A literary gene?
Today, as many of us open our cans of chrysanthemum tea or await our "take away" kebab or pizza, we tend to procure our forms of nourishment with little or no dependence on smell. Although olfactory sensations partially contribute to our enjoyment of particular beverages or kinds of food and they still play a part in sexual arousal and certainly help the nursing infant to recognize his or her mother, generally, smell has a considerably less significant role to play than it once had in terms of the survival of our species.
A standard introductory textbook on genetics cites studies that have indicated that what have been called "odorant receptor" or "OR" genes make up only 1 per cent of the human genome and that "Natural selection may have over time, eliminated OR genes no longer essential to survival" (Lewis 213). Thus, in human beings, this quashing of OR genes is in keeping with the idea that as one set of genes becomes less and less essential, other genes are adept at filling the vacuum by moving into the space partially or entirely vacated by the old genes. Among these new genes are those that directly influence forms of human behavior seemingly unrelated to survival.
In a restaurant, not having eaten or drunk anything all day, knife and fork at the ready, a glass of my favorite wine also on hand, I prepare for the first sip of the libation and the plunge into the most mouth-watering sirloin imaginable, but a force abruptly pulls me in the direction of the provocatively-dressed individual with the tantalizing mouth and alluring eyes seated a few feet away. Thanks in particular to Darwin, I can easily imagine the evolutionary origins of the instincts that lure me toward food, drink, and sex--but I may find it less easy to understand why, at the same time, that I am torn between these competing basic drives, I am also tempted to rummage in my bag and take out and start reading the latest novel by J.M. Coetzee or an anthology of Japanese haikus. Although not the only answer, one answer may be that I am pulled in these disparate directions by the conflict between old and new genes, the former in tune with my need to survive, the latter propelling me toward less basic, possibly "higher" pleasures.
Why, we might ask, have the genes that push individuals toward an interest in literature not become extinct, not gone the same way as many of the genes responsible for our sense of smell? It could be the case that the genes of a person predisposed to sustained involvement with literature benefit from the extraordinary virulence of the old genes associated with storytelling, those indispensable to both the telling of and listening to stories (Boyd 23-26). Literature, however, is not synonymous with storytelling. Stories can be transmitted via other means--for instance, philosophical writings, political speeches, history, biography, and stand-up comedy.
In Keywords the cultural critic Raymond Williams quotes Samuel Johnson who in the Eighteenth Century associated the term "literature" with "an author whose pregnancy of imagination and elegance of language have deservedly set him high in the ranks of literature." Surely, these qualities of literature remain relevant to this day. It is not sufficient for a piece of writing to fit neatly into a genre--poetry, play, short story or novel--in order for it to merit the label "literature," for as Williams points out, "... most poems and plays are not seen as literature; they fall below its level ... they are not 'substantial' or 'important' enough to be called works of literature." From the late 1600s up to and including the period of the Romantics works of poetry were considered to be the products of "high imagination," and later as prose forms like the novel came to be treated with more and more respect, the most appropriate way of referring to both genres, in cases where the writing was considered to be sufficiently imaginative, important, and serious, was to call them "literature" (Williams 185, 186, 187).
Of course the term "literature" is also not synonymous with "literary." It is not difficult to find the "literary" understood as the creative use of words or phraseology that reflects what Johnson called "elegance of language" in domains outside of literature like journalism or film or TV or radio programs, but surely the most natural home for the literary is works of literature as they appear either in traditional paper or electronic formats. Etymologically, the terms "literature" and "literary" indeed have the same root--the Latin word "littera" meaning "letter of the alphabet" (Williams 184).
I am suggesting that the person who engages seriously with the "literary" as most aptly embodied in "literature" should be considered to be acting at least in part in relation to the promptings of "literary genes." I also claim that we should also lament the fact that an individual with strong literary genes might, as a matter of habit, never open a novel or cast more than a cursory glance at a poem as the genes would suggest that he or she would thrive in the domain of literature.
In his groundbreaking book The Selfish Gene the evolutionary biologist and then Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, Richard Dawkins, was quick to point out that although genes undoubtedly exert "a statistical influence on human behavior," the effect of this influence "can be modified, overridden, or reversed by other influences" (332, 331). In the case of the attraction of literature I will consider some of these other possible influences later. I am certainly not claiming that "genetic determinism" is able to fully explain a person's literary proclivities.
