Last week I explored and was pretty critical of what I called “the call to evolution” in cognitive narrative theory, which is basically the frustratingly common turn to evolution to explain human cognition and social mind. This week’s reading, Stanislas Dehaene’s The New Science of How We Read and a return to Persuasion, opens up a new dimension of that discussion, so I am going to return to it here.
Dehaene opens his book with a brief overview of the problems with assuming evolution is the direct cause of humanity’s ability to read. He notes that writing emerged only roughly five or six thousand years ago, a “mere trifle” in terms of evolutionary time. Yet in that time written language has increased and expanded dramatically, as has our ability to read. This brief timespan and incredible development lead Dehaene to conclude, “Evolution thus did not have the time to develop specialized reading circuits in Homo sapiens” (4). Evolutionary explanations for reading and cognition thus face the critical limitation of time, as well as the question of applicability or process in modern society–to what extent is nature actually selecting anything anymore? At the same time, such qualms could come from simply being unable to see exactly how evolution is working in the brief snapshot that is recorded history. It could very well be that evolution is still at work, but its changes are imperceptible to our limited scope in modernity. However all of this I dealt with last week, and the more interesting concepts come in Dehaene’s answer to the evolution question.
Dehaene’s answer to the evolution problem is that our brains did not evolve to read, but rather our evolved brains were forced or co-opted to read. The brain is thus not hardwired for reading, but rather we have gotten really good at bending its hardwiring to that task. Dehaene refers to this process as “neuronal recycling” (7). Dehaene is also quick to warn us against assuming the brain can recycle itself into anything or that it has infinite plasticity. There are always limitations to just how far the brain can adapt, which helps explain the difficulty of learning something new or very foreign to us. As Dehaene puts it, “When we learn a new skill, we recycle some of our old primate brain circuits–insofar, of course, as those circuits can tolerate the change” (7). Change seems inevitable with the brain, but always within constraints. Dehaene goes on in the next chapter to discuss some of the most basic constraints, such as how much we see on a page, how fast we can read, and the limitations of spelling.
To return to Persuasion, I suggest that this same process–change within constraints–can apply to social minds and social evolution as well. Throughout the novel there are changes to characters and social classes that must be contained in order to avoid upsetting the entire system. The first of these is the necessary decision for the Elliots to leave Kellynch, and how Lady Russell is called upon to coax Sir Walter and Elizabeth into it: “They must retrench; that did not admit of a doubt. But [Lady Russell] was very anxious to have it done with the least possible pain to him and Elizabeth” (13). Here there are definite limits to what the social minds of Sir Walter and Elizabeth can endure–to go any further would be unacceptable. As silly as this seems to us, it demonstrates how resistant social structures are to change, even as they are always changing. This is again demonstrated in the repeated references to Navy men and their rise in society. Captain Wentworth and his ilk pose a threat to the heavily classed society of late 18th and early 19th century England, in that their ability to acquire wealth and move between classes challenges assumptions of inheritance and bestowed titles. Members of the upper class like Sir Walter must be convinced of the worthiness of Navy men, mostly by those men acting appropriately like gentlemen. Society is changing in the novel, and that change must happen within particular limits to avoid upsetting the whole system.
The obvious difference between the brain’s limited ability to adapt and the social mind’s is that the former is limited by genetics, while the latter is limited ultimately by social construction. Societies can be overthrown and rebuilt in a way the brain cannot be, at least not as easily or in the same way. Still, even the most thorough revolutions seem to build societies not so utterly different from what came before, so the comparison seems to stand.