Real Worlds, Possible Worlds and Fantasy Worlds
THE ORIGINS OF CREATIVITY
By Edward O. Wilson
243 pp. Liveright Publishing. $24.95.
The act of reading alters your brain. It does so, first, because your thoughts are brain processes. When you read, neural patterns come and go as the words pass before you. Some of those patterns also give rise to memories, subtle molecular changes in cells and the signaling mechanisms that link them. And third, your brain is physically transformed by learning to read. The networks that underlie vision and language are changed. Even people who become literate in adulthood, as a team led by the French neurobiologist Stanislas Dehaene has shown, acquire differences that are visible in a brain scan. With and without literacy, the brain is the same basic organ, with the same shape and chemistry, but a reading brain is different in ways that count. As Cecilia Heyes says in her forthcoming book, “Cognitive Gadgets,” if one didn’t know that reading is a recent human invention (literate culture is perhaps 5,000 or 6,000 years old), a skill passed on through learning in each generation, it would be easy to mistake the brain patterns seen in reading as evidence for a genetically encoded reading instinct or “innate module.”
Reading is an apt skill to celebrate in a book review, a piece of writing about a piece of writing. E. O. Wilson’s new book, “The Origins of Creativity,” is about the role of the humanities in an intellectual culture increasingly dominated by science. Wilson values the humanities, but he wants them to have closer ties to some of the sciences, an argument that draws on his view of the relationships between human biology, thought and culture. “It is becoming increasingly clear,” he says at one point, “that natural selection has programmed every bit of human biology — every toe, hair and nipple, every molecular configuration in every cell, every neuron circuit in the brain, and within all that, every trait that makes us human.” But reading itself, the reading of books like his own, shows that this isn’t true. The circuits of the brain are changed by literacy, and the molecular configurations in countless cells are being altered as you pick up new ideas from the page, as they make their way into your memory. If what Wilson says were true, there would be no point in reading, in trying to learn songs or engage in many other activities. We’d have little resemblance to humans at all.
I have much admiration for the work Wilson has done in biology, not for the theoretical side but for the crawling in and climbing around side — his unearthing of new species, his charting of the quirks of their lives and attempting to get into the worlds of countless small fierce invertebrates. I also admire much of the path his life has taken, some of which is sketched here. His parents divorced during the Depression and his youth was spent roaming the South, attending 14 different schools. But he made it to college and then on to graduate work and a career at Harvard. It’s impossible to begrudge such a person a few literary victory laps. Yet Wilson is so widely read and admired that when he makes a public statement about the relationship between science and the humanities, it has to be taken on its own terms and assessed for what it says. And “The Origins of Creativity” is an extremely shallow book.
Wilson wants the humanities to make more contact with science. By the “humanities” he means the fields that study languages, literature, history, art and so on. What Wilson would like is for these fields to become more scientifically literate and attend especially to developments in paleontology, anthropology, psychology, evolutionary biology and neurobiology — what he calls the “friendly ground of science,” where the humanities can seek alliances. Such connections are always welcome, but is there a problem with the humanities that makes these meetings urgent?
Wilson thinks there is indeed a “shortcoming” within the present-day humanities. The problem is their extreme “anthropocentrism.” Initially it’s hard not to read this as a joke — the humanities are anthropocentric? But it’s not intended as one. Part of what Wilson wants is for human creative capacities to be put in a broader context that includes our prehistory and the biology of our nonhuman ancestors. He offers some sketches of his own of this kind, cataloging great films, for example, by identifying six archetypal figures and themes within them that have plausible resonance with prehistoric human experience: the hero, the antihero, the monster, the quest, the pair bond, other worlds. (The films include two Indiana Jones installments, no Fellinis).
The plea for a broadened scope is also linked to Wilson’s view of the relations between the content of humanistic and scientific work. Scientific observation and experiment, for Wilson, cover everything in the actual world. Scientific theory goes farther and considers all “possible real” worlds. The role of the humanities is to offer an even “further reach,” covering merely “conceivable” and “fantasy” worlds.