Some years ago, I planned and executed an event at St. Francis College (funded by a grant from the New York Council for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Humanities) entitled: Humanities in Action. As part of the program (which included various speakers and presentations, as well as a vocal/musical performance), I prepared a small booklet, filled with statements from various people, called, In the Spirit of Humanity: Why the Humanities Matter Today (republished on 4Humanities: pdf).
While the event itself was a success, it did not generate much attention. And as I look now on many of the statements in the booklet I see that some are humorous, some are uplifting, many are insightful, but all seem to repeat how the arts are a necessary ingredient to our lives. Granted, but then what does this really imply? Where did this ingredient come from? I suppose part of the problem was that my idea (my definition) of humanities then was all wrong. While the focus was on the human (in some philosophical way), I simply neglected human biology. My conception of the humanities was that one intellectually embraced them (or not).
But now, more than ten years after that event at St. Francis College, while my aim here is not to answer the question as to why the humanities matter, I can address all those who do not think the humanities matter at all or who think humanistic disciplines are entertainment, enrichment, or a byproduct.
My answer comes in one word: evolution.
In contrast to prior formulations, now we know that what we call the humanities (the arts and the study of the arts) is part of our evolutionary heritage, our brain development over hundreds of thousands of years. We have two brains: one is old and mammalian, and the other (built on top of the older one) permits us to create, think critically, and make moral decisions. There is a biological imperative related to, for instance, storytelling – stories are not simply nice extras but are part of our human brain’s ability to narrate the self in the context of others. However, it is probably a fair estimate that a majority of the population still sees the arts and the humanities as separate (some extra ingredient that is sprinkled into our lives) and not wholly integral to being human. Legislators tell us that funding for any arts or humanistic programs can and indeed should be cut.
Over the course of the past several years (stemming from my interest in character and ethical behavior) I have been reading and studying writers, thinkers, and authors (after Charles Darwin) in the fields of biology, evolutionary psychology, anthropology, primatology, neuroscience (as well as philosophy and literary theory). No doubt I will be involved in this study well into my senior years, since I have come to the conclusion that nothing in our human world makes any sense whatsoever outside the parameters of evolutionary studies.
While (most of) the jury is still out, it seems evident that there is reason to believe art, music, and narrative serve an adaptive function. After all, why have these forms persisted for so many thousands of years? Surely it was not only for entertainment or some instructional purpose. This means that humanistic disciplines are not byproducts but probably served some function related to survival or reproduction. Even if this hypothesis is not entirely accurate, we do know that some forms of art are ancient (much older than the cave paintings of nearly fifty thousand years ago). For instance, there is evidence that narrative stems from our ancient, internal brain mechanisms that are programmed to create consciousness about ourselves in the world around us. Such consciousness, it now seems, played a part not only in the construction of self-narratives but (later) the creation of stories.
I resist making a list (since I will inevitably exclude key people), but some of the main players who are helping us see the arts and humanities as part of our evolved heritage include (and I will confine the list to those who have published books): Brian Boyd (narrative); Joseph Carroll (narrative); Patricia Churchland (philosophy); Ellen Dissanayake (art); Owen Flanagan (philosophy); Jonathan Gottschall (narrative); Jonathan Haidt (philosophy); Suzanne Keen (narrative); Mark Turner (cognitive theory); Blakey Vermeule (cognitive theory); Lisa Zunshine (cognitive theory); Kay Young (cognitive theory). These are scholars working in the fields of humanities; I have excluded writers in the sciences (of which there are many, such as E.O. Wilson, Frans de Waal, and Steven Pinker).
The upshot is this: there is a case to be made for a renewed, more vigorous study of the humanities from an evolutionary perspective; additionally, more funding is necessary to bring together artists and scientists who want to collaborate.
For instance, look at my area of research: the moral sense, moral judgments, and moral emotions in terms of individual consciousness. To say (from a religious standpoint) that morality is issued via a command from above is wrong, according to evidence in evolutionary studies. To say that morality is nurtured in the growing child from external environment is incorrect, since evidence demonstrates that we have inborn tendencies for sharing and caring. Understanding the biology of morality alters dramatically areas of philosophy and literary theory and criticism (to say nothing of creative endeavors). But of course this is risky business, especially in trying to resuscitate humanistic studies in light of a name that frightens many people – Charles Darwin.
A decade ago it was not unusual for some of the commentators in the St. Francis College Humanities booklet to say that art, music, and literature have made them better persons. How? In science and evolutionary studies we have the research tools to demonstrate how narrative and morality work in answering that question, in both elucidating one’s inborn, genetic character and in shaping a person based on a culture that has roots in our shared, human evolution.