If we are to take seriously the idea that the desire to engage seriously with literature has a genetic component, we find ourselves in the controversial domain of "behavioral genetics," a field in which the question is not so much whether genes affect behavior, for the basis of this whole area of study is the now widely-held view that "human and other animal behavior is under some degree of genetic influence" (Plomin 645). It is a question of degree. Those of us who are non-scientists are fortunate because the major findings and the most general concepts in this fairly new field are being made accessible to lay readers. Thus, it is possible for scholars in the humanities to begin to benefit from and apply ideas from behavioral genetics to shed light on their own and others' feeling for literature.
Here, as I concentrate on the idea that an individual who is predisposed to thoughtful and sustained involvement with literature may be responding to some extent to genetic impulses, I have to be aware of the extraordinarily dynamic process that constitutes gene evolution, and as literature is so intimately tied to language, I have to pay particular attention to sources that deal with the evolution of any genes that are purportedly related to language. I suggest that one factor determining whether an individual will throughout his or her adult life commit to literature (as a reader or as an author or both) is the degree to which he or she is the beneficiary of the types of language genes that are most closely-related to "literary genes."
Nicholas Humphrey writes, "Human spoken language surely had its beginnings at least a million years ago, and most likely had already evolved to more or less its present level by the ancestral group of Homo sapiens left Africa around 150,000 years ago" ("Cave Art" 120). Although we cannot be sure about exactly when human language emerged, most linguists agree with Noam Chomsky's view that for our ancient forebears the coming into being of language must have coincided with "a great leap forward" in cognitive ability. This in turn could only have happened as a result of certain anatomical changes in the human brain. By the time that primitive Homo sapiens were able to speak, they would already have had to have made substantial progress in terms of the orofacial dexterity necessary to produce the sounds that could be recognized as coherent speech. The "great leap forward" thesis implies that human language only began to emerge as the basic drives for food, sex, shelter, and so on were already attempting to achieve their ends. Surely, if indeed language appeared only at a later stage, the genes associated with language must be regarded as secondary to the genes (like some of those associated with the sense of smell mentioned earlier) that were already in place, already fighting for their and at the same time their species' survival.
As individuals read and/or write poetry or literary narratives, they may be thought of as responding, at least in part, to the genetic instructions encoded in the cells that go to make up their genome. Curiously, both literature and the genome exist as forms of writing. If a reading of the genome can reveal why a person is predisposed toward diabetes or heart attacks, why should it not reveal some clues about his or her use of or propensity for language and whether or not he or she is likely to be drawn to artistic forms of expression like literature?
In a series he created for BBC Radio 4 Dawkins describes the human genome as a form of writing, as "the genetic instruction book of human life," as "a story of about three billion molecular letters drawn from a four letter alphabet" ("The Age of the Genome"). Any one of the four letters, often referred to as "building blocks" or "bases"--"a," "g," "c," and "t" (corresponding to adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine) can occur at any point in the DNA sequence which can be analyzed not just in terms of the order in which letters occur (for example "taagtcattgg") but also on the basis of each letter's particular placement (for example, in position 2,000,547,344 there is a "g"). Dawkins points out that variations in spelling along the genome tend to occur in similar positions. Most of your DNA and my DNA is the same. Crucially (and this is one of the remarkable achievements of the Human Genome Project) differences between one person's DNA and another's can be noted in the case of a propensity toward certain medical conditions. Knowledge of his or her genome can then radically effect the way an individual might choose to live.
Since the public unveiling of the initial draft of the human genome sequence in the rose garden of the White House on June 26, 2000 there have been innumerable reports of sensational discoveries of specific genes for everything from red hair to religious belief (Lewis 434). It was only a matter of time before there would be a dramatic announcement concerning a "language" gene. (1) One of the genes (often mistakenly thought of as the gene) allegedly associated with the use of language was indeed announced the following year. (2) Labeled "FOXP2," it was identified as a result of researchers' examination, through three generations, of the genome of a London-based family certain members of which suffered from an impaired ability in the domain of speech and language (in the scientific literature this family is designated KE) and that of an unrelated individual, a young man (designated CS) who suffered from a similar disorder.
Cecilla S.L. Lai et al., the authors of the ground-breaking article on FOX P2 which appeared in 2001 in the journal Nature claimed that "... in both cases [that of the KE family and CS] FOXP2 haplo-insufficiency in the brain at a key stage of embryogenesis leads to abnormal development of neural structures that are important for speech and language." The authors of this study also claimed that "It [FOXP2] promises to offer insight into the molecular processes mediating this uniquely human trait" (522).
