Woolf

Rebecca Mead’s Middlemarch Pilgrimage and the 3 Wrong Ways to Read a Novel

  All artists are possessed of the urge to render through some artificial medium the experience of something real. Since artists are also possessed of a desire to share their work and have it appreciated, they face the conundrum of having to wrest the attention of their audience away from the very reality they hope to relay some piece of—a feat which can only be accomplished with the assurance of something extraordinary. Stories that are too real are seldom interesting, while the stories that are the most riveting usually feature situations audiences are unlikely to encounter in their real lives. This was the challenge George Eliot faced when she set out to convey something of the reality of a provincial English town in the early nineteenth century; she had to come up with a way to write a remarkable novel about unremarkable characters in an unremarkable setting. And she somehow managed to do just that. By almost any measure, Eliot’s efforts to chronicle the fates of everyday people in a massive work many everyday people would enjoy reading were wildly, albeit complicatedly, successful.

Before Middlemarch, the convention for English novels was to blandish readers with the promise of stories replete with romance or adventure, culminating more often than not with a wedding. Eliot turned the marriage plot on its head, beginning her novel with a marriage whose romantic underpinnings were as one-sided as they were transparently delusional. So what, if not luridness or the whiff of wish-fulfillment, does Eliot use to lure us into the not-so-fantastic fictional world of Middlemarch? Part of the answer is that, like many other nineteenth century novelists, she interspersed her own observations and interpretations with the descriptions and events that make up the story. “But Eliot was doing something in addition with those moments of authorial interjection,” Rebecca Mead writes in her book My Life in Middlemarch before going on to explain,

She insists that the reader look at the characters in the book from her own elevated viewpoint. We are granted a wider perspective, and a greater insight, than is available to their neighbors down in the world of Middlemarch. By showing us the way each character is bound within his or her own narrow viewpoint, while providing us with a broader view, she nurtures what Virginia Woolf described as “the melancholy virtue of tolerance.” “If Art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, it does nothing morally,” Eliot once wrote. “The only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings, is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling erring human creatures.” (55-6)

Eliot’s story about ordinary people, in other words, is made extraordinary by the insightful presence of its worldly-wise author throughout its pages.
Rebecca Mead

But this solution to the central dilemma of art—how to represent reality so as to be worthy of distraction from reality—runs into another seeming contradiction. Near the conclusion of Middlemarch, Dorothea, one of the many protagonists, assures her sister Celia that her second marriage will not be the disaster her first was, explaining that the experience of falling in love this time around was much more auspicious than it had been before. Celia, wanting to understand what was so different, presses her, asking “Can’t you tell me?” Dorothea responds, “No, dear, you would have to feel with me, else you would never know” (783). The question that arises is whether a reader can be made to “imagine and feel the pains and joys” of a character while at the same time being granted access to the author’s elevated perspective. Can we in the audience simultaneously occupy spaces both on the ground alongside the character and hovering above her with a vantage on her place in the scheme of history and the wider world?

One of the main sources of tension for any storyteller is the conflict between the need to convey information and provide context on the one hand and the goal of representing, or even simulating experiences on the other. A weakness Eliot shares with many other novelists who lived before the turn of the last century is her unchecked impulse to philosophize when she could be making a profounder impact with narrative description or moment-by-moment approximations of a character’s thoughts and feelings. For instance, Dorothea, or Miss Brooke as she’s called in the first pages of the novel, yearns to play some important role in the betterment of humankind. Mead’s feelings about Dorothea and what she represents are likely shared by most who love the book. She writes,

As Miss Brooke, Dorothea remains for me the embodiment of that unnameable, agonizing ache of adolescence, in which burgeoning hopes and ambitions and terrors and longings are all roiled together. When I spend time in her company, I remember what it was like to be eighteen, and at the beginning of things. (43)

Dorothea becomes convinced that by marrying a much older scholar named Casaubon and helping him to bring his life’s work to fruition she’ll be fulfilling her lofty aspirations. So imagine her crushing disappointment upon discovering that Casaubon is little more than an uninspired and bloodless drudge who finds her eagerness to aid in his research more of an annoying distraction than an earnest effort at being supportive. The aspects of this disappointment that are unique to Dorothea, however, are described only glancingly. After locating her character in a drawing room, overwhelmed by all she’s seen during her honeymoon in Rome—and her new husband’s cold indifference to it all, an indifference which encompasses her own physical presence—Eliot retreats into generality:

Not that this inward amazement of Dorothea’s was anything very exceptional: many souls in their young nudity are tumbled out among incongruities and left to “find their feet” among them, while their elders go about their business. Nor can I suppose that when Mrs. Casaubon is discovered in a fit of weeping six weeks after her wedding, the situation will be regarded as tragic. Some discouragement, some faintness of heart at the new real future which replaces the imaginary, is not unusual, and we do not expect people to be deeply moved by what is not unusual. That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity. (185)

The obvious truth that humans must be selective in their sympathies is an odd point for an author to focus on at such a critical juncture in her heroine’s life—especially an author whose driving imperative is to widen the scope of her readers’ sympathies.

            My Life in Middlemarch, a memoir devoted to Mead’s evolving relationship with the novel and its author, takes for granted that Eliot’s masterpiece stands at the pinnacle of English literature, the greatest accomplishment of one of the greatest novelists in history. Virginia Woolf famously described it as “the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” Martin Amis called it “the central English novel” and said that it was “without weaknesses,” except perhaps for Dorothea’s overly idealized second love Will Ladislaw.  Critics from F.R. Leavis to Harold Bloom have celebrated Eliot as one of the greatest novelists of all time. But Middlemarch did go through a period when it wasn’t as appreciated as it had been originally and has been again since the middle of the twentieth century. Mead quotes a couple of appraisals from the generation succeeding Eliot’s:

“It is doubtful whether they are novels disguised as treatises, or treatises disguised as novels,” one critic wrote of her works. Another delivered the verdict that her books “seem to have been dictated to a plain woman of genius by the ghost of David Hume.” (217)

And of course Woolf would have taken issue with Amis’s claim that Eliot’s novel has no weaknesses, since her oft-quoted line about Middlemarch being for grownups contains the phrase “for all its imperfections.” In the same essay, Woolf says of Eliot,


The more one examines the great emotional scenes the more nervously one anticipates the brewing and gathering and thickening of the cloud which will burst upon our heads at the moment of crisis in a shower of disillusionment and verbosity. It is partly that her hold upon dialogue, when it is not dialect, is slack; and partly that she seems to shrink with an elderly dread of fatigue from the effort of emotional concentration. She allows her heroines to talk too much. She has little verbal felicity. She lacks the unerring taste which chooses one sentence and compresses the heart of the scene within that. ‘Whom are you doing to dance with?’ asked Mr Knightley, at the Weston’s ball. ‘With you, if you will ask me,’ said Emma; and she has said enough. Mrs Casaubon would have talked for an hour and we should have looked out of the window.

Mead’s own description of the scene of Dorothea’s heartbreak in Rome is emblematic of both the best and the worst of Eliot’s handling of her characters. She writes,

For several pages, Eliot examines Dorothea’s emotions under a microscope, as if she were dissecting her heroine’s brain, the better to understand the course of its electrical flickers. But then she moves quickly and just as deeply into the inward movement of Casaubon’s emotions and sensations. (157)

Literary scholars like to justify the application of various ideologies to their analyses of novels by comparing the practice to looking through different lenses in search of new insights. But how much fellow feeling can we have for “electrical flickers” glimpsed through an eyepiece? And how are we to assess the degree to which critical lenses either clarify or distort what they’re held up to? What these metaphors of lenses and microscopes overlook is the near impossibility of sympathizing with specimens under a glass.
Casaubon, Dorothea, and Ladislaw in the BBC miniseries

            The countless writers and critics who celebrate Middlemarch actually seem to appreciate all the moments when Eliot allows her storytelling to be submerged by her wry asides, sermons, and disquisitions. Indeed, Middlemarch may be best thought of as a kind of hybrid, and partly because of this multifariousness, but partly too because of the diversity of ways admirers like Mead have approached and appreciated it over the generations, the novel makes an ideal test case for various modes of literary reading. Will Ladislaw, serendipitously in Rome at the same time as the Casaubons, converses with Dorothea about all the art she has seen in the city. “It is painful,” she says, “to be told that anything is very fine and not be able to feel that it is fine—something like being blind, while people talk of the sky.” Ladislaw assures her, “Oh, there is a great deal in the feeling for art which must be acquired,” and then goes on to explain,

Art is an old language with a great many artificial affected styles, and sometimes the chief pleasure one gets out of knowing them is the mere sense of knowing. I enjoy the art of all sorts here immensely; but I suppose if I could pick my enjoyment to pieces I should find it made up of many different threads. There is something in daubing a little one’s self, and having an idea of the process. (196)

Applied to literature, Ladislaw’s observation—or confession—suggests that simply being in the know with regard to a work of great renown offers a pleasure of its own, apart from the direct experience of reading. (Imagine how many classics would be abandoned midway were they not known as such.) Mead admits to succumbing to this sort of glamor when she was first beginning to love Eliot and her work:

I knew that some important critics considered Middlemarch to be the greatest novel in the English language, and I wanted to be among those who understood why. I loved Middlemarch, and loved being the kind of person who loved it. It gratified my aspirations to maturity and learnedness. To have read it, and to have appreciated it, seemed a step on the road to being one of the grown-ups for whom it was written. (6-7).

What Mead is describing here is an important, albeit seldom mentioned, element in our response to any book. And there’s no better word for it than branding. Mead writes,

Books gave us a way to shape ourselves—to form our thoughts and to signal to each other who we were and who we wanted to be. They were part of our self-fashioning, no less than our clothes. (6)

The time in her life she’s recalling here is her late adolescence, the time when finding and forging all the pieces of our identities is of such pressing importance to us—and, not coincidentally, a time when we are busy laying the foundations of what will be our lifelong tastes in music and books.

