William Flesch‘s Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction is, I think (by which I mean, to the best of my knowledge) the best work of Darwinian literary criticism since the writings of Morse Peckham. That may sound like faint praise, considering how lame most recent lit crit based on “evolutionary psychology” has been; but Comeuppance is a brilliant and startlingly original book, making connections that have heretofore passed unnoticed, but that seem almost self-evident once Flesch has pointed them out.

Comeuppance combines attention to cutting-edge biological theory with a set of aesthetic concerns that are, in a certain sense, so “old-fashioned” that most contemporary theorists and critics have completely forgotten even to think about them. Flesch is concerned with the question of vicarious experience: that is to say, he wants to know why we have so much interest in, and emotional attachment to, fictional characters, narratives, and worlds. He tries to account for why we are so inclined to the “suspension of disbelief” when we encounter a fiction; why we root for the good guys and hiss at the bad guys in novels and movies; why we find it so satisfying when Sherlock Holmes solves a case, or when Spiderman defeats the Green Goblin, or when Hamlet finally avenges his father’s death, or when we imagine a torrid romance between Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock.

When such pleasures are thought about at all, they are usually attributed either to our delight in mimesis, or imitation (which was Aristotle’s theory) or to our identification with the protagonist of the fiction (which was Freud’s). But Flesch suggests that both these accounts are wrong, or at least inadequate. Far from identifying with Sherlock Holmes, Spiderman, Hamlet, or Captain Kirk, we admire and love them from a spectatorial distance, and with an intense awareness of that distance. And while our engagement with narratives requires a certain degree of “verisimilitude,” neither resemblance nor plausibility is enough in itself to generate the sort of engagement and attachment with which we encounter fictions.

Flesch proposes a very different explanation for this engagement and attachment from either the Aristotelian or the Freudian one. He bases it on recent developments in evolutionary biology, and particularly 1)the use of game-theoretical simulations to explain the development of intraspecies (and even inter-species) cooperation, ever since Robert Axelrod, in the 1980s, first used the “Prisoner’s Dilemma” game to model how competition could give rise to altruism; and 2)the studies by Amotz and Avishag Zahavi of “costly signaling” and the “handicap principle.” I will not try to reproduce here the details of these studies, nor the elegant logic that Flesch uses in order to put them together, and to bring them to bear on the problematics of fiction; I only wish to summarize them briefly, in order to move on to the consequences of Flesch’s arguments.

In brief, Flesch maintains: that evolution can lead, and evidently has led, to the development (in human beings, and evidently other organisms as well) of “true altruism,” or the impulse to help others, or the group in general, even at considerable cost to oneself; that this altruism requires that we continually monitor one another for signs or selfishness or cheating (because otherwise, selfish cheaters would always prosper at the expense of those who were honestly altruistic); that, as a result of this monitoring, we get vicarious pleasure from the punishment of cheaters and (to a lesser extent) from the reward of those who enforce this by actively ferreting out and punishing the cheaters; that altruism cannot just be enforced by the punishment of individual cheaters, but needs to be signaled, and made evident to everybody (including the cheater) as well; that — given the way that everyone is continually monitoring everyone else — the best way to make evident that one is indeed an altruist rather than a cheater is to engage in “costly signaling,” or altruistic behavior that is sufficiently costly (draining of wealth or energy, involving risks) to the one engaging in it that it has to be authentic rather than a sham; and that our constant monitoring and reading of these signals, our constant emotional reaction to vicarious experience, is what gives us the predisposition to be absorbed in, or at least emotionally affected by, fictions, so that we respond to fictional characters in narratives in much the same way that we do to real people whom we do not necessarily know, but continually observe and monitor. (There’s not that great a difference, really, between my reaction to Captain Kirk, and my reaction to Bill Clinton).

I haven’t done justice to the full subtlety and range of Flesch’s argument; nor have I conveyed an adequate sense of how plausible and convincing it is, in the detail with which he works it through. But the argument is as careful and nuanced as it is ambitious. It’s true that Flesch places his argument under the mantle of “evolutionary psychology,” something about which I remain deeply dubious. The proponents of evolutionary psychology tend to make global or universalist claims which radically underestimate the extent of human diversity and of historical and cultural differences. I am willing to accept, until shown otherwise, that in all human cultures people sing songs, and experience the physiological reactions that we know as “fear”, and have certain rituals of hospitality. But even if these are biological givens, “human nature” is radically underdetermined by them. For instance, there are enormous differences among cultures and histories as to which vocal performances count as songs, and why and when we sing, and what it means to sing, and when it is appropriate to sing and when not, and what emotions are aroused by singing, and who knows the songs and is expected to sing them, and what technologies are associated with singing, and so on almost ad infinitum.