It is important to understand that there are elements of FOXP2 that are not present outside of our species, even in those primates with whom we have the greatest FOXP2 overlap. (3) In a follow-up article to the one by Lai et al. contributors (including Lai herself and some of the members of the original team) suggested that although FOXP2 also occurs in other mammals (in particular the researchers studied chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, rheusus macaques, and mice) there are two "amino-acid variants" located in FOXP2 that are unique to humans. The authors then claimed that "Individuals with disruption of FOXP2 have multiple difficulties with both expressive and receptive aspects of language and grammar ..." (Enard et al. 870, 871).
Surely, the FOXP2 genes do not always have to be destructive. If disruption of FOXP2 leads to difficulties with speech and language, it may well be the case that extremely healthy or prevalent versions of these genes can produce the extreme linguistic capability and/ or appreciation often found in those who dwell in the domain of the "literary." Thus, if literary genes exist, I believe that in large part but not exclusively they must be located within the distinctively human part of the sequence that constitutes the genome, in other words, within the two amino acid variants found by Enard et al. in FOXP2. The constituents of FOXP2 that are uniquely human may account for the idea that although we human beings are not the only species to deploy language, we are the only creatures capable of formulating and appreciating the special deployments of language that are prevalent in particular within the domain of literature. To support this idea, we have to be aware of some of the similarities and differences between humans and other species in their ability to use and respond to language.
A dog may be able to respond to its name being called and follow simple instructions like "Sit," "Stand," "Jump," "Fetch," and so on, but far more extraordinary linguistic awareness has been detected in parrots. Tests on African grey parrots in particular have shown that they are able to identify different colors, shapes, and materials. If you present an African grey parrot with three little objects and ask what they have in common it is able to accurately identify and respond in relation to the color, the shape, and the material of which each object is composed. An African grey parrot can understand and respond accurately to prompt words like "Color?" "Shape?" and "Material?" or even lengthier questions like "What's the same?" and "What's different?" An African grey parrot not only shows awareness of what is designated by words like "color," "shape," and "material" but even seems to be able to grasp abstractions like "same" and "difference" and "none." "How many of these objects are the same color?" The parrot answers: "None." "Of these three objects which one is different to the other two? Answer: "That one." "How is it different?" Answer: "Shape" (Hurford 28).
In their well-known article "The Eloquent Ape: Genes, Brains, and the Evolution of Language," Simon E. Fisher and Gary F Marcus draw attention to bird recourse to what might be thought of as language, and they claim that "studying avian song systems might offer vital clues to genetic pathways that are involved in human language." As the title of the article implies, however, the authors insist that the potential pinnacle for language development outside of our species is to be found among Pan troglodytes. Thus, Fisher and Marcus eagerly compare and contrast the genomic sequences of humans with those of chimpanzees while at the same time carefully noting how FOXP2 has undergone "accelerated coding change on the human lineage after the split from chimpanzees ..." (18, 10-14).
Assessments vary concerning the exact percentage of overlap, but it has become common knowledge that derived from the same ancestor; we humans share many of our genes with chimpanzees. At the level of the genome, estimates for the similarity in the sequence vary from 94% to 98.7% with the latter percentage being by far the most accepted and oft-cited (Lewis 310). Adopting for the sake of argument the figure of 98.7%, it might be tempting to consider this percentage as geared toward the basic survival instincts which we humans share with such a species and to think that because the remaining 1.3% must point to human distinctiveness, this latter percentage must also embody the supposedly higher order cognitive functions associated with certain forms of language use and the "literary." Even if our nearest relatives, chimpanzees, endowed with their own version of FOXP2, also had happened to be equipped with the requisite orofacial praxis that would allow them to speak, it seems unlikely that they could possess the cognitive ability required in order to be able to produce or recognize word combinations that we might classify as "literary."
While studies have indicated that chimpanzees are able to use very simple language restricted to the context of stimulus-response, studies have not shown that they can use language imaginatively or understand human creative non-literal deployments of language. Curiously, the most documented proof of fairly substantial facility with language among apes is to be found not in studies of chimpanzees but in studies of gorillas. At the Gorilla Foundation/Koko.org we can read about two lowland gorillas that have been taught to use American Sign Language and to understand some English words: Koko and Michael. Researchers involved in this project claim that Koko has an active vocabulary of more than 1,000 signs and that she understands about 2,000 words of spoken English. Michael has a more limited working vocabulary of just over 600 signs. The difference may in part be due to the fact that Michael only became part of the project, only became "inculturated," in other words, shifted toward a more human-like form of existence when he was three and a half while Koko joined the project when she was one year old (Hannaford). Koko was able to produce compound word/signs for objects for which she did not know the gesture, for example, "scratch comb" and "finger bracelet." Gorillas have an extraordinary capacity for empathy, so when one of the kittens that she famously adopted was killed (run over by a car), Koko was able to sign, "bad, sad, bad," and "frown, cry, frown." Michael produced an even more remarkable sequence of signs to describe the death of his parents (long ago killed by poachers): "Squash meat gorilla. Mouth tooth. Cry sharp-noise loud. Cut/ neck" (Hannaford).
