Brian Boyd

There is behavioral ecology, which looks closely at the difference different ecologies make to behavior and other features of animals and humans. There’s evolutionary individual psychology, there’s evolutionary social psychology. In Darwin’s terms, evolution couldn’t exist without variation, and variation is important in behavioral genetics. And so on, and so on. There are so many instances in which evolution actually sharpens the precision, I think, with which one can find out the importance of differences. We’re interested in differences as well as commonalities.

Literature and the other arts play with pattern – our brains understand our world by recognizing patterns – and with possibility. The arts harness our sharpest senses, sight and sound, and our richest ways of understanding, in language and narrative. They were our first schools before schools were ever invented. They develop our imaginations, extend our possibilities, and deepen what we can all share.

Popper and Nabokov are very different people in some ways – and I’m ready to devote large chunks of my life to both of them. Popper didn’t think much of words but thought ideas mattered, and Nabokov didn’t think much of ideas, but words mattered, and so on. But both of them had a sense that this is a world of infinite discovery, unending discovery. That quest to discover more in any direction is what I think drives me, and what drives humans, when they’re doing the most interesting things.

I think that’s an important part of art in general. Especially in literature, in stories, we play with eventualities that may put us through a lot of intense negative feelings – say, in horror films or tragedies as intense as King Lear – but we come out feeling richer. We’ve lived to the fullest, we’ve tested ourselves in these environments.

There’s a young Danish guy who has done a lot of work from an evolutionary perspective, Mathias Clasen. Basically, his argument is we’ve evolved to fear the monstrous, to be very wary of large, unknown, life-threatening forces. In art, we can play with these things in ways that allow us to feel the intensity of the horror, but in “safe mode,” if you like, detached from real consequences.

I guess both Nabokov and Popper had, in different ways, immunized me against the fashion for French-influenced literary theory in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s – “immunized” in the sense that they made me no longer susceptible to this epidemic cultural virus. I looked into Derrida and found that he rarely seemed to be interested in truth; he was more interested in making a splash.

If an artwork never gets any attention from anybody, then obviously it’s got problems. If it gains attention from a very small elite, then it’s presumably doing something. Finnegans Wake gets a lot of attention from certain people who become passionate about it, who are usually very good readers in general. Although – I often talk about costs and benefits – it seems to me the costs of reading Finnegans Wake are not worth the benefits, however many there may be. And it’s the same with the more arcane among poets, Zukofsky and so on.

Perhaps the most demanding trick in all of art is to know ways that are going to capture the attention of an audience right now, and yet to also hold an audience hundreds or thousands of years into the future in circumstances you just cannot imagine. You’ve got to go very deep into human nature to do that.

I think like almost everything in evolution, the old forms persist. New forms come along – not always, of course; there are species and whole lineages that go extinct – but basically novels and plays, and so on, will continue to exist. Jokes, as the lowest-cost form of narrative, will certainly continue to exist. They’re a bit like microbes in the biological world. They’re low-cost and they’re everywhere. They’re the most successful form of life, even though they’re not the ones we think about most.

Art and literature need extreme sociality to a degree that even dolphins don’t have. We are the only large mammalian species that has such intense sociality. There are some small mammals that have become eusocial – the mole rats – but that’s a different thing. Humans are able to understand one another at very high levels, to cooperate in very large groups. Humans depend on one another in ways that are an absolute precondition to sharing the kinds of information that makes narrative possible.

Everything is humanities. The sciences are a form of the humanities. They involve traditions of inquiry; they involve social engagement with ideas. They do not happen with a naked brain going out and encountering a nonhuman world. And the better we understand ourselves, the better we can do science, as well. So I don’t see them – the sciences and the humanities – as being at all different.