Adam Gopnik reviews yet another attempt to apply evolutionary psychology to the humanities -- Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal -- and finds it wanting:
It is one thing to think that psychology may solve problems that baffle philosophy or criticism; it well may. But to think that the invocation of empirical studies on a subject frees one from the job of finding out what the great instinctive psychologists have said about that subject before you got to it is just misguided.
Gotschall argues -- surprise! -- that storytelling is an evolutionary adaptation and that "studies show that therefore people who read a lot of novels have better social and empathetic abilities, are more skillful navigators, than those who don’t" (Gopnik's paraphrase). I've argued against these types of accounts, and Gopnik likewise objects:
... surely this would only have meaning if he could show that there were human-like groups who failed to compete because they didn’t trade tales—or even that tribes who told lots of stories did better than tribes that didn’t. Are societies, like that of Europe now, which has mostly rejected religious storytellers, less prosperous and peaceful than ones, like Europe back when, that didn’t? Would a human-like society that had lots of food and sex but no stories die out? When has this happened?
And then there's this fun bit of snark:
Surely if there were any truth in the notion that reading fiction greatly increased our capacity for empathy then college English departments, which have by far the densest concentration of fiction readers in human history, would be legendary for their absence of back-stabbing, competitive ill-will, factional rage, and egocentric self-promoters; they’d be the one place where disputes are most often quickly and amiably resolved by mutual empathetic engagement.
The idea that storytelling fosters empathy is an old and intuitively plausible one, English departments notwithstanding. But the idea that storytelling is an adaptation is entirely implausible, and it's hard not to be astonished as the pop science lemmings walk over the same cliff together -- the one constructed by their lazy and unscientific assumption that every trait you can think of must be an adaption. Actual evolutionary biologists make no such claim.
As an alternative, Gopnik recommends a book that argues that storytelling has its origins in grooming by way of gossip -- a thesis that is actually interesting and has some potential explanatory value.
-- Wes Alwan
Gopnik is a sharp critique and his sister is a wonderfully scientifically-minded philosopher:
I agree with the general gist of Gopnik’s critique, but find the alternative evolutionary theory equally simplistic and vacuous:
I would think that folklorism and linguistic anthropology would serve as better starting point for cross-cultural examination of “storytelling.” These types of highly hypothetical and general explanations tend to obscure the vast gulfs separating speech genres within and across cultures. For example, myths don’t generally make for riveting (or juicy) stories in a sense that would be analogous to the canonized classics of Western of literature, or gossip for that matter. Among others Greg Urban has argued that myths differ from news in that the form rather than the semantic content is important. Myths, unlike news, cannot be paraphrased. “In the origin myth [among amerindians of Brazil], the physical form not only of the words, but also of the intonation contours, rhythmical patterns, and other paralinguistic devices must be duplicated.” Many folklorists and anthropologists have been frustrated by the fact that their informants do not seem to be at all interested in the “meaning” of a myth.
how much of the daily story-telling in any given society would you say has to do with myths/folklore?
With myth, probably not very much, though it depends on the society and of course your definition of myth. I used the example to illustrate how greatly speech genres can vary. What brought it to mind was the review’s reference to “religious storytellers,” as well as the fact that Gottschall apparently uses the word in his book, though in a metaphorical sense (I take it).
Folklorists on the other hand would cover all daily story-telling in any given society, and they are able to make very sophisticated distinctions within everyday discursive genres (gossip etc.) and ways in which narrativity is used to express linguistic ideologies.
My point was, and I think this speaks to your question, that it perhaps makes little sense to generalize at the level of common average “daily story-telling.”
well I think we should be hesitant (at least!) to generalize about any aspect of the external behaviors that we tend to think of in terms of being “social”, but I think that there are good descriptive/empirical reasons for foregrounding gossip over folklore/myths or other genres which people who make their livings reading and writing tend to project as being fundamental.
Okay, I guess I’ll have to take your word for there being good empirical reasons. I would hesitate to make too broad generalizations even with specific genres, such as gossip.
