Responses to the Target Article in Style


"An Evolutionary Paradigm for Literary Study"





Brian Boyd Harold Fromm Fotis Jannidis Roger Seamon
Gordon Burghardt Eugene Goodheart Frank Kelleter Edward Slingerland
Brett Cooke Jonathan Gottschall Amy Mallory-Kani & Ken Womack David L. Smith
Frederick Crews Torben Grodal David Miall Murray Smith
Ellen Dissanayake Geoffrey Harpham David Michelson Ellen Spolsky
Karl Eibl & Katja Mellmann Patrick Hogan Catherine Salmon Robert Storey
Lyle Eslinger Tim Horvath Judith Saunders Peter Swirski
Jeffrey Foy & Richard Gerrig Tony Jackson Michelle Scalise-Sugiyama Blakey Vermeule





Art as Adaptation: A Challenge


Brian Boyd

University of Auckland


            Joseph Carroll knows literary Darwinism not only through breaking in the field but also from helping so many newcomers over the fence, myself included. I agree with almost everything he writes in the bulk of the article, but since we learn more from disagreement, I will take issue with one section, The Adaptive Function of Literature. Carroll’s account of my own proposal seems to me inaccurate, and his own proposal seriously wanting.

            I have proposed that art is a human adaptation deriving from play, a widespread animal behavior.[1] Play evolved through the advantages of flexibility, of behavior not fully programmed genetically; the amount of play in a species correlates with its flexibility of action. Behaviors like escape and pursuit, attack and defense and social give-and-take can make life-or-death differences. Creatures with more motivation to practice such behaviors in situations of low urgency on average fare better at moments of high urgency. Animals that play repeatedly and exuberantly hone skills, widen repertoires and sharpen sensitivities. Play therefore has evolved to be highly self-rewarding. Because it is compulsive, animals engage in it again and again, incrementally altering muscle tone and neural wiring, strengthening and speeding up synaptic pathways, improving their capacity and performance.

Humans uniquely inhabit “the cognitive niche” (Tooby and De Vore). We therefore have an appetite for information, and especially for pattern, information that falls into meaningful arrays that allow rich inferences. Like other species, humans can assimilate information through the rapid processing that specialized pattern recognition allows, but unlike other species we also seek, shape and share information in open-ended ways. We actively pursue the patterns that make data swiftly intelligible, especially those yielding the richest inferences in our core information systems, the senses of sight and sound, and our most crucial domain, social information.

            Art is a kind of cognitive play with pattern. Just as play refines behavioral options over time by being self-rewarding, so art serves as a playground in which the mind increases cognitive skills, repertoires and sensitivities. Like play, art succeeds by engaging and rewarding attention, since the more focused our attention and the more frequent and intense our response the more powerful the neural consequences.[2] Art’s appeal to our preferences for pattern means that we expose ourselves to high concentrations of humanly appropriate information eagerly enough so that over time we strengthen the neural pathways that process key patterns in open-ended ways.

            Other functions follow from this. Individuals who can earn the attention of others through art gain in status. Emotional attunement in cognitively appealing forms improves social cohesion, as does the creation of engaging prosocial models. Fiction can create scenarios for reasoning about action in ways that earn attention, emotion and recall. Art can be appropriated by religion, to intensify traditions and social commitments, but it can also foster creativity, especially in large communities with high specialization of labor. Carroll critiques creativity as if it were the prime function I propose for art, when in my account it comes in fifth, and explicitly only because the other functions are already in place.

            I find it hard to understand Carroll’s proposal, so let me quote what I take to be his core claims: art “organiz[es] motivational systems disconnected from the immediate promptings of instinct. . . . The proliferation of possibilities in ‘mental scenarios’ detached from instinct produces a potential chaos in organizing motives and regulating behavior. The arts produce images of the world and of our experience of the world. Those images mediate our behavior and the elemental passions that derive from human life history.” Carroll rests much of his case on an appeal to the authority of E. O. Wilson, but Wilson—whom I admire on this side idolatry—offers little evidence for his claims.

            Carroll rightly approves Tinbergen’s famous four questions about any adaptation: where does it come from? (phylogeny); how does it develop? (ontogeny); what is it for? (ultimate function); how does it work? (mechanism or proximate function). Let us apply these criteria to his cognitive order proposal and my cognitive play proposal.

Phylogeny: Following Wilson, Carroll proposes a sharp discontinuity between the “instinct-driven” behavior of other animals and the human “proliferation of possibilities in ‘mental scenarios’ detached from instinct.” Modern ethologists who focus on animal cognition argue with much convincing evidence for deliberate, reflective strategizing in chimpanzees, orangutans, dogs, wolves, dolphins, and corvids. Chimpanzees have been found to outdo humans on at least one evolutionarily novel cognitive task.[3] We and capuchin monkeys alike have a visceral sense of fairness: we will choose to reject an offer, even at our own expense, if we deem it unfairly divided. Is this only instinct for a capuchin but something more for us?

            For the purpose of this argument at least, Carroll stresses only human exceptionalism, a sharp phylogenetic break, a rise above instinct into a massive mental proliferation of scenarios of possible action. He provides no evidence to show that humans regularly decide to act by selecting from “a prodigious and constantly updated library of scenarios” (Swirski 74, building on Wilson, cited by Carroll). We can indeed concoct scenarios but rarely have the time to fashion them in detail on the fly and test the network of forking if/then outcomes. We produce scenarios only serially, and therefore slowly, in the highly constricted space of working memory. It takes time to develop them, time we rarely have in the heat of the moment. Elsewhere Carroll rightly praises literature as a major repository of human self-knowledge. Odysseus, the most intelligent of Greek heroes, stops himself in Polyphemos’s cave because he can run one scenario forward and see that if he kills Polyphemos then they will all be trapped behind the boulder only the Cyclops can move. It takes even Odysseus hours to work out one other scenario that he indeed executes successfully. Homer has it right: human minds can inhibit automatic reactions better than other animals, through the enlarged prefrontal cortex (for inhibition, specifically, especially the orbitofrontal cortex), but they cannot generate and evaluate under pressure large number of scenarios involving ramifying if-then calculations. Our minds can form options, when allowed time, but they remain simple and even one we may choose to follow tends to become irrelevant as other parties react unpredictably.

            A sharp phylogenetic break between action driven by instinct and action chosen through the production and selection of options from a Borgesian library of possibilities seems contrary to the evidence of both ethology and cognitive neuroscience. But because Carroll supposes such a break, he also proposes, with Wilson, “a potential chaos in organizing motives and regulating behavior.” Art, which he claims exists to solve this alleged and evolutionarily unprecedented problem, therefore has no evolutionary precursors. Bird and whalesong, with their dialects and fashions, elaborate gibbon duetting, the creation of visual displays by bowerbirds, dolphins or chimpanzees: these are automatically excluded from any prospect of continuity with human art.

            The cognitive play proposal by contrast derives art from play, already self-motivating across many animal classes and perhaps universal in mammals; from our intense curiosity (an attribute developing among the higher primates), and the intense appetite we have for rich and therefore patterned information; and from the unique human pressure for social attunement[4] (another attribute developing along the primate line), especially between parent and child, and leading therefore, to the patterned play of protoconversation as a start for art.[5]

            Ontogeny: Carroll refers to Dissanayake on protoconversation, and to Tooby and Cosmides’s “Does Beauty Build . . . ,” although not to their stress there on childhood, but he seems to have little interest in the individual development of art. The potential chaos in “organizing motives and regulating behavior” that comes from a proliferation of scenarios seems to be a problem he envisages adults facing and needing art to solve.

            The cognitive play proposal by contrast stresses the development of art in the individual, since we can see emerging capacities there in detail and through experiment in ways we cannot in the phylogenetic record. With Dissanayake, I see protoconversation, with its play with rhythmic, harmonic, melodic and kinetic patterns, as an important evolved scaffolding for the further elaboration of pattern that infants engage in as they learn to sing, dance, draw or shape and especially as they engage in pretend play. Infant behavior seems not to arise out of a need to cope with over-proliferating scenarios. Rather, pretend play amplifies their capacity to generate scenarios, but scenarios that engage attention through unusual characters and actions—a duck confronting a dinosaur, dragons poo-pooing on rooftops until the houses collapse. Children learn to fashion short simple vivid scenarios first in action, with the physical props at hand, including each other, and then without action props but with the cultural props of received story elements like dragons and fairies. But the evidence of childhood storymaking suggests it has much more to do with play and engaging intense attention than with constructing scenarios for non-play action.

            Function: The cognitive order proposal sees the function of art as compensating for a hypothesized motivational disorganization arising from a hypothesized over-proliferation of mental scenarios, for neither of which independent evidence is offered. Even supposing art did have this function, how would it work? Carroll suggests that the images of art “mediate our behavior and the elemental passions that derive from human life history.” “Mediate” could hardly be more vague. How does the invention of the piccolo or of a new pigment like ultramarine “mediate” our behavior, control (if it does) our over-proliferation of scenarios, organize our motivation? I can see how either would attract attention and therefore invite engagement with the art in which it features, in a world where habituation threatens any mere repetition of stimuli, but I cannot understand how a piccolo or a pigment might “mediate” our alleged motivational disorganization.

            My cognitive play hypothesis proposes a series of functions, beginning with the core function of strengthening neural pathways through the intense repeat engagement that the play of art invites, in the patterns that matter most to us—especially, in story, patterns of agency and action—so that we can more readily produce and especially process patterns in those modes. Evidence of neural growth as a consequence of play in rats is already at hand.[6] Animals trained or raised in enriched environments increase brain weight “by 5 per cent in the cerebral cortex . . . and up to 9 per cent in areas that the training directly stimulates” compared with genetically identical animals in impoverished environments (Doidge 43). We cannot experimentally impoverish human children, but the human predisposition for art has ensured for tens of thousands of years that we grow up in especially enriched environments. Since we cannot dissect the brains of human experimental subjects and cannot yet easily investigate single neurons in live human minds, we rely on animal evidence. This shows that training makes discrimination finer, processing faster and signals clearer, provided the animals pay close attention and provided training occurs in increments (Doidge 67, 155).

            Art depends on attention, and its capacity to command attention means that just as with play we are motivated to engage in it again and again. Neuroscience has yet to show the long-term effects of visual art and storytelling on the brain, but in at least one art, music, there is already robust evidence for improved pattern detection in those who have had even some training.[7] In a highly social species inhabiting the cognitive niche, any gain in mental processing in our key modes, especially, in the case of narrative, in interpreting social events and managing multiple representations, offers a competitive advantage. And any gain in the ability to attune one’s feelings to others and to motivate such attunement, in a situation where multilevel selection operates—as it has repeatedly done in human evolution[8]—offers a competitive advantage against other groups. Think work songs, battle songs, anthems, hymns, heroic stories.

            Mechanism: Carroll does not explain the proximate mechanisms that would make people engage in art as he conceives it. Formulations like “Modern humans cannot choose not to live in and through their own imaginative structures” do not even begin to point to a mechanism. If people over-proliferate scenarios and therefore suffer motivational disorganization, how do they know to make an elaborate headdress or paint a still life, or to sing or dance or tell stories as the way to help them? Help them do what, in any case? Reduce the number of scenarios? (Won’t more stories increase the number of scenarios?) Select the appropriate scenario to act on? How does a Bach fugue or the Beatles’ “Blackbird” help here—and how do we know which to choose?

            The cognitive play proposal suggests a number of motivational mechanisms. The key motivational neurotransmitter, dopamine, is elevated at the onset of and during play, and that same reward factor presumably helps motivate protoconversation, pretend play, and the playfulness of any inventive art. We know humans have strong preferences for high-yield, high-pattern information over informational chaos. We know of the strong human status drive, and its correlation with attention; individuals particularly motivated to seek status and attention in artistic ways can therefore design their work in order to maximize the attention-engaging power of their art. We have a strong drive to imitate others, which enables us to acquire at least the rudiments of local artistic traditions. We have a pleasure in mastery, when we dance or sing or make visual designs or tell stories, and partly by way of mirror neurons we can feel the effort and estimate the mastery involved in others’ craft. We have a uniquely intense motivation to attune ourselves to others,[9] and song, dance and story fine-tune and amplify our capacity for attunement.

            Carroll claims that in order decisively to falsify his or Wilson’s hypothesis, one would have to demonstrate that human cognitive evolution had simply stopped at some point in the past. He seems closer here to immunizing the hypothesis from falsification than inviting it to genuine test. And his proposal seems to me, in Pauli’s terms, “not even wrong.” Various phases of my hypothesis, on the other hand, would be falsified, for instance, if repeat engagement in particular arts were shown not to improve the processing of information patterns in the relevant cognitive modes, or if there were on average a negative correlation between artistic success and individual status, or if there were on average a negative correlation between the artistic richness of societies and independent measures of social cohesiveness. I offer phylogeny, ontogeny, a series of functions and suggestions toward mechanisms. Joseph Carroll’s contribution to the field of literature and evolution has been immense, not least in this magisterial survey, but I am not sure what he offers here on the adaptive value of art and literature except the authority of E.O. Wilson.

Return to Top



Evolution and Paradigms in the Study of Literature                                                                                                        


Gordon M. Burghardt

University of Tennessee


Some personal reflections

Joseph Carroll is a leader in the movement to bring evolutionary analysis into the humanities and literary criticism in particular. Not only did he write the first major monograph this area (Evolution and Literary Theory), but he has immersed himself in the original writings of Charles Darwin and edited a volume of his major writings. Indeed, he has avoided the sometimes bowdlerized and narrow takes of many evolutionary psychologists, anthropologists, and sociobiologists to evolution and Darwin himself. In this target article, the depth of Carroll’s understanding and familiarity with the biological areas of psychology combined with his inclusion of recent scholarly contributions to literary and broadly humanistic applications of evolutionary approaches, both pro and con, is very impressive.

I am not a literary scholar nor a human-focused evolutionist or psychologist. My love and interests go more to watching non-human animals in the field and studying their behavior in the laboratory. This field is greatly devoted to Charles Darwin.[10] (Burghardt, “Darwin’s Enduring Legacy”). But for me, as for Carroll, all behavior is of a piece, and as we slice and dice and specialize, it all must come together again. Many ethologists and biologists have written about the origin and development of art, such as Desmond Morris, Dale Guthrie, Jocelyn Crane, Eibl-Eibesfeldt, and Wolfgang Wickler.[11] Music is gaining recent attention as well. Early human history and nonhuman premonitions of art and music are increasingly able to be reconstructed based on archeology, anthropology, and study of living nonhuman animals. However, literature has remained the most resistant, since it is dependent on both the development of writing and its preservation. We have no ability to know the stories passed on orally, with the possible exception of preliterate art that may have some narrative thrust. It is thus understandable that those humanistic and historical disciplines dependent on the written word have had little use for evolution until recently. Besides, their adherents may claim, since writing is such a recent innovation in human history, evolution probably has little to do with it. Here I will make some general comments on the issues discussed by Carroll, the status of cross-disciplinary evolutionary thinking derived from my experience, and comment on the research program that he advocates.

Joseph Carroll visited the University of Tennessee some years ago after I had organized an interdisciplinary colloquy on Evolution and Culture. This colloquy grew out of a luncheon talk I gave to a large group of faculty interested in interdisciplinary outreach at the university. The talk was on the promise and perils of the ‘new’ evolutionary psychology. The resulting colloquy lasted for a number of years involving professors from English, sociology, economics, history, psychology, philosophy, classics, biology, computer science, modern languages, law, political science, and anthropology. After several invigorating years, our university administration had a call for interdepartmental research/training proposals. Our proposal to formalize our bottoms-up faculty initiative with significant funding for courses, visiting fellows, and graduate students was summarily rejected as nothing new! What I also discovered is that for all their general interest in evolution, suspicions of a real incorporation of evolutionary thinking into their fields were a threat to many faculty members, even the sympathetic. Although we began with a noted evolutionary biologist at UT giving a primer on levels of selection and a series of other presentations on evolution and Darwinism, for too many evolution was, at most, just one more perspective to be added to their field, as Carroll notes. Suspicions of evolutionary hegemony, social darwinism, genetic determinism, quantitative science, and the sensationalist claims made in popular books and magazines were too strong. In retrospect, the old view that revolutions take place through replacing the graybeards, resistant to accepting ideas that seem to put their entire intellectual life at risk, should have been realized. Even young traditional scholars in the social sciences and humanities have, until recently, been exposed to little serious evolutionary or even scientific thinking. And biologists have not helped either. E. O. Wilson’s strident reductionism and ‘we will bury you’ rhetoric should have been expected to raise red flags. The politically motivated resistance of S. J. Gould, Lewontin, and others to accepting that evolutionary processes have any direct effect on our behavior seemed to give scientific credence to an old-fashioned behavioristic environmentalism. Many of the first phalanx of self- proclaimed evolutionary psychologists and journalists quickly produced heavily marketed popular books, longer on adaptationist plausibility than solid evidence, and this disturbed psychologists and evolutionary biologists alike. Perhaps this is why, after an initial flutter of interest, most evolutionary biologists at UT avoided serious involvement in the colloquy as well, seeming to view it as a bit too discursive and unscientific.

Ironically, one of the problems is that E. O. Wilson and others make the strong and very old-fashioned claim that animals are motivated by instinct and humans by rational thought. I hear here the echo of Descartes and the more modern scholastics such as Adler (The Difference of Man). If, as Carroll claims, cognitive psychology and neuroscience are essential resources for literary Darwinism, then it may be relevant to incorporate some of growing literature on the cognitive and emotional expressiveness of nonhuman species, episodic memory (necessary for narrative), theory of mind debates, proto-language, etc. (for example, Terrace and Metcalf). Furthermore, emotion and motivation are all closely tied to biological processes and have certainly been incorporated in discussions of instinct.[12]

During the ‘instinct wars’ of the 1950s and 1960s, set off by Nobel Laureate Niko Tinbergen in The Study of Instinct, many useful refinements were made and incorporated into our understanding of the development of species-typical behavior. Indeed, terms such as instinct and innate are now far more commonly used in mainline studies in behavior and neuroscience than was imaginable in 1970. But we also now appreciate more fully that innate or instinctive mechanisms underlie even much learned and cultural behavior, from what we fear to what we like to eat to how we fight, love, and play. There is a heritability and individual difference factor to how we process experiences, and there is no reason that this cannot be reflected in literary analysis beyond the bland assertion that animals are instinct machines and we are not (of course the related ideas of nature versus nature have been a stock ploy of much literature including Caliban in The Tempest and the novels of Thomas Hardy). Just as we can find roots of morality in our primate relations (de Waal) so may we find roots of narrative and discourse. The last thing we want to do is return to Cartesian dualism, and I sometimes fear that in an attempt to show how special we are in terms of social life, culture, and the arts we are prone to accept bad science that accords with our anthropocentric ‘instincts.’ It is difficult to ignore our relationship with other species at the same time arguing that the same selective processes operating in solving similar recurrent themes underlie our behavior.

Some recent books, not cited by Carroll (for example, Buller), explicitly critique many of the founding examples in the field of evolutionary psychology. As in the instinct wars, these will ultimately fail in their major purpose of derailing the field, but may put it in on a firmer track with a richer destination. Carroll may want to address these critics (including Panksepp and Panksepp, whom he does cite) as well as those on the literary side. Sometimes wars have many fronts to be held for ultimate victory.


The Tinbergen tradition

One of the possible weaknesses of literary Darwinism is the neglect of earlier evolutionary approaches to psychology. Ethology was a field started to incorporate a more truly comparative approach to animal and human behavior. The term ‘ethological psychology’ pre-dated modern evolutionary psychology.[13] Ethology as I define it is “the naturalistic study of behavior from an evolutionary perspective” (Burghardt, The Genesis 10). It builds on Tinbergen’s famous four aims of all behavior study (Tinbergen, “On the Aims”): the study of causal mechanisms (stimuli, hormones, and neural mechanisms), development, adaptive value (or function), and evolution (both pattern and process). Tinbergen was himself very uncomfortable with issues of subjectivity, questioning even the study of play behavior, perhaps a result of his struggle to wrest the ‘objective study of behavior’ from remnant Dutch vitalists in the 1930s and 1940s. Be that as it may, I added as a fifth aim, critical for the future of ethology, that of ‘private experience,’ broadly conceived (“Amending Tinbergen”). In any event, it seems to me that losing an integrative perspective has held back both a rigorously empirical evolutionary psychology, and associated branches that are only now be rectified. Note that traditional experimental psychology was based primarily on the first two of Tinbergen’s aims. Classical ethology reinvigorated the evolutionary aim, but empirical studies of adaptiveness were rare. Tinbergen himself reinvigorated that aspect of ethology. With the advent of the writings and conceptual advances of Hamilton, Trivers, E. O. Wilson, Maynard Smith, Dawkins, and others, use of genetic models and selfish gene thinking became incorporated into a revitalized study of adaptiveness. This bore fruit largely due to a combination of new methods including computerized behavior recording and model testing, developments in tracking individual animals in captive and field settings, and especially the advent of DNA methods to assess individual identity and paternity in the field. A second critical development was the renewed interest in sexual selection that grew out of the volume marking the 100th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s seminal tome The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871). Thus, while the earliest ‘modern’ evolutionary psychologists, largely ignored individual differences (for example, Barkow, Cosmides, and Tooby), sexual differences were not, and the earliest applications of evolutionary thinking to literature and myth involved sexual selection logic. The initial focus on some almost mythical, but vaguely dated, EEA (Environment of Evolutionary Adaptiveness) may have been an useful conceit early on, but the premise that there was some ‘golden age’ in which natural selection shaped our social and cognitive traits more than any other time is not creditable (for example, Panksepp and Panksepp). Carroll is stimulating when he discusses the need to incorporate life history, human universals, and the recurring problems endemic to all human lives regardless of culture.

My point is that it is essential to look at literature and all other human endeavors through all 5 aims to obtain genuinely useful understanding of human nature and the evolutionary background involved. By doing so we can, in effect, incorporate much of value from related social sciences and humanities while still working towards the inclusive vision put forth by Darwin at the end of the Origin, as well as more recent comprehensive visions such as Wilson’s Consilience. Carroll is clearly aware of these issues, but I wonder why they were relegated to minor status. In short, Carroll did not go far enough.

I share and resonate with the view that evolutionary literary analysis should not shy away from the quantitative and testable and go beyond the discursive. But I noted that there is no explicit discussion in his paradigm of using quantitative phylogenetic methods in tracking literary themes or cultural and historical mythology as has proved useful in linguistics. As for development, in spite of the mention of “developmental cognitive psychology” I see no formal incorporation of the development of literary/story telling and story appreciation skills in children from infants on. Major academic areas are devoted to children’s literature and emergent literacy. Certainly insights can be gained from more formally incorporating such understanding, especially at it relates to cultural, ethnic, religious, social class, economic, and education backgrounds in how students react to literature. Although Shakespeare is repeatedly mentioned, theatre is largely ignored, as is film, science fiction, popular fiction, and other genres that could be useful testing grounds for the generality of hypotheses.

Additionally, literary Darwinists seem particularly fixated on the issue of the adaptive value of literature and the arts. Certainly this is an interesting issue, and eventually may be critical, but perhaps not as urgent as Pinker, E. O. Wilson, George Williams and other might think. Consider play behavior. For years the major question asked was what it was good for. With no convincing methods for determining this, scientists largely lost interest in the topic in spite of its ubiquity in human and nonhuman behavior. Consequently, in my recent book The Genesis of Animal Play, I was as pains to look at the phenomenon from all five of the ethological aims, not just one or two. I think any intellectual contribution the volume will have is based on presenting an integrative view. In fact, I argue that fixating on adaptiveness held back serious scientific attention to play as constituting important and fascinating phenomena. I think the long-term success of literary Darwinism is tied to encouraging multiple rigorously applied paradigms to the study of literature, broadly conceived.

In spite of any critical points above (and the ignorance on which they may be based), I think that Joseph Carroll’s essay is a true example of productive and integrative scholarship.

Return to Top



Compliments and Complements


Brett Cooke

Texas A&M


            From the evidence offered in Carroll’s target article, we can say that Darwinian Literary Studies (DLS) have come of age. Once Ellen Dissanayake (What Is Art For?, Homo Aestheticus) demonstrated the presence of “making special,” a feature salient to natural selection, in works of art of all cultures, all periods, it seemed evident, at least to a few of us, that all artistic media would be encompassed in a paradigm like that described by Carroll. Looking back over the past three decades, from Dissanayake’s first article on art and ritual (“Hypothesis”), it seems obvious that the time was ripe. Until the mid-nineties the nascent field was characterized by something like “convergent evolution,” as investigators working independently arrived at similar conclusions. Carroll’s Evolution and Literary Theory (1995) had a profound impact and became a rallying point for the field. It set out a large-scale theoretical program and helped isolated researchers realize that they were part of a collective effort. Carroll has continued to play a major role in this effort both by pursuing his own individual research and by repeatedly surveying and critiquing the field as a whole. The target essay makes bold and sweeping claims. Some readers might understandably quail at the prospect of an all-encompassing, apparently monolithic, critical perspective conveyed in often alien language and suggesting, perhaps, an air of arrogant intellectual superiority. I strongly support the general program described by Carroll, but I think some qualifications and modulations could help promote wider acceptance.

The chief promise of DLS lies in its potential to explain what I term differential interest. The central function of any viable modern work of art is to attract our attention. Some do this better than others, indeed, repeatedly, possibly for predictable reasons. Darwinian scholars often cite the universality of themes related to genetic issues readily adducible to genetic influences. Although literary fashions change, some subjects are virtually ubiquitous, while others are rarely, if ever encountered. Incest avoidance, romantic love, birth defects, interpersonal justice, and other issues of adaptive significance not only are universal, but appear to elicit nearly inexhaustible attention. Ancient environments are often reflected in modern literature. Albeit snakes are now a minor threat, science fiction continues to swarm with “Dracs,” much as folktales once teemed with dragons.[14] The same plots get written over and over again because we never tire of reading them. Others are ignored. One exception derives from a wager: Chekhov’s story about an ashtray.

A related feature is that these so-called universals appear to elicit nearly inexhaustible interest. This is certainly a feature of oral literature; however rich a given tradition, it is nevertheless quite restricted by modern standards. Just the same, it presumably sufficed to satisfy its host population over the course of entire lives. Inevitably this meant rehearing the same tales several, possibly many times. Perhaps this is why we find them so replete with universals, although, no doubt, other factors are involved. Some of this same limitation may be perceived in other modern narrative media shared by most Western cultures. The core opera repertory could be said to number less than two hundred works. Yet more (or, literally, less), full-length narrative ballet is dominated by the same six or seven pieces.[15] And it may hold true for us, inasmuch as most scholars of modern literature reread favorite classics with deepening satisfaction.

