Barnacles, finches’ beaks, art

Cirripedia, the barnacles, occupied Mr. Charles Darwin for many years, even though his extensive studies of the class are not what he’s famous for (except among cirripedists). The average layperson knows Darwin as the man who came up with the theory of evolution–though that is not strictly what he did, and none of his books bear that title. After the publication of On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, and the subsequent and ongoing controversies that followed, pretty much everything in the world could be–and has been–examined “under an evolutionary lens.”

The original “lens” involved finch beaks, pigeon-breeding, and early geology studies. It was fueled also by taxonomy, anatomy, and barnacles, by a member of the landed gentry who stayed at  home, more or less, for 45 years after his five-year journey on the Beagle. A scholar, an “armchair naturalist” by today’s standards; a genius.

finch beaksMany people who interpreted what evolution suggested went off the deep end one way or another, which is what happens with ground-breaking ideas. Both critics and supporters re-interpreted and often misinterpreted Darwin and the implications of his work, as well, all of which means he accomplished something truly significant. Why not, therefore, examine fundamental human traits to see whether evolutionary currents can be discerned? Certainly Darwin and a few of his contemporaries speculated that altruism might have an evolutionary basis, a concept that was taken up, debated, and temporarily dismissed in the 1960s-70s; recent neurobiological and genetic studies have brought the possibility of a biological basis for kindness back into discussion (see also Damasio).

There is also the question of art (and aesthetics, though taste seems more likely to be social than biological–but who knows?), which brings me to Denis Dutton’s delightful book The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution.

Rather than summarize my responses to his thought-provoking and rather convincing arguments, I’m posting some quotes. These are ideas I find juicy to consider; perhaps other readers will feel similarly.

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Wondrous aesthetic experiences are possible in the absence of a sense of larger community: the response of an individual to a beautiful landscape, for instance, …or to a recording of the Goldberg Variations heard in solitude. If the arts were intrinsically social in the way that social-cohesion theory claims, people…would prefer standing in a crowd to see a painting in a museum, rather than standing alone.

Because of sexual selection, the arts retain an incorrigible sense of being made by one individual person for another…the motives of art, as even Darwin knew, are ancient and complicated–directed toward a community perhaps, but also created to captivate an audience of one.

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The artist…probes the content of human emotional life with an eye toward articulating, or making clear, a unique emotion, an individual feeling.

Can you imagine taking [a] pill to save the expense of concert tickets, or even the time spent in listening to a recording of the piece? The answer is very likely to be no, and the reason tells us something about the nature of artistic expression. It is not just the emotion as bare feeling we want from art, it is the individual artistic expression of emotion–how emotions are revealed in the art, through technique, structure, balance, and the blending of sounds….Yes, we want feeling from art, but not as an end for which the art is a means: with art, the means is the end itself.      [italics mine]

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Extending Darwin’s original suggestion, I believe this intense interest in art as emotional expression derives from wanting to see through art into another human personality: it springs from desire for knowledge of another person….talking about art is an indirect way of talking about the inner lives of other people.

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All of the above excerpts are from Denis Dutton, The Art Instinct, 2009.

http://taxo4254.wikispaces.com/file/view/darwins_barnacles.jpg/274764236/409x262/darwins_barnacles.jpg

wikispaces.com/file/view/darwins_barnacles.jpg

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Consciousness as story

Some recent questions to myself:

Reading philosophy and psychology for so many years, was I looking all along for an explanation of consciousness?

Through neurological and evolutionary science, and more philosophy and more psychology and, in addition, some anthropology, some history. And fiction. And rhetoric. Trying, perhaps, to understand the self? Through criticism, through art, through literature?

Looking carefully at art, reading literature closely: were those also endeavors to comprehend what mind is? Other minds? My own mind? Through the creative act, perhaps?

Is the ars poetica a kind of manifesto of human consciousness from an individual perspective, yet open to interpretation by other human minds? And the beautiful–what is it that even makes beauty a significant concept? Where did that come from? Evolution and the sexual drive (see Dutton riffing on Darwin)? Society? Synthesis? Ego? Inspiration? Angels?

Is every story a scaffold to consciousness? A hedge against oblivion? (Self-oblivion, the hardest navigation act there is: depression, hopelessness, loss of self-knowledge, coma).

I wonder if the stories we tell to others and to ourselves, employing memory selectively whether or not we realize it, act as a kind of (modern-day, metaphorical) Chain of Being through which we develop Theory of Mind and, beyond that, a sense not just of ego but of neurological consciousness. If stories are what make us human.

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The chain of being, from Charles Bonnet, Œuvres d'histoire naturelle et de philosophie, 1779-83

The chain of being, from Charles Bonnet, Œuvres d’histoire naturelle et de philosophie, 1779-83

[Note: I do not hold the medieval concept of a hierarchy in which Man, angels, and God stand above all other things; the stone and the plankton have as much value–likely more–than I do in the workings of the cosmos, as far as I am concerned. I post this Enlightenment-Era engraving here for metaphorical and aesthetic reasons because I take pleasure in the delightful monkey.]

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Stories have tremendous value to human beings in ways we are still discovering; see my previous posts here, here, here, and here (among others). I keep coming across claims for the significance of story in surprising places–most recently in Dutton’s The Art Instinct and in Atul Gawande’s latest book, Being Mortal. Widely different texts, similar observations.

How is it we know who it is we are?

Possibly, in the process of inventing the story of ourselves, we become human. Perhaps the story of ourselves is fundamental to conscious “human” minds.

Speculation. But I love recalling that my children, when they were very very young, consistently made one particular demand of me: “Mama, tell me a story!”

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