Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Drama of Evolution

Kirsten E. Shepherd-Barr. Theatre and Evolution from Ibsen to Beckett. NY: Columbia UP 2015. ISBN: 978-0-231-16470-2. Hardcover; Illustrated. 400 pgs. $50U.S.

Kirsten Shepherd-Barr offers a fascinating and sweeping study of the impact of evolutionary ideas on the dramatic arts. She says that theatre and evolution ask similar questions and have similar aims in terms of probing the nature of being human. She says that the immediate directness of theatre and its emphasis on the action of human form provide an apt venue for scientific ideas. Theatre especially has the capacity to present history in real time. Shepherd-Barr says that the purpose of her book is twofold: to enumerate references to evolution in the playwrights under discussion and to examine how the writers engage, directly or not, with evolutionary ideas.

Her book is not precisely about any intersection between evolution and literary influence, and she specifically criticizes literary Darwinism (which examines human behavior, principally in its narrative form, in terms of evolved adaptations). Her concern is that the literary Darwinists try to justify art by characterizing it as an evolved behavior (and not as a byproduct of some other adaptation). Additionally, she makes it clear that she will not address any How or Why questions concerning the adaptive functions of the arts. Nor do we get, with all the emphasis on the moving human body, any ideas concerning mirror or motor neurons or theory of mind. This is not a book about the science of evolution. Rather, it is a demonstration of how the arts borrow (and at times twist) scientific ideas.

Shepherd-Barr is skillful in showing how playwrights actively employ, whether in agreement or not, scientific ideas of their time.  The scope and depth of her dramatic knowledge is impressive, and while much discussion of the plays can tend to summary rather than analysis, such information is quite helpful. This book is not only beneficial to students and scholars who study the interrelation of drama and science, but I’d venture to say that the book could be quite useful to playwrights who are writing in this area. From a historical perspective concerning modern drama, the book is invaluable and provides a social history about how theatre gives voice to evolutionary ideas of science, eugenics, male/female relationships and marriage, women’s issues, sex and birth control, motherhood, and parenthood.

Shepherd-Barr declares that in contrast to how a novelist (such as Thomas Hardy) can utilize the length of a novel to unravel evolutionary ideas, the playwright has to use the human body on stage as a symbolic text to address and question the audience. And this stage-to-audience dialogue worked well for the Victorians, since they were engaged with evolutionary ideas not only because of Charles Darwin (the conversation started much earlier) but because of the popularizing (and sometimes distortion) of Darwinian ideas by thinkers such as T.H. Huxley, Herbert Spencer, and Ernst Haeckel. Shepherd-Barr’s understanding of evolutionary ideas and processes, from Lamarck to Lyell through Haeckel, is sound. She does an exceptional job explaining these often differing ideas concerning evolution (as she has written other books on theatre and science). For instance, there is Haeckel’s incorrect theory of recapitulation where the development of the embryo mimics the evolutionary process. While this idea turns out to be bad biology it works well on stage and was picked up by G.B. Shaw in Back to Methuselah. And that’s the point she makes and the core around which she hovers in the book – not the question of how perfectly imaginative writers understand evolutionary ideas but how imaginative writers contextualize any of these ideas (accurately or not) in their plays.

The Victorians were curious people who valued spectacle as a means of learning, evidenced in the growth and popularity of zoos, museums, lectures, and public experiments. There was a sense of the theatrical in how knowledge is thus acquired, and the Victorians were quite concerned with the implications of science, and especially evolution, on the notion of the individual and the meaning of life. Shepherd-Barr offers a thorough historical perspective with detail concerning Victorian attitudes, values, and beliefs, particularly in how discoveries in the biological sciences, geology, and anthropology filtered into the theatrical arts. For example, freak shows became popular as do exhibits of indigenous people from far-off lands, such as the Fuegians. Animals, too, became the subject of dramatic interest. Shaw in Man and Superman anthropomorphizes nonhuman creatures with human characteristics.

Likewise, there would be elaborate shows such as Birds, Beasts and Fishes (1854) where people mimic animals. In fact, in the nineteenth century there are many instances of animals appearing on stage. One of Darwin’s important books is The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) which features strange and nearly grotesque photographs of human faces. An actor such as Henry Irving in The Bells was expert in wild facial expressions that denote atavism (54). In light of evolution, Shepherd-Barr notes, many taboo subjects, such as sex, violence, and insanity are open to public discussion. At the same time, any survey of the scientific literature of the time will demonstrate that some thinkers questioned any aspects of evolution or simply misunderstood the processes of evolution.

Early attempts to integrate evolutionary ideas in drama examined how the natural environment offstage would impact the human action on stage. Examples of this, notes Shepherd-Barr can be seen in James A. Herne who was influenced by Henrik Ibsen where there is, echoing Darwin, a struggle for existence. One needs to adapt to his or her environment. The American realist, Hamlin Garland, like Herne, was familiar with evolutionary ideas, mostly via Herbert Spencer, and also demonstrated how the environment could determine aspects of an individual’s life.

Spencer popularized though often distorted Darwin’s ideas. It was Spencer who coined the expression “survival of the fittest.” Fitness, as a biological term, can be ambiguous. Traits and characteristics enhance fitness; the traits that contribute to better survival and reproduction survive. Spencer also promulgated a quasi teleological vision of evolution. He imagined that, especially for human beings, we are evolving up a ladder of progress. Nothing could be further from biological truth. Spencer is responsible for firing up the public imagination and dramatic writing in terms of eugenics and so-called social Darwinism. Henry Arthur Jones actually referred to Spencer in plays, but Shepherd-Barr notes that the Lord Chamberlain (i.e., licensor/censor) removed any such references, though the published version includes them.

Shepherd-Barr underscores how the reality of extinction fascinated Victorians and playwrights. Of course extinction had been known and talked about long before, but after Darwin there was a human connection. Dramatists symbolically built off what Victorians would have witnessed in museum fossil exhibits – the termination of a family line or a whole class of people, such as aristocrats. Moreover, another popularizer of Darwin, Thomas Henry Huxley, vexed Victorians with the question of where morality would fit into the picture of evolution. Huxley too misrepresents Darwin, claiming that there is progress in human morality.