            The relationship of DLS to other critical perspectives is not necessarily hostile. One obvious exception is the cultural constructivists’ complete refutation of genetic influences on human behavior, a position increasingly untenable in the face of recent behavioral science. But need we throw out the baby with the bath water? Are there no valid findings of LitCrit that may find a welcome place in Carroll’s paradigm? For example, consider the issue of bias, relevant to deconstruction. Much of evolutionary psychology concerns how our cognition is not a seamless, let alone faultless, general processor, but rather is conditioned by ancestral (and relatively recent) history; we are somewhat predisposed to select certain behavioral alternatives instead of others. There may be common ground regarding the pervasive force of ideology, which may be adduced to the needs of social bonding. After all, political theories like the divine right of kings and fascism that now seem ridiculous to many of us once held sway over large populations. Could this same penchant for gullibility pertain to the hold fictions exert on us?

DLS promises to help us understand super-stimuli or exaggeration. Compared to reality, works of art usually tend to exaggerate the iterance or urgency of a biological issue. Much as male peacocks exhibit outlandish tail feathers to catch the eyes of peahens, artists make recourse to human “universals” to attract our attention. They may need to exaggerate these common proclivities or, more likely, what triggers their expression, if only to out-compete other artists who are doing likewise. Of course, exaggeration may be counterposed with understatement, and so on, as artists vie for our attention. Preliminary results suggest that Darwinist tenets are easier to apply to narrative fiction than to actual human behavior, perhaps for the same reason. I am presently finding more incest in War and Peace than can be discerned in Tolstoy’s social environment. Utopian fictions almost eerily conform to or reverse traditional patterns of human nature, probably more than any actual society.[16] And operas are, well, operatic.

Acceptance of the evolutionist paradigm by the academic establishment also may depend, however, on how Darwinist scholars address questions such as the following. My expectation is that some answers will be found in the interconnection of evolutionary psychology and cognitive studies (or at least, as Carroll describes it, its most proximate wing), especially in so-called Theory of Mind.

            How do we account for individuality and unique texture? While Darwinist studies have often emphasized proclivities found in most human societies, in other words, the commonalities of literature, scholars are often attached to the peculiar qualities of favorite, sometimes sui generis, texts. It stands to reason that both universals and individual particulars are characteristics of any literary classic, but some readers may think that Darwinians are answering the question of lesser interest. How can we explain not just panhuman features, often seen as evidence of a shared evolutionary history, but also unique features? Furthermore, how can the same genome (individual writer) produce hundreds of works, each bearing his or her individual stamp, but also each somehow different from each other?

            Perhaps much of this can be adduced to social competition. Darwinism envisages a marketplace of competing interests.   Much as higher species disseminate a great variety of genetic alternatives, the artistic marketplace is one of a waxing array of ideas. Other avenues to this issue of individuation and change are tied to the following two questions.

            What is the relationship between an artistic text and reality? Naively stated, does art convey truth of some sort? Michelle Scalise Sugiyama advances the hypothesis that a major source of aesthetic attraction to stories lies in the information they impart (“Food”). This may work for traditional oral literature where useful data regarding prey and predators are mentioned, sometimes featured. But can this same thinking be applied to modern literature, let alone to abstract forms of art, such as instrumental music? I suggest that it can, if sufficiently abstracted beyond intended lessons to information about the environment, especially human, that may be inferred from the text. Literary historians are aware of instances where real world discoveries are soon reflected in narrative, much as composers respond to the invention of new instruments or artists to new technologies such as lead tubes for oil paint. This also applies to new philosophical and psychological insights. Much of literary sentimentalism can be attributed to the recognition that the lower classes had sentiments similar in nature to those of the nobility. Indeed, literature can readily be seen as playing an active role in what is, after all, a co-evolutionary construct; culture is a means of accelerating biological adaptation, which itself is a means of retaining increasingly refined information. Scalise Sugiyama notes the vital insights modern narratives give into interpersonal politics and personal subjectivity (“Reverse”). Contemporaries often react to works of European literature as if they were about real people. Since the major selection pressure on us derives from other human beings, whereas we can learn to control most prey (often now livestock) and predators (seemingly destined to survive only in zoos), this consideration produces a model that yields unending competition and a consequent need for ever more insight into human nature, the major topic of literature. I propose that literature also serves to develop awareness of our own capabilities. Aesthetic cognition, whereby art occasionally provides productive thinking, may account for some of its appeal. In this may lie not only the satisfactions of literary and plastic portraiture but even instrumental music and other non-representational arts.

            How can a largely static genome account for the increasing dynamism of stylistic change? Artistic history, if we look at the last few centuries, appears to be accelerating. I suggest we can quite plausibly see this is due, in large part, to the factors mentioned above: social competition amongst conspecifics, responses to increasingly dynamic environments, and a waxing interest in subjectivity. Style is more than mere form; to be viable it also needs to reflect modes of thought, often newly recognized ones. Frequently stylistic innovations are accompanied by novel insights, as in the case of Tolstoy’s gestural language, Dostoevsky’s multileveled subjectivity, or Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness.

            What is the Darwinian structure of a text? Probably, in a word, complex. Although Darwinist studies of individual works often focus on one or a few vital tenets, and the logic concerning a single strand may appear to be relatively simple, this is not to say that these are not the only genetically-derived or –relevant drives at hand. One reason that I published a book on utopian fiction (Human Nature) was that I found that many different features of our evolved psychology were relevant to a reading of Evgeny Zamyatin’s We, at least nine in all. I have since drafted a tenth chapter and still sense that I have only scratched the surface.

Moreover, genetic proclivities may counterpose one another just as easily as they may be complementary. Much aesthetic fascination may derive from the clash and/or choice of mutually exclusive goods or evils. As in the case of Romeo and Juliet, the internal structure may be agonistic, as we find in that play’s choice between assortative mating (e. g., romantic love) and kin altruism (nepotism, family).[17] Many parts of our genome express themselves in our physiology and behavior. Their interaction, along with many environmental factors, greatly adds to our individuation. Should we expect art to be any less complex? Potentially everything about a classic text is subject to biocultural interpretation, and it would be difficult to think of a feature in such a text that is not vital to its aesthetic success. Much as I regard Joseph Carroll’s magisterial study of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (Literary Darwinism) to be the finest produced heretofore in the field, I am confident he agrees that his is not the last word, that we may anticipate further Darwinian insights into this novel.

       Though Darwinian Literary Studies have come of age, its agenda is hardly complete. Tasks like those outlined above will fill out the picture of what it promises for literary scholarship.

Return to Top



Frederick Crews 
University of California, Berkeley


         When Joseph Carroll’s Evolution and Literary Theory appeared in 1995, I read the first hundred pages or so with great interest and took comfort from its critique of the then poststructuralist-dominated literary academy. Carroll’s presentation stood out for its comprehensiveness and its uncompromising embrace of empirical values—the same values to which, since 1980, I myself had been upholding against applied deconstruction and its ideologized progeny.[18] In addition, I found that Carroll and I shared an intellectual hero, Charles Darwin, who, for both of us, epitomized a determination to explain observed effects only by reference to commonly ascertainable, temporally prior facts and factors, without appeal to “final causes” and other such remnants of an exhausted supernaturalism.

         I had no quarrel in 1995, and I have none now, with the central role that Carroll assigned to Darwin’s theory of evolution for an explanatory overview of our species. As I have recently stated, “Only a secular Darwinian perspective . . . can make general sense of humankind and its works.”[19] But whether that perspective ought to become the guiding philosophy of academic literary studies is a different matter. That proposition struck me as lame when I first encountered it, and the reasons now assembled by Carroll in its behalf haven’t caused me to change my opinion.

         Carroll’s program is truly grand in intended scale. The literary Darwinians, he writes, “aim at fundamentally altering the paradigm within which literary study is now conducted.” Their goal is to “subsume all other possible approaches” to the field. And if they succeed, that field’s current disrepute in empirical circles will give way to admiration. By responsibly connecting literary analysis to reliable knowledge about human nature and by making their own scrupulous additions to such knowledge, critics will contribute to E. O. Wilson’s consilience, helping to chart “an unbroken chain of material causation from the lowest level of subatomic particles to the highest levels of cultural imagination.” [20]

         In demurring from Carroll’s initiative, I do not mean to reject the realm of theorizing to which his program appeals (sometimes rather sheepishly) for its scientific backbone, evolutionary psychology. To be sure, that subdiscipline has been plagued by a scarcity of hard evidence that might substantiate one “Just-so Story” about emergent dispositions at the expense of rival hypotheses. But this drawback may be mitigated someday by new sources of information, and meanwhile there is much to be learned about cross-cultural regularities that are suggestive of biological roots and adaptive functions in a broadly Darwinian sense. That is why I agreed to contribute an encouraging foreword to one of the cultural evolutionists’ most promising books, Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson’s anthology The Literary Animal.

         The chapters of that volume, along with most of the other studies that Carroll now marshals as evidence of an incipient intellectual revolution, are interdisciplinary efforts. Examining literary productions, from myths and fairy tales through Shakespeare plays, they uncover motifs and narratological patterns pointing to traits of general human nature. The results belong to aesthetics, psychology, and anthropology, but not, as Carroll acknowledges, to literary criticism, because the goal here is data extraction and replicable social-scientific knowledge rather than identification and explanation of the features that set a given work apart from others.

         Nevertheless, Carroll doesn’t hesitate to claim that critical analysis per se also ought to take an explicitly Darwinian turn. Criticism, he holds, now suffers from a “blank slate” neglect of biological and behavioral universals—a neglect fostered on one side by impressionistic, idealizing, sentimentalizing humanists and on another by poststructuralist obfuscators and ideologues. A Darwinian outlook, in contrast, keeps a steady eye on “the urgent needs and driving forces in life—survival, reproduction, kinship, social affiliation, dominance, aggression, and the needs of the imagination.” And thus the Darwinian critic, starting from the expected “life history” concerns of gendered authors, characters, and readers, possesses an objective analytic baseline for showing how a given work exemplifies, challenges, or complicates the norm. Such a critic, Carroll maintains, can be fully sensitive to the work’s linguistic uniqueness without neglecting “the world outside the text” and its more or less mimetic representation.

          To illustrate the difference that is made by approaching a work from the angle of evolved human interests, Carroll has elsewhere offered us sample analyses of well-known fictions, most notably Pride and Prejudice. In his treatment, the demanding cognitive style of Jane Austen, with its valuation of keen intellect and moral integrity, is shown to work in fruitful tension with that novel’s raw life-history themes of “resource acquisition and reproductive activity.”[21] This sounds dry and diagrammatic, but in Carroll’s hands it is not; his discussion faithfully recounts the structure and tone of Austen’s masterpiece. When compared with recent academic practice, with its predetermined lessons about patriarchy, class conflict, imperialism, desire, dialogism, and the self-cancellation of the signified, that is distinctly refreshing.

         Here I must ask, however, whether this demonstration piece and others resembling it can be generalized to warrant an overtly Darwinian emphasis in criticism at large. Although Carroll derived his vantage on Pride and Prejudice from evolutionary theory, all that was needed to arrive at the same emphasis was open-minded attention. “Sex and property, family or kin relations, parenting, social relations, and cognitive power” [22] are Austen’s manifest concerns, largely forecast in her novel’s satirically playful opening paragraph. Indeed, the very choice of a realistic novel about courtship seems all too convenient on Carroll’s part. Would his “life history” orientation be an equally good match for Beowulf, “Batter My Heart, Three-Personed God,” A Tale of a Tub, Candide, “Kubla Khan,” “There’s a Certain Slant of Light . . . ,” “Bateau Ivre,” “Jabberwocky,” “In a Station of the Metro,” “Sweeney Agonistes,” “The Red Wheelbarrow,” “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” Six Characters in Search of an Author, Animal Farm, Waiting for Godot, Dutchman, Rhinoceros, “Daddy,” The Crying of Lot 49 . . . ?

         The question here is whether biologically grounded “human nature” themes and their evolutionary background deserve a privileged status in particular critical studies before we have even begun to find out where an author’s priorities lie. Apparently so, in Carroll’s estimation. He expresses impatience with traditionalist critics who “do not typically seek causal explanations in evolutionary theory,” whereas Darwinians, he writes, “can identify the biological forces that are invoked or repressed in any given work and can assess how those forces impinge on meaning.” “Invoked or repressed”? Carroll’s omnibus rejoinder will perhaps explain what he means here by repression and whether he holds, with Derrideans and Lacanians, that the undetectability of a favored “force” is really a sign of its imperfectly negated, and therefore shaping, presence in the creating mind.[23] Isn’t this the apriorism that Carroll decries in others?

         In rebuking colleagues who complain about reductive discourse, Carroll points out that all explanatory efforts entail reduction. True enough. The pertinent question, however, is whether much of anything is explained by reduction to the most primordial level we can find, where perceived factors tend to be banal common denominators that aren’t helpful for the particular instance. The logic of inquiry would seem to require that we begin tackling a literary problem just below the textual surface, where unified or divided intentions, biographical experiences, psychological stresses, linguistic resources, traditions and conventions, historical events, and social circumstances can all be seen to have played a role. That is the normal practice of most critics, but it is scarcely recognized, much less approved, in Carroll’s less than fair division of the non-Darwinian literary professoriate into effete, allegorizing humanists and madcap poststructuralists.

         Although he does attempt to promote his own school of literary criticism, Carroll has a larger aim that requires a quite different strategy. In his opinion, students of literature possessing a powerfully explanatory theory and a scrupulous research protocol can unearth what he chooses to call “real knowledge, knowledge that is consilient with the broader world of empirical research.” Such lore consists not of aperçus about one work or another but of universally valid truths about human propensities. The difference here is crucial, because “the broader world of empirical research” won’t be impressed by findings that fail to extend beyond, say, the time scheme of Othello or the quaint theology of Paradise Lost. The rescue of literary study from its current doldrums, Carroll feels, will be effected only if its practitioners show that they, too, can cease being “passive consumers of knowledge” and become, themselves, scientific investigators into human nature. Accordingly, he recommends that literary academics be trained in statistical analysis and other “empirical methods” borrowed from the social sciences.

         Underlying my several reservations about this program is an apparent disagreement with Carroll on the meaning of empiricism—a pivotal term for both of us, but one that points to different paths according to whether it is interpreted narrowly or broadly. From Carroll’s manifesto I infer that he sees empiricism as the sum of formalized procedures that, employing “the severe logic of quantitative methodology,” can uncover verifiable patterns in structure or behavior. By that definition, a critic who is accurately describing one text isn’t being fully empirical. To count as such, our findings ought to be generalizable, couched in numbers, procedurally controlled against bias and error, and preferably collaborative, so that our neighbors in the flourishing sciences can trust them as meeting their own standards of acceptability.

         Judged by these criteria, even Darwin would come under suspicion of having been a third-rate empiricist. He worked and published alone, didn’t conduct experiments, didn’t quantify his results, and was content to report his impressions instead of laying out data that others could check. Yet we regard the theory of natural selection as a triumph of scientific reasoning, because later investigators who pressed that theory from every angle have found it to be sturdy and indispensable. This suggests that empiricism resides not in any methodological protocol but in all-around responsibility to evidence.

         Such responsibility, I would add, can be exercised in any nonaxiomatic field, regardless of whether the knowledge in view is particular or general. Empiricism entails setting aside partisanship and dogma, weighing the merits of competing hypotheses, attending to objections and recalcitrant facts, and wielding Ockham’s razor. Darwin did all that; but so, more modestly, does a literary critic who is taking seriously the task of being as inductive and circumspect as possible about analysis of a text.

         The subject matter of literary study is not human nature; it is literature. There is nothing trivial about trying to make rich sense of single works, or single careers, or single moments in literary history, that strike the common understanding as representing a pinnacle of insight and skill. To imply otherwise, as Carroll does in placing sorted and tabulated “real knowledge” ahead of critical judgment, is to exemplify, not to rectify, the low valuation of imaginative writing that is already depopulating our field while its remaining exponents quarrel with one another over methodology. Moreover, students who are still drawn to that field because certain poems and stories have heightened their self-awareness and whetted their appetite for teaching are left cold by charts, graphs, and tables. Carroll is proposing an improvement that would induce them to stay away or drop out, further constricting the already diminished lifeblood of our profession.

         Many literary critics and scholars, whether or not they make an occasional perfunctory bow to some Continental guru, do earnestly observe empirical canons in their work. That is, they conduct themselves as if they actually cared about suiting their conclusions to the burden of available facts. Since the 1980s, however, in the face of intimidation from the academic avant-garde, they have been reluctant to speak openly about such “logocentric,” “positivistic,” “epistemologically naïve” empiricism. But the intimidation appears to be easing now that the top poststructuralist lawgivers, to whom few academics are listening any longer, have reached their own nadir of bafflement and demoralization. This would seem to be a propitious hour, not for advancing the interest of one empirical school at the expense of others, but for urging a profession-wide ethic whereby evidence is treated as the only legitimate arbiter between competing theories and hypotheses.

         A consensus on that point would surely strike an outsider as uncontroversial and hardly worth articulating. How else can one maintain a discipline than by observing impersonal standards to which all parties are equally accountable? But we who have watched “English” become the doormat of academic specialties know that epistemic cynicism, identity politics, cliquish power plays, animus against science, and a lax hospitality toward any theories that generate abundant discourse have stifled objective judgment and even, in some quarters, rendered it a term of abuse. [24]

         Joseph Carroll and I are in agreement about this state of affairs. We differ, however, on what should be done about it. Carroll writes as the chief evangelist for a single critical faction that comes near to claiming a monopoly on intellectual seriousness, and he looks forward to a day when we will all pay homage to Darwin as an earlier generation did to Foucault. In contrast, I believe in affirming and rewarding what is already empirical in our field while standing apart from factions and allowing intellectual give-and-take (as in this present forum) to determine which current or forthcoming approaches to literature are most cogent and comprehensive.

            As I have suggested, the biological and prehistoric emphasis of critical Darwinism makes for forced or downright irrelevant application to most textual analysis. Instead of conceding this limitation, Carroll draws instances from the most congenial texts he can find, avoiding the harder cases that might test his ambitious claims. Further, in a hermeneutic pirouette that would appear to border on mysticism, he counts the “repression” of adaptationist factors—that is, their failure to show up--as another form of presence. And then he proposes that literary study expand its range, adopting social-scientific problems and methods to which his Darwinian assumptions are, I grant, much better suited. What lies behind all of these moves is loyalty not to the goal of open-ended inquiry but to a theory that Carroll is bent upon exercising at all cost. When he entreats his colleagues to be more empirical and invites their attention to his own example, that partisanship is what they are likely to notice and deplore.

Return to Top



Ellen Dissanayake


            Joseph Carroll is essentially the founder and the preeminent theorist of Darwinian adaptationist literary study, with an enviable mastery of the subjects relevant to his interests: evolutionary theory (he has written a splendid monograph-length introduction to his own edition of Darwin’s The Origin of Species) and evolutionary psychology as well as an enormous amount of Western literature. In addition, he understands statistics and can apply it in his own work; he is also highly conversant with recent advances in cognitive science and neuroscience. He is the obvious first choice to write a target article about the emerging field that is called Literary Darwinism or Darwinian (evolutionary, adaptationist) literary study and Style should be commended for presenting to a broad audience this fertile and historically inevitable approach. The curious, the convinced, the skeptical, and even the hostile will be well repaid for their consideration of the article and the commentary it provokes. The list of references is itself a compendium of provocative recent thought about humans and their works (and workings).

            Carroll makes an excellent case for the necessity that scholars in the humanities and social sciences be aware of the relevance of biology to their view of the human—what E. O. Wilson has called “consilience.” It is a view that I wholeheartedly share. Participation in and receptivity to the arts are demonstrably part of human nature, from infancy (Dissanayake, “In the Beginning”), and the human mind, adapted for life in the Pleistocene, is the source of all human thought and behavior. Today when every educated person accepts that an individual human’s personality, talents, susceptibility to disease, and indeed all other physical and psychological traits are influenced by genes and DNA, it takes a very blinkered scholar indeed to maintain that “cultural products” (inventions by humans, such as the many different arts) appear willy nilly and can be about anything at all.

            My addenda to Carroll’s fine synthesis emerge from the rather different paths we have chosen rather than from personal antagonism to his findings or conclusions. On the contrary, I agree with him on just about every point. I suggest, however, that there is additional evolutionarily-related knowledge that literary Darwinists should consider. My own work uses a specifically ethological approach that is concerned with artistic behavior more than with finished works such as stories or novels or the qualitative features that make these better or worse than each other. I deal with nonverbal arts, primarily music, which in its origins and indeed today in many parts of the world would seem to have included rhythmic movement or dance as part of the same activity. I view all the arts as products of what I now call “artification”—that is, treating ordinary objects, surroundings, sounds, movements, words, themes, motifs, ideas, and so forth in specified ways that make them extra-ordinary. These specified ways are the devices or “operations” on ordinary behavior that are used instinctively by other animals in ritualized behaviors—formalization, repetition, exaggeration, elaboration, and manipulation of expectation. Humans use these intentionally or consciously to artify (or “make special”) their experience. Evidence of this kind of behavior can be found as early as 100,000 years ago if not earlier. Bednarik finds evidence of artification as early as 900-200kya, if one accepts carefully carved cupules and incised lines on rocks as examples of modifying objects and surroundings and red ochre fragments as decorating the body. It is also likely that, like the arts in recent premodern or traditional societies, early arts were participative and communal or, in the case of petroglyphs and pictographs, the occasion for ritual/ceremonial behavior. Artification is in my view a behavioral proclivity that--like speaking, tool-using and making, and infant attachment—benefits all members of a society, not only a talented few.

            This is not the place for a full exposition of my views about the evolution of the arts, but the foregoing paragraph provides enough background for what I see as unaddressed subject areas and perhaps problems for Darwinian literary study. (They are problems for other schools of literary study too insofar as these ignore our Pleistocene past and the lives of our hunter-gatherer ancestors whose way of life over hundreds of thousands of generations molded our behavior and emotions).

            In my view, humans were artifiers long before they were able to write and read, perhaps even before they were able to speak or speak well. As Carroll points out, the earliest literature would have been oral. I would suggest that there has not been sufficient time for evolution to have acted specifically on reading as an adaptation. Indeed, reading is a quite recent cognitive or behavioral acquisition. It relies on the invention of writing in the Neolithic period, the use of specifically alphabetic writing, and eventually the invention and widespread use of the printing press. Literacy is a specialized skill and only a small percent of all humans who have ever lived can read and even fewer read fluently or for pleasure. Learning to read changes the brain and behavior of individuals and the cultures they live in so that there are significant differences between preliterate and literate individuals and societies (Ong; Leavis; Wolf).

            Reading, which is not an adaptation, has obviously emerged from the human penchant (need?) for listening to and telling stories, apparently a human universal. Reading is a solitary act and listening/telling a social one. At the transition, people gathered in a crowd to be read to (Leavis)—still a social experience, like the participatory experiences in the arts that predominate in societies that have not undergone the process of modernity.

            The work by Gottschall and others on cross-cultural and oral literature is welcome and I hope there will be more. But there is something else to be learned about preliterate literature than the way it reveals the human mind and its perennial concerns. Even before (and alongside) the telling and hearing of stories, I think a case can be made that our ancestors artified their voices and speech for incantations, magical spells, lamentation—expressive verbal/vocalizations that make more or less use of understandable words. That is, they may have intended to produce musical (nonverbal) emotional effects more than to depict events with narrative meaning. I suggest that a significant portion of our response even to literature of today has to do with non-depictive or nonverbal aspects. In poetry, it is not only the paraphrased “story” or even subject matter of the poem (e.g., lost love, thoughts about dying, a sea voyage) that is memorable and affecting. There are passages in literature and especially poetry—and film--that have stunning or even indescribable-but-unforgettable emotional residue that comes from image, sound, structure or unfolding in time, and whatever can be suggested beyond words. This residue cannot be subsumed by Basic Emotions theory.

            One might say that like Western classical music (also the product of musical literacy--a first carefully composed and then published score that can be read and performed by others), written literature is the product of people who can work and rework their creations in order to make possible a kind of sophisticated response in readers that goes beyond the fundamental human response to the underlying elements of the story. Oral literature and improvised music have their own significant rewards and can produce gripping or transfiguring experiences—think of well-told tales and the music traditions of the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia—but the possibilities for manipulation of emotion by published literature and music have provided new sorts of appreciation in readers and listeners that are unavailable to oral, improvised renderings. Concepts without distinct referents--“poetic truth,” the “inexpressible”--are elements that some people value in novels by Woolf, Proust, or Emily Bronte and in much poetry, as much as or more than the fundamentals of the story. These have to do with the way in which the story is presented. My own scheme of aesthetic operations—formalization, repetition, exaggeration, repetition, and manipulation of expectation—does not pin down the unpinnable, either, but I would like to see Literary Darwinists at least acknowledge the aesthetic/emotional reward of this aspect of reading. and locate its origin in affective (not purely cognitive) neuroscience. Cognitive science makes much of symbolic representations, but in music it is the analogical rather than symbolic meanings that carry affect. The arts, including literature, also make important use of synaesthetic effects that engage all the senses. Studies in affective neuroscience and in the cognitive neuroscience of music might be a good place to look for models of how to approach these less-traveled but important component of literary/artistic response (for example, Malloch and Trevarthen; Panksepp, Affective).

            Adaptationist literary scholars should also remember that the experience of literature, like music, may not be as aesthetically high-minded as I just described. Many people who read do not read fiction (stories) and those who read fiction often read what most of us who read Style would call CrapLit. People read fiction for escape, titillation, vicarious adventure, and to kill time in an airplane or on the beach. Nancy Pearl, a Seattle librarian, has written Book Lust and More Book Lust, in which she recommends fiction for readers of varied tastes: some primarily want a good plot, some historical sweep and atmosphere, some are most interested in character: she presents nearly two hundred categories and subcategories. Pearl’s readers seem to have distinct personality types. Where do they fit into Carroll’s psychological scheme as readers? Are they like the personality types of literary characters? Writers too would seem to excel in one or another category. Carroll has mentioned character, setting, and plot as constituting aspects of literary representations but these appeal differentially to various sorts of readers or writers too.

            I feel sure that Professor Carroll would not disagree with most of what I say in this commentary, which presents ideas that are of special interest to me. It is more a matter of emphasis and personal predilection than of criticism or challenge. My remarks are not meant to suggest inadequacies or deficiencies in the superlative work done by Carroll and the other Literary Darwinists whom he mentions. I bring them up here as interesting and relevant things to think about and I hope that scholars who are attracted to the field might find them worth considering in the future.

            I would also suggest that those who dismiss or ridicule adaptationist thinking audit a good course in—or read a good introduction to—human behavior and evolution before making their pronouncements.