It should not be lost on anyone that Mead was close in age to Dorothea in the early chapters when she first began reading Middlemarch, both of them “at the beginning of things.” Mead, perhaps out of nostalgia, tries to honor that early connection she felt even as she is compelled to challenge it as a legitimate approach to reading. Early in My Life in Middlemarch she writes,

Reading is sometimes thought of as a form of escapism, and it’s a common turn of phrase to speak of getting lost in a book. But a book can also be where one finds oneself; and when a reader is grasped and held by a book, reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself. There are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows, like a graft to a tree. (16)

Much later in the book, though, after writing about how Eliot received stacks of letters from women insisting that they were the real-life version of Dorothea—and surmising that Eliot would have responded to such claims with contempt—Mead makes a gesture of deference toward critical theory, with its microscopes and illusory magnifications. She writes,

Such an approach to fiction—where do I see myself in there?—is not how a scholar reads, and it can be limiting in its solipsism. It’s hardly an enlarging experience to read a novel as if it were mirror of oneself. One of the useful functions of literary criticism and scholarship is to suggest alternative lenses through which a book might be read. (172)

As Eliot’s multimodal novel compels us to wonder how we should go about reading it, Mead’s memoir brilliantly examines one stance after another we might take in relationship to a novel. What becomes clear in the process is that literary scholars leave wide open the question of the proper way to read in part because they lack an understanding what literary narratives really are. If a novel is a disguised treatise, then lenses that could peer through the disguise are called for. If a novel is a type of wish-fulfillment, then to appreciate it we really should imagine ourselves as the protagonist.
George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans)

             One of the surprises of Middlemarch is that, for all the minute inspection the narrator subjects the handful of protagonists to, none of them is all that vividly rendered. While in the most immersive of novels the characters come to life in a way that makes it easy to imagine them stepping out of the pages into real life, Eliot’s characters invite the reader to step from real life into the pages of the book. We see this in the way Eliot moves away from Dorothea at her moment of crisis. We see it too in the character of Tertius Lydgate, a doctor with a passion for progress to match Dorothea’s. Eliot describes the birth of this passion with a kind of distant and universal perspective that reaches out to envelop readers in their own reminiscences:

Most of us who turn to any subject we love remember some morning or evening hour when we got on a high stool to reach down an untried volume, or sat with parted lips listening to a new talker, or for very lack of books began to listen to the voices within, as the first traceable beginning of our love. Something of that sort happened to Lydgate. He was a quick fellow, and when hot from play, would toss himself in a corner, and in five minutes be deep in any sort of book that he could lay his hands on. (135)

Who among the likely readers of Middlemarch would object to the sentiment expressed in the line about Lydgate’s first encounter with medical texts, after “it had already occurred to him that books were stuff, and that life was stupid”?

Mead herself seems to have been drawn into Middlemarch first by its brand and then by her ready ease in identifying with Dorothea. But, while her book is admirably free of ideological musings, she does get quite some distance beyond her original treatment of the characters as avatars. And she even suggests this is perhaps a natural progression in a serious reader’s relationship to a classic work.

Identification with character is one way in which most ordinary readers do engage with a book, even if it is not where a reader’s engagement ends. It is where part of the pleasure, and the urgency, of reading lies. It is one of the ways that a novel speaks to a reader, and becomes integrated into the reader’s own imaginative life. Even the most sophisticated readers read novels in the light of their own experience, and in such recognition, sympathy may begin. (172-3)

What, then, do those sophisticated readers graduate into once they’ve moved beyond naïve readings? The second mode of reading, the one that academics prefer, involves the holding up of those ideological lenses. Mead describes her experience of the bait-and-switch perpetrated against innumerable young literature aficionados throughout their university educations:

I was studying English literature because I loved books, a common enough motivation among students of literature, but I soon discovered that love didn’t have much purchase when it came to our studies. It was the mideighties, the era of critical theory—an approach to literature that had been developed at Yale, among other distant and exotic locales. I’d never heard of critical theory before I got to Oxford, but I soon discovered it was what the most sophisticated-seeming undergraduates were engaged by. Scholars applied the tools of psychoanalysis or feminism to reveal the ways in which the author was blind to his or her own desire or prejudice, or they used the discipline of deconstruction to dispense with the author altogether. (Thus, J. Hillis Miller on George Eliot: “This incoherent, heterogeneous, ‘unreadable,’ or nonsythesizable quality of the text of Middlemarch jeopardizes the narrator’s effort of totalization.”) Books—or texts, as they were called by those versed in theory—weren’t supposed merely to be read, but to be interrogated, as if they had committed some criminal malfeasance. (145)

What identifying with the characters has to recommend it is that it makes of the plot a series of real-time experiences. The critical approaches used by academics take for granted that participating in the story like this puts you at risk of contracting the author’s neuroses or acquiring her prejudices. To critical theorists, fiction is a trick to make us all as repressed and as given to oppressing women and minorities as both the author and the culture to which she belongs. By applying their prophylactic theories, then, academic critics flatter themselves by implying that they are engaging in a type of political activism.

In her descriptions of what this second mode of reading tends to look like up close, Mead hints at a third mode that she never fully considers. The second mode works on the assumption that all fiction is allegory, representing either some unconscious psychological drama or some type of coded propaganda.  But, as Mead recounts, the process of decoding texts, which in the particular case she witnesses consists of an “application of Marxist theory to literature,” has many of the hallmarks of a sacred ritual:

I don’t recall which author was the object of that particular inquisition, but I do remember the way the room was crowded with the don’s acolytes. Monkish-looking young men with close-shaven heads wearing black turtlenecks huddled with their notebooks around the master, while others lounged on the rug at his feet. It felt very exclusive—and, with its clotted jargon, willfully difficult. (145)

The religious approach to reading favored by academics is decidedly Old Testament; it sees literature and the world as full of sin and evil, and makes of reading a kind of expiation or ritual purging. A more New Testament approach would entail reading a fictional story as a parable while taking the author as a sort of messianic figure—a guide and a savior. Here’s Mead describing a revelation she reached when she learned about Eliot’s relationship with her stepsons. It came to her after a period of lamenting how Middlemarch had nothing to say about her own similarly challenging family situation:

A book may not tell us exactly how to live our own lives, but our own lives can teach us how to read a book. Now when I read the novel in the light of Eliot’s life, and in the light of my own, I see her experience of unexpected family woven deep into the fabric of the novel—not as part of the book’s obvious pattern, but as part of its tensile strength. Middlemarch seems charged with the question of being a stepmother: of how one might do well by one’s stepchildren, or unwittingly fail them, and of all that might be gained from opening one’s heart wider. (110)

The obvious drawback to this approach—tensile strength?—is that it makes of the novel something of a Rorschach, an ambiguous message we read into whatever meaning we most desire at a given moment. But, as Mead points out, this is to some degree inevitable. She writes that

…all readers make books over in their own image, and according to their own experience. My Middlemarch is not the same as anyone else’s Middlemarch; it is not even the same as my Middlemarch of twenty-five years ago. Sometimes, we find that a book we love has moved another person in the same ways as it has moved ourselves, and one definition of compatibility might be when two people have highlighted the same passages in their editions of a favorite novel. But we each have our own internal version of the book, with lines remembered and resonances felt. (172)

How many other readers, we may wonder, see in Middlemarch an allegory of stepparenthood? And we may also wonder how far this rather obvious point should be taken? If each reader’s experience of a novel is completely different from every other readers’, then we’re stuck once more with solipsism. But if this were true we wouldn’t be able to talk about a novel to other people in the first place, let alone discover whether it’s moved others in the same way as us.   
Lydgate in the excellent BBC miniseries

           Mead doesn’t advocate any of the modes of reading she explores, and she seems to have taken on each of them at the point in her life she did without any conscious deliberation. But it’s the religious reading of Middlemarch, the one that treats the story as an extended parable, that she has ultimately alighted on—at least as of the time when she was writing My Life in Middlemarch. This is largely owing to how easily the novel lends itself to this type of reading. From the early chapters in which we’re invited to step into the shoes of these ardent, bookish, big-spirited characters to the pages detailing their inevitable frustrations and disappointments, Eliot really does usher her readers—who must be readerly and ambitious even to take up such a book—toward a more mature mindset. Some of the most moving scenes feature exchanges between Dorothea and Dr. Lydgate, and in their subtle but unmistakable sympathy toward one another they seem to be reaching out to us with the same sympathy. Here is Dorothea commiserating with Lydgate in the wake of a scandal which has tarnished his name and thwarted his efforts at reform:

And that all this should have come to you who had meant to lead a higher life than the common, and to find out better ways—I cannot bear to rest in this as unchangeable. I know you meant that. I remember what you said to me when you first spoke to me about the hospital. There is no sorrow I have thought more about than that—to love what is great, and try to reach it, and yet to fail. (727)

Dorothea helps Lydgate escape Middlemarch and establish himself in London, where he becomes a successful physician but never pushes through any reforms to the profession. And this is one of Dorothea’s many small accomplishments. The lesson of the parable is clear in the famous final lines of the novel:

Her finely-touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is partly owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs. (799)

Entire generations of writers, scholars, and book-lovers have taken this message to heart and found solace in its wisdom. But its impact depends not so much on the reader’s readiness to sympathize with the characters as on their eagerness to identify with them. In other words, Eliot is helping her readers to sympathize with themselves, not “to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling erring human creatures.”

