Monday, April 5, 2010

Science and Art: Evolution and Fiction

There's a really interesting article over at The New York Times, "Next Big Thing in English: Knowing They  Know You Know," which reports on the growing field of "cognitive theory" in literature programs.   The argument is that keeping track of multiple points of view (a necessity when reading complex literature) is an evolutionary development, and fiction not only encourages that development, but in many ways helps develop altruism by providing examples of characters who have nothing to gain by their own heroism.

I freaking love stuff like this.  Seriously, I can't get enough of it.

I also think the following is an interesting take on the ol' humanities-vs-sciences, us-vs-them mentality of academia:
Jonathan Gottschall, who has written extensively about using evolutionary theory to explain fiction, said 'it’s a new moment of hope' in an era when everyone is talking about 'the death of the humanities.' To Mr. Gottschall a scientific approach can rescue literature departments from the malaise that has embraced them over the last decade and a half. Zealous enthusiasm for the politically charged and frequently arcane theories that energized departments in the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s — Marxism, structuralism, psychoanalysis — has faded. Since then a new generation of scholars have been casting about for The Next Big Thing.
P.S. (on a mostly un-related note): If this continues, it's really going to make a mess of the UCLA campus, which has "North Campus" (the arts) and "South Campus (the sciences).  I didn't have one class on South Campus--ever--and always got lost whenever I had to be down there for some reason.  Whenever someone from UCLA finds out I also went there, s/he asks, "What did you study?"  When s/he finds out I was an English major, s/he says, "Ah, North Campus," in a smug, we-have-a-commonality-that-others-really-don't-get tone.  If, however, English majors are now tiptoeing into the realm of cognitive theory, they might have to take some courses--God forbid!--south of Ackerman Student Union.  Oh, well, it's the price of progress, I guess.


Homero said...

...And don't think I don't have a bone to pick with this topic, either. I'll get to it, someday....

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

I'm torn--on the one hand, I really do believe that every field is related to every other field in one way or another. However, I'm not sure that literature should really gain "street cred" by just assuming the qualities of other fields that are appreciated by American society.

Still, it's nice to be able to point to something like this and say, "Look, even if you don't personally see any value in reading literature, it does have value from an EVOLUTIONARY STANDPOINT. So pbthhhhh."

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