I like The Boston Review and have friends who have written for the magazine, so I am not picking on it when I say that Drew Gardner’s defense of Flarf earlier this week using evolutionary theory was lyrical but dumb. Gardner:
Poetry and music are both human behaviors. All living things, plant and animal, are related, and in this sense all behaviors, including poetry and music, are ultimately related. All this works within an ecosystem. Sunlight is the power source for this ecosystem. A rain of photons falls to earth and some of them hit green leaves, which use photosynthesis to manufacture organic fuels—sugars. Photosynthesis is a technology innovated by bacteria that was then appropriated by plants for this fuel manufacturing. Evolution is full of this type of appropriation. These plants are eaten by animals and the sugars are used as fuel. Mitochondria in our own cells uses this energy and mitochondria also used to be bacteria. It was also appropriated. The history of how we got where we are as humans is full of appropriation. It is a key process in the larger system of evolution, and in the fast moving evolution of memes we know as culture. Animals employ appropriated technology using transcribed sunlight to power things like muscular contractions and the running of a nervous system. Sunlight makes animals possible. Through evolution and with the eventual development of culture, sunlight stored by plants made behaviors like poetry possible. What starts as photons emanating from a star ends up as a poem. All poetry comes from the sun.
Yes, well. Gardner goes on to breezily assert that the sounds of poetry add to the “database of the gene pool,” which makes it an adaptation, an “emotional tracking,” that has helped humans survive:
Humans are social animals, so it is not only important to track the world around us, it is also important to track the other people around us. They are part of our environment, and are central to our survival and to flourishing in our particular way of living in groups. We work and live and survive and feel and question and think in groups.
I have written on evolutionary explanations of art elsewhere at length and won’t rehash all the arguments against it here. Particularly since Gardner does not offer any strikingly new arguments in its favor.
But let me state, in a nutshell, the two main (and perhaps insurmountable) problems facing the critic who wants to give an evolutionary explanation of art.
The first has to do with data. It ain’t that it’s bad. There is none.
While traces of biological evolution might be found in fossils or rocks, there are no imprints of the human mind. But an explanation of the origins and development of art is nothing less than an explanation of the origins and development of human consciousness. That’s a tall task given we are not even sure what consciousness is exactly.
In the absence of any real data, what do apologists for the evolution of art provide? Anecdote. Butterfly anecdotes, dolphin anecdotes, peacock anecdotes, chimpanzee anecdotes, and so forth. None of which prove anything because animal art is nothing like human art. Even Denis Dutton recognized this.
In Gardner’s case, he ironically (because the piece is against lyricism) uses lyrical phrases, Emersonian assertion, and extended metaphor to support his argument. Did the sound of poetry improve social cohesion? Who knows? All Gardner provides as proof are a few well-turned phrases and a handful of outdated footnotes.
This is a fatal problem for evolutionary explanations of art, I think, because what makes them different, in theory, from other treatments of art is their supposed empiricism.
The second problem has to do with semantics and plausibility. Again, because there is no data, whenever a critic offers an evolutionary explanation of art, what he is always offering is a plausible materialist explanation of art—an argument that, in its premise, excludes any non-material, non-biological explanation.
What’s the problem here? Well, so far no explanation has even met the rather low criterion of plausibility. Spending scarce resources on resource rich activities like painting and poetry helped increase attention span, empathy and cooperation? Or, in Gardner’s case, poetry contributed to emotional tracking via sound, which in turn improved survival? And to such an extent that it was worth passing on the morning hunt? Really? Is this likely? It may be possible, but is it probable?
And on a more practical note, evolutionary explanations of art reduce the meaning of all works, all texts, to adaptations, and so all works of art ultimately mean the same thing. They improve attention span, empathy, social cohesion and so forth, which supposedly assist in the survival of the species. Yawn.