While working eighteen years for corporate lawyers from the early 1980s to the late 1990s, I simultaneously cultivated my academic career by teaching as an adjunct early in the morning and by attending graduate school at night. My primary interest was in the English novel and the creation and behavior of characters. After earning my Ph.D. in English and American literature from N.Y.U., I began to focus on the subjects of character, individual consciousness, and moral behavior, mostly from a philosophical perspective.
A philosopher who shaped my thinking was the early nineteenth-century German Arthur Schopenhauer, especially his notion of fixed character (which lay beneath a more empirical, malleable character). Ahead of developmental psychology and neuroscience, he also intuited that perception is a product of individual understanding even more than raw sensation. Over time I would come to appreciate his ideas in terms of genes, temperament, and cultural influences.
A major change in my thinking came when I began reading Darwin’s work. As a young man I reared myself on books like Microbe Hunters, The Lives of a Cell, and authors like George Gamow. Although I started college as a science student, I quickly moved into writing and literary studies. Nevertheless, in recent years I’ve studied evolutionary psychology and the biology of reciprocity and altruism to illuminate the subjects of character, consciousness, and moral behavior. Perhaps I needed grounding in philosophy and literature to come full circle. I’ve come to realize how our hominin past, as well as continuities with nonhuman primates with whom we share a common ancestor, can help us understand some of our current behaviors.
My early monographs, Character and Consciousness (2005) and Ethos and Behavior (2008), seem to typify the work of an English professor. I stand by the arguments and claims made in those books, but they are mostly theoretical approaches to the behavior of characters in English novels from Jane Austen up through D.H. Lawrence.
More recently I have been able to give some teeth to my ideas by reading in the sciences and social sciences. To that end I have written on the origins and evolution of narration in Making Mind: Moral Sense and Consciousness, published in a series on Consciousness and the Arts (Rodopi 2014). Adhering to my literary roots, I do spend some time in the last part of the work discussing Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa in terms of theory of mind and individual consciousness. I’ve also written on hominid-hominin cognition, morality, and creativity in Evolution and Human Culture: Texts and Contexts for the Value Inquiry Book Series/Cognitive Science (Brill 2016). This later book hardly deals with any specific literary works or authors, and approaches, in its last section, aesthetics from a cognitive and evolutionary perspective.
A short, academic book which surveys and discusses adaptive functions of visual culture, Art and Adaptation: A Primer from Notes was published under my wife’s imprint, Bibliotekos (2015). This small book, now out of print, has been substantially expanded and revised into Art and Adaptability: Consciousness and Cognitive Culture (Brill 2018) and argues for a co-evolution of theory of mind and material/art culture. The book covers relevant areas from great ape intelligence, hominin evolution, Stone Age tools, Paleolithic culture and art forms, to neurobiology. The argument is that it’s not so much art because of theory of mind but art as theory of mind. The tool does not think; the maker thinks before fashioning the tool, and then the observant group thinks as the tool is used. In other words, according to my argument, theory of mind itself could be the proximate mechanism for the ultimate function of culture.
Art and Adaptation is also a 70-slide, 40-minute presentation. If you are interested in hosting me, go here for more information.
I am the founding and current editor of the ASEBL Journal, whose objective is to publish online peer-reviewed papers on the convergence of ethics/arts/evolution. I’m also the founder and senior developer of The Evolutionary Studies Collaborative at St. Francis College, Brooklyn, N.Y.
[May 2016; Updated June 2018]