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Philosophy and Literature, Volume 25, Number 2, October 2001, pp.

197-214 (Article)
DOI: 10.1353/phl.2001.0022

For additional information about this article

Access provided by Wellesley College Library (26 Jun 2015 20:48 GMT)

Brian Boyd


Brian Boyd


orks of art die without attention, and we should expect that

any critical theory that cannot explain why we attend to art ought
itself to be moribund. Yet the currently dominant approach to criticism,
which I will dub Cultural Critique,1 explains art in terms of the limited
and suspect perspectives of the culture (society, group, era) that
produced it, or as the site of contestation or locus of imbrication of the
ideological discourses of its time. Why anyone would want to attend to
art, dened thus, becomes a mystery, unless audiences always do indeed
crave ideological nourishment or indigestion. Surely we can do better.
I would like to offer the outline of an alternative: an evolutionary
explanation rst for art, then for narrative, then for ction. Then, since
ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, or at least sometimes helps us
retrieve it, and since we have no printouts of Pleistocene potboilers, I
will color in the outline by way of Dr. Seusss childrens classic, Horton
Hears a Who, contrasting a sample evolutionary analysis of a single work
of ction with the kind of response typical of Cultural Critique.
In art we do or make things simply in order to engage our attention,
for the sake of attention, and we are not the only species to do so.
Intelligence began to evolve because the world is full of potential
information that can suggest advantageous courses of behavior. Curiosity
evolved on top of intelligenceespecially in the species that Konrad
Lorenz liked to call specialists in non-specialization, such as rats
among rodents, corvids among songbirds, and humans among primates2because it extends the range of information creatures can
attend to and act on. As a result rats can prefer cognitive stimulation to
food and sex.3 As the most intelligent and versatile of species, we humans
particularly like directing our attention to what repays our curiosity.
Philosophy and Literature, 2001, 25: 197214


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And like other particularly intelligent species, we like to do things

that provide cognitive stimulation, whether they have any immediate
survival value or not. Corvids (together with psittacines, the most
intelligent of birds) enjoy a kind of aerial acrobatics that Lorenz
unashamedly labels art.4 Dolphins in a Hawaiian marine park have
developed, without any human prompting, what has been called air
art, a kind of rhythmic gymnastics in which they deploy air bubbles
from their blowholes like gymnasts ribbons or hoops, or, to stress the
afnity to art, a kind of aquatic analogue of light sculpture.5 Chimpanzees appear to engage both in solitary imaginative play, like Kakama
with the stick he famously and repeatedly handled as if it were a toy
baby,6 and in group activity, like rhythmic dances,7 for the sheer
pleasure they produce. In art as in so much else we had thought
uniquely human, like tool-using or tool-making, like counting or
culture, we are nding there are precursors elsewhere in nature.8
Because we are such a highly social species, we crave the attention of
others. Human infants are distressed at adults who do not respond to
them;9 infants and children across cultures punish others by withdrawing attention.10 At any age we like to command attention in ways we
choose, for the ability to compete successfully for attention is closely
correlated with status,11 which raises rates of survival and reproduction.12 And we can recognize something artistic in such forms of
competitive animal attention-getting as the dances of lekking birds, the
songs of songbirds or whales, or the extravagant architecture of
bowerbirds. Not only do we like to command attention, we also enjoy
simply sharing it with others, because this cements our place in a social
group whose support we need.13 Again, there are precursors in other
species: the elaborate song of duetting songbirds,14 or the communal
dances of chimpanzees.
Curiosity directed at what we can do that gives us cognitive pleasure,
whether by engaging our own attention or commanding or sharing that
of others, has deep roots in the evolution of intelligence and sociality.
But in humans the prodigious development of the frontal lobes,
associated with metarepresentation, and with the conditional and the
inhibitory, allow us to monitor our own reactions, to select one choice
and reject another to produce this or that effect,15 in a way that ratchets
the inclination toward art, toward doing or making something for the
mind to attend to and enjoy, to a new level. And because we have ner
manual control than any other species, and a conscious control of vocal