An ape, therefore, can demonstrate an uncanny capacity to capture through sign language not just a past event but also the feeling it brings in its wake. Koko's six words, constituting a narrative of sorts, leave us in no doubt as to her feelings. As for Michael's eleven words, does the loud "sharp-noise" refer to the poachers' earth-shattering gun shots? By gesturing "Mouth tooth" could the gorilla possibly be comparing the deep, irrevocable psychological wound inflicted on him by the savage eradication of his parents (and the memory of that loss) to a gnawing toothache? If so, this sugests that gorillas are not rigorously literal-minded. Apes, then, far surpass the linguistic ability of the African grey parrot that was restricted, we may recall, to identifying that with which he was presented in his immediate environment. The suggestion of simple analogy use by Michael moves apes closer to what most people would assume to be uniquely human linguistic ability.
Thus, creative, imaginative deployments of language do not necessarily stem from the uniquely human portions of the human genome. Surely, within the genome of a human that has a proclivity for the "literary" and for literature there is a more substantial element of FOXP2 or a more concentrated form of the amino acid variants within FOXP2 (identified by Lai and his colleagues) than may be found in the genome of any ape. Nevertheless, some portion at least of the human genome that is linked to the "literary" would have to exist within the genes that humans share with apes. This makes sense if we think that some portions of the genome (although of course not all) fuel other artistic proclivities in domains, for instance, that rely more on the visual (painting) or the auditory (music) because here there are obvious overlaps between humans and other creatures. This has been demonstrated by researchers investigating not only bird songs but also the songlike sounds emitted by mice. For evidence of an overlap in painting ability, we have only to look at the walls displaying artworks by Koko and Michael at the ranch where they have been living (Hannaford).
Though eclipsing the most perspicacious parrot, no ape is ever going to be able to grasp the meaning of or employ words like "chimera" or "obfuscation," let alone get excited about a "unicorn" or "Never-Never-Land." I am borrowing these last two examples from James R. Hurford who says, "... although humans can be in mental states relating to fictitious objects such as unicorns, it seems most unlikely that any non-human animal could be in such a state, having had no actual experience of unicorns or other fictions" (The Origin of Meaning 5-6).
Michael, a male silverback gorilla, may have been able to use sign language to convey an actual event and its emotional legacy, and may even be regarded as moving beyond the blandly denotative to a suggestion of analogy, but it seems unlikely that he will never be able to gesture words/signs that refer to a fabrication, a fictional construct, a lie. When it comes to such imaginative uses of language, apes are always going to fall woefully short of us, human beings. Michael's eleven word example "Squash meat gorilla. Mouth tooth. Cry sharp-noise loud. Cut/ neck" sounds impressive simply because it is produced by a nonhuman animal. It hardly compares, however, with, for example, Lear's expression of his loss while hierarchizing species when he asks, forlornly referring to his dead daughter, Cordelia: "Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life/And thee no breath at all?" (King Lear v, iii, 808-809).
It is also extremely difficult to find common ground between gorillas Koko's and Michael's emotion-packed use of sign language and, for instance, Ezra Pound's similarly concise but much more dispassionate and tantalizing: "The apparition of these faces in the crowd;/Petals on a wet, black bough"? Such literary dexterity dwells far beyond the ambit of even the most artful and articulate ape. Only we humans are equipped to use language in imaginative and original ways and appreciate such deployments of language when we see or hear them as we do per force when we encounter the "literary," especially within literature.
If we accept the notion of "literary genes," these genes have to be influential both for the authors of literary texts and for these texts' "appropriate" reader. These genes, in other words, have to play a role both in the felicitous production of literature and its reception. Here one authority within the Academy who comes to mind is the literary and cultural critic E.D. Hirsch. In particular in early works like Validity in Interpretation and Aims of Interpretation Hirsh expressed little sympathy for the New Critics' dismissal of an influential role for the author. He would also rail against Poststructuralist polemics about the so-called "death of the author" and against conceptions of readers as "implied" or "virtual" or as constructs or as functions of the text. Hirsch preferred to conceive of both authors and their readers as real, flesh-and-blood individuals. "[M]eaning," he insisted, "is an affair of consciousness" and "consciousness is, in turn, an affair of persons, and in textual interpretation the persons involved are an author and a reader" (Validity 23).
