Reading Human Nature: 

Literary Darwinism in Theory and Practice

SUNY Press



Table of Contents




Part One: Adaptationist Literary Theory

     Chapter 1. An Evolutionary Paradigm for Literary Study, with Two Sequels

     Chapter 2. An Evolutionary Apologia pro Vita Mea

     Chapter 3. A Meta-Review of The Art Instinct

     Chapter 4. Three Scenarios for Literary Darwinism


Part Two: Interpretive Practice

     Chapter 5. Aestheticism, Homoeroticism, and Christian Guilt in The Picture of Dorian Gray

     Chapter 6. The Cuckoo’s History: Human Nature in Wuthering Heights

     Chapter 7. Intentional Meaning in Hamlet


Part Three: Empirical Literary Study—An Experiment in Web-Based Research

     Chapter 8. Agonistic Structure in Victorian Novels: Doing the Math

     Chapter 9. Quantifying Agonistic Structure in The Mayor of Casterbridge


Part Four: Evolutionary Intellectual History

     Chapter 10. The Power of Darwin’s Vision

     Chapter 11. The Science Wars in a Long View

     Chapter 12. A Darwinian Revolution in the Humanities








Ever since I began integrating literary study and evolutionary psychology in the early 1990s, people have asked what moved me in this direction. Being in graduate school in the late seventies, I came of age, intellectually, just at the time that traditional methods in the humanities were giving place to poststructuralism. Not wanting to miss out on anything good, I tried reading some of the standard books from which my more avant garde colleagues were learning the new idioms—by Derrida, Foucault, de Man, and their acolytes. That was frustrating, because I found little in these books that answered to my own deepest intuitions about human nature and literature. Moreover, the books seemed fundamentally incoherent, not just illogical but overtly hostile to the principles of rational order that are a common heritage for descendants of the Enlightenment. Because I was irretrievably oriented toward rational inquiry, essays in deconstruction and Foucauldian cultural critique could not stimulate my own constructive efforts. Fairly baffled, I asked fellow graduate students what it was precisely about these works that they found so compelling. They could not tell me, at least not in ways that carried conviction for me, and for the most part they did not even try to offer reasons and explanations. Instead, they suggested that one must simply immerse one’s self in the rhetoric of the chief poststructuralist authorities, imitate them, and achieve conviction by way of osmosis, learning to occupy the same imaginative space as the masters. I was skeptical about the epistemic underpinnings of this strategy, and in any case it did not work for me, so going with the inexorably advancing poststructuralist tide was never really an option.

As an alternative to adopting “Theory,” I tried for a few years just to pursue historical scholarship and take up difficult interpretive cases. My book on Matthew Arnold was standard intellectual history, and my book on Wallace Stevens offered close readings as evidence for an original interpretive thesis—that Stevens was essentially a religious poet. I then took up Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurean, an enigmatic autobiography displaced into historical fiction. [1] In the year I spent on Pater, one specific moment stands out for me as emblematic for the decisive turn my career would next take. I was at a regional MLA conference giving a talk on psycho-sexual symbolism in Marius. After I had finished, someone popped up from the audience and remarked, smugly, “Ah, but professor Carroll hasn’t considered the way Foucault has problematized the concept of individual identity.” Actually, I had considered it, in my own mind, and rejected it. This moment brought into sharp relief the growing realization that it was not possible for me simply to ignore poststructuralism and go about my own business. Scholarship is a social enterprise, and if one is going to be heard, one has to engage the ideas of other scholars. Since I could not accommodate myself to poststructuralism, my only alternative was to formulate a completely different basis for literary study and to set that new basis into active opposition with the prevailing paradigm. 

I started by sketching out large-scale taxonomic schemes, re-working the territory colonized by Northrop Frye, while also formulating philosophical reasons for re-affirming three core ideas in traditional humanism: individual identity, authorial intentions, and reference to a real world. Then, in the early 1990s, I finally got around to reading On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. As I explain more fully in the chapter “An Evolutionary Apologia pro Vita Mea,” these two books had a massive impact on my imagination. They made it clear to me that all things human are contained within the scope of biological evolution. “All things human” include the products of the human imagination. Any effort to build a new framework for literary study would have to start there, with an evolved and adapted human nature, a human body and brain, giving due heed to biologically grounded motives, passions, and forms of cognition. About the same time that I was reading Darwin, I became aware that a neo-Darwinian revolution was already transforming the social sciences. Energized by the prospects thus opening out, I began the reading and writing that culminated, in 1995, in Evolution and Literary Theory. [2]