Brian Boyd


sound unique to land mammals, we have more diverse and elaborate

ways than other species of articulating pattern, shape and even sound.16
While there are precursors of art in other species, then, there are also
evolutionary reasons why only in our species it has become both
optional, rather than a xed behavioral pattern, and yet species-wide,
reliably-developing, compulsive. We have an intensied curiosity, a
greater capacity for self-awareness and self-control, and ner and more
exible articulation. Perhaps even more important, we have a more
intense sociality, a closer attunement to one another, as indexed, for
instance, in the difference between monkeys, apes, and humans in
mother-infant interaction, culminating in the elaborate back-and-forth
of human mother and infant gaze17 and of behavior such as rhythmic
play.18 From infancy we have a desire to command the attention of
others, to shape it more nely, and to share it more fully, than in any
other species.
If there are precursors of dance and music in other species, and
even, especially in bowerbirds, of the visual arts, no precursor has been
found for narrative. Again, the key difference seems to lie in the way
human sociality has shaped human intelligence.
It has become increasingly clear that our own intelligence builds on
rudimentary intuitions other species also have about number and
quantity, about solidity, penetrability and impact, about natural kinds,
about the behavior of individuals and the relationships between them,19
and that in humans these intuitions reliably develop slightly further,
before much cultural input, into the species-wide folk physics, folk
biology, folk psychology and folk sociology that developmental psychologists now study even in prelinguistic children.20
Of these, it is folk psychology or Theory of Mind which marks our
species out most radically from others and seems to enable the high
degree of cultural sharing that has allowed us to continue to elaborate
and eventually improve these folk intuitions.21 Where other animals
interpret behavior, especially of conspecics, in terms of position,
orientation and motion, and perhaps even desire and intention, we
seem uniquely able to understand others in terms of beliefs as well as
desires and intentions.
Theory of Mind has arisen out of our social ne-tuning (increased
altriciality, prolonged childhood, early infant imitation, social learning,
ne articulation in facial expression, in vocalization, and in gesture),
and it has in turn made still ner social tuning possible, including the


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development of protolanguage and then full modern syntactic language. Language of course has still further rened Theory of Mind22
and social ne-tuning in a powerful positive feedback loop.
Even before language, humans appear to have a uniquely powerful
event comprehension system, forming reliably in all normally-developing
individuals as a set of theories that combines intuitive physics (objects
and forces), intuitive ontology (animals, plants and artifacts), and
especially intuitive psychology or Theory of Mind (beliefs, desires and
intentions), and an intuitive sociology (afliation, hierarchy and exchange). As a high-level set of already high-level cognitive subsystems,
the event comprehension system naturally becomes strongly inuenced
in the course of later individual development, once language has
arisen, by local cultural explanations, which however could not grow
except on this rich substratum of universal and innate theories.
When our innate event comprehension system began to be coupled
with some means of re-presenting events intersubjectively, through
reenactment, through images and especially though not exclusively
through language, we had started along the road to narrative.
Although narrative is unique to humans, because we alone have both
a rich system of event comprehension and various means of event
representation, we nd it compelling partly for reasons that also have
evolutionary precursors. Even rats and monkeys have a natural default
response to others of their kind, not just their kin, whom they see in
distress, and human children by one year of age . . . spontaneously
comfort people in distress.23 As Frans de Waal notes, distress at the
sight of anothers pain is an impulse over which we exert no control: it
grabs us instantaneously, like a reex.24 In chimpanzees, because they
are so exibly social, individuals keep close track of who does what to
whom, and judge their future relations with others by assessments of
their individual powers and personality and their social support.25
Humans, because we are even more exible and more socially interdependent, are even more eager to keep track of one another; more
attentive to the complex goals of others;26 much more capable of
keeping track of others and their goals indirectly, through narrative,
through gossip; more eager to share such information, since sharing it
secures attention for the teller and offers information for the listener;
and more likely to respond even to indirect reports with strong
empathy or indignation.
Now, narrative could be entirely factual, especially as gossip about the
immediate social group. Indeed, this remains the dominant form of

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casual conversation even today.27 The obvious social advantages of

factual narrative, however, cannot explain why we have ction, why we
engage so compulsively in telling and listening to stories we know are
not true.
We have an innate interest in and engagement with the interests of
others, providing it does not run counter to what we perceive as our
own interests, and those who wish to gossip can count on this to secure
attention. But there are two disadvantages of gossip: it can be misleading and it can be boring. Fiction on the other hand removes the
dangers of deceit or manipulation and offers the promise of interest.
Since we develop the ability to detect and resist stories, like any other
forms of communication, that we see as skewed toward tellers whose
interests differ from ours,28 skilled storytellers secure our attention by
appealing to our cognitive craving to comprehend the actions and
intentions of others, while serving their own aims both through the
attention they garner and through appealing to interests that we either
share or can be made to think we share with them. Fiction therefore
offers a win-win situation, a non-zero-sum game, an advantage for teller
(benet in attention and status, at a cost in imaginative effort), and for
the listener (maximum cognitive interest at little cost except time).
An evolutionary model of ction, therefore, should focus on ways
storytellers, as active individual strategists, maximize the attention of
their audience by appealing to features that have evolved to be of
interest to all human minds, to our shared understandings of events,
our shared predispositions to be interested in and engaged by what
others do and our sheer readiness to share attention.
Let me contrast an evolutionary approach to ctionto the example
of Dr. Seusss Horton Hears a Who 29with the approach that has become
standard in Cultural Critique.
The historian Richard Minear reects the modes and moods of the
times when he critiques Dr. Seusss 1954 tale in terms of what he sees as
Theodor Seuss Geisels typically mid-century American attitude to
Japan: xenophobic hostility during World War II, and condescension
afterwards in his eagerness to see democracy re-established after the
American Occupation.30
When he wrote Horton Hears a Who, Ted Geisel had indeed recently
visited Japan, and wrote the story partly because he was concerned
about the establishment of democracy there and wanted to stress the
importance of every vote even within a vast population.31 The Whos,
crammed onto an unbelievably small space, are in one sense the


