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The Artful Species roasted!

August 1, 2013

There was a July 2013 panel on The Artful Species at the International Association of Aesthetics meeting in Krakow, Poland. The panel was organized by Jerzy Luty and included Wilfried Van Damme (art historian and anthropologist), Mohan Mathen (philosopher of biology), and Joseph Carroll (an English literature academic and founder of the movement known as literary Darwinism).

I won’t discuss here the exchanges with Professors Van Damme and Mathen, which were interesting and cordial. It was Professor Carroll who provided the fireworks.

As he warmed to the task, Professor Carroll’s talk quickly turned into a rant layering personal abuse on insult. This was a humorless roast, a scornful attempt to humiliate. Professor Carroll had ignored the chair’s requests for an advance copy of the comments, so this was a calculated ambush. I had no reason to see it coming. Our few, former exchanges were collegial. I named Professor Carroll in a favorable light in my book and cited there many of his publications. So, I was surprised. The audience of about 70 looked stunned. They greeted the end of his presentation with complete silence, not the applause that is customary. I made a brief, calm, reply, not referring to the toxic tone of the commentary. Later, Professor Carroll hijacked most of the time intended for the audience Q&A session by listing and describing many books he thought superior to mine.

In his comments Professor Carroll often misrepresented both my aims in writing the book and its theses. I won’t dignify these inaccuracies with a case-by-case refutation. But there are a few claims I should correct.

Professor Carroll suggested that I entirely fail to appreciate that what is evolutionarily distinctive to humankind is our use of narrative to create fictional worlds. In fact, in the book I assert that our commitment to constructing narratives, both factive and fictional, is an evolutionary adaptation, as are also our capacities for fictional thinking and for reading the minds of others (or Theory of Mind). As a literary Darwinist, Professor Carroll claims literature as a primary developmental source of these adaptations. I disagree. I think these prior adaptations are exploited by literature without being established there. As I put it: ‘There are a number of adaptations within the immediate vicinity of fictional narrative: our propensity to narrativize the world, our capacity to think in terms of what is not actual and what is merely possible, and our ability to understand others by projecting into their mental and emotional lives. We implement these capacities across a range of contexts with real-world payouts. But our production and engagement with narrative fiction are more likely a consequence of than a fundamental contributor to these adaptive behaviors’ (175-6).

Professor Carroll described me as a point-scoring skeptic who would accept a theory as credible only if it were watertight, proved beyond all shadow of doubt. In fact, I discuss the expected standard of proof at several points in the book. The following is typical: ‘Most theorists attempt to identify how the behaviors that interest them ‘improved the evolutionary success of our ancestors and why, or why not, we are also affected. Almost inevitably, this extension of the theory involves conjecture. We are too ignorant about the lives of our forebears to avoid this. Of course we should avail ourselves of the latest scientific information on the matter, but this generally leaves answers to crucial questions under-determined. [NP] I am sympathetic to this difficulty. I don t mean to fault theories for being speculative in part, especially if they acknowledge the extent to which they go beyond the evidence. But where a range of very different proposals about the evolutionary significance of some behavior are in competition, with none clearly established as superior to all others, which is often the case where aesthetics and art are the topic, it will be more appropriate to reserve judgment than to opt for what we might like to be true’ (43).

In the book, I argue against the narrow construal of human beauty in terms of youthful, female sexual attractiveness. Professor Carroll characterized this as a neutering of the notion based on political correctness. But consider this: ‘Nor do I mean to anaesthetize the notion of physical beauty by separating it completely from sexual attraction. That is to say, I am not convinced by the suggestion that we are now discussing a de-sexed kind of attractiveness. No one fails to notice the sex of the person with whom he or she is talking. And when they beautify themselves in ways that are socially accepted, people often want to be thought of or recognized as sexually attractive, which is of course quite different from wanting to elicit an overtly sexual response. [NP] Rather, it is a matter of appropriating the culturally and biologically sanctioned symbols of sexuality to put them to work in the tasks of self-definition, self-projection, and self-empowerment’ (116).

When I became interested in the debates on possible connections between art and evolution, I was frustrated and disappointed by the lack of subtlety and sophistication in many of the arguments. There are exemplary thinkers in every field, of course, but many biologists, evolutionary psychologists, and art theorists are, at best, careless in the way they support their conclusions. Rather than hoping to stifle or dismiss this debate, as Professor Carroll seemed to assume, my goal in The Artful Species was to mount a challenge that would encourage the protagonists to lift their game, taking the arguments to a new, more mature level.

Sad to report, the unpleasantness in the session ended on an especially sour note. A member of the audience objected to Professor Carroll’s ad hominen approach. He responded by correcting her European-accented pronunciation, which she thought was insulting.

Professor Carroll assured us that he was obliged to speak as he had done because of his commitment to academic honesty. As people in New Zealand sometimes respond to questionable or self-serving claims: Yeah, right!

One Comment
  1. rebecca l farinas permalink

    Dear Professor Davies and fellow members of IAA,

    Hello, I am your colleague who was also insulted by Professor Joseph Carroll, on this past Friday at the conference in Krakow. Please let me also start by thanking Professor Davies and others that were present at the session discussing his most recent book, for their comments and sympathy after Professor Carroll’s vicious and unrelenting attack. Following the session there were several members of the panel and audience whom expressed their regret that I was insulted by Professor Carroll and others mentioned that they were grateful that I spoke up against Professor Carroll’s belligerent and bullying attitude. My sincere thanks to them and to Professor Davies for posting this blog and for sending his kind email to those present at the session.

    I too would like to take just a few moments to explain my foiled repartee with Professor Carroll. By pointing to his ad hominem remarks I tried to underscore that his own suggested solution in terms of evolutionary fictional worlds was not presented well to the audience, void of any sociological dynamic, and without philosophical substance. He gave no convincing alternative to what he read as an account of artistic evolution without imagination, only a general critique admidst numerous ‘suggested readings,’ cloaked in his profuse barrage of personal insults.

    Because of the combination of both such weak lines of attack, I felt that a comment on Max Scheler’s fascinating and philosophically profound views on imaginary worlds, aesthetics and sociologically attuned virtues was appropriate. Once again I recommend to anyone interested in imaginary worlds of visual art and fiction, Scheler’s “Metaphysics and Art”, Max Scheler Centennial Essays, edited Manfred S Frings, The Hague:Martinus Nijhof, 1974, 112.

    For Scheler, writing after the horrors of World War I, love was a vital aspect of human anthropology. He thought that no ideas on human evolution are complete without an inclusion of virtues and emotions, making up the total picture of human kind augmented by biology and the sciences. His writings on the imagination and aesthetics follow this line of thinking with a depth and breadth of philosophical vision.

    So, I would once again like to recommend to Prof Carroll that he study ethics, values and empathetic emotions to fill out his obviously narrow picture of the imagination and the powerful and dynamic worlds that it constructs. In my opinion Carroll needs to read deeper and with renewed philosophical intent.

    Thank you again for your kind attention and words of support.

    Rebecca L Farinas

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