I think you misunderstood me, I do not think that myth or “folklore” are more fundamental genres. The latter is not a genre. My point was that gossip (like joking, fishing stories, urban legends and what have you) are exactly within the range of folklore studies.
no need to take my word for it, test it out in your daily life, see how much of how things are organized (even in overtly myth/ritual focused interactions like religious meetings) comes about via gossip. You seem to have a very wide take on folklore, does this include the kinds of functions that fall under folk-psychology?
Bruce Adam says
“The Human Touch” by Michael Frayn , reviewed in the link above is excellent.
The role of storytelling in human development as seen by a storyteller rather than a psychologist, philosopher , scientist or journalist.
“This is what it comes down to in the end: the world has no form or substance without you and me to provide them, and you and I have no form or substance without the world to provide them in its turn. We are supporting the globe on our shoulders, like Atlas – and we are standing on the globe that we are supporting …”
This reminds me of Clifford Geertz’s “models of” and “models for.”
We are running out of things to argue about. If we define gossip as informal, rapidly moving, moral discourse, often about persons that are not present, I’d say that yes, gossip is important, of course. Anthropologists who have conducted fieldwork know that majority of their field data is gossip. It’s function, form, and content depend on the particular social systems which it negotiates. What its relationship is to other more formal speech genres also depends greatly on the culture.
The usual broad perspectives are that it serves a normative purpose or that it is used for some kind of strategic benefit. Both are simplistic premises.
I do not have a particularly broad take on folklore, all I’m saying is that these are the kind of things that folklorists write books about. Folklorism, at least in Europe, does not restrict itself to “traditional” oral narratives any more than than contemporary anthropologist restrict themselves to studying “primitive” cultures. There is significant overlap with anthropology, sociolinguistics, discourse analysis etc.
I am sure that some psychologically oriented folklorists have a keen interest in folk-psychology. Why do you ask?
I think I mentioned Joel Robbin’s work on Urapmin before, but he is an anthropologist. Eve Danziger is a linguistic anthropologist who has done interesting work among Mopan Maya that also relates to intention. The Mopan Maya do not have an institutionalized genre of fiction, so stories are either true or condemned as lies.
I didn’t know we were arguing so sorry if I missed that part of the exchange, I was mostly trying to get a sense of what you were saying, my understanding of “lore” is narrower than all that you seem to place under it, still not sure what for you makes up “culture” or how It acts but maybe we can find another way into this some day as the wider conversation unfolds. If you get a chance to read some of the Wittgenstein readings for the blog I would be interested in your take on his ideas of how language works.
Oh I didn’t mean argue in a negative sense, only that the dialogue was running out of new angles to sustain it. I like to debate, otherwise I wouldn’t write here. The problem with doing it online is that it is decontextualized, and you spend great deal of the time working out the possible position from where the arguments of others are made from.
Now the differences in our perspectives, as far as I can tell, is that while I am a cultural anthropologist and would assert the almost infinite malleability of human cultures and modes of thought, you are more sympathetic to cognitive theories that emphasize the universal biological basis of cognition. As Whitehouse put it, it is innatism against the ethnographic perspective. I tend to be suspicious of evolutionary psychology and of cognitive theory depending how sweeping the scope of its explanatory models are, and how sensitive it is to possible cultural variability.
It is a long time since I read Wittgenstein, but I made a few very general comments here:
I see, I’m only a “universalist” in terms of functions like the nascent work on cognitive biases (and literal/bodily structures, tho I’m quite open to “extended minds” work), I think that on the “rough” grounds of the field (if you will) it seems that I see more variety (am a pragmatist individualist in the mode of Stephen Turner) and less on which to talk in broad terms like “culture” or really for anything like a social science if that means talk of causality, predictions, and such, cheers.
Yes, your insistence to deconstruct social sciences coupled with an interest towards hard cognitive science at first baffled me.
Though anthropologists have struggled with the totalizing nature of concepts like culture, there is for some a nagging feeling that the deconstruction of any systematicity or structure will lead to some form of methodological individualism (the rise of cognitive sciences being one symptom of this). I’m still comfortable discussing cultures (in plural).