            For all the maturity of its message, Middlemarch invites a rather naïve reading. But what’s wrong with reading this way? And how else might we read if we want to focus more on learning to sympathize with those who differ from us? My Life in Middlemarch chronicles the journeys Mead takes to several places of biographical significance hoping to make some connection or attain some greater understanding of Eliot and her writing. Mead also visits libraries in England and the US so she can get her hands on some of the sacred texts still bearing ink scribbled onto paper by the author’s own hand. In an early chapter of Middlemarch, Eliot shows readers Casaubon’s letter proposing marriage to Dorothea, and it’s simultaneously comic and painful for being both pedantic and devoid of feeling. As I read the letter, I had the discomfiting thought that it was only a slight exaggeration of Eliot’s usual prose. Mead likewise characterizes one of Eliot’s contemporary fans, Alexander Main, in a way uncomfortably close the way she comes across herself. Though she writes at one point, “I recognize in his enthusiasm for her works enough of my own admiration for her to feel an awkward fellowship with him,” she doesn’t seem to appreciate the extent to which Main’s relationship to Eliot and her work resembles her own. But she also hints at something else in her descriptions of Main, something that may nod to an alternative mode of reading beyond the ones she’s already explored. She writes,

In his excessive, grandiose, desperately lonely letters, Main does something that most of us who love books do, to some extent or another. He talks about the characters as if they were real people—as vivid, or more so, than people in his own life. He makes demands and asks questions of an author that for most of us remain imaginary but which he transformed, by force of will and need, into an intense epistolary relationship. He turned his worship and admiration of George Eliot into a one-sided love affair of sorts, by which he seems to have felt sustained even as he felt still hungrier for engagement. (241-2)

Main, and to some extent Mead as well, make of Eliot a godly figure fit for worship, and who but God could bring characters into life—into our lives—who are as real and vivid as other actual living breathing human beings we love or hate or like or tolerate?

As Mead’s reading into Middlemarch an allegory of stepmotherhood illustrates, worshipping authors and treating their works as parables comes with the risk of overburdening what’s actually on the page with whatever meanings the faithful yearn to find there, allowing existential need to override honest appreciation. But the other modes are just as problematic. Naïve identification with the heroine, as Mead points out, limits the scope of our sympathy and makes it hard to get into a novel whose characters are strange or otherwise contrary to our individual tastes. It also makes a liability of characters with great weaknesses or flaws or any other traits that would make being in their shoes distasteful or unpleasant. Treating a story as an allegory on the other hand can potentially lead to an infinite assortment of interpretations, all of questionable validity. This mode of reading also implies that writers of fiction have the same goals to argue or persuade as writers of tracts and treatises. The further implication is that all the elements of storytelling are really little more that planks making up the Trojan horse conveying the true message of the story—and if this were the case why would anyone read fictional stories in the first place? It’s quite possible that this ideological approach to teaching literature has played some role in the declining number of people who read fiction.

What’s really amazing about the people who love any book is that, like Alexander Main, they all tend to love certain characters and despise certain others as if they were real people. There may be a certain level of simple identification with the protagonist, but we also tend to identify with real people who are similar to us—that’s the basis of many friendships and relationships. It’s hard to separate identification from fellow-feeling and sympathy even in what seem to be the most wish-fulfilling stories. Does anybody really want to be Jane Eyre or Elizabeth Bennet? Does anyone really want to be James Bond or Katniss Everdeen? Or do we just admire and try to emulate some of their qualities? Characters in fiction are designed to be more vivid than people in real life because, not even being real, they have to be extraordinary in some way to get anyone to pay attention to them. Their contours are more clearly delineated, their traits exaggerated, and their passions intensified. This doesn’t mean, however, that we’re falling for some kind of trick when we forget for a moment that they’re not like anyone we’ll ever meet.

Characters, to be worthy of attention, have to be caricatures—like real people but with a few identifying characteristics blown all out of realistic proportion. Dorothea is a caricature. Casaubon is for sure a caricature. But we understand them using the same emotional and cognitive processes we use to understand real people. And it is in exercising these very perspective-taking and empathizing abilities that our best hope for expanding our sympathies lies. What’s the best way to read a work of literature? First, realize that the author is not a god. In fact, forget the author as best you can. Eliot makes it difficult for us to overlook her presence in any scene, and for that reason it may be time to buck the convention and admit that Middlemarch, as brilliantly conceived as it was, as pioneering and revolutionary as it was, is not by any means the greatest novel ever written. What’s more important to concentrate on than the author is the narrator, who may either be herself an important character in the story, or who may stand as far out of the picture as she can so as not to occlude our view. What’s most important though is to listen to the story the narrator tells, to imagine it’s really happening, right before our eyes, right in the instant we experience it. And, at least for that moment, forget what anyone else has to say about what we're witnessing.




The Feminist Sociobiologist: An Appreciation of Sarah Blaffer Hrdy Disguised as a Review of “Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding”

           One way to think of the job of anthropologists studying human evolution is to divide it into two basic components: the first is to arrive at a comprehensive and precise catalogue of the features and behaviors that make humans different from the species most closely related to us, and the second is to arrange all these differences in order of their emergence in our ancestral line. Knowing what came first is essential—though not sufficient—to the task of distinguishing between causes and effects. For instance, humans have brains that are significantly larger than those of any other primate, and we use these brains to fashion tools that are far more elaborate than the stones, sticks, leaves, and sponges used by other apes. Humans are also the only living ape that routinely walks upright on two legs. Since most of us probably give pride of place in the hierarchy of our species’ idiosyncrasies to our intelligence, we can sympathize with early Darwinian thinkers who felt sure brain expansion must have been what started our ancestors down their unique trajectory, making possible the development of increasingly complex tools, which in turn made having our hands liberated from locomotion duty ever more advantageous.
This hypothetical sequence, however, was dashed rather dramatically with the discovery in 1974 of Lucy, the 3.2 million-year-old skeleton of an Australopithecus Afarensis, in Ethiopia. Lucy resembles a chimpanzee in most respects, including cranial capacity, except that her bones have all the hallmarks of a creature with a bipedal gait. Anthropologists like to joke that Lucy proved butts were more important to our evolution than brains. But, though intelligence wasn’t the first of our distinctive traits to evolve, most scientists still believe it was the deciding factor behind our current dominance. At least for now, humans go into the jungle and build zoos and research facilities to study apes, not the other way around. Other apes certainly can’t compete with humans in terms of sheer numbers. Still, intelligence is a catch-all term. We must ask what exactly it is that our bigger brains can do better than those of our phylogenetic cousins.
Lucy
A couple decades ago, that key capacity was thought to be language, which makes symbolic thought possible. Or is it symbolic thought that makes language possible? Either way, though a handful of ape prodigies have amassed some high vocabulary scores in labs where they’ve been taught to use pictographs or sign language, human three-year-olds accomplish similar feats as a routine part of their development. As primatologist and sociobiologist (one of the few who unabashedly uses that term for her field) Sarah Blaffer Hrdy explains in her 2009 book Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding, human language relies on abilities and interests aside from a mere reporting on the state of the outside world, beyond simply matching objects or actions with symbolic labels. Honeybees signal the location of food with their dances, vervet monkeys have distinct signals for attacks by flying versus ground-approaching predators, and the list goes on. Where humans excel when it comes to language is not just in the realm of versatility, but also in our desire to bond through these communicative efforts. Hrdy writes,
The open-ended qualities of language go beyond signaling. The impetus for language has to do with wanting to “tell” someone else what is on our minds and learn what is on theirs. The desire to psychologically connect with others had to evolve before language. (38)
The question Hrdy attempts to answer in Mothers and Others—the difference between humans and other apes she wants to place within a theoretical sequence of evolutionary developments—is how we evolved to be so docile, tolerant, and nice as to be able to cram ourselves by the dozens into tight spaces like airplanes without conflict. “I cannot help wondering,” she recalls having thought in a plane preparing for flight,
what would happen if my fellow human passengers suddenly morphed into another species of ape. What if I were traveling with a planeload of chimpanzees? Any of us would be lucky to disembark with all ten fingers and toes still attached, with the baby still breathing and unmaimed. Bloody earlobes and other appendages would litter the aisles. Compressing so many highly impulsive strangers into a tight space would be a recipe for mayhem. (3)
Over the past decade, the human capacity for cooperation, and even for altruism, has been at the center of evolutionary theorizing. Some clever experiments in the field of economic game theory have revealed several scenarios in which humans can be counted on to act against their own interest. What survival and reproductive advantages could possibly accrue to creatures given to acting for the benefit of others?
Sarah Blaffer Hrdy as allomother
When it comes to economic exchanges, of course, human thinking isn’t tied to the here-and-now the way the thinking of other animals tends to be. To explain why humans might, say, forgo a small payment in exchange for the opportunity to punish a trading partner for withholding a larger, fairer payment, many behavioral scientists point out that humans seldom think in terms of one-off deals. Any human living in a society of other humans needs to protect his or her reputation for not being someone who abides cheating. Experimental settings are well and good, but throughout human evolutionary history individuals could never have been sure they wouldn’t encounter exchange partners a second or third time in the future. It so happens that one of the dominant theories to explain ape intelligence relies on the need for individuals within somewhat stable societies to track who owes whom favors, who is subordinate to whom, and who can successfully deceive whom. This “Machiavellian intelligence” hypothesis explains the cleverness of humans and other apes as the outcome of countless generations vying for status and reproductive opportunities in intensely competitive social groups.
One of the difficulties in trying to account for the evolution of intelligence is that its advantages seem like such a no-brainer. Isn’t it always better to be smarter? But, as Hrdy points out, the Machiavellian intelligence hypothesis runs into a serious problem. Social competition may have been an important factor in making primates brainer than other mammals, but it can’t explain why humans are brainer than other apes. She writes,
We still have to explain why humans are so much better than chimpanzees at conceptualizing what others are thinking, why we are born innately eager to interpret their motives, feelings, and intentions as well as care about their affective states and moods—in short, why humans are so well equipped for mutual understanding. Chimpanzees, after all, are at least as socially competitive as humans are. (46)
Meltzoff's famous experiment
To bolster this point, Hrdy cites research showing that infant chimps have some dazzling social abilities once thought to belong solely to humans. In 1977, developmental psychologist Andrew Meltzoff published his finding that newborn humans mirror the facial expressions of adults they engage with. It was thought that this tendency in humans relied on some neurological structures unique to our lineage which provided the raw material for the evolution of our incomparable social intelligence. But then in 1996 primatologist Masako Myowa replicated Meltzoff’s findings with infant chimps. This and other research suggests that other apes have probably had much the same raw material for natural selection to act on. Yet, whereas the imitative and empathic skills flourish in maturing humans, they seem to atrophy in apes. Hrdy explains,
Myowa's replication with a chimp
Even though other primates are turning out to be far better at reading intentions than primatologists initially realized, early flickerings of empathic interest—what might even be termed tentative quests for intersubjective engagement—fade away instead of developing and intensifying as they do in human children. (58)
So the question of what happened in human evolution to make us so different remains.
*****
            Sarah Blaffer Hrdy exemplifies a rare, possibly unique, blend of scientific rigor and humanistic sensitivity—the vision of a great scientist and the fine observation of a novelist (or the vision of a great novelist and fine observation of a scientist). Reading her 1999 book, Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection, was a watershed experience for me. In going beyond the realm of the literate into that of the literary while hewing closely to strict epistemic principle, she may surpass the accomplishments of even such great figures as Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould. In fact, since Mother Nature was one of the books through which I was introduced to sociobiology—more commonly known today as evolutionary psychology—I was a bit baffled at first by much of the criticism leveled against the field by Gould and others who claimed it was founded on overly simplistic premises and often produced theories that were politically reactionary.
            The theme to which Hrdy continually returns is the too-frequently overlooked role of women and their struggles in those hypothetical evolutionary sequences anthropologists string together. For inspiration in her battle against facile biological theories whose sole purpose is to provide a cheap rationale for the political status quo, she turned, not to a scientist, but a novelist. The man single-most responsible for the misapplication of Darwin’s theory of natural selection to the justification of human societal hierarchies was the philosopher Herbert Spencer, in whose eyes women were no more than what Hrdy characterizes as “Breeding Machines.” Spencer and his fellow evolutionists in the Victorian age, she explains in Mother Nature,

