Signposts for a Naturalist Criticism
By William Benzon
A review of Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History by Franco Moretti; Verso, 2005; and
The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative by Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson; Northwestern University Press, 2005.
A Naturalist Imperative
The two books under review present alternatives to current methods of literary study. In Graphs, Maps, Trees, Franco Moretti opts for “distant reading” where “distance is however not an obstacle, but a specific form of knowledge: fewer elements, hence a sharper sense of their overall interconnection. Shapes, relations, structures. Forms. Models.” Among his structures are growth curves from quantitative history, though they could be from population biology, and phylogenetic or genealogical trees. The Literary Animal, edited by Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson, is biological through and through, justifying the ways of biology to students of culture and arguing that storytellers have known it all along.
Biological inspiration notwithstanding, they are very different books. Superficially, one is a slender volume reflecting the ideas of a single literary scholar while the other is a heftier — and not internally consistent (a design feature, not a bug) — collection of articles by literary scholars, evolutionary psychologists, biologists, and a lone novelist. More substantially, Gottschall’s and Wilson’s evolutionists focus their attention on the margin between biology and culture, while Moretti is deep inside cultural territory. Moretti presents some impressive empirical evidence, but, by his own admission, cannot explain it. The literary evolutionists seek explanations, but are so concerned with biological foundations that they do not attend to cultural processes in a way that could yield explanations for Moretti’s observations.
Beyond this, The Literary Animal is tendentious in a way that Maps, Graphs, Trees is not. While both books announce a break from current critical practice, Wilson and Gottschall do so with klieg lights tracing designs in the sky and trumpets blaring triumphal fanfares. And they do so in the name of science, while Moretti never mentions science, yet some of his results are as solid as anything in The Literary Animal and arguably more important.
There is much in The Literary Animal that is interesting and admirable, but too much of it is ineptly framed. Where E. O. Wilson talks of the need for consilience between the sciences and the humanities and D. S. Wilson talks of the need for a “middle way” between biology and culture, many humanists are likely to see a Trojan horse hiding Darwinists bent on conquest and domination. I will attempt to persuade at least some of those humanists that such an impression would be mistaken. I believe it would be best for the future of literary studies if critics were to take this biological enthusiasm as a faux pas motivated by naïve helpfulness rather than malevolence. It is to that end that I will offer some firm criticism of The Literary Animal.
Reviewing these books is challenging. The material is rich and diverse, forcing me to ignore some work so that I can give more detailed attention elsewhere. Three issues seem paramount, and I will concentrate on them: 1) the relationship between biological and cultural processes, 2) objective methods in literary study, and 3) narrative’s adaptive purpose.
I will thus pass over Moretti’s second chapter, “Maps” as it does not raise the evolutionary issues raised by his two other chapters. In The Literary Animal I will leave out the chapters by Daniel Nettle (“What Happens in Hamlet? Exploring the Psychological Foundations of Drama”), Marcus Nordlund (“The Problem of Romantic Love: Shakespeare and Evolutionary Psychology”), Robin Fox (“Male Bonding in Epics and Romances”), and Catherine Salmon (“Crossing the Abyss: Erotica and the Intersection of Evolutionary Psychology and Literary Studies”). They do not present any particularly problematic methodological or theoretical issues; each contains material of value and interest to a naturalist critic. I regret that I cannot comment on their virtues, but I recommend them to you, Fox in particular. Ian McEwan has written an encomium on human nature and Darwinian insight, but its value is more inspirational than analytical. Dylan Evans’s autobiographical account of how he dumped Lacan in favor of Darwin contains some interesting information on Lacan’s early inspiration, but offers no particular insight into literature. It seems to serve as a sign of in-group solidarity rather than as a source of observations and ideas for the naturalist critic.
Nature, Culture, and the Middle Way
What is the relationship between the biological and cultural realms of the natural world? David Sloan Wilson addresses this in his chapter, “Evolutionary Social Constructivism.” As Wilson asserts, this matter has been the subject of considerable and very bitter controversy. Extreme positions are easily asserted. Wilson intends to offer a “productive exploration of the middle ground.” And indeed he does. After outlining three evolutionary positions and two social constructivist positions he explores the possibility of incorporating one of the social constructivist positions — the one that recognizes some biological constraints on human behavior — into the three evolutionary positions.
Later on he suggests that stories are genelike, and thus culture is itself an evolutionary arena. In elaborating on this point he gives capsule summaries of various views on the importance of narrative — Jerome Brunner, Robert Sternberg, James Pennebacker (on the healthy effects of keeping a diary), Timothy Wilson (on the limits of introspection), Terrence Deacon, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, Walter Ong and Alexander Luria (on the general nature of thought in preliterate cultures), and Richard Nisbett.
Wilson concludes by welcoming us to the middle ground, noting that “evolution is all about change,” and assuring us that “the adaptive behavioral flexibility that already occupies center stage in sociobiology and evolutionary psychology provides some scope for the optimist spirit of social constructivism. Nongenetic evolutionary processes provide even more scope” (p. 35).
I may be somewhat assured but, unfortunately, such assurance is itself not very useful as a guide to practical literary analysis. Everyone advocates the middle way and has done so for years. Yet the nature-nurture controversy continues unabated despite this agreement. It is one thing to argue for a middle way on general grounds; that is easy to do. It is quite a different matter to demonstrate that middle way in practical literary analysis. I am thus afraid that Wilson’s assurances may not provide much comfort for most literary critics, who remain interested in the details of individual texts.
What happens in practical criticism is that social constructivists look at texts and see social and cultural contexts, which are real and relevant. Looking at the same texts, Darwinians see primates in action — as indeed we are. Both see truly, but neither seems able to find this middle way — perhaps because neither is particularly interested in dealing with the complex issues that arise when you enter the middle zone.