Return to Top



Misleading Alternatives


Karl Eibl and Katja Mellmann[25]


            Joseph Carroll, the doyen of Literary Darwinism, has convincingly portrayed the present (mainly Anglo-American) state of the art in the application of evolutionary theory to the analysis of literature. We do not have any objections against his very instructive and well-balanced sketch, but we would like to point to some key aspects which might follow out of the European tradition.[26]

            Only few culturalists would nowadays still deny the theory of evolution and its basic significance for the explanation of human behavior; vice versa, only few biologically oriented naturalists would still deny the significance of culture for the explanation of human behavior. The communication difficulty rather seems to be that both sides of the controversy, almost instinctively, immunize their reasoning against each other by downsizing, or even ignoring, the significance of one component or the other, so that the mutual acceptance frequently remains on the level of formulaic lip services.

            The controversy between Joseph Carroll and Steven Pinker,[27] for instance, in our eyes, reveals a typical case of underestimating the cultural component. Its bone of contention has an old and dignified pre-Darwinian tradition: “Aut prodesse volunt aut delectare poetae”—poets wish to either instruct or to delight—as Horace writes in his Ars Poetica. And he continues (this is quoted less frequently): “aut simul et iucunda et idonea dicere vitae”—or they wish to achieve both at the same time! We think that the misleading alternative of either providing “pleasurable fantasies” or fulfilling a “vital adaptive function”—that is, the explanation of art as either a by-product or a distinct adaptation—could be dissolved in a similar way: art can indeed be both, for it embraces a great range of very heterogeneous activities. Moreover, as we shall argue in the following, the pleasure we derive from art is particularly connected with the adaptive value of art; whereas what is frequently assumed to be its adaptive function—the production of “meaning,” as Carroll argues in the target article—seems to us rather a cultural functionalization of the arts. But first things first.

            Carroll introduces three criteria to determine the adaptive function of art: (a) define art in a way that identifies what is peculiar and essential to it—thus isolating the behavioral disposition in question; (b) identify the adaptive problem this behavioral disposition would have solved in ancestral environments; and (c) identify design features that would efficiently have mediated the solution. A first difficulty is already apparent in the first criterion. “Art” is a concept of ordinary language, precise enough if it is used in, and rendered monosemic by, a particular conversational context; but is it useful as a starting point for an evolutionary explanation? It would be more appropriate, perhaps, to speak of the “arts” in the plural. To Pinker, an enthusiast of music, other properties might be significant than to the literary scholar Carroll. But even if we speak of the “arts” in the plural utterly diverse phenomena will be subsumed in this term. Does fine arts embrace everything from Da Vinci to Duchamp? Is literature everything from Hamlet to Donald Duck, and music everything from Beethoven to digital ringtones? And if we also count the body painting of the Huli people in Papua New Guinea, how about pierced teenagers in Western societies? Every social environment produces its own ideas about “art.” In fact, it would be no mistake to assume that those ideas, be they socially, regionally or historically grounded, are cultural ideas. In every social environment, then, diverse properties and functions are connected, in various combinations and with various predominances: ‘purposiveness without purpose’, ‘making special’, representation/depiction, play, religion, ‘handicap’, instruction, emotional training, utopian imagination, mental health, and so on; and, of course, sounds, colors, contours, words—all these are features and functions which can occur in artifacts and aesthetic behavior—but they do not necessarily have to.

            However, there is no need to give up the question for the evolutionary origins of the arts. On the contrary, we should try to decompose what we today intuitively think art to be into its fundamental elements, and then go back to the emergence of these individual components in their respective EEA. This conforms with Carroll’s second criterion that we must “identify the adaptive problem this behavioral disposition would have solved in ancestral environments”—provided that we put “problems” and “dispositions” into the plural. What is at stake is a multitude of diverse adaptations, which were developed for a multitude of diverse problems. And the procedure would have to be extended by yet another step. This step is the analysis of the historico-cultural conditions and constraints which determine that a specific combination of dispositions could establish itself, and could perhaps even be employed to resolve new problems. Thus, the task would be: (a) to decompose the everyday concept and phenomenon of “art” into its fundamental elements, (b) to identify the evolutionary origins of these components, and (c) to analyze the respective selection and higher-level interplay of these components under diverse cultural circumstances.

            This cannot be done without a clear distinction between the original emergence of an adaptation on the one hand, and its present form and function on the other hand, i.e., between the “ultimate” causation (the evolutionary origin) and the derived “proximate” causation which persists through various cultural conditions.[28] Concerning the proximate cause of aesthetic behavior, Pinker’s vote for “pleasure” is, we think, an important contribution. In addition to that, however, we would have to ask for the ultimate cause of that pleasure. We would have to ask, in other words, why humans have evolved an intrinsic motivation to activate their mental apparatus in non-functional contexts. On this question, we regard the observations by Tooby and Cosmides in their essay “Does Beauty Build Adapted Minds?” as seminal: They point out that “building [such a complex machinery as the human] brain, and readying each of its adaptations to perform its function as well as possible is [...] a vastly underrated adaptive problem” itself (14). This problem was solved, they believe, by evolving “aesthetic motivations” (i.e., ‘pleasure’ responses), which help to “detect, seek, and experience certain aspects of the world,” activate adaptive programs, and, by this means, serve as “a necessary guidance system for the development of each adaptation” (15). Thus, seemingly pointless behaviors do have an adaptive value, because those repeated performances in a purely “organizational mode” (16) “help adaptations become organized into their mature form” (15).[29]

            From this perspective, art behavior aligns with play behavior in animals and children as formerly characterized by Karl Groos and Karl Bühler.[30] The aesthetic preference systems detect appropriate occasions for play, that is, they detect stimuli which are appropriate to trigger adaptive programs because of an at least partial “isomorphism” (Tooby and Cosmides, “Does Beauty Build?” 16ff.) with selectionally relevant features of the EEA. Hence, the effects of works of art have been compared to those of stimulus models.[31] This comparison works especially well for several non-semantic aspects of the arts. One can think of the many pointless repetitions which provoke endless delight in little children and reoccur, as rhyme and verse, in poetry, as melodic phrase in music, or as ornamental arabesques in painting (Eibl, “Biologie”). One can further think of pre-semantic patterns of intensification and decrease, or generally of all regular patterns and ‘gestalt’ forms which normally guide our environmental experience and, in the organizational mode, can be enjoyed as pleasurable principles of arrangement. Thus, even the attendance at a symphonic concert is based, among others, on the pleasure which already in the Pleistocene derived from pointlessly exercising and calibrating our auditory system.

            Stimulus model effects also determine our emotional responses to the arts.[32] This regards not only our more agreeable feelings, of which the phrase of the famous “cheesecake for the mind” reminds us first, but also less agreeable emotions like fear, sadness, or disgust. As the latter are equally adaptive programs, their performance in the organizational mode is intrinsically rewarding and can lead to such paradoxical phenomena as the ‘agreeable horror’ or the ‘joy of grief.’ However, unlike a bird, for instance, whose feeding activities can be triggered by the open mouth of its offspring as well as by an appropriate dummy, humans are able to “decouple”[33] the sequence of information, drive and action, and to enjoy the triggered emotions without the need for final reactions. Humans are not more “detached from instinct” than any other animals (or even, ‘not “instinct-driven” at all’), as Carroll paraphrases Wilson, but they are particularly capable of cognitively controlling contingently true information by means of a specialized “scope syntax,” [34] of segmenting the triggered programs into individual subsequences, and creating new combinations of them. Hence, the organizational mode also provides the basis for fictional information, that is, for a core element of literature.

            So far, the capability to perform adaptations in the organizational mode would indeed be an indispensable and constitutive property of all forms of art. However, it extends beyond the traditional scope of the arts in that it is also a precondition for numerous other cultural activities, from general learning by exercise, through dance, conviviality, cooking, and religious service, up to the Finnish ‘art’ of wife carrying and the Australian ‘art’ of dwarf tossing. To put it academically: this capability is not a sufficient but necessary condition of what we call ‘art.’ Moreover, the organizational mode, in the context of human behavior, not only serves ontogenetically to adapt the individual organism to a given environment but also to display, discuss, and culturally shape this environment. As is generally known, most animals are disposed to play only in their youth; as soon as they have acquired the necessary routines, however, their behavior becomes severe and inflexible. The fact that humans are ‘playing’ throughout their entire lifespan renders their behavior far more flexible than that of their animal relatives—and, at the same time, more insecure. Humans need culture, because culture builds the ‘in-between worlds’ (Eibl, “Zwischenwelten”) which regulate, by means of standardization, the mutual adjustment between the changing world and the evolved nervous system. Mere play, Pinker’s pure pleasure behavior, thus rather turns out to be a limiting case. In the standard case, playful behaviors are, in the sense of a ‘secondary severity’ (Eibl, “Zwei Kulturen,” 38ff.), superimposed by new, and frequently culturally conditioned, functions such as, for instance, cultivating informational secureness, reducing contingency, and constantly practicing social consensus.

            One might regard this as an evidence for the particular ‘adaptiveness’ of the arts. However, one would have to acknowledge that the function of providing imaginative in-between worlds and producing “meaning” can just as well be achieved by other, non-artistic, cultural phenomena such as law texts, traffic rules, science, or morals. Hence, we do not think that the arts are “an adaptive response to the adaptive problem produced by the adaptive capacities of high intelligence” (target article); here we would prefer to put “culture”. ‘The arts’, we think, have not one biologically adaptive function, but many cultural functions. This leads to the third step of analysis: the question for the culturally specific inter-relation of innate dispositions and actual conditions and requirements.

            Pursuing this question may reveal that an evolutionary heuristics not only opens up new aspects within general literary theory but can also enter the realm of historicist analysis and be of valuable assistance there. First, the evolutionary approach can explain how, and on the basis of which innate adaptations, certain cultural phenomena could come into being at all. There is, for instance, no conception of the ‘sublime’ without innate fear stimuli (Mellmann, Emotionalisierung, 92ff., 231ff.); there is no delight in detective novels without a ‘cheater detector.’ and so on.—Secondly, a comparison of the original adaptive functions of a behavior and its actual cultural ones can help to define the culturally specific more precisely. To give an example: naturalists have rightly argued against the assumption that romantic love is ‘merely’ a social construct. However, one should keep in mind that the hypothesis of romantic love as a cultural ‘invention’ is based upon an important and accurate observation. Passionate love, understood as an innate psychic module for adaptive mate choice (Fisher), has presumably always existed. Why, however, on the ground of this general human experience, the sophisticated (predominantly literary) technique of self articulation and world depiction developed in the course of the eighteenth century cannot be answered but in a cultural-historical perspective. It is therefore not enough to refute radical statements from social constructivists. Instead, we should specify them further and let them gain new relevance by adding the evolutionary perspective.

            Carroll also highlights the cultural superimposition on human nature when he remarks (with Wilson): “We do not have the option of living outside our own imaginative constructs.” However, two additional considerations are necessary here. Biologists should pay attention to the fact that not only products of the arts provide us with imaginative constructs but that our entire culture essentially consists of constructs; and culturalists should pay attention to the fact that those constructs are by no means free inventions but are built on elements of our biological inheritance and still have to stand the test of their evolutionary environment.

Return to Top


Lyle Eslinger

Department of Religious Studies

University of Calgary


Carroll offers a wide-ranging survey of "literary Darwinism." Along with his prior surveys, it will certainly serve as a starting point for research in what he hopes will become a burgeoning field. He is, however, rightly concerned that this new angle on the critical analysis of literature should not become another erratic on the plains of the post-modern glaciation. Recognizing the possiblity of a fresh start, grounded on the foundations of the historical sciences, his ultimate hope is for literary Darwinism to contribute new knowledge. If this is plausible, it could add to the storehouse of consilient knowledge that has emerged from Darwin's holistic evolutionary perspective. That, certainly, would be something that literary criticism has not attempted or been known for, of recent. The basis for optimism regarding the possibility of creating new knowledge in literary Darwinism is sound—nothing less than the holistic ecology of evolutionary biology and the interconnections of emergent complexity in the cosmos (Kauffman 119). The literary Darwinists reviewed by Carroll attempting to describe the manifestation of this interconnectedness at the level of human culture and reflection. Tenuous as first steps may be, we see here a solid foundation from which to escape the political forms that have stymied humanistic scholarship.

Carroll's optimism regarding the possibilities for a new contribution to knowledge draws our attention directly to manifestations of evolutionary nature in literature and the arts and particularly to the disputed topic of human universals. Universals are central adaptive characteristics that have emerged as the human species interacted with its terrestrial environment over millions of years. Of course some foundational elements of these universals emerged before humans, making their cultural expression the more powerful and universal (Shubin 27). The basic responses and emotions deriving from the biological prime directives (survival and reproduction) are pre-human and constitute the core of perennial literary themes such as love and war. Identifying and describing the manifestation of these universals in literature and the arts is the first great challenge in implementing literary Darwinism as a practical criticism. Repeatedly in Carroll's survey of existing research, one senses a struggle to make the connection between the simple elegance of the Darwinian mythos and the cultural and psychological complexities of literature and the arts. The surveyed results offer a quilt-work of suggestions ranging from the fundamental to the overwrought. So, for example, Brian Boyd's hypothesis that literature is "cognitive play that develops creativity and helps form social identity" (in target article) seems only weakly connected to the temporal character of literature. Under the heading "The Adaptive Function of Literature,"similar suppositions (focusing attention on adaptive salients (Dissanayake), focusing shared attention (Boyd), and social cohesion (Boyd and Dissanayake) do not seem to possess the low-level hooks that one looks for in a biologically rooted cultural form. Carroll himself observes that the suggested adaptive functionality of enhancing creativity is not specific to the arts; technology does this as well.

In several places Carroll describes observations that converge on a connection between a basic literary form and a primary environmental condition. In an earlier book, Evolution and Literary Theory, Carroll linked several literary phenomena under the rubric "cognitive mapping" (in target article). Several independent studies in his survey agree that the link between story and environmental processes lies near the centre of literature's adaptive function (for example, Panksepp & Panksepp; E.O. Wilson's scenario machine; Tooby & Cosmides' "powerful organizing effect"). Carroll extrapolates this function from narrative to the arts generally. Although this linkage may be apparent in other arts of spatio-temporal representation, generalization at this point seems a mistake. The focus on story and its direct connection to environmental events is a solid lead, the best and broadest example of human ecology evoking literature. E.O. Wilson's surmise that literature and the other arts meet some deep emotional needs ([the] "need to produce and consume imaginative artifacts would be as real and distinct a need as hunger, sex, or social interaction") is derivative from this fundamental functionality. Given the early stage of literary Darwinism it seems advisable for primary energies to concentrate on the basics. A focus on the narrative form of literature provides two important linkages for literary Darwinism: one, an immediate linkage with the orienting Darwinian narrative of life; the other, a connection between a cultural form and the pervasive environmental condition of causally connected events. Like many of the stories from the ancient world that achieved "classic" status, the Darwinian story of evolution provides an encompassing narrative, mirroring and mapping the natural historical processes in which humans find themselves. Although a great deal of human adaptation is unconscious and genetically based, literature is at least partly a product of conscious adaptation. And at the centre of literary structures of representation we find story -- a representation of the matrix of environmental events and agentive behaviours that constitute the human environment. Stories are "cognitive maps" (in the target article) by which conscious adapters navigate, remember, and communicate valuable information about their environment. Of course cognitive maps were not, in the first instance, full blown literature. The novel comes much later, but the simple beginnings of story certainly would have provided human ancestors with a competitive edge over other organisms relying on comparatively glacial and unreflective genetic memories. The same holds true with regard to inter-human competition. Groups with the most accurate stories would also have been in a position of competitive advantage (just as Darwin saw that those with the greatest internal cohesion would be ahead of the others.[35]

Carroll's concern that the new Darwinian perspective should not become just another critical approach is justified. Academic libraries are stuffed with scholarship that takes more space on shelves than in heads. Darwinism teaches us to ask what something is for, what its adaptive purpose is. When something loses utility it atrophies and turns to dust, an alarm raised by the dusty volumes in academic libraries. So what hope is there for a Darwinian approach to make a contribution in its native environment, where fame may be built on the biophobic perception that culture has escaped its natural ecology (cited in the target article)? Perhaps the best course would be for literary Darwinism to take a chance and stop trying to reform the old haunts of literature and the arts. Carroll mentions conference proposal rejections for a Darwinian perspective perceived as not on the post-modern edge. I expect that his experiences have been duplicated many times. What, then, about a contribution not to literature and the arts but rather along the lines of one of the oldest forms of humanistic reflection? "Know thyself": for the last 150 years or so, many of the most penetrating insights into the human condition have come from Darwinism and the historical sciences. "Darwinian literary studies" marries an evolutionary framework that provides a new critical perspective with the natural reflective qualities of the best in literature. Taken together and set on new page uncoloured by the politics of humanistic discourse there is a good hope that literary Darwinism might add at least some of the self- knowledge we seem to need to steer culture's course back toward something fit for nature's ecology.

Return to Top


How Might Literature Do Harm?


Jeffrey E. Foy

Stony Brook University

Richard J. Gerrig

Stony Brook University


Please address correspondence to:


Jeffrey E. Foy

Department of Psychology

Stony Brook University

Stony Brook, NY 11794-2500

phone: (631) 632-7847

fax: (631) 632-7876



Literature enriches human experience, as Carroll and other evolutionary theorists have pointed out. Many positive aspects of literature, such as how it can be used to transmit social information and how it can help people organize knowledge about the world, have been highlighted recently by evolutionary theorists (Boyd, “Evolutionary”; Scalise Sugiyama, “Reverse-Engineering”). As Carroll’s essay indicates, there is an on-going debate about whether the capacity to produce and comprehend narratives is an adaptation or is parasitic on other evolved cognitive abilities. We suggest that this debate should be more informed by the possible negative—and sometimes maladaptive—consequences of the human species’ capacity to experience narrative and engage in imagination.

            Researchers have argued that fiction allows people to simulate new experiences and vicariously learn about new situations (Mar Oatley; Scalise Sugiyama, “Reverse-Engineering”). These analyses have suggested that people expand their social knowledge through narratives, allowing them to learn about how society deals with things from marriage to murder. Through narratives, people learn what is expected of them and how to behave in new situations in accordance with societal norms. Narratives also bolster the ability to understand what is happening in the minds of other people. Many narratives allow people to take a different perspective, such as the perspective of somebody of the opposite gender. When people engage in social interactions, they may draw on the knowledge gained from narratives to help interact more smoothly. In that way, narratives play an important role in passing on social knowledge.

            While this analysis suggests that narrative plays an explicitly prosocial role in human development, we would do well to recall why Plato expressed a strong fear that stories could have a negative impact on children’s moral development. In the Republic, Plato notes that “poets and story-tellers are in error in matters of the greatest human importance. They have said that unjust men are often happy and just men wretched, that wrong-doing pays if you can avoid being found out, and that justice is good for someone else but is to your own disadvantage” (Lee translation 148-149). For these reasons, we must be concerned that literature has the potential to corrupt.

            In fact, researchers have demonstrated that, after reading a moderately engaging story, people will express more agreement with statements that straightforwardly contradict real-world truths (e.g., that mental illnesses are contagious) (Prentice, Gerrig, and Bailis; see also Wheeler, Green, and Brock). Narrative impact does not fade quickly: When compared to immediate tests, readers’ beliefs were more influenced by the story content two weeks after reading a story (Appel and Richter). When readers experience a strong sense of being transported to a narrative world—when they give reports of focused mental involvement with the story—they are also more likely to modify their beliefs and attitudes in the direction of the story (Green and Brock, “The Role”). The experience of being transported effectively reduces readers’ motivation to argue against information presented in a story (Green and Brock, “Mind’s Eye”; and Prentice and Gerrig). Those works of literature that most effectively immerse their readers have the greatest potential to do both good and harm. The question becomes what distribution of information is actually made available through texts. Plato’s characterization of the lessons offered by poets and story-tellers has great contemporary resonance. How can we be certain that, on balance, it’s a good thing that readers absorb lessons from literature?

             As an example of why we might be concerned, consider the question of whether exposure to televised aggression has a negative impact on people’s subsequent behavior. To address this question, Huesmann, Moise-Titus, Podolski, and Eron undertook a longitudinal study. Beginning in 1977, the researchers spent two years recording the extent to which 557 first- and third-grade children watched TV shows with violent content. Fifteen years later, the researchers were able to locate 329 of those children (as 20- to 22-year-olds). The participants’ adult levels of aggression were assessed both through self-reports and other-reports (from individuals such as spouses). The data revealed a clear pattern: For both men and women, those individuals who had viewed the most televised violence in grade school displayed the highest levels of aggression as adults. The researchers used other data to argue against the possibility that the predilection toward aggression comes first (e.g., the data showed only a small relationship between childhood aggression and the individuals’ viewing of TV violence as adults). Thus, the data suggest that the lessons children absorbed from violent narratives predicted later aggression.

            Of course, the human species’ capacity to experience narrative evolved well before the advent of television. For that reason, we are on dodgy ground when we invoke contemporary examples to reflect on literature as a means for instruction. That point is equally true whether those examples serve to illustrate the potential for good or the potential for harm. Still, any discussion of the processes by which readers acquire information from literature should not ignore the potential for harm.

            Another argument in favor of the adaptive value of literature has centered on the virtues of imagination. Imagination, which plays a key role in our understanding of narratives, plays an important role in our everyday life. As Carroll states in the target article, “We live in the imagination. No action or event is, for humans, ever just itself. It is always a component in mental representations of the natural and social order, extending over time.” However, other commentators have noted that the “longing to lose ourselves in fiction” incurs “the dangers of confusing fantasy with reality” (Pinker, “Towards a Consilient Study” 163). Research in psychology suggests that those dangers are quite genuine.

            Studies on false memories have demonstrated that people confuse events that they have only imagined with events that really occurred. Consider a study by Thomas and Loftus that unfolded over two weeks. In an initial experimental session, the researchers asked the participants either to perform certain actions (such as bouncing a ball on the floor) or to imagine doing the actions. Twenty-four hours later, participants returned to the laboratory and only imagined themselves performing actions—including some from the previous day—from one to five times. Two weeks later, the participants returned and attempted to discriminate between those actions they had actually performed and those that they had only imagined. Many of the participants claimed to have performed some of the actions that they only imagined, including bizarre events such as balancing spoons on their nose or sitting on dice. The more times an action was imagined, the more likely it was that people would falsely claim to have performed the action. Experiments of this sort demonstrate the permeability of the boundary between the imagination and reality.

            In fact, the permeability of this boundary gives rise to behavior that is explicitly maladaptive. Consider the experiences of individuals who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD is characterized by obsessions—persistent, recurring inappropriate thoughts—that intrude on a person’s consciousness in a way that causes anxiety and compulsions—repetitive, purposeful behaviors—that function to neutralize anxiety (DSM-IV). For example, “individuals with obsessions about being contaminated may reduce their mental distress by washing their hands until their skin is raw” (DSM-IV 418). At some point in their lives, 1.6% of U.S. adults experience the disorder (Kessler, Berglund, Demler, Jin, Mrikangas, and Walters). Researchers have suggested that, in the experience of OCD, “imagination plays a decisive role in rendering remote possibilities more probable” (Aardema and O’Connor 194). Consider this case report from a patient: “I could be crazy enough to cut out my tongue. When I’m anxious, I can ‘see’ myself doing it, using a knife to cut it off. It feels like I could actually do it” (O’Connor, Aardema and Pélissier 121 as cited in Aardema and O’Connor). Such obsessions represent circumstances in which “the imagination is informed not by objective criteria but by a persuasive narrative leading the person to treat a possibility as reality” (Aardema and O’Connor 190). Thus, as possibilities migrate from the imagination, OCD sufferers begin to engage in behaviors that have a negative impact on their day-to-day functioning. This is one consequence of the human imagination. OCD is just one example of circumstances in which “believed-in imaginings” have potential negative consequences (see de Rivera and Sarbin).

            As we noted at the outset, Carroll and others have called attention to the various ways in which literature enriches human experience. We are inclined to agree with that assessment. However, we have attempted to illustrate why the potential for good and the potential for harm should be evaluated side-by-side. By recognizing circumstances in which experiences of narrative and uses of imagination may have negative consequences, theorists can enter into a more nuanced debate about particular evolutionary analyses.


Authors’ Note

This material is based upon work supported by National Science Foundation Grant No. 0325188. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. We thank Matthew Jacovina and Benjamin Swets for helpful comments.

Return to Top



Human Nature’s Human Nature


Harold Fromm

University of Arizona


Joseph Carroll’s overview of an evolutionary paradigm for literary study is so comprehensive and lucid that there isn’t very much I would care to criticize. But I would like to expand its reaches. The whole notion of “human nature” has had a fairly bad history, exploited as it has been to reinforce conservative and reactionary programs to force human beings into conformity with transient social imperatives. Homer and Nature may have been the same for Alexander Pope, and Jon Gottschall does very well with his literary analyses of The Iliad in terms of the updated human nature that has been so improved upon by biology and neuroscience, but we obviously will continue to need revised contemporary models. Freud’s picture of human nature now strikes us as verging on the bizarre: penis-envy, myths buried in neurons somehow inscripted with Oedipus and Elektra? Put otherwise, “human nature” as a concept needs to be open-ended, since its particular biological foundations will be subject to revision like all scientific truths. Even Joseph Carroll, coming as he does from Victorian Studies and its constitutive elements, such as the 19th century novel, is bound to seem limited by criteria that eventually won’t appear as “scientific” as he would hope, since “scientific” is best understood along a sliding scale. (Think of the pre-Foucauldian misdirections of Thomas Kuhn.)

Scientists themselves tend not to speak of “the” scientific method. Alan Sokal, a physicist notorious for his famous hoax, speaks in his new book of “epistemological opportunism” as the best bet for validation in the sciences, since there is no single “method” that equals “science” (249 et passim). And one need only consider all the clinical trials for food nutrients, anti-cancer drugs, regimens for warding off Alzheimer’s, macular degeneration, and colon cancer (flat lesions being the latest discovery) to see how radically revisionary the most widely researched conclusions tend to be. In the more discursive sciences, such as evolutionary psychology, interpretation is perhaps the chief and most vulnerable technique. Even statistical findings fail to speak for themselves as we have already seen in the above examples from the hard sciences. And speaking personally, when it comes to the humanities, I react to the use of “scientific” as if it were metaphor. I probably would feel more at ease with “in the spirit of the sciences.” I say these things as a believer in the various post-Darwinian sciences who nevertheless suffers from a fear of triumphalism.

            So there are still lots of worlds to conquer that will have been totally neglected or denied by all sorts of conventions and proprieties as well as research questions not asked because not even thought of. Jon Gottschall and his students did not find unsurfaced, unacknowledged, unwitting conventions or needs in folk and fairy tales from around the world and Joe Carroll does not find them in Victorian literature. Taboos are unspoken even as they are operative while “invisible.” But what you don’t ask you’re unlikely to find. And of course, you can’t ask about things you know nothing about. There’s a growth industry out there. “Reality” is in little danger of being used up. Ph. D. students, nota bene!

Return to Top



Do We Need Literary Darwinism?


