Love, Literature and Evolution – Writers at the Convent

On Saturday the 14th I attended a couple of sessions at Writers at the Convent, a mini writers’ festival run by Reader’s Feast Bookstore, at the gorgeous Abbotsford Convent.

Unfortunately, the ‘Australian Fiction’ session with Peter Goldsworthy, Robert Drewe, and Steven Carroll was cancelled, but I skipped the other big sessions and decided to spend my time in the Bishop’s Parlour (a very small room) hearing visiting professors talk about subjects related to Charles Darwin and evolution.

I was going for three, but ran into the lovely Tiggy Johnson, and we stopped in between for a drink at Handsome Steve’s cafe and had a really lengthy, wonderful chat about writing, talking truth in public, children, and other meaningful things.

The first session was ‘Human Evolution: The Mating Mind’ with Dr Geoffrey Miller. Miller had a dry sense of humour and approachable intelligence. He told us about the original ignorance of female selection in Darwin’s work (due to social mores). Female choice valued/s such things as language, music, and altruism. The payoff is babies with better genes and better brains. I’d be hopeless at summing up everything he said, but you can find it all in his book The Mating Mind. He described things like mutational meltdown (two-four new harmful mutations in the genes of each generation); the fitness indicators of genes in animals and human – things that require growth, effort and sometimes creativity (a lion’s mane, a bird’s song, the human face); and the fitness indicators most favoured by humans – kindness, language, intelligence, humour, art, and music.

My favourite part was the way he spoke about ‘big brains’ in humans gone awry – through silly forms of runaway status competitions, and also through skewed notions of status though conspicuous consumption. Many of you know this is a topic much of my fiction is based on, and one close to my heart. Thus, I’m incredibly excited to read Miller’s book which comes out in May – Spent: Sex, Evolution and the Secrets of Consumerism.

Another interesting point was that in studies undertaken by Miller’s colleagues, women were more likely to be attracted to, or choose, creative men during their fertile cycle (still with a small correlative of facial masculinity, body muscularity, symmetry etc.), and outside of their cycle they chose the more financially secure male. What this means is that for good genes, the creativity is a good fitness indicator, and for long term protection of the child, the financial security becomes a factor. No wonder we’re so indecisive! Can’t we just have both?

Miller also relayed the fact that intellegence and oppenness relate to verbal creativity, but when tested for creativity through drawing, oppenness correlated much stronger than intelligence (in other words, writers and smarter than artists, ha! ;-))

A lot of the older crowd in the room were lost on Miller’s final point, being that young people have figured out how to directly, verbally display intelligence, openness, humour, and creativity, effectively shortcutting the social indicators of education, a respectable job, and conspicuous consumption for status … through social networks like Facebook. A point I hope he expands upon in Spent. (Most of the room found this point humorous, when in fact it is a huge subject, and Miller was in no way undermining the intuitiveness of my generation).

See Miller’s website (with some downloadable papers) here.

The afternoon session was ‘Darwin and Literature’, with Professor Michael Ruse (who has written several books, one I later realised I own but haven’t yet read – Darwinism and its Discontents). He did it in a (suitably) linear fashion, beginning with Erasmus Darwin (Charles’ grandfather), moving on to the Lyellian-influenced Alfred Tennyson (in In Memoriam), then to post-Origin of the Species authors such as HG Wells (The Time Machine‘s future Eloi and Morlock races expressing evolutionary degeneration), Jack London (The Call of the Wild), and George Bernard Shaw.

One of Ruse’s main points was that most of these writers merely engaged with Darwininian ideologies, or skewed notions of evolution, rather than the actual science. Most of them probably hadn’t actually looked closely at the science itself. However, he mentions Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love as being a modern, successful text that engages with the science proper.

Ruse was entertaining to watch and listen to – looking and acting precisely like a visiting professor with his large white moustache; assured, projected voice with the occassional enthusiastic squeak; saying ‘as it were’ often; and ending the slideshow with a Looney Tunes ‘That’s all folks’. He also praised our ‘elegant’ city. Charming fellow!

I enjoyed the contrast of the talks on evolution within the buildings of an old convent. The smell, when I went inside the room, sent me to places of both inspiration and creativity – the old hostel in Venice, where I was a year ago, and the room I worked in at Varuna Writer’s House. The smell of history I associate with writing, the smell of history is the a heavy weight of stories in the air, begging to be told. In one way, to see how far we have evolved…

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