Herbert Spencer, coiner of the phrase "Survival of the fittest"
took for granted that being female forestalled women from evolving “the power of abstract reasoning and that most abstract of emotions, the sentiment of justice.” Predestined to be mothers, women were born to be passive and noncompetitive, intuitive rather than logical. Misinterpretations of the evidence regarding women’s intelligence were cleared up early in the twentieth century. More basic difficulties having to do with this overly narrow definition of female nature were incorporated into Darwinism proper and linger to the present day. (17)
Many women over the generations have been unable to envision a remedy for this bias in biology. Hrdy describes the reaction of a literary giant whose lead many have followed.
For Virginia Woolf, the biases were unforgivable. She rejected science outright. “Science, it would seem, in not sexless; she is a man, a father, and infected too,” Woolf warned back in 1938. Her diagnosis was accepted and passed on from woman to woman. It is still taught today in university courses. Such charges reinforce the alienation many women, especially feminists, feel toward evolutionary theory and fields like sociobiology. (xvii)
            But another literary luminary much closer to the advent of evolutionary thinking had a more constructive, and combative, response to short-sighted male biologists. And it is to her that Hrdy looks for inspiration. “I fall in Eliot’s camp,” she writes, “aware of the many sources of bias, but nevertheless impressed by the strength of science as a way of knowing” (xviii). She explains that George Eliot,
whose real name was Mary Ann Evans, recognized that her own experiences, frustrations, and desires did not fit within the narrow stereotypes scientists then prescribed for her sex. “I need not crush myself… within a mould of theory called Nature!” she wrote. Eliot’s primary interest was always human nature as it could be revealed through rational study. Thus she was already reading an advance copy of On the Origin of Species on November 24, 1859, the day Darwin’s book was published. For her, “Science has no sex… the mere knowing and reasoning faculties, if they act correctly, must go through the same process and arrive at the same result.” (xvii)
George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans)
Eliot’s distaste for Spencer’s idea that women’s bodies were designed to divert resources away from the brain to the womb was as personal as it was intellectual. She had in fact met and quickly fallen in love with Spencer in 1851. She went on to send him a proposal which he rejected on eugenic grounds: “…as far as posterity is concerned,” Hrdy quotes, “a cultivated intelligence based upon a bad physique is of little worth, seeing that its descendants will die out in a generation or two.” Eliot’s retort came in the form of a literary caricature—though Spencer already seems a bit like his own caricature. Hrdy writes,
In her first major novel, Adam Bede (read by Darwin as he relaxed after the exertions of preparing Origin for publication), Eliot put Spencer’s views concerning the diversion of somatic energy into reproduction in the mouth of a pedantic and blatantly misogynist old schoolmaster, Mr. Bartle: “That’s the way with these women—they’ve got no head-pieces to nourish, and so their food all runs either to fat or brats.” (17)
            A mother of three and an Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Davis, Hrdy is eloquent on the need for intelligence—and lots of familial and societal support—if one is to balance duties and ambitions like her own. Her first contribution to ethology came when she realized that the infanticide among hanuman langurs, which she’d gone to Mount Abu in Rajasthan, India to study at age 26 for her doctoral thesis, had nothing to do with overpopulation, as many suspected. Instead, the pattern she observed was that whenever an outside male deposed a group’s main breeder he immediately began exterminating all of the prior male’s offspring to induce the females to ovulate and give birth again—this time to the new male’s offspring. This was the selfish gene theory in action. But the females Hrdy was studying had an interesting response to this strategy.
In the early 1970s, it was still widely assumed by Darwinians that females were sexually passive and “coy.” Female langurs were anything but. When bands of roving males approached the troop, females would solicit them or actually leave their troop to go in search of them. On occasion, a female mated with invaders even though she was already pregnant and not ovulating (something else nonhuman primates were not supposed to do). Hence, I speculated that mothers were mating with outside males who might take over her troop one day. By casting wide the web of possible paternity, mothers could increase the prospects of future survival of offspring, since males almost never attack infants carried by females that, in the biblical sense of the word, they have “known.” Males use past relations with the mother as a cue to attack or tolerate her infant. (35)
Hrdy would go on to discover this was just one of myriad strategies primate females use to get their genes into future generations. The days of seeing females as passive vehicles while the males duke it out for evolutionary supremacy were now numbered.
            I’ll never forget the Young-Goodman-Brown experience of reading the twelfth chapter of Mother Nature, titled “Unnatural Mothers,” and covering an impressive variety of evidence sources that simply devastates any notion of women as nurturing automatons, evolved for the sole purpose of serving as loving mothers. The verdict researchers arrive at whenever they take an honest look into the practices of women with newborns is that care is contingent. To give just one example, Hrdy cites the history of one of the earliest foundling homes in the world, the “Hospital of the Innocents” in Florence.
Founded in 1419, with assistance from the silk guilds, the Ospedale delgi Innocenti was completed in 1445. Ninety foundlings were left there the first year. By 1539 (a famine year), 961 babies were left. Eventually five thousand infants a year poured in from all corners of Tuscany. (299)
What this means is that a troubling number of new mothers were realizing they couldn't care for their infants. Unfortunately, newborns without direct parental care seldom fare well. “Of 15,000 babies left at the Innocenti between 1755 and 1773,” Hrdy reports, “two thirds died before reaching their first birthday” (299). And there were fifteen other foundling homes in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany at the time.
            The chapter amounts to a worldwide tour of infant abandonment, exposure, or killing. (I remember having a nightmare after reading it about being off-balance and unable to set a foot down without stepping on a dead baby.) Researchers studying sudden infant death syndrome in London set up hidden cameras to monitor mothers interacting with babies but ended up videotaping them trying to smother them. Cases like this have made it necessary for psychiatrists to warn doctors studying the phenomenon “that some undeterminable portion of SIDS cases might be infanticides” (292). Why do so many mothers abandon or kill their babies? Turning to the ethnographic data, Hrdy explains,
Unusually detailed information was available for some dozen societies. At a gross level, the answer was obvious. Mothers kill their own infants where other forms of birth control are unavailable. Mothers were unwilling to commit themselves and had no way to delegate care of the unwanted infant to others—kin, strangers, or institutions. History and ecological constraints interact in complex ways to produce different solutions to unwanted births. (296)
Many scholars see the contingent nature of maternal care as evidence that motherhood is nothing but a social construct. Consistent with the blank-slate view of human nature, this theory holds that every aspect of child-rearing, whether pertaining to the roles of mothers or fathers, is determined solely by culture and therefore must be learned. Others, who simply can’t let go of the idea of women as virtuous vessels, suggest that these women, as numerous as they are, must all be deranged.
Daly and Wilson
            Hrdy demolishes both the purely social constructivist view and the suggestion of pathology. And her account of the factors that lead women to infanticide goes to the heart of her arguments about the centrality of female intelligence in the history of human evolution. Citing the pioneering work of evolutionary psychologists Martin Daly and MargoWilson, Hrdy writes,
How a mother, particularly a very young mother, treats one infant turns out to be a poor predictor of how she might treat another one born when she is older, or faced with improved circumstances. Even with culture held constant, observing modern Western women all inculcated with more or less the same post-Enlightenment values, maternal age turned out to be a better predictor of how effective a mother would be than specific personality traits or attitudes. Older women describe motherhood as more meaningful, are more likely to sacrifice themselves on behalf of a needy child, and mourn lost pregnancies more than do younger women. (314)
The takeaway is that a woman, to reproduce successfully, must assess her circumstances, including the level of support she can count on from kin, dads, and society. If she lacks the resources or the support necessary to raise the child, she may have to make a hard decision. But making that decision in the present unfavorable circumstances in no way precludes her from making the most of future opportunities to give birth to other children and raise them to reproductive age.
            Hrdy goes on to describe an experimental intervention that took place in a hospital located across the street from a foundling home in 17th century France. The Hospice des Enfants Assistes cared for indigent women and assisted them during childbirth. It was the only place where poor women could legally abandon their babies. What the French reformers did was tell a subset of the new mothers that they had to stay with their newborns for eight days after birth.
Under this “experimental” regimen, the proportion of destitute mothers who subsequently abandoned their babies dropped from 24 to 10 percent. Neither cultural concepts about babies nor their economic circumstances had changed. What changed was the degree to which they had become attached to their breast-feeding infants. It was as though their decision to abandon their babies and their attachment to their babies operated as two different systems. (315)

