The Purpose and Scope of this Study
The research described in this book is designed to help bridge the gap between science and literary scholarship. Building on findings in the evolutionary human sciences, we constructed a model of human nature and used it to illuminate the evolved psychology that shapes the organization of characters in nineteenth-century British novels (Austen to Forster). Using categories from the model, we created a web-based survey and induced hundreds of readers to give numerical ratings to the attributes of hundreds of characters. Participants also rated their own emotional responses to the characters. Our findings enable us to draw conclusions on several issues of general interest to literary scholars—especially the determinacy of literary meaning, the interaction between gendered power relations and the ethos of community, and the evolutionary basis for telling stories and listening to them. The data on novels of the whole period provide an interpretive base line against which we graph the distinctive features of the novels in two case studies: all the novels of Jane Austen, and Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge.
This kind of research crosses several boundaries not usually crossed in literary study. Readers might thus reasonably wonder what to make of it—why we did it, and how we hope it might influence the whole field of literary study. To answer such questions, in the next section of the introduction, we locate our effort in a historical and theoretical context that includes the development of modern empirical methods, the conflict between “the two cultures,” the decline of the humanities, the growth of the evolutionary human sciences, and the emergence of “literary Darwinism” as a distinct school of literary theory—part of a “third culture” that integrates research in the life sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. In the conclusion to the book, we compare the research in Graphing Jane Austen with work in other schools of literary theory that take up similar subjects, engage similar themes, adopt similar ideas, or use similar methods.
Moving Past the Two Cultures
Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate in physics, makes a compelling case that the most important development in knowledge since ancient Greek philosophy consists in deploying empirical methods (Dreams 10). Those methods include formulating testable hypotheses, producing quantitative evidence, and using that evidence to falsify or confirm hypotheses. Researchers began to rely on empirical methods first in the Renaissance, roughly at the same time that humanists began both to recuperate ancient literature and to develop a distinctively modern form of literary culture. In some ways, science and the humanities have since them influenced each other. Scientific questions have emerged out of large imaginative and philosophical paradigms. And the humanities have absorbed information from science, adjusting their imaginative vision to the changing world picture produced by scientific discovery. Nonetheless, in method science and the humanities have remained fundamentally distinct.
In contrast to the culture of modern science, scholarship in the humanities progresses, if at all, by way of argument and rhetoric. More often than not, humanists believe that rhetoric operates within a qualitative realm radically incompatible with quantitative forms of evidence. In its most scholarly guise, traditional literary study aims at producing objective textual and historical information. Scholars weigh alternative explanations against the evidence. In the hands of a judicious scholar, this method can produce valuable results. Still, it has two serious deficiencies: (1) it contains no means for combating “confirmation bias”—the selective use of evidence to confirm favored hypotheses; and (2) it contains no means for settling differences between two or more plausible but incompatible hypotheses. In The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (1959), C. P. Snow charged literary scholars with ignorance of scientific facts, but the absence of neutral, objective methods for assessing the validity of ideas is a deeper, more serious problem than the ignorance of particular facts.
All efforts at interpreting evidence are encompassed within larger theoretical paradigms (Kuhn). In literary scholarship, those paradigms have often been speculative and rhetorical in character. During roughly the first two thirds of the twentieth century, the most common interpretive frameworks available to literary study included quasi-scientific systems of thought drawn from outside the realm of humanistic culture—most prominently from Marxism (sociology and economics), Freudianism and Jungianism (psychology and anthropology), and Structuralism (linguistics and anthropology). The majority of literary critics did not clearly or unequivocally subscribe to any of these paradigms. Instead, most critics operated as eclectic free agents, spontaneously gleaning materials for interpretive models from the whole field of human discourse—from science, literature, philosophy, social science, history, current events, and common knowledge. This method can be designated “pluralistic humanism.” The method is something like that of the Bower Bird, an artistic scavenger who carefully combs his territory, looking for shells, feathers, stones, or other bits of brightly colored material with which to decorate his bower, interrupted only by the necessities of eating, mating, and attacking and disrupting the artistic constructions of his competitors.