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Japanese, densely crowded onto their island nation, who can be saved if
all citizens exercise their voice together. It would therefore seem easy in
retrospect to criticize Horton Hears a Who by way of the whiff of hysteria
in Dr. Seusss depiction of the Japanese in his political cartoons of
World War II, and of condescension in his hopes for Japanese democracy in the early 1950s. But the historicizing approach is both too
narrow (it ignores the universal appeal of the story) and too blunt (it
ignores the individual problem Dr. Seuss faces and the individual way
he deploys universals, evolved human interests, in order to solve it).
Let me rst summarize the story. Horton the elephant, with the help
of his big ears, one day overhears a cry for help from a dust-speck. He
realizes there must be someone on that speck of dust, perhaps a whole
family: but who? As he carefully places the speck on a clover, two
kangaroos mock him for thinking that dust can talk, but as he walks
away, carrying the clover to safety, he hears the mayor of Who-ville speak
from the speck and thank him for shielding them all. But to the other
animals around him Hortons behaving as if there were a whole
community on a dust-speck seems an outrageous affront to common
sense. A group of monkeys snatch the clover away, passing it on to an
eagle who ies off and drops it into a clover patch a hundred miles wide.
Intrepid Horton treks over the mountains to the clover plain, and on
the three millionth ower, nds his Whos. He just has time to learn from
them that their town has been badly damaged as it fell, although they
are already starting to repair the damage, when along come the
kangaroos and the monkeys to tie Horton up, cage him, and take the
clover off to boil it in oil. As they haul him toward the cage, Horton
exhorts the Whos to make as much noise as they can, to convince the
bigger animals they exist. They banged on drums and blasted great
toots On clarinets, oom-pahs and boom-pahs and utes, but still cannot
be heard by anyone except Horton. When Horton calls for more noise,
the Mayor of Who-ville rushes through the town to locate any shirkers,
and at last nds a very small Who at home just bouncing a Yo-yo. He
grabs the young twerp and hauls him to the top of the Eiffelberg Tower,
then calls on every Who to make one last blast of noise, For every voice
counts! The little lad he has found clears his throat and calls out
Yopp!: And that Yopp . . . That one small, extra Yopp put it over!
Finally, at last! From that speck of clover Their voices were heard! . . . And
the elephant smiled. . . . Theyve proved they ARE persons, no matter
how small. And their whole world was saved by the Smallest of All! The
kangaroos now rush to protect the Whos, the little Kangaroo in its

Brian Boyd


mothers pouch chiming in: ME, TOO! From sun in the summer. From
rain when its fall-ish, Im going to protect them. No matter how
Evolution sees individuals as problem-solvers coping with their
situation as they assess it. Horton Hears a Who offers a compact example
of a master storyteller strategically solving his own artistic problem
situation. In itself Ted Geisels personal response to postwar Japan, his
desire to promote democracy there, does not seem likely to elicit avid
attention, whether in the United States or in Japan. But the initial
impulse to advocate the value of even the smallest voice becomes
transformed, in the need to interest children and adults, from a
message of contemporary political relevance into a timeless tale that
appeals to universal evolved cognitive interests, especially to the earlydeveloping interests and skills of children, through each level of the
event comprehension system, through a strong belief-desire-intention
dynamic, and through a central but simplied and therefore accessible
use of false belief.
Oral storytellers catch and hold attention partly through their
presence, through real-time interaction with their audience, through
prosody, gesture, perhaps even enactment and costume. Storytellers
telling their stories in print had to discover ways of maximizing
attention and minimizing inattention to compensate for their absence
in person. Dr. Seuss therefore draws on these long traditions of printed
storytelling, of rening economy, sequence and pace, but at the same
time he returns to the origins of stories.
He engages children so well because he appeals to their pleasure in
play and their early-developing capacities for shared attention. A newborn baby less than an hour old, who cannot even fully focus its eyes, can
nevertheless respond to someone smiling at it or poking out his or her
tongue, by smiling or poking out its own tongue in reply.32 In humans
around the world, that need to coordinate activity and attention
develops into all kinds of rhythmic cross-modal interplay between elders
and infants, into bouncing and clapping and babbling and singing, into
peek-a-boo and pat-a-cake.33 Children know that these games are for
their pleasure, and they thrive on the attention, and on synchronicity of
action and response marked out by shared rhythms or turntaking. Even
when they are not actively playing games with them, older humans
around the world talk to infants in a heightened, singsong voice, with
exaggerated rhythms and intonations, which serve both to engage the
infants attention and to simplify their comprehension.34