Following the originator of attachment theory, John Bowlby, who set out to integrate psychiatry and developmental psychology into an evolutionary framework, Hrdy points out that the emotions underlying the bond between mothers and infants (and fathers and infants too) are as universal as they are consequential. Indeed, the mothers who are forced to abandon their infants have to be savvy enough to realize they have to do so before these emotions are engaged or they will be unable to go through with the deed.


Part one of the attachment series
            Female strategy plays a crucial role in reproductive outcomes in several domains beyond the choice of whether or not to care for infants. Women must form bonds with other women for support, procure the protection of men (usually from other men), and lay the groundwork for their children’s own future reproductive success. And that’s just what women have to do before choosing a mate—a task that involves striking a balance between good genes and a high level of devotion—getting pregnant, and bringing the baby to term. The demographic transition that occurs when an agrarian society becomes increasingly industrialized is characterized at first by huge population increases as infant mortality drops but then levels off as women gain more control over their life trajectories. Here again, the choices women tend to make are at odds with Victorian (and modern evangelical) conceptions of their natural proclivities. Hrdy writes,
Since, formerly, status and well-being tended to be correlated with reproductive success, it is not surprising that mothers, especially those in higher social ranks, put the basics first. When confronted with a choice between striving for status and striving for children, mothers gave priority to status and “cultural success” ahead of a desire for many children. (366)
And then of course come all the important tasks and decisions associated with actually raising any children the women eventually do give birth to. One of the basic skill sets women have to master to be successful mothers is making and maintaining friendships; they must be socially savvy because more than with any other ape the support of helpers, what Hrdy calls allomothers, will determine the fate of their offspring.
*****
            Mother Nature is a massive work—541pages before the endnotes—exploring motherhood through the lens of sociobiology and attachment theory. Mothers and Others is leaner, coming in at just under 300 pages, because its focus is narrower. Hrdy feels that in attempting to account for humans’ prosocial impulses over the past decade, the role of women and motherhood has once again been scanted. She points to the prevalence of theories focusing on competition between groups, with the edge going to those made up of the most cooperative and cohesive members. Such theories once again give the leading role to males and their conflicts, leaving half the species out of the story—unless that other half’s only role is to tend to the children and forage for food while the “band of brothers” is out heroically securing borders.
            Hrdy doesn’t weigh in directly on the growing controversy over whether group selection has operated as a significant force in human evolution. The problem she sees with intertribal warfare as an explanation for human generosity and empathy is that the timing isn’t right. What Hrdy is after are the selection pressures that led to the evolution of what she calls “emotionally modern humans,” the “people preadapted to get along with one another even when crowded together on an airplane” (66). And she argues that humans must have been emotionally modern before they could have further evolved to be cognitively modern. “Brains require care more than caring requires brains” (176). Her point is that bonds of mutual interest and concern came before language and the capacity for runaway inventiveness. Humans, Hrdy maintains, would have had to begin forming these bonds long before the effects of warfare were felt.
Apart from periodic increases in unusually rich locales, most Pleistocene humans lived at low population densities. The emergence of human mind reading and gift-giving almost certainly preceded the geographic spread of a species whose numbers did not begin to really expand until the past 70,000 years. With increasing population density (made possible, I would argue, because they were already good at cooperating), growing pressure on resources, and social stratification, there is little doubt that groups with greater internal cohesion would prevail over less cooperative groups. But what was the initial payoff? How could hypersocial apes evolve in the first place? (29)
In other words, what was it that took inborn capacities like mirroring an adult’s facial expressions, present in both human and chimp infants, and through generations of natural selection developed them into the intersubjective tendencies displayed by humans today?
            Like so many other anthropologists before her, Hrdy begins her attempt to answer this question by pointing to a trait present in humans but absent in our fellow apes. “Under natural conditions,” she writes, “an orangutan, chimpanzee, or gorilla baby nurses for four to seven years and at the outset is inseparable from his mother, remaining in intimate front-to-front contact 100 percent of the day and night” (68). But humans allow others to participate in the care of their babies almost immediately after giving birth to them. Who besides Sarah Blaffer Hrdy would have noticed this difference, or given it more than a passing thought? (Actually, there are quite a few candidates among anthropologists—Kristen Hawkes for instance.) Ape mothers remain in constant contact with their infants, whereas human mothers often hand over their babies to other women to hold as soon as they emerge from the womb. The difference goes far beyond physical contact. Humans are what Hrdy calls “cooperative breeders,” meaning a child will in effect have several parents aside from the primary one. Help from alloparents opens the way for an increasingly lengthy development, which is important because the more complex the trait—and human social intelligence is about as complex as they come—the longer it takes to develop in maturing individuals. Hrdy writes,
Marmoset
One widely accepted tenet of life history theory is that, across species, those with bigger babies relative to the mother’s body size will also tend to exhibit longer intervals between births because the more babies cost the mother to produce, the longer she will need to recoup before reproducing again. Yet humans—like marmosets—provide a paradoxical exception to this rule. Humans, who of all the apes produce the largest, slowest-maturing, and most costly babies, also breed the fastest. (101)
Those marmosets turn out to be central to Hrdy’s argument because, along with their cousins in the family Callitrichidae, the tamarins, they make up almost the totality of the primate species whom she classifies as “full-fledged cooperative breeders” (92). This and other similarities between humans and marmosets and tamarins have long been overlooked because anthropologists have understandably been focused on the great apes, as well as other common research subjects like baboons and macaques.
Golden Lion Tamarins, by Sarah Landry
            Callitrichidae, it so happens, engage in some uncannily human-like behaviors. Plenty of primate babies wail and shriek when they’re in distress, but infants who are frequently not in direct contact with their mothers would have to find a way to engage with them, as well as other potential caregivers, even when they aren’t in any trouble. “The repetitive, rhythmical vocalizations known as babbling,” Hrdy points out, “provided a particularly elaborate way to accomplish this” (122). But humans aren’t the only primates that babble “if by babble we mean repetitive strings of adultlike vocalizations uttered without vocal referents”; marmosets and tamarins do it too. Some of the other human-like patterns aren’t as cute though. Hrdy writes,
Shared care and provisioning clearly enhances maternal reproductive success, but there is also a dark side to such dependence. Not only are dominant females (especially pregnant ones) highly infanticidal, eliminating babies produced by competing breeders, but tamarin mothers short on help may abandon their own young, bailing out at birth by failing to pick up neonates when they fall to the ground or forcing clinging newborns off their bodies, sometimes even chewing on their hands or feet. (99)
It seems that the more cooperative infant care tends to be for a given species the more conditional it is—the more likely it will be refused when the necessary support of others can’t be counted on.
Kristen Hawkes
            Hrdy’s cooperative breeding hypothesis is an outgrowth of George Williams and Kristen Hawkes’s so-called “Grandmother Hypothesis.” For Hawkes, the important difference between humans and apes is that human females go on living for decades after menopause, whereas very few female apes—or any other mammals for that matter—live past their reproductive years. Hawkes hypothesized that the help of grandmothers made it possible for ever longer periods of dependent development for children, which in turn made it possible for the incomparable social intelligence of humans to evolve. Until recently, though, this theory had been unconvincing to anthropologists because a renowned compendium of data compiled by George Peter Murdock in his Ethnographic Atlas revealed that there was a strong trend toward patrilocal residence patterns in all the societies that had been studied. Since grandmothers are thought to be much more likely to help care for their daughters’ children than their sons’—owing to paternity uncertainty—the fact that most humans raise their children far from maternal grandmothers made any evolutionary role for them unlikely.
But then in 2004 anthropologist Helen Alvarez reexamined Murdock’s analysis of residence patterns and concluded that pronouncements about widespread patrilocality were based on a great deal of guesswork. After eliminating societies for which too little evidence existed to determine the nature of their residence practices, Alvarez calculated that the majority of the remaining societies were bilocal, which means couples move back and forth between the mother’s and the father’s groups. Citing “The Alvarez Corrective” and other evidence, Hrdy concludes,
Instead of some highly conserved tendency, the cross-cultural prevalence of patrilocal residence patterns looks less like an evolved human universal than a more recent adaptation to post-Pleistocene conditions, as hunters moved into northern climes where women could no longer gather wild plants year-round or as groups settled into circumscribed areas. (246)
But Hrdy extends the cast of alloparents to include a mother’s preadult daughters, as well as fathers and their extended families, although the male contribution is highly variable across cultures (and variable too of course among individual men).
            With the observation that human infants rely on multiple caregivers throughout development, Hrdy suggests the mystery of why selection favored the retention and elaboration of mind reading skills in humans but not in other apes can be solved by considering the life-and-death stakes for human babies trying to understand the intentions of mothers and others. She writes,
Babies passed around in this way would need to exercise a different skill set in order to monitor their mothers’ whereabouts. As part of the normal activity of maintaining contact both with their mothers and with sympathetic alloparents, they would find themselves looking for faces, staring at them, and trying to read what they reveal. (121)
Mothers, of course, would also have to be able to read the intentions of others whom they might consider handing their babies over to. So the selection pressure occurs on both sides of the generational divide. And now that she’s proposed her candidate for the single most pivotal transition in human evolution Hrdy’s next task is to place it in a sequence of other important evolutionary developments.
Without a doubt, highly complex coevolutionary processes were involved in the evolution of extended lifespans, prolonged childhoods, and bigger brains. What I want to stress here, however, is that cooperative breeding was the pre-existing condition that permitted the evolution of these traits in the hominin line. Creatures may not need big brains to evolve cooperative breeding, but hominins needed shared care and provisioning to evolve big brains. Cooperative breeding had to come first. (277)
*****