Old-fashioned literary Marxism, Freudianism, and structuralism sought to produce rhetorical “knowledge”—that is, interpretive commentary—in rough concord with a conceptual order supposed by its proponents to possess some solid grounding in scientific fact. Practitioners of pluralistic humanism, in contrast, typically conceived of their work as an alternative and autonomous order of knowledge—an order imaginative, subjective, and qualitative—and thus independent of scientific knowledge and incommensurate with it. In practice, it is not possible for any humanist to operate in a realm untouched by scientific information, but the claim for autonomy left the individual humanist free to pick and choose his rhetorical materials with no constraint other than that exercised by his or her own individual sense of what was plausible or rhetorically striking.
Over the past four decades or so, all these older
forms of literary criticism have been partially assimilated to a new critical
episteme and partially superseded by it. The new episteme is called by various
names: “poststructuralism,” “postmodernism,” “cultural constructivism,”
“cultural critique,” “critical theory,” or most broadly and simply, “Theory.”
For convenience, we shall refer to the new episteme as “poststructuralism” but
ask readers to understand that term in its broadest signification, including in
it the whole array of attitudes and assumptions associated with the various
alternative designations. Whatever one chooses to call it, the new episteme has
incorporated Freudianism and Marxism (particularly in their Lacanian and
Althusserian forms), but it has also overtly rejected the idea that empirical
research can produce “objective” knowledge. Instead, it has envisioned science
itself as a form of ideologically driven rhetoric, and it has thus subordinated
scientific forms of knowledge to the kind of speculative theory that more
typically characterizes the humanities. As
In literary studies, the key to subordinating science to rhetoric can be found in deconstructive philosophy. As practiced by Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller, Geoffrey Hartman, and their associates, deconstruction envisions all human cognition as operating within an all-encompassing realm of unstable and self-undermining semiotic activity. Deconstruction is no longer very prominent as a distinct school, but it remains a core element in poststructuralist thinking. The epistemological skepticism for which deconstruction provided a rationale was a theoretical prerequisite for the political criticism that has dominated literary studies since the 1980s. In the absence of progressive, empirical knowledge, all signs, even scientific signs, can be conceptualized as media for power politics. Current political criticism typically interprets discursive formations as symbolic enactments of a struggle between ruling social groups and subversive forms of group social identity, especially those of gender, race, and class.
One often now hears that “Theory,” meaning poststructuralist theory, is a thing of the past. In reality, most literary scholars have not left poststructuralist theory behind but have only internalized it. The categories they use derive chiefly from Foucauldian traditions: versions of Marxism and Freudianism filtered through deconstructive epistemology. Despite the many eulogies pronounced over the corpse of “Theory,” in a survey of citations of books in the humanities in the year 2007, the most frequently cited authors were either the main luminaries in poststructuralist theory or thinkers who have been assimilated to the poststructuralist paradigm, especially Marxists, Freudians, and contributors to “the cultural construction of science” (“Most Cited Authors”). The top three, in this order, were Foucault, Bourdieu, and Derrida. The top ten included Habermas, Judith Butler, and Bruno Latour. Freud and Deleuze ranked 11th and 12th. A group of thirty-seven authors whose books had been cited 500 times or more included Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Barthes, and Lacan. Perhaps needless to say, it did not include Darwin, Huxley, Edward O. Wilson, Sarah Hrdy, Robin Dunbar, Steven Pinker, or any other writer closely associated with evolutionary thinking in the human sciences.
Louis Menand, a distinguished senior literary scholar and an advocate of poststructuralist theory, recognizes that younger scholars in the humanities can declare themselves “post-theory” only because they have so completely internalized its axioms:
There is a post-theory generation, bristling with an “it’s all over” attitude, but when people of my generation look at the post-theory people, we recognize them immediately. They’re the theory people. And their attitude is not “You’ve got it all wrong.” It’s “Stop repeating yourselves; we know this stuff better than you do.” . . .
The profession is not reproducing itself so much as cloning itself. One sign that this is happening is that there appears to be little change in dissertation topics in the last ten years. Everyone seems to be writing the same dissertation, and with a tool kit that has not altered much since around 1990. (12-13)
Though Menand himself thinks “Theory” is profoundly right, he deplores the way younger scholars simply take it as a given. They seem unable to think critically about the fundamental ideas that guide their practice.
