Chapter 10, The Arts and Their Interpretation

Here we have perhaps the area most resistant to the idea of biological or psychological interpretation. Because it doesn’t occur, especially to the artists themselves, why people tell certain kinds of stories and not others, why they find certain subjects of paintings pleasant and not others, and so on; they may not even realize there are other kinds of stories (paintings, yes, I suppose). (But that’s my gloss.) And this might be the chapter of most relevance to science fiction, which of course as a type of literature, is a kind of art.

Key points in this chapter:

  • The consilient channel from the natural sciences to the arts is interpretation, guided by knowledge of science and the understanding that human nature exists, in preference to postmodernism or other intuitive approaches;
  • Wilson again summarizes gene-culture coevolution, and concludes that this view favors a more traditionalist view of the arts;
  • We can easily find groupings of archetypes that underlie most myth and fiction, from “In the beginning” to “The hero embarks on a journey” and many others;
  • Human evolution entailed the shocking recognition of the self, the finiteness of personal existence, and the chaos of the environment. The arts were spawned by the need to impose order on the confusion perceived by intelligence.
  • Cave paintings reveal ancient tendencies for sympathetic magic, that remain today in the names of sports teams;
  • Other evidence of how genetically-driven perceptions affect the arts includes how brain waves respond best to 20% redundancy among random patterns, and how this is reflected in abstract designs around the world; and how the beauty industry plays on human attraction to supernormal stimuli;
  • The arts nourish our craving for the mystical, our yearning to see what lies beyond the rim of the world, and as the entire world is now home ground, we look beyond it to the stars.


  • On the traditionalist view of the arts: well, sure, it explains why most people prefer traditional forms of the arts, but not why artists themselves are always pushing the boundaries to invent new forms. Perhaps just the cycles of fashion discussed by Pinker, that drive people to be set themselves apart from the previous generation. And technology has a short-term influence; with the advent of photography, painters had to find something else to do besides portraits and landscapes. And they did.
  • The question to ask about science fiction is: does it add to or extend that list of archetypes in any significant way? Can it escape them, and find different kinds of stories? Offhand, the vast majority of science fiction, especially the popular forms, consists of the same ol’ human stories set in exotic landscapes, just as Wilson sees our attention turned to the stars. E.g., Star Wars is about yet another hero who embarks on a journey…
  • Wilson’s closing of the chapter echoes the famous T.S. Eliot lines “We shall not cease from exploration…” which have been used more than once as an epigraph or title in SF.
  • Other comments in passing are [[ enclosed in brackets ]] in the following summary.


The most interesting challenge to consilient explanation may be that from science to the arts – meaning, for now, literature, visual arts, drama, music, and dance. We have two questions: where the arts came from, and how their essential qualities can be described in ordinary language. Interpretation is itself an art, and criticism can be part of science, and vice versa. Science, though it advances by reducing phenomena to basics, does not aim to diminish the integrity of the whole. The synthesis is half the goal of science. We have no reason to suppose the arts are declining. There’s no limit on originality and brilliance. And the arts can be invigorated through interpretation with the knowledge of science. Interpretation is the consilient channel.

Consider Book IV of Paradise Lost (p211). Satan goes to Eden. Milton, describing what is about to be lost, retains a sense of biophilia. His description of the core of paradise summons ancient archetypes. Wilson goes into detail. The great artists were obsessed, yet they had an intuitive grasp of human nature that guided in selecting commanding images from inferior thoughts… 213.6. Artistic inspiration common to everyone rises from human nature; creations are delivered without analytic explanation. Thus they flow fundamentally from the epigenetic rules.

This is not a common view. Academics pay no attention to biology; they are guided by postmodernism, which denies the existence of a universal human nature, thinking instead truth is relative and personal. They search for contradictions and ambiguities, they search for what the author left out. There isn’t much evidence behind this view; yet it is popular. Why? There must be an explanation in human nature. Something of revolutionary spirit? Something of the earlier neglect of women? Yet feminism doesn’t justify postmodernism. Perhaps this is one extreme in the oscillation of the literary world view, between neoclassicism and romanticism. [[ Or is this just a manifestation of how fashion runs in cycles? Each generation needs to show it can do something different and new. ]] Similarly in literary criticism. Frederick Turner noted how the tradition of the classic writers “is growing up in the cracks of the postmodern concrete.”

P216, Can these opposed Apollonian and Dionysian impulses be reconciled? It depends on the existence or nonexistence of human nature. Given that it does exist, we can understand how science can guide interpretation more meaningfully than the intuitive approaches like psychoanalysis and postmodernism. The process was outlined by author and Charles Lumsden in the early 1980s. Others have reached similar conclusions. This narrative runs as follows:

⦁ Natural selection has shaped the process of innovation;
⦁ This variation was to some degree heritable;
⦁ Genetic evolution ensued;
⦁ Universals emerged in the evolution of culture, including archetypes like core narratives;
⦁ They are innately focused on certain forms and themes.

