Performing Arts Department Colloquium: Bruce McConachie (University of Pittsburgh)

January 19, 2018
4:00 pm - 5:00 pm
Mallinckrodt 208 (Danforth Campus)

“Toward Consilience: Integrating Performance History and the Coevolution of Our Species”

This Spring 2018 Colloquia is held in coordination with the Cognitive Science in the Arts Speaker Series.

Open to the public with a reception to follow.

Abstract: Two phenomena are consilient when they “jump together.”  Biologist E.O. Wilson chose Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge as the title of his 1998 book because he is encouraging scholars to use empirical methods in order to create “a common groundwork of explanation” that links the sciences, arts, humanities, and social sciences.  While our various disciplinary epistemologies are a long way from “jumping together,” much recent work in the fields of history and evolution is indeed moving toward consilience. This is lucky for my project.

I am investigating potential areas of consilience between these two fields because of my interest in the politics of climate change and resource depletion. Given humankind’s problems of mitigating the looming disasters we face, I want to know more about human capabilities for rapid political change.  Such predilections and constraints are best explored from the perspective of the coevolution of genes and culture, a new paradigm joining evolution with history that Wilson helped to forge.   I also want to understand how our increasing knowledge of the effectiveness of many kinds of performances in encouraging political change might play a larger role in shaping global environmental policy the future.  This goal aligns with some of my recent investigations in Evolution, Cognition, and Performance (2015). Wilson, also an advocate for radical political reform at the global level, understands that the unity of knowledge he seeks can directly improve democratic citizenship and governance. “Most of the issues that vex humanity daily” – among which Wilson includes ethnic conflict, endemic poverty, and the environment – cannot be solved without integrating knowledge from the natural sciences with that of the social sciences and humanities,” he states.

More specifically, I will be discussing how gene-culture coevolution produced two foundational socio-political dynamics during the Pleistocene epoch (2.5 million – 13,000 years ago) that continue influential (even inevitable) today.  The first is the tension between domination and prestige as the basis for the exercise of power and authority.  Alpha males initially dominated the early politics of Homo hunter-gatherers through physical force.  Eventually, though, domination gave way to the exercise of prestige, a different mode of behavior and source of political legitimacy that could also facilitate the authority of women and mixed-sex coalitions within hunter-gatherer bands.  The second dynamic is homophily, our species’ predisposition to separate “us” from “them,” which also has deep roots in the Pleistocene.  Group loyalty, important for our survival from the start, increased as cooperative cultures forged social norms and eventually constructed discrete languages.  The book that emerges from these investigations will explore the predilections of our species for domination and prestige and for homophily, the major historical shifts in these types of governance and affiliation, and the performances that legitimated and/or challenged their practices from the Pleistocene to the present.

Bio: Bruce McConachie, Emeritus Professor at the University of Pittsburgh, has written books on American and world theatre history, historiography, and cognition and performance.  Some of his recent books include: American Theater in the Culture of the Cold War (2003), Engaging Audiences: A Cognitive Approach to Spectating in the Theatre (2008), Theatre & Mind (2013), Evolution, Cognition, and Performance (2015), and Theatre Histories: An Introduction , 3rd edn (2016; with Nellhaus, Sorgenfrei, and Underiner).