In short, for decades now nothing much has really changed in the way most humanists think. For close on two decades, though, the humanities have clearly been in crisis, demoralized by falling enrolments and funding, by eroding prestige within and beyond the academy, and by a sense of repetition and intellectual exhaustion (Gottschall, Literature). Monographs, edited volumes, and special journal issues have been devoted to “the crisis in the humanities,” but few effective solutions have been proposed. The most common response is to deplore the dismal conditions, blame public misperceptions or the degrading influence of late-capitalist consumerism, suggest a stepped-up campaign in public relations, and advise humanists to do precisely what they are already doing, only more vigorously. Menand offers a fairly typical instance. He cites all the usual statistics indicating institutional decline and registers the wide-spread contempt with which the educated public regards the academic humanities. Even so, he can envision no real alternative to the paradigm within which he himself works. While casting about desperately for almost any form of renewal in the humanities, he sternly admonishes his colleagues that the one course they must not on any account pursue is “consilience,” that is, integrating literary study with the evolutionary human sciences. That option, he declares, would be “a bargain with the devil.” Instead, what scholars in the humanities need to do is “hunt down the disciplines whose subject matter they covet and bring them into their own realm” (14). That strategy has not worked before, but perhaps if we keep trying . . .
As literary culture has been moving steadily further away from the epistemological standards that characterize scientific knowledge, science has been approaching ever closer to a commanding and detailed knowledge of the phenomena most germane to literary culture: to human motives, human feelings, and the operations of the human mind. Evolutionary biology, psychology, and anthropology—along with all contiguous disciplines such as behavioral ecology, affective and social neuroscience, developmental psychology, and behavioral genetics—have begun to penetrate the inner workings of the mind and make it accessible to precise empirical understanding. In Steven Pinker’s provocative and stimulating title phrase, scientists are now in a position to give an ever more convincing account of How the Mind Works.
Over the past fifteen years or so, a group of literary
scholars has been assimilating findings from what Pinker calls “the new
sciences of human nature” (The Blank
Many “literary Darwinists” aim not just at creating another “approach” or
“movement” in literary theory; they aim at fundamentally altering the paradigm
within which literary study is now conducted. They want to establish a new
alignment among the disciplines and ultimately to encompass all other possible
approaches to literary study. They rally to Edward O. Wilson’s cry for
“consilience” among all the branches of learning. Like
Not surprisingly, the ambitions of the literary
Darwinists have often met with a skeptical response: “There have been previous
efforts to establish a scientifically based criticism—Marxism, psychoanalysis,
structuralism. All these efforts have failed. Why would yours be any
different?” A fair question. Here is our answer: This effort is different
because the historical moment is ripe. We now have, for the first time, an
empirically grounded psychology that is sufficiently robust to account for the
products of the human imagination.
Until the past few years, three theoretical deficiencies
hampered efforts to form a paradigm in evolutionary social science. Early
sociobiologists insisted that “selection” takes place only at the level of the
gene and the individual organism. David Sloan Wilson has spear-headed the now
largely successful effort to resuscitate the idea of “multi-level selection”
and use it as the basis for a more adequate understanding of human sociality. In
the 1990s, “Evolutionary psychologists” distinguished themselves from
sociobiologists by emphasizing “proximate mechanisms” that in ancestral
environments fostered reproductive success, but in constructing their model of
“the adapted mind,” they left out the idea of flexible general intelligence.
Books such as Kim Sterelny’s Thought in a
Hostile World (2003) and David Geary’s The
Origin of Mind (2005) demonstrate how that deficiency can be corrected. The
third major deficiency was an inadequate appreciation of “gene-culture
co-evolution”—the idea that culture operates in reciprocally causal ways with
the genetically transmitted features of human nature. That barrier, too, is now
giving way. Theorists such E. O. Wilson,
We believe these three gradual corrections have now produced a conceptual framework with the explanatory power of a true paradigm. Over the next few years, research in evolutionary literary study will provide a crucial test for the validity of this belief. The decisive evidence will be whether the literary Darwinists generate a cumulative body of explanatory principles that are in themselves simple and general but that nonetheless encompass the particularities and complexities of literature and the other arts. The research described in this book is offered as one contribution to that effort.