Fundamental to evolution by natural selection are random variations, adaptations, and inheritance. To see moral progress in humanity is akin to Spencer’s eugenics. In line with Steven Pinker, to be more precise, societies can improve and individuals can exercise more care, concern, and self-control. But the elements of morality, still evident in our living, non-human primate cousins (viz work by Frans de Waal) do not progress teleologically. They can only evolve according to selection pressures. Certainly cultural evolution has an enormous impact on human behavior. Shepherd-Barr is familiar with all of these applications and explains them well. In chapter two, she presents an excellent discussion of acting/emotions and psychological realism in light of Darwin’s Expression of Emotions. George Henry Lewes, commenting on actors, says that rather than a more traditional, stylized acting, one needs to act naturally so as to capture nature. This would be, as Shepherd-Barr suggests, especially epitomized in a woman like the actress Eleonora Duse. The human body and especially the face is a container of primitive emotions. Rather than a grand gesture there would be emphasis on individual body parts and movements.

After the opening, introductory chapters, Shepherd-Barr begins to focus on specific playwrights. For chapter three, it is Ibsen, who touches on breeding, sexual selection, heredity and women, and adaptation. Beyond exploring evolutionary themes, Shepherd-Barr is good at discussing theatrical elements, dramaturgy, and staging. In order to show how evolutionary elements, sometimes perverted, end up in plays, she need to rely on plot summary. In an 1887 speech Ibsen essentially declares himself a Darwinist; but there are other ideas mixed in the speech, such as synthesis, which is not Darwinian since natural selection culls out.  Shepherd-Barr’s repeated point is that many of the playwrights, because their work is an artistic representation of reality, will take ideas from science and manipulate them in new ways. In other words, writers who work within the span of staging action within a few hours mainly look to the “broader implications” of Darwinian thought and not minute, biological details (71).

Shepherd-Barr credits Ross Shideler with noting how August Strindberg and Ibsen question patriarchy and the family so that there is a Darwinian struggle for existence seen in social, familial, and especially spousal conflicts. Men as much as women struggle against traditional roles; women often reject a weak husband (68-69). In spite of his emphasis on families and close human interactions, there are many references in Ibsen to laws of nature. In fact, Shepherd-Barr says that long before Richard Dawkins’ notion of the meme, Ibsen clearly hints at the power of ideas to thrive, spread, or die. It is not clear how much or how carefully Ibsen read Darwin. Ideas might have come from other sources, and Ibsen might have been more influenced by Haeckel. At any rate, early plays such as Ghosts and The Lady of the Sea seem to express some Darwinian ideas such as origin and descent and our compelling connection to the sea (77).  Ibsen seems turned against any notion of human progress and sees, rather, hereditary degeneration and extinction as more likely. Similarly, eugenics, says Shepherd-Barr, comes up in Doll’s House and Enemy of the People. But Ibsen’s engagement with these ideas from Galton might be satirical. Or he is simply engaging with the ideas of the times, such as so-called social Darwinism.

In chapter four Shepherd-Barr notes how many plays at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century address gender issues, especially the supposed call to motherhood. What is a woman’s role in life, in marriage, in society? Is motherhood “inevitable” for the progression of the species (92)? Theatre became a battleground of ideas related to the women’s movement, gender biology, male/female parenting, and male/female socialization and education. Near the end of The Descent of Man, according to Shepherd-Barr, Darwin suggests an essential mental difference between men and women, and surely this is the conventional and popular perception. Some Feminist thinkers, however, seized on Darwin’s notion of evolutionary change and how woman are adaptable; i.e., how women need not only be made for motherhood according to nature (95).

Shepherd-Barr then goes off on a long but interesting tangent about James A. Herne’s Margaret Fleming, perhaps the only play to stage breast feeding. The big question for the Victorians was how breast feeding, so motherly, could also be so atavistic. The Victorians were overly concerned with regression, the pulling away from their civilization to the primitive, and any instincts portrayed in women heightened those fears. Shepherd-Barr explains how by 1879 babies were pretty much outlawed on the U.S. stage. Glass milk bottles with rubber nipples were manufactured mid nineteenth century, with milk sterilization later on, so people might have been surprised by breast feeding. Of course there would be class issues as well. Families and women of means would use wet nurses. The play hits directly the question of motherhood and especially for women any “instinctual, biologically driven behavior” (113).  In later Victorian times women would be criticized for neglecting the family and motherhood if they chose to work. (See for instance George Gissing’s novel, The Odd Women.)

Yet, as Margaret Fleming demonstrates, women are criticized because of their devotion to their children. Margaret Fleming nurses at the opening of the play her own child; later, she nurses the bastard baby of a dying, poor woman with whom her husband had an affair. Margaret is clearly middle class, so there is a question about “what is natural” for a mother (120). Popular Victorian culture showed indigenous people naked, with women bare-breasted near children, suggesting for Europeans something savage in their own, natural tendencies. So there are very complex emotions concerning motherhood in breast feeding, which becomes sanitized and less prevalent with advances in science and technology. 

In chapter five Shepherd-Barr says that Strindberg’s interest in evolution and science influenced later playwrights from George Bernard Shaw to Susan Glaspell. Contrary to Ibsen, Strindberg’s evolutionary interest was more academic and Darwinian; however, as a creative writer he was also captivated by Haeckel’s mysticism (128). Strindberg went through several phases. In the 1880s he was naturalistic and fashioned characters according to survival. See, e.g., Miss Julie. Then there was an “inferno phase” from about 1892-98 where emphasis was placed on the importance of science. By 1907 Strindberg is religious and rejects evolutionary thinking with an unfounded fear of regression since he was under the mistaken notion that human beings descended directly from apes. In contrast to Strindberg and Shaw who skirt with Intelligent Design, Ibsen did not see any agency in nature. At the same time, says Shepherd-Barr, it is Anton Chekov who completely and unequivocally embraces the science of evolution.

