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Bridging the Two Cultures

Arts and humanities can learn a lot from understanding basic scientific concepts.

By Troy Camplin

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August 01, 2013

In a previous article, I argued that students and professors in the sciences benefit from studying the humanities. Now, I would like to suggest the opposite—that those in the humanities will benefit from learning about science.

When arts or humanities scholars discuss psychology, they often refer to Freud’s theories—especially his most discredited theories, such as the Oedipus complex. Their use of the social sciences is little better, adopting mostly Marxist theories, including the labor theory of value—a theory discarded long ago by serious economists.

Most modern Marxists now reside in literature and philosophy departments. Their spurious notions and otherwise discarded theories are passed on to their students, many of whom have never been exposed to countervailing ideas in economics, psychology, sociology, or other fields.

What arts and humanities scholars need to understand is that the products of the arts and humanities are products of human brains that evolved within certain kinds of social environments. Thus, they should want to learn about the latest social sciences, the latest brain science, and the latest in human biology and evolution. They should also be familiar with fractals, complexity, self-organization, game theory, and information theory.

In short, the arts and humanities need the sciences, including the social sciences

Let us take a specific example.

In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck describes a scene in which orange growers are spraying picked oranges with kerosene to make them inedible. Steinbeck interprets this scene as an act of greedy orange growers trying to drive up prices:

There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificates—died died of malnutrition—because the food must rot, must be forced to rot. The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quicklime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is a failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.

 

Your typical Marxist or economically illiterate scholar will agree with Steinbeck’s assessment. Perhaps he’ll even elaborate on how Steinbeck is demonstrating that capitalists exploit not only the worker, but the consumer as well, starving the masses so they can profit.

However, the average economist—or even a literary scholar with the most basic knowledge of economics—would view that assessment as sheer superstition. No farmer would ever voluntarily destroy part of his crop, since doing so would not drive prices up enough to make the slightest difference to the famer and it would prevent the farmer from getting revenues he otherwise would.

Yet it is true that all farmers across the nation did destroy part or all of their crops, in order to keep food prices up during the Great Depression.

Armed with some knowledge of economics, a scholar would take to the history books and learn that the federal government passed a law forcing farmers to destroy their crops to drive up prices, on the theory that low agricultural prices were perpetuating the Great Depression.

What Steinbeck observed was not a result of market forces or individual farmer greed, but rather of government force.

Knowing basic economics can lead to some interesting questions and potential insights. Similarly, other insights and questions might be gleaned by a knowledge of neuroscience. Or complexity theory. Or evolution. Much great writing or art would cease to be so mysterious because we would understand why it works so wonderfully.

Take for example the works of Jackson Pollock. Why do his drip paintings work so well? The answer is that those paintings have fractal patterns—meaning they have the same level of complexity, regardless of scale. A small section of any painting has the same degree of complexity as the painting as a whole. Further, Pollock’s drip paintings cover the range of complexity we are comfortable with—with his earliest drip paintings at the lowest level of complexity and his last drip paintings at the highest level. The one exception—which was too complex for human comfort—we only know about because he filmed himself making his paintings. It was too complex, and Pollock destroyed the work. Without an understanding of fractals, complexity, and human neuropsychology, we would only know that Pollock’s paintings are strangely compelling—and we would be left wondering why his imitators are not (they never made fractals).

Our short-term memories work in chunks about three seconds long (not coincidentally, the length of a ten-digit phone number). We have to put what we hear into short-term memory before it can be processed into long-term memory. This may explain why poem line lengths in every language, in every culture throughout history, are about three seconds long when read aloud.

Power law distributions (which are simply few large things and many small things, in a consistent ratio between size and frequency of occurrence) are an indicator that the system in question is a complex, self-organizing network. Word frequency in any text follows a power law distribution (words like “a” and “the” are the most frequent; words like “self-organization” and “frequency” are far less frequent). Further, we see a power law distribution of authorial influence—there are few authors like Shakespeare with great influence and many authors with little influence on continued literary production. This helps scholars understand the degree to which both language and canon formation are natural phenomena, rather than human constructions, and should challenge prevailing theories regarding the sociology of literary production.

Instead of posturing over social justice, humanities scholars might well learn from chimpanzees and even monkeys, who exhibit a sense of injustice when doing the same work for different pay—that is, when some receive grapes and others mere cucumber slices for the same work, but do not consider such distributions unjust when it is not payment for identical tasks. In a similar vein, game theorists in biology, psychology, and the social sciences teach about justice, too. They have demonstrated that people are more likely to feel a sense of injustice done to them than to feel when they have experienced justice; this finding suggests that justice is a far less clear concept than is injustice.

How might these facts affect the study of poetry, textual analysis, or philosophy? It is difficult to say, because scholars who think these facts to be relevant are few and far outside the mainstream.

But here is a start: When our rhythmic brains read rhythmic poetry, the rhythms sync and the poem persuades us and touches our emotions more deeply. Perhaps there are complex patterns of word distributions in texts that help build meaning, which we could discover if we had the scholars out there with the scientific knowledge to do the work. And understanding the neurobiology of emotions, morals, and empathy—and the neural effects created by reading novels and poems or viewing plays and operas—may demonstrate to what degree and how effectively stories do in fact build our empathy, train our emotions, and therefore make us more moral.

In other words, the arts and humanities need science so we can understand how they humanize us all—so the arts and humanities can become humanized once again.

 


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