
Francis Steen

UC Santa Barbara
  Back to Cognitive Cultural Studies

© 1997 Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California, Los Angeles