Graphing Jane Austen
The central concept in this study is “agonistic” structure: the organization of characters into protagonists, antagonists, and minor characters. We asked this question: does agonistic structure reflect evolved dispositions for forming cooperative social groups? Within the past decade or so, evolutionists in diverse disciplines have made cogent arguments that human social evolution has been driven partly by competition between human groups. That competition is the basis for the evolution of cooperative dispositions—dispositions in which impulses of personal domination are subordinated, however imperfectly, to the collective endeavor of the social group. Suppressing or muting competition within a social group enhances group solidarity and organizes the group psychologically for cooperative endeavor. Drawing on our own impressions about the features of temperament and moral character that typify characters in novels of the nineteenth century, we hypothesized that protagonists would form communities of cooperative endeavor and that antagonists would exemplify dominance behavior. And this is indeed what we found. In these novels, protagonists and their friends typically form communities of affiliative and cooperative behavior. Antagonists are typically envisioned as a force of social domination that threatens the very principle of community.
Three main arguments
On the basis of the data collected through the questionnaire, we make three main arguments (1) that the novels in this study contain determinate structures of meaning that can be captured using the categories in our research design (chapter three); (2) that differences between protagonists and antagonists are much more structurally prominent than differences between male and female characters (chapter four); and (3) that agonistic structure in these novels fulfills an adaptive social function (chapter five).
Under the influence of deconstructive skepticism, literary theorists have often affirmed that meanings are inherently indeterminate because they are inescapably caught up in semiotic slippages that produce irreconcilable implications. Writing two decades ago, D. A. Miller puts it thus: “Whenever a text makes confident claims to cognition, these will soon be rendered undecidable” (Novel, x-xi). Adopting strong versions of Kuhn’s theory of “paradigms,” literary theorists have often also affirmed that every structure of meaning changes systemically in accordance with the interpretive framework being used. In the most extreme version of this idea, meaning is always pre-emptively determined—essentially created—by an “interpretive community” (Fish). Our findings lead us to conclusions different from both deconstructive indeterminacy and strong interpretive constructivism. We asked questions about the attributes of characters and the emotional responses of readers. The high degree of convergence in the answers to these questions suggests that authors determine which attributes readers see in characters and how they respond emotionally to those attributes.
For many decades now, no feature in personal and social identity has received more critical attention than sex and gender. Much of this criticism has taken as its central theme struggles for power based on sex. In chapter two, in the section “Male and Female Characters by Male and Female Authors,” we describe data on the way female authors depict female protagonists. In that data, we detect an undercurrent of feminist revolt. In chapter, four, though, we describe data indicating that struggles for power based on sex are less important than struggles for power based on the conflict between dominance and cooperation. Despite differences of sex, male and female protagonists are much more similar to each other than either are to male and female antagonists. Male and female antagonists, also, are much more similar to each other than either are to male or female protagonists. In the features that distinguish characters, being a protagonist or antagonist matters more than being male or female. This finding leads us to reconsider some of the basic assumptions that have guided feminist literary theory. We argue that feminist theory is troubled by a nagging, unresolvable conflict between “social constructivism” and “essentialism”—the contrasting ideas that sexual identity is an arbitrary social convention and that it is an irreducible, transcendent category. We identify the elements of truth in both constructivism and essentialism, reconcile them, and suggest a more consistent and comprehensive framework for analyzing gender in both life and fiction.
One of the most hotly debated issues in evolutionary studies in the humanities is whether the arts fulfill any adaptive function at all. Various theorists have proposed possible adaptive functions, for instance, reinforcing the sense of a common social identity (Boyd, Origin; Dissanayake), fostering creativity and cognitive flexibility (Boyd, Origin), enhancing pattern recognition (Boyd, Origin), serving as a form of sexual display (G. Miller), providing information about the physical and social environment (Scalise-Sugiyama, “Food”), offering game-plan scenarios to prepare for future problem-solving (Dutton; Pinker, How the Mind Works; Scalise Sugiyama, “Narrative”; Swirski), focusing the mind on adaptively relevant problems (Dissanayake; Salmon and Symons, “Slash Fiction”; Tooby and Cosmides, “Does Beauty Build?), and providing a virtual imaginative world through which people make emotional sense of their experience (Carroll, “An Evolutionary Paradigm,” “Rejoinder”; Deacon; Dissanayake; Dutton; E. O. Wilson, Consilience).