Flipping through Mother Nature, a book I first read over ten years ago, I can feel some of the excitement I must have experienced as a young student of behavioral science, having graduated from the pseudoscience of Freud and Jung to the more disciplined—and in its way far more compelling—efforts of John Bowlby, on a path, I was sure, to becoming a novelist, and now setting off into this newly emerging field with the help of a great scientist who saw the value of incorporating literature and art into her arguments, not merely as incidental illustrations retrofitted to recently proposed principles, but as sources of data in their own right, and even as inspiration potentially lighting the way to future discovery. To perceive, to comprehend, we must first imagine. And stretching the mind to dimensions never before imagined is what art is all about.
Yet there is an inescapable drawback to massive books like Mother Nature—for writers and readers alikewhich is that any effort to grasp and convey such a massive array of findings and theories comes with the risk of casual distortion since the minutiae mastered by the experts in any subdiscipline will almost inevitably be heeded insufficiently in the attempt to conscript what appear to be basic points in the service of a broader perspective. Even more discouraging is the assurance that any intricate tapestry woven of myriad empirical threads will inevitably be unraveled by ongoing research. Your tapestry is really a snapshot taken from a distance of a field in flux, and no sooner does the shutter close than the beast continues along the path of its stubbornly unpredictable evolution.
Kim Hill
When Mothers and Others was published just four years ago in 2009, for instance, reasoning based on the theory of kin selection led most anthropologists to assume, as Hrdy states, that “forager communities are composed of flexible assemblages of close and more distant blood relations and kin by marriage” (132).  This assumption seems to have been central to the thinking that led to the principal theory she lays out in the book, as she explains that “in foraging contexts the majority of children alloparents provision are likely to be cousins, nephews, and nieces rather than unrelated children” (158). But as theories evolve old assumptions come under new scrutiny, and in an article published in the journal Science in March of 2011 anthropologist Kim Hill and his colleagues report that after analyzing the residence and relationship patterns of 32 modern foraging societies their conclusion is that “most individuals in residential groups are genetically unrelated” (1286). In science, two years can make a big difference. This same study does, however, bolster a different pillar of Hrdy’s argument by demonstrating that men relocate to their wives’ groups as often as women relocate to their husbands’, lending further support to Alvarez’s corrective of Murdock’s data.  
Even if every last piece of evidence she marshals in her case for how pivotal the transition to cooperative breeding was in the evolution of mutual understanding in humans is overturned, Hrdy’s painstaking efforts to develop her theory and lay it out so comprehensively, so compellingly, and so artfully, will not have been wasted. Darwin once wrote that “all observation must be for or against some view to be of any service,” but many scientists, trained as they are to keep their eyes on the data and to avoid the temptation of building grand edifices on foundations of inference and speculation, look askance at colleagues who dare to comment publically on fields outside their specialties, especially in cases like Jared Diamond’s where their efforts end up winning them Pulitzers and guaranteed audiences for their future works.
Mutual gazing in gorillas (de Waal's FB page)
But what use are legions of researchers with specialized knowledge hermetically partitioned by narrowly focused journals and conferences of experts with homogenous interests? Science is contentious by nature, so whenever a book gains notoriety with a nonscientific audience we can count on groaning from the author’s colleagues as they rush to assure us what we’ve read is a misrepresentation of their field. But stand-alone findings, no matter how numerous, no matter how central they are to researchers’ daily concerns, can’t compete with the grand holistic visions of the Diamonds, Hrdys, or Wilsons, imperfect and provisional as they must be, when it comes to inspiring the next generation of scientists. Nor can any number of correlation coefficients or regression analyses spark anything like the same sense of wonder that comes from even a glimmer of understanding about how a new discovery fits within, and possibly transforms, our conception of life and the universe in which it evolved. The trick, I think, is to read and ponder books like the ones Sarah Blaffer Hrdy writes as soon as they’re published—but to be prepared all the while, as soon as you’re finished reading them, to read and ponder the next one, and the one after that.




Art as Altruism: Lily Briscoe and the Ghost of Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse Part 2 of 2

The question remains, though, of why Virginia Woolf felt it necessary to recall scenes from her childhood in order to lay to rest her inner conflict over her chosen way of life—if that is indeed what To the Lighthouse did for her. She did not, in fact, spend her entire life single but married her husband Leonard in 1912 at the age of thirty and stayed with him until her death in 1941. The Woolfs had been married fifteen years by the time Lighthouse was published (Lee 314). But Virginia’s marriage was quite different from her mother Julia’s. For one, as is made abundantly clear in her diaries, Leonard Woolf was much more supportive and much less demanding than her father Leslie Stephens. More important, though, Julia had seven children of her own and cared for one of Leslie’s from a previous marriage (Lee xx), whereas Virginia remained childless all her life. But, even if she felt her lifestyle represented such a cataclysmic break from her mother’s cultural tradition, it is remarkable that the pain of this partition persisted from the time of Julia’s death when Virginia was thirteen, until the writing of Lighthouse when she was forty-four—the same age as Lily in the last section of the novel. Lily returns to the Ramsays’ summer house ten years after the visit described in the first section, Mrs. Ramsay having died rather mysteriously in the interim, and sets to painting the same image she struggled to capture before. “She had never finished that picture. She would paint that picture now. It had been knocking about in her mind all these years” (147). But why should Lily experience such difficulty handling a conflict of views with a woman who has been dead for years?

Wilson sees the universal propensity among humans to carry on relationships with supernatural beings—like the minds and personalities of the dead, but also including disembodied characters like deities—as one of a host of mechanisms, partly cultural, partly biological, devoted to ensuring group cohesion. In his book Darwin’s Cathedral, in which he attempts to explain religion in terms of his group selection theory, he writes

"A group of people who abandon self-will and work tirelessly for a greater good will fare very well as a group, much better than if they all pursue their private utilities, as long as the greater good corresponds to the welfare of the group. And religions almost invariably do link the greater good to the welfare of the community of believers, whether an organized modern church or an ethnic group for whom religion is thoroughly intermixed with the rest of their culture. Since religion is such an ancient feature of our species, I have no problem whatsoever imagining the capacity for selflessness and longing to be part of something larger than ourselves as part of our genetic and cultural heritage." (175)

One of the main tasks religious beliefs must handle is the same “free-rider problem” William Flesch discovers at the heart of narrative. What religion offers beyond the social monitoring of group members is the presence of invisible beings whose concerns are tied in to the collective concerns of the group. Jesse Bering contributes to this perspective by positing a specific cognitive mechanism which paved the way for the evolution of beliefs about invisible agents, and his theory provides a crucial backdrop for any discussion of the role the dead play for the living, in life or in literature. Of course, Mrs. Ramsay is not a deity, and though Lily feels as she paints “a sense of some one there, of Mrs. Ramsay, relieved for a moment of the weight that the world had put on her” (181), which she earlier describes as, “Ghost, air, nothingness, a thing you could play with easily and safely at any time of day or night, she had been that, and then suddenly she put her hand out and wrung the heart thus” (179), she does not believe Mrs. Ramsay is still around in any literal sense. Bering suggests this “nothingness” with the power to wring the heart derives from the same capacity humans depend on to know, roughly, what other humans are thinking. Though there is much disagreement about whether apes understand differences in each other’s knowledge and intentions, it is undeniably the case that humans far outshine any other creature in their capacity to reason about the inner, invisible workings of the minds of their conspecifics. We are so predisposed to this type of reasoning that, according to Bering, we apply it to natural phenomena in which no minds are involved. He writes,

"just like other people’s surface behaviors, natural events can be perceived by us human beings as being about something other than their surface characteristics only because our brains are equipped with the specialized cognitive software, theory of mind, that enables us to think about underlying psychological causes." (79)

As Lily reflects, “this making up scenes about them, is what we call ‘knowing’ people” (173). And we must make up these scenes because, like the bees hovering about the hive she compares herself to in the first section, we have no direct access to the minds of others. Yet if we are to coordinate our actions adaptively—even competitively when other groups are involved—we have no choice but to rely on working assumptions, our theories of others’ knowledge and intentions, updating them when necessary.

The reading of natural evens as signs of some mysterious mind, as well as the continued importance of minds no longer attached to bodies capable of emitting signs, might have arisen as a mere byproduct of humans’ need to understand one another, but at some point in the course our evolution our theories of disembodied minds was co-opted in the service of helping to solve the free-rider problem. In his book The God Instinct, Bering describes a series of experiments known as “The Princess Alice studies,” which have young children perform various tasks after being primed to believe an invisible agent (named Alice in honor of Bering’s mother) is in the room with them. What he and his colleagues found was that Princess Alice’s influence only emerged as the children’s theory of mind developed, suggesting “the ability to be superstitious actually demands some mental sophistication” (96). But once a theory of mind is operating the suggestion of an invisible presence has a curious effect. First in a study of college students casually told about the ghost of a graduate student before taking a math test, and then in a study of children told Princess Alice was watching them as they performed a difficult task involving Velcro darts, participants primed to consider the mind of a supernatural agent were much less likely to take opportunities to cheat which were built into the experimental designs (193-4).