 In a widely disseminated essay, D. T. Max identifies Evolution and Literary Theory as the “founding text” in literary Darwinism. [3] It was indeed an early rallying point for scholars dissatisfied with “Theory” and fascinated by the new Darwinism in the human sciences. Some of my closest friends, though, share my own reservations about the book—that it is too long, that it follows the Christmas pudding recipe (stick in everything in the kitchen and stir vigorously), that it spends at least as much time pugnaciously attacking the follies of poststructuralism as it does delineating a different and better model of literary study, and that it uses evolutionary biology chiefly to confirm traditional critical concepts rather than to establish a new conceptual model.

In the years following Evolution and Literary Theory, I produced an edition of On the Origin of Species and continued to write essays in literary theory, criticism, and historical scholarship, reviews of evolutionary books, and commentaries on neighboring movements such as ecocriticism and cognitive poetics. Those writings were collected in Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature. [4] At the time it appeared, in 2004, this collection contained the most advanced thinking in the field. Nonetheless, almost as soon as it appeared, substantial parts of it were already becoming obsolete. The field as a whole is developing so fast, and my own thinking has been developing so continuously, that when people ask me for recommendations about guides to the best work in literary Darwinism, I no longer recommend any of the theoretical chapters in that earlier collection. For one thing, people who take evolutionary study seriously must constantly be assimilating new research in the evolutionary human sciences. Moreover, “evolutionary psychology” is not yet a fully formed paradigm. It is still in the process of integrating ideas about individual differences, flexible general intelligence, “group selection,” the peculiarly human capacities for symbolic thinking, the nature of the imagination, and the ways basic animal impulses interact with evolved dispositions for “culture.” While working on theoretical issues such as these, I’ve also been developing a better understanding of how to use evolutionary thinking for interpreting particular literary texts. And finally, in addition to refining theory and practice, I’ve added an item to the methodological tool kit used in Literary Darwinism: quantitative, empirical research.

            The four parts of this book display the full scope of research in evolutionary literary study as it is now practiced—theory, interpretive criticism, empirical research, and intellectual history. Some of the chapters have been published in other forms but have been re-worked to avoid repetition and to integrate ideas that have developed over time. For instance, I’ve written on the adaptive function of the arts in several essays that are not included in this volume. The thinking that went into those essays has been consolidated into a single substantial section of the first chapter. I’ve also published several introductory surveys to the field. Those surveys have been consolidated, condensed, and updated in another section of the first chapter. Jon Gottschall and I published an empirical article on characters in Victorian fiction that served as a pilot project for the more elaborate project we conducted in company with John Johnson and Dan Kruger. Like the first stage of a rocket, the pilot project has been left behind, superseded by the more advanced work included here.

The theoretical chapters in part one are arranged to give a progressive, developing overview of the whole field—past, present, and future. The first chapter, “An Evolutionary Paradigm for Literary Study” identifies the current position of literary Darwinism relative to the academic literary establishment, concisely summarizes the most significant contributions to the field, lays out the basic features of “human nature,” and takes up the most important challenges that have been directed against the Darwinists. The second chapter is an exercise in literary autobiography, locating my current perspective in relation to my literary experience over some five or six decades. The third chapter, reflecting on the enormous publicity generated by Denis Dutton’s The Art Instinct, offers an opportunity for taking the pulse of current cultural trends—the largely sympathetic response to evolutionary aesthetics among educated general readers, and the various forms of reaction stirred into protest over Dutton’s claims. In the final chapter in part one, I evaluate three alternative scenarios for literary study: one in which literary Darwinism remains outside the mainstream of literary study; one in which literary Darwinism is incorporated as just another of many different “approaches” to literature; and a third in which the evolutionary human sciences fundamentally transform and subsume all literary study. I weigh the force and durability of established practices and thus assess the prospects for future developments.