Philosophy and Literature

Whenever language has been used to command and consecrate

shared attention, in traditional verse around the world, the need to
focus and refocus attention has led to the use of rhythm and a linelength of about three seconds, in instinctive reection of the fact that
three seconds is the span of the human auditory present.35 But Dr. Seuss
returns through this adult norm to the element of childhood play
behind it. He selects a four-foot dactylic rhythm that unlike the iambic
stands out from natural English intonations: dit-dit-DA dit-dit-DA ditdit-DA dit-dit-DA. He chooses couplet rhymes to demarcate the lines in
often amusingly obtrusive fashion, often with the aid of nonsense words
patently and absurdly for the sake of the rhyme, from the opening
couplet (On the fteenth of May, in the Jungle of Nool, In the heat of
the day, in the cool of the pool) 36 to the climax of the story (When
they got to the top, The lad cleared his throat and he shouted out,
YOPP!). His language, in other words, is a verbal equivalent of the playface, the gamboling gait, the rhythmic romp.
Dr. Seusss is a world predisposed to play, to the imaginative compact
between teller and told, a shared but almost effortless effort of
imagination, no matter how strange the action or actors, no matter how
far they lead us from our everyday world. He can count on childrens
pleasure that someone has made up a story for them to respond to, as
a parcel of pleasure, a gift of attention. Rather than taking the fact of
storytelling for granted, or trying to pass Hortons plight off as real, he
feeds childrens consciousness of and delight in the fact that someone
has made up a story for them, that it is just a story, that it cavorts away
from the real, and that they can scamper after in imagination wherever
the tale heads. He captures childrens attention through a spirit of
shared play, a kind of controlled communal surprise.
Just as adults play with their children combines kinetic, aural and
visual cues, so Dr. Seuss adds visual cues to his verbal ones. He ensures
ready apprehension through economy of color (he uses the three
colors that anthropologists nd are the rst to be named in all human
societiesblack, white, red37and just one more primary color, blue)
and economy of outline (an analysis of Paleolithic cave drawings points
out that their prole outline forms of highly distinct animals create the
maximum of recognizable representation for the minimum of effort).38
He employs an extravagantly overt anthropomorphizing that makes
animal features both easy to read and distinctively and outrageously
Seussian. Like other species, only more so, because we are ourselves

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such a strikingly neotenous species, we have a particular fondness for

infantile traits in creatures of our own kind or others, for heads
relatively large in proportion to the body and eyes relatively large in
proportion to the head, and for relatively at facial proles.39 Dr. Seuss
plays to all these evolved tendencies, not least in giving his kangaroos
and elephant and chimpanzees human-like smiles and comically obvious, loose-limbed human feet and hands that are the hallmarks of the
Seussian biome, whether in species more or less real or entirely
invented, and that signal, once again, a disposition to play.
Dr. Seuss may appeal to species-wide cognitive features, but he does
so in his own unmistakable way. Without individual variation, natural
selection would have nothing to select fromand nor would social
competition, artistic attention, or cultural selection.
For its expression, narrative usually needs a verbal and often a visual
medium. But in its core elements, character, plot, perspective, it draws
on aspects of life that predate verbal and visual art.
Essential to narrative is a focus on agents and goals. Long before
narrative, animals have needed to be rapidly aware of other agents,
other animals, as potentially urgent threats or opportunities. Agency
itself therefore catches the attention,40 but some agents catch the
attention better than others. Long before narrative, animals needed to
distinguish one organism from another at rst sign: by smell, sound, or
in the human case, especially by sight. Hence human children have an
innate fascination with animal kinds and names, out of all proportion,
in modern urban life, to the likelihood of their encountering aardvarks
or zebras.41
Precisely because we are primed so early, phylogenetically and
ontogenetically, to attend to the stark differences between animal
kinds, these differences have been an immemorial analogue for the
differences in powers and personalities within the human that are so
important for our social life, an analogy as natural and universal, if not
quite as fundamental, as the analogy between space and time that Lakoff
and Johnson demonstrate to be fundamental to language42 and that
developmental psychologists show even precedes language.43 If some
agents catch the attention more than others, that applies within as well
as beyond the human. We take more notice of the larger than the
smaller, of higher status or greater powers rather than lesser, of the
unusually helpful or harmful, of those with features strikingly different
from the normal range. Dr. Seuss harnesses childrens fascination with


