Monday, 22 March 2010

THE BIOLOGICAL BASIS OF POETRY

Literature, music, mathematics, art, are constituents of culture and each of them has its separate history. But each of them can also be seen as a manifestation of a human biological drive, a drive towards exploration, experimentation, the analysis of human perception. Culture is not something separate from human evolution but a part of a continuing human evolution, indeed the main form which human evolution has taken over the last few thousand years. It is a familiar idea, but perhaps a wrong one, that human evolution, as a Darwinian process, has ceased and been replaced by something quite new, a more Lamarckian process involving the inheritance of acquired characteristics, more specifically of the changing forms of human culture. On this see for example Dawkins (1986), or Huxley(1926).
POETRY
What is poetry as an art and how did it come about in human evolution? On the first question one can quote Shakespeare:
"The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling, Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven; And, as imagination bodies forth The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing A local habitation and a name." (Midsummer Night`s Dream V.i.7)
The second question is less easily answered. It may seem bizarre to contemplate an evolutionary or sociobiological account of poetry. Writing is relatively recent, the poetry we have available is the product of historical times. But this attitude depends upon too narrow a view of poetry. How poetry should be defined, characterised, has been the subject of debate over centuries - but at least we can say that poetry is the use of powerful or specially effective words, where the individual words and the order in which they are placed matters; in the ordinary use of language, the individual words and the order in which they are placed does not matter - we extract the meaning and rapidly forget how it was phrased or expressed. If we think of poetry as the use of especially powerful words, then there may be reason to suppose that poetry was more important in the prehistoric, preliterate past than it is today - in song, in ritual, in myth - with the structure and choice of words compensating for the impossibility of any written record. Some have even suggested that in the beginning was poetry - in the evolution of language each new word was a poem, the outward expression of a new inward perception.
However that may be, we have the present fact of poetry as one of the arts, to be accounted for along with music and the visual arts. Poets and others have attempted to describe what poetry is for them, what the process is by which poems are produced. Some examples:
Or est poème ce qui ne se peut résumer. On ne résume pas une mélodie. La puissance des vers tient à une harmonie indéfinissable entre ce qu'ils disent et ce qu'ils sont.
The labyrinthine communings of words. Above everything else, poetry is words, and words, above everything else, are, in poetry, sounds. In poetry,the word seems to operate as a unity of all its powers.
Poetry is both perception and the thing perceived. Poetic form far from being a mere public convention is the personal and organic made objective and accessible: giving form to the living stuff of the imagination. Poetry like science is the process of discovering. We write in order to understand, not in order to be understood: the poet's relentless compulsion to know himself. The structure of poetry is an exact presentation of the nature of human perception.
There can be no doubt that poetry is powerful and that the power of poems comes from the power of the words which form the poems - but what can be said about the source of the power of poetic words? There is the general power of words in poetry or otherwise. Words crystallise our thoughts, Make our thoughts recoverable, Make the thought of others recoverable; but in poetry the particular words chosen matter much more than they do in the case of words for simple communication. Poetry calls upon the full content, the total complex, of each word.
A poem is a structure of words which persists. The poem operates by creating a sound-structure which preserves the actual words. Rhyme locks the words of a poem together, as do repetition and rhythmic patterning or assonance and alliteration. The network of words which forms the poem preserves in it the `iceberg' words, the words which go deep into the conceptual and emotional structure of the individual.
The poet, as much as or more than the musician or the artist, is concerned with externalising his inner world (to use Paul Klee`s phrase) - an inner world formed by his experience of and reaction to the ordinary physical and social world. The source of the effective poem, as of the effective musical composition or painting, is within the neural structuring of the poet. The basis of poetry is as much neural and physiological as the basis of music or painting; the sources of the poetry are in the emotions, in the life-experience, the bodily sensations, the perception of the poet, just as much as the case for the musician or artist. The mystery, as for music, is how the internal, neural, structure, recording the experience, programming the emotions, is converted, transduced, into words; how words, those apparently arbitrary, social constructs, can be effective in conveying to the poet himself and to others responsive to poetry such intangible, invisible, ineffable things.
Beyond poetry then there is the greater mystery of the functioning of language. An evolutionary account of language is possible and is a prerequisite, no doubt, for an evolutionary account of poetry. This is not the place to discuss this larger issue. I have suggested elsewhere (Allott 1988) that the complexities of language derived from, were modelled on and integrated with the neural motor control system (speech is skilled motor action) and that all the structures of language, syntax, lexicon, phonology, can be traced back to the already elaborated complexities of the motor system. If this is so, then poetry also must be a product of the intersection between motor control and perception, the concrete neural set of connections between the motor and perceptual systems in the brain. If, as I believe (Allott 1991), emotions also are essentially motor-based - emotion in some sense is motion - than one begins to understand the power of poetry. What is powerful for the producer of the poetry can be powerful for the receiver of poetry, the person responsive to poetry, because he has similar neural structuring to that from which the poem originates,
The particular word, on the motor theory of language origin and function, was not an arbitrary formation, with an arbitrary relation to its meaning but a structure derived from and parallel to the elements forming the structure of the percept or the action. The word is a specific pattern of neural organisation directly related to neural organisation involved in perceiving some specific object or performing some specific act. The effectiveness of language results from the transmission via articulated sound of a pattern of neural organisation from the speaker to the hearer, who reproduces in his own neural organisation an order, a structure, homoeomorphic with the pattern in the speaker.
