Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Literary Darwinist Program

What should Literary Darwinists be doing? Doing evolutionary psychological analyses of characters? Trying to understand the evolutionary origins of storytelling, genre, etc.? Trying to explain, using evolution, why some works of literature are successful, and why others fail? Trying to develop a "natural classicism" that explains the common foundations of all works of literature, across cultures? Finding hints of evolutionary understanding in works of literature? Trying to develop experiments to confirm hypotheses we develop from evolutionary theory? (Others I'm not thinking of at the moment?) Some combination thereof?



  1. All of the above. Anything else? The main thing that springs to mind is using an evolutionary framework to assess the total meaning structure in literature--not just represented characters but also the interactions among authors and readers (points of view, grounded in identities), with the point of view of characters serving as the central live circuit between authors and readers.

    A few months ago, I wrote a paragraph on this general question for a forthcoming Blackwell's Encyclopedia of Literary and Cultural Theory. Here's what I said:

    In its simplest, crudest forms, evolutionary literary criticism consists only in identifying basic, common human needs—survival, sex, and status, for instance—and using those categories to describe the behavior of characters depicted in literary texts. More ambitious efforts pose for themselves an overarching interpretive challenge: to construct continuous explanatory sequences linking the highest level of causal evolutionary explanation to the most particular effects in individual works of literature. Within evolutionary biology, the highest level of causal explanation involves adaptation by means of natural selection. Starting from the premise that the human mind has evolved in an adaptive relation to its environment, literary Darwinists undertake to characterize the phenomenal qualities of a literary work (tone, style, theme, and formal organization), locate the work in a cultural context, explain that cultural context as a particular organization of the elements of human nature within a specific set of environmental conditions (including cultural traditions), identify an implied author and an implied reader, examine the responses of actual readers (for instance, other literary critics), describe the socio-cultural, political, and psychological functions the work fulfills, locate those functions in relation to the evolved needs of human nature, and link the work comparatively with other artistic works, using a taxonomy of themes, formal elements, affective elements, and functions derived from a comprehensive model of human nature.

    (I plagiarized that paragraph for the Wikipedia entry on literary Darwinism, too.)

    I'm particularly keen to see more empirical studies into the actual experience of reading, to see how it affects people, what they make of it, what the range of variation is, what forms of evolved emotional bias typically shape it, and so on. We need good comprehensive theoretical ideas working in progressive, dialectical interchange with solid, falsifiable empirical findings. We've had some. The big holdup is that people in the humanities aren't trained in empirical methods. and the people trained in empirical methods understand far too little about imaginative experience. What's worse, they don't think that imnaginative experience is particularly imnportant, or that interesting forms of research can take it as a subject. If that statement is true, it is indicative of a fundamental, woeful immaturity in the evolutionary human sciences, and also in the humanities. To get beyond it, we need new curricula, new graduate programs, shaped precisely to adopt an empirical ethos, replete with technical empirical expertise, in the study of literature and other areas of the humanities. This need is so clearly central to the most important ways in which we can advance in our scientific understanding of human nature, that I feel confident we'll get there, that it will happen. I just don't know when. The blockages are large, but the momentum of change has been increasingly rapidly. We'll see.

  2. I agree with everything you mentioned.

    As for myself, I have a B.A. in recombinant gene technology, with a minor in chemistry, and two years of graduate work in molecular biology (before changing directions to English and the humanities), so I am in fact trained in empirical methods. And as a poet, short story writer, and playwright, I definitely understand the imaginative experience. And with my education in literature and literary theory, I have much of the work that bridges it all. What I don't have is an institution in which to do much of anything. I'm currently using my education to work night audit at a hotel, which leaves me little time to do much of anything, let alone have the facilities to do it in. Otherwise, I would be doing exactly what you suggest. But the fact is, to do such empirical work, one has to have the facilities. I'm still applying for English positions in the hopes that I can get to work on exactly these sorts of things.