But even as Flesch adopts the mantle of evolutionary psychology, and makes some general claims about “universal” human attributes, he is careful to avoid — and indeed, he severely criticizes — the reductiveness that often comes with such claims. For his evolutionist arguments have nothing to do with the usual twaddle about how women are supposedly genetically hardwired to prefer older, high-status men, and so on and so forth. Rather, Flesch’s arguments are directed mostly at showing how altruism and cooperation could have emerged despite the Hobbesian nature of conflict among Dawkinsian “selfish genes”; and, more broadly, at demonstrating how “biology has brought humans to a place where genetic essence does not necessarily ‘precede human existence’ ” (219 — Flesch says this after wryly noting that he is probably the first to have cited Sartre and evolutionary theorists together). Since altruism and cooperation — and for that matter cultural variability — evidently do exist among human beings, the potential for these things must have itself arisen in the course of evolution. So Flesch’s real argument is with those sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists — like Edward O. Wilson, and especially Steven Pinker, to cite the most famous names — who argue, basically, that all these things are a sham, and that underneath appearances we “really” are still only engaged in a Hobbesian war of all against all, and a situation of Malthusian triage.

That said, the real importance of the evolutionary categories that Flesch bases his argument upon — especially game-theoretically-defined altruism and Zahavian costly signaling — resides less in how adequate an explanation they provide of human origins, than in how useful they prove to be to help us think about our own investments in narrative, and the particular (Western) tradition of narrative that is most familiar to us. (Evolutionary categories are nor more nor less “universal” than, say, psychoanalytic categories; and both sorts of formulations work in many contexts, in the sense they provide insights, and allow us to generate further insights — whether or not they are actually valid “universally”). I have also long felt that one of the problems with evolutionary accounts of complex phenomena like human culture is that they commit the elementary logical fallacy of thinking that how a certain feature or trait originated historically determines the use and meaning of that feature today. But as Gould and Lewontin’s arguments about “spandrels” pointed out long ago, this need not be the case, and probably most often is not — many traits are non-adaptive byproducts of adaptations that occurred for entirely different reasons; and even directly adaptive traits are always being hijacked or “exapted” for different uses than those on account of which they originally evolved.

Flesch, unlike most of those who have tried to apply evolutionary arguments to human cultural contexts, takes full account of these complications and multiplications. The real justification of his use of ideas about costly signaling and “strong reciprocity” (or altruism that extends to the monitoring of the altruism of others), is that, in understanding the sorts of narratives that Flesch is interested in, they prove to be very useful indeed. The concepts that Flesch draws from evolutionary theory both elucidate, and are themselves in turn elucidated by, a wide range of familiar narratives, from Shakespeare to Hitchcock, and of characters in narratives, from Achilles to Superman. Even as Flesch provides a series of dazzling close readings, he uses these readings pretty much in the same way that he uses citations of biological research, so that Prince Hal and King Lear stand alongside peacocks and cichlids as exemplars of things like costly signaling and altrustic extravagance, and as subjects of our concern and fascination.

Flesch’s argument thus reflexively provides an account of both why the content of narrative moves us as it does, and of why the narrative form, as such, should be especially suited as a focus for meaningful emotional reactions. (I should note that, although Harold Bloom, in a blurb on the book’s back cover, praises Flesch for “giving a surprisingly fresh account of the workings of high literature,” and although the great majority of Flesch’s own readings and citations do in fact come from “high literature,” one of the great virtues of Flesch’s argument is that it applies equally well to “low” narrative forms (and that he also does cite these forms). The things that interest us in reading Shakespeare’s plays, or novels by Henry James and James Joyce and Marcel Proust, are pretty much the same things that interest us in reading stories about Superman, or Conan the Barbarian).

