What if humanities scholars started doing evolutionary psychology? No, wait. Hear me out.
I had never heard of this before I read about it in a news focus piece in the May 6, 2011, issue of the journal Science, “Red in Tooth and Claw Among the Literati,” (Vol.332, p.654). Ordinarily this is something I’d be skeptical about. After all I jumped on the bandwagon bashing evo-psyche in the comments of Dustin’s recent post and I’ve blogged about the overblown promises of Culturenomics. But this so-called Darwinian literary criticism is kind of neat. In parts.
First a word about the news piece itself. The author, Sam Kean, comes across as overtly sympathetic to the cause of Darwinian literary criticism and seems to shares his subject’s – Joseph Carroll, the originator of this school of thought – dim view of contemporary literary scholarship. This unreflective, uncritical approach yields a rather dissatisfying article.
It seems this kind of thing is quite unpopular in some literary circles (shocking!), even getting panned in a recent issue of Critical Inquiry (ouch!). But our journalist takes this to mean that the man is some sort of hero and his brilliant idea is getting squashed by poststructural, postcolonial phonies. These “fashionable” theories, along with Freud and Marx, he writes, have all “dismissed the idea that evolutionary pressures have shaped human nature, attributing all human nature to culture instead.”
Anybody who thinks Marx dismisses Darwin needs to stop reading Wikipedia.
So what is this beast, Darwinian literary criticism? Here are some basics, as best I can tell:
- DLC is interested in how adaptive benefits might have accrued through storytelling.
- Storytelling is a universal human behavior, its just that it is expressed differently by different cultures
- Protagonists in fiction display pro-social and alturistic behaviors, hence why readers identify with them
- Conflict in fiction illustrates competition over resources
- Fiction, ultimately, is a reenactment of social preferences rooted in evolution: cooperation is rewarded, selfishness is devalued
- The ability to create fiction gave our ancestors some evolutionary advantage because it offered a risk-free venue to rehearse or experiment with different social situations
- As an evolved trait, the ability to create fiction can be understood as akin to play in animals
- There would have been social-functional benefits to storytelling as well, promoting cohesion
- Individuals endowed with the ability to create works of art highly valued in their societies might have reaped improved access to preferred mates
The field itself is portrayed as quite heterogeneous with internal debates, differing opinions of Carroll, and engaged is multiple ways with anthropology, evolutionary psychology, and cognitive science.
I came away from the piece aligned with something Steven Pinker said, that DLC might help us learn where the desire to create and consume fiction came from, but that it may be less useful in helping us understand and interpret specific texts. Some proponents of DLC, however, assert that it is a particularly valuable way to understand Hamlet or Jane Austen, for instance.
Also I was brought to question Carroll’s motives. What drove him, on a personal level, to turn to science? I could cite here any of a number of widely circulated blog posts and journalistic accounts of the crisis in the humanities. Among those arguments as to why this is happening I’ve never bought into the notion that the humanities are impractical or frivolous because they don’t produce anything of value or encourage marketable skills in its students.
Carroll, however, is decidedly in this camp. To him, the humanities, “is unable to contribute in any useful way to the serious world of adult knowledge.” Boy, this guy sounds like a barrel of laughs! What’s the matter buddy, get shot down by a feminist?
Unfortunately the news article completely ignores the epistemological issues of introducing new methodologies to the study of literature. The kind of knowledge that science produces is quite different from the knowledge that literary criticism produces. And though “we” know science’s truth claims to be provisional, the authority of science obscures this.
It’s easy to anticipate why some in literature would reject this line of inquiry. Since the 1970s the emphasis in the humanities has been on the study of power — domination, hegemony, emergent subjectivities, the role played by capital. Unless DLC can address this somehow it will be damned to the critique of Science and Technology Studies, namely that it is merely a vehicle for assigning power to the observer.
At times I was struck (somewhat haughtily, I’ll admit) by the sense that DLC, in their dialectic with evo-psche, were really just reinventing the wheel. On the one hand you have the evolutionary psychologists’ focus on biological behaviors. On their other hand you want to talk about how these behaviors are structuring and structured by works of human imagination. It kind of sounds like anthropology by other means, but without the self-reflection.
To me this raises questions about the future of anthropology and what makes us unique. Our territory, if anthropology could ever be said to have one, is not our own. If literary critics can can do human evolution, then what would happen if cutting edge social theory reengaged with it? We can create a new cultural ecology for the war on terror and neoliberalism. We’ll build a Justice League of top anthros from each of the four fields and put them to work together on one project.
Caveats abound. Still, there’s some interesting questions buried here. Why do humans tell stories? How can science improve the humanities? What can science learn from literature? Why aren’t we doing this already?