Can biology explain art?

OK, so you buy into all of that evolutionary psychology stuff and look for the adaptational drivers behind everything humans think and do and are.

You will be on the solidest of ground when you’re describing the physical mechanisms of bodily states and functions. And you’ll do pretty well, most of the time, with speculations about the evolutionary advantage of this or that adaptation. You’ll convince a growing number of people of the interaction of both individual and group selection.

But once you’ve done that, what do you do with the hard stuff?

Consciousness is notoriously hard to explain, and even after many articles on the subject here I’m not at all confident that I, or anyone else, really has a handle on it. For now, I’m leaving that topic alone.

The other really tough topic is art, the creative and imaginative output of the free-flowing human mind. What advantage does art add to the evolutionary mix?
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Doing the math on mythic literature

Some people in the softer sciences, including much of psychology, are very wary of “reductionism,” the practice of understanding via an analysis of the interaction of the parts of complex systems.

Yet there are scientists, especially statistical mathematicians, who love to tear apart complex systems as a way of classifying or codifying them.

So it’s not entirely surprising that a group of mathematicians has applied statistical analysis to mythic literature. In an article titled “Universal Properties of Mythological Networks,” a team from Coventry University has analysed three classical myths to see how much their historicity can be established statistically.

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Reading me, reading you

In an attic room in a cheap part of town, the writer sits at a battered desk. Two years of solitary effort, and the book is finally finished. Into the brown envelope, off to the post office. Maybe this one will be published. And maybe, against all the odds, this one will be a best-seller. Only time will tell.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it. So familiar that it’s a painful cliché — the struggling author, hoping against hope to strike a chord that resonates with the reading public.

And if the book is a hit, what then? Can the magic formula repeat itself? Will the second book be as well received as the first? What was it about the first that made it work?

Who knows. The only thing we can say for sure is that, for some reason, it sold well. All the writer can do is hope for the same kind of luck, or the same unconscious artistry, the next time.

The only thing wrong with this story is that it’s completely, irrevocably passé. And it’s not just that quaint part about the post office. Continue reading

Fiction on the brain

When we read a novel, the same areas of the brain activate as those that light up when we encounter something similar in the real world.

Smell a lilac, or read about the scent of lilacs — it’s pretty much all the same to our brains.

This fact is interesting enough on its own, but does it also have implications for “representational” theories of consciousness? Continue reading

“Dear Mr. Orwell – thanks for the book!”

Thanks to Arts & Letters Daily, my favourite website, I was directed to a very interesting letter, sent by Aldous Huxley to George Orwell in 1949.

Orwell had sent Huxley a copy of the newly-published novel 1984, and Huxley wrote to thank him for the book. At least, that was the occasion for the letter — but the letter itself was more about Huxley’s conviction that Orwell’s terror state would inevitably evolve into Huxley’s pleasure state. Continue reading

Do big ideas fit into small books — very small books?

Sam Harris has gone small — to the Kindle Single, that deceptively-named species of sub-book that Amazon sells for $1.99, buy with one click and download instantly to your device!

The Kindle edition of The Moral Landscape costs $13.02 (as strangely specific a price as you’ll find anywhere), so Harris’s latest, the little white Lying, is a steal — unless, that is, you like your books to run more than twenty-six pages.

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