In spite of his intellectual affinity to Ibsen, Shaw, from his preface to Back to Methuselah, opposed the science of natural selection, viewed it as inhumane, and accused Darwin of presenting life as random and sporadic. Shepherd-Barr emphasizes how Shaw is, however, not a determinist. For Shaw, it is the power of the human will (from Schopenhauer and Nietzsche) that is paramount, as in Man and Superman. Shaw’s worldview, embracing Lamarck and Spencer, was more self-organizing – which is contrary to evolution by natural selection with its reliance on random variation. Shaw did, however, prefer sexual selection since it affords a sense of agency. In this way Shaw is a Lamarckian where acquired characteristics are inherited or not by use and disuse. Biologically this is not possible, because then there would be a blending of traits, and ultimately there would be a continuum of only a few traits and no spectrum.

But as Shepherd-Barr points out, in discussing Shaw and feminism, nothing can take away from Shaw’s comic genius or the fact that he engages in vital moral questions (though, like many of his day, on the wrong side of science). By the end of Man and Superman, Shaw rejects the Victorian idea (perhaps from Spencer) of a woman marrying a man to ennoble him.

Compared with the Victorians, the Edwardians are even more concerned about inheritance and try to find genetics as “malleable and mutable rather than fixed” (156). Perhaps this explains Virginia Woolf’s famous statement that character changed somewhere around 1910. Not coincidental to an almost negative obsession about inheriting bad characteristics, eugenics peaks in 1918 with Arthur Wing Pinero’s The Freaks, which postulates a question about how we can alter human genes. With a focus on aristocrats and “freaks” on stage, Pinero used real-life giants, contortionists, and diminutive people, related in some way to the devastation of WWI and how human actions can change humanity (157). Shepherd-Barr tells us that The Freaks is eugenic since the naturally distorted people (as opposed to war victims) are not allowed to marry.

Chapter six deals with issues of reproduction. For instance, around 1904 there are concerns from women about how much childbirth they should endure, and this unease plays out on stage. In fact, Shepherd-Barr asserts that sex and reproduction are, across theatrical history, prime subjects. She provides many examples from Ibsen to Shaw and notes how in 1922 Eugene O’Neill’s First Man featured the offstage screams of a woman dying in childbirth. There were no scenes of childbirth on any stage. By 1918, from the aftermath of WWI, a play such as Maternity by Eugene Brieux was not licensed since the English wanted to focus on repopulation (169). Only by the 1930s were hospital births more usual. For the Victorians and Edwardians, Shepherd-Barr reminds us, husbands were often present during childbirth since there was often a chance of maternal death.

Shepherd-Barr notes how some plays, with an emphasis on women’s concerns, mark a sharp distinction between marriage and motherhood. There of course was sex outside of wedlock, and this could be referred to theatrically. Sexual selection according to Darwin is dramatic by virtue of the male antics, colors, songs, and displays. But consider the patriarchal Victorian/Edwardian positon concerning all of this. They were immensely repelled by Darwin’s notion that sexual selection is the result of female choice. There are, then, many attacks on traditional notions of marriage in the early twentieth century, such as Shaw’s Misalliance or H.M. Harwood’s Supplanters. From 1904 onward with more women in the workforce, there was open-minded thinking about premarital and extramarital sex. Shepherd-Barr recounts how Darwin, in The Descent of Man, discusses male and female individuals who mate and then depart, a random act after a female choice.

Certainly, in the context of reproduction, eugenics comes up again, says Shepherd-Barr. Take for instance the play by Elizabeth Robins, Alan’s Wife, which includes infanticide by a woman consumed not by motherhood but by her marriage. Contraception and abortion, topics that came into direct conflict with the censors, were also subjects of plays. For example, Susan Glaspell in Chains of Dew argued to legalize contraception, and Harley Granville-Barker in Waste tackles illegal abortion that leads to death. In 1907 Edward Garnett’s The Breaking Point, which argued for easier abortions, was banned. These subjects are relevant to evolution since they touch on female sexual desire and choice. We see this especially in Votes for Women! By Elizabeth Robins where the female character acknowledges her physical needs that lead to her pregnancy and abortion. Of course there is Eugene O’Neill’s 1914 one-act play, Abortion, where the woman never appears since she’s dead from a botched abortion before the action of the play. The play is about the upper class young man who faces status disgrace from his family and subsequently commits suicide.

In chapter seven Shepherd-Barr focuses on Susan Glaspell and Thornton Wilder. Glaspell engages with biology and evolutionary thinking but does not evince a deep or complete understanding. She mixes and matches, according to Shepherd-Barr, elements of Lamarck, Spencer, and Darwin. In plays such as The Verge and Inheritors there is a preference for a type of punctuated leap, saltation, rather than the gradualism of natural selection. This is a dramatic device that permits for the sudden development of an individual. A more serious poetic liberty is Glaspell’s leaning toward “human destiny” (205). There is no destiny in the natural world, only cause and effect. From about 1909-10 Glaspell worked for the U.S. Forest Service and so we can see “the unspoiled earth throughout her work...” in different and at times incompatible environments, such as the edge between sea and forest (208).

Shepherd-Barr says Glaspell’s liberties and focus on physical nature enable her to create metaphors of humanity. In Close the Book from 1917 Glaspell suggests that the strength of the future of a family line is not in purity but in the blending of new blood. Glaspell sees agency in nature and expresses a creative evolution leading to human perfection, as in The Verge (210). Glaspell tries to encompass ideas about evolution through the individual, how a single person’s conversion can represent the much larger social or environmental change (220). In The Verge we have a woman scientist who rejects her proscribed social and professional roles; there is mutation theory of plants as a metaphor of women’s issues (211).

Thornton Wilder seems to accept Darwinism in The Skin of Our Teeth, but at the same time, like Shaw, his idealism forces him to reject the random blindness of natural forces. In Skin of Our Teeth, says Shepherd-Barr, there is an “almost mystical invocation of women...” as pivotal to human evolution, hearkening back to Ibsen seeing women as the salvation of the human race. This is “progressive” thinking that runs counter to the “ambivalence” we find in Robins and Glaspell (229). On the other hand we have Eugene O’Neill’s anthropological The Hairy Ape about a coal stoker in a ship’s engine room. He is dark and muscular with strong arms. By the end of the play he is killed by a gorilla. The play touches on life’s origins and how atavism lingers in more advanced civilization (232).