One chief alternative to the idea that the arts provide some adaptive function is that literature and the other arts are like the color of blood or the gurgling noise of digestion—a functionless side-effect of adaptive processes. The data on agonistic structure point to a different conclusion. The ethos reflected in the agonistic structure of the novels replicates the egalitarian ethos of hunter-gatherers, who stigmatize and suppress status-seeking in potentially dominant individuals (Boehm). By supporting group solidarity, the egalitarian ethos fulfills an adaptive function for hunter-gatherers. If agonistic structure in the novels engages the same social dispositions that animate hunter-gatherers, our study would lend support to the hypothesis that literature can fulfill at least one adaptive social function. We argue that the novels enable readers to participate vicariously in an egalitarian social dynamic like that in hunter-gatherer societies. That vicarious participation presumably influences actual behavior (Anderson et al.). If participating in an egalitarian social dynamic had adaptive value for ancestral populations, artistic media designed to foster egalitarian dispositions would presumably fulfill the same adaptive function.
Not all novels deploy morally polarized forms of
agonistic structure in the clear-cut way exemplified by the average scores
across the whole body of novels in this study. Agonistically problematic novels
The Scope of Our Claims
Assuming we can make a convincing case for all three of the arguments described in the previous section, how far can we generalize from those conclusions to all literature, in every period and every culture? Logically, it is possible that no other literary texts anywhere in the world contain determinate meanings, display differences between protagonists and antagonists more prominent than differences between male and female characters, or fulfill any adaptive function at all. Hypothetically possible, but not very likely. If our arguments hold good for this body of texts, they demonstrate that determinate meaning is at least possible, that in at least one body of classic texts agonistic role assignment—being a protagonist or antagonist—looms larger than gender role assignment, and that the organization of characters in at least one important body of fictional narratives reflects evolved social dispositions that in ancestral populations fulfilled adaptive functions. It seems unlikely that in these three important respects this body of novels is wholly anomalous.
In proposing that agonistic structure in these novels fulfills an adaptive social function, we do not imagine that we have isolated the sole adaptive function of all literature. Quite the contrary. Along with other evolutionary theorists, we strongly suspect that literature fulfills other functions. Even if it is only one among other possible adaptive functions for narrative and drama, could we reasonably conclude that agonistic structure is a human universal—a formal structure that would appear in the narrative and dramatic productions in all cultures, at all periods, everywhere in the world? We argue that the social dynamics animating these novels derive from ancient, basic features of human nature. Such features would in all likelihood appear in some fictional narratives in most or all cultures. If morally polarized agonistic structure is in fact a human universal, we would be interested to know how it varies in form in different cultural ecologies. Marriage—the “publicly recognized right of sexual access to a woman deemed eligible for childbearing”—is a human universal but varies in form from culture to culture (D. Brown, 136). We might expect agonistic structure, like marriage, to vary in form. These questions would make good topics of research for other studies. Until those studies are conducted, though, the topics are only a matter for theoretical speculation. For this current study, we can positively affirm only the conclusions we think our data allow us to draw. Hence the limiting terms in our subtitle: paleolithic politics in British novels of the nineteenth century.
As a literary topic, British novels of the longer nineteenth century (Austen to Forster) is fairly broad, but our theoretical and methodological aims ultimately extend well beyond the specialist fields of British novels, the nineteenth century, British literature, narrative fiction, or even literary scholarship generally. We aim at engaging literary scholars in all fields and evolutionary scientists too. We hope to persuade literary scholars that empirical methods offer rich opportunities for the advancement of knowledge about literature, and we hope to persuade evolutionary human scientists that the quantitative study of literature can shed important light on fundamental questions of psychology. Our own research team combines these two prospective audiences. Two of us (Carroll and Gottschall) have been trained primarily as literary scholars, and two of us (Johnson and Kruger) primarily as psychologists.
While reaching out to these two academic audiences, we also hope to interest readers, inside and outside academe, who read classic novels and/or serious non-fiction for the sheer pleasure of it. Agonistic structure is deeply embedded in the human imagination. It influences most phases of our imaginative life—religion, philosophy, history, political ideology, workplace gossip, video games, sports, movies. An evolutionary understanding of agonistic structure can illuminate many dark corners of our cultural experience.
