«Critical Discussion TOWARD A CONSILIENT STUDY OF LITERATURE by S P P. A over the world, and probably for as long as they have existed, people invent ...»
TOWARD A CONSILIENT STUDY OF LITERATURE
by S P
P. A over the world, and probably for as long as
they have existed, people invent characters and recount their ctitious exploits. This apparent frivolity is no small matter in human affairs.
If one were to tally the number of hours and resources spent in enjoying
ction in all its forms—story-telling, pretend play, myths and legends,
fairy tales, novels, short stories, epic poems, television, movies, theater, opera, ballads, narrative paintings, jokes, comics, skits, video games, and pornography—it would surely account for a major portion of people’s time and a major portion of modern economic activity. Considering the costs in time, foregone opportunities to engage in practical pursuits, and the dangers of confusing fantasy with reality, our longing to lose ourselves in ction is a big puzzle for anyone seeking to understand human beings. All the more so from a Darwinian perspective, as one might have expected natural selection to have weeded out any inclination to engage in imaginary worlds rather than the real one.
Fiction is important not only in the lives of everyday people but in intellectual life. An acquaintance with major works of ction has long been considered essential to being an educated person, and it is probably a more common university requirement than patently useful subjects like biology or statistics. Departments of English (and other The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative, edited by Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson; xxvi & 304 pp. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2005, $79.95, $29.95 paper.
P L, © 2007, 31: 161–177 S P 163 literatures) are often the most star-studded and prominent divisions of modern colleges and universities, and disproportionate attention has been given to debates over the content of their curricula. And despite having had several centuries to get it right, the study of literature in modern universities strikes many observers (insiders and outsiders alike) as being in, shall we say, critical condition—politicized, sclerotic, and lacking a progressive agenda.1 The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative tackles both conundra and calls for a new body of research to address it—the evolutionary analysis of ction, or Darwinian Lit-Crit. There are many reasons to believe that connecting literary analysis with evolutionary psychology is an idea whose time has come. One of the biggest contributions of evolutionary psychology, regardless of which of its theories one accepts, is to have created new elds of study for aspects of mental life that preoccupy human beings but that had been almost entirely neglected by academic psychology—topics like beauty, love, status, food, sex, religion, war, exchange, morality, music, art, and, as we shall see, ction. The fact that many of these preoccupations seem to lack any biological utility only makes them more intriguing as scienti c puzzles.
And it frames a family of empirical hypotheses, namely whether each of these faculties is an adaptation (a product of Darwinian natural selection), a by-product of adaptations (sometimes called “spandrels”), or the result of genetic drift or other random evolutionary processes.
Fiction in particular offers a precious gift to evolutionary psychology:
the people and events on display in ctive worlds presumably re ect our species’ obsessions, and provide an ecologically valid source of data about what matters to us.
For its part, literary analysis would surely bene t from the latest scienti c ideas on human thought, emotion, and social relations. Fiction has long been thought of as a means of exploring human nature, and the current stagnation of literary scholarship can be attributed, in part, to its denial of that truism. The eld’s commitment to the dogma that the mind is a blank slate and that all human concerns are social constructions has led it to focus on cultural and historical particulars, banishing the deeper resonances of ction that transcend time and place.2 And its distrust of science (and more generally, the search for testable hypotheses and cumulative objective knowledge) has left it, according to many accounts, mired in faddism, obscurantism, and parochialism.
For all these reasons, evolutionary psychology and literary analysis seem to be natural companions.
164 P L The Literary Animal is a manifesto for forging this connection, and a collection of proofs of concept. The essays, all original, are pleasantly well-written for an academic collection; the writing is consistently clear, and often stylish. The essays present new ideas and ndings—from biology, literary analysis, history, and quantitative surveys, among other elds—that will enlighten anyone interested in literature or the human animal. And as one would expect from a new and ambitious eld, there are some false starts, and much left to be done.
The book opens with encouragement from three distinguished godfathers. From biology, E. O. Wilson heralds Darwinian lit-crit as a ful llment of his idea of consilience, or the uni cation of knowledge, which has long been enjoyed by the sciences, has recently extended to the social sciences with the help of evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience, and is now ripe for extension to the humanities and arts. From literary criticism, Frederick Crews applauds the analytic and empirical mindset of the new eld, with the reservation (which I share) that evolution is just one of a number of human sciences that will be needed to achieve a consilient literary scholarship. From ction writing, Ian MacEwan celebrates the universal human nature that allows great literature to be appreciated thousands of miles and thousands of years from its origin. All three essays are delightful.
The godfathers deplore the current state of academic literary analysis, and more bad news may be found in the introduction by the editors (Jonathan Gottschall, an English scholar and evolutionary psychologist, and David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary biologist), and in a memoir by the psychoanalyst and science writer Dylan Evans. Gottschall recounts the idiotic resistance he encountered when proposing his dissertation work on the evolutionary logic behind characters’ motives in the lliad—he was told that this was a form of racism and Nazism, and that he was permitted to invoke Freud and Lacan in his work but not Darwin. (He eventually recruited D. S. Wilson and other extra-departmental faculty as his advisors.) The resistance continued with this book itself, which was rejected by one academic publisher after another before nding a home at Northwestern University Press. Evans narrates his gradual disenchantment with the Lacanian psychoanalysis which he was trained in, and which, together with deconstruction and other avors of “Theory” (feminist, postcolonialist, queer, etc.) now dominate many literature departments. Three other contributors (the literary critics Joseph Carroll and Brian Boyd, and the philosopher Denis Dutton), have sounded similar alarms elsewhere.3 Dutton provides this volume with an Afterword S P 165 that reinforces the value of a consilient scholarship for the arts and brie y introduces some of his own ideas about the evolutionary basis of visual aesthetics.