Philosophy and Literature

differences between animals both to attract their attention and to

simplify their apprehension by providing striking and memorable
distinctions between participants in his story.
But where other species read other animals by differences in kind
and by heuristics of position and behavior,44 humans read one another,
and often even other animals, with the help of Theory of Mind, with a
belief-desire-intention psychology. Because of the predictive advantages
of Theory of Mind, we overread agencyit is safer to suppose a bush a
bear than a bear a bushand we humanize animal thought. And
because of our fascination with the different powers and personalities
of different creatures, animals and humans, young and old, little or big,
animals provide us with salient examples of difference, and animals
who speak and act in human ways stretch all the way from the earliest
known human cultures, from Aboriginal dream-time legends, the
Mahabharata or Aesop, to Herriman, Disney, and Spiegelman, Kafka,
Ionesco and Cortzar, Hawkes, Pynchon and Auster. Animals are of
course especially prominent in stories for children, who are just
beginning to learn to discriminate differences between animal kinds
and between human individuals. But no one creates critters quite so
quickly catchy as Dr. Seuss, or creates differences in kind quite so
extravagant. Horton, as an enormous but kindly elephant ready to help
creatures microscopically small, has the child in us engrossed, not least
for his paradoxical powers and predicaments: his big ears that enable
him to hear little things, his trunk that can handle something as minute
as a speck of dust, his generosity despite his immensity, his vulnerability
despite his size, his facing punishment despite his selessness.
We have a default concern for others, and especially for others who
stand out in terms of might or merit, and a default sympathy with their
pursuit of their goals.45 Dr. Seuss makes Horton the sort of agent we
would naturally want to ally ourselves with, the sort of agent who
dominates stories from Beowulf to Braveheart, powerful, generous, and
resourceful; and he makes Hortons goals unmistakable, admirable,
and urgent: the struggle not to be cast out of his community, the
survival of a whole people.
Like religion, in Pascal Boyers evolutionary account,46 Dr. Seuss
engages childrens attention both by drawing on their intuitive expectations and by transgressing them for the sake of salience, by violating
their knowledge that animals do not talk or their sense that a whole city
could not possibly t on a dust-speck. Yet despite catching their
attention and inviting their enjoyment of this shared fantasy, he also

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knows he can make them still engage with the characters, with Hortons
own predicament and that of the Whos themselves.47 He engages them
not by simple identication (they cannot simultaneously identify with
the enormous and solitary Horton and the myriad minuscule Whos),48
but by their default sympathy with a prominent agent in pursuit of
commendable goals, and hence, especially, by rousing their moral
But there would be no story with only Horton and the Whos. Stories
need obstacles, and especially the clash of goals and counter-goals. Not
only do we sympathize with Hortons goals, we oppose the countergoals of the other jungle animals, because we know they rest on a false
belief: they think there is no one on Hortons speck of dust, no Whos in
Whoville, whereas we not only hear what Horton can hear, we can
even see the Whos he cannot see.
Because Theory of Mind is so essential to our ne-grained perception and prediction of the behavior of others, it is essential to
storytelling. But childrens Theory of Mind develops only gradually.
Neither animals other than humans nor children under three seem to
have a clear understanding of false belief, that others can have a
different understanding of a situation than what is the case, or than
what they think themselves. By four, children understand false belief, or
second-order intentionality (Horton knows that the other animals
think there are no Whos), by six they can handle third-order intentionality, and by adolescence they can handle fourth- or even fth-order
intentionality. The capacity to understand false belief, even in its initial
stages, is crucial to the human capacity for narrative, and to narratives
real and invented: Elizabeth Bennet thinks that Darcy thinks that she
thinks he thinks too harshly of her family; Maria foresees that Sir Toby will
eagerly anticipate that Olivia will judge Malvolio absurdly impertinent to
suppose that she wishes him to regard himself as her preferred suitor.
In Horton Hears a Who Dr. Seuss makes the false belief of the other
animalsthat there are no Whoscentral to the entire story, but he
makes it utterly accessible to all but the youngest children by not
passing beyond second-order intentionality and by demonstrating so
graphically, through his cityscapes of Whoville, what the true belief
should be. At the same time, he makes false belief epistemologically
and ethically urgent: the child in us wants to cry out to the other
animals: But cant you SEE? There ARE Whos there! Dr. Seuss has
raised the stakes of the false belief to the maximum, but placed the
minimum strain on the cognitive capacity of his audience.


Philosophy and Literature

I would suggest that there are two essential forces behind the power
of plot to command our continued attention to a story, and that these
forces are best explained in evolutionary terms: rst, our interest in
whether or not agents achieve their goals, which arises from the natural
sympathy creatures at a certain cognitive and social level can have for
others of their kind;50 and, second, our unique human interest, because
we have Theory of Mind, in knowing the full situation that will explain
the whole story. For as soon as we appreciate false belief, we realise that
mistakes can be made through not understanding the true situation: in
terms of the standard test of false belief, that Anne will look in the
wrong place for the marble that she saw Sally put in a drawer, say, but
that since Anne left the room Sally has already taken out and cached
under the bed.51 In Dr. Seusss story, we not only want Horton to achieve
his goal, to save the Whos, we also want the other animals to discover
that their belief was false, that it is they and not Horton who acted on
false belief.
The Standard Model of Cultural Critique presupposes the limitations
of any particular historical or social outlook. To many this has seemed
to offer a more independent, more sophisticated, more historically
sensitive way of looking at works of art. But in fact it ignores both the
largest historical context, the evolutionary one, and the ne-grained
detail, the close-up on history in the making, on the moment of
decision, on the artist as an individual problem-solver. In its preoccupation with the group, whether society or era, it overlooks both the
species and the individual, and it remains indifferent or even hostile to
the artfulness and the power of art.
An evolutionary approach by contrast can explain the appeal of art in
general and of particular arts and particular works of art. It stresses the
individual organism as trying to cope with its own problem situation,
which for Dr. Seuss, here, is before all else to interest an audience, and
only then, if he can manage it, to help the cause of electoral democracy
in Japan. To stress the importance of everyones participating in the
democratic process, he comes up with the idea of the unimaginably tiny
individual voice that nevertheless makes sufcient difference, indeed
saves a whole people, a whole world. The fantastic, attention-catching
idea of the minute Whos, in their miniature world, who cannot be heard
unless every one of them shouts together, violates our expectations of
the physical world, but in accord with our readiness to overattribute
agency. For the sake of the attention-catching contrast, Dr. Seuss then
sets against the Whos the hugest of land animals, an elephant, Horton,