Because evolution took advantage of our concern for our reputations and our ability to reason about the thoughts and feelings of others to ensure cooperation, Lily’s predicament, her argument with the ghost of Mrs. Ramsay over the proper way for a woman to live, could only be resolved through proof that she was not really free-riding or cheating, but was in fact altruistic in her own way. Considering the fate of a couple Mrs. Ramsay had encouraged to marry, Lily imagines, “She would feel a little triumphant, telling Mrs. Ramsay that the marriage had not been a success.” But, she would go on, “They’re happy like that; I’m happy like this. Life has changed completely.” Thus Lily manages to “over-ride her wishes, improve away her limited, old-fashioned ideas” (174-5). Lily’s ultimate redemption, though, can only come through acknowledgement that the life she has chosen is not actually selfish. The difficulty in this task stems from the fact that “one could not imagine Mrs. Ramsay standing painting, lying reading, a whole morning on the lawn” (196). Mrs. Ramsay has no appreciation for art or literature, but for Lily it is art—and for Woolf it is literature—that is both the product of all that time alone and her contribution to society as a whole. Lily is redeemed when she finishes her painting, and that is where the novel ends. At the same time, Virginia Woolf, having completed this great work of literature, bequeathed it to society, to us, and in so doing proved her own altruism, thus laying to rest the ghost of Julia Stephens.

Art as Altruism: Lily Briscoe and the Ghost of Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse Part 1 of 2

Virginia Woolf underwent a transformation in the process of writing To the Lighthouse the nature of which has been the subject of much scholarly inquiry. At the center of the novel is the relationship between the beautiful, self-sacrificing, and yet officious Mrs. Ramsay, and the retiring, introverted artist Lily Briscoe. “I wrote the book very quickly,” Woolf recalls in “Sketch of the Past,” “and when it was written, I ceased to be obsessed by my mother. I no longer hear her voice; I do not see her.” Quoting these lines, biographer Hermione Lee suggests the novel is all about Woolf’s parents, “a way of pacifying their ghosts” (476). But how exactly did writing the novel function to end Woolf’s obsession with her mother? And, for that matter, why would she, at forty-four, still be obsessed with a woman who had died when she was only thirteen? Evolutionary psychologist Jesse Bering suggests that while humans are uniquely capable of imagining the inner workings of each other’s minds, the cognitive mechanisms underlying this capacity, which psychologists call “theory of mind,” simply fail to comprehend the utter extinction of those other minds. However, the lingering presence of the dead is not merely a byproduct of humans’ need to understand and communicate with other living humans. Bering argues that the watchful gaze of disembodied minds—real or imagined—serves a type of police function, ensuring that otherwise selfish and sneaky individuals cooperate and play by the rules of society. From this perspective, Woolf’s struggle with her mother, and its manifestation as Lily’s struggle with Mrs. Ramsay, represents a sort of trial in which the younger living woman defends herself against a charge of selfishness leveled by her deceased elder. And since Woolf’s obsession with her mother ceased upon completion of the novel, she must have been satisfied that she had successfully exonerated herself.

Woolf made no secret of the fact that Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay were fictionalized versions of her own parents, and most critics see Lily as a stand-in for the author—even though she is merely a friend of the Ramsay family. These complex relationships between author and character, and between daughter and parents, lie at the heart of a dynamic which readily lends itself to psychoanalytic explorations. Jane Lilienfeld, for instance, suggests Woolf created Lily as a proxy to help her accept her parents, both long dead by the time she began writing, “as monumental but flawed human beings,” whom she both adored and detested. Having reduced the grand, archetypal Mrs. Ramsay to her proper human dimensions, Lily is free to acknowledge her own “validity as a single woman, as an artist whose power comes not from manipulating others’ lives in order to fulfill herself, but one whose mature vision encapsulates and transcends reality” (372). But for all the elaborate dealings with mythical and mysterious psychic forces, the theories of Freud and Jung explain very little about why writers write and why readers read. And they explain very little about how people relate to the dead, or about what role the dead play in narrative. Freud may have been right about humans’ intense ambivalence toward their parents, but why should this tension persist long after those parents have ceased to exist? And Jung may have been correct in his detection of mythic resonances in his patients’ dreams, but what accounts for such universal narrative patterns? What do they explain?

Looking at narrative from the perspective of modern evolutionary biology offers several important insights into why people devote so much time and energy to, and get so much gratification from immersing themselves in the plights and dealings of fictional characters. Anthropologists believe the primary concern for our species at the time of its origin was the threat of rival tribes vying for control of limited resources. The legacy of this threat is the persistent proclivity for tribal—us versus them—thinking among modern humans. But alongside our penchant for dehumanizing members of out-groups arose a set of mechanisms designed to encourage—and when necessary to enforce—in-group cooperation for the sake of out-competing less cohesive tribes. Evolutionary literary theorist William Flesch sees in narrative a play of these cooperation-enhancing mechanisms. He writes, “our capacity for narrative developed as a way for us to keep track of cooperators” (67), and he goes on to suggest we tend to align ourselves with those we perceive as especially cooperative or altruistic while feeling an intense desire to see those who demonstrate selfishness get their comeuppance. This is because “altruism could not sustain an evolutionarily stable system without the contribution of altruistic punishers to punish the free-riders who would flourish in a population of purely benevolent altruists” (66). Flesch cites the findings of numerous experiments which demonstrate people’s willingness to punish those they see as exploiting unspoken social compacts and implicit rules of fair dealing, even when meting out that punishment involves costs or risks to the punisher (31-34). Child psychologist Karen Wynn has found that even infants too young to speak prefer to play with puppets or blocks with crude plastic eyes that have in some way demonstrated their altruism over the ones they have seen behaving selfishly or aggressively (557-560). Such experiments lead Flesch to posit a social monitoring and volunteered affect theory of narrative interest, whereby humans track the behavior of others, even fictional others, in order to assess their propensity for altruism or selfishness and are anxious to see that the altruistic are vindicated while the selfish are punished. In responding thus to other people’s behavior, whether they are fictional or real, the individual signals his or her own propensity for second- or third-order altruism.

The plot of To the Lighthouse is unlike anything else in literature, and yet a great deal of information is provided regarding the relative cooperativeness of each of the characters. Foremost among them in her compassion for others is Mrs. Ramsay. While it is true from the perspective of her own genetic interests that her heroic devotion to her husband and their eight children can be considered selfish, she nonetheless extends her care beyond the sphere of her family. She even concerns herself with the tribulations of complete strangers, something readers discover early in the novel, as

"she ruminated the other problem, of rich and poor, and the things she saw with her own eyes… when she visited this widow, or that struggling wife in person with a bag on her arm, and a note- book and pencil with which she wrote down in columns carefully ruled for the purpose wages and spendings, employment and unemployment, in the hope that thus she would cease to be a private woman whose charity was half a sop to her own indignation, half relief to her own curiosity, and become what with her untrained mind she greatly admired, an investigator, elucidating the social problem." (9)

No sooner does she finish reflecting on this social problem than she catches sight of her husband’s friend Charles Tansley, who is feeling bored and “out of things,” because no one staying at the Ramsays’ summer house likes him. Regardless of the topic Tansley discusses with them, “until he had turned the whole thing around and made it somehow reflect himself and disparage them—he was not satisfied” (8). And yet Mrs. Ramsay feels compelled to invite him along on an errand so that he does not have to be alone. Before leaving the premises, though, she has to ask yet another houseguest, Augustus Carmichael, “if he wanted anything” (10). She shows this type of exquisite sensitivity to others’ feelings and states of mind throughout the first section of the novel.

Mrs. Ramsay’s feelings about Lily, another houseguest, are at once dismissive and solicitous. Readers are introduced to Lily only through Mrs. Ramsay’s sudden realization, after prolonged absentmindedness, that she is supposed to be holding still so Lily can paint her. Mrs. Ramsay’s son James, who is sitting with her as he cuts pictures out of a catalogue, makes a strange noise she worries might embarrass him. She turns to see if anyone has heard: “Only Lily Briscoe, she was glad to find; and that did not matter.” Mrs. Ramsay is doing Lily the favor of posing, but the gesture goes no further than mere politeness. Still, there is a quality the younger woman possesses that she admires. “With her little Chinese eyes,” Mrs. Ramsay thinks, “and her puckered-up face, she would never marry; one could not take her painting very seriously; she was an independent little creature, and Mrs. Ramsay liked her for it” (17). Lily’s feelings toward her hostess, on the other hand, though based on a similar recognition that the other enjoys aspects of life utterly foreign to her, are much more intense. At one point early in the novel, Lily wonders, “what could one say to her?” The answer she hazards is “I’m in love with you?” But she decides that is not true and settles on, “‘I’m in love with this all,’ waving her hand at the hedge, at the house, at the children” (19). What Lily loves, and what she tries to capture in her painting, is the essence of the family life Mrs. Ramsay represents, the life Lily herself has rejected in pursuit of her art. It must be noted too that, though Mrs. Ramsay is not related to Lily, Lily has only an elderly father, and so some of the appeal of the large, intact Ramsay family to Lily is the fact that she has been sometime without a mother.