Others have been exploring this middle zone for years. Perhaps the best-known cross-cultural study in cognitive anthropology is the color-term work of Brent Berlin and Paul Kay (1969). Their study covered almost a hundred languages and showed that there is a constraint governing the use of 11 monolexemic color terms such that they can be ordered as follows:
1) every language has the first two terms (for black and white)
2) then some languages add a term for red,
3) of those languages, some have yellow or green,
4) and then the other of those two terms, followed by
6) brown, and finally
7) one or more of pink, grey, orange, or purple.
Subsequently a group of investigators led by David Hays used an established measure of cultural complexity and showed that more complex cultures tend to have more color terms (Hays, Margolis, Naroll and Perkins, 1972; for a recent discussion see Hays, 1997, pp. 240-243). The ordering of the terms is taken to reflect a biological constraint while the actual appearance of terms reflects overall cultural complexity. Just why these terms are so ordered is not clear; but the evidence indicates that culture does play a role in the appearance of color terms.
Moving closer to literary topics, I can cite a study by Paul C. Rosenblatt (1966) on the relationship between child rearing practices and romantic love. Using a sample of 21 societies Rosenblatt found a strong correlation between oral frustration in infancy and a strong belief in the importance of romantic love as a basis for marriage. In a similar vein Robert W. Shirley and A. Kimball Romney (1962) found a high incidence of love magic in societies with high sexual socialization anxiety. Notice the logic of these studies: cultural variation in one area of social practice is shown to be correlated with variation in another. That variation is evidence for the cultural shaping of biological mechanisms.
Continuing on, one should note Alan Lomax’s massive cross-cultural study, Folk Song Style and Culture (1968) and Michael Winkelman’s (1992) Shamans, Priests and Witches: A Cross-Cultural Study of Magico-Religious Practitioners — many of which are entrusted with the sacred narratives of their society. I would also mention Raoul Naroll’s magisterial The Moral Order (1983), which organizes a wide range of cross-cultural studies in an attempt to evaluate the human situation and to establish a data-rich and intellectually sound “foundation of a moral, social, political, and economic world order” (p. 20). Naroll recognizes the claims of both biology and culture and is, in addition, a sophisticated methodologist. Advocates of the middle way would do well to make his acquaintance.
Finally, I would like to toss two specifically literary questions into this middle way. Consider Leslie Fiedler’s classic book, Love and Death in the American Novel (1966) one of the most influential studies of American literature in the last half century. Fiedler argues that, while the 18th- and 19th-century European novel is focused on courtship and marriage, the American novel — which is necessarily based on European prototypes — is about “a man on the run, harried into the forest [e.g., Cooper’s Natty Bumpo] and out to sea [e.g., Melville’s Ahab], down the river [e.g., Twain’s Huck Finn] or into combat [e.g., Crane’s Henry Fleming] — anywhere to avoid ‘civilization,’ which is to say, the confrontation of a man and a woman which leads to the fall to sex, marriage, and responsibility” (p. 26). Biologically those fictive Americans are the same as their fictive European cousins, and real American audiences have the same biology as real European audiences. Both audiences depend on courtship and marriage for reproduction, but only one of those audiences puts love and sex at the center of its fiction. Why? That question is an important one, but you are not likely to answer it by appealing to human universals and biological nature.
Fiedler goes on to remark (1966, pp. 32-33):
The series of events which includes the American and French Revolutions, the invention of the novel, the rise of modern psychology, and the triumph of the lyric in poetry, adds up to a psychic revolution . . . a new kind of self, a new level of mind; for what has been happening since the eighteenth century seems more like the development of a new organ than a mere finding of a new way to describe old experience.
Is Fiedler correct about this? I believe so (Benzon, 1993). But I do not see how one can account for this “new organ” by reference to our biological nature, for this new organ arose long after our biological nature had stabilized. Its origin thus must be found in the culturally evolved refashioning of biological materials.
It would be one thing if the Darwinists were to explicitly and strongly acknowledge such questions, but respectfully decline to deal with them at this time because other issues are more pressing. They do not do this. They simply deal with their issues as though those issues defined the study of literature while paying lip service to culture. To add insult to injury, the questions of cultural specificity and of the novelistic mentality that Fiedler raises have been at the center of postmodernist and deconstructionist criticism for the past three decades. This is no way to win humanistic friends and critical people, but it is a good start on fostering another self-regarding intellectual cult.
Objective Knowledge of Literature
The possibility of new kinds of objective literary knowledge is the deepest intellectual issue raised by these books. Unless we have sound empirical methods we cannot fruitfully explore the middle way nor can we test hypotheses about adaptive purpose. Without valid observations, theory cannot connect with the world.
I want to consider four empirical studies, the first (“Graphs”) and third (“Trees”) chapters of Moretti’s book and two chapters from The Literary Animal: “Quantitative Literary Study: A Modest Manifesto and Testing the Hypothesis of Feminist Fairy Tale Studies,” by Jonathan Gotschall, and “Proper Hero Dads and Dark Hero Cads: Alternative Mating Strategies Exemplified in British Romantic Literature,” by Daniel J. Kruger, Maryanne Fisher, and Ian Jobling. I will begin with Moretti, then consider Gottschall, and finally Kruger, Fisher, and Jobling. I will conclude this section with a hypothetical exercise in which I imagine that I am entrusted with funding innovative research in the human sciences. How would I allocate funds to these three enterprises?
Moretti’s book, Graphs, Maps, Trees, consists of three essays originally published in New Left Review in 2004 plus an afterword by biologist Alberto Piazza. The first of these essays, “Graphs,” looks at the emergence of the novel in several countries and tracks the evolution of novel genres in Britain. Note that Moretti is not interested only in the relatively small number of titles that make it into the canon of approved excellence. He wants to register all novels, regardless of their current critical standing. Moretti’s third chapter, “Trees,” is concerned with the genealogical pattern traced by specific traits as they evolve over the course of years and decades. The second chapter, “Maps,” considers the physical location of stories in collections of factual narratives about British country life and in fictional narratives set in Paris. As it does not raise evolutionary issues I will, as I indicated above, leave it alone.