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whom his earlier Horton Hatches The Egg has already characterized as
generous and protective.52 Because of his big ears, Horton can hear the
Whos when others cannot, and from this, all the rest follows.
The model assumed by Cultural Critique underplays artists as individual problem-solvers and ignores the solutions, the ingenious appeals
to our attention they make through human cognitive universals, even as
the most condent simultaneously intensify their own idiosyncrasies in
order to catch attention by their difference from other artists. Cultural
critique therefore overlooks what makes art worth attending to, and
attention is the very life of art.
Even if we limit ourselves to transmittable meaning, Cultural Critique, with its assumption of isolated particular perspectives, ignores
how art can transcend them, how it could ever speak to anyone else. In
search of an appeal to all, Dr. Seuss overcomes the limitations of a
particular perspective, the limitations, perhaps, of the Ted Geisel of the
1940s. In trying to engage the imaginations of children, he appeals to
human ethical universals, to values of individual and community, of
independence and interdependence, of support for the weak and for
the strong, that are in fact common to Japan and the United States, and
to human beings everywhere. In his search to engage children just
coping with false belief, he encourages them to accept that there might
be more to the world than we rst can see, a possibility, indeed, that is
built into the very nature of story and that has been crucial to the
development of human culture, at rst, at the level of unseen agents,
such as gods and spirits, but then at the level of forces that act in
unagentlike and even unobjectlike ways, such as microbes and molecules. And in his search to engage the attention of children through
his own idiosyncrasy, through his jolting rhythms and jauntily invented
creatures, Dr. Seuss, like all art, reminds us how we can share enough in
imagination to take us to new worlds or to remake the old one on our
own terms.
University of Auckland

1. After writing this I discovered that cultural critique was the favored term for the
supposed state of the art in literary criticism, in the Preface and Introduction to the
massive (2624 pp.) new Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. Vincent B. Leitch et
al. (Norton: New York, 2001), pp. xxxiii (theoryor cultural critique, as it is more


Philosophy and Literature

descriptively termed), p. 5 (recent theory and criticism of literature have moved on to

cultural critique), p. 7 (literature conceived as social text or discourse calls for cultural
2. Die Rckseite des Spiegels: Versuch einer Naturgeschichte menschlichen Erkennens (Munich:
Piper, 1973), p. 199; trans. Ronald Taylor, Behind the Mirror: A Search for a Natural History
of Human Knowledge (London: Methuen, 1977), p. 148.
3. Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works (New York: Norton, 1997), 524.
4. Thierry Lenain, Monkey painting (1990; rev. ed., London: Reaktion, 1997), 24:
Lorenz [Vergleichende Verhaltunsforschung: Grundlagen der Ethologie, Vienna: 1978], . . .
describing the aerial arabesques delineated in ight by corvids, not only felt justied in
using the word art, but went as far as stressing that it had to be taken in its proper sense:
I am using the terms creative and artistic deliberately without putting them in
quotation marks, for it is most likely that the processes involved here also constitute the
roots of all human artistic activity.
5. Ken Marten, Karim Shariff, Suchi Psarakos, and Don J. White, Ring Bubbles of
Dolphins, Scientific American, August 1996, pp. 6469. The term air art comes from
Robert Wright, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny (London: Little, Brown, 2000),
p. 295.
6. See Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson, Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of
Human Violence (Boston: Houghton Mifin, 1996), pp. 25255.
7. Wolfgang Khler, The Mentality of Apes (1925; trans. Ella Winter, Harmondsworth:
Pelican, 1957), pp. 26667.
8. See Marc Hauser, Wild Minds: What Animals Really Think (London: Allen Lane/
Penguin Press, 2000); Stanislas Dehaene, The Number Sense: How the Mind Creates
Mathematics (London: Penguin, 1997); John Tyler Bonner, The Evolution of Culture in
Animals (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980); Frans de Waal, The Ape and the
Sushi Master: Cultural Reflections of a Primatologist (New York: Basic Books, 2001).
9. See Alison Gopnik and Andrew N. Meltzoff, Words, Thoughts, and Theories (Cambridge: Bradford/MIT Press, 1997), p. 131; Henry W. Wellman, and Susan A. Gelman,
Knowledge Acquisition in Foundational Domains, Handbook of Child Psychology, vol. 2:
Cognition, perception and language, ed. D. Kuhn and R. Siegler (New York: Wiley, 1998),
p. 543.
10. Irenus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, Warfare, Mans Indoctrinability, and Group Selection,
Zeitschrift fr Tierpsychologie 60 (1982): 17798.
11. This is not to suggest that we consciously strive for attention or status in order to
improve our prospects for survival and reproduction, any more than we enjoy sweet
foods to improve our energy intake or sex to increase offspring. Evolutionary biologists
and psychologists distinguish between ultimate causes (improved survival and reproduction over the long term as a consequence of a certain behavior) and proximal causes
(the pleasure we anticipate the behavior will immediately produce).
12. See Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural
Selection (New York: Pantheon, 1999), pp. 8182; 11012.