Eugene Goodheart


In his essay, “The Sleep of Reason” the philosopher Thomas Nagel remarks: “[Postmodernism] may be on the way out, but I suspect that there will continue to be a market in the huge American academy for a quick fix of some kind. If it is not social constructionism, it will be something else—Darwinian explanations of practically everything else” (Patai and Corral 552). Now associated with extraordinary advances in genetics, Darwinism promises a scientific understanding of any and all disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences. Think of postmodern skepticism about words like “truth” and “reality.” The neo-Darwinian approach removes the quotation marks that surround them. As I say in my book, Darwinian Misadventures in the Humanities, “I would be less than candid not to acknowledge that the present condition in the humanities (its self-doubt and disarray) is a kind of invitation to the neo-Darwinists” (1). E. O. Wilson, founder of sociobiology, draws the following contrast between the Enlightenment tradition in which he places himself and postmodernism. “Postmodernism is the ultimate polar antithesis to the Enlightenment. The difference between the two extremes could be explained as follows. Enlightenment thinkers believe we can know everything, and radical postmodernists believe we can know nothing” (Consilience 44). This is a debatable formulation, but it does reveal the mindset of the neo-Darwinian approach. In his book Consilience Wilson has no less an ambition than to unify all the disciplines on the basis of biology. The ultimate ambition of literary Darwinism, as Joseph Carroll makes clear very much in the Wilsonian spirit, is “to fundamentally [alter] the paradigm within which literary study is now conducted” and “to subsume all other possible approaches to literary study.” Historical, aesthetic, sociological, rhetorical perspectives are to be incorporated into a predominantly biological approach to literature. Though Carroll acknowledges that theoretical approaches other than literary Darwinism have provided insights into literature, he sees them as all flawed, requiring their rescue by evolutionary psychology. The chutzpah is breathtaking, given the absence of anything approaching a theory of literature in the paradigm he presents.

            Can evolutionary psychology say anything interesting about literature? my answer is that it is possible, that I am not a prophet and can’t predict the future. On the basis of what I’ve read up to now, I must confess that I am a skeptic. Both the general understanding of literature and the interpretations of individual works are crudely reductionist. Reductionism in the natural sciences is no vice; on the contrary, it enables one discipline (for instance, physics) to explain another (chemistry). In the humanities, however, it subverts the uniqueness and complexity of works of art. Carroll’s complaint about “traditional humanist criticism,” (which I exemplify in his essay) is that lacking in empirical curiosity, it “operates on the level of the author’s lexicon and seeks no systematic reduction to simple principles that have large general validity” (Literary Darwinism 213). Well, this hardly seems a deficiency. The alternative that Carroll and his fellow literary Darwinists propose is the dissolution of the individuality of a work (the very reason that we enjoy and value it) into large generalizations that removes all of its distinctive features and vitality.

Here are some samples, striking in their banality: “Humans are bipedal, but proportional to body size they have much larger brains than other primates.... Human beings are heavily dependent on parental care for much longer than other animals…Parents and children share a fitness interest in the success of the child—in the child reaching maturity and achieving successful reproduction…Human beings are physically discrete. Individual persons are bodies wrapped in skin with nervous systems to brains that are soaked in blood and encased in bone.” And then there is the occasional sentence of stupefying opacity: “The arts are thus an adaptive response to the adaptive problem produced by the adaptive capacities of high intelligence.” I would think that a detailed attention to particular works of literature would be a mark of empiricism. None is forthcoming in Carroll’s essay. Despite its claim to be empirical, literary Darwinism encourages readers to find confirmation of what evolutionary psychology determines to be psychological truth rather than being open to what a work of literature does or says.

Worse, straining to find to find such confirmation the result may be an exercise in irrelevance as when David and Nanelle Barash offer up the following in their grotesquely titled book Madame Bovary’s Ovaries.

Like the rest of us [Othello] has been restricted to just one Desdemona at a time. [Where in the play is there the suggestion that Othello feels restricted in his love for Desdemona?]…During the rut, bull elk are notoriously aggressive and intolerant of each other, while cow elk are comparatively placid; even among monogamous songbirds, males regularly patrol their territories, alert for intruders. [What do the rutting habits of bull elk have to do with Othello’s behavior in the play?] …It is also worth noting that Othello is considerably older than Desdemona, a pattern that lends itself to an additional slate of evolutionary insights. Yet another biological asymmetry between sexes is that whereas women go through menopause, men remain potentially reproductive into old age” [Neither Desdemona’s menopause nor Othello’s putative geriatric fertility figures in the play.] (20,21).

If it weren’t for the obvious seriousness of the authors, we might think that we were being treated to a parody of literary interpretation. The book, listed in Carroll’s bibliography, has the endorsement of none other that E. O. Wilson, who speaks of it as an “account of an important new development in literary criticism: the incorporation of the biology of human nature.”

The key idea in Carroll’s account of the evolutionary paradigm for literary study is that “humans have evolved in an adaptive relation to their environment.” This is accomplished through the agency of natural selection, “shaping motives and emotions so as to maximize the chances that an organism will propagate its genes, or copies of its genes in its kin.” It would then follow that the writing and the reading of works of literature help in the adaptation, a plausible but hardly comprehensive claim for the whole of literature. I can think of many major works of literature that have the contrary effect of unsettling our relation to the environment. How does King Lear or Gulliver Travels or Kafka’s The Metamorphosis illustrate the adaptive function of literature? A person in the bourgeois comfort of her home would do well to avoid reading any of these works if she wished to maximize her chances for a successful adaptation to the environment. Not a word in Carroll’s benign paradigm of evolutionary psychology on the nihilistic, genocidal propensities of tribes and nations. His depiction of human nature has a comfortable middle class setting.

Carroll takes me to task for not being truly interested in what constitutes human nature. Of course, I want to know as much as possible about human nature. As I made clear in my book, I do not share the postmodern view that human nature is a blank slate. I am, however, skeptical about the confidence of evolutionary psychologists that their putative knowledge of human nature gives them the authority to interpret and evaluate literature. In quoting my sentence, “human nature may not be a blank slate, but do we know enough to know what is inscribed upon it,” Carroll fails to provide the context for it, Steven Pinker’s blinkered wholesale repudiation of modern and postmodern in The Blank Slate. Unhappy about the condition of modern art, he wants to answer the question of why “the arts are in trouble.” And he finds the answer in Virginia Woolf’s misguided statement that human nature changed in 1910. So, in Pinker’s view, modernism, mistakenly proceeding as if human nature has changed, abandoned realism in literature in which works unfold from beginnings through middles to endings in true Aristotelian fashion for narratives of indeterminate structures, and it rejected representational art for paintings that are “freakish distortions of shape and color and,,, abstract grids, shapes, dribbles, splashes” (15) and so on. The modernist literature of Joyce and Proust, the modernist art of Picasso and Braque and the postmodernist art of Jackson Pollack among many others are judged to be violations of human nature, according to a scientific, evolutionary psychological understanding of it. Human nature for Pinker turns out to be the exercise of bourgeois virtues. “The fact is that the values of the middle class—personal responsibility, devotion to family, and neighborhood, avoidance of macho violence, respect for liberal democracy are good things, not bad things. Most of the world wants to join the bourgeoisie, and most artists are members in good standing who adopted a few bohemian affectations” (18) Pinker defends bourgeois virtues, which are real, but he writes about them as if they are pieties immune to criticism, so much for Stendhal, Flaubert and Baudelaire and so much for a disinterested scientific treatment of the subject.

Is it unreasonable to wonder about an evolutionary psychologist’s claim to knowledge about human nature when it is the basis for a wholesale rejection of a body of great literature? The effect of Pinker’s approach is prescription and proscription. It is not literature and the arts that explore the unchartered territory of human nature, but “science” that is supposed to establish what human nature is and in effect police literature and the arts. Rather than being open to the creative surprises of the literary imagination, the evolutionary psychologist seeks confirmation for his theory in literature and when he doesn’t find it, it is literature that is at fault. It is hard to see either science or critical illumination of literature and the arts in such an approach. Taken seriously, Pinker’s philistine view would inhibit rather than foster the creative imagination. I would be curious to know Carroll’s opinion about Pinker’s approach.

Natural selection is a driving, if not the driving, force in evolutionary theory. Human life is a result of natural selection, but intelligent design has a large role to play in human achievements. It is not at all clear how the mindless activity of genes contributes to the making and the understanding of literature and the arts. Aware of the problem, Richard Dawkins, perhaps the most fervent advocate of the neo-Darwinian synthesis, has proposed an amendment to “the genetic history of mankind.” He has introduced “the meme” as a cultural counterpart to the gene. “Mimeme comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’… it could alternately be thought of as relating to ‘memory’ or to the French word meme” (The Selfish Gene 18). Examples of the meme are physical embodiments of ideas such as “the wheel,” “calculus,” “chess,” “impressionism.” Memes like genes replicate themselves. What is not evident is how they produce cultural variation. Take the instance of impressionism: how does the meme produce the differences among Renoir, Pissarro and Monet? The concept is the product of speculation—without any empirical or experimental basis as far as I know. Enough to say that the conception of the role of culture in the neo-Darwinian synthesis is rudimentary and hardly justifies the high confidence of its advocates in their forays in the studies of literature and the arts. Aristotle’s Poetics is grounded in his conception of biology, but he knew, as the current breed of Darwinists don’t seem to know, that you need to have both a theory of literature and a literary sensibility that produce results when you engage a particular work of literature and not be content simply with generalities about human nature. Are their biological components in the making and understanding of literature and the arts? I am sure there are. My main objection is to the attempt to turn evolutionary psychology into a systematic approach to literature, comparable to a Freudian or Marxist or Structuralist approach. The result would be disastrously Procrustean.

Return to Top



What Are Literary Scholars For? What is Art For?                                                                                                                                                                                                               

 Jonathan Gottschall

Washington and Jefferson College


On May 11 2008 I published an article in the Ideas section of the Sunday Boston Globe called "Measure for Measure." The article was basically a précis of my book Literature, Science, and a New Humanities, and it sounded many of the same themes that dominate Professor Carroll's target article.

            Like Carroll, I argued for a fairly radical solution to the malaise in academic literary study: we should study the successes of the sciences and, insofar as possible, we should try to emulate them. Also like Carroll, I did not argue that scientific tools can replace judgment, imagination, erudition, or good scholarship. I argued that combining these humanistic virtues with scientific tools would create new synergies (I find Carroll's synergistic vision for the future of the discipline, expressed in his conclusion, entirely appealing and entirely achievable). In the digital age, a counter-intuitive argument appearing in a high-profile forum instantly becomes a target article itself. By now about one hundred bloggers have weighed in on my article.

The blog is a genre for impulsive rants, and in addition to substantive critique, posts about my article are rife with ridicule and ad hominem. To many bloggers the Globe article marked me as "pathetic," a "philistine," a "bullshit artist," a peddler of ignorant "tosh" and "silly scientism," and "a tenured nitwit" (alas, not even tenure-track, in reality). There were positive responses too. One blogger said that the article gave him a "man crush" and inspired "explosively incontinent affection" (er, thanks). But the positive responses were dominated by people who are deeply disaffected by what one blogger called the "useless nonsense" and "inane babbling" of contemporary literary study. I had the feeling that many of these writers would applaud anything smiting standard practices in the field.

I predict that Carroll's target article will receive robust support from respondents who are already committed to a consilient, biocultural approach, but there will also be many stridently negative responses which--while robed in academic niceties--will seethe with the kind of resentment that was freely vented in the blogoshperic reaction to my Globe article.

I think all of the sound and fury about a more scientific approach to literary study signifies a deep rift in intellectual culture about the raison d'etre of literary scholarship. Carroll references this rift in his overview of disciplinary history,

Literary criticism over the past century has spread itself along a continuum between two poles. At the one pole, eclectic general knowledge provides a framework for impressionistic and improvisatory commentary. At the other pole, some established school of thought, in some domain not specifically literary, provides a more systematic vocabulary for the description and analysis of literary texts.

Obviously, naturalistic literary study has most in common with the latter pole, and that may make it seem like merely the latest attempt to force a grand, faddish "theory of everything" onto the field--like Marxism or psychoanalysis or poststructuralism. But this actually underrates the radicalism and ambition of Carroll's vision. Carroll is not only arguing for reinterpreting texts through the lens of consilient knowledge, he is arguing for a wholesale disciplinary migration toward a scientific ethos.

In so doing, Carroll is making an argument about the ultimate point of literary scholarship. This comes through in the final section of the essay where he argues that the most serious challenge for the Darwinists is this: can we "produce formulations that are not only new but true?" Can we produce "new knowledge—real knowledge, knowledge that is consilient with the broader world of empirical research"?

            So for Carroll, and for me, the ultimate test of a literary paradigm is whether or not it succeeds in making durable contributions to the sum of human understanding. And his critique of the currently dominating paradigm—expressed here rather gently, and in his earlier writings rather less so--is that it has spectacularly failed to do so.

            I think Carroll is right about this. But there are at least two ways in which we both might be wrong.

First, it may be that we have simply missed the point. It may be that the raison d'être of professional literary study is not knowledge accumulation. This position was recently expressed to me by a good friend over beers. In the course of our conversation, I was able to corner him and make him admit that Freud was in all probability wrong about The Oedipus Complex and that Lacan was in all probability wrong about The Mirror Stage. But I could not convince him that psychoanalysis's weak claim to explanatory validity meant that it should be drummed out of literary theory. My friend says he will still teach the tenets of psychoanalytic criticism in literary theory class, not because he thinks they have truth value but because they "are still illuminating, they bring out pattern." So, for my friend, the ultimate point of literary study is not to accumulate knowledge that is "truer" than what we possessed before. For him, the point of professional literary study is harder to express, but it involves appreciation, imaginative play, self-improvement, and cognitive exercise. (Note that the issue is not how people ought to read literature. It is about what professional literary scholars are supposed to be producing when doing their jobs.)

On the other hand, many respondents might agree with Carroll that the ultimate purpose of literary scholarship is to accumulate more reliable knowledge about the subject, but vehemently disagree about how we should go about this. Carroll proceeds on the assumption that there is no real barrier between the sciences and humanities, no wall or moat or prophylactic of any kind that blocks the application of scientific tools to humanities questions. Humanities questions are often deeply complex (as are questions in the life and social sciences), but they are not irreducibly complex. I share Carroll's conviction. But if reaction from the blogosphere is any barometer, this is a minority view. Most would feel that any proposal for "literary science" would be risibly (if not pathetically) oxymoronic; such a proposal would signal a stunning failure to grasp that literary scholars and scientists are studying fundamentally, radically different kinds of stuff.

There are signs that scholars are girding up for a big fight about the role of scientific theory, method, and ethos in humanities scholarship. Happily, however, the question of whether or not scientific tools can help humanists generate more reliable knowledge is not one of those academic disputes that has to drag on and on until everyone gets exhausted and gives up. This is a dispute that will yield to empirical evidence. Either movement toward a more scientific paradigm in literary studies will yield superior results (of the kind Carroll describes in the conclusion to his article) or it won't. As E. O. Wilson wrote in his preface to The Literary Animal, "There is only one way to settle the issue [of whether the humanities are consilient with the sciences]: Go there and find out; utilize Francis Bacon's dictum that truth comes more easily out of error than out of confusion" (vii).




            Shifting lanes, I will respond briefly to Carroll's discussion of controversies about the possible adaptive function(s) of fictional narrative and other art forms. Natural selection is a ruthlessly utilitarian process. So the question is, Why art? Why should humans spend (waste?) so much time with this stuff? Why did our ancestors choose to consume or compose songs or tales or poetry when they could have been out courting mates or stalking food—finding direct ways of passing on their genes? Shouldn't individuals and groups that engaged in seemingly wasteful activities like making visual art or telling tales have been rapidly out-competed and displaced by those who kept their eyes on the ultimate evolutionary prize: sustaining survival in order to produce more and healthier offspring?

            Steven Pinker has argued that art forms may have no genetic benefits at all—they may simply be, as Carroll puts it, "parasitic side effects of cognitive aptitudes that evolved for other functions." (Pinker makes a possible exception for fictional narrative, which he believes may have conferred adaptive benefits as a sort of virtual reality simulator). As Carroll acknowledges, humanists who have grappled with this evolutionary riddle have typically preferred adaptive explanations and have been highly critical of by-product explanations like Pinker's. As Carroll notes, a frequent argument against by-product has been to "observe that since the arts consume vast amounts of human time and effort, selection would have worked against retaining them if they had no adaptive value."

            This argument has been made by several theorists, but it is framed with most vigor and precision by Brian Boyd in his forthcoming book, On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, Fiction:

If the byproduct hypothesis were correct, then over thousands of generations and millions of births, individuals and societies with a lesser disposition to art would have prospered, because they did not incur the high costs of art and either simply had more opportunity to rest and harbor resources—like other top predators, such as big cats—or had more to time and energy to devote to activities that did yield benefits, such as producing new resources or competing to acquire the resources of others. These more ruthlessly utilitarian and competitive realists would have survived and reproduced in greater numbers, and over evolutionary time their descendants would have supplanted those with a disposition to art. Societies without any inclination to create their own dress, song and story would have ousted those that did have these things. Individuals and groups without art—without shared songs and dance (including anthems and war-dances), without their own styles of dress and design (including face-paint, scarification or tattoos, uniforms, emblems, flags, or monumental architecture), without shared stories and sayings (including myths, heroic legends, proverbs)—would fare better than those with all these things that art makes possible. But that seems never to have been the case. No human society lacks art, and the most successful societies have more art than ever before.[36]

My point is not that Boyd is wrong in his critique of the by-product theory—clearly he has a point here, and there is more to his critique than this snippet. Moreover, On the Origin of Stories marshals a stunning amount of information from a broad swath of fields to offer compelling arguments for how and why art propensities may have evolved. But I think Boyd and other theorists have been too quick to reject by-product scenarios based, in part, on the logic above.

The problem with this logic is that it seems to all but rule out the possibility of a costly evolutionary by-product. Try it out. Pick some other human trait and plug it into the argument above—just make sure the trait carries costs. Instead of "art," substitute "senescence." The argument would then read something like this, "Senescence is an adaptation. Otherwise through the passages of deep time individuals who did not senesce would outcompete those who did, and the high fitness costs of getting old would have been selected against. Therefore since senescence has high fitness costs, yet it still persists in all human populations, it must confer adaptive advantages. In other words, getting old and dying is better for ones genes than staying young and strong forever."

I'm choosing a semi-facetious example, absolutely the first illustration that came to mind. But by the logic given above, anything that currently exists, so long as it carries high costs, must be adaptive. (So this logic would not apply to traits like the redness of blood or the whiteness of bone—these can qualify as by-products because they are cost-free.).

Now consider a more serious illustration. Think of sickle cell anemia. No one thinks sickle cell is an adaptation. It is literally the textbook illustration of a maladaptive byproduct of an adaptive solution. Sickle cell is a damaging by-product of genes that have been favored, in certain populations, because they confer malarial resistance. Genes for sickle cell manage to persist because they are inextricably tied to genes for malarial resistance. They persist because the huge benefits of malarial resistance outweighed the smaller costs of a somewhat higher likelihood of contracting sickle cell.

It could be the same with art. For now, let's consider only narrative art. Boyd's literature review amply demonstrates that humans are incorrigible gossips. We have innate and insatiable hunger for strategic social information because humans reap adaptive benefits when they understand the full complexity of their social groups. Who is allied with whom? Who is sleeping with whom? Who is plotting against whom? Who is dominant? Who is up and coming?

So here's a by-product scenario based on information gleaned from Boyd's book. Enterprising individuals discover that they can rivet attention (and hog up the good things that come with it—including enhanced social status) by fabricating stories that are drippy with rich social information about fictive persons (think Madame Bovary, The Tale of the Genji, The Ramayana, The Arabian Nights, or almost anything else in world literature, high or low, past or present). This could confer benefits on the tale teller while inflicting costs on members of the audience. Even if there are real costs to biological fitness associated with sitting around and listening to (or reading) stories, that propensity might not be selected against if it were inextricably knotted up with the bigger benefits of craving strategic social information--if, in other words, selection couldn't act against our susceptibility to stories without also acting against our adaptive craving for social information. In this view, storytellers would be evolutionary parasites exploiting the cognitive dispositions of their audiences. The strange human fascination with stories about made-up people would be a by-product, not an adaptation.

 I'm not saying that I actually favor this specific by-product scenario or any by-product scenario; in fact, based in large part on Boyd's total argument, I think it is at least as likely that that humans possess art-specific adaptations. I'm only saying that by-product scenarios strike me as plausible, and that humanist theorists have been too quick to dismiss them.

There are now a broad variety of competing hypotheses (hostile commentators would call them "just-so stories") for the riddle of art. All of these hypotheses make predictions about what should be true about art, or people's reactions to art, if the theory is true. Going forward, the big challenge—and this applies as much to the scientists as the humanists--is to start moving past the stage of generating and debating hypotheses and to begin devising ingenious ways to test them scientifically. As with emerging controversies over the merits of a more scientific approach to literary study, there is a clear (though not easy) path toward resolving controversies about the adaptive function of the arts: "Go there and find out; utilize Francis Bacon's dictum that truth comes more easily out of error than out of confusion."

Return to Top



Torben Grodal

Professor in Film Studies at the Department of Media, Cognition, and Communication

University of Copenhagen.


Joseph Carroll’s target article “An Evolutionary Paradigm for Literary Studies” makes a bold argument for the importance of an evolutionary perspective in the humanities, and it provides a sweeping overview of the literary research based on evolutionary theory. Carroll makes important arguments for the necessity of fusing methods and research results from the humanities and the natural sciences and the necessity of combining cognitive and evolutionary perspectives. (I make similar arguments in Embodied Visions.) To build bridges between the sciences and the humanities is a vital project if the humanities are to survive as a scholarly endeavor.

Central to Carroll’s argument is to reopen the question of Human Nature. Given the way social constructivism in sociology and the humanities has neglected universals based on innate features of human nature, this is a crucially important move. The question of human universals has not been central to the study of fiction since the Structuralist era, and social constructionists have falsely presupposed that the human brain has no innate architecture and is thus infinitely malleable. Carroll argues convincingly that the central themes in literature reflect problems that have been vital to human survival. Further, Carroll’s emphasis on universalism avoids an excessive reliance on a fine-grained modularity, and the critique of massive modularity is a convincing argument for the role of culture in establishing universal themes and structures. Carroll also gives an important emphasis to the idea that culture can only be instantiated in individual brains with specific life stories. In short, the target article is a great argument for the value of evolutionary bioculturalism.

The most problematic part of the article is the section on the adaptive function of literature, which raises many thorny questions and problems. The central problem in the article is linked to the use of the word “art.” Carroll wants both to define “what is peculiar and essential” to art and to identify a specific adaptive problem that this peculiar and essential mental disposition would have fulfilled in ancestral environments. He further wants to identify design features that mediated this adaptive function. The problems derive from the requirement that art should be something peculiar and essential, since such an essentialist definition relies on a rather historically specific understanding of art related to its institutionalization. It makes much more evolutionary sense to see the different activities that we now call art as developed out of a series of adaptations that have provided behavioral flexibility. Activities like storytelling develop in tandem with the radical increase of intelligence and the ability to provide verbal representations of memorized or imagined scenarios. As pointed out by Carroll and E. O. Wilson, whom Carroll cites, flexible intelligence evidently had enormous adaptive advantages. A flexible intelligence even supports inventions of recent art activities like film or video games that run on the old bio-computer developed in the Pleistocene by synthesizing visual, acoustic, and narrative skills. There are no special design features in the brain developed in the EEA (Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness) and reserved for an art-essence, for instance film art, to be invented many years later. Different arts and different types of a given art activate different mental capacities, and although it is highly probable that we could identify neurological activity typical of a given aesthetic activity, I doubt that it is possible—as Carroll supposes—to identify neural activity specific for aesthetic forms. Art enhances many different activities, from strengthening social bonds to allocating special resources for perceptual activities and thus making certain phenomena special, to borrow Ellen Dissanayake’s term for the function of art, or serving as means of strengthening mechanisms for imagining counterfactual situations.

Part of Carroll’s argument is aimed at refuting the “hard” and problematic version of Pinker’s skepticism (he has later provided softer versions) as to the adaptive value of art in general: art is a kind of ”cheesecake” that pushes the mind’s pleasure circuits in ways similar to drugs or pornography with no adaptive value, a kind of short-circuiting of mental dispositions produced by natural selection to fulfill adaptive functions.

Pinker’s sharp distinction between ”just pushing pleasure buttons” and something that is adaptive and functional is difficult to maintain, because—a point I shall return to—it implies a problematic distinction between “pleasure” and adaptive behavior. Cheesecake provides you with nourishment, and environmental factors decide whether it is adaptive for you, or whether lack of exercise and too much cheesecake make it maladaptive.

However, Pinker’s argument lures Carroll into taking the opposite position and to forming ideas about art based on the problematic distinction between what simply elicits pleasure and what serves higher purposes or even causes pain. Carroll uses Freud’s distinction between the pleasure principle and the reality principle, a distinction that deviates radically from an evolutionary and psychological understanding. Pleasure is an inbuilt go-mechanism aimed at motivating fitness-enhancing activities, just as pain is an inbuilt fitness-enhancing avoidance-and-stop-mechanism (see Grodal, Moving Pictures). There is therefore no evolutionary reason for thinking that romance novels that articulate mating fantasies, pleasurable go-scenarios, should in principle be more or less fitness-enhancing than stop-enhancing tragedies that cause pain by depicting failure and death, or that even glorify heroic suffering or martyrdom. Thoughts of death and pain may be just as escapist or maladaptive as fantasies of mating, as any mental hospital could demonstrate. Romances can provide illuminating mating scenarios and serve to reinforce urges to bond. Thus, the hedonic tone of a given fiction does not per se provide a clue as to its degree of adaptive value, it depends on the work as well as the circumstances of the given reader or viewer. It is even not so clear what counts as adaptive and functional in the present day environment. What from one point of view might be evaluated as “pressing pleasure buttons” might from another point of view seem to serve vital functions (relaxation, reinforcement, diffusion of tension etc.).

Furthermore, Salmon’s and Symons’s claim—cited by Carroll—that great works of art are those that most fully engage organizing adaptations, is problematic. I know of many works of art that I would call great for different reasons—their linguistic or visual style, the force by which they portray given emotions, or skillfully activate counterintuitive, supernatural phenomena—although I might think that their way of molding human nature is maladaptive (Milton or Tarkovsky, for instance by their advocacy of supernaturalism). There are also numerous examples of mass art that portray the world in an adaptive way, although perhaps more examples to the contrary. To be widely recognized as great works of art requires that the work be engage central human concerns or central aspects of the functioning of our perceptual dispositions, but whether the result is adaptive is a quite different problem. High art often caters for a certain segment of the population and might have elements that are fitness-enhancing for these segments and their function in society as a whole. Abstract art might, for instance, enhance the ability to concentrate and focus or enhance skills in design and communication. To enhance communication by design is important, whether for flowers that “try to get” the attention of bees or horticulturalists who elicit the attention of humans. But to rank avant-garde and mass culture on a scale according to adaptive value is problematic.