P218, This is gene-culture coevolution. We can say that this view favors a more traditionalist view of the arts. [[ –Really? Well, ok sure—just as the narrative bias favors stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. Still, curiosity or novelty drive some beyond the traditional view. ]] There are key differences between art and science — “science is coarse-grained and encompassing, as opposed to the arts, which are fine-grained and interstitial” 218b; yet even fantasy stays anchored to human origins, as Vonnegut said 219.3: “the arts place humanity in the center of the universe, whether we belong there or not.”

The arts have special powers. The ability to generate metaphors, e.g. the word plot (which first meant a site, of course). And stanza. Edward Rothstein on math and music, 219, how we identify patterns or analogies between objects that look dissimilar. Similar to what the Japanese scientist Hideki Yukawa said, 220t. Both about noticing similarities, or analogies [just as consilience is about]. Ref also to Bateson and Volk, metapatterns, 220m. How early architecture mimicked nature. Example of Mondrian’s repeated spacing of trees, 221, that led to cubism. Similar processes led to Chinese characters, pictographs.

Artists and writers evoke emotional and aesthetic responses by intuition alone; they don’t want to explain. Scientists *do* want to explain, at least after the fact. Examples of Nabakov, and Elizabeth Spires.

What can we know about the creative powers of the human mind? It will be found at the juncture of science and the humanities. For example we can identify groupings of archetypes that underlie most myth and fiction:

⦁ In the beginning;
⦁ The tribe emigrates…;
⦁ The tribe meets for forces of evil;
⦁ The hero embarks on a journey and returns to complete his destiny;
⦁ The world ends in apocalypse;
⦁ A source of great power is found;
⦁ The nurturing woman;
⦁ The seer;
⦁ The Virgin;
⦁ Female sexual awakening is bestowed;
⦁ The Trickster disturbs established order;
⦁ A monster threatens humanity.

Now, in what way were the inborn rules that lead to such developments adaptive? What advantages did they confer? Perhaps ancient artifacts offer a clue. Human evolution entailed the shocking recognition of the self, the finiteness of personal existence, and the chaos of the environment. These are what drove humans from paradise, 224b. [[ thus the Tree of Knowledge was forbidden ]] In contrast to all the other animals. “The dominating influence that spawned the arts was the need to impose order on the confusion caused by intelligence.” 225.3. [[ similar to how telling stories are partly about how to make sense of the world ]] They work much faster than natural selection. … “Their quality is measured by their humanness, by the precision of their adherence to human nature. To an overwhelming degree that is what we mean when we speak of the truth and beautiful in the arts.” 226t.

Beginning with wall paintings in caves. Examples. It likely took tens of thousands of years for these skills to emerge. Many of the images depict animals with spears and arrows in them—as if hunting magic. Art as magic. Some paintings suggest new rituals. Hunting sorcery has survived to the present time. Sympathetic magic, like voodoo, astrology, and ESP. Or—perhaps the paintings were for instructing the young. But other evidence supports the magic hypothesis. Such inclinations persist to the present, as football fans form tribes with names like the Detroit Lions… 229t.

So how would this hypothesis of the biological origin of the arts be tested? We could predict the themes in the arts. We know there are uniform themes in arts from around the world. We can also scan for such epigenetic rules via ‘bioaesthetics’ 229b, how brain waves react to different levels of complexity, with a sweet spot at 20% redundancy. This is reflecting is various abstract designs all around the world, from tile patterns to flag designs 230t. And modern art. Another line of evidence: analyzing the beauty of a woman’s face, found via the averaging of many faces. Great beauty remains rare in nature. Similar the response of certain butterflies. Both examples involve supernormal stimuli. Animals are wired toward, e.g., the biggest, and will gravitate toward phony bigness. Thus the entire beauty industry is the manufacture of supernormal stimuli, 232t. And body adornment.

The arts nourish our craving for the mystical. Why do we have this craving? Emotionally, we’re still in the Paleolithic. Example narrative, 232b, about the yearning to see what might lie beyond the rim of the world… Now the whole world is home ground, so we look beyond it, in the stars, in the future. [[ good point – science fiction took off not only due to the increasing rate of technological change, but also about the time the entire world had been more or less explored… ]] The yearning is: Follow us, explore… [[ Thus the “final frontier” ]] Studies of contemporary hunter-gatherers offer ideas, with long example, 233ff, and the Kalahari. How they anthropomorphize the animals they hunt. Their world is necessarily full of mystery. Even now humans are aware of only a tiny part of our ecosystems, or how the physical world works. 236m. But knowledge continues to grow, and outlives the individuals who gather it. Everything about Kalahari life will eventually be known. A final narrative about returning home and perceiving it all, p237. We will understand both the physical world and appreciate its beauty and mystery with art.


Two chapters to go: about “religion and ethics” and asking “to what end?”

This entry was posted in Book Notes, Human Progress, Psychology, Science. Bookmark the permalink.