In her final chapter Shepherd-Barr discusses Samuel Beckett, whose highlights how human beings in their misdirected concerns about god (as in Waiting for Godot) have become alienated from the natural world. Like the other playwrights Shepherd-Barr discusses, Beckett also does not report evolutionary science; instead, he takes what he needs and fashions those ideas to line up to his own. We don’t know how much of Darwin Beckett read, though he does quote Darwin’s Origin of Species in his notebooks and in a letter writes dismissively of Darwin (244). Similar to Wilder in The Skin of Our Teeth and J.B. Priestly in Summer Day’s Dream, Beckett’s Happy Days provides a scathing assessment of environmental devastation dramatizing how we are destroying the planet.

Clearly Beckett echoes Darwin’s geological concerns, Shepherd-Barr stresses. As with Darwin, Beckett emphasizes variation, not fixity; see, e.g., how the tree in Godot changes during the course of the play. In All That Fall Beckett touches on reproduction, hysterectomy, menopause, and abortion. In Breath we witness an entire life in a matter of seconds. In Rough for Theatre I and Endgame there is a sense of human end-time and the destruction of earth or human extinction and universal entropy (253). As Shepherd-Barr says, Beckett is “a dramatist of the end of nature, of our great alienation from our natural surroundings...” (254). He embraces primitive characters, their biological needs, and even “anti-creation” (267).

In her epilogue, Shepherd-Barr mentions some contemporary playwrights who also deal with retro-Victorian themes of genetics, eugenics, reproduction, and climate change. The difference with contemporary productions is that they implicate the audience in our evolutionary concerns and environmental problems. I’d venture to say that the contemporaries might try to be more true to the science. But we cannot expect a playwright to offer a scientific paper; the wisdom and entertainment of drama is in how ideas from the scientific community are reinvented on stage.

- Copyright©Gregory F. Tague 2015. St. Francis College (NY). Thanks to Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe, editor Consciousness, Literature and the Arts journal, for permission to cross-post.  

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Dialectical Tradition: The Quintessence of India

Nilanshu Kumar Agarwal

Article 19 (1) (a) of Indian Constitution lays down the right to freedom of speech and expression. This fundamental right permits an individual to hold an opinion which might be diametrically opposed to the prevalent and popularly dominant world view. This democratic and liberal right guaranteed to us by the founding fathers of the Constitution is built on the premises of Indian cultural tradition, marked by the dialectical spirit of discursive dialogue, loquacious discussions, erudite arguments and counter arguments.

The Upanishadic dialogical tradition of debate is continued through the mazes of Indian history.  The conceptualization of 'Neti Neti' as enshrined in our ancient philosophical texts denies any limiting definition of Timeless and infinite Truth. It is beyond the limited periphery of time and space. Human endeavour to define/depict the ultimate reality only presents the half truth. Jains have advanced the theoretical formulations of 'Syadvada' or 'Anekantavada' through the example of some blind men touching a giant sized elephant. The perception of the blind men is partially true; in Indian system there is always the scope for the alternative dissenting perspective or the multiple exposition of the truth.

It is the liberal ethos of dialecticism that allowed the co-existence of six theist philosophical systems (Samkhya, Nyaya, Yoga, Vaisheshika, Meemansa and Vedanta that believed in the existence of the Vedas and formulated the concept of the transmigration and rebirth of the soul) along with the atheist ideological group of Charvaka, who rejected the profound sublimity of the other sects and propagated the materialistic Epicurean pleasure. Perhaps it is the only country which provides enough room even for the atheists and infidels like the followers of materialistic Charvaka school of philosophy.

In this cauldron of ancient Indian thought system, Jainsim and Buddhism (further divided into sub-sects of Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana) also challenged the monolithic ritualistic traditions of the Brahminical order. With the passage of time, numerous other faiths (including Islam, Christianity, Sikhism and Jainism along with their sub-branches) joined Indian mainstream and in this process of blending, mixing and juxtaposition of varying streams, ideal of composite culture evolved and became the focal point of India. During the medieval period, melodious songs of the Sufi and Bhakti saints indicate this evolution of the cultural confluence. The tolerance towards different religions is best seen in the Religious Parliaments held on various occasions in the past. Special mention may be made of such conferences organized during the regime of two great kings Ashoka and Akbar, where differing percepts of multiple religions were intellectually discussed and debated without any ill-will, prejudice and bias. The dynamism of Indian civilization is seen in this growth and development of different religious sects.

On account of this dialectical spirit of accepting, accumulating and assimilating the arguments and counter-arguments of 'the significant other', Indian civilizational ethos has always been ready to accept the social and cultural evolution and given ample space to the ideology opposed to the dominant worldview of the day. Syncretic Indian culture has never been static but dynamic and on account of its kinetic nature, it has accepted all without the considerations of class, creed or regions. (However, the caste based discriminations have existed since the ages and have been legally, socially and divinely sanctified. The youth of contemporary India should come forward to eradicate this highly stratified hierarchy of the endogamous caste-system.)

India, being a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural country, diverse cultural traditions and radically different social customs along with varying intellectual arguments collide, converge and create a new order. Out of the convergence of thesis and anti-thesis, a dialectical synthesis emerges. It is only by awakened questioning of the established order and not by stooping low to the tantrums of traditional orthodoxy that new ideas come to the fore.

No idea can claim absolute, objective, categorical and universalized form of certainty. Rather, all social/cultural values, customs and mores are relative to time and space. This formulation of relative truth is the very praxis on which the foundations of Indian society and culture exist. What is ideal or perfect for one group of people can be substantially counter-productive for the persons belonging to different social background.

Besides, India has been considered to be the cradle of pious Oriental mysticism and this Eastern brand of pantheistic ideological stand, as enshrined in the holy texts like the Vedas, Upanishads and the Bhagwadgita, advocates the renunciation of temporal, transitory and ephemeral worldly joys for the seekers of divine bliss and extra-sensory salvation. The other side of the coin is the fact that we also have the marvels of architectural aesthetics displayed at the temples of Khajuraho, emancipatory Ghotul (tribal dormitories where adolescent boys and girls come and meet) practices amongst various tribes, revolutionary and eclectically vigorous Kamasutra by Vatsyayana and elaborate application of Shringar Rasa in the oeuvre of Kalidas, Jaidev and Bihari. Metaphysically transcendental asceticism and liberating aesthetics of arts have found equal recognition here in India. Clearly, multiple world-views have co-existed in our system and there had been no effort to impose one's understanding of the truth on the other. We have been a very tolerant and liberal country and hence may be likened to 'a salad bowl' of differing ideologies.