The organization of the book
In the first chapter, we describe the main features of our research design, explain methods for scoring characters, and offer guidance on assessing the reliability of the scores. In chapter two, we lay out the results and give examples of scores in each set of categories. In chapters three through five, we discuss the significance of our findings in three main areas: the determinacy of meaning, sexual politics, and the adaptive function of agonistic structure. Chapters six and seven consist in case studies for authors and novels about which we have especially abundant data. In the conclusion, we come back to the largest themes in this introduction, comparing our approach with other approaches current in literary study, evaluating the charge that literary Darwinism is “reductive,” and assessing our own results in relation to an ideal of a complete and comprehensive form of interpretive criticism.
have contributed helpful comments on part or all of this book while it was in
progress, notably Brian Boyd, Gwendolyn Carroll, Paula Carroll, Mark Collard,
 Prominent poststructuralist critiques of science include Feyerabend; Latour and Woolgar; Levine, One Culture; Peterfreund; Rorty; B. Smith; Woolgar. Critiques of poststructuralist conceptions of science include Boghossian; J. Brown; Fromm, “My Science Wars,” “Science Wars and Beyond,” The Nature; Gottschall, “The Tree”; Gross and Levitt; Gross, Levitt, and Lewis; Koertge; Parsons; Slingerland; Sokal and Bricmont; Weinberg, Dreams, Facing Up; E. O. Wilson, Consilience.
 See for instance Attridge and Elliott; Eagleton. After Theory; Lopez and Potter; McQuillan, Purves, MacDonald, and Thomson; Payne and Schad.
 For a critical commentary on Menand’s essay, see Boyd, “Getting It All Wrong.”
 For instance, see Berubé and Nelson; Feal; Critical Inquiry 30 (2004); New Literary History 36 (2005).
 For surveys of
contributions to evolutionary literary study, see Carroll, “An Evolutionary
Paradigm,” “Evolutionary Approaches.” For collections of Darwinist literary
theory and criticism, see Andrews and Carroll; Boyd, Carroll, and Gottschall;
Cooke and Turner; Gottschall and
 For arguments on using empirical methods to renovate literary study, see Gottschall, Literature, “Quantitative Literary Study.” For previous efforts to combine evolutionary conceptions with empirical methods in literary study, see Carroll and Gottschall; Gottschall, Literature; Gottschall et al., “Are the Beautiful Good?” “Greater Emphasis,” “Results,” “Sex Differences,” “The Beauty Myth,” “The Heroine”; Kruger, Fisher, and Jobling.
 Sober and
 For historical commentaries on developments in the evolutionary human sciences, see Barrett, Dunbar, and Lycett 8-21; D. Buss, 1-35; Dunbar and Barrett, “Evolutionary Psychology”; Gangestad and Simpson, “An Introduction”; Hagen and Symons; Laland and Brown; Mamelli; Pinker, “Foreword”; Sterelny 234-35; E. O. Wilson, Sociobiology v-viii. For collections that provide an overview of current thinking in the evolutionary human sciences, see D. Buss, Handbook; Dunbar and Barrett; Gangestad and Simpson, Evolution.
 On the co-evolution of inter-group rivalry
and within-group cooperation, see Alexander, Biology
220-35; Axelrod and Hamilton; Bingham; Boehm; Cummins; Darwin, 1: 70-106;
Deacon; Eibl-Eibesfeldt, Human Ethology, “Us”;
Flinn, Geary, and Ward; Geary, Origins
136-39, 142-44, 247-48; Katz; Kenrick, Maner, and Li; Krebs; Kurzban and
Neuberg; Nesse; Richerson and Boyd, Not by Genes,
“Evolution”; Salter; Schaller, Park, and Kenrick; D. L. Smith, 129-46; Sober
and Wilson, 159-95, 329-37; Premack and Premack; Ridley; Turchin; D. S. Wilson,
“Evolutionary Processes,” Evolution, “Human Groups,” “Role”; Wilson and
Wilson. For an
overview of Victorian debates on the existence of altruism, see
 For overviews of the controversy over the adaptive function of the arts, see Boyd, “Evolutionary Theories,” On the Origin of Stories; Carroll, “An Evolutionary Paradigm” 119-28, “Rejoinder” 349-68.