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Only Adapt | Big Questions Online

What method can be used to study art, music and literature — and how can we justify the process of selection that issues in a canon of Great Books and Great Works? Until recently one assumption has been shared among all who have discussed that question, which is that, if there is a method in the humanities, it is not the method of science…

Over the last two decades, however, Darwinism has invaded the field of the humanities, in a way that Darwin himself would scarcely have predicted. Doubt and hesitation have given way to certainty, interpretation has been subsumed into explanation, and the whole realm of aesthetic experience and literary judgement has been brought to heel as an “adaptation,” a part of human biology which exists because of the benefit that it confers on our genes. No need now to puzzle over the meaning of music or the nature of beauty in art. The meaning of art and music reside in what they do for our genes…

Take music, for example. A mother singing to her child creates a bond through her singing. The two rock back and forth to its rhythm; the sound is internalized by the child as mother’s sound, the sound of safety. A woman who can bond with her child in that way gives the child an added source of security, and the two cling to each other more firmly when the moment of crisis arrives. So the singing mother confers, through her singing, a tiny reproductive advantage on the genes that produced her music — just enough to ensure that, over a few hundred generations, the singing humans prevail over their tone-deaf competitors…

Gradually the humanities are being invaded and disciplined by explanations of that kind, which purport to sweep away the mess of hermeneutics and replace it with clean, meaningful science. And the explanations really are as absurd as the two examples I have given — absurd precisely because they are looking to explain something that they have not defined. Until you define what music is, and how it differs from pitched sound, for example, you will not know what question you are asking, when you inquire into its origins. Until you recognize that the human sense of beauty is a completely different thing from the peahen’s sexual attraction, you won’t know what, if anything, is proved by the sparse similarities…

Consider mathematics. There is no doubt that this is not maladaptive. A creature with mathematical competence is not likely to suffer from this trait in such a way as to impair its reproductive chances. Does this mean that we have at last got a theory of mathematics — a theory of what it is, why it exists, and what it means for us? Of course not. And suppose that we came, in time, to think that mathematics is after all maladaptive: say because the spirit of inquiry that results from it, and which leads inexorably to an obsession with Mobius bands and transfinite cardinals, disables us from the immediacies of practical life. Would that do anything to undermine the validity of our proofs, or to cast new light on what they signify? Of course not. Mathematics is a realm which has its own internal procedures, and which is understood not by explaining its origin, but by applying its proofs.

Well, the same goes, it seems to me, for the humanities.

via Only Adapt | Big Questions Online.

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