The Preamble of the Constitution too declares this country to be 'a Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democratic Republic'. Any attempt by the cultural/religious fanatics, fundamentalists and lunatics to disturb this syncretic social fabric and to impose the obscurantist, irrational, illogical, dogmatic and non-scientific agenda or absurd theatrics of extremely tabooed orthodoxy must be resisted by all and sundry. It is only by respecting the thoughts of all that we can provide 'Justice, Liberty and Equality' to the citizens. Come, let us build a nation shorn of all animosity towards the dissenting voices and spread the rigours of empirical, reasoned, dispassionate, objective, judicious, unbiased, unprejudiced, logical, rational and scientific approach to life. In place of relying heavily on superstitious dogmas, let us promote the ideals based on free will and the message relating to 'the unity of all religions'.

- Dr. Nilanshu Kumar Agarwal is Associate Professor of English at Feroze Gandhi College, Rae Bareli.

Copyright ©2015 Nilanshu K. Agarwal – All Rights Reserved

Friday, September 11, 2015

Science and Literature Commission / DHST
Fall 2015 Newsletter
Dear friends and colleagues,
I hope this emails finds you well. As summer passed fast and fall is already here I would like to communicate with you sending some information about the current and future activities of CoSciLit.
a) 25th  International Conference of History of Science and Technology ,  Division of History of Science and Technology, International Union of History and Philosophy of Science, Rio, Brazil 2017.
The Commission of Science and Literature was established in 2013 in Manchester during the 24th International Congress of History of Science, Technology and Medicine. Therefore our participation in one or  more symposia  in the 25th International Congress, which will be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil from 23 to 29 July 2017,  ( )  will be the first “appearance” of our Commission in such a great event for the community of the historians of science and technology.
We welcome proposals for thematic symposia and/or stand-alone papers to incorporate in our symposia until 31st March 2016. Each symposium has to secure at least three presenters. Please have in mind that according to the policy of the Congress only one paper can be given by each individual participating in the Conference.
b) Workshop on “Science  Fiction. Jules Verne and 19th century science”, Athens 17-18 December 2015.

In connection with several activities concerning the celebration of 2015 as international  year  of Light Coscilit organizes a two-days’ workshop on “Science Fiction. Jules Verne and 19th century science”.
We welcome papers for oral presentations of about 20-30 minutes on subjects (indicatively)  related with Jules Verne, his scientific knowledge, the scientific innovations of his time that inspired him, other futuristic novels of that time which had a scientific background, and the influence of Jules Verne for the development of science and technology.  Papers which will discuss other subjects and dimensions of science fiction are also welcome.
Deadline for the submission of the papers: 30 October 2015
Registration fees: 80 Euros
Registration fees for young scholars, postgraduate and graduate students: 30 Euros
c) Special issue of Almagest on science fiction.

We have arranged that the next issue of Almagest (published by Brepols) will be a special issue on science fiction in the framework of science and literature studies.
Guest editors will be John Holmes, Valerie Stienon, George N. Vlahakis and Kostas Tampakis.
We welcome papers on the subject from 6000 to 8000 words following the Almagest guidelines. (
Deadline for the submission of the papers 15th December 2015.
d) Elections for the Commission on Science and Literature Council Board.

Members of the Commission willing to serve in the Council Board may submit their nominations until October 30th. Elections will take place electronically until 15th November and the results will be announced officially during the workshop about Jules Verne and 19th century science in Athens in 19th November.
Nominations are welcome for the following positions:
Regional officers for Asia, Australia, North America, South America, Africa and Europe
Young scholar – Ph.D. candidate Member of the Council
We accept nominations for the Council Board submitted by two members of the Commission, including self-nominations. A short CV (200 words max.) and a photo if possible have to be submitted as well in order to inform the members of the Society for the academic activities of the candidates.   Nominations may be submitted  to Prof. John R. Holmes
Elections will take place through emails to a Committee of three members who are not canditates for the Council Board.
e) The site of the Commission will be gradually transferred to as the Hellenic Open University kindly agreed to host it in its server. 

f) New publications.

New book about science and literature published in Catalan by Xavier Duran:
"La ciència en la literatura. Un viatge per la història de la ciència vista per escriptors de tots els temps"
Universitat de Barcelona Publicacions i Edicions
Collecció Catàlisi
363 pàges.
ISBN 978-84-475-4233-8
g) Forthcoming events.
BSLS Winter Symposium
Museum of English Rural Life and University of Reading’s Special Collections, Saturday 14th November 2015
Archival research has long been a mainstay of literature and science as a discipline, challenging the boundaries of what can be read as text and excavating long-submerged concepts and connections. The recent growth in collaborative doctoral awards and collections-based PhDs, alongside research strands such as the AHRC’s Science in Culture, however, demonstrate a need to consider more fully the implications of this kind of investigation. The BSLS’s Winter Symposium therefore provides an opportunity for literature and science researchers, at all points in their career, to reflect and build upon the successes and challenges of finding ‘Science in the Archives’.
The majority of us use special collections and archival materials in the course of our literature and science research, but we are not always encouraged to reflect upon the ramifications of doing so. This symposium will provide an important opportunity to stimulate and facilitate much needed discussion of the challenges as well as successes of finding science in the archives.For this event, we have adopted a different format from the standard academic twenty-minute conference paper, and will ask speakers to present in a more informal tone and for different lengths of time depending on the session. These shorter, less formal presentations will minimise preparation time for speakers as well as increasing discussion time for all participants. The organisers warmly seek a limited number of 10 minute position papers about methodologies and approaches to literature and science in the archives, from a range of time periods and from speakers at all stages of research or career.

h) For any further information  and application for membership  please send an email to  and

Monday, August 3, 2015

ART and ADAPTATION presents a comprehensive survey and discussion of the dominant ideas by leading thinkers on why we make art. Approaches that examine the evolution of art behavior embrace natural selection, sexual selection, social selection, and cognition. Art behavior is intimately entwined in our evolution and prehistory and helped solve problems and issues related to kin or group identification, attracting mates, and cultural transmission.

