Darwinian Literary Criticism

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?

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR ‘hidden collections’ grant to describe the museum’s collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

9 thoughts on “Darwinian Literary Criticism

  1. “Many models are useful. All models are wrong.”

    Similarly: many metaphors are useful (provide insights). Simultaneously: all metaphors are wrong (factually incorrect).

    Darwinian models & metaphors are commonly used in many fields. They often provide a lens through which new insights are visible.

    That said — in the end, they’re all factually incorrect. (As they are in their home field as well. All models/theories/metaphors are useful but are in the end, overly simplistic & incorrect in terms of explaining all the known facts.)

    The pain point/point of argument, is determining when the model/metaphor diverges too far from reality.

    Some people fall in love with the metaphor/model & refuse to see when it’s diverged or become an obstacle vs an enlightenment. Others see its limitations but disagree on when/where the limitations exist.

    I’m not worried about anthropology as a broader field. People seem very hungry for more sophisticated ways to understand themselves, their societies, other societies & the world at large….that urge seems to be growing, not decreasing, as the world gets smaller thanks to technological & economic communications & interdependencies.

    As long as anthropology/anthropologists find ways to engage with people who want frameworks and mental tools to understand cultural & societal issues — anthropology will continue to be relevant.

  2. *SteVen Pinker. Common mistake. I even saw it in a published article by Maurice Bloch, of all people.

    The kind of knowledge that science produces is quite different from the knowledge that literary criticism produces.

    Yes, science produces knowledge (“scientia”), and literary criticism doesn’t. That is quite different indeed. 😛

    And though “we” know science’s truth claims to be provisional, the authority of science obscures this.

    Why is it authoritative? Because even though those truth claims are provisional to some degree, some things can be known, and known through the scientific method, and we can know for a fact that some things are more wrong than others. It’s a naive view that science is just provisional, or that its authority isn’t on stable ground, or just an illusion created by white coats, jargon, and confidence. Try this essay by Isaac Asimov on for size:

    Originally, ‘the humanities’ seems to have meant ‘our’ things – the things of Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Rome, and the Bible – that were at the core of ‘our’ civilization. Studying these things was morally improving. This is how Petrarch meant it, I believe. Obviously, this is no longer tenable as a notion, and hasn’t been for some time. There is no ‘we’ to have an ‘our’, and the division between high and low culture, which is seemingly rather important to moral improvement, has disappeared, as has the notion of moral improvement in that way. So what is ‘the humanities’ now? It seems to be rather amorphous, and no one in the humanities seems to want to say that other humanities scholars are just flat out wrong. They will say it about simplistic Darwinian views, though. Why is that? Academic territoriality? Maybe an analysis of the reaction in the literary community would yield more Darwinian paydirt than the analysis of the literature in the first place!

    Just to be clear, I’m just jerking your chain. I don’t want the humanities to disappear, and I’m not trying to advance a scientistic agenda.

  3. As a university student of Medieval English, and lover of all things evolutionary outside my academic world, I find this very intriguing, though I think there are obviously a lot of problems with Carroll’s views, and (as ever!) I seem to side with Pinker’s assessment of the issue.

    One thing that I have found interesting, however, is the potential applicability of evolutionary theory in certain literary realms such as Anglo-Saxon (Old English) literature. This is because a large part of the corpus is both anonymous, and was transmitted by word of mouth for decades if not centuries before being transcribed – often multiple times with variation in each.

    Clearly, this is quite separate to the issues discussed in your article, as this kind of literary evolution is not so much concerned with authorial intention or ability as it is with the actual shaping of a text for which there is no determined author, and thus raises further questions about the cultural shaping of a text etc.

    I first came across the idea in Michael D. C. Drout’s ‘How Tradition Works: a Meme-Based Cultural Poetics of the Anglo-Saxon Tenth Century’, though I don’t think my tutor was all that engaged by a memetics-based essay!

    I find it fascinating just how alien this idea is to us in the modern world – the nearest we get would no doubt be fairy tales that are passed down through the generations, but we have such a preoccupation with authorship and ‘correctness’ that we use technology such as the internet to spread and homogenise one form of a story, claiming it to be ‘definitive’, rather than embracing variation without attribution (after all, no one’s going to make money if they don’t stamp their name and some copyright to a text).

  4. These DLC types don’t perceive themselves as working in the realm of metaphor any more than “real scientists” do. We’re not talking about a survival-of-the-fittest style, genre, or tone. They see themselves as doing evolutionary psychology with literature as their data set.