Brian Boyd


13. Irenus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, The Biological Foundation of Aesthetics, in Ingo

Rentschler, Barbara Herzberger and David Epstein, eds., Beauty and the Brain: Biological
Aspects of Aesthetics (Basel: Birkhuser Verlag, 1988), pp. 2968; esp. 5558.

Thomas A. Sebeok, Pregurements of Art, Semiotica 27 (1979): 373.

15. See Terrence Deacon, The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the
Human Brain (London: Allen Lane/Penguin Press, 1997); Elkhonon Goldberg, The
Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes and the Civilized Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).
16. Our voices are under conscious control, but we cannot articulate two streams of air
as songbirds can, or produce as wide an acoustic range as cetaceans can. Yet unlike them
we can supplement vocal sound with sounds we can produce with our hands and what we
can hold or make with them, including instruments that amplify vibrations produced by
our breath.
17. See Michael Tomasello and Joseph Call, Primate Cognition (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1997), p. 405: In the social domain, on the other hand, we see
qualitative differences between human and nonhuman primates soon after birth. Two
behaviors highlight this difference. First, as outlined by Stern (1985), Trevarthen (1979)
and others, from soon after birth, human infants engage in protoconversations and
affect attunement with their caregivers. Protoconversations are social interactions in
which the parent and infant each focus their attention on the otheroften in a face-toface manner involving looking, touching, and vocalizingin ways that express and share
basic emotions. Moreover, these protoconversations have a clear turn-taking structure. . . . in one form or another they seem a universal feature of adult-infant interaction
in the human species (Trevarthen, 1993). Second . . . human neonates also display skills
of imitation. Meltzoff and Moore (e.g. 1977, 1989) have discovered that from soon after
birth, human infants reproduce some of the facial expressions and head movements of
adults. . . . it is also possible that this reects a deeper tendency of the infant to identify
with conspecics.
18. See Ellen Dissanayake, Art and Intimacy: How the Arts Began (Seattle: University of
Washington Press, 2000).
19. See note 7. Folk sociology or social cognition has been less studied than the

See Wellman and Gelman 1998 for a compact summary.

21. But see, for instance, Consider the Source: The Evolution of Adaptations for
Decoupling and Metarepresentation, by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby: Although
social interactions may have played a role, we do not believe that social competition was
the sole driving force behind the evolution of human intelligence (as in the Machiavellian hypothesis, Humphrey 992; Whitten [sic] & Byrne, 1997). We certainly do believe
that humans have evolved sophisticated adaptations specialized for social life and social
cognition . . . but what is truly distinctive about human intelligence encompasses far
more than the social. For example, the causal intelligence expressed in hunter-gatherer
subsistence practice appears to be as divergent from other species as human social
intelligencein Dan Sperber, ed., Metarepresentations: A Multidisciplinary Perspective
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 55. Two points: (a) the argument above does


Philosophy and Literature

not depend on human social intelligence as being the unique driving force behind the
evolution of human intelligence, only on its being a major step beyond non-human
cognition; (b) human causal intelligence seems most likely to be explained through the
increased ability to coordinate attention toward and eventually, with language, to discuss
causal problems.

See Gopnik and Meltzoff, 1997, esp. pp. 185216.


de Waal, 2001, pp. 352, 357.


de Waal, 2001, p. 355.