The book will be of primary interest to art students, artists, and art historians. Other students and scholars in the humanities and sciences who wish to embark on evolutionary studies will also find the book useful.

Available HERE

Cover image, The Knife Grinder, Kasimir Malevich, Yale University Art Gallery

Friday, July 3, 2015

Consciousness, Theatre, Literature and the Arts

I’d like to express my gratitude to St. Francis College for hosting the Sixth International Conference on Consciousness, Theatre, Literature and the Arts, 10-12 June 2015.

Over the course of three days and after a year of preparation Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe, conference co-organizer, and I had above seventy conference delegates and participants from more than twenty countries, ranging from the United States and Europe, to Russia, the Middle East, the Far East, and Australia as well as Africa.

About twenty panels spanned areas of academic inquiry, from film, narrative, music, art, poetry, drama, theatre, and of course consciousness studies.

The two evening performances were highlights of the conference. Wednesday featured Aurelia Baumgartner, the “dancing philosopher,” and others whose finely crafted and choreographed performance can only be described as art and music in motion. On Thursday evening we were treated to the one-woman performance poetry of Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon who delivered a riveting account of her African-American family across generations.

Keynote speakers included Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe, who addressed the question: Can there be theatre without conflict? The other keynote speakers included Aurelia Baumgartner and Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon who discussed their work on the mornings after their performances. Plenary sessions included Karen Saillant, who offered a moving narrative about her work in opera theatre, together with some very memorable images; Thomas Phillips and Ken Kirschner, who performed computerized, minimalistic music live; and Marc Silberschatz, who conducted a workshop on interactive play.

Photos of the conference can be found here.

A video of Aurelia Baumgartner’s performance is here

Monday, April 27, 2015

Art, Aesthetics, and Evolution

We are delighted to announce the publication of 11.2 of the ASEBL Journal. This is a very special issue that includes a paper by Anthony Lock entitled, “Evolutionary Aesthetics, the Interrelationship Between Viewer and Artist, and New Zealandism.” Lock, who teaches at Ling Tung University, Taichung, Taiwan, is a philosopher of science and art, with particular interest in the relationship between science and art, consilience, and the evolutionary origins of art. He holds degrees in mathematics and a first in philosophy, and was the last Honors research student of Denis Dutton, author of The Art Instinct, founder of Arts & Letters Daily, and editor of Philosophy and Literature.

As important, the issue includes commentaries on Lock’s paper from some prominent scholars in the fields of anthropology and cognitive science. 

You can find the paper and comments at the St. Francis College website, which houses ASEBL, here

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Science and Literature Conference

Just received this announcement from Dustin Hellberg. Of interest to ASEBL readers and followers.

Following the successful 1st International Conference on Science and Literature, that took place in Athens last year, the International Commission on Science and Literature is happy to announce the  Summer School on Science and Literature, which will be held in the Greek island of Andros, from the 22nd to the 26th of June 2015.

The Summer School will be of especial interest to graduate students and early-career researchers working on literature, the sciences and the history of science. It will offer the opportunity for an in-depth presentation and discussion of themes relevant to Science and Literature at large. Each day, a lecture will be given on a specific point of intersection between science and literature. Participants will then work in small groups and prepare their own views on the subject, and discuss how it pertains to their own research. Participants will also have the opportunity to present short papers on their research or on subjects they want to discuss and receive feedback on. Finally, a round table will be organized discussing the future of Science and Literature as an academic field and its possible application in scientific and literary education.  The language of the Summer School will be English but there will be an opportunity for presentations in French, German and Greek if there is a relevant interest.

Dr. John Holmes, Chair of the British Society for Literature and Science, Prof. Manuela Rossini, President of the Society for Literature, Science and the Arts (Europe), Prof. Paola Spinozzi, University of Ferrara, Prof. Constantin Canavas, Hamburg Technical University have already confirmed their participation as invited speakers.

Andros island is a picturesque island on the Aegean Sea, about two hours from Attica (Rafina harbor), with several ferries during the day. There is a also a convenient connection between Athens airport and Rafina harbor.

For an overview of Andros island visit
The venue of the summer school will be Pighi Sariza Hotel (, with several nice beaches a short distance from the hotel. Participants will have also the chance to participate in several cultural events including visits to the famous Goulandri Museum of Modern Art and the Kaireios Library in Chora, the capital of Andros. The cost of the accommodation will be around 50 euros per day (breakfast, lunch and dinner included). There will also be a registration fee of 140 Euros. Support for a number of young scholars will be provided by a DHST/IUHPST grant.

Those who are interested to participate are invited to send an email to and/or by May 20, 2015.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

January 2015 ASEBL issue

The latest ASEBL, January 2015, volume 11 number 1, is live at the St. Francis College website ( Academics--Publications--ASEBL – here 

A very good issue which features:

1. Ryan O. Begley, Kathryn Coe, and Craig T. Palmer, “From Blood Feuds to Civility: Romeo and Juliet and the Changing Evolutionary Role of Cultural Traditions.”

2. Edward Gibney, “Bridging the Is-Ought Divide: Life is. Life ought to act to remain so.”

3. R.C. De Prospo, ‘“lighting out for the Territory ahead of the rest’: The Future of/in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

4. Dustin Hellberg, “Rhythm, Evolution and Neuroscience in Lullabies and Poetry.”

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Morality and Selection - How?

Group, individual, or gene level selection: Which has the best explanatory power for our ‘moral’ emotions?