My confusion over your position seems to be related to the fact that I do not recognize the picture that Stephen Turner draws of objectivist social sciences (at least in relation to anthropology). I would argue that it is mostly a straw man modeled on physics (though it might apply to some forms of anthropology, like 1950s British structural functionalism). I haven’t read the book so this is only a hunch. My own view of anthropology, and I studied at a department where cultural anthropology belonged to the humanities, is much more Boasian and has its roots in German romanticism and interpretative traditions (hence the reference to Dilthey).
Could you explain to me what a pragmatist individualist analysis of social institutions or practices might look like?
I’ll try to state my view on culture as explicitly and simply as I can.
I see culture as way for human to construct symbolically mediated, and thus meaningful, lives. Humans perceive the world through meaningful difference (a wink is not a twitch and tap water is not holy water) that animals do not. This is the basic premise of symbolic anthropology.
As Sahlins says “all culture…is composed of practices whose reasons are sufficient to their existence but never necessary. As a social organization of meaning, hence a meaningful organization of society, a cultural scheme knows a kind of freedom that the physical universe, bound by its material necessities, does not. Within the limits of biological viability, all that is culturally required is that things be sufficiently logical, intelligible, and communicable, that they make sense in a certain universe of meaning. But precisely, making meaningful sense involves an indeterminate number of possibilities: it is far more liberal and creative process than any analytic or pragmatic rationality. Analogies, metonyms, synecdoches, connotation, permutation, inversion, proportion – tropes of every conceivable kind can be used to make sense of the resources of a given cultural scheme. It is the endemic possibility of “heteroglossia” – not of undifferentiated, shared culture but, as Bakhtin said, a complex relationship of shared differences – that explains how history can be culturally ordered without being culturally prescribed…To say that a given sentence is grammatical is not to say that the grammar determined what was said.” [The last is a response to simplistic critiques of cultural determinism.]
This view of culture is as processual as they come, since every contingent reproduction of the symbolic system also constitutes a transformation (though denying any continuity would mean that life was a continuous acid trip).
To put it in famous sound bites…
Radcliff-Brow version of anthropology is this:
“Comparative sociology, of which social anthropology is a branch, is here conceived as a theoretical or nomothetic study of which the aim is to provide acceptable generalisations. The theoretical understanding of a particular institution is its interpretation in the light of such generalisations.”
I do not hold to this position.
The Geertz version:
“Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretative one in search of meaning.” [It should be remembered that despite his semiotic take on culture, Geertz criticised the so called cognitive fallacy]
This is roughly my view.
I also still think that anthropology should be comparative and that it should give rise to comparative categories (even if they are viewed instrumentally). As Sahlins puts it:
“Implicitly or explicitly ethnography is an act of comparison. By virtue of comparison ethnographic description becomes objective. Not in the naive positivist sense of an unmediated perception— just the opposite: it becomes a universal understanding to the extent it brings to bear on the perception of any society the conceptions of all the others.”
so I wouldn’t think that one could literally do a study of an institution (a figure of speech not to be reified) only rough ethnographic sketches of the practices of the people and objects involved but it wouldn’t be so far from ANT updates like Latour, Mol, Law and co: http://www.heterogeneities.net/
The question that Turner asks of folks like Geertz is how are these speculative “webs” and other such quasi-structures/forces/laws transmitted?
I assume you are familiar with other critiques like those of Frankenberry so I’ll leave it at that.
here is Latour on “what’s organizing”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rrMxyQP3rYY
which might be a nice tie in back with the Foucault discussion and lead us to folks like Ian Hacking.
I completely agree that to evoke “institutions” is a cultural act of reifications. These reifications exist in both indigenous subjects’ and the anthropologists’ classifications, though emic and etic descriptions may not be coterminous. I’d argue that they are necessary for understanding human cultures. Culture as a historical event is like Heraclitus’ river on which humans impose form and continuity. I hate to pick on old Radcliffe-Brown, but his positivist assertion that social relations can be directly observed in the field has seemed pretty silly for over fifty years.