    Evo-psyche is certainly not without its critics. You can count me among them. But few “real scientists” (if that’s what they are) see themselves as producing mere models of reality, rather they believe they are describing reality itself. Of course, practitioners of witchcraft think that witchcraft produces reliable descriptions of reality, so…

    Nevertheless, as Al insists, scientific descriptions of reality are objectively verifiable. Or at least they are the best we can do at the moment and might be improved upon later. What goes unaddressed are the latent power dynamics inherent in any effort to produce scientific knowledge. Hence the feminist critique of science and STS: science does not exist in a social vacuum but ought to be seen as embedded in a broader cultural context.

    On a whole I find this mess really intriguing but problematic. I humbly suggest that anyone thinking of venturing into these choppy interdisciplinary waters, whether in Medieval English or whatever, ought to attend to the politics of knowledge. And do a damn good job reading Darwin, Gould, Dawkins, and Mayr.

    ** fixed typo in Pinker’s name, thanx

  5. I’m pretty sure there is a lot to be said for the understanding of how human cognitive abilities can be related in a generic way to the phenomenon of literature. It can fit perfectly with the ‘cultured brain’ and ‘extended mind’ concepts and how that is investigated in the archaeology of early humans.

    As to the content of texts, well I’m underwhelmed about what has been done. Somebody did this for Homer a few years back, I remember really not being convinced. To leave your wife and property for ten years (to be abused by the suitors) to risk your skin fighting for someone else’s wife, how’s that maximizing your offspring?

  6. ” I humbly suggest that anyone thinking of venturing into these choppy interdisciplinary waters, whether in Medieval English or whatever, ought to attend to the politics of knowledge.”
    A good suggestion. It should now be no mystery to anyone; science is a human activity and is, ipso facto, affected by all of the social and cultural factors as well as personal predilections of those involved in it as any other human activity. Among these are political reasons for choice of problem and approach and treatment of evidence, and the role of power affecting those reasons cannot be ignored.

    That said, the history of science is the history of efforts to develop methods that improve the odds of producing theories that better fit the data they purport to explain than previous theories. The startling successes of these methods has at times led people to think of them as almighty. They aren’t. But, to paraphrase Bourdieu, they are nonetheless worth careful consideration. The following are some possible frameworks for that consideration.

    First, from Noam Chomsky. In one of his earliest books, Chomsky discusses scientific method. He suggests that we approach in the spirit of an engineer analyzing the behavior of a black box. Before we consider what is inside the box, we study the inputs and outputs.

    On one mistaken but not uncommon view, the black box is a discovery procedure. The input is data and the output is Truth. Both the history of science and familiarity with what goes on in actual scientific research demonstrates that this is not, in fact, how science works.

    On a second, but still mistaken view, the black box is a decision procedure. The inputs are (1) data and (2) a theory and the output is a decision Right or Wrong. Again the history of science and familiarity with what goes on in actual scientific research demonstrates that this is not, in fact, how science works.

    On a third, and more plausible, view, the black box is an evaluation procedure. The inputs are (1) data and (2) at least two theories that purport to account for the data. The output is a provisional judgment that, given these data one of the theories is superior to the other(s). Both the history of science and familiarity with actual scientific research suggests that this is, in fact, how science works.

    But what is going on inside the black box? How is the evaluation made?

    Some problems and data sets lend themselves to the sorts of experiments on which physics is based. The two (or more) theories predict precise outcomes for specified conditions and one is demonstrably better than the other(s).

    Other problems are not amenable to experiments but do lend themselves to statistical analysis. Here there are always at least two theories, the null hypothesis of randomness versus significant difference and if data can be randomly sampled the mathematics of probability indicate that one or the other is more likely.

    Many problems, however, are amenable to neither simple experiments or statistical analysis. It is characteristic of these problems that a wide variety of data, often fragmentary at best, must be considered. The theories in question are stories whose quality differs depending on how much of the data is included and properly accounted for. A great deal of research in evolutionary biology, history, law, and, yes, literary criticism takes this form. The tricky bit is that, while the outcome of stories may be simple—thus, for example, the butler did it or, no, the colonel in the library using the candlestick was the killer—the connections between the various bits of data accounted for in the story are all severally problematic: was the clock in the library set correctly? Or deliberately set in a misleading manner? Was Jane really in love with Mr. Knightley or was he only the socially proper choice, while she harbored a secret passion for the groom? Was Hamlet’s revenge correct or was his uncle marrying his mother perfectly proper behavior (the Tiv interpretation)? Is the shape of a fin directly adaptive or only a spandrel, an accidental byproduct of some other adaptation?