A Darwinian model explains why given features have been selected in the past due to their fitness-enhancing qualities in a given environment, say the EEA, and it might therefore also explain why certain elements are selected in the present due to our biological makeup. The human environment has changed radically since the exodus from the Pleistocene savannas. Since the upper Paleolithic cultural explosion, radical cultural development has taken place, but our biological nature has changed very little. It is therefore difficult to assess whether a given feature of our biological nature is still fitness-enhancing or has become maladaptive. The success of violent action films and violent video games is a good illustration: Such films make up a very substantial part of the repertoire in film, TV, and the game world, and they certainly activate mental and emotional dispositions such as violent coping, tribal bonding, and revenge, which were vital for the survival of our ancestors in their environment. However, the violence and the action performed do not correspond to typical situations for typical persons in, say, a modern suburban world. Horror films exploit our biological dispositions for being afraid of horrible agents with lethal teeth “out there.” Pascal Boyer and Justin Barrett have described how such hyperactive agency detection devices (HADD) are remnants of features that were fitness-enhancing for our ancestors, who sought to avoid becoming a tasty lunch for predators. However, to what extent such stories are fitness-enhancing in a modern environment, by strengthening coping or hazard-precaution, for example, is a topic for research.

Violent action films or horror films are therefore not comparable to drugs that shortcut complicated mechanisms by directly activating pleasure buttons without the kind of coping that these mechanisms were supposed to elicit. On the contrary; the violent or horror-inspiring fictions portray and activate behaviors that were selected in the EEA for their fitness-enhancing aspects. Thus, even if fiction is supported by mental mechanisms that in general are or have been fitness-enhancing, this does not in itself provide a basis for making value judgments. Evolution is an open-ended process, and the last 50,000 years of rapid change in our physical, social and cultural world does not make it easier to evaluate what is adaptive and what is not. Taking into account the EEA only explains the evolutionary background for our present day fascinations. Evolutionary theories of literature, film, and other arts need to avoid the naturalistic fallacy—that is, the idea that all that is natural is for that reason good. Human nature is made flexible to achieve fitness in changing environments, and culture is part of those flexible control mechanisms that mold the mind within the limits of our mental architecture.

 These reservations do not diminish the need for evolutionary theory and for a synthesis of state of the art psychology, evolutionary theory and the humanities. Quite the contrary. As pointed out by E. O. Wilson, Cosmides, Tooby, and Carroll, fiction in general supports adaptive flexibility and mental organization. The better we understand the adaptive problems raised by the radical changes that have taken place in environment in our recent evolutionary history, the better the humanities will be to understand and participate in our current cultural evolution. The quicker we leave blank-slate theories behind us, and the quicker we expel the anti-rationalistic and anti-scientific ethos of post-structuralism, deconstructionism etc., the better. Joseph Carroll’s ‘An Evolutionary Paradigm for Literary Studies” is a valuable contribution to a reorientation of humanistic scholarship that reintegrates the humanities with the great family of the sciences.

Return to Top



Disciplinary Fitness


Geoffrey Galt Harpham

National Humanities Center

PO 12256

7 Alexander Drive

Research Triangle Park, NC 27709


I am grateful to have Joseph Carroll’s commanding summary of the state of the field of evolutionary literary study (which I will for the purposes of efficiency baptize EVOLIST), with its authoritative account of the fundamental premises, aims, and goals of this emergent—emergent what? school of thought? point of view? discipline? One of the most interesting things about EVOLIST is the fact that, without having determined what exactly it is, it is now, on Carroll’s account, poised to flood the market, and this at a time when many university presses are cutting back on their lists in literary criticism. At the very least, EVOLIST is an “approach” like Marxism, feminism, new historicism, or deconstruction; at the most, it has ambitions to change the whole “paradigm within which literary study is now conducted,” to “establish a new alignment among the disciplines and ultimately to subsume all other possible approaches to literary study.” This sounds almost apocalyptic, and Carroll’s conclusion explicitly summons up a vision of lions and lambs; but as I will suggest below, Carroll and his colleagues might wish to aim even higher, beyond literary study. They should, I will argue, want not just to exploit the account of human nature now emerging from evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology, but to make their own contribution to the new synthesis, giving that synthetic account what other disciplines cannot, an explanation of the human drive to produce and consume art.

What I have described so far, and what Carroll describes at immense length, is an undertaking distinctive for its adaptive fitness in an academic environment. In this respect, EVOLIST can be compared with the discipline that in many ways constitutes its direct opposite, deconstruction. Like EVOLIST, deconstruction was both an “approach” and the end of approaches with the advent of an ultimate truth; and like EVOLIST, deconstruction represented itself as a form of literary study consistent with science—not Darwinian biology, but Saussurean linguistics. And both attempt to link literary forms with other, more empirically solid forms, cognitive in the one case and linguistic in the other. Deconstruction was manifestly hostile to any kind of nature, especially human nature, but it was almost unbelievably effective in competing for scarce resources, attracting advocates and sponsors, and in replicating itself. If it wanted a model of disciplinary fitness, EVOLIST could do no better than deconstruction.

            EVOLIST has two competitive advantages in the form of explanations for things that routinely stump other schools of thought. Both explanations concern value—the artistic merit or quality of the work itself, and the value of literature to human beings generally. The first, the question of artistic merit, has been particularly troublesome for professional criticism. Traditional approaches treat it either as an objective feature of the work, which can be identified and declaimed, or as an historical fact, a social consensus with objective markers that can be duly noted. The most common option is to treat it as a profound but largely irrelevant mystery that lies outside the domain of what can be usefully discussed in a scholarly setting. If I understand Carroll correctly, EVOLIST treats literary quality as a measure of how adequately the work registers the facts of nature, and therefore as something subject to precise description and analysis.

On the second point, the value to human beings of literature in general, traditional arguments have pointed to the personal and social utility deriving from the cultivation of desirable cultural sensitivities such as empathy and moral discrimination, or from the pleasure or gratification we take in tracking, understanding, and appreciating formal representational structures. According to Carroll, EVOLIST takes an entirely different approach, one that stresses not the individual or society, but the species. Literature, according to this approach, exercises and rewards precisely those attributes that are most useful to us as humans struggling for survival.

            I would like to say a few words about both promised contributions. First, literary merit. All readers “know” that Charles Dickens is a great writer who sometimes descends to didacticism and sentimental cliché. The death of little Nell, they understand intuitively, is a shameless mining of sentiment that seems subliterary in its intense emotionality; the moralizing of Hard Times is considered to be beneath Dickens’s artistic dignity in another sense, because its polemic is too one-dimensionally obvious to require a novel to articulate it. The mercilessly intricate anatomy of the dark bonds of masochism, dread, shame, arrogance, and self-hatred that tie Paul Dombey père to Edith Granger in Dombey and Son, on the other hand, is commonly thought to represent Dickens at his very finest. What Carroll calls “impressionistic” literary criticism might note the contrast between these Dickensian moments, but would have no systematic deeper account of it other than to say, for example, that sometimes Dickens made concessions to popular taste, or that his own sensibility included an regrettable but fortunately rarely expressed streak of vulgarity. EVOLIST would begin the discussion by linking Dickens at his worst to the instinctual desire for pleasure or gratification, a narcissistic indulgence in one’s own exquisite sensations at the expense of realism or reality, and Dickens at his best to the human capacity to transcend instinct and to confront, intellectually and emotionally, the deeper complexities or “dissonance” of existence. This would provide a sound basis for our intuitive value judgments, since the denial of dissonance through the generation of pleasurable fantasies appears, from the evolutionary perspective, not just bad art but a rejection of the very conditions of our existence, a turning-away from reality that would, if pursued by one and all, spell our end as a species.

And why, one might ask, do all “deeper” truths take difficult or dissonant form? EVOLIST has an answer for that, too: it’s our fault. The presence in the world of such a singularly powerful intelligence as ours is the dissonance. Unlike us, other animals are instinct-driven, and make their ways by pursuing the shortest path between two points. For them, the immediate gratification of instinctual desire or drive is the only option considered, and when it is achieved the mission is accomplished and they can rest until seized by another organic impulse. We never achieve that profound state of rest. Our freakish capacities for discerning counterfactuals, hypotheticals, and other minds turn us into “psychological exiles,” wandering through a world created in part by our own imaginings. The capacity to create and appreciate representations whether they are based in reality is, in a sense, the problem; but it is also the solution because we can deploy this capacity to create artistic forms that mediate our experience and help us make sense of it. This, according to EVOLIST, is what art is for. If art does not register the human exile from nature and instinct, it not only betrays its own nature, but fails to perform the adaptive function for the species that is its only real justification. This is why we value more highly the difficult, the elusive, and the contradictory even as we respond with guilty pleasure to the cheap, the sentimental, the obvious, the regressive.

            This is a powerful explanation for what often seems important but inexplicable. I wonder, however, if it is not at odds with its own founding hypothesis about the non-instinctive character of human existence. If, as Carroll says, humans “do not have the option of living outside our own imaginative constructs,” if the need for art is “primary and irreducible,” then why should we not consider the disposition to create and consume art an instinct, a fixed action pattern? To think of art as a kind of unwilled behavior peculiar to the species makes art a necessary rather than an optional feature of our existence, and creates a richer understanding of human being as well. Our distinctiveness in the order of being is not that we alone have the capacity to deny or defer instinct, but that our instincts are different, more complex, productive, and genuinely creative than those of other animals. This redescription of both art and human nature is, I think, is a far more suggestive and even accurate notion than the one Carroll proposes here, but I think that it is entirely consistent with the general thrust of his thinking and may eventually turn out to be among the primary contributions of EVOLIST to scientific understanding.

            Having—if it takes my advice—revolutionized our understanding of instinct, art, and human nature, EVOLIST would be in an excellent position to take on another problem largely unaddressed by traditional criticism, the value of art itself. Here the contribution seems indisputable: the account given by Carroll of the emergent consensus of his colleagues is powerful, clear, and convincing. The arts, he says, “fashion an imaginative universe in which the forces at work in the environment and inside the mind are brought into emotionally meaningful relations to one another”; this “universe” “provides points of reference within which humans adjust their sense of the relative value and significance of things”; in this way, artifacts serve as “devices of behavioral orientation” that help us understand and find our place in the world that our intelligence makes available to us. Spiders, beavers, and birds create their homes instinctively, and so do we. But the homes we make instinctively are not the buildings in which we dwell, which are made by deliberation and craft. Our instinctual home-building, EVOLIST could argue, is the creation of art.

            If humanists could respond to the often hard-edged and aggressive skepticism of legislators, administrators, or parents concerning the value of the humanities with a rich account of the instinctual character, and therefore the enduring necessity, of art, they could alter the terms of the discussion. Instead of seeming “soft” by comparison with science and technology, the humanities would be hard, or semi-hard, because they would have not only a scientific underpinning, but would be making their own contributions to scientific understanding. Claims for art’s “universal” appeal would no longer seem to be based on generous imaginings or cosmopolitan sensibilities, but would be based on a factual understanding of human being. The humanities would have their own distinctive contribution to make to an understanding of globalization. And rather than seeming to represent the inessential frills of life, humanists, and especially literary scholars, could claim in all seriousness to be in touch with the constants in human nature, and with “the urgent needs and driving forces in life.”

            I look forward to having such a formidable arrow in the quiver of responses to the ongoing deterioration in the status of the humanities, and literary study in particular. I do, however, have one reservation. Great literary criticism impresses us with the power, richness, and responsiveness of the critic’s mind. Reading it, we not only say, “How true!” but also, “What a genius—I would never have seen that on my own.” Great criticism has a performative, which is to say, an individual character that takes shape in the confrontation of a superior mind with a powerful text. We think of “the scientific community” as having a natural authority over the contrarian individual scientist; for the humanities, by contrast, consensus never outfaces a brilliant individual performance, and often serves as the ground against which the value of that performance stands out. Will EVOLIST, in its desire to accommodate criticism to science, still be able to generate great criticism, or will we have to surrender our appetite for critical performance along with our primitive delight in other non-adaptive behaviors?

Return to Top



For Evolutionary Criticism, Against Genetic Absolutism


Patrick Colm Hogan


            Joseph Carroll’s overview of evolutionary literary criticism and theory is lucid, wide-ranging, and sensible. He presents a strong case for the value of an evolutionary approach to literature. I entirely agree that evolutionary theory can make illuminating contributions to the study of the arts (see “Laughing” and Understanding). I hope many readers are convinced by this aspect of Carroll’s essay.

            On the other hand, I do not agree with a project of making evolutionary theory the defining approach to literary study. Carroll states that “If evolutionary psychology can give a true and comprehensive account of human nature, it can ultimately encompass, subsume, or supplant the explanatory systems that currently prevail in the humanities.” I demur from this view on many grounds. Consider, for example, something as central to literary study as reputation. It seems clear that, say, Shakespeare’s reputation is the result of many factors. Some involve the possibility of making use of his work ideologically, as in the wartime cooptation of Henry V. Some involve the political economy of publication (e.g., the ownership of copyright--see Taylor). Some involve Shakespeare’s incorporation into the English education system and the spread of that system via colonialism. Some involve network factors, such that Shakespeare connections reached a tipping point, while those for other writers did not. The list could be extended almost indefinitely. None of these explanatory systems is evolutionary.

Of course, an evolutionary critic could respond that all such systems must be compatible with the results of evolution. Ideological effects cannot operate on cognitive mechanisms that have not evolved, for example. That is true, but trivial. It does not show us that the evolutionary account should play a significant, not to mind “encompassing, subsuming, or supplanting” role in explaining the ideological use of Henry V. The same point holds for, say, physics. The ideological use of the play cannot violate the laws of physics. That does not mean that physics contributes significantly to explaining the ideological uses of the play.

What about a more limited project, then—say, explaining literary universals? Carroll characterizes universals as “cross-cultural regularities that derive from regularities in human nature.” But universals may be produced in many ways. In consequence, our explanatory principles should not be confined to biology. As I have discussed elsewhere (“Non-Genetic,” “Of Universals”), cross-cultural patterns may arise from regularities in the physical environment, recurring developmental experiences that are not genetically programmed, emergent features of the phenomenology of self-consciousness (Hogan, “Literature”), convergent results of group dynamics, network patterns, etc.

My qualms about some aspects of the evolutionary study of literature are related to the common distinction between evolutionary psychology and Evolutionary Psychology, since much work in evolution and literature involves not only the former, but the latter as well. When writers refer to “evolutionary psychology,” lower case, they have in mind a view along the following lines. The brain evolved; the mind is an emergent system causally dependent upon the brain; thus structures, processes, and even some contents of the mind must be open to evolutionary accounts, to the extent that their neurological substrates are open to such accounts. In my view, this should be uncontroversial. In contrast, when writers refer to “Evolutionary Psychology” (EP), upper case, they have in mind a specific set of hypotheses and a set of approaches and theoretical preferences that characterize a particular group of researchers in evolutionary psychology, including Tooby, Cosmides, Pinker, and others. Since I have argued against some aspects of EP elsewhere (Cognitive), and since others have addressed these issues at length (for example, Buller), I will not overview the topic. However, I do wish to emphasize a few points.

First, everyone in evolutionary theory accepts that there is a difference between mechanisms and functions. Genetic mutation produces mechanisms—simple causal sequences, such as being frightened by certain sorts of unexpected movement. These mechanisms are adaptive to the degree that they approximate certain functions—for example, avoiding dangerous things. (Note that this is not the same as the functions being “ultimate” rather than “proximal” causes. Functions are not causes at all. The only causes are the mechanisms.) Mechanisms never actually have these functions. They only come more or less close to producing the same results. A certain sort of unexpected movement may be produced by either dangerous or benign events, but our recoil response will be triggered mechanically in either case. Conversely, a dangerous event may or may not produce the right sort of unexpected movement. In short, there is always some degree of mismatch between the mechanism and the function. Again, everyone recognizes this. However, writers in EP seem often to forget this in practice, treating the approximated functions as if they were the mechanisms. This is why it is at best misleading for Carroll to say that “Natural selection operates . . . so as to maximize the chances that an organism will propagate its genes” (my emphasis). I realize that this is probably just loose phrasing on Carroll’s part. He could explain that it merely means “maximize relative to other options in the gene pool.” However, this sort of loose phrasing often appears in EP writings and can have consequences for our understanding of human psychology.

The second point I wish to emphasize is again widely accepted by writers in EP. Adaptation is a matter of complex systems and these systems are neurobiological. To determine just what is adaptive and what is not, we generally need to look at the interaction of many features, rather than considering features in isolation. Put differently, in order for a feature to be adaptive, it needs to be adaptive in the context of other features. Moreover, that complex of interacting features needs to operate in accordance with the biological processes that characterize the human brain. While acknowledging all this, EP has a tendency to consider features in isolation from one another and from the neurological substrate. In some ways, this is inevitable. One has to begin somewhere. On the other hand, the massive modularity hypothesis is, in some ways, a manifestation of just this tendency. In connection with this, it is not clear to me that the hypothesis is as readily eliminable from EP as Carroll suggests. It may be true that writers in EP are now less likely to affirm that modularity is massive. But it is less clear that they have, in fact, greatly diminished their reliance on the multiplication of distinct, pre-dedicated, functionally defined systems (modules).

Finally, there is a tendency among writers in EP to treat human nature as given by a set of genetically determined traits that are more or less uniform across the species. Here, too, everyone accepts that this need not be true. But the acceptance of this qualification in principle does not seem to have had great effects in practice. Much of my own work has been on literary universals (see The Mind). However, when faced with EP writings, I often feel that they overstate universality—not so much in assuming excessive uniformity across cultures as in assuming excessive uniformity across individuals (e.g., in terms of kin preference or various sorts of gender difference). I would like, therefore, to point toward some ways in which diversity arises, even from genetic bases.

We, of course, begin with genetic predispositions. Some of these genetic predispositions do specify traits. However, others are better thought of in terms of parameters—options that are selected by experience—or ranges. Language is the area in which parametric genetic predisposition has been most thoroughly discussed. Not everyone speaks a head-first or head-last language. That is a parameter set by experience. Moreover, it is qualified by the setting of other parameters in specifiable ways. Working memory provides a simple example of a range. Not all of us have working memories of precisely the same span, though our different spans all fall within certain limits.

In addition, the presence of a genetic trait, parameter, or range, may be more or less constant across all people or it may be in complementary distribution with some other feature. More simply, even if it turns out that people generally have a certain property, it may not be the case that everyone has that property. For example, most people have certain sorts of left-hemisphere dominance. However, that is not entirely uniform across the species. In some people, that form of dominance is shifted to the right hemisphere. Moreover, there are degrees of dominance.

Again, genetic predispositions are affected by experience. In many cases, the specific content of the experience affects the manner in which the predisposition is expressed. There are two ways in which this occurs—indifferently across the life span and in critical period development. In the case of emotion, for example, emotional memories are formed across the human life span. Emotional memories affect our emotional responses beyond any particular, innate predispositions (e.g., they may add new fear triggers to any that might be given genetically). More significantly, critical period experiences form enduring propensities that are not genetically specified as such. This may be a matter of setting parameters (as in language, according to one account). But it need not be. For example, early childhood experiences of parenting appear to have long-lasting effects on a person’s tendency toward security or insecurity in attachment relations. Note that both sorts of experiences may give rise to cultural differences, if they are uniform within societies but different across societies, as occurs to some extent with languages. Perhaps more consistently, they give rise to differences within cultures, since experiences are idiosyncratic. Finally, they also give rise to cross-cultural patterns, since some experiences are likely to occur to any human or to at least some people in any society.

In connection with this, it is important to recognize that there are ideological and other factors leading people to behave in ways that may go against spontaneous dispositions. These may increase the uniformity of behavior in ways that occlude individual diversity. Moreover, they may affect people’s judgments about behavior (thus survey results, literary representations, etc.), increasing the perception of uniformity. For example, suppose that literary works consistently praise men for military accomplishment and women for beauty and nurturance. This is what one would expect from class and gender bias in narrative production along with class and gender ideology. It need not result from uniform spontaneous dispositions across men and women. Indeed, if praise is required to foster these attributes, that suggests they are not entirely spontaneous.

In sum, evolutionary psychology is a valuable addition to literary theory and criticism. Joseph Carroll’s essay brings out this value nicely. On the other hand, we should not consider evolutionary psychology as some sort of master discipline, even in the study of universals. Finally, it is important that we recognize some of the problems with the current practice of Evolutionary Psychology, particularly its tendency toward a sort of hyper-functionalism, its tendency to occlude substrate complexity by multiplying discrete modules, its tendency to present genetic predispositions as overly uniform, and its general insensitivity to ideological effects.

Return to Top



The Unkempt Art


Tim Horvath

24 Garfield St.

Exeter, NH 03833

(603) 770-9076


            Joseph Carroll, in his broad, hopeful panoramic snapshot, reveals a burgeoning field, albeit one at the fringes of the literary establishment. The Literary Darwinists’ status as a “robust guerilla band” is not necessarily a bad thing; arguably one galvanizing force within the humanities themselves is their embattlement with respect to mainstream culture. By this logic, literary Darwinists, doubly-embattled, ought to work with redoubled urgency. As for evolutionary psychology itself, though, it has already leached its way thoroughly into mainstream culture and continues to spread like Dennett’s “universal acid.” It remains to be seen whether Literary Darwinism can ignite the imaginations of scientists and readers, can adequately and compellingly grasp the reasons we are continually drawn to literary experience—to consume written stories, huddle together under their auspices to argue or commiserate, conjure them in secret solitude or in public, get upset and outraged by them (when they threaten religious beliefs, when they’re billed as “true” and “exposed” as fictions). Evolutionary psychology has caught on in the mainstream largely thanks to the way it so routinely cuts to the core of certain aspects of human behavior. Take mating—which happens to be the title of my favorite novel, by Norman Rush. Through EP’s lenses, parts of the eye-chart come suddenly into sharp relief—the obsessiveness with which we pursue, agonize over and gibber and jabber over relationships; the monstrous, betimes murderous nature of jealousy; the prevailing folk wisdom that men and women hail from different parts of the psychological solar system; the quirks of personal ads; the widespread appeal of and audience for pornography; the persistence of adultery and its temptations; the inescapable relevance of “looks”—in short, a whole slew of phenomena that previously seemed like loosely-linked fodder for a season of “Sex in the City” come suddenly into crystalline focus.

            Does peering at literature—at Mating rather than mating—through these lenses yield equally dramatic insights? I’m willing to gamble on a yes, provided that literary Darwinists remain true to their interdisciplinary spirit and enlist the services of neuroscientists, linguists, behavioral ecologists, ethologists, cognitive psychologists, and so forth. I’ve argued elsewhere (“By Sextants”) for the necessity of such collaboration, but here I want to make a case for one indispensable set of invitees to the party—actual writers, such as myself, working in all the major literary modes: fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, and drama. I want to go further and argue that if we study exclusively existing texts and ignore artists and the process by which the art comes into being, there will be a gaping hole in the puzzle. The Literary Darwinists have an opportunity, in their attempt to fundamentally alter the way literary study is conducted, to bring artists into the fold, or they may miss this opportunity, I think to the detriment of all concerned.

             Currently, the relationship of so-called “creative writers” to literary scholars is a strained one, even though there are many who do both or who do one and aspire toward the other (I’m guessing that there are more literary scholars who dream of writing a novel than there are creative writers who fantasize about a definitive re-appraisal of literature, though I could be wrong). Creative Writing programs are generally nested within English Departments, and thus fight for the same funding and go to the same faculty meetings and picnics. With the surge in PhD programs in Creative Writing, as well as the number of students writing creative dissertations, there is certainly plenty of overlap. Nevertheless, there is a divide, marred by a mutual wariness and suspicion. Painting with broad brushstrokes, it can be said that writers are suspicious of academic jargon and conceptual systems that feel unwieldy, at odds with their visceral experience of narrative, and which they believe stifle the creative process. Literary scholars (again, broad strokes here) are in turn suspicious that creative writers are naïve bukowskis, shunning critical thought in favor of a mystical “writing process,” drunk on language, among other things. There is a grain of truth, if only a grain, in these stereotypes. I’ve heard graduate students in literature complain that the demands and conventions of scholarship detract from the passion for reading that drove them to enroll in grad school to begin with. And as for the artists themselves, works-in-progress are indeed messy, amorphous, unscholarly, ungrounded in references and often lacking a sense of literary history. Even more polished, “publishable” works haven’t yet proven themselves anywhere close to worthy of our ongoing scrutiny in the manner of Milton, Shakespeare, the Bröntes. Consider Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon, with its four ages; there may be some dispute about what goes in the first three, but even Bloom admits that as far as his “Chaotic Age,” i.e. the 20th century, goes, his selections are highly speculative, a veritable guessing-game. How much more chaotic, then, the work that is being saved and backed up on a hard drive as we speak, characters springing Athena-like to life behind their morning newspaper and coffee, or cut out of the universe on instinct and whim, provisional endings to meet deadlines, scenes to be excised, rearranged, points of view upended, key lines of dialogue yet to be inserted because the writer has yet to overhear them in the café with Tobias Wolff’s voice echoing in his head? In short, creative writing is horridly messy and incorrigibly contingent, as any honest writer will fess up, yet in the end it’s where the stuff comes from.

            As a fiction writer, it is not with the “production of new knowledge” that I am concerned, but with the generation of new stories, broadly speaking, and more specifically with the generation of new characters, new situations, new words and word-strings, new rhythmic and sonic possibilities, new ways of examining the world—perceiving it, challenging it, rearranging it, and making my way in it. Yet no matter how outlandish the situations, no matter how oblique or experimental or allusive the prose gets, some connection remains in it to basic underlying human wants, needs, and motivations. Even Finnegans Wake, pushing the edges of comprehensibility, might be partly decoded through an understanding of dreams, which themselves may be understood at least partly as a neuropsychological phenomenon in relation to waking states, as in the work of J. Allan Hobson (Thirteen Dreams). As neuropsychological events, dreams are subject to evolutionary explanations as is any behavior. This would be a good case of where an interdisciplinary approach is necessary if the exploration of the subject is to be fruitful. Further, it ought to remind us that in the most radical, formally and stylistically innovative text or meta-fiction, the evolutionary-minded can and ought to weigh in.