Mark Sloan 12-27-2014

Charles Darwin proposed group selection to explain how “altruistic” behaviors toward others and self-sacrifice for the group, which could easily be taken to be counterexamples to his theory of evolution, might instead be examples of its explanatory power. He observed that, all else being equal, groups that were more cooperative would out compete less cooperative groups. Selection for more cooperative groups selects for biology that better motivates cooperative behavior (Darwin, 1871) and, though Darwin did not mention it, cultural norms that do the same. Thus, we arrive at the simple and appealing notion that people’s experience of compassion and loyalty and cultural norms such as “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (or variations with the same function in increasing cooperation) are arguably near inevitable products of blind evolution of beings with sufficiently complex brains. And no supernatural deity is required to explain human, or any other species’, “goodness”.

Mark Borrello (2005) described group theory’s subsequent rise and then fall from respectability in the 1960’s (mainly due to a theoretical objection and some bad science from a chief advocate) and its rise again, starting in the 1980’s and now called multilevel selection, which is how I will refer to it here where appropriate.

Steven Pinker and twenty three other respected evolutionists provided an accessible snapshot (Pinker 2012) of the lively state of the unresolved debate on group selection’s proper role in evolutionary science. The diversity of pro and con opinions expressed makes it appear the debate about group selection is not close to over.

However, Pinker’s focus on “altruistic” and “self-sacrifice for the group” behaviors as “what must be explained” was a poor choice for resolving the relative explanatory power of group versus individual and gene level selection perspectives. First, as they are commonly understood, these behaviors can have many explanations which make them insensitive tests for differentiating between hypotheses. Also, these explanations included cultural norms and forces, which divert attention to a secondary issue, group selection’s role in cultural evolution. Finally, Pinker appeared to be taking “altruism” to mean something very close to “biological altruism” (behavior by an individual that increases the lifetime fitness of others while decreasing the lifetime fitness of the actor). If what-must-be-explained is biological altruism, his argument is almost won before he starts. Without the requirement to explain cooperation behavior, the most credible candidate is kin altruism, the obvious choice from the gene level selection perspective.

To avoid these and other problems, future group level selection discussions might be made more fruitful by choosing human cooperation as what-must-be-explained. Also, making certain stipulations will clarify the discussions and avoid other above described problems. I propose the following:

1) Multilevel selection’s explanatory power for biology will be evaluated separately from culture, requiring what-must-be-explained to be chosen to insure only biology is needed to explain it.

2) Multilevel, individual, and gene level selection are different perspectives on (or bookkeeping systems for) the same phenomena. In theory, they might all have the same explanatory power.

3) To be a useful part of an evolutionist’s toolkit, multilevel selection’s perspective must show better explanatory power in practice, meaning ability to more readily produce correct explanations of specific biology.

4) A hypothesis’ “in practice” explanatory power may be inferior to its “in theory” explanatory power.

5) Multilevel selection’s “in practice” explanatory power will ideally be evaluated for multiple phenomena, not just one. Requiring explanation of multiple phenomena increases discriminatory power between alternate hypotheses.

I expect these stipulations would be acceptable to many in the field. If they are not acceptable, perhaps discussions could clarify what will be stipulated and any dissenting opinions.

The biology underlying what makes human beings the amazingly cooperative social animals we are, and arguably the heart of what makes us ‘human’, provides two candidates for what-must-be-explained.

The first candidate is our moral emotions triggered by our moral sense that, in part, motivate unselfishness. For reasons described below, I will here take these to be compassion, loyalty, gratitude, anger, disgust, contempt, shame, guilt, and ‘elevation’. (‘Elevation’ is an emotion encompassing feelings of satisfaction and pride.) Note that the existence of the emotions triggered by our moral sense is not culturally dependent. That is, the existence of these emotions does not vary from culture to culture. Only the circumstances when they are triggered and their intensity with which they are triggered are culturally and individually dependent.

The second “cooperation biology” candidate is the cross-cultural universal set (and therefore likely biological, but not certainly biological) of categories of circumstances which can trigger our moral sense to make one of its near instantaneous judgments (and in turn trigger our ‘moral’ emotions). The most commonly referred to version of Moral Foundations Theory identifies five cross-culturally universal categories: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation (Graham 2012).

Another candidate for what-must-be-explained is the evolution of cancers with their intrinsic complexities of simultaneous cooperation and competition at the cancer’s gene, cell, and cell strain levels in the hostile environment of the patient’s immune system. Due to the specialized knowledge required, such group selection debates would likely be most effective among experts.

However, it may be that such a debate is not needed. Researchers in the field use group selection perspectives as standard practice (Merlo, 2006). It seems unlikely that any debate among those experts would conclude using the group selection perspective is not useful in actual practice.

There are doubtless other candidate biological phenomena that could be useful choices for what-must-be-explained.

The following is an example of how the character of group selection discussions could change if what-must-be-explained was human cooperation and the above stipulations were accepted. In the interest of providing a brief example, I will only compare the “in practice” explanatory power of multilevel and gene selection perspectives for our ‘moral’ emotions, the emotions triggered by our moral sense.

Drawing on many sources, Johnathon Haidt argued moral emotions include compassion, gratitude, anger, disgust, contempt, shame, embarrassment, guilt, and ‘elevation’ (Haidt 2003). I largely agree, but add ‘loyalty’, meaning the emotion that motivates “loyal” behavior, since unselfishness motivated by loyalty is a central part of morality. I prefer the word indignation to anger because “indignation” better captures an emotion that is intrinsically about right and wrong. Also, I would omit the emotion “embarrassment” since embarrassment can be about matters having nothing to do with right and wrong, and shame and guilt adequately convey this category of moral emotions. For these reasons, I will use explanatory power for compassion, loyalty, gratitude, anger, disgust, contempt, shame, guilt, and ‘elevation’ as what-must-be-explained.

If our moral emotions are components of cooperation strategies, what necessary functions are they fulfilling?

Tit-for-tat2 is the simplest highly effective cooperation strategy known in game theory. It seems almost inevitable that, if evolution did encode cooperation strategies in our moral sense, something like tit-for-tat would be one of those strategies. Tit-for-tat has two necessary behavioral components: 1) cooperation by unselfishly risking exploitation in any first interaction and also if the other individual cooperated in the previous interaction and 2) retaliation if the other individual attempted to exploit unselfishness in the previous interaction.