Beyond this, Flesch’s argument is noteworthy, and important, because of how it uses the tools of (usually reductive) science for determinedly nonreductive ends. Usually, the language of game-theory payoffs and cost-benefit calculations drives me crazy, because it is a hyperbolic example of what the Frankfurt School critics denounced as “instrumental reason.” The “rational choice” theory so prevalent these days among economists and political scientists idiotically assumes, against nearly all concrete experience, that human beings (and other organisms as well) make cognitive, calculated decisions (even if not consciously) on the basis of maximizing their own utility. More recently, some social scientists have sought to incorporate into their mathematica models the empirical evidence that people in fact respond emotionally, and non-rationally, to many situations. But most of this research has remained reductive, in that the calculus of probabilities and payoffs has remained at the center — the assumptions are still essentially cognitive, and calculative, even if emotions are admitted as factors that skew the calculations. Flesch is really the only author I have read who pushes these models to the point where they flip around, so that cognition is effectively subordinated to affect, rather than the other way around (“Reason is, and ought to be, only the slave of the passions,” as Hume — one of Flesch’s favorite theoretical sources — once wrote).

This is largely because of the way that Flesch defines his central concept of “altruism.” Drawing both on Hume and Adam Smith (his “moral philosophy” rather than The Wealth of Nations), as well as on contemporary biological game theorists and on the Zahavis, Flesch defines “altruism,” basically, as any other-directed action that is not driven by “maximizing one’s own utility,” and that indeed is pursued in spite of the fact that it decreases one’s own utility.” This means that things like vengefulness and vindictiveness, not to mention Achilles valuing glory more than his own life, or Bill Gates dispensing his fortune in order that he may congratulate himself for being a great philanthropist, are also examples of altruism, in that they are other-directed even at a cost to oneself, and therefore they absolutely contradict the “utility-maximization” assumptions of orthodox economics and “rational choice” theory. As Flesch puts it epigrammatically, “the satisfactions of altruism,” like Gates’ self-congratulation, “don’t undercut the altruism itself. Satisfaction in a losing act or disposition to act is itself a sign of altruism… Pleasure in altruism doesn’t mean that you’re not an altruist. It almost certainly means that you are” (35).

This is useful for the way that it undercuts both the model of Homo economicus that is the default understanding of humankind in the current neoliberal consensus, and the cynicism that sneers at the very possibility of altruism, generosity, cooperation, and collectivity on the grounds that these are “really” just expressions of egotism. Of course, egotism is involved; how could it be otherwise? But as Flesch insists, this doesn’t prevent the altruism, or concern for others at one’s own expense, from being genuine.

Altruism is by no means an unconditional good, of course; in Flesch’s account, it allows for, and can lead, not just to an insane vengefulness, but also to the kind of surveillance of people by one another that enforces social conformity and involves the persecution of anybody who acts innovatively, or merely differently. Nonetheless, the important point remains that we all act and feel in a social matrix, rather than as atomized individuals, and that people’s actions are not merely determined by the considerations of personal well-being (or at most, those of one’s genetic kin), but by a much broader range of social concerns and relationships and emotions (including vicarious emotional relationships with, or feelings about, strangers).

For this reason, even though Flesch states in his introduction that his aim is “to give an account… [of] why [narrative] should be as strange, complex and intellectual — as cognitive — as it is” (6), his arguments really contribute more to an affective approach to narrative than to a cognitive one. The tricky evolutionary arguments that Flesch works his way through are used in order to show how evolutionary processes — which in a certain sense, because they are based upon a competitive weeding-out of alternate possibilities under conditions of scarcity and stress, are necessarily “rational,” even though no actual rationality is involved in their workings — can nonetheless produce an outcome that is not itself “rational,” but instead involves extravagance, waste and “expenditure” (in the sense Bataille gives to this word), and that necessitates cooperation of some sort, rather than a continual war of all against all. And once the affects that drive us in these non-rational ways have evolved, they continue to have a life of their own (they may well be reinforced even when they are counter-productive; but they also may, in evolutionary terms, aid the survival of groups that adopt them or are driven by them, in contrast to groups that don’t: here Flesch draws upon the recent attempt by Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson to rehabilitate the notion of “group selection”).