            So much the more so for more conventional forms of contemporary writing, which still, lo and behold, rely on characters (!) in settings (!) who face conflicts (!), undergo events, and arrive at some resolution, however open to interpretation the latter may be. Those basic technical terms, which have persisted in creative writing since its inception as a “discipline,” might sound simplistic next to differénce, deixis and their ilk, but they are the working writer’s toolkit. It also happens that they dovetail rather nicely with many evolutionary, cognitive, and neuroscientific concepts. Writers, for instance, talk unabashedly about their “characters,” and tend to think of them as individuals. Carroll underscores a point which should be glaringly obvious but isn’t—that “motivations, actions, and interpretive responses all originate in the neurological events in individual brains,” and that “novelists and playwrights are individual persons who construct intentional meanings about those characters.” Sage advice it is at the outset of the storywriting process to develop a verbal character-sketch. Once one has rendered a someone that piques one’s interest enough, a concatenation of traits and circumstances worth running ahead with, then allow the plot to emerge. In evolutionary psychology, in spite of controversies about group selection, the dominant paradigm has it that the phenotypic individual is the entity directly subject to selection pressures. Without suggesting that poststructuralist, historical and culture-centered theory have nothing to offer to writers, how refreshing to find a field that argues strenuously for individual selves. When our characters hound and haunt us at our desks, when we grow to care about them, when they seem to wrest control from us and take charge of their own destinies, maybe we aren’t being merely naïve and delusional; maybe such phenomena reveal something important about literature.

            When it comes to conflict, writers also find sympathetic ears from the Literary Darwinists. It is a truism that for a story to be compelling and take wing, conflict is the engine that drives the narrative—it’s not enough for everything to be okay, pretty and wonderful. Darwinism insists on a universe teeming with conflict on a variety of levels, more interesting and variegated than either those of tooth-and-claw caricature or those of Dr. Freud. To cite examples, parent-offspring conflict and sibling rivalry are explained by evolutionary thinking as a natural outgrowth of psychological factors given the algorithmic logic of survival demands under conditions that would have persisted from the EEA to today. Parents and their offspring, crudely, have overlapping interests but also distinct and competing ones, conscious and otherwise. The same applies to siblings. And evolutionary psychology has shown us most appositely why men and women are drawn into a continuous dance of attraction and rejection, admiration and hostility, thanks to distinct psychological mechanisms that are a consequence of different fitness demands. In short, evolutionary thinking reveals a world where conflict runs rampant, and just as creative writers can benefit from appreciating the underlying sources of such conflicts, evolutionary thinkers can learn from the types of conflicts in literature that “work,” that fulfill some inner need, those which tweak our pleasure circuits or get under our skin.

            There are plenty of other concepts that I could adduce from Carroll’s work and elsewhere which continue this theme that writers and evolutionary-minded literary thinkers have a lot of common ground. I could talk about life-history theory and the stories of Alice Munro, which often trace the decisions her characters make over the course of lifetimes. I could discuss Geoffrey Miller’s fitness displays and the gaudy linguistic fireworks of David Foster Wallace—Miller’s theory need not apply equally to all artistic endeavors to have some validity. I could connect the work Lisa Zunshine is doing with Theory of Mind to the writer’s mantra to “show rather than telling” or the gentle art of ending effectively, the subtle implication that much more sublime than the point hammered home. But I’d rather close by bringing things back to why literary critics in general, and thus Literary Darwinists in particular, ought to seek out the company of writers.

            At least in my lifetime, literary study has taken place as if texts came straight off the shelves in Borges’s Library of Babel, natural and/or cultural objects to be scrutinized, critiqued, understood, and so forth. The mind, body, and life of the writer (with some exceptions, feminists among the dissenters) have been deemed irrelevant at best, and at worst distracting. Yet, is it crazy to suggest that the minds of writers—their imaginations, motivations, ways of approaching and solving problems, and so forth, might be helpful, even crucial, to investigate? Our knowledge is growing, as amply documented by Carroll, about the relationship between characters in literature and actual behavior, about how art reconceives such behavior, about art’s role in human behavior, whether it is adaptive or not, etc. Through Literary Darwinist lenses, we may even have begun to understand readers and texts better than ever before. But as for the unkempt, at once exhilarating and agonizing endeavor of inventing characters and scenarios and bringing them to some end, satisfactory or otherwise, literary critics and scientists alike as yet know very little. Will the Literary Darwinists, along with their neurocognitive brethren, take the time to find out more?

Return to Top


A Response to Joseph Carroll


Tony Jackson


Joseph Carroll’s essay, “An Evolutionary Paradigm for Literary Study,” gives us a solid overview of evolutionary psychology and literary study. In my response I will address a few major points in hopes of spurring yet more written conversation.

            Carroll wants to institute, not just another paradigm, but in fact the paradigm for literary study. (More specifically, he wants to undo the continuing reign of poststructuralist-derived theory.) A Darwinian approach, he writes, should “ultimately…subsume all other approaches to literary study.” Taking this even further: ‘if evolutionary psychology can give a true and comprehensive account of human nature, it can ultimately encompass, subsume, or supplant the explanatory systems that currently prevail in the humanities” in general. On the one hand this seems true. If the brain is the result of natural selection, and if the mind is a function of the brain, then evolutionary psychology would seem to be a rock-bottom explanatory paradigm for all things mental. But on the other hand this fact does not justify the kind of necessity that Darwinian critics often want to establish.

            Carroll wants to make the case that any literary-interpretive practice that does not overtly stake itself on evolutionary-psychological theory will be at least inadequate, if not simply invalid. Even work that emphasizes cognitive-scientific ideas over evolutionary-psychological ideas does not pass muster. For instance, Carroll rejects attempts to theorize a ‘cognitive poetics’ that is not plainly also evolutionary psychology. “Efforts to segregate cognitive poetics from evolutionary literary study are doomed to failure.” This is necessarily the case, he claims, because the “human mind has functional cognitive mechanisms for precisely the same reason that the human organism has complex functional structures in other organ systems—because it has evolved through an adaptive process by means of natural selection.” Of course it’s true that knowing the ultimate function of an object of investigation matters for fully understanding the nature of that object. But I don’t see how it follows that all discussions of that object must feature a discussion of its ultimate function; and in particular why a discussion of whatever element of a living organism must feature a discussion of evolution. Would this also mean, for instance, that a non-evolutionary explanation of the way the liver works is doomed to failure?

            Carroll’s comments on Lisa Zunshine’s use of Theory of Mind (ToM) in her Why We Read Fiction make this even clearer. “Despite her appeal to selected bits of evolutionary psychology,” he writes, “Zunshine strongly emphasizes the ‘cognitive’ aspect of her views, muting and minimizing their sociobiological affiliations. Beyond ‘ToM,’ she declines to attribute any very specific structure to the adapted mind.” As Carroll admits, Zunshine does not ignore evolutionary psychology; still, by not making it the focus of her work, she has segregated herself from the explanation that matters. But Theory of Mind is an element of our cognitive apparatus whether or not we discuss it directly in terms of evolution. Zunshine’s book—based on the notion that ‘cognitive psychology’ and ‘evolutionary psychology’ are not simply different names for the same thing—chooses to make the case about the specific cognitive function(s) of ToM in relation to fiction. To fault examples of cognitive literary study as Carroll does here is, as Lawrence Shapiro observes, to be “overly zealous” in “applying evolutionary theory to psychological questions” (253).

            For literary study that in no way includes evolutionary psychology, the situation is worse, for Carroll seems to take it that leaving out evolution will necessarily render a given explanation somehow false. We see this when he addresses the recurrent question of whether the Darwinists have actually produced any new readings of literature. Carroll claims that the real question is: “Can the Darwinists produce formulations that are not only new but true?”: the implication being that the other side is constantly making new, but false, claims. There are at least two responses to this. First, it’s hard to see how any new paradigm can succeed if it does not generate new knowledge. Second, it is possible to make valid claims in spite of beginning from false or incoherent grounding positions. Many post-structuralist-derived literary-critical claims about the unconscious operations of race, class, and gender, for instance, have been straightforwardly true of our actual world, whether or not their understanding of human nature is valid.

            I want to be clear that I’m not saying professional scholars should be satisfied to make claims based on false logical grounds. They should not. To my mind any serious scholar should be willing and able to deal seriously with the most serious challenges to his or her own positions. But if such challenges are to stand a chance of being seriously attended to, it will matter how they are made. Carroll tends regularly to overstate his case, and this works to antagonize the very audience he most wants to persuade.

            I turn now to another issue—anthropomorphism—which is a regularly occurring problem with evolutionary-psychological approaches to literary study. Darwinism is revolutionary because of its incorporation of chance and determinism. The always mind-wrenching, originary fact is that the order of life happened by chance. In the most general event-scenario, a random genetic mutation occurs in an organism; and if by chance the environment favors the outcome of that mutation, then that mutation will have a likelihood of becoming part of a changed order of living things. The process, like all natural processes, is entirely mechanistic. Given this foundational fact, we must constantly be on our guard not to impute some anthropomorphic, decision-making power to nature. And yet this regularly happens.

            I’ll consider two quick, related examples: design and problem-solving. Carroll, like so many other writers on evolution, speaks of “the adaptive problem [a given] behavioral disposition would have solved in ancestral environments.” Even more telling is phrasing about “the adaptive problem these complex structures [ie, the arts] are designed to solve” (italics added). Now, the idea of ‘design’ has always been necessarily contentious in evolutionary theory, because we have to speak of order arising by chance. In my opinion we should not use the word ‘design’ because in normal usage it entails a conscious designer, and these normative entailments of specific words matter, especially in the context of evolutionary theory. We see this also with the idea of evolution as ‘problem-solving.’ To characterize evolution as a problem-solving process is necessarily to assume some unproblematic, right kind of being toward which the natural process must be moving. In fact it assumes what I have to see as a covert form of intelligent design. Of course it is hard not to use our everyday words, and therefore hard not to anthropomorphize in this way. But, again, especially in the context of explaining culture and psychology in terms of evolution, this kind of usage needs to be avoided, or at least qualified.

            With anthropomorphism we have a case of natural processes being understood as if they were somehow human in a general sense. Now we turn to a case of elements of nature being understood as if they were elements of a specific culture. This tendency shows up when Carroll makes the key generalization that literature “embodies an intuitive folk psychology at its highest level of articulation.” What is the standard by which such a judgment can be made? From what neutral, non-culturally-biased perspective could we assess—actually we would be evaluating—a given articulation of folk psychology as higher or lower than another? Why wouldn’t the visual arts be highest? With respect to literature in particular, as soon as we make such a judgment, we automatically institute a similar kind of evaluation with respect to specific examples of literature. If literature is the highest articulation of folk psychology, then there will necessarily be some examples of literature that more highly articulate that psychology than do others. To make claims like this is to read, unwittingly I assume, natural phenomena as cultural phenomena. Darwinists deeply undercut their own authority if they fail to realize, or at least to acknowledge, when they are doing this.

            To this point I have addressed what I take to be crucial, if largely rhetorical, problems that are common both to Carroll’s essay and to the interdisciplinary use of evolutionary psychology more generally. Now I’ll address a more substantive issue. Carroll wants to make the case for the adaptive nature of the arts, and of literature in particular. To this end, he turns to ideas put forth by E. O. Wilson in Consilience. Both Wilson and Carroll claim that the arts appeared in human life because of a downside to the evolution of our specifically human intelligence. Higher intelligence enabled the human animal to detach itself from purely automatic, instinctive responses to the world, and to deal with “contingent circumstances and hypothetical situations” in ways that no other creature can. But the proliferation of ‘mental scenarios’ detached from instinct produces a potential chaos in organizing motives and regulating behavior. The arts produce images of the world and of our experience in the world. Those images mediate our behavior and the elemental passions that derive from human history. The arts are thus an adaptive response to the adaptive problem produced by the adaptive capacities of high intelligence.

In another phrasing we read that the “disposition for creating [literary] images would have solved an adaptive problem that, like art itself, is unique for the human species: organizing motivational systems disconnected from the immediate promptings of instinct.” Now, unless I just entirely misunderstand, I don’t see how this could reasonably explain the ultimate function of literature and the arts. We have an initial evolutionary change: the increase of intelligence. But that intelligence cannot function without what comes after it: the arts. So, without the arts the change in intelligence will evidently have no organization, or at least not the kind of organization that will make it functional. In fact disorganized, proliferating mental scenarios sounds to me like a state of dream or hallucination. How could such a change ever be adaptive in the first place? How could such a creature ever effectively deal with the world at all? How can this be squared with any usual notion of cause and effect? Carroll seems to be aware of this problem later when he writes that the “capacity for producing emotionally charged imaginative artifacts developed in tandem with the capacity for producing an imaginative virtual world.” Now, we have intelligence and its organization happening, not in sequence, but at the same time. I still don’t see how this could work.

            To conclude, I’ll say that I feel fairly confident about my comments on anthropomorphism and value-judgments. But in criticizing Carroll’s explanation of the adaptive function of art, I wonder if I have gone past my own knowledge. Maybe I just don’t know the evolutionary-psychological theory well enough to understand what Carroll, who is much more broadly-educated in evolutionary psychology than I am, actually intends. This is an unavoidable risk in getting involved in interdisciplinarity. But of course Carroll has taken on the much larger risk. A scholar who crosses disciplinary lines as he has done, risks not only failing to know the other field (evolutionary psychology) adequately enough to satisfy scholars in that other field, but also of failing to explain ideas from the other field in such a way that the relatively un-educated in his or her own original field (literary studies) can understand them. One way or the other a significant portion of both audiences must be satisfied if there is to be a successful interdiscipline.

            To conclude, whether or not the new paradigm emerges as Carroll hopes, I am glad that there are scholars like him, who are willing to take these kinds of risks.

Return to Top


Evolutionary Psychology and Literary Studies


Fotis Jannidis

TU Darmstadt, Germany



In the cognitive sciences and evolutionary psychology there are now complex models of human nature on offer, and it is a frequently-discussed question whether these models can be made useful for the humanities too.[37] One of the central issues in this debate is the question of whether there is something like a definable human nature at all or just a blank slate ready to be shaped by totally different forms of culture. Obviously humans are not determined in their behaviour by the clear cut genetic programs found in many animals. Does this mean that human behaviour is not determined at all by any genetic disposition? Is the only biological heritage humans have – in relation to their behaviour and the way their minds operate – a boundless plasticity for culture? The evidence brought forward in the last few years has caused many observers to assume that the answer to this question is ‘no’. Most models explaining the evidence agree on the point that in the course of evolution humans adapted to culture and in ontogeny humans need culture in order to develop, while culture in itself is always evolving. Therefore we can speak of a coevolution of biological dispositions and human culture. In contrast to Joseph Carroll (“Human Nature and Literary Meaning”) it seems to me that it is still very unclear what kind of human universals there are, and how their interaction with culture can be modelled; likewise, it is uncertain how the interaction between dispositions, cultural traditions and individual variances of dispositions, and of the experience of culture, ultimately comes together. Nevertheless everyone interested in human culture is asked to take these assumptions about human nature into account and that includes humanists who are interested in the study of art and literature.

Joseph Carroll considers that the best way of doing this is to include art in the set of phenomena explained by evolutionary psychology. In his view art has to fulfil an adaptive function – therefore it can be explained by evolutionary psychology – and he defines three criteria which any explanation has to satisfy:


“(a) Define art in a way that identifies what is peculiar and essential to it – thus isolating the behavioural disposition in question; (b) identify the adaptive problem this behavioural disposition would have solved in ancestral environments; and (c) identify design features that would efficiently have mediated this solution.”

(Carroll 14 [please insert the correct page number]).


In the following I will argue that (1) his basic assumption, that art fulfils an adaptive function, is problematic and (2) therefore the function he ascribes to evolutionary psychology has to be reconsidered.


(1) The adaptive function of art

Talking about the adaptive function of art presupposes that there is something like ‘art’: not a culturally specific set of activities grouped by this culture under one label and understood as belonging together, but something which can be seen on the analytical level as an activity or a set of activities all conforming to one definition. Carroll proposes such a definition: [Art is] “the disposition for creating artefacts that are emotionally charged and aesthetically shaped in such a way that they evoke or depict subjective, qualitative sensations, images, or ideas.” I am not sure why Carroll is talking about the ‘disposition for creating artefacts’ and not the artefacts themselves, because obviously they are at the centre of his definition. On a closer view it becomes clear that it is a very broad definition and encompasses many artefacts we do not usually classify as art, like the speeches of ancient orators, the Christian cross, advertisements, the ceremonies at baroque courts, cars or haircuts, to name just a few.

In the text following his definition Carroll cites studies which see humans as a ‘story-telling species,’ or see a ‘species-typical need for finding and making meaning’ prototypically found in the rhythmic and emotionally modulated interactions of mothers and infants, or see stories as a means to organize our lives, etc. He tries to keep this fast expanding little universe together by claiming that “narrative and verse and emotionally modulated musical and visual patterns” are really “design features” of art. Actually this is a strong claim. It is one thing to argue that we find stories where we find humans – which is really an empirical question – but it is a totally different claim to link this story-telling capacity and need to a general module called art with its own adaptive function.

So in my opinion there are two problems with Carroll’s definition: first, the general definition of art is too wide and unspecific, and second, the activities and capacities he sees as design features are not part of art by any empirical argument but rather by our contemporary understanding of art. It is common knowledge that ‘art’ (Shiner) or ‘literature’ (Wellek) are comparatively new concepts. Many activities and texts which are nowadays understood as self-evidently classified into these rather abstract categories would have been viewed as different and unconnected in earlier times. This historical argument doesn’t imply that it is impossible to find something which all entities nowadays classified as art or literature have uniquely in common, but it becomes obvious that this is rather an improbable project. The concept of art is so abstract that objects in very different media are classified under this label, like pictures or sculptures, movies and photographs, dance and music. The same is true for literature, which subsumes texts written to be read alone (like most novels from the 20th century; texts meant to be performed, like songs and plays; texts which are strictly metrically organized; and texts which have no metrical organisation at all, etc). The perception and processing of these artefacts is based on different senses and demands very different abilities. It is the result of our cultural history that we subsume all these different artefacts under one label. The way Carroll takes literature to be a form of art is a product of this history. To assume that this complex concept is not only a modern institution bundling together very different activities and artefacts, but at the same time something that re-establishes an order which had been formed 100,000 years ago when art was supposedly formed as an adaptive module, is quite a leap of faith. Someone who bases his argument on the assumed unity of this concept has quite a burden of proof – a proof which in Carroll’s essay, with his expansive definition of art, is missing. In short: there is no adaptive function of art or literature because these are modern concepts. Carroll and other Darwinian literary critics have still to make a convincing argument that there is a definition of these concepts which can be applied to all human cultures, and one which is not an anachronistic projection.

In this perspective it seems much more plausible to decouple specific adaptions and these modern concepts. Then we can assume that there are adaptions like an organizational mode for human abilities or a scope syntax (Tooby and Cosmides, “Does Beauty Build?”) and a cultural evolution in which the organisational mode for some abilities is the basis for our aesthetic appraisal in the context of art, while others are classified as sports, others as games, etc.


(2) The function of evolutionary psychology in literary studies

Even if there is no adaptive function of art we shouldn’t assume that art or literature – and I will concentrate on the latter – is an independent realm untouched by those aspects of ‘human nature’ evolutionary psychology is discussing. On the contrary, we have to assume that most aspects of literature in some way or other relate to genetic dispositions acquired in the process of evolution. How do humans process signs, how do they attribute intentions, etc.? Organizing information in the form of story telling, for example, seems to be a good candidate for such an explanation, as are the other ‘design features’ Carroll discusses. So generally I agree with Carroll’s claim that literary studies depend in many ways on anthropological assumptions. We need these assumptions or models on which we base our understanding of texts. In other words a theory of interpretation, for example, interfaces with a general theory of human language and sign usage, with a theory of attributing human intentions, etc.

But this doesn’t really answer the question of what role evolutionary psychology can play in literary theory. Carroll views it as the most important discipline for us, which I doubt for a couple of reasons:

1)      Evolutionary psychology doesn’t offer specific theories which are crucial for literary theory. Whether human language use is based on a specific grammar module or not is not important for evolutionary psychology, because it is compatible with both positions – and, more importantly, it doesn’t have a language theory of its own. The same is true for sign use.

2)      Most aspects of evolutionary psychology are relevant for literary theory in two ways: a) as part of a general anthropological framework, b) to explain the fascination of literary themes and motives which can be found in different cultures and times. But I cannot see how to apply it to the study of a single text. A literary text is first of all an intentional artefact and even if the ability to read intentions is the result of an evolutionary adaption, the procedure of reading the intention and the content of these intentions depends very heavily on cultural knowledge (so much so, indeed, that it is easier to ignore the fact that this ability is a human universal and to make successful use of it all the time – as much of the humanities are doing at the moment – than the other way around).

3)      A practical reason: Evolutionary psychology is in itself a complex and fast evolving research field and it is impossible to have a firm grasp of it in its current and developing state and be a specialist in literary studies at the same time. If one aims at doing more in one’s own research field than to popularize evolutionary psychology to a specific group of scholars one has to organize the way the information interchange between the two fields is managed. One way would be to rely on the stabilized information alone which can be found in handbooks, which isn’t a very useful approach for new research fields. Another way is to insert a level of abstraction which describes something in a domain independent language and is compatible with the state of knowledge in evolutionary psychology. For example one can describe the way intention is at work in human language usage using concepts from Grice (Studies) or Sperber’s and Wilson’s relevance theory (Relevance) and this can be seen as compatible with an evolutionary account.[38]


So I advocate the use of evolutionary psychology not as a research paradigm but as a framing theory. Even then it is very useful and quite important, as are other results from cognitive science. Including the theory of mind, for example, in research on literary phenomena totally changes the discussion of character, which has been dominated by anti-mimetic attitudes, or of authorial intentions, where literary theory has been dominated by anti-intentionalist stances while the practice was and is a wild mix of intentionalist and anti-intentionalist arguments. Attaining compatibility with the findings of the human sciences is the least we can, and should, expect to achieve in literary studies.

This is true even if most of the main content of our subject area cannot be understood using the tools of evolutionary psychology. This seems to me especially the case for the analysis of intentions. The content of an intention can even go against everything we know about human abilities and limits. So if an author devises a novel which can be read in its entirety in twenty-four hours, and which tells a story covering the same length of time in such a way that the ideal reader has to have a perfect memory to understand and resolve all intra- and intertextual relations, we can safely assume that an empirical test would show us that very few readers are able to read the novel in that way. But as textual scholars we are usually not so much interested in what readers really do with a text but what the texts want them to do. This is in no way meant to deprecate the empirical study of literature, which is an important field of social science, but to lump it together with the completely different field of literary studies as Carroll does seems to me to be a category error. Empirical analysis of texts using text mining procedures or stylometry can be a useful strategy in literary studies because the object of research is not the empirical reader but the text.

All this critique aside, Carroll’s essay is one of his many contributions to redesigning literary studies in such a way that it is compatible with the human sciences and incorporates their knowledge into our field of research. To my mind this is much more fruitful than all these attempts to establish culture as an area totally independent of human history – because that it what evolution is also about.

Return to Top


Complex Realities, Adequate Reductions


A Reply to Joseph Carroll.

Frank Kelleter, Göttingen University (Germany)


Let us suppose, because we have good reason to, that everything that exists and happens on this earth has natural causes. If true, this supposition rules out ontological discontinuities in the process of hominization and in the evolution of human culture. Joseph Carroll wants us to believe that this conclusion is a privileged insight—indeed, a distinguishing mark—of the neo-naturalist turn he envisions for the humanities. It is not. Excluding supernatural explanations from rational inquiries is the foundational operation of all post-theological scholarship and science. Hence, naturalist and culturalist methodologies in the humanities rarely disagree about human culture’s basic dependence on natural givens. What they disagree about are the epistemological implications of this dependence.

Joseph Carroll’s essay is a good example of how neo-naturalists tend to frame this disagreement. According to the underlying logic of Carroll’s argument, the natural existence of human beings (“human nature”) requires us to understand culture—i.e., human reflections on, and modifications of, their natural needs, capacities, and environments—as a linear derivation of our animal nature: a derivation that has little, if any, qualitative impact on the natural processes it is otherwise able to objectify. Thus, whoever argues that human culture has produced environments and life-ways whose complexity is frequently at odds with the first, pre-cultural mode of nature from which they evolved risks being termed a supernaturalist. In a more polite but no less severe binary, literary Darwinists like to describe their critics as “traditional humanists,” “epistemological and metaphysical dualists,” or idealistic celebrators of “the spiritual power of humanistic experience.” Following a critical essay on neo-naturalist theory and practice, I myself was labeled an “aesthete” by Karl Eibl. In the said essay and the ensuing debate with Eibl, I laid out my reservations concerning the kind of research program now summarized by Carroll.[39] I will not repeat the particulars of my critique here but shall concentrate on one single issue raised by Carroll: the issue of reductionism.

Neo-naturalists typically feel that reductionism is the major charge leveled against them by “traditional humanists.” So they think that if this charge can be neutralized, all external opposition is bound to collapse. Much rhetorical force is therefore invested in branding reductionism as a taboo argument that betrays the theoretical naivety of those who bring it up. Reductionism, we are told (and rightly so), is not a bad word in the theory of science and scholarship because any type of rational knowledge in one way or another seeks to reduce observed phenomena to “underlying regularities” (Carroll) or to an anterior level of argument in a logical system of description. So far, so true. Does it follow that all types of rational reduction provide apt knowledge about the thing thus reduced? Carroll himself is doubtful: in traditional humanist criticism and in postmodern criticism (his chief adversaries), he identifies certain “thematic reductions,” of which he seems to disapprove. In both cases, Carroll observes, literary characters appear as “allegorical embodiments” of humanist norms or of key terms within the respective “source theories.” Apparently, then, Carroll distinguishes between good and bad forms of reductionism—and the criterion of distinction is whether a given reduction produces adequate knowledge or not. In the same manner, Carroll addresses scientists whose philological speculations he finds insufficient and notes that their theories “fail to give an adequate account of [their] subject”: “the arts cannot adequately be reduced to didactic lessons and pleasurable fantasy.” And toward the end of his essay, when we read that both groups—scientists and philologists—need to learn from the other paradigm, Carroll speaks of “concepts and modes of thinking characteristic of the humanities and appropriate to them” (my emphasis).

I sympathize with Carroll’s insistence on mutuality in interdisciplinary endeavors, and I consider as crucial his concern with appropriate reductions. But I believe that this principle needs to be applied to neo-naturalist approaches as well. If done so, the field surveyed by Carroll begins to look a good deal less exciting than its practitioners like to claim. In fact, judged by their own standards and ambitions, neo-naturalist approaches have been rather unsuccessful in their campaign to “ultimately encompass, subsume, or supplant the explanatory systems that currently prevail in the humanities” (as Carroll predicts). If bio-philology so far has been unable to deliver on such promises, this is not because the field is still young and beginnings are always modest, but because most of those promises are immodestly unrealistic. Alarmingly, even the more humble projects risk failure as long as they do not confront their methodological self-involvement and their tendency towards institutional partisanship.