In “Maps” Moretti first examines the emergence of the novel in Britain, Denmark, India, Japan, Italy, Span, and Nigeria. In this work he is interested in sheer numbers, creating graphs depicting the number of titles published per year over a century or more, starting in the 18th century. In most cases — Britain, Denmark, India, Japan, Italy, Spain — he finds that the rise of the novel is not a steady one but is marked with declines so long and deep that we must talk of the cyclic rise and fall of the novel. Further, in some cases it appears that the rise begins slowly and then accelerates, as in the logistic curve familiar in population biology.
To my mind, however, Moretti’s most interesting finding concerns the succession of British novelistic genres between 1750 and 1900. Most generally, he shows that the types of genre shift over time. For example, Gothic novels were strong from 1800 –1825, sporting novels seem to run from 1820 to 1860, while imperial romances run from 1850 though 1890, and so on for over 40 genres. What is most interesting, however, is that the genres seem grouped into six periods of creativity; they appear and disappear in clusters. Consequently there is an almost complete turn-over in genres every 25 years or so, that is, roughly a generation (pp. 80 ff.). Moretti cannot explain that nor can I. But it does seem to be a fact about literary history and perhaps even a fact of a new kind.
Moretti opens his third chapter, “Trees,” by examining the tree diagram — “Divergence of character” — that Darwin included in the fourth chapter of The Origin of Species to illustrate the divergent pattern of speciation; daughter species must necessarily diverge from one another and from their common parent. He then reproduces another diagram (by Cavalli-Sforza and colleagues), this one with two trees, one depicting the genetics of human populations and the other the grouping of human languages into families and superfamilies. There is a rough correspondence between these two trees. Moretti then asks (p. 70): “And if language evolves by diverging, why not literature too?”
He investigates this question with two examples, the use of clues as the British detective story developed in the last decade of the 19th century and the development of free indirect discourse from 1800 to 2000. On clues, at the beginning of the decade there were detective stories that did not use clues at all, and others where they had no function in the story. Reader decodable clues do not appear until later in the decade; but once they appeared they became a requirement of detective stories. This is clearly evidence of reader preference, but it is not obvious what is driving that preference. Moretti does not know, thus he has uncovered another question for theorists to ponder.
The story of free indirect discourse is similar in form, but larger in temporal and geographic scope. Free indirect discourse is where words are uttered in the narrator’s voice, but somehow partake of the psyche of one of the characters (cf. Chafe, 1994). As an example Moretti offers the following sentence from Chapter 39 of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park:
It was the abode of noise, disorder, and impropriety. Nobody was in their right place, nothing was done as it ought to be. She could not respect her parents, as she had hoped.
In the second sentence, Moretti asserts (p. 81), “the tone is clearly Fanny’s, and expresses her profound emotional frustration at her parent’s house.” The sentence is poised midway between the narrator and a character, “intermediate and almost neutral in tone between character and narrator: the composed, slightly abstract voice of the well-socialized individual” (p. 81).
The technique apparently originated in Western Europe early in the 19th century, had migrated to Russia by mid-century, and, by the late 20th century, had inserted itself into the so-called magical realist fiction of Latin America. In the course of that migration, the device has changed its valence so that by the time it had reached Latin America it had become a vehicle for the grandiosity of dictators. Starting as a window into the psyche of “the well-socialized individual” it has become a vehicle for exposing the narcissism of thugs who hold themselves above society.
These two studies raise a number of theoretical issues. Given the biological prelude — the tree diagram from The Origin of Species — one can ask whether or not these literary traits are being likened to phenotypic traits or to genes. Moretti does not say, nor do I think the question is pressing, though it must be addressed eventually. Moretti also raises the issue of whether or not cultural evolution is convergent — as many have argued (including me, Benzon, 1996), as well as divergent. This question, as well, is not urgent. Recent work on single-celled organisms — which can exchange bits of DNA and thereby transmit genetic material laterally from one lineage to another — indicates that some form of convergent evolution is common in the biological domain as well (Martin and Embley, 2004). This issue thus has no direct bearing on whether or not it is proper to seek an analogy between cultural and biological evolution. The interaction of convergent and divergent processes is a thorny issue, but it is not urgent.
What is important is that Moretti is collecting data and using that data to frame interesting questions. That this particular investigation — the genealogy of literary traits — is similar to traditional historical work makes it all the more attractive, as it can thus be understood by traditional scholars with a minimum of intellectual culture shock. Here I am thinking of work such as A. O. Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being, in which Lovejoy traces the history of one idea from the ancient Greeks to 19th-century Europe, or Livingston Lowes’s The Road to Xanadu, in which Lowes rummages through Coleridge’s reading list and identifies the sources of many of the images Coleridge used in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan.” Numerous books and articles trace ideas, themes, and motifs through the halls of history.
What Moretti adds to this standard practice is very simple, yet crucial. He draws tree diagrams to depict the structure of a lineage. However obvious this may seem, drawing trees is different from imagining them in your mind. Imaginary trees are vague and fuzzy. Drawings must be definite, and that definition forces you to think a little more precisely about your material. Beyond that, trees — and more generally, diagrams where points are connected by lines in any configuration — can be subjected to mathematical analysis; such mathematical objects are important in many branches of science, including biology and cognition. Thus Moretti is laying the empirical groundwork for more sophisticated analytic work.