Apart from admiring in the other what each lacks herself, the two women share little in common. The tension between them derives from Lily’s having resigned herself to life without a husband, life in the service of her art and caring for her father, while Mrs. Ramsay simply cannot imagine how any woman could be content without a family. Underlying this conviction is Mrs. Ramsay’s unique view of men and her relationship to them:

"Indeed, she had the whole of the other sex under her protection; for reasons she could not explain, for their chivalry and valour, for the fact that they negotiated treaties, ruled India, controlled finance; finally for an attitude towards herself which no woman could fail to feel or to find agreeable, something trustful, childlike, reverential; which an old woman could take from a young man without loss of dignity, and woe betide the girl—pray Heaven it was none of her daughters!—who did not feel the worth of it, and all that it implied, to the marrow of her bones!" (6)

In other words, woe betide Lily Briscoe. Anthropologists Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd, whose work on the evolution of cooperation in humans provides the foundation for Flesch’s theory of narrative, put forth the idea that culture functions to simultaneously maintain group cohesion and to help the group adapt to whatever environment it inhabits. “Human cultures,” they point out, “can change even more quickly than the most rapid examples of genetic evolution by natural selection” (43). What underlies the divergence of views about women’s roles between the two women in Woolf’s novel is that their culture is undergoing major transformations owing to political and economic upheaval in the lead-up to The First World War.

Lily has no long-established tradition of women artists in which to find solace and guidance; rather, the most salient model of womanhood is the family-minded, self-sacrificing Mrs. Ramsay. It is therefore to Mrs. Ramsay that Lily must justify her attempt at establishing a new tradition. She reads the older woman as making the implicit claim that “an unmarried woman has missed the best of life.” In response, Lily imagines how

"gathering a desperate courage she would urge her own exemption from the universal law; plead for it; she liked to be alone; she liked to be herself; she was not made for that; and so have to meet a serious stare from eyes of unparalleled depth, and confront Mrs. Ramsay’s simple certainty… that her dear Lily, her little Brisk, was a fool." (50)

Living alone, being herself, and refusing to give up her time or her being to any husband or children strikes even Lily herself as both selfish and illegitimate, lacking cultural sanction and therefore doubly selfish. Trying to figure out the basis of her attraction to Mrs. Ramsay, beyond her obvious beauty, Lily asks herself, “did she lock up within her some secret which certainly Lily Briscoe believed people must have for the world to go on at all? Every one could not be as helter skelter, hand to mouth as she was” (50). Lily’s dilemma is that she can either be herself, or she can be a member of a family, because being a member of a family means she cannot be wholly herself; like Mrs. Ramsay, she would have to make compromises, and her art would cease to have any more significance than the older woman’s note-book with all its writing devoted to social problems. But she must justify devoting her life only to herself. Meanwhile, she’s desperate for some form of human connection beyond the casual greetings and formal exchanges that take place under the Ramsays’ roof.

Lily expresses a desire not just for knowledge from Mrs. Ramsay but for actual unity with her because what she needs is “nothing that could be written in any language known to men.” She wants to be intimate with the “knowledge and wisdom… stored up in Mrs. Ramsay’s heart,” not any factual information that could be channeled through print. The metaphor Lily uses for her struggle is particularly striking for anyone who studies human evolution.

"How then, she had asked herself, did one know one thing or another thing about people, sealed as they were? Only like a bee, drawn by some sweetness or sharpness in the air intangible to touch or taste, one haunted the dome-shaped hive, ranged the wastes of the air over the countries of the world alone, and then haunted the hives with their murmurs and their stirrings; the hives, which were people." (51)

According to evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson, bees are one of only about fifteen species of social insect that have crossed the “Cooperation Divide,” beyond which natural selection at the level of the group supercedes selection at the level of the individual. “Social insect colonies qualify as organisms,” Wilson writes, “not because they are physically bounded but because their members coordinate their activities in organ-like fashion to perpetuate the whole” (144). The main element that separates humans from their ancestors and other primates, he argues, “is that we are evolution’s newest transition from groups of organisms to groups as organisms. Our social groups are the primate equivalent of bodies and beehives” (154). The secret locked away from Lily in Mrs. Ramsay’s heart, the essence of the Ramsay family that she loves so intensely and feels compelled to capture in her painting, is that human individuals are adapted to life in groups of other humans who together represent a type of unitary body. In trying to live by herself and for herself, Lily is going not only against the cultural traditions of the previous generation but even against her own nature.
Part 2.

Minds in the Sky with Lighthouses


I walk through the swinging doors into the kitchen of Casa Ristorante, somewhat quieted but still bustling after dinner rush, and see Sam, a fellow server, patting her pockets with an expression of consternation. “It’s in the Florida room,” I say, referring to one of the areas reserved for larger parties in the restaurant. Her expression changes instantly to one of confusion, and then, after only about a second and a half, she smiles and laughs.

“I was thinking I should’ve gotten a text back by now,” she says, heading for the doors I just passed through. The entire exchange happened in the span of about five seconds. What made Sam’s expression change before my eyes was her ceasing to worry over the possibility that she’d lost her phone. But then she had to wonder how I could have possibly known that it was her phone she was worried about when I came in the kitchen and saw her patting herself. Before long it dawned on her that we’d just been sitting in the Florida room a minute ago, both availing ourselves of the opportunity to check our messages and send a few responses.

She’d gotten up and left the room first. So she reasoned I could have seen her phone still sitting on the table afterward. Or perhaps it had even buzzed and lighted up with a new message. Having witnessed this, I’d immediately assume when I saw her patting herself she was looking for her phone, which I did, which she was. But it wasn’t just Sam and me trading information based on contextual, gestural, and emotional cues; she was also cued in to the person she was expecting a return text from. That person’s missing of a timing cue made her realize something was amiss.

Sam and I weren’t literally reading each other’s minds, but we did go through a process of deduction that enabled each of us to know what the other was thinking. Humans rely on this type of mind reading and helpful coordination so naturally we take it for granted. We are so given, in fact, to casting about for clues about the workings of other minds that we put considerable time and energy into trying to understand the intentions behind events with purely natural or accidental causes—things which occurred in the complete absence of any mind’s intentions.

Psychologists call this capacity for taking the perspective of others and reasoning about their thoughts and feelings theory of mind. Because we take it so much for granted though, it may seem a strange thing to study scientifically. But humans, despite glimmerings in a handful of the usual suspects—apes, dolphins, that bird Alex—are alone in their uncanny ability to deduce what’s going on in the minds of other humans. (Dogs also have an amazing talent for reading people though.) And the going theory about the social difficulties autistic people have is that their theories of mind are underdeveloped. Theory of mind has even been successfully defined operationally in studies designed to investigate when it first emerges in children. The idea is to stage a scene in which the child witnesses someone placing, say, a briefcase in a room before leaving. Then the child witness another person come in and move the briefcase to another location in the room. Finally, the child is asked where the first person will look for the briefcase upon returning to the room. Before about age four, most kids answer that they’ll look where the briefcase actually is instead where it has been moved unbeknownst to them.

Now imagine theory of mind developed through a process of natural selection—possibly at the level of the group—because it offered advantages by giving people a greater ability to both manipulate and coordinate with others. In lockstep with this development, though, people began more and more to apply their mind reasoning to entities without brains—even entities that were completely imaginary. This is how evolutionary psychologist Jesse Bering accounts for the mental underpinnings of religion. Our instinct for getting into each other’s heads is so strong, he argues, that it’s difficult for us to imagine anything happening without some intention behind it. If a tsunami kills thousands, well then we must’ve done something really wrong and the mind behind the tides is letting us know about it.


I recently read To the Lighthouse for a graduate seminar on Representations of the Read in Literature. Alongside it, I read Darwin’s Cathedral by David Sloan Wilson and The God Instinct by Jesse Bering. Their theory, though they differ in regard to the importance of group selection and the propositional specifics of religion, is that religion, and our relations with the dead, serve as an adaptation to foster group cohesion, encourage cooperation and discourage cheating. Bering focuses too on theory of mind, arguing that our ability to consider what others are thinking carries with it the danger of our applying it where it doesn’t make rational sense. We apply theory of mind to the dead, who having no brains have no mind. We also see minds behind random occurrences, troubling us with concerns over what message God may be trying to send us when something terrible happens.

Woolf’s parents died when she was young—her mother when she was 13, her father when she was 22—and To the Lighthouse is often called an elegy. If Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey are her parents, she struggles, through various characters, perhaps most starkly through Lily Briscoe, the painter, to face with clear eyes and perfect honesty both her feelings of love and reverence and her awareness of their pettiness and their limitations. Woolf obviously applied her theory of mind to her dead parents, but what insight does this bring to the novel? Bering’s theory is unnecessary. Anyone can see that Lily wants Mrs. Ramsey’s approval even as she realizes she’s taken a path the lovely woman knows nothing about. So, while it’s true the mother continues to live, the idea is so basic and so intuitive that it’s difficult to see what’s to be gained by using it.

Is there some lesson about altruism in To the Lighthouse? In a sense, the inner workings of the characters deal primarily with their roles in the world, in society. Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey are admirable figures, and no one can quite live up to them. But they do not exhaust the range of humanity. Any individual, or couple, is limited, and often in ways those close to them find oppressive. Mrs. Ramsey knows nothing about the art that obsesses Lily. Mr. Ramsey, preoccupied as he is with his standing in history, his failure to reach R in the alphabet of human accomplishments, is needy of his wife, demanding of his children, and fiercely self-absorbed. To live up to their examples—but how can one follow the example of beauty or brilliance?—while being aware of their flaws, to sort out what the force of the love for this family is compelling each of those who experience it toward, to love, to seek intimacy, even unity, while at the same time accepting their uniqueness and equally reverencing their own contributions, this is the dilemma they are all faced with. The overwhelming presence of these figures speaks to their role as parents, as if at some level Woolf failed to create a new cast for her drama by assuming everyone felt toward her parents the way she must have, and it lies at the heart of the stories intensity, its exquisite rendering of moment-to-moment thought and experience in rhythmic ebbings and flowings.