Two of the essays try to lay out theories of human nature that can then be put to use in analyzing ction. Both authors deserve enormous credit for the birth of evolutionary lit-crit; D. S. Wilson for rescuing Gottschall and coediting this volume, Carroll for his monumental 1995 book Evolution and Literary Theory which pretty much invented the eld more than a decade ago. But possibly because neither is a psychologist, I found their attempts at psychological theory to be the most disappointing parts of this book.
Wilson aims at a “middle ground” of “evolutionary social constructivism” in which a process of cultural evolution would parallel the familiar biological kind. I found the discussion unilluminating for two reasons.
One is that his foil, the extreme evolutionist who denies the existence of culture, is a gment of the imagination: a straw man for polemicists to knock down, or a sacri cial lamb for self-described moderates claiming the middle ground. The other problem is that the superannuated idea of culture evolving by a counterpart to biological evolution has turned out to be sterile at best and probably wrong. Wilson invokes (but does not cite) Richard Dawkins’s version of this idea, the theory of memes, in which stories (and other bits of culture) are inherited, mutated, and selected like genes. But the theory (which Dawkins himself is more cautious about) has led to few interesting discoveries in the thirty years since The Sel sh Gene was published; nor have we learned much from the looser analogies between biological and cultural evolution that have been bruited for decades. As a number of evolutionary psychologists have pointed out, if “cultural evolution” means anything more precise than the co-opting of the word “evolution” to mean “historical change,” the analogy is seriously misleading.4 Ideas, unlike genes, are not copied across generations with high delity, and they don’t mutate by blind, random processes. Rather, they are crafted by a ten-trillionsynapse human brain, guided by its anticipation of how the stories will affect the similarly complex brains of readers or listeners. The analogy of cultural change as to biological evolution leaves the human mind out of the picture entirely. To use an apposite cliché, this is like Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark.
Carroll, in contrast, does offer a theory of how the mind works in the form of a set of “cognitive behavioral systems” (what others might call modules). But his divisions strike me as arbitrary and unmotivated. For 166 P L instance, “survival,” “technology” and “cognitive activity” are each put in a separate box, despite being heterogeneous categories with enormous overlap. And they are inexplicably lined up with the emotions “fear,” “joy,” and “surprise,” respectively. The chapter also thunders against the pioneers of evolutionary psychology John Tooby and Leda Cosmides for downplaying the notion of general intelligence, and of individual and racial differences.5 This, too, struck me as gratuitous. General intelligence is a dimension of variation among individuals (like “strength” or “health”), not a mechanism, so it is unhelpful as an explanation of how people think and feel. Tooby and Cosmides are skeptical about qualitative differences among individuals’ minds, but they certainly acknowledge quantitative ones (some people are quicker to anger than others, but no one lacks the emotion of anger altogether), and Carroll offers no reason to believe otherwise. Nor is it clear why he feels that evolutionary literary criticism should avail itself of J. Phillippe Rushton’s unusual and blazingly controversial theories about genetic differences in personality and intelligence between Europeans, Africans, and Asians.
Fortunately, Carroll’s polemical preliminaries soon give way to the heart of the chapter, an application of his views on evolutionary literary criticism to Pride and Prejudice. Carroll’s approach de es simple summary, but a key idea is that authors implicitly appeal to a universal human nature—not as a set of laws that determine how characters act, but as a frame of reference within which observers nd meaning in their own and others’ actions. In any work of ction, there are three kinds of observers trying to do this: the author, the characters, and the reader.
From their distinct vantage points, each may interpret a character’s acts in a different way, and a skillful author exploits the tension among these perspectives as the story unfolds and information about character and motives is withheld, revealed, and deliberated. In Pride and Prejudice, the operative feature of human nature is the psychology of mate choice, particularly the different weightings that men and women give to youth and beauty on the one hand and to status, wealth, stability, and ambition on the other. Austin, her protagonists, and her readers struggle to reconcile these impulses, which direct our passions toward people’s super cial qualities, with more re ective faculties, which assess people’s quality of mind and morals.
Carroll dissects the novel with skill and verve, and will make many readers wish that they had had him as their college English prof. Nonetheless, one is left wondering how essential the evolutionary biology is to his insights. The mating criteria that obsess the Bennett women may S P 167 re ect universal impulses, but the speci cs of the novel depends on the way that these impulses were exaggerated and codi ed in their time and culture. Today, a depiction of a contemporary middle-class family that worried aloud about nding wealthy husbands for the daughters, and about their being disgraced by a daughter running off with the son of a steward, would elicit guffaws, not a ash of recognition. In Pride and Prejudice, to be sure, these worries are set in tension with other concerns, but a skeptic could say that the tension is between individual and cultural demands, not individual and evolutionary ones. Evolutionary impulses may be more acutely delineated, and thus more indispensable to literary analyses, in stories set in a culture whose values work against them, rather than in a culture whose values are redundant with them or an exaggeration of them. In other words, Darwin may be more important in explaining the ambivalent appeal of wealthy suitors in Sex and the City than in Pride and Prejudice. The question of whether evolutionary lit-crit is better suited to low culture or high culture is rarely mentioned in The Literary Animal (or in the psychology of the arts in general); I will return to it later.
Three other essays examine genres of ction that are also built around human motives which may be illuminated by evolution. The anthropologist Robin Fox suggests that epics and romances (like Gilgamesh, Beowulf, the Iliad, Le Morte d’Arthur, and Chanson de Rolande) explore the tension between male bonding, which unites men in aggressive coalitions, and emotional ties to their lovers, wives, and families. The common thread shown by Fox that runs across widely separated cultures and millennia is eye-opening, and it counters skepticism that any one of these works is only exploring the contingent values of a particular society.