Taken together these two chapters — “Graphs” and “Trees” — allow us to ask interesting questions and, as I have said above, the “Graphs” chapter may have identified a new phenomenon in literary evolution, the generation-long succession of genres. Moretti’s work is important because it is empirical and descriptive. In the specific context of this review, the work is important because it gives strong evidence of cultural processes at work. Moretti is not proposing a middle way between biology and culture as an abstract theoretical construct, as an object of intellectual desire. He is patiently mapping that territory.
In some ways Jonathan Gottschall’s cross-cultural study of fairy tales is one of the best chapters in The Literary Animal. The methodology is respectable — certainly more rigorous than Patrick Colm Hogan’s (2004) in his study of narrative universals. Gottschall frames his investigation, however, as a test of the leading hypothesis in feminist fairy tale studies, a discipline about which I know nothing. Here is what he says (p. 209):
Since gender patterns in European fairy tales are said to reflect socially constructed differences between the sexes, the straightforward prediction of the SCH [social construction hypothesis] is that samples of traditional folktales from different culture areas around the world will evince markedly different patterns of female characterization than those identified in European tales. In short, the SCH predicts that an analysis of a culturally diverse sample will reveal diverse gender patterns.
Note that Gottschall is assuming that, since biological mechanisms are the same in all societies, differences and only differences are to be accounted for by cultural mechanisms. As my colleague Timothy Perper points out (personal communication), where you find houses, you find walls supporting the roofs on those houses. Does that mean that we are biologically determined to build supporting walls? No, the need for walls is an inescapable consequence of engineering constraints imposed by gravity.
What is at issue is the specific mechanism through which a behavioral result arises. If there is considerable cross-cultural diversity in the relevant fairy tale features, then this question does not arise. That diversity is evidence for strong cultural influence. But if there is little cross-cultural diversity, then things are not so clear. Let us consider Gottschall’s evidence.
Using 658 tales from 48 culture areas, Gottschall discovered, first, that fairy tales everywhere — Europe, Western Europe, North America (aboriginal peoples), South America (aboriginal peoples), East Eurasia, Africa, and the Insular Pacific — had more male than female main characters (Table 1, p. 212). In all regions, male protagonists were more active than female, with Europe having the highest percentage of active females (Table 2, p. 214). Similarly, female attractiveness was emphasized all over, while male attractiveness received considerably less attention (Table 3, p. 216); marriage was a dominant theme in all areas (Table 4, p. 217); and old women were universally stigmatized, with older women more likely to be antagonists (Table 5, p. 218).
Since, on the whole, the same pattern prevails in all culture areas, Gottschall claims a victory over the feminists. Perhaps so, but his results are not clean. The falsification of extreme cultural constructivism has not left us with a clear alternative. I am now left wondering whether or not there is still a considerable role for culture, as there is in the design and construction of roofs and walls.
Lest one argues that this possibility is merely a debating maneuver, but has little substance, let me offer a specific example. Raoul Naroll (1983, pp. 305 ff.) reports a small study (14 cultures) of aggressive behavior among young boys and girls (aged 2 through 6). The children were rated on aggressive behavior, with girls scoring from 3 to 10 and boys from 4 to 12. In four of the societies boys and girls were equally aggressive while boys were slightly more aggressive in the other ten. There were no societies where girls were more aggressive than boys. The major differences were between societies, with American boys (4) and girls (3) the least aggressive and Colombian boys (12) and girls (10) the most aggressive. Since the aggression scores for boys and girls were close within cultures, but the variation between cultures was high, Naroll concludes that culture is a stronger influence on aggressive behavior than genetics (p. 307). That is to say, while the pattern of male-female difference is the same from one culture to another, the general level of aggressive behavior is strongly determined by culture.
The obvious analogy between this example and Gottschall’s investigation would be to attribute the asymmetry (between males and females) to biology. To this extent he has made his case against feminism. But that does not necessarily imply that fairy tales play no role in elaborating observed gender differences. It only means that we have to look more closely to determine what role that is. In particular, I am a little puzzled about the preponderance of male main characters over female. I can see how one can attribute the active-passive difference to biologically-based sexual dimorphism; one is thus arguing, in effect, that the tales reflect bio-social reality. Now, telling more stories focused on males may be a consequence of the mechanisms of our “story grammar”: A story needs an active protagonist; since males are more active, there will be more stories about them. Or it may be a different order of phenomenon; perhaps males are more difficult to socialize and so a society needs to craft more mythological resources to aid that effort. Gottschall needs to think more deeply about mechanism. He has not made a case against a moderate social constructivism.
Gottschall seems to admit this, for he does acknowledge differences in his data from region to region. Beyond making general allusions to the physical and social environment, however, he has nothing to say about these differences. To be sure, this study was not designed either to uncover or to explore such differences. It was designed to refute an extreme position. In the messy world of human lifeways, such extreme positions are easily dispatched. But have we learned much about the middle way?
Kruger, Fisher and Jobling
Kruger, Fisher and Jobling investigate the response of young women to two types of men and finds that their responses are consistent with parental investment theory as originally explored by Robert Trivers. This is basically a study in social psychology inspired by evolutionary psychology. Like much work in social psychology, this experiment uses questionnaires in response to prose descriptions rather than actually observing women interacting with men. As direct behavioral observation is often difficult, this is a common procedure (cf. Funder, 1999, pp. 19-20).
The experiment presents subjects with descriptions of two “dads” and two “cads” — never mind just what those terms mean, the standard connotations are good enough for the purpose of this review. Two pairs of cad-dad descriptions were used. As predicted, subjects preferred to have short-term sexual liaisons with cads, while they judged dads to be more appropriate as husbands. The descriptions of the men are brief passages from British novels. Does that in itself make the research deeply germane to literary studies?
These two types show up in British novels of the Romantic period — roughly the late 18th and early 19th centuries — though critics have not referred to them as cads and dads. The experimental subjects did not read the books from which the descriptions were culled, just the descriptions themselves. But surely much of a reader’s impression of a character is derived from their thoughts, feelings, desires, and actions as revealed in their actions throughout the novel. Would readers who had read the entire novel have judged the characters as being consistent with the brief descriptions of them? We do not know. It is not that I have any particular reason to suspect inconsistency, but that the researchers apparently have not even considered the question.
Even if the descriptions are consistent with the behavior those characters exhibit throughout the novels, any substantial literary inquiry must address just how these two types of character function in the novels. One might also ask whether or not there is something special about how these characters are used in British Romantic novels. Kruger, Fisher, and Jobling do not address these issues — at least not in this chapter.
The authors are trivializing the process of hypothesis testing when they frame this research as “testing a specific literary interpretation that was, itself, derived from evolutionary theory on human sexuality” (p. 227). The literary interpretation involved is a simple act of judgment: Do certain characters in novels act like certain well-known types as characterized in evolutionary psychology? One might as well conduct experiments to determine whether or not readers differentiate between men and women. This is a trivial issue and not at all worth the time and expense of empirical investigation. On these matters I believe we should be prepared to accept the judgment of trained scholars, who offer reasonable judgments on a host of similar questions: Is Hamlet indecisive? Is Elizabeth Bennet brilliant and witty? Is Tom Sawyer conniving, but good-hearted? You be the judge.
This chapter derives its value from the fact that it involves predictions about female preferences (for two types of men) that are derived from evolutionary psychology. The fact that the researchers have chosen to use common English words for these types suggests that these male types are commonly recognized. That subjects differentiated between descriptions of men of these two types substantiates their evolutionary hypothesis. But the experiment would have been no less useful if the descriptions had been written by the experimenters, rather than being culled from British novels.
If the investigators want to insist on the importance of “testing” this particular judgment — perhaps feeling there is something special about dads and cads, then they have a methodological problem. It is one thing to gauge audience reaction to specific descriptions and restrict your commentary to those descriptions. It is quite different to generalize from those “tests” to some larger universe of such descriptions. Since they hand-picked the four descriptions presented to their subjects, they cannot validly generalize to the universe of all such descriptions in British Romantic novels, which must number in the hundreds. Beyond that universe there looms the successively larger universes of all British novels, all novels, and all narratives. Are we going to test all putative dads and cads in those universes? If they want to insist that those other descriptions also characterize cads or dads, as the case may be, then they have to submit those descriptions to experimental test as well. Alternatively, they can drop the assertion that this is a meaningful test of a literary hypothesis — along with the implication that this “test” lends their interpretation a scientific validity that other interpretations do not have — and re-frame their work as straightforward evolutionary psychology.
Taken as an investigation of evolutionary theory about human sexuality it is more substantial. It is worth noting that the most interesting aspect of their discussion of the results had nothing to do with the novels from which the descriptions were culled. Rather, it was about the relationships between the women’s attachment styles (which had also been evaluated) and their relationship preference: “fearfully attached women were the most likely to select the dark hero cad for a prospective relationship” (239). That tells us something interesting about the contemporary audience for novels, but little about the novels themselves, regardless of when they were written.
Given that I am research director for a hypothetical foundation interested in promoting consilience among the human sciences, I would fund Moretti generously, but be more cautious with the others.
Moretti has a nose of the empirical and I think he should be encouraged to do the work he finds most compelling and interesting. I would like to see at least half a dozen more studies like the one on genre succession in the British novel and 20 or so trait studies comparable to those on clues and on indirect discourse. Beyond this, if Moretti wants to collaborate with computer scientists in developing tools for this research — I am thinking, for example, that the tools of corpus linguistics would be useful in tracing trait genealogies through large bodies of texts — I would be happy to entertain proposals of that nature.
I am not so sure about Gottschall’s work. His current investigation has been anticipated in a cross-cultural literature over 20-years-old. Naroll has a chapter on “Men and Women” in The Moral Animal that reviews a wide variety of cross-cultural work indicating that “it’s a man’s world” — to quote the self-styled hardest working man in show business, Mr. James Brown. In particular, Naroll cites a 1976 cross-cultural study by Divale and Harris (cf. Harris, 1977, pp. 55-66) — which I have not read — showing, among other things, “that in myth and ritual, men have an edge over women. Though goddesses are many, there are even more gods. Though heroines are many, there are even more heroes” (Naroll, 1983, pp. 318-319). That is so close to Gottschall’s main result that I am not sure that result alone is enough to justify the research effort.
In any event, I have a taste for high-risk research that promises significant intellectual gains and am less interested in dotting i’s and crossing t’s. I certainly would not fund a replication of that study. Nor, given the state of the cross-cultural evidence, would I fund any study whose primary objective is to falsify an hypothesis targeted at strong social constructivist ideas. On the other hand, if Gottschall wants to investigate hypotheses about just why the fairy-tale data is as he has reported it, now that I might consider funding — depending on his hypothesis and experimental design. (I would be open to a design that offers independent measures of the roles of males and females in society and then looks for correlations between those measures and features of fairy tales.)
My skepticism about Kruger, Fisher and Jobling is of a different sort. I might well fund further research out of my evolutionary psychology budget, but not out of my literature budget. In particular, I would be interested in funding research that systematically explores the descriptive features women find most descriptive of these two types. In his introduction, D. S. Wilson indicated that he “was increasingly using narrative as a research method by having participants read and respond to fictional scenarios whose elements I systematically varied” (pp. xxiii-xxiv). That is what these researchers should be doing. Rather than using passages from existing novels, they should create their own descriptions — perhaps Ian McEwan would help them — keyed to their hypotheses about the most important traits of cads and dads.
To summarize my judgment in a quantitative way, let us imagine I have $100,000 to distribute among these three programs. I would allocate $80,000 to Moretti for whatever he wishes to do, and $10,000 each to the other two, providing they produce acceptable proposals. If I had $1,000,000 to allocate, I would freely earmark a tenfold amount to Moretti (to be used over, say, a five year period) but I’m not sure I would, in parallel fashion, allocate $100,000 each for the other two.
Finally, I observe that, whereas the Darwinists have explicitly talked about the value and importance of science and of the need for a scientific approach to literature, Moretti never talks about science at all. Let my imaginary funding decisions stand as a comment on the intellectual value of professing science as opposed to gathering data in the pursuit of a naturalist study of literature.
Sharing Norms and Forging Communities
For all the attention given to the basic nature of stories and their adaptive value in the various essays in The Literary Animal, there is little apparent interest in or curiosity about how literature actually circulated in its originating context. The basic interest of these biologically-inspired critics seems to be focused on how narrative imitates the world. While I too am interested in narrative mimesis, I do not think that, at this preliminary stage of our inquiry, we can afford to focus on that aspect of storytelling without giving some attention to the storytelling process. Oral performance preceded writing by tens of thousands of years. Whatever the adaptive value of literature, it was realized through oral performance millennia before writing evolved.
In this section I will thus first review the nature of oral storytelling. Then I will take up the issue of narrative’s adaptive value. I will end by considering the problems of generalizing this account to literate cultures.
The fundamental point about oral performance is that teller and listeners are there, together, in one another’s visible and audible presence. The teller can sense immediately whether or not the audience is enjoying the tale; and audience members can register their interest or boredom, their pleasure or their anxiety.
To be sure, each person’s subjective experience, is of course, private. But not totally so, for their posture, gestures, facial expressions, sighs and exclamations, all are apparent to everyone else and to the speaker as well. The living significance of these non-verbal expressions is obvious to all, as they are grounded in biological behaviors that evolved to communicate inner states to conspecifics; these behaviors may be modified by cultural convention, to be sure, but those present share the same conventions (cf. Chwe, 2001).
The storyteller can thus modulate his performance in response to audience reaction and individual audience members can modulate their reactions by taking into account the reactions of their friends and family. Here literature — sometimes called orature — exists in the interaction among people assembled together. There is an asymmetry between the role of storyteller and that of audience members, but the interaction between them is direct. The experiences of people in this situation are public and shared.
As, in a sense, is the authorship of the story itself. While people will frequently narrate events in their lives, and make up stories for amusement, the culturally significant stories, the ones that articulate the central values of a people, are passed from one storyteller to another. The themes and episodes are the same from one telling to another, from one teller to another, though there will be variations in wording, gesture, and emphasis between specific performances. The tellers do not make their stories up from scratch, they learn them. Just when, where, and how the stories originated is unknown.
Thus when people gather to hear the old stories, they expect to hear familiar incidents in the lives of familiar characters. They are not expecting to learn anything new from the story. Rather, they expect to have an intellectually, emotionally, and socially satisfying experience as they share the deep truths and core values of their culture with their friends and family.
Whatever these stories may mean, their meanings have been “negotiated” in thousands of storytelling sessions. We have scarcely begun to investigate how people interact in such situations — though I have laid some conceptual foundations in my work on music (Benzon, 2001); and we know nothing about what goes on in the brains of people as they listen to a well-told story. Whatever the adaptive value of narrative, we must seek it in this setting, the face-to-face sharing of stories among all members of a community.
Adaptive Value of Stories
Toward the end of Michelle Scalise Sugiyama’s chapter, “Reverse-Engineering Narrative: Evidence of Special Design,” she notes “anthropologists report that men increase their hunting knowledge not only by observing other hunters but by listening to them … recount their hunting experiences” (p. 192), and then notes that “the notion that narrative simulates human experience is similarly noncontroversial,” which is true. But we must be careful in deploying that truth in considering the adaptive purpose of narrative.
Sugiyama may be correct in arguing that narrative is “designed” to transmit information. But there is a distinction between narrating every-day events to one’s fellows — as in discussing the day’s hunt — and in listening to sacred myths and tales recounted under the proper ritual circumstances. Whatever purpose is served by the telling of the sacred tales, it cannot be the transmission of new information, for the tales are the same each time they are told. Nor can it be to explore hypothetical situations in advance of their possible occurrence, for the tales are the same every time. Ordinary narrative may serve those purposes, but not sacred narrative.
Brian Boyd takes a step in the right direction in his evaluation of various “Evolutionary Theories of Art.” Boyd summarizes his own theory thus: “art is an adaptation whose functions are shaping and sharing attention, and, arising from the, fostering social cohesion and creativity” (p. 153). Now the shaping and sharing of attention is something that is critical to ritual situations, and storytelling certainly qualifies. I would like to emphasize the social cohesion function. I further note that this is consistent with remarks Joseph Carroll makes (p. 87):
The materials available to the mind and imagination are vast, and the combination of those material virtually infinite. The possibility of error, uncertainty, and confusion is an ever-present fact of human mental life. Because they have an irrepressibly active and unstable mental life, humans have a special need to fabricate mental maps or models that make sense of the world and provide behavioral directives that can take the place of instinctive behavioral patterns.
Carroll says nothing, however, about the social context in which the culturally central stories are told. Like all the evolutionists in this book, he focuses on the content of the stories, not the socio-cultural dynamics of the story-telling occasion.
There is a reason for emphasizing that context. Walter Freeman (1995, pp. 129-134; 2000; cf. Benzon, 2001) has made some neural speculations about music that are important here. He argues that during intense communal rituals the brain releases chemicals favorable to wiping out old neural connections, thereby allowing new ones to form more readily. Freeman thus stresses intense music-making as a vehicle for bonding among individuals. But I believe that it can also serve to bind people to the abstract symbols of their culture, an argument I made in a recent review of Steven Mithen’s The Singing Neanderthals (Benzon 2005). It is through communal ritual and storytelling that all members of the society arrive at mutually consistent mappings between the more or less cognitive circuits of the cortex and the subcortical circuitry of emotion and motivation. While people will take varying roles in a ritual, from principle celebrant to interested bystander, they are all participating in the same event. Here is where we find the deepest adaptive value of narrative, in the linkage it provides among the brains of community members. One of the central problems in the naturalistic study of culture, then, is to understand what happens in brains in these situations.
The Written Word
While written texts have a stability that is difficult to achieve in oral storytelling, the immediacy of face-to-face communication is lost. The words stay exactly the same from one occasion to the text, but the author and reader cannot interact with one another. Does this change storytelling in any substantial way?
I believe that it does, but I do not think we know why in any deep way. The question goes to the heart of how linguistic communication works. This is certainly not the time to take on that question. But it is easy enough to give a sense of what is entailed.
Just how is meaning conveyed from one person to another? Whatever that mechanism is, if you believe it to be precise, then there should be little difference between written and spoken communication. But what of all that nonverbal interaction that happens in face-to-face story telling? Is that important to the occasion or peripheral? If it is important, then is it somehow encoded in written language or is it simply lost?
I believe that, for many purposes, language is not at all precise. In many cases the imprecision can be overcome through demonstration or pointing things out or through immediate interaction. If Jack says something to Jill that she doesn’t understand, she can ask for clarification. If that doesn’t work, or she, in turn, says something that Jack doesn’t understand, the conversation can go on until mutual satisfaction is achieved. Thus, though individual assertions may be unclear, clarification and thus a “meeting of the minds” can be constructed through interaction. That possibility is lost to written language.
It is in this context that I want to consider one of the central propositions of the critical method that Joseph Carroll proposes in his chapter, “Human Nature and Literary Meaning: A Theoretical Model Illustrated with a Critique of Pride and Prejudice.” Roughly half of Carroll’s chapter is an admirable summary and synthesis of work in evolutionary psychology while the other half is an elegant, lucid and sensitive reading of Austen’s novel. In roughly the middle Carroll has some comments about “Meaning and Point of View in Literary Representation,” comments about written literature, not oral storytelling.
In that section Carroll asserts, without at all hinting that this has been one of the most contentious issues in literary and aesthetic theory for over a half century, that “the primary locus of all meaning for all literary works is the mind of the author. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the author provides whatever determinate meaning resides in a work …” (p. 90). The contention is not over whether or not authors of written texts intend, whether consciously or unconsciously, what is in their works. The problem is whether or not those intentions are incumbent upon readers and just what, as critics, are we to make of authorial intentions.
This problem becomes acute in thinking about literate cultures because someone in such a culture can commit a story to written text at one time and place and many others can read it at later times and other places without any direct contact with the author or with one another. In this situation it has in the past been convenient for critics to rely on a mode of conceptualization that cognitive linguists have come to call the conduit metaphor (Reddy, 1993). In the terms of this metaphor, authors place meaning into the text (the conduit) — like candies in a tin floating in a stream — which the reader retrieves at a later time and in some other place. After fishing the tin out of the water the reader eats the candies, one delicious bonbon after another.
Where did the reader get the candies? From the tin. How did they get into the tin? The author put them there. What do you do if you are unsure about the composition of the candies? Ascertain the author’s intentions.
But language is not like that. We have known that at least since the early 20th century when Saussure made it clear that the relationship between the sound (or image) of word and its meaning was arbitrary. When someone reads a written text, that person constructs meaning from the signifiers as he or she apprehends them. Of course, society goes to great lengths to inculcate consistent linguistic practice among its members; it is not as though listeners get to construe the speaker’s meaning in an arbitrary fashion.
Regardless of what literary critics may do or what evidence they may have about authorial intention, ordinary readers generally do not bother about such things. They construe texts as they see fit, though this process may well involve reading a review or two and conversing with friends. Thus a person’s judgment reflects the opinions of his or her circle of acquaintance. In effect, the reader extracts, not candies, but a recipe from the tin. The reader then makes candies by following the instructions in the recipe, using local ingredients, and consulting with friends on difficult points. Whether or not these candies taste just like those the author made depends on many things.
The problem for students of naturalist literary criticism, then, is to understand how this rickety business of floating recipes in tins seems to serve the adaptive purpose of literature — the creation and maintenance of shared values — as well as the basic method of having everyone in the village gather together to cook up a batch of (sacred) bonbons under the direction of a master chocolatier. It is hard to imagine that this question will be successfully addressed if the issue is not even stated, but simply assumed out of existence, as Carroll seems to do when he asserts that the author “provides whatever determinate meaning resides in a work.” The appearance of this magical belief is particularly startling in a collection of articles arguing for a rapprochement with science. It is like using flat-earth geometry to chart one’s course at sea while knowing that the earth is, in fact, round. Over short distances it does no harm and the math is a little easier. But such methods will not suffice for long distances.
Be that as it may, what story can we tell to replace the one in which, in effect, the author places the bonbons directly into the reader’s mouth, as it were? What we need to account for is how stories and audiences are attuned to one another. The give and take of face-to-face interaction is one mechanism. We need another, one that works indirectly.
When faced with a printed text, people cannot change the words on the page; they are fixed. But people can choose how much of it to read, and at what pace. Most importantly, they can choose whether or not to read it at all. If the body of texts in active circulation at any given time in a society is smaller than the number of texts available, then that body of texts represents the deliberate choices of the collective readership. Just why certain texts are preferred over others is not obvious, but I believe that people influence one another’s choices so that the “living” body of texts represents a diffuse collective process rather than just the sum of many independent individual choices.
