Bad Quote of the Week

From an interview with Satoshi Kanazawa, co-author (with Alan S. Miller) of Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters, a pop intro to “evolutionary psychology.” Kanazawa has just made the claim that “our brain (and the rest of our body) are essentially frozen in time — stuck in the Stone Age,” because “when the environment undergoes rapid change within the space of a generation or two, as it has been for the last couple of millennia,” there is not enough time for evolutionary adaptation to take place.

This reference to the environment undergoing rapid change, without mention that human beings themselves are the agents and initiators of such change, is strange enough. But Kanazawa goes on to say:

“One example of this is that when we watch a scary movie, we get scared, and when we watch porn we get turned on. We cry when someone dies in a movie. Our brain cannot tell the difference between what’s simulated and what’s real, because this distinction didn’t exist in the Stone Age.”

The major claim here is entirely false and ridiculous. Because, quite evidently, our brains can and do tell the difference betwen what’s simulated and what’s real. Despite the legends — pretty much debunked — of people terrified by the train coming towards them at the Lumiere Brothers’ very first movie screening in 1895, nearly everybody alive today can easily and effortlessly tell the difference between something happening on a movie or television screen and something happening in real life. My 2-year-old daughter understands this difference without difficulty.

“Pretend” (as my daughters call it) or simulated experience is perfectly real in its own right, of course; and we get scared from movies just as “authentically” as we get scared when something dangerous or horrible threatens us in “real life.” But not only does this have nothing to do with not being able to tell the difference, it absolutely depends upon being able to tell the difference. Vicariousness is crucial to aesthetic experience (it is the basis for what Kant called “disinterest”). I eagerly go to watch horror films. I do not eagerly go to places where there is a strong likelihood of feral monsters or chainsaw-wielding psychopaths dismembering me limb from limb. And I cry much more readily at the movies than I do in real life situations.

Probably if I said this to Kanazawa, he wouldn’t disagree with me, exactly, but rather say something about how the fear response evolved in such a way that it operates on its own, on the assumption that what is being seen is real — before some other, more highly conscious, part of our mind can remind us that, after all, “it’s only a movie.” But I don’t think this gets him off the hook. For the point of the example — and, I’d argue, the point of aesthetics (among other things) overall — is precisely that the brain, or the mind, or “human nature” in general, is massively underdetermined by the particular biological traits of which the evolutionary psychologists make so much. In the example here, the dismissal of vicariousness, together with the unexamined assumption that the physiological fear-response is meaningful in itself and enough to account for all the varied situations in which human beings can possibly feel afraid, or give meanings to being afraid, exemplifies the extreme naivete to which evolutionary psychology in general is always prone.

I am inclined to think that William James is right in saying that we feel afraid because we have a certain physiological reaction, rather than we have the physiological reaction because we feel afraid. But this is precisely why it is a category error to think that fear can be defined in cognitive terms, which would have to happen in order for the question of whether the experience is real or simulated to even come up. A corollary of this is that, when the cognitive question does come up, it is not constrained by the physiological response in the way that Kanazawa assumes. This is the ground of possibility for the astonishing diversity, between individuals and even more among cultures, of the meanings that are assigned to fear, of the situations that give rise to fear, of the ways that fear is dealt with, and so on and so forth. Evolutionary psychology can dismiss these differences as inconsequential (just as it dismisses the question of vicariousness as inconsequential) only because it has already assumed what it claims to prove. Its cognitivist assumptions (such as the assumption that the physiological fear-response has something to do with a cognitive judgment as to whether something is real or simulated) leave it utterly incapable of dealing with the non-cognitive, affective aspects of human life, as well as (ironically enough) with the ways that “cognition” itself contains far more than it can account for.

Lecture by Brian Rotman

The DeRoy Lecture Series, 2007-2008 presents
Brian Rotman
“Lettered Selves and Beyond”
Wednesday, October 24, 3pm
Wayne State University
English Department Conference Room (10302, 5057 Woodward, Detroit)

Brian Rotman is a Humanities Distinguished Professor at The Ohio State University in the Department of Comparative Studies. Articles and reviews by him have appeared in the Guardian Newspaper, the Times Literary Supplement, and the London Review of Books. He is the author of various stage plays, a play for radio, as well as six books, among which are “Signifying Nothing: the Semiotics of Zero” and “Ad Infinitum … the Ghost in Turing’s Machine” from Stanford University Press, and, forthcoming from Duke University Press, “Becoming Beside Ourselves: the Alphabet, Ghosts, and Distributed Human Being”.

Lecture by Erik Davis

The DeRoy Lecture Series, 2007-2008 presents
Erik Davis
“Down the Rabbit Hole: Cybernetic Subjectivity and Philip K. Dick”
Friday, October 5, 3pm
English Department Conference Room (10302, 5057 Woodward)
Wayne State University

Erik Davis is a writer and independent scholar, and the author, most recently, of The Visionary State: A Journey through California’s Spiritual Landscape. He also wrote the cult media studies classic TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Information Age, and a critical volume on Led Zeppelin’s fourth album. A frequent speaker and teacher at universities and festivals alike, Davis has contributed articles and essays to scores of books and publications, including the recent volumes AfterBurn: Reflections on Burning Man and Everything You Know About God is Wrong. He posts regularly at