25. See Frans de Waal, Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes (1982; rev. ed.,
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998) and Good-Natured: The Origins of Right
and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996).
26. Gopnik and Meltzoff, 1997, p. 151: These experiments demonstrate that at 18
months, infants can read a complex goal from failed attempts, attempts that contradict
the spatio-temporal contact theory, as well as from successful ones. . . . These examples
again conrm our earlier claim that infants immediately apply their theory of action to
the actions of both themselves and others.
27. Robin Dunbar, Anna Marriott, and N.D.C. Duncan, Human Conversational
Behavior, Human Nature 8 (1997): 23146.
28. See Richard Dawkins and J.R. Krebs, Animal signals: information or manipulation? in Behavioural Ecology, ed. Krebs and N.B. Davies (Oxford: Blackwell Scientic
Publications, 1978), pp. 282309; Dawkins and Krebs, Arms races between and within
species, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, B 205 (1979): 489511; Michell Scalise
Sugiyama, On the Origins of Narrative: Storyteller Bias as a Fitness-Enhancing Strategy, Human Nature 7 (1996): 403425.
29. Dr. Seuss [Theodor Seuss Geisel], Horton Hears a Who (1954; London: Collins,
30. Richard H. Minear, Dr. Seuss Goes to War: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of
Theodor Seuss Geisel (New York: New Press, 1999), pp. 26064.
31. Seuss, quoted in Minear, p. 263. Horton Hears a Who was dedicated to My Great
Friend, Mitsugi Nakamura of Kyoto, Japan.
32. For a summary by the leader in the eld, see Andrew N. Meltzoff, The Human
Infant as Imitative Generalist: A 20-Year Progress Report on Infant Imitation with
Implications for Comparative Psychology, in Cecilia M. Heyes and Bennett G. Galef, Jr.,
eds., Social Learning in Animals: The Roots of Culture (San Diego: Academic Press 1996),
pp. 34770.
33. See Daniel Stern, The First Relationship: Mother and Infant (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1977); see also Hrdy 1999 and Dissanayake 2000.
34. Anne Fernald, Human Maternal Vocalizations to Infants as Biologically Relevant
Signals: An Evolutionary Perspective, in The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the
Generation of Culture, ed. Jerome H. Barkow, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 391428.

Brian Boyd


35. Frederick Turner and Ernst Pppel, Metered Poetry, the Brain, and Time, in
Rentschler et al., 1988, pp. 7190.
36. Note that Dr. Seuss also pays children the compliment of assuming they understand the absurdity of the date when applied to these jungle animals: a detail that evokes
the devices of realism only to undermine or toy with it and afrm the power of
imaginative play.
37. B. Berlin and P. Kay, Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution (Berkeley:
University of Californai Press, 1969); see also Roger N. Shepard, The Perceptual
Organization of Colors: An Adaptation to Regularities of the Terrestrial World? in
Barkow et al., 1992, pp. 495532.
38. John Halverson, The First Pictures: Perceptual Foundations of Paleolithic Art,
Perception 21 (1992): 389404.
39. See Konrad Lorenz, Ganzheit und Teil in der tierischen und menschlichen
Gemeinschaft, Studium Generale, 1950, trans. as Part and Parcel in Animal and Human
Societies, in Lorenz, Studies in Animal and Human Behaviour, trans. Robert Martin, vol. 2
(London: Methuen, 1971); Stephen Jay Gould, A Biological Homage to Mickey
Mouse, in The Pandas Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History (1980; Harmondsworth:
Penguin, 1983).
40. See Simon Baron-Cohen, Mind-Blindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind
(Cambridge: Bradford/MIT, 1995).
41. See Scott Atran, Cognitive Foundations of Natural History: Towards an Anthropology of
Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); Janet Wilde Astington, Narrative and the Childs Theory of Mind, in B. Britton and A. Pellegrini, Narrative Thought
and Narrative Language (Hillsdale, New Jersey: Erlbaum, 1990), pp. 15171.
42. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its
Challenge to Western Thought (New York: Basic Books, 1999).
43. Andrew N. Meltzoff and M. Keith Moore, Imitation, Memory and the Representation of Persons, Infant Behavior and Development 17 (1994): 8399, and Infants
Understanding of People and Things: From Body Imitation to Folk Psychology, in The
Body and the Self, ed. Jos Luis Bermdez, Anthony Marcel, and Naomi Eilan (Cambridge: Bradford/MIT Press 1995), p. 52.
44. See Philip W. Blythe, Peter M. Todd, and Geoffrey F. Miller, How Motion Reveals
Intention: Categorizing Social Interactions, in Gerd Gigerenzer, Peter Todd et al.,
Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp.

Gopnik and Meltzoff, 1997, esp. pp. 15060.

46. The Naturalness of Religious Ideas: A Cognitive Theory of Religion (Berkeley: University
of California Press, 1994); Cognitive Tracks of Cultural Inheritance: How Evolved
Intuitive Ontology Governs Cultural Transmission, American Anthropologist 100 (1999):


Philosophy and Literature

47. Richard J. Gerrig, Experiencing Narrative Worlds: On the Psychological Activities of

Reading (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), demonstrates that default responses
are engaged even without belief, and even on repeated tellings.
48. Nol Carroll cogently criticizes the notion that the audiences relation to story
protagonists is one of identication: see, for instance, The Philosophy of Horror, or
Paradoxes of the Heart (New York: Routledge, 1990) and A Philosophy of Mass Art (Oxford:
Clarendon, 1998).
49. Nol Carroll discusses the engagement of the moral emotions as a key component
of narrative art in A Philosophy of Mass Art.

And in the human case, with understanding of even complex goals: see n. 24.

51. For an account of the traditional standard Sally-Anne test and recent extensions,
see Simon Baron-Cohen, Michelle ORiordan, Valerie Stone, Rosie Jones and Kate
Plaisted, Recognition of Faux Pas by Normally Developing Children and Children with
Asperger Syndrome or High-Functioning Autism, Journal of Autism and Developmental
Disorders, 29 (1999): 40718.

1940; rept. London: Collins, 1998.