I suggest that all human beings have literary genes, but the genes' degree of influence will depend on the distinctive base sequence or "allele" of which for each particular individual it is composed. In time it may be shown that some sequences are more likely to point to a penchant for the "literary" or for literature than others. Even if scientists, however, are able to identify literary genes and speculate about their potency in relation to the precise sequence by which such genes are represented, this may never be sufficient to account for why one person appears to have a literary bent or flair and another does not because in practice the power of "genetic determinism" will always to some extent be counterbalanced by environmental factors. The introductory textbook on genetics mentioned earlier specifies: "The fact that the environment modifies gene actions counters the idea of genetic determinism, which is that an inherited trait is inevitable." Genes alone of course cannot explain why one person rather than another is attracted to serious engagement with literature. The formula "we are our genes," then, is not only "very dangerous" but also very misleading" (Lewis 208). Or as Boyd puts it, "... our minds and behavior are always shaped by the interaction of nature and nurture, or genes and environment ..." (19).
Karin Stromswold forcefully claims that "The finding that genetic factors play a substantial role in all aspects of language indicates that people differ in their linguistic abilities, and that part of that variance is due to genetic factors ..." (187). She argues that in the domain of language, individual differences are a function of "genetic variance plus environmental variance," and pertinent environmental influences may include how a person's parents speak as well as illnesses or accidents experienced by one person (in her key example, one cotwin) rather than another (179). Identical twins then can be products of extremely similar environments but manifest very different linguistic abilities, and if this is the case, they could also have very different attitudes toward literature.
We have to remember that according to behavioral genetics the influence of the gene on a given individual's consciousness will always depend on the interplay between "genotype" and "phenotype," corresponding approximately to "underlying instructions" and "visible... manifestation" (Lewis 4). Thus, the frequency with which the appropriate genotype for literary genes might rise to the surface may vary substantially depending on the sort of activities in which an individual is engaged or not engaged on any given day, and in the course of a lifetime the same individual might repeatedly fail to act in accordance with the instructions contained in his or her genotype because of, for example, not just parental but peer influence. Negative influences might mean that the phenotype may never effectively realize its potential.
On the plus side, some traumatic event might peremptorily cause an individual to seek solace in a novel or to drift desperately from one work of fiction to another as a way of reflecting more deeply on his or her experience (and that of others). Being the student of a charismatic literature teacher, being part of the audience for an unexpectedly riveting theatrical production, or serendipitously discovering a song lyric's hidden gems might also trigger those precious and extraordinarily subtle biochemical mutations characteristic of the requisite phenotype.
Scientists are only just beginning to find ways to assess the combined effect of genotypes and environmental factors that produce specific kinds of behavior, but the next generation of scientists will no doubt be more successful as they will be able to make use of much powerful "genetic tools" than those currently available (Goldman xii). I am not suggesting that one gene will ever explain why someone is drawn to literature, why someone often finds him- or herself slowing down his or her reading to subconsciously experience something of the pleasure previously enjoyed by the author during the act of creation. A number of genes will be required--in other words the requisite penchant will have to be understood to be linked to the "polygenic" rather than the "monogenic" (Goldman 163).
The field of behavioral genetics is still very much in its infancy. Over the course of the twenty-first century and beyond the answer to the following question will no doubt become clearer: To what extent can a proclivity for literature, in the case of either an author or a reader or both, be cultivated? And the concomitant question: To what extent must the appropriate alleles that correspond to literary genes have already been observable in the spectacular string of letters that constitutes an author's or a reader's genome?
Nicholas O. Pagan
University of Malaya
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--. Validity in Interpretation. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1967. Print.
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(1) On the hype that accompanies the ever-expanding list of genes for this and that, see Parens et al. xiii.
(2) In "Why Not the Neandertals?" Milford H. Wolpoff et al. describe language as "polygenic." Qtd. in Hurford 245.
(3) See also Jianzhi Zhang et al. who claim to have found these two amino-acid variants in a sample of thirty two human beings (9 African Americans, 10 Caucasians, 9 Asians, 4 Amerindians) whereas they could not find any of these variants in any of the twenty nine nonhuman species they studied. (1829)
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|Author:||Pagan, Nicholas O.|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2015|
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