    These sorts of questions pop up wherever storytelling replaces experiment or statistical analysis for lack of the kind of controlled context or random sampling that experiments and statistical analysis require. The question is then how to tell a better story from a worse one, which is where the old-fashioned scholarship that I have promoted in recent posts comes in. Are all of the available data considered? Are all of the relevant contexts taken into account? Is the narrative more compelling in light of everything we know than some other, competing story? Where the answers to all of these questions is “Yes,” then a case can be considered as proved beyond a reasonable doubt—until, that is, someone introduces new data or comes up with an even more compelling narrative.

    How, then, might these considerations apply to evolutionary accounts of literature? Exactly as they would to any interpretive theory that offers a narrative account of what we seem to know about literature, a literary genre, or a particular work. But here we may note a paradox. The broader the topic, e.g., “literature” the more abstract the data considered. Someone says, stories typically involve conflict. Sure. But conflicts vary all over the place from playground spats to global wars. Sharpen the focus and consider only stories whose protagonists are warriors. Now there are more details to consider. In what respects are _The Iliad_ and _The Red Badge of Courage_ similar or different, for example? The deeper we probe, the more diverse the data become. To be satisfactory, our narrative explanations must become more sophisticated. If they don’t, they can only be seen as shoddy work. This is, in fact, where evolutionary psychology usually fails. The stories sound plausible as long as the “facts” are presented in terms of stereotypes that fit popular preconceptions. Dig a bit, add more data, and they quickly fall apart. The same may be true of evolutionary approaches to literature or other cultural phenomena.

  7. Great response John. Still mulling it over, and has me itching to read some Gould (‘spandrels’).

  8. I’m wondering which of the supposed insights of DLC have not already been proposed by artists or literary critics of one stripe or another. What’s new or surprising about the claim that everyone tells stories (the psychic unity of humankind), that stories sanction moral behavior (Malinowski, Durkheim), or that artists get hot mates (Shakespeare in Love)?

    This is “literary criticism” by people who don’t know the history of literary criticism, i.e., the excitement of amateurs. It remains a fact that one can still learn more about human nature and the dilemmas of life from direct engagement with a single good novel or play than one can from an entire shelf of evolutionary psychology.

  9. I’d like to point out here that scientific findings – real, verifiable ones – surprisingly seldom have much connection to the beliefs of the people who did the experiments. William Shockley’s later support for eugenics had nothing to do with the invention of the transistor. And, as Latour showed, Louis Pasteur’s reactionary politics had nothing much to do with his studies in microbiology. Criticisms of science tend to focus on hypotheticals and certain dubious investigations that had no empirical support anyway, like Kanazawa’s unsupportable, unscientific dreck, and that kind of thing can be refuted on empirical and otherwise scientific grounds, not just critiqued in some cultural way by humanities scholars. This is why Latour’s views are on the ascendent: because the traditional relativist ‘critique’ of science in general could show no real results. Politics and science can and should be separated, and as a matter of ideology in science, they are. That’s what’s so great about it. Trying to fuse the two in analysis is only occasionally useful – in particular, in finding out why a study turned out to be wrong, and not why all studies are wrong or inherently flawed (cf. Irigaray and Einstein, which makes me, well, guffaw).

    Was Hamlet’s revenge correct or was his uncle marrying his mother perfectly proper behavior (the Tiv interpretation)? Is the shape of a fin directly adaptive or only a spandrel, an accidental byproduct of some other adaptation?

    These questions are different in kind, and the latter is responsive to statistical arguments and testing, unlike the former, which also has the disadvantage of being subjective, or at least intersubjective, rather than having an absolute external reference. You are right – they are about providing a best fit model, because the data can be equivocal on points and they are so far abstracted from the basic constituent bits of the universe. But only in that sense are they similar, I think.

    I’d agree that evolutionary psychology probably has little to add. Honestly, I think it has little to add to much, even outside of literature, although I appreciate the speculation, and some of it is quite good. It’s not much more scientific than the speculations of McLennan, in some respects. For insights into the evolutionary heritage of humans, I like a good chunk of primatology – an empirical science that can shed light on human origins (and how – Bernard Chapais’ “Primeval Kinship” gave me chills). But to each their own. Trying to ally science and the study of human phenomena is never a bad idea (until it becomes prescriptive, of course…).

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