Of course culture has both sensible and intelligible dimensions as Greg Urban puts it. Again I find Turner’s dilemma a little puzzling (perhaps because I haven’t read the book), but I’d simply evoke socialization and language acquisition. Language as a system does not exist. It only exists in partial form in individual heads and ephemeral utterances, yet we can abstract a remarkably coherent system out of fleeting language use. Now I am not saying that culture is coherent to the extent language is, but if particular languages can be transmitted, why not other forms of cultural symbolization? (I reject Chomksy’s explanation for language regularity.) I would look to stuff along the lines of Urban’s Metaphysical Community.
I have to admit to not being very familiar with ANT, though I have read Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern some years ago. I see however that Latour approvingly cites Sahlins as an example of “dynamic production of culture” in Reassembling the Social, which leads me to believe that the gulf between these perspectives is not that great.
(I would not equate Geertz’s web metaphor with law since he explicitly states we should not look for laws)
I’d argue that anthropologists have been uniquely aware of the artificial nature of their theoretical categories since they have classically studied cultures where domains like economy, religion, politics etc. are not differentiated. In holistic description the same process can be viewed from the point of view of any of these things.
well if you get a chance to read Turner or Law I’d be interested in your take on them, but the question of transmission is why the ‘mechanics’ of cognitive biases and such are not peripheral to these kinds of conversations, maybe some day we will get to Donald Davidson here and discuss matters like why
” There is no such thing as a language, not if a language is anything like what many philosophers and linguists have supposed. There is therefore no such thing to be learned, mastered, or born with. We must give up the idea of a clearly defined shared structure which language-users acquire and then apply to cases”
I have been reading Latour’s Reassembling the Social and it has been frustrating. So far I find it misrepresents social theory and recycles old ideas in new guises.
I have the nagging feeling that beneath the lipservice to relativism, old transactionalist ghosts lurk. I can see how this, and Turner’s critique, would necessitate reliance on individualistic cognitive biases.
I don’t know if you have academic aspirations but Latour is probably the preeminent living social theorist of our times so if you have a strong critique to offer (and of course publish) it would likely both further the broader project and make a name for your work.
Sorry if I seemed glib. I hope you allow me the offhand rejection in as informal a medium as this. (I’m probably wrong about the ghosts of transactionalism.)
I am certainly not the first to reject Latour. I was just reading an interview book of Paul Rabinow, George Marcus, and James Faubion, where Faubion promptly dismisses Latour as crude and trite anthropology of object management that reduces culture to technicity.
I was already beginning to draft a more detailed critique of Latour, but I think I’ll need to do some deeper reading (fear not, if it develops into something I’ll certainly publish it). Part of the problem is that he is reacting to a sociological tradition that I am not as familiar with (beyond the classics). I still think that his characterization of the dreaded social as stable and bounded is both straw man and an old hat.
The notion of objects as agents brought to mind Alfred Gell’s work. Are you familiar with it?
This exchange has been actually helpful, as it has made me look beyond my own limited and parochial ethnographic concerns at a wider picture. Latour is fun to disagree with.
Could I ask what your specific field is? Philosophy of social sciences?
Reading through James’ Psychology Briefer Course, I noticed when he discussed emotions he also seemed guilty of trying to reduce certain habits to evolutionary adaptation unfalsifiably.
If I had to give a take Latour now, based on a very superficial leafing through of Reassembling the Social, I would (predictably) take the position that far from being merely associations between heterogeneous non-social things, networks are distinct types of social relations between things that are defined by those relations and thus are social. Their very heterogeneity is made possible by social differences, and far from being somehow context free, their differences are marked by the differences of context for their reproduction and transformation (“the social” does not have any general effect beyond this differentiation). The notion that this would make objects merely “mirror” an a priori social system does not follow, firstly because the social system cannot be prior to objects, but also because it was never in any doubt that the unpredictable contingent properties of materiality would keep transforming cultural schemas and in fact be a necessary condition for their existence. Even Levi-Strauss theorized about this. We are not talking iron cages here. “Durability, solidity, and inertia” exist as collective representations only, if I’m allowed to use such dubious Durkheimian terms, though, as Sahlins has pointed out, some cultures emphasize becoming over being.
