Culture Magazine

Review Essays on the Origins and Evolution of Human Culture

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
I've placed another document in my SSRN page: Three Evolutionary Pieces. In consider the following books in three essay reviews:
(1) Steven Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2005.
(2) James L. Pearson, Shamanism and the Ancient Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Archaeology, AltaMira Press, 2002.
David Sloan Wilson, Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, University of Chicago Press, 2002.
(3) Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History, Verso, 2005.
Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson, eds. The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative, Northwestern University Press, 2005.
Taken together they cover music, drawing and painting (on rock), and literature and cover periods from human pre-history, through the emergence of modern man, to contemporary culture and society.
The first essay looks at Steven Mithin’s book about music and language while the second considers two books, Shamanism and the Ancient Mind, which is about cave art and psychedelic drugs, and Darwin’s Cathedral, which is about religion and society. The third considers two books as well. One is an anthology of essays on Darwinian literary criticism, The Literary Animal, while the other is slim monograph about evolutionary processes at work in literary culture, Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees.
I have placed Mithin’s Neanderthals first because it is about music, which I have come to treat as my conceptual toucstone to the emergence of human culture. Mithen regards it as fundamental as well. After reviewing Mithen’s work I offer extentions to the work I began in Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture (2001), giving particular attention to group intentionality, and using a discussion of symbols and norms to connect with Mithen”s discussion of a 400,000 year old site at Bilzingsleben.
Then I move to a discussion of visual art and altered states of consciousness in Shamanism and the Ancient Mind and the group-building function of religious belief in Darwin's Cathedral, from the noumenal to the institutional. Pearson is exploring the origin of the thoughts, feelings, and symbols that are the basis of the social institutions that Wilson investigates in a number of societies, including Protestant Christians in Early Modenr Geneva, the Nuer, contemporary Bali, and Korean Christian communities in contemporary Texas. Thus Pearson’s and Wilson’s rather different discussions complement one another.
I return to my home discipline, literature, in the last piece. By and large I am skeptical of the work on display in The Literary Animal. Though I do have some reservations about the evolutionary psychology, my deepest reservations are for its application to literature. On the evidence of the essays in this volume, it simply isn’t very interesting. In contrast, Moretti’s more direct use of evolutionary ideas is more interesting. As his title suggests, he is interested in the historical evolution at work in literary culture rather than using literature as a vehicle for examining a biologically-given human nature.

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