However, this simple tit-for-tat strategy is not always the best, and what is better varies with circumstances. Perhaps sometimes there are ways to predict who is likely to be a good cooperator and who is likely to exploit you – for instance from gossip about other’s interactions with the individual. Perhaps ‘forgiveness’ of an instance of exploitation could avoid cooperation destroying endless cycles of retaliation.

How might evolution most efficiently encode motivation for people to develop more effective variations of tit-for-tat and even switch between them in the many different circumstances encountered over a lifetime, and sometimes even over the course of a single day – as we know people readily do? If a mutation produced a psychological reward for achieving cooperation, then that mutation could be selected for because it motivates the individual to find those strategies that are more effective variations of tit-for-tat and to switch between them according to circumstances.

So if evolution did encode cooperation strategies in our moral sense, the simplest implementation that would be effective in diverse circumstances would have three necessary components: 1) motivation for unselfish behaviors, such as helping actions, which can initiate cooperation but risk exploitation, 2) motivation for retaliation against exploiters, and 3) psychological rewards for achieving cooperation.

This is exactly what we find in our moral emotions. 1) Compassion, loyalty, and gratitude motivate unselfish behaviors that initiate or maintain cooperation. 2) Indignation, disgust, and contempt motivate behaviors that punish other’s exploitation of unselfishness; shame and guilt internally punish our own selfishness. 3) The emotional experience of ‘elevation’ rewards our own successes at cooperation, motivates imitating other’s successes, and encourages staying in cooperative groups and seeking to increase cooperation within those groups.

In contrast, consider the gene level selection perspective’s most common explanation of unselfish behavior toward non-kin (and moral behavior in general): that unselfishness toward non-kin is best explained as a product of kin altruism and cultural influences (Pinker 2012). How well does that explanation explain the existence of our moral emotions?

Kin altruism readily explains the existence of compassion and loyalty toward close kin and the reward of ‘elevation’ for cooperation with close kin. While speculative, the argument that these emotions are triggered toward non-kin due to a kind of error in kin detection is possible.

But what about the other six: gratitude, Indignation, disgust, contempt, shame and guilt? How are these explained by kin altruism? They appear to have nothing to do with kin altruism. I expect clever people can find arguments that all these emotions can be explained by kin altruism. But inventive speculations about how they might be explained as products of kin altruism fall far short on the “best explanation scale” compared to multilevel level perspective’s robust explanation.

Based on relative explanatory power, we can conclude that the majority of our moral emotions are elements of reciprocity cooperation strategies, not kin altruism.

Does this failure to explain our moral emotions mean that gene level selection cannot, in theory, explain all gene determined biology? Again, no, it simply means that the gene level perspective can, in practice, incline investigators to produce false explanations of biological adaptations.

Multilevel selection robustly explains the set of emotions that are motivated by our moral sense. Gene level selection’s common claim about unselfishness (and moral behavior in general) toward non-kin being kin altruism misapplied cannot directly explain two thirds of the emotions motivated by our moral sense. Based on its poor explanatory power, this common claim, which flows naturally from the gene level selection perspective, appears false. Gene level selection’s perspective appears, in practice, to have led Pinker and other gene-level-only advocates astray.

In practice, it appears that the multilevel selection perspective produces correct explanations of our moral emotions more reliably than gene level selection. Therefore, the multilevel selection perspective deserves an important place in the evolutionist’s tool kit.

1. Unselfishness (including “altruism” and “self-sacrifice for the group”) is here defined as accepting a cost in order to intentionally benefit others without consideration of possible future benefits.
2. Tit-for-tat is a highly effective, but extremely simple, cooperation strategy in game theory (Axelrod, 1984). An agent using this strategy will first cooperate, then subsequently replicate an opponent's previous action. If the opponent previously was cooperative, the agent is cooperative. If the opponent previously tried to exploit the agent, the agent will retaliate by attempting to exploit the opponent.

Axelrod, David, (1984). The Evolution of Cooperation.
Borrello, Mark E., (2005). The rise, fall and resurrection of group selection.
Darwin, Charles, (1871). The Descent of Man.
Grahama, Jesse, Haidt, J., et al. (2012). Moral Foundations Theory: The Pragmatic Validity of Moral Pluralism. Available at
Haidt, J. (2003). The moral emotions. In R. J. Davidson, K. R. Scherer, & H. H. Goldsmith (Eds.), Handbook of affective sciences. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (pp. 852-870).
Merlo, Lauren M.F., Pepper, John W., et al. (2006). Cancer as an evolutionary and ecological process.
Pinker, Steven, et al. (2012).The False Allure of Group Selection - An Edge Original Essay with Replies.

Mark Sloan’s personal interest is in showing how understanding morality as an evolutionary adaptation can be culturally useful. As associate editor of This View of Life, Morality section, his goal is to promote a cross-disciplinary view of the science of morality and how that science could be culturally useful. He has degrees in engineering and physics and has had a career in the aerospace industry.

Copyright©2014 by Mark Sloan – All Rights Reserved – No Reproduction or Publication for Commercial Use Without Express Written Permission

Saturday, October 25, 2014


Readers of ASEBL might be interested in the upcoming Sixth International Conference on Consciousness, Theatre, Literature and the Arts, to be held at St. Francis College, Brooklyn Heights, N.Y., from 10-12 June 2015. Here's a link to the conference site with information about submitting an abstract. Click Here


Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Consciousness and the Arts conference

Announcing the Sixth International Conference on Consciousness, Theatre, Literature and the Arts, June 10-12, 2015, New York, USA.

St Francis College in Brooklyn Heights, New York, USA ( is pleased to host the Sixth International Conference on Consciousness, Theatre, Literature, and the Arts. The conference will be held in historic and culturally rich Brooklyn Heights (just a short ride from the Big Apple, Manhattan), from the morning of Wednesday 10 June to the afternoon of Friday 12 June 2015.  Abstracts (up to 1 page) are invited for papers relating any aspect of consciousness (as defined in a range of disciplines involved with consciousness studies) to any aspect of theatre,  performance, literature, music, fine arts, media arts and any sub-genre of those. We also welcome creative work!

Please send the abstract to Professor Daniel Meyer-Dinkgräfe,   

Deadline for receipt of abstracts is 1 April 2015, though early submissions are encouraged.