I agree with Latour that we should ignore the alternative between actor and system, since it is in the system of social mediation that agency is made possible (including the agency of objects). I do not think that “it was impossible before to connect an actor to what made it act, without being accused of ‘dominating’, ‘limiting’, or ‘enslaving’ it.” Latour is right that his assertion that “attachments are first, actors are second” “smacks of ‘sociologism’”, but I find his caveat (claim to greater openness, “the under-determination of action”) unremarkable. Perhaps anthropologists have not suffered quite as badly from the antinomy of individual and society, since they’ve classically studied people who rarely claim to be individual (but rather bundles of relationships) and because they try not to make a priori assumptions about the nature of what is bundled together (society).
Following Latour “a culture is simultaneously that which makes people act, a complete abstraction created by the ethnographer’s gaze, and what is generated on the spot by the constant inventiveness of members’ interactions.” Latour’s solution to ignoring the juxtaposition of localized micro and abstracted macro levels is to follow the networks of interaction. This seems hardly revolutionary, and I’d argue, it is what anthropologists do. Since, as Geertz argued, meaning is public, society is reproduced and transformed through publicly circulating collective representations. Context is a concrete thing. I find Latour’s assertions of the plurality and “narrowness” of networks a reflection of a modern bias towards radical social differentiation, though something of it might be salvaged for a more holistic approach.
(Again I make no claims to the accuracy of my reading of Latour, this is only a quick first impression)
sorry I’m in and out of here among other tasks, these assertions of meaning(s) as somehow being public/common or representations somehow being collective beg a lot of questions, many of which Derrida raised, and which entail very long conversations to be sure, the question again is how is this kind of mass communication/meld/consciousness achieved? Also what is the ontological status of networks and or backgrounds/contexts, all good questions but hardly settled by Geertz, so more work to be done for all.
if you get a chance check out the ethnographic work done by Law and co linked above.
Philo of social science is close enough, tho most of my work these days is along more applied lines.
For anyone else who might be following along it would be good perhaps as we work thru these questions of what is real (and what we can know) it might be useful to keep Wittgenstein’s as-if categories of familial resemblances in mind, perhaps what we need more of is working models, more proto-types than arche-types.
I think the blog may be heading in the direction of a conversation around emergence:
The mundane anthropological answer to where public representations are located is that they are found in collective action and constructed physical places (as well as in nature as it is constructed in discourse and action). They are found in ritual, ceremony, exchange, games etc. that constantly recapitulate the content and boundaries of social entities. I find bizarre Latour’s insistence that without his revisions “people will go on believing that the big animal doesn’t need any fodder to sustain itself; that society is something that can stand without being produced, assembled, collected, or kept up; that it resides behind us, so to speak, instead of being ahead of us as a task to be fulfilled.” Anthropologists have exactly been interested in the flow of words, objects, and people (to make a reference to structuralism) that feed (or rather constitute) the animal. This does not mean that the “collective representations” mean the same to everybody. They can only be collective by being in some way indeterminate, even if we want to say that they are indeterminate only in order to allow different structural positions to be reproduced through them. Thus every reproduction is a potential transformation. Of course anthropology’s obsession with location, the sites of meaning, and fieldwork as long-time bodily presence makes it vulnerable to criticisms of imposing boundaries where there are none.
I don’t find Derrida terribly illuminating in relation to this, because to me the interesting question is not so much how meaning escapes us, is dislocated or deferred, but how it is possible to begin with.
And this is my problem with Latour. If the associations are truly so narrow and heterogeneous, what compels behaviour, let alone any kind of regularity, a system of differences, in behaviour? Why does what 19th century Balinese do look different but somewhat similar to what 19th century Tongans do but radically different to what 19th century Americans do? And if there is any systematicity in the way the networks are related to each other, what is the radically new insight we are supposed to glean from ANT?
I should say that I am not particularly a Geertzian, I only used Geertz as an accessible and well know proxy for a general theoretical stance. I certainly don’t think that Geertz is the be all and end all of theoretical wisdom.
I should also ask you, since here I feel out of my depth, what you see as the relationship between Donald Davidson’s critique of scheme/content dualism and cognitive theories of cultural schemas (Lakoff springs to mind).