A poem is formed of carefully selected words and is thus a representation of a particular pattern of brain organisation. The words are not simply a linear string but a multi-dimensional structure where all the words forming the poem interact. A poem resembles in this way patterns in music, the combination of melody and harmony. Recall the poet's phrase quoted earlier: `the labyrinthine communings of words'. Because the poetic form preserves the selected words, the success of the poem flows from the power of the individual words, the power of the `iceberg' words.One gains the impression that though the external form is different, the process in the production of poetry is close to that in the production of music or the visual arts.
Poetry is exploration of the individual and of the world and as St. John Perse suggests very similar in this to science:
De ce nuit originelle où tâtonnent deux aveugles-nés, l'un équipé de l'outillage scientifique, l'autre assisté des seules fulgurations de l'intuition... Le mystère est commun. Aussi loin que la science recule ses frontières, et sur tout l'arc étendu de ces frontières, on entendra courir encore la meute chasseresse du poéte. C'est d'une même étreinte [que la poésie]... embrasse au présent tout le passé et l'avenir, l'humain avec le surhumain, et tout l'espace planétaire avec l'espace universel. L'obscurité qu'on lui reproche ne tient pas à sa nature propre, qui est d'éclairer, mais à la nuit même qu'elle explore et qu'elle doit d'explorer : celle de l'âme elle-même et du mystère où baigne l'être humain."(Saint-John Perse 1970: 241 ff.)
In this speech accepting the Nobel prize, the modern French poet echoes Shakespeare`s description of the poet with which this section began.
BIOLOGICAL LINKS BETWEEN THE ARTS
All the arts can be seen as a manifestation of one and the same impulse. The drive to the arts must surely have had a biological origin. But why do these types of behaviour exist? Why should Beethoven choose the massive labour of composition rather than eating, drinking, a family life? Maybe there was the desire to create a `ktema es aei` (a possession for ever), in the awareness of death to survive somehow, but this does not indicate why his activity took this specifically artistic form.
The basic biological drive, impelling composers to compose, artists to paint, poets to write and even scientists to do their science is towards exploration of the perceived world (the outer world and the inner world) and the attempt to replicate it in some durable form. In a sense artists and musicians are engaged in exploration of the properties of the eye and exploration of the properties of the ear.
We are perceiving creatures set in a multi-sensory world who have acquired an awareness of our perception and even perception of our awareness of our perception. We have a drive to the externalisation of our perception, of our awareness. Externalisation is transduction - transfer from one (neurological, physiological, cerebral) system to another - conversion of simultaneous patterning into time-patterning or extended experience into immediate unextended structure. The ability to transduce in this way must depend on cross-modal connectivity in the brain. On this view the production of art is a process of cross-modal transfer, for example, from neural emotional patterning to music, painting, the words of a poem.
The artist is creating equivalent structure - moving from the perceived world to central neural patterning to externally presented form. As sensory read-in from different sources or through different channels goes to modify a central (neurally uniform) network, so read-out from the central uniform network may go to different outputs or through different channels. If this is so, there can be a kind of homoeomorphism between the various forms of artistic expression. The artistic process thus can be seen as part of, derived from an evolutionarily valuable capacity to model the world, to model oneself, and to model oneself in the world, a capacity which evolved because it served to increase the ability of the individual or the species to act more effectively and extensively in the world. There is the analogy - or parallel case, or directly-related case - of language as an instrument for modelling the world, converting internal patterning into articulatory action-patterns, sound patterns. Beyond art, one can see a similar process at work, a similar drive functioning, in science, the attempt to transduce the structure of the physical world, to externalise the scientist`s understanding of the world. And it appears that scientists may even use much of the perceptual and creative methods of the artist: "Tous les hommes de science ont dû prendre conscience de ce que leur réflexion, au niveau profond, n'est pas verbale: c'est une experience imaginaire, simulée à l'aide de formes, de forces, d'interactions qui ne composent qu'à peine une `image' au sens visuel du terme. Je me suis moi-même surpris... à m'identifier à une molecule de protéine".(Monod 1970: 170)
CONCLUSION: EVOLUTIONARY ISSUES
The process of art production as a biological reality, presents problems for a number of aspects of evolutionary theory (e.g. fitness, altruism, gene determination of behaviour, group selection) which may best be solved by refining or amending the theories rather than by ejecting the art process from the realm of biology. If the arts are correctly treated as biological in origin and in the processes of artistic creation, the issue that matters, on the analysis in the preceding section, is not the mode of transmission of cultural patterns (via hypothetical memes, culturgens, etc.) but the origination of the cultural patterns, artistic or cultural `creation.'
Evolution is dependent on imprecise adaptation, adaptation with a margin of uncertainty to allow for the imprecision of future environments. The greatest example of imprecise adaptation comes from growth in the size and complexity of the brain, in the potential for the formation of new neural connections (in embryonic development and later). The complex brain, moulded into uniqueness by manifold epigenetic factors, in interaction with a complex environment, variable in time and space, can produce an unlimited range of behaviours - in the same way as language can generate an unlimited number of utterances. Inevitably then there can be no close gene-control over patterns of behaviour - the brain is an organ with multiple degrees of freedom. The arts, along with many other aspects of human behaviour, are the product of the impossibility of any close adaptation of the brain to actual or potential environments, the inevitable margin of error or flexibility in evolution once brains reached a sufficient size and degree of internal complexity. Perception is behaviour as well as neurologically programmed - and the transduction of perception into external art forms is possible in a multitude of ways. The evolutionary question is the manner in which the cross-modal connectivity which makes this transduction possible came about.
REFERENCES
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