Concerning methodological self-involvement, Carroll leaves little doubt that he prefers a maverick type of naturalism to one that would try to integrate its perspective within “currently prevailing” culturalist approaches. This is so because Carroll and other contributors to The Literary Animal regard those established approaches as diametrically opposed to their own. They claim that the prevailing methods in the humanities are marred by “constructivist” stances, which allegedly “attribute exclusive shaping power to culture.” Social constructivists, in other words, deny the existence of human nature. Carroll and his fellow combatants never consider if their chosen antagonists have already transcended the dichotomous distinction of nature and culture that is so troublesome to neo-naturalists—or whether they are at least trying to do so, and this in a manner highly appropriate to their objects of research. For while literary Darwinists want to get rid of the nature/culture divide by effectively collapsing the concept of culture into the concept of nature, constructivists more often than not attempt to do justice to the unique, hence distinct, traits and regularities that set this realm of existence apart from all other natural orders, without positing an ontological rupture.

Of course, Carroll does not deny that human culture is a special part of the natural world and that it requires special tools of description and understanding. “Most human interactions,” he writes, “are organized within cultural systems, and cultural systems profoundly influence most individual experience.” There are consequences to be drawn and taken from this insight. I am not sure if our current biologists are willing to draw and take them. At the very least, it would be worth recognizing that the “profound influences” of “cultural systems” are exactly what cultural studies methodologies, even with poststructuralist pedigrees, are interested in. Far from denying that culture is an evolved part of nature (albeit one that in turn affects the reality of natural processes), those methodologies have been working hard to develop research tools and descriptive systems that are appropriate to the distinctiveness of their objects.

We could enter now into an extended debate on what constitutes adequate knowledge about human culture. Elsewhere, I have tried to outline some basic thoughts on this question.[40] At this point, I merely want to emphasize that all such knowledge needs to acknowledge that human culture emerges from what neuroscientists call meta-representations.” While being part of nature, humans are capable of reflecting on their own natural existence and even on these acts of reflection themselves. I maintain that the reality and results of such meta-representations require us to complicate the application of evolutionary principles to issues of human inter-subjectivity and human history. Undoubtedly, one can question the utility of this or that postmodern theory in this regard as well. But this need not stop us from analyzing culture as “a historical process of differentiation, involving intentions, non-intended determinations of intentions, misunderstandings, appropriations, and contingencies” (Kelleter, “Tale” 176). Contemporary cultural theory illustrates that we can do so without resorting to supernatural or metaphysical explanations. So, while I share Carroll’s uneasiness about the vagueness of much humanist scholarship today, I feel that any alternative research program needs to enter into a serious dialogue with established approaches that have been dealing with these issues for quite some time now. Instead of dismissing them as anti-scientific, simply because interpretive methods are part of their tool kit, one can perhaps learn something from their interest in human representations and conceptualizations of nature. Bio-philologists, for instance, could clarify for themselves what image of nature informs their own data discussions.

Joseph Carroll, for one, subscribes to a paradigm that sees nature as an unbroken chain of material causation from the lowest level of subatomic particles to the highest levels of cultural imagination.” I am not a scientist, but based on my studies of cultural and literary history, it seems unlikely to me that a causal chain model of culture is able to replace systemic network models of culture, as they are suggested by advanced social and praxeological theories in the humanities (from Pierre Bourdieu to Niklas Luhmann, their individual limits notwithstanding). It seems unlikely to me that a linear chain model can replace such object-attuned studies in complexity, because the most complex natural object on this earth itself seems unfit for structural explanations of a straightly causal kind. Neuroscientists have just begun to conceptualize the human brain as a social organ of unique plasticity”: a biological organ structurally receptive to environmental changes, including human actions, communications, and artifacts. Already, these investigations suggest that the brain in its higher cognitive functions (i.e., in those functions that are pivotal to the process of hominization) has no center of operational congruence, no hub of linear distribution. Why would human culture be adequately reducible to unified causal explanations, if the human brain is not? From what I understand, the neuronal construction of individual knowledge in its most advanced forms does not occur through hierarchical chain reactions but through parallel processing, self-organizing structuration, and often unanticipated feedback loops.[41] Add to this the emergence of human culture, not as the causal result of neuronal activities within individual brains but as the systematic result of interactions between human brains, and it becomes difficult to think of meta-representations as something other than structure-building communications, not only in the brains involved but in the complex system of culture at large.

To put it less abstractly, humans alone among species can communicatively shape and to a certain extent become the environmental factors that express their biological dispositions. Humans are not only able to gather individual information about the world and to share this information with other members of the species, but these acts of information-sharing can reach self-awareness. By this, they become acts of making meaning: they bring into existence a self-organizing, self-developing system of information called culture, which amazingly lacks a nervous system of its own. Among all social orders in the natural world, human culture is exceptional because it allows information to be redirected and systematized through contact with other observers and reflectors; it allows knowledge to be discussed, modified, organized, interpreted, and stored outside individual brains, making possible self-critique, role play, social and gender identities, imagination and performance, thought and emotion experiments, and competing cultures in the plural (rather than just rivaling populations). In this sense, humans are capable of transcending their animal nature without becoming unnatural. It has always been tempting to idealize this capacity of communicative self-objectification by ascribing a divine cause or a metaphysical telos to it. Carroll’s discontent with such idealisms is well founded. But theories that seek to replace complex accounts of culture with explanations of “a single, unified causal structure” are badly equipped for the task at hand.[42] Like ever so many 19th-century novels, they find consolation in describing the human species as basically just another animal. In so doing, neo-naturalists certainly find something that is there” (and in this sense true”)—but their single, unified truth keeps missing the point.

This is why zoomorphic readings of literature are often so disappointing, despite their methodological sophistication. It is not their reductionism that is bothersome but their way of being reductive. Just like the postmodern master theories criticized, for example, Darwinian approaches tend to read literary texts as allegories of themselves, always discovering that this or that novel, poem, or drama is really about basic biological universals (mate selection, physical survival, status fights, etc.). And while all of this is true in some way—in fact, it would be surprising if such elements were lacking in narratives produced by humans—these basic insights remain spectacularly incapable of explaining the (historical, cultural, aesthetic) complexities that constitute our objects of research when we study culture. “Human females,” Carroll writes, “are . . . distinctive in having menopause and thus a period of life that extends beyond the reproductive years. That period enables older women to raise their latest offspring to maturity and to aid in caring for grandchildren.” While this rings convincingly in evolutionary terms, it illustrates that evolutionary theory is sometimes of little help, to put it cautiously, when we mean to make sense of the complex realities of, say, gender identities as they are actually lived in historical societies.

Essentially, I am suggesting that the human species’ “psychological exile,” of which E. O. Wilson speaks (Consilience 224), is more drastic than sociobiologists and their followers in the humanities are willing to recognize. Carroll and other philologists working in this field have significantly contributed to our knowledge of human evolution by describing the arts as “an adaptive response to the adaptive problem produced by the adaptive capacities of high intelligence.” But the excessive invocation of “adaptive” explanations in this sentence obscures the epistemological demands of studying “high intelligence.” If we, as humanists, are crucially concerned with “the social skills required by living in exceptionally complex social environments” (as Carroll phrases it, my emphasis), and if the complexity of these environments has something to do with the emergence of types of sociability and meaning-making that can objectify themselves, thus qualitatively transcending other natural orders and turning evolution into history, we are probably well advised to take seriously social, historiographical, and literary theories that have understood something about the limits of biological perspectives and empirical methods for the study of culture.

As Carroll says, common sense is a good antidote to many of the scholastic excesses in contemporary literary theory. But there is a point where common sense can turn into a resentful ideology. I find this to be the case in the institutional posturing of much neo-naturalist scholarship: there is a sense of camp mentality in these writings, a sense of bringing about a backlash against the omnipresent evil of constructivism,” a sense of being unfairly left behind and left out in academia, a sense of being beleaguered by powerful enemies with conspiratorial power interests. Such partisanship will do a disservice to anyone’s research agenda—it will do so all the more if one makes exalted claims about one’s own scientific neutrality.

Having been invited by Joseph Carroll to compose this critique, I add with some hesitation that I find this camp mentality particularly pronounced in the Anglo-American sphere, where discussions of science and attendant scientific self-definitions have been determined by the larger context of ongoing culture wars. It is probably no coincidence that many American neo-naturalists take their cue from utopian visionaries like E. O. Wilson or from gifted polemicists and popularizers like Steven Pinker. Carroll’s essay, too, mainly refers to American sources, and quotes Wilson’s agenda of consilience” as if it was an uncontroversial, almost self-evident program. I think it would have been profitable to consider outside perspectives, including European variants of neo-naturalist scholarship. Karl Eibl’s book Animal Poeta, with its qualms about Wilsonian sociobiology, would have been an obvious candidate (although Eibl disagrees with most of my points here).[43] In any case, to bring in reflections from different cultures and languages is, once more, a particularly appropriate strategy of studying culture, because it facilitates awareness of the fact that even and especially the most self-assured universals are shot through with historical and local knowledge. In this regard, what is remarkable about Wilson and Pinker from a philological (and perhaps a European) perspective is not that they are insensitive to fine aesthetics, as we are sometimes told, but that their partisan ideal of trans-disciplinarity and their hostility to cultural studies derives to a considerable degree from their self-understanding as cultural warriors: from a social and institutional rather than a purely scientific position.

In sum, there is of course nothing inherently wrong with programs such as EvoS at SUNY Binghamton. And Carroll does a good job outlining the promises of such and similar interdisciplinary endeavors. But as long as neo-naturalist approaches refuse to engage genuinely with contemporary theories of culture in the humanities, and instead prefer to cast themselves in the cliquish, perhaps resentful role of iconoclastic truth-sayers, their scholarly practices will continue to fall short of their scientific ambitions. I wish they could become more equanimous about their epistemological position and less assuming in their methodological self-image. Not only would this improve their rhetoric; it would also benefit their scholarship. Who knows, they might even begin to gain something from reading, with sensitivity to cultural and disciplinary contexts, fellow theoreticians of the human such as Foucault and Derrida.

Return to Top


The Bottlenecks of Literary Darwinism


 Amy Mallory-Kani and Kenneth Womack


In his book, Literary Darwinism, Professor Carroll observes that “the professional advantages of poststructuralist doctrine should be obvious. It enables literature professors to adopt a prefabricated critical stance that depends in no way on the empirical validity of their findings”(16). Couldn’t literary Darwinism afford its practitioners similar “professional advantages”? With the corporatization of the academy in full swing, empirical studies on literature, in their pursuit of “practical” and/or “valid” claims, wish to make literary criticism into a more “marketable” field. By transforming the literary arm of the humanities into an increasingly scientific or factual realm, empiricism irrevocably defeats one of literary studies’ greatest attributes: its ability to exist as something other than scientific. In other words, if English majors want to construct empirical studies, then perhaps they should major in Sociology, not Literature.

Phillip Barrish, whose 1991 article on the confluence between Darwinism and contemporary theory Carroll has called a strained effort “to depict Darwin himself as a proto-deconstructive exemplar of irrationalism and indeterminacy” (Literary Darwinism 27) remarks that “deconstructive, psychoanalytic, and Marxist models can be linked by their ‘family resemblance’ to Darwin’s description of a category of random variation that is accumulated in ‘certain definite directions’ to produce what appears as a natural order. In addition, the ethical imperative of Darwin’s theory, which entails that our conception of God be replaced by an acknowledgement of variation and of the mechanism of natural selection, prepares for the ethical dimensions of each of these contemporary theories” (441). Though many scholars have combined deconstructive, psychoanalytic, and Marxist approaches, doing the same with literary Darwinism appears to be undesirable by Carroll, though he admits that “evolutionary literary study […] is one more ‘approach’ or ‘school’ that merits inclusion in casebooks and theoretical surveys” and that “a Darwinian ‘reading’ of this or that text” is certainly plausible. However, elsewhere he argues that the “more ambitious adherents” to literary Darwinism aim at “fundamentally altering the paradigm within which literary study is now conducted.” The goal for “consilience” is certainly laudable. However, does consilience, in Carroll’s view, simply stamp out the uniqueness of literary study? Are we to assume that literature should merely be subsumed by the sciences? Again, though the idea of a harmonious, balanced, and interdisciplinary relationship between the sciences and humanities seems to exist as an ideal, the universalization of all academic disciplines, as with the universalization of humanity (a goal of colonialism and globalization), could ultimately lead to homogeneity rather than innovation.

In his defense of humanism entitled Humanism and Democratic Criticism, Edward Said criticizes “all the supposedly neoconservative philosophy condemning whole classes and races to eternal backwardness, proving—if that’s the right word—in the worst Darwinian sense that some people deserve ignorance, poverty, ill health, and backwardness” (22; emphasis added). Let’s counter this statement with Darwin’s own words. Writing to William Graham in July 1881, he remarks, “I could show fight on natural selection having done and doing more for the progress of civilization than you seem inclined to admit. Remember what risk the nations of Europe ran, not so many centuries ago of being overwhelmed by the Turks, and how ridiculous such an idea now is! The more civilized so-called Caucasian races have beaten the Turkish hollow in the struggle for existence. Looking to the world at no very distant date, what an endless number of the lower races will have been eliminated by the higher civilized races throughout the world” (F. Darwin 316). Sadly, though “Darwin’s theory of the evolution of the species represented a genuine advance for science” and has become the basis for scientific study into the twenty first century, “it was used to bolster ideas of racial supremacy: in his Descent of Man (1871), Darwin wrote: ‘Extinction follows chiefly from the competition of tribe with tribe, and race with race. […] When civilized nations come into contact with barbarians the struggle is short’” (qtd. in Loomba 57). Who determines which nations are civilized and which are barbarous?[44] What happens when humans take the laws of natural selection into their own hands? It is no surprise that a critic of postcolonialism and imperialism like Said views Darwinism in a negative light. Colonialism aimed to make “barbarians” more “civilized” by making them more “English,” “French,” “German,” etc. The colonialist efforts to make “inferior” nations more “acceptable” by transforming their citizens into imperfect subjects of this or that empire is certainly not natural. Is the oppression of humans by other humans part and parcel of human nature? Certainly, both evolutionary theory and imperialism encompass many more complexities. However, is it even possible to compose a Darwinist “reading” of a postcolonial and/or colonial text? How do Darwin’s position as a white, imperialist male and the appropriation of his ideas for colonial supremacy affect an analysis of a “classic” postcolonial work like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart or Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood? We can also extend these questions to works in which issues of feminism or homosexuality are extant. If “human females have evolved a need to secure the bonded attachment of a male willing to invest resources in them and their offspring,” then where is the space for sexualities that deviate from this aspect of “human nature”? By depending on heterosexual procreation, natural selection and its ancillary theories seemingly exclude individuals who are “other” to the dominant norm. Judging from his extensive bibliography and our own research, neither Carroll nor any of the other prominent literary Darwinists have produced an effective Darwinist reading of a postcolonial or feminist text. Can it be done? Here is where an intersection among deconstruction, Marxism, postcolonialism, and Darwinism might be useful and, indeed, quite interesting. In this way, implementing literary Darwinism into the sphere of contemporary critical theory, combining it with one or many of the other critical approaches to literature already circulating, could truly add something ingenious to the discipline. To invoke the words of Gayatri Spivak, whose own critical combinations of deconstruction, feminism, Marxism, and subaltern studies have added much to the field over the past four decades:

I propose to overwrite the globe. Globalization is the imposition of the same system of exchange everywhere. […] The planet is in the species of alterity, belonging to another system; and yet we inhabit it, on loan. […] To be human is to be intended toward the other. We provide for ourselves what we think is the origin of this animating gift: mother, nation, god, nature. These are names of alterity, some more radical than others. Planet-thought opens up to embrace an inexhaustible taxonomy of such names, including but not identical with the whole range of human universals: aboriginal animism as well as the spectral white mythology of postrational science. If we imagine ourselves as planetary subjects rather than global agents, planter creatures rather than global entities, alterity remains underived from us; it is not our dialectical negation, it contains us as much as it flings us away. (72-73)

Take note of Spivak’s language. She uses terms such as “species,” “taxonomy,” “creatures,” and “human universals,” with each evoking discursive elements of evolutionary science.[45] Whereas globalization appears to unite cultures, nations, and individuals, it does so through homogenization rather than alterity. Here, the shared “ethical imperative” of Darwinism and contemporary critical thought about which Barrish writes figures prominently. Rethinking humans as planetary subjects, as part of a species, requires a giving of agency to all people.

            And doesn’t this aspect of literary Darwinism account for its greatest strengths and possibilities as an interpretive paradigm? Why apologize—why mince words about the efficacy of adaptationist literary analysis—when we can readily intuit that well-founded literary characters must surely demonstrate distinctly human traits in order to exist as round (as opposed to flat) characterological specimens? Thanks to the groundbreaking work conducted by Carroll and others, we can point to adaptationist criticism as one of the most viable interpretive tools available in contemporary literary study. Indeed, adaptationist criticism assists us in understanding the foundations of literary character by virtue of its attention to the manner in which human beings respond to change, as well as by how they attempt to survive and presumably flourish under their new conditions. Adaptationist criticism recognizes the ceaseless conflict between biological and environmental influences upon the nature of human development and individuation. Carroll asserts that adaptationist criticism is “fundamentally opposed to poststructuralist theories” and suggests a wholly distinctive way of reading texts, one valuing the notion that “humans in all ages and cultures display a common, basic set of motives, feelings, and ways of thinking. [Adaptationist literary scholars] believe further that literature commonly depicts human nature, that it is produced by human nature, and that it satisfies the needs of human nature” (“Adaptationist Literary Study” 19). Adaptationist criticism is already unique in its ability to bridge the sciences and the humanities, fashioning a critical methodology that envelops biology and textuality. As an analytical tool, adaptationist criticism swerves away from the poststructuralist belief that literary characters are simply autonomous textual creations and favors a reassessment of literary personages as reflections of genuine human beings, who—consistently confronted with conflict and choice—must make decisions that impact their capacity for survival. Additionally, these human characters quite often contend with genetic predispositions that disable their ability to make certain choices. Human nature is most frequently responsible for the positions in which many humans (and literary characters) find themselves; driven by their natural instincts, human characters decide to subsist or expire, although their environments may or may not facilitate their desired outcomes. “Literary representations are not disconnected from the material world,” David P. Barash and Nanelle Barash write. “Even the loftiest products of human imagination are, first, emanations of that breathing, eating, sleeping, defecating, reproducing, evolving critter known as Homo sapiens” (B8).

In Evolution and Literary Theory (1995), Carroll ascertains three levels of interaction between literary criticism and evolutionary psychology, including human nature, cultural order, and individual identity. He argues that human nature involves a wide range of cultural productions, and these “cultural forms are themselves the product of a complex interaction among various innate dispositions and between innate dispositions and variable environmental conditions” (150, 152). Given that much of Darwin’s philosophy recognizes that in order for civilization to advance, human beings must adapt, we can usefully understand the nature of effective character construction in terms of the inextricable relationship that exists between human beings and the ceaseless forces of evolution. With Carroll’s levels of interaction, human nature functions as the determining factor in a given character’s capacity for adapting or maladapting—for living well and flourishing or, conversely, slipping into the oblivion of status quo. Carroll defines human nature in terms of two essential propositions: firstly, that “innate human dispositions exercise a powerful shaping force on all forms of cultural order,” and secondly, that “all such forces operate in a tight web of systemic interdependency such that the modification of any one element has a distinct effect on all the other elements within the system” (153).

                With its deft mergence of evolutionary thought and textual analysis, literary Darwinism affords us with a keen understanding of the makeup of literary characters—of their “innate human dispositions,” their human nature—and the attendant agency, moreover, that they require as distinct human representational forms. Interpretive structures like adaptationist criticism provide us with an expansive means for assessing literary characters in terms of all of their profundity and idiosyncrasies. Yet, by not engaging with representative texts from other theoretical paradigms in order to foment debate and forge alliances with them, literary Darwinism closes itself off from the truly radical dialogue that might ensue. And this is a shame, given that literary Darwinism remains one of the most liberating, progressive, and challenging of analytic modes. One way or another, we owe a great debt to pioneering scholars like Professor Carroll for leading the way.

Return to Top


Completing the Paradigm: In Pursuit of Evidence


David S. Miall, University of Alberta


            Why do we need an evolutionary theory of literature? Apart from its intrinsic interest and significance (of which more in a moment), does it make literature more accessible? Does it enhance our experience of reading (or hearing) it? Does it provide us with new knowledge about the human characteristics that are at the core of literature? Does it tell us anything about what may be distinctive to literary texts? Is the claim to scientific rigour that it brings to the field a credible or useful one? Is it likely to resolve the “crisis of morale in the humanities,” as Carroll puts it, following several decades of poststructuralist hegemony?

            In his target paper Professor Carroll insists that evolutionary literary theory has the potential to reorganize the whole field of literary scholarship. The more boldly and comprehensively this claim is made, the more these and others questions press themselves upon us for answers. In my comments I will consider how far Carroll’s approach can answer these specific questions: they are the questions that interest me, but I assume that literary scholars who don’t simply dismiss evolutionary thinking out of hand would also wish to raise them.

            Intrinsically, the arguments for the significance of an evolutionary approach to literature seem undeniable. That human beings have evolved and, along with our other capacities, have developed facilities for producing and responding to literature, suggests that we will understand ourselves and literature better by considering what those facilities might be. If Carroll is right, such inquiry should help create new perspectives on our cognitive and emotional capacities, on formal aspects of texts, and on their social and historical functioning. So what has been achieved so far? In his paper Carroll lays out the agenda for the evolutionary paradigm, as he sees it, with theoretical clarity and in some detail, but he includes little by way of example showing what evolutionary literary criticism can accomplish. What might we expect? Here are some comments drawn from Carroll’s paper.

            Literature is important for “organizing motivational systems disconnected from the immediate promptings of instinct.” Carroll has in mind here the value of narrative in enabling us to imagine and rehearse situations offline, thus human beings with such a capacity are more adaptive and resilient. Similarly, he mentions Pinker’s notion that “literary plots provide game plan models.” The power of such models comes in part from the emotions they evoke. The arts, Carroll says, “fashion an imaginative universe in which the forces at work in the environment and inside the mind are brought into emotionally meaningful relations to one another.” How do such claims illuminate an evolutionary reading of a literary text? Take Brian Boyd’s account of Mansfield Park.

            In Boyd’s evolutionary view “literature arises out of deep-rooted human needs and capacities,” not from the codes of structuralism or the ideologies of historicism (Boyd, “Jane” 13). Thus the central concern of Austen’s novel is with mating strategies. In particular it “focuses overwhelmingly on female choice,” where “females choose males as partners on the basis of their ability to support the offspring” (16). This helps account for Maria’s impulse to marry the first eligible suitor she sees, Mr. Rushworth; it suggests why, against powerful family pressures, Fanny Price firmly declines to marry the philandering Henry Crawford – she has detected him to be a cheat; and it explains the sense of rightness at the end with her marriage to Edmund. This reading reminds us that despite a highly patriarchal culture, the apparently weakest character, Fanny Price, turns out to be the most successful. As Boyd notes, much about the novel “can be interpreted in terms of biologically evolved characteristics of human life, rather than as no more than the product of a particular cultural moment” (23). In this perspective, the novel teaches us how to read its “game plan model” through the universalizing power of its cultural specificity. “No action or event is, for humans, ever just itself,” as Carroll puts it (28). Thus we have to puzzle out why the evasion of the locked gate in Rushworth’s garden by Henry and Maria seems such a transgression; or why, later, Fanny resolutely resists taking part in the theatricals. At such moments an evolutionary reading like Boyd’s helps us to see particularly clearly the nexus of emotion and environment – what is at stake for Fanny and the characters around her – and why Fanny’s judgements at such predicaments are so exigent (and always right!).

            As Boyd acknowledges, however, his reading of Mansfield Park says little about Austen’s “artistic powers and problems” (23) – her tone, her language, her characterization, and other features of the text. His approach reads the text, albeit eloquently and tactfully, and with appropriate regard for its historical specificity, as a case study of human mating strategies (female in particular). Put in this light, we can see that Pride and Prejudice affords a similar reading – a successful mating strategy in which the heroine pulls off a marriage with a higher status suitor. Indeed, this is the theme of a number of other novels, including a slew of modern romance fictions with little literary pretension. If the value of fiction for us, then, could be explained only in terms of its disconnected “motivational systems” and its “game plan models,” this would surely fall short of accounting for what is specifically literary in a text such as Austen’s. Is this as far as an evolutionary approach can go?

            What is literary? How should we define “art” in order to bring it within the scope of an evolutionary approach? Here Carroll might benefit from an important point made by Ellen Dissanayake (“Making” 28-9): that to account for the evolution of art we should consider the art practised communally over the last 30,000 years or more, not just the fine or rare art that we tend to associate with the term now. What qualities made it adaptive? In the light of Carroll’s criteria, what “adaptive problem” did it resolve in the ancestral environment (26)?

            Without going back to the tribal environment, which I am not qualified to examine (but see Dissanayake, Homo), here are two clues. First, consider Jonathan Rose’s findings on working class readers from the nineteenth century. Through surviving memoirs and letters, Rose found that a number of impoverished readers with only the most basic elementary education, and with no literary education or prior familiarity with literature, were able to pick up literary texts by authors ranging from Homer, through Dickens, to Hardy, and to read them immediately and with understanding and pleasure. These were not readers who had acquired the conventions of literary reading, supposed to be essential by theorists such as Culler or Rabinowitz. In addition, these were readers who, when in a position to choose, preferred to read what we now regard as canonical texts rather than texts written and published in penny editions specifically for working class readers. What was the source of their interest? Rose points to the engagement with character and what we have called the “game plan models,” whereby readers learned about a different world and, in some cases, how to become a part of it. A reading of their comments also shows that some readers were enthralled by the language of the literary texts they read, by its sounds and texture, by the novelty of unfamiliar words. This suggests a second clue.

            In our empirical work (Miall and Kuiken) on readers’ responses to foregrounding (striking stylistic features in texts) we have found that all readers tend to be sensitive to it, at least to its presence in the modernist short stories we asked them to read. This was shown in several ways: by longer reading times for sentences rich in foregrounding, by higher ratings on a strikingness scale for such sentences, and by higher ratings for feeling. We and others have replicated this effect whether working with readers with an advanced literary education, or with readers with little interest in or experience of literary reading.

            What appears to be at issue here is what he have called defamiliarization, following the theoretical work of the Russian Formalist critics such as Shklovsky and the British Romantic writers such as Coleridge and Shelley. In the evolutionary framework, however, we can situate this in a wider context: elsewhere (Miall 190) I have classed the response to foregrounding as one type of dehabituation. Given the complexity of our responses to the natural and social environment and the rapidity with which our (mature) cognitive system identifies and evaluates the world around us, here is the value of a system that, within a prescribed space, calls our existing schemas into question: literary art offers us new perceptions, unfamiliar feelings, fresh evaluations. Through literary experience dehabituation provides a flexibility in feeling and thinking that is almost certainly adaptive. It is a solution to the problem of stereotyped, stock responses to the world which, in everyday terms, enable us to perform so efficiently. As Patrick Hogan has shown (“Literary Universals”), foregrounding, being found in the literature of every culture, can be considered a universal, a defining feature of literariness, and is thus a strong candidate for being analysed in evolutionary terms.