This brings Flesch’s arguments in line with, and makes them an important contribution to, any attempt to think about social relations (and aesthetics as well) in terms that owe more to Marcel Mauss (with his complex notions of how gift-giving involves both gain and loss, both economic calculation and an openness to loss, both power/prestige and generosity) than to the currently hegemonic assumptions of neoclassical and neoliberal economics. Rather than Derridean musings on how an absolute gift is “impossible,” because there is always some sort of return, we get something more in line with Mauss’s (and Bataille’s) sense of how expenditure and potlatch, and other forms of gift-giving (including what might be called the “gift” of narrative, though Flesch conceives this much more complexly than Lewis Hyde, for instance, does) involve the intertwining of self-aggrandizing and altruistic motives, and allow a place in practice for the openings and ambivalences that both a rational-economic calculus, and a deconstructionist negatively absolutized logic would forbid us.

I’ll conclude with one small additional comment, which is that Comeuppance is not really a book about “narrative theory,” even though it sometimes presents itself as such. Though it tries to delineate the “conditions of possibility” for us to enjoy, crave, and develop an emotional investment in fictional narratives, it is (quite properly) much more concerned with these affects and investments than it is in the structure of narrative per se. And this turns out to involve our relation to characters much more than our relation to narrative as such (even when Flesch considers the latter, he does it in the framework of the relation between the audience and the fiction’s narrator, including both the fictive narrator and the author-as narrator). This seems to me to be in line both with Orson Welles’ insistence on the enigma of character as the center of our interest in film and other arts, and with Warren Ellis’ insistence that what he is really concerned with in the fictions he writes is the characters and the ideas; the plot is just a contrivance to convey those characters and ideas.

4 thoughts on “Comeuppance”

  1. Singing: it seems to have been general in the ancient Near East that people wept as the sowed and sang as they harvested, as the Psalms and Blake (“just was we reap in joy the fruit / That we in bitter tears did sow”) recall for us now. Was the weeping sorrow? Was the singing joy? We can’t know, but we can love the fact in all its strangeness — strangeness to us, perhaps, but everything human should be strange to us, and this strangeness reminds us of that fact.

    And thank you. You put it all better than I did.

  2. “The “rational choice” theory so prevalent these days among economists and political scientists idiotically assumes…”

    You may want to have a look at the article “Physiological utility theory and the neuroeconomics of choice” by Glimcher et al:

    They review research that seems to indicate that the brain does indeed in calculate and process things in a game theoretic way. The way to reconcile this with experiments indicating that not always the most rational choice is made in an economic setting seems to be as trivial as that the utility function used by the brain are not as simple as the ones used by economists. Indeed, the brain evolved under very complicated conditions, and to make choices not just tailored to an abstract market or game, but within a whole social context. In conclusion, we are probably more rational than we think, but only when that whole context is taken into account.

  3. I love the calm desperation of your pragmatic willingness to consider evolutionary psychology for what it can get done, on the level with psychoanlaysis. I often feel this way about 2nd wave feminism.

    It’s tempting to see, in freshly credible ways of imagining human intelligence, the influence of computer intelligence for the vision of intelligence, filling in within the limits of empiricism.

    Backing away from network-driven theory (neural nets), altruistic evolutionary psychology, open to spandrels and to units other than a chromosome set, sees intelligence as computational power located inside a single system, determined in part by its architecture (as in the Glimcher article linked to). These systems signal each other all the time, but are understood as the individuals rather than subordinates of an intersubjectivity (network). Individual brain-hand-eye machines but no families.

    The empirical demand is that the theory can make sense of enough cases, and your point about high and low literature hints at how meager the argument’s hospitality might be, for its ability to host such diverse readerships. If we were really talking tools, like in a toolbox, being universal would be great. Repair everything. But a contribution requires you show up with something that feels local.

    Empirical premises of human intelligence sciences also demand that people are what they do (not what they might want to do or understand themselves to be doing) and do what they are (and dont make mistakes). This is part of the reason psychoanalysis is not part of the game, but evolutionary psychology is. Impressively to economics, what you do, for evolution, is not just manage your scarce resources, but survive. So hard core.

  4. I don’t understand what c2588 is saying. But as to invcit, the article cited seems likely to be trivially true. The crucial fact about evolutionary biology is that the importance of costly signaling leads to runaway processes — and therefore to the establishment of equilibria that are by no means optimal for a rationally designed system. Rational choice theorists tend to imagine a kind of meta-choice (it turns out), whereby people choose to head for the equilibria with the best outcome for them. But it turns out they don’t, and the reason they don’t is addressed by evolutionary game theory and its accounts of the plausible pathways along which we might have evolved.

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