All the chapters in part two, “Interpretive Practice,” display in action the theoretical principles articulated in part one. The chapters are arranged in the sequence in which they were written, reversing the chronological order of the works under discussion: The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wuthering Heights, and Hamlet. The chapter on Dorian Gray examines interactions among species-typical sexual dimorphism, Wilde’s homosexuality, medieval Christian sentiment, and decadent aestheticism. The basic interpretive strategy bears a close affinity with the psychoanalytic idea that literary works are psychosexual symbolic constructs, but I do not, of course, embrace Freudian sexual psychology. Critics of literary Darwinism like to say that the Darwinists reduce humans and their imaginative constructs to a few basic impulses, ignoring subtleties of individual identity, literary form, and cultural context. [5] The chapter on Dorian Gray can stand as a refutation of such charges. The chapter on Wuthering Heights was for me something of a break-through. About the time I wrote it, I was finally developing a full systemic understanding of “human life history,” that is, the way all the components of human nature form an integrated functional complex. The commentary on Wuthering Heights is the first interpretive effort in which I bring that systemic understanding to bear on the total structure of meaning in a specific literary work. Affectional bonding between mothers and children is central to human nature. In commenting on Hamlet, I connect Bowlby’s theory of attachment with recent research into the neurophysiology of depression and an evolutionary understanding of individual differences in personality. All three of these commentaries engage critical traditions and take in reader responses as integral parts of literary meaning.

Part three contains two examples of empirical literary study. The research for these two chapters consists in a five-year long collaborative project conducted by two literary scholars (Jon Gottschall and me) and two evolutionary psychologists (John Johnson and Dan Kruger). (For the second chapter, a fifth member, Stelios Georgiades, joined the team.) Using the Web, we solicited numerical data on character attributes and reader responses to characters in about 200 British novels of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—Austen to Forster. We received about 1,600 responses—enough data for robust statistical results. The first chapter in this section gives an overview of the whole project. The second interprets the data on a single novel, Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge.  Because The Mayor of Casterbridge is an unusually difficult novel, with a problematic tonal organization, the critical tradition displays an exceptionally low degree of consensus. We make the case that quantitative analysis can break through the impasse produced by preconceived interpretive models.

The fourth part contains three ventures into intellectual history, organized like Russian Babushka dolls, working in chronological sequence, with the first chapter, the biggest doll, providing the context for the second chapter and the second providing the context for the third. In the first chapter, on On the Origin of Species, I compare paradigm change in Darwinian evolutionary biology with Thomas Kuhn’s model of scientific revolutions. I also give close attention to the sources of rhetorical power in Darwin’s masterpiece. In the second chapter, on the science wars since Darwin’s time, I concentrate on two specific exchanges: Arnold vs. Huxley, and Snow vs. Leavis. The misunderstandings in both these exchanges suggest that we are only just now, finally, coming to terms with the implications of Darwinism for the humanities. The last chapter, “A Darwinian Revolution in the Humanities,” can stand as a conclusion for the whole volume. It takes up all the main themes in the preceding essays, evocatively and impressionistically delineating intellectual change from Darwin’s time to our own, locating our current historical moment in a swirl of imaginative currents, some dying into eddies, and some gathering force as major new movements that will shape our future.



1 Joseph Carroll, The Cultural Theory of Matthew Arnold (Berkeley: U of California P, 1982); Joseph Carroll, Wallace Stevens’ Supreme Fiction: A New Romanticism (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1987); Joseph Carroll, “Pater’s Figures of Perplexity,” Modern Language Quarterly 52 (1991): 319-40.


2 Joseph Carroll, Evolution and Literary Theory (Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1995).


3 D. T. Max, “The Literary Darwinists,” The New York Times Magazine, 6 Nov. 2005,  77.


4 Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, ed. Joseph Carroll (1859; Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview, 2003); Joseph Carroll, Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature (New York: Routledge, 2004).


5 Frederick Crews, “Apriorism for Empiricists,” Style 42 (2008):155-60; William Deresiewicz, “Adaptation: On Literary Darwinism,” The Nation 8 June 2009, 26-31; Eugene Goodheart, Darwinian Misadventures in the Humanities (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2007); Eugene Goodheart, “Do We Need Literary Darwinism?” Style 42 (2008): 181-85; James M. Mellard, “’No ideas but in things’: Fiction, Criticism, and the New Darwinism,” Style 41 (2007): 1-29; Pinker, Steven. “Toward a Consilient Study of Literature.” Philosophy and Literature 31 (2007): 162-78; Roger Seamon, “Literary Darwinism as Science and Myth,” Style 42 (2008): 261-65; Edward Slingerland, “Good and Bad Reductionism: Acknowledging the Power of Culture,” Style 42 (2008): 266-71; Sebastian Smee, “Natural-Born Thrillers,” The Australian Literary Review, 6 May 2009, 17; Ellen Spolsky, “The Centrality of the Exceptional in Literary Study,” Style 42 (2008): 285-89; Blakey Vermeule, “Response to Joseph Carroll,” Style 42 (2008): 302-08.