            This leads to two further considerations. First, although in his target paper Carroll has placed a good deal of emphasis on contributing fields, arguing for the benefits of “scientific method,” such as “a rigorous empirical analysis of cognitive mechanisms,” the importation of theories and approaches from outside the field of literature itself brings the risk that the distinctively literary qualities of literature will be misrepresented or overlooked – a danger that “Humanistic sensitivity to the fine shades of tone and style” will likely not be effective enough to avert. As with dehabituation, with theoretical roots going back to Coleridge, literary theories that arise within and are inherent to the literary domain must be regarded just as seriously as those from the social sciences. If there is a distinctive quality to literature, here is where we might expect to find some of its elements. An evolutionary role for literature, we might hypothesize, only developed as it did for this reason, that human beings turned to literature for experiences unavailable elsewhere. Thus literary theories, drawn from the literary domain (regarding such matters as style, narrative structure, genre), must be regarded as central to the evolutionary endeavour, if they can illuminate what is inherent to literary experience from the Pleistocene up to Jane Austen and beyond.

            Second, remembering that most of the history of art occurred before the development of the high art with which we are now (in the West, at least) most familiar, we should work with ordinary readers as far as possible to help validate our proposals. Like the readers in Rose’s study, these will be readers who turn to literature primarily for the experience it has to offer – for compelling narratives, for the pleasures of literary style – not, as we see practiced in literature departments, reading for the sake of interpreting a text – pursuing the Rule of Abstract Displacement, as Rabinowitz (139) has put it. Systematic empirical study of real readers, with effective experimental controls where appropriate, will do more than any other innovation we can envisage to bring together “the humanities and the evolutionary social sciences,” the consummation that Carroll wishes for. This approach, to return to my opening questions, should in the long run elicit or confirm the values that are central to the literary experience: thus, literature will become more accessible (with education making fewer inappropriate demands). Knowing better why we read may enhance our future literary experiences; and this, in turn, will teach us to know ourselves better

Return to Top


Response to Joseph Carroll’s “An Evolutionary Paradigm for Literary Study”


David Michelson

SUNY Binghamton


As a member of the interdisciplinary program mentioned by Carroll in closing (Binghamton University’s Evolutionary Studies Program (EvoS)), I have no reservations with the claim that evolutionary theory as it pertains to human psychology and culture has strong predictive and synthesizing powers that can be of value to literary scholars. Evolutionary theory does provide a powerful, integrated framework for predicting what will be of short- and long-term interest to human beings. Moreover, it is a valuable theoretical tool, as Carroll suggests, not only because it can tell us something about regularities in humans’ cognitive, perceptual, and affective systems (which are engaged during the reading process) but also because it provides a life-history framework. Life history theory predicts at a very basic level of organization that at different points in an individual’s species-typical development, different motivations and goals will, on average, predominate. Imaginative representations of people, places, and situations surrounding such motivations and goals unquestionably recur in popular literary genres. The most notable examples are the romance novel, adventure and survival stories, and the bulk of world folklore. Clearly, though, conflicts surrounding life-history motivations and goals are present to some degree in virtually all literature by nature of their inevitability in life. No theories other than those stemming from evolutionary theory can presently explain such regularities in content across literary traditions. As such, there is no question, in my mind, that evolutionary theory deserves literary scholars’ greater attention if only for the larger picture it can provide of how regularities in the human life cycle reflect basic, recurrent concerns in literature.

Importantly, however, finding biologically-based regularities in content or theme is not the limit of evolutionary literary theory as developed by Carroll. The model presented in Carroll’s article is fundamentally an interactionist model that can assist in understanding the production and reception of literary meaning in specific cultural contexts. In this model, authors’ or readers’ literary meaning can be analyzed and interpreted as the product of how their species typical characteristics are shaped by unique cultural values, and further colored by the vicissitudes of individual identities. Style and form, to put it simply, are the aesthetic delivery mechanisms for such meaning. And, as noted by Carroll, humans’ shared perceptual and cognitive predispositions provide useful starting points for theorizing about how human’s unique mental style so effortlessly constructs narratives with considerable cross-cultural regularities. Thus, there is evident effort in Carroll’s paradigm to examine how literature comes into being, how humans derive meaning from it, and how such meaning is dependent on cognitive and cultural constraints.

Critics of the evolutionary paradigm, however, have often ignored the breadth of Carroll’s evolutionary framework. Despite the considerable space dedicated to Carroll’s formulation that all realist and symbolic figuration necessarily involves human universals, cultural particularities, and the colorings of individual identity, his project, and those who have followed him, has been critically reduced to a naïve search and find exercise involving biologically based human universals. Evolutionists have been accused of being “biological through and through” (Benzon) “ignoring the cultural and technological extensions of human knowledge” (Richardson 12) and in danger of becoming “nothing more than a latter-day Freudianism, performing its ritual unveilings of psychic secrets in hunter-gatherer dress” (Easterlin, “Hans” 256).

These criticisms do represent legitimate concerns. At least two such simplistic readings have been published (see Perchan and Barash and Barash). One of these was used recently, and rather selectively I might add, to criticize the adequacy of an evolutionary approach for attending to the complexity of literary expression and reception (Goodheart). While I don’t share such criticisms, evolutionists should be more openly critical of any simplistic effort to reduce literary meaning to behavioral universals rather than openly accept them as kindred efforts in an upstart field.

Nevertheless, by and large, accusations that the limit of the evolutionary approach is biological theme-finding do not obtain at the theoretical or interpretive level of most work done by those who associate themselves with Carroll’s paradigm. The interactionist model for understanding literary meaning has been employed fruitfully in many published interpretations for some time now. Interpretations of specific literary works by Brian Boyd, Judith Saunders, Ian Jobling, Marcus Nordlund, and Brett Cooke, among others, are never mentioned by those who brand the field “biological through and through” for the simple reason that such interpretations amount to inconvenient counterevidence for those who seem bent on diminishing the theoretical importance of representations of behavior in literary analysis.

This being said, even if one appreciates the interactionist core of the evolutionary paradigm, I think Carroll is still open to criticism, to some degree, for the primacy he places on life-history universals. Specifically, this regards his claim that “the governing terms in an evolutionary critique are not metaphysical abstractions, mid-level social and psychological concepts, or formalist principles. The governing terms are the urgent needs and driving forces in life—survival, reproduction, kinship, social affiliation, dominance, aggression, and the needs of the imagination…the rhythms of the life cycle shape the analytic categories through which Darwinians make sense of literary depictions.” This may seem contradictory to some: an interactionist model that grants primacy to biological regularities.

I agree with this primacy to some degree because I do not see a reason for exempting human preferences and motivations, on average, from the logic of inclusive fitness. While the frequency of such universals in world literature remains to be studied in any significant depth, most stories do seem centered around some issue pertaining to humans’ species typical life-history cycle. Jonathan Gottschall’s work on world folklore and Patrick Colm Hogan’s work on literary universals speaks to the fruitfulness of starting with such regularities. As a preliminary starting point for literary analysis, a focus on evolutionary content seems sound if only for the frequency of such representations and for the emotional receptivity most people have for such topics.

 This being said, I think that the prospects of getting more people on board with the evolutionary paradigm will require more significant empirical demonstrations that the presence of “the driving forces of life” in literary texts affects real world thought and behavior in predictable and significant ways. This will prove difficult. It is one thing—and no small thing, granted—to create an interpretive model based upon evolutionary theory that grounds analysis within life history categories and supplements it with attention to style, form and the pertinent cognitive mechanisms involved. It is quite another challenge to demonstrate that readers attend to and incorporate most saliently in their mind the evolutionarily relevant behavior that is represented in texts. It may be the case that stories, as Carroll suggests, function in some way to organize and fine-tune the cognitive-behavioral predispositions of individual minds. However, empirically, we have a long way to go before we can isolate the impact of specific behavioral representations from specific stories on the specific behaviors of readers.

Empirically establishing the primacy of “the driving forces of life” is central, I think, to the success of the evolutionary paradigm because a critic can ask: don’t all textual elements that impinge upon meaning stimulate and engage readers’ minds in an inextricable simultaneity? How do we pull apart the relative contributions of form, style, and content? And, if we place primacy on “the driving forces of life,” does it necessarily follow that the claimed “cognitive” aspects of literary experience such as levels of recursion in Theory of Mind, or the aptness and sophistication of metaphors and conceptual blends, play a secondary, and largely, attention-getting role in literary narratives? It very well could be the case that readers are not reading for metaphor or complex demonstrations of Theory of Mind as much as through them to get to emotionally evocative content that they internalize and perhaps later use in their everyday lives. But again, if it cannot be demonstrated empirically that “the driving forces of life” deserve the primacy that Carroll’s evolutionary paradigm grants them, then I fear that debates between evolutionists, cognitivists, and other scientifically oriented branches of literary study are likely to become mired in theoretical arguments of emphasis—not evidence—concerning what individual scholars and disciplinary sub-groups deem most important to the reading and interpretive process. Such arguments of emphasis are already evident in exchanges between evolutionary and cognitive literary scholars. Whereas Carroll seeks to subsume cognitive literary study within evolutionary literary study, Ellen Spolsky recently suggested that evolutionists “must build upon” (815) work done in cognitive literary theory in order for such work to be meaningful. Both evolutionists and cognitivists clearly feel that what they study is of vital importance to explaining the power of and our capacities for literary experience. The most precious future work will be that which can help adjudicate between the competing primacies that certain groups will want to place on their topics of study.

To produce quantitatively replicable, empirical knowledge within the field of literary studies is already being accomplished by some evolutionarily minded literary scholars (Carroll, Graphing; Gottschall, Literature; Miall, Literary). This is a fantastic achievement and deserves the highest praise. As more studies are done, we can begin to assess to what extent diverse samples of readers understand and perhaps privilege evolutionarily salient content in relation to other cultural, formal, and cognitive aspects of the reading process, and how this all affects their real-world thought and behavior.

Evolutionists might claim that what I am asking to be demonstrated empirically is accepted commonsense within evolutionary circles. The critics of the evolutionary paradigm and those who advocate the importance of some other facet of the reading process are not likely to concede the point easily. Questions about governing principles are empirical questions after all and they needn’t linger for years to come as irreconcilable points of emphasis, which is what I fear they are turning into. The empirical arm of the evolutionary paradigm is especially important but so too is outlining a clear direction for future empirical research, one which will serve to put such central theoretical questions to the test.

Return to Top


Reflections on Literary Darwinism


Catherine Salmon

Psychology Department

University of Redlands


            Joseph Carroll has done an excellent job outlining some of the accomplishments of this fresh approach to literature. Unsurprisingly, I approve of the endeavor, being a PhD in evolutionary psychology who started out majoring in biology with a minor in comparative literature. Back in the day, I loved those literature classes. Or at least, I loved the reading of Homer and Virgil, and later on the works of Shakespeare, Dostoyevsty, and Baudelaire. But I never quite understood the point of the types of analyses that the professors wanted. It wasn’t that they were difficult to do (and the psychoanalytic ones were certainly fun) but I saw them as an intellectual exercise, not as something that provided enlightenment as to the “true” motives behind the characters or author(s) or the enduring appeal of certain plots or character types. In other words, I didn’t “buy” them, and so I lost interest. Years later, during the last year or so of my PhD program, I developed an interest in studying erotic fiction and films from an evolutionary perspective with a particular focus on how differences in the sexual psychologies of men and women have shaped the market for erotica (romance and other erotic literature for women and largely pornography for men). I also began to read articles by Carroll, Brett Cooke, and Jon Gottschall which rekindled my interest in the study of literature. While in my own work I have largely viewed it as a source of data on human nature, the new Literary Darwinians have shown me the possibility of a study of literature that is not simply an intellectual exercise but something integrated with modern scientific psychology and anthropology.

In An Evolutionary Paradigm for Literary Study, Carroll raises the issue of whether the arts are an adaptation in and of themselves. Clearly, involvement in the arts, defined broadly, is a human universal. However, the human desire to produce and consume fiction could have two possible explanations which he outlines. One is that our involvement in fiction is simply the byproduct of psychological adaptations that were designed by natural selection to serve other functions. We are not designed to engage in fictional experiences, we are susceptible to them. Pinker has been one of the leading proponents of this perspective, which is sometimes explained with the image of the arts as something that “picks the locks” of our brains’ pleasure circuits.[46]

The other explanation, first articulated by Tooby and Cosmides (“Does Beauty Build?”), is that our involvement in fictional experiences is an adaptation, something we are designed to do because of its’ fitness benefits.

With fiction unleashing our reactions to potential lives and realities, we feel more richly and adaptively about what we have not actually experienced. This allows us not only to understand others’ choices and inner lives better, but to feel our way more foresightfully to adaptively better choices ourselves. (23)

As Carroll noted, I believe both explanations may be correct and that different types of fiction may be successful because they tap into either the lock-picking pleasure circuits or engage organizing adaptations (Salmon and Symons, “Slash Fiction”). It may be that some of the most successful tap into both.

            When raising the issue of empirical methodology, Carroll suggests that some literary scholars would argue that while science focuses on patterns in the physical world, the humanities focus on the qualitatively unique. Despite such claims, “Trying to isolate literary study from psychological and historical generalizations is a sophistical maneuver that will not stand against the simplest appeal to factual evidence…literary critics cannot do without appeal to the regularities of human psychology.” Without such regularities, specific works would not have widespread appeal. The importing of methodology from the social sciences is one way to collect such empirical data and will, I expect, continue to be a fruitful endeavor for many in the field.

            Related to the issue of methodology is the suggestion that cognitive neuroscience may have something to contribute to the question of the adaptive nature of the arts. If the arts have an adaptive function, participation in them should “be motivated as emotionally driven needs.” As such, they should be related to specific forms of neurological activity which could theoretically be identified. While I think this could be an interesting approach, I think the current state of cognitive neuroscience makes it very easy to see how parts of the brain light up when we ask people to do things/read/imagine/etc, what that activity really means, or its implications, are much harder to determine with any confidence. I might be more inclined to delve into the experiments of motivation researchers and see if insights might be found there to illuminate the question of the adaptive function of the arts.

            “Can the Darwinists produce formulations that are not only new but true?” (in the target article). This is the important question. In my undergraduate years I didn’t feel that much of literary analysis had anything to do with truth. But a literary studies that examines the biological forces that dominate (or are suppressed in) different works is a comparative literature that would be a pleasure to experience, one consistent with our expanding knowledge of human nature and the forces that shape us, knowledge collected from a wide variety of evolutionary social sciences. One example is Robin Fox’s analysis of male bonding in the epics, focusing on the importance of bonds between males in terms of hunting and warfare (“Male Bonding”). He also notes more modern examples such as Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander series of novels, which also produced a motion picture with the same title. Many action-adventure movies are often analyzed in terms of violence, such as so called Asian “Gun-fu” films, ignoring the underlying themes of loyalty and betrayal among men that permeate them.

            I would also suggest that the research Don Symons and I conducted on slash stories (romantic/erotic narrative, written almost exclusively by women and for women, in which both protagonists are expropriated male media characters, the stars of various cop, spy, and science fiction televisions shows and movies as well as literary works, think Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, or Kirk and Spock from Star Trek) and their readers (Salmon and Symons, “Slash Fiction” and Warrior Lovers) demonstrates the new perspective that evolutionary minded thinking brings to a study of literature, reinforcing Carroll’s argument that the Darwinist framework is useful to literary studies. Most studies of this genre have focused on women’s dissatisfaction with their own lives/bodies/men/etc, ignoring the fact that these are basically a variant of the traditional romance novel. The setting may be different, and the couple may both be male, but the heart of the stories is still the trials and tribulations of finding and keeping one’s true love. And their heart is this way because their authors and readers are women and this particular adaptive problem is one that has been faced by women over our evolutionary history. It is not as interesting to men (and the reason why they aren’t voracious consumers of romances or chick flicks) because their adaptive problems in the mating arena have been a bit different. But from an evolutionary perspective slash fiction is not a surprise or freakishly odd, just a variation on the appeal of romance to women. For this sort of reason, I look forward to many future years of literary Darwinism.

Return to Top



Ideas of Order: Artists Describing the Arts


Judith P. Saunders

Marist College


            Discussing the adaptive functions of human art, Joseph Carroll highlights its role in organizing the capacity of the mind to envision circumstances beyond the immediate. Able to conceptualize future problems and pleasures, to anticipate a multiplicity of outcomes for any event, to speculate about individual motives or group dynamics, and even to foresee their own mortality, humans occupy a mental universe far larger than their actual physical and social environment. “The Brain—is wider than the sky—,” as Emily Dickinson observes (Poem 262). The uniquely anticipatory, creatively constructive characteristics of human psychology have proven to be a source of strength for the species, ensuring “behavioral flexibility” in handling “contingent circumstances” (in target article). At the same time, however, these abilities are the source of “potential chaos” and “psychological exile” for the restlessly hypothesizing individual mind (Wilson 224-25). By ordering and interpreting the welter of interior hopes, fears, and schemes, art counters psychic chaos and isolation: deliberately shaped artifacts—in paint, in music, in words—seek to teach, to console, to cheer, or to inspire.

The ordered completeness of the imagined worlds artists construct is underscored by their recognition of the fragmented, confusing character of human consciousness. Without assistance such as that supplied by art, individuals tend to become lost in the dismaying multiplicity of their own projections, memories, and hypotheses. The sometimes overpowering richness of the external environment is magnified, on a moment-by-moment basis, by an avalanche of interior responses to it. In consequence, as Wallace Stevens points out, “we live in a constellation / Of patches and of pitches, / Not in a single world” (“July Mountain”). No one has described the “thousand odd, disconnected fragments” comprising individual awareness better than Virginia Woolf: “hanging and bobbing and dipping and flaunting,” the contents of the “rag-bag of odds and ends within us” tease and exasperate (Orlando 78). Seeking to understand the self as “nothing but one self,” its life’s experience as “a single, downright, bluff piece of work,” the individual is confronted instead with a hodge-podge of interiority that recklessly overlays sense impressions with the “capricious” effects of memory, apprehension, and desire (310, 78). The result, Woolf avers, is that “nothing [can] ever be seen whole”: “body and mind [are] like scraps of torn paper tumbling from a sack” (307). This “chopping up small of body and mind” threatens to annihilate identity: one feels “disassembled” by a myriad of “separate scraps” all simultaneously attempting to define the self and direct its thinking (307). Woolf goes so far as to speculate that consciousness is an amalgam of “many different people . . . all having lodgement . . . in the human spirit,” each manifesting its own eccentric “sympathies, little constitutions and rights” (308). Prufrock, T.S. Eliot’s famous antihero, poignantly illustrates the psychologically debilitating problem of the “proliferation of possibilities” Woolf so vividly evokes (in target article): he finds himself immobilized by his capacity to project negative outcomes. The frenzied activity of his mental operations (“a hundred indecisions . . . a hundred visions and revisions” which “a minute will reverse”) stands in ironic contrast to his social paralysis: “And how should I presume?” (“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”).

Artists seek to counteract the chaos within, Carroll points out, by fashioning “an imaginative universe,” an alternative “virtual world” in which the plethora of possibilities generated by the mind assumes a satisfyingly cohesive, coherent, and aesthetic form. Literary artists have sought repeatedly to articulate this crucial feature of their work: the creation of a compelling parallel universe. They have employed powerful metaphors to describe the fictive realities into which they propel their readers. John Keats invests linguistic structures with spatial, political, and economic dimensions, for instance, when he likens the act of reading great literature to travel through “realms of gold” (“On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”). Containing “states and kingdoms,” the virtual territory of books assumes materiality, further exalted by attributes of sovereignty and wealth. Artists themselves, it appears, are consciously aware that they are creating alternative environments in which hypotheses may be tested, pleasures tasted, plans revised, outcomes revisited, and dreams realized. Self-definition is a pervasive impulse in literature; its creators offer frequent and eloquent reminders of its unique benefits. Indeed, they frame explanations of their purposes that offer undeniable support for evolutionarily-based theories of art.

Artists stress the completeness, the unarguable self-sufficiency, of a successfully devised virtual world; its emotional and intellectual equivalency to any extra-textual reality depends in large part upon its ability to “Comprehend the Whole—“ (Dickinson, Poem #236). In a notable example, Wallace Stevens identifies a book of poems as “the planet on the table,” granting astronomical vastness and autonomy to the literary artifact (“The Planet on the Table”). His bold metaphor causes a volume of verse that fits in a reader’s hands to grow enormously in stature as well as in size: it becomes a recognizable, distinct entity in an overarching cosmic system. William Shakespeare similarly praises the “shaping fantasies” responsible for art in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Harcourt edition, V.1: 5). Distinguishing the imaginative powers of the “poet” from those of “lover” and “lunatic,” he points out that the latter two are victims of their own imaginative constructs: the lover projects self-deceiving pictures of the beloved (“sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt”), while the lunatic is terrorized by images that derive from internal, rather than external, sources of apprehension (“how easy is a bush supposed a bear”) (V.1: 11, 22). The poet, in contrast, takes charge of imaginative processes to build a “strange and admirable” new world (V.1:27). He converts mental images into “shapes, and gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name” (V.1:16-17). Wielding seemingly magical, transformative powers, the artist lends detail and substance to the non-material universe of mind. The resulting artifact is far more compelling and valuable than “fancy’s images” (such as those misleading the lover or lunatic) because of the completeness of its aesthetic design (V.1: 25). The poet has invented a plausible, named habitation, an alternative living space. All its parts fit together, moreover, ensuring internal consistency, or “constancy”(V.1: 26).

The twentieth-century poet Charles Tomlinson echoes Shakespeare’s insight that art inexplicably creates spaces with “local” substance from the “airy nothing” of imaginative operations: “as if a whole landscape night be unrolled / out of the atmosphere” (“Second Song”). The mystery and paradox characterizing the seemingly habitable yet ultimately unreal places art builds are recurrent topics in literature. Writers invite readers into “a place always out of reach,” familiar yet alien (Tomlinson “The Stair”). Yeats’s “holy city” of Byzantium is special because it contains familiar elements but remains “out of nature” (“Sailing to Byzantium”). There the “golden bough” retains its tree-like form but is composed of inorganic materials; no matter how lifelike, it is the produce of “artifice.” In the ekphrastic poem “On a Collage of Marie José Paz,” Tomlinson explores this theme from the point of view of the visual arts. Noting that Paz has composed her picture from “patches,” he finds himself fascinated by one particular “scrap” in the design, one that serves two functions simultaneously. This portion of the collage is not a plain, opaque scrap of paper; rather, it is “a landscape photograph.” Even as it completes the surface design of a tree trunk, therefore, it appears to open a “window” into another place entirely. The artist has enlarged, indeed, doubled, the evocative power of her picture, “clear[ing] a space / out of elements / neither here nor there.” The viewer is invited irresistibly into the tree and tumbles like Alice down a rabbit-hole entry into an exotic space: “this interior / turned inside out.”

Here Tomlinson provides a wonderful formulation of the surprises readers encounter in the Oz of art. They enter eccentrically crafted worlds in which physical, psychological, and social laws operate inside out, that is, in a fashion both like and unlike their operations in real time and space. The literary work provides an “outlook that would be right,” as Stevens expresses it, enabling readers to feel “complete in an unexplained completion” (“The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain”). The simultaneous resemblance and difference juxtaposing imaginative space to real space fosters psychological distance, insight, and control: it is the source of the solace and understanding art so often yields. (The small-mindedness of eighteenth-century European politics reveals itself with splendid clarity, consequently, in the miniaturized empire of Lilliput.) Climbing, here, into the “scrap” that forms an entire “landscape” in Paz’s collage, Tomlinson’s poet-speaker discovers that he is “free / in this tiny confine” (12-13). Art confronts us with a “tiny” but complete version of ordinary reality, reducing its hugeness and complexity to manageable proportions. In this deliberately limited space, we are temporarily “free.” Like a topographical map, the story, poem, or play enables its audience to comprehend a larger whole to which its details correspond; in art, necessarily, the mapped country is always imaginary.

Metaphors stressing the miniaturizing effect of art recur frequently as way of describing the sense of power readers gain in the carefully delineated environment of literary space. Another example by a contemporary writer is Mary Jo Salter’s “Cutlery,” a poem in which she attempts to describe the appeal of a lapel pin decorated with diminutive replicas of knife, fork, and spoon. These tiny implements delight the beholder “because they aren’t real” and, at the same time, “because they are.” They correspond to “life-sized” cutlery in every detail, but are too tiny to be of any practical use. “In the doll’s house of art,” Salter concludes, “the table is always set and a meal / deliciously out of question.” Art presents us with phenomena, sensations, emotions, and conflicts like those in our “life-sized” world but in a precisely bounded, risk-free environment. In this “doll’s house” world, we enjoy the illusion of being in control, in charge, far-seeing, even wise. The knowledge that this alternative world is as unreal as it is realistic (the meals it sets forth never to be enjoyed) lends a bittersweet but ultimately liberating flavor to our enjoyment.

“Deliciously,” art holds out for our inspection imaginary territories that promise to be superior to the burdensome complexities of the environments we actually inhabit: art ferries us to realms of gold. “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter,” Keats assures his readers (“Ode on a Grecian Urn”). Art pipes “to the spirit” rather than to the merely “sensual ear,” therefore; having “no tone,” the “ditties” so composed remain gloriously “Exterior—to Time--” (Dickinson, Poem 176). With “small reason,” Stevens muses, we persist in thinking that “the world imagined is the ultimate good” (Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour”). Nothing on the street where we live, certainly, can compete with a “pleasure dome” in Xanadu, that “savage” yet “enchanted” place of Coleridge’s imaginings (“Kubla Khan”). Marked by diametric oppositions (“a sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!”), Xanadu is unmistakably a realm of artifice, and for that very reason seductive and precious.

Persistently writers locate the value of literature in the escape it provides from oppressive forces in the reader’s immediate environment. The young David Copperfield, for example, ameliorates his wretchedness and that of his fellow pupils at a cruelly managed boarding school with narrations based on books by his “favorite authors” (88). His bedtime performances are dubbed a “‘regular Arabian Nights,’” an allusion offering further evidence that the alternative realities a storyteller provides can serve as a refuge from intolerable circumstances (88). Woolf makes the same point in Orlando from an ironic perspective when she declares that reading will “substitute a phantom for reality” (74). “Orlando . . . had only to open a book for the whole vast accumulation [of his property] to turn to mist”: it all “vanish[es],” “disappear[s],” “evaporate[s]” as the protagonist loses himself in the temporarily more desirable space of artistic invention (74). Although Orlando is using books to escape what appears to be an enviable life—prosperous and aristocratic, replete with opportunity—he is no different from young David Copperfield in his tendency to use literature as magic carpet: it carries him, wonderfully, to a different place. “There is no Frigate like a Book /To take us Lands away,” Dickinson tells us; it is a “chariot” that “bears the Human soul” (Poem 466). In another poem Dickinson explains, very like an Adaptationist, that the pleasure of literature lies in its capacity to engage anticipatory or speculative mechanisms in the human psