April 23rd, 2012
The Harvard Magazine has a really fascinating, if a bit dense, read on the evolution of the arts in human consciousness. It’s a heady piece of writing, but totally worth it, and includes some really great thoughts on why it is that we feel the need to tell each other stories. Go read it and build up your geek cred for the week.
First things first. A lot of the reason that we make art is that our ability to perceive the world around us is godawful:
We are forced to stumble through our chemically challenged lives in a chemosensory biosphere, relying on sound and vision that evolved primarily for life in the trees. Only through science and technology has humanity penetrated the immense sensory worlds in the rest of the biosphere. With instrumentation, we are able to translate the sensory worlds of the rest of life into our own. And in the process, we have learned to see almost to the end of the universe, and estimated the time of its beginning. We will never orient by feeling Earth’s magnetic field, or sing in pheromone, but we can bring all such information existing into our own little sensory realm.
Science and art are much closer than people think: they’re both ways of figuring out and communicating the world around us. We can’t see in ultraviolet, but we can build instruments to show us what UV light’s impact is, and pick colors and charts and graphs to demonstrate that impact to those around us. We tell stories to account for the stuff that would fall through the cracks, otherwise, and if you think of it like that, is there any difference between the Earth’s magnetic field and a ghost on-stage representing the unknown of the afterlife? (Okay, maybe a small difference, but still.)
Of course, there are ways that art and science do diverge, and as the article states, they come mostly from metaphors and the way that they’re used:
The essential difference between literary and scientific style is the use of metaphor. In scientific reports, metaphor is permissible—provided it is chaste, perhaps with just a touch of irony and self-deprecation…Lyrical expression in literature, on the other hand, is a device to communicate emotional feeling directly from the mind of the writer to the mind of the reader.
Hear that? Science can have all the chaste metaphor that it wants, but in the arts, the sluttier the better. Aw yeah, baby. Directly communicate those ideas. Yeah. Right into my brain, that’s the way.
Whether you’re a math geek or a theatre nerd, though, one thing is clear from the article: ants (and, by extension, the animal kingdom) would be terrible writers:
An inevitable result of the mutually offsetting forces of multilevel selection is permanent ambiguity in the individual human mind, leading to countless scenarios among people in the way they bond, love, affiliate, betray, share, sacrifice, steal, deceive, redeem, punish, appeal, and adjudicate. The struggle endemic to each person’s brain, mirrored in the vast superstructure of cultural evolution, is the fountainhead of the humanities. A Shakespeare in the world of ants, untroubled by any such war between honor and treachery, and chained by the rigid commands of instinct to a tiny repertory of feeling, would be able to write only one drama of triumph and one of tragedy. Ordinary people, on the other hand, can invent an endless variety of such stories, and compose an infinite symphony of ambience and mood. (emphasis mine because haha Ant Shakespeare!)
Yeah! Suck it, ants! Humankind’s innately conflicted ideas of consciousness and individuality leave us capable of generating an infinite number of potential narratives whereas you and your little ant-buddies can’t even conceive of diverging from your humdrum anty existence. WE’RE NUMBER ONE! WE’RE NUMBER ONE!