The most interesting work I’m aware of on this issue is not, however, about textual narratives, nor is it even framed as a discussion of audience response or canon formation. It is framed as a study of the economics of movies. In Hollywood Economics, Arthur De Vany makes it quite clear that, no matter how hard the studios try to manipulate people into watching their movies, the fate of any given movie is in the hands of the audience, that word of mouth is more powerful than advertising and star power and sequel power. His argument is quantitative and demonstrates that movie audiences, in effect, organize themselves. A few movies attract large audiences, but most do not. De Vany speculates, and I agree with him, that other forms of art and entertainment that are distributed through reproductions would exhibit similar dynamics.
Thus we have a large-scale cultural process in which a relatively small repertoire of texts (or movies) is chosen from a much larger pool. In the arch manner of scientific textbooks I leave it as an exercise to the reader to determine whether or not this process of cultural selection is Darwinian in kind.
Prospects for a Naturalist Criticism
What then, are the prospects for a vigorous naturalist literary criticism? I think they are good, but that we must proceed with care. Moretti’s data is deep in the territory where culture has erected elaborate constructions on biological foundations. He is exploring and mapping the middle zone that D. S. Wilson theorizes about. It is clear to me, however, that if we are to understand the phenomena of that zone between biology and culture, we need a large body of descriptive and analytical work from which to construct that middle way.
Some of that work will consist of large-scale cross-cultural studies. But much of it will consist of case studies of individual texts and small collections of texts. We should remind ourselves, as Ian McEwan does in his encomium on Darwinian greatness, that Darwin’s achievement was based on thousands upon thousands of descriptions of the anatomy, physiology, and life ways of organisms, including his own descriptive contributions. Though the archives of literary scholarship are extensive, they do not contain the case studies we need. Old work must be recast in light of new models and new studies must be undertaken. As this work unfolds we will begin to understand, concretely, the phenomenal topography of the middle way.
In exploring the middle way it is helpful to consider some material that goes against one’s intellectual biases. I suggest, for example, considering the implications of Christopher Boehm’s Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. Boehm is interested in accounting for the apparent egalitarian behavior of hunter-gatherer bands, the most basic form of human social organization. This behavior is puzzling because, in all likelihood, our immediate primate ancestors probably had well-developed status hierarchies. Boehm argues that the status-oriented behavioral patterns of our primate heritage are overlain, but not eradicated or replaced, by a more recent egalitarian social regime. Other than suggesting that this more recent regime is genetic, Boehm has little to say about it. Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd (1999) have also suggested that we have two forms of sociality, a phylogenetically older one that is hierarchical, and a newer egalitarian form. Perhaps feminist criticism, for example, is driven by and seeks to validate the egalitarian facet of our biological nature.
As the thinkers in The Literary Animal seem highly biased by the culture of realistic fiction that is so important in the Western literary canon, I would urge them to pay more attention to the fantastic and unrealistic element in narrative. For example, they might consider manga, Japanese graphic novels. Though its roots are ancient, the form has flourished after World War II and it has now spread from Japan to the rest of the world, along with the animated films, anime, that derive from it (Schodt, 1986; Gravett; 2004). Some manga genres are realistic, but many are quite fantastic, drawing on motifs, symbols, and mythology from around the world. Perhaps the most provocative aspect of manga, however, is its treatment of gender. As Timothy Perper and Martha Cornog have pointed out in recent surveys (Perper and Cornog, 2002; 2003), there are manga genres devoted to heroic females who save the world while their hapless male friends look on admiringly.
Finally, I feel strongly that the Darwinians must moderate — if not altogether eliminate — their irritating attacks on postmodernist thought. It is not that I think things are fine in postanalytic–demodernist-psychoconstructionist theoryland. I do not. That is why I turned to the cognitive sciences years ago (e.g. Benzon, 1976; Benzon and Hays 1976). But sticking your tongue out and making hex signs — even the most sincere and earnest ones — is not helpful. This kind of activity, while a common feature of intellectual warfare, does little to win over the thinkers you oppose, who fully anticipate your magical gestures and are prepared with their own counter magic.
What is worse, this kind of warfare tempts you to lower your intellectual standards. Being different from Them is easy. Being deeper and truer is not.
The evolutionists would do well to follow Moretti’s example and conduct their research with a minimum of rhetorical fussing and feuding. They might also undertake the challenge of crafting theories and models that can account for his empirical results. When they have made significant progress on that path, then they will have earned a round of festivity, fireworks and fanfares.<
I thank Tim Perper for reading sections of this review and for several years of advice and counsel on matters biological.
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Bill Benzon’s career runs from cognitive science, through art, music, and the web. He has recently published Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture and is on the scientific advisory board for the Institute of Music and Neurologic Function in New York City.
He is currently Associate Director at the World Development Endowment Foundation, where he helping to plan and organize an effort to create a educational, cultural, and economic development resource center on Governors Island in New York City's harbor. Previously he was a Senior Scientist with MetaLogics, Inc., where he worked on knowledge representation and information design for web-based health services. In the past Bill has worked as a consultant and freelance writer and has taught on-line with Connected Education. He developed a web-based tribute to Martin Luther King that was recognized by Publisher’s Weekly and a tribute to Rahsaan Roland Kirk that was recognized in Esquire magazine. He has been a consultant to NASA, the U.S. Air Force, New York State, and private sector corporations.
Bill has taught in the Department of Language, Literature, and Communication at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and is internationally recognized for his numerous scholarly articles, reviews, and technical reports on African-American music, literary analysis and theory, cultural evolution, cognition and brain theory, visual thinking, and technical communication. In conjunction with Richard Friedhoff he has written a book on computer graphics and image-processing entitled Visualization: The Second Computer Revolution.
As a jazz musician, Bill plays trumpet and flugelhorn and has shared the stage with Dizzy Gillespie, B.B. King, Frank Foster, Al Grey, and Nick Brignola. He is cofounder of the New African Music Collective, a musical ensemble which has been supported by the New York State Foundation for the Arts and he has exhibited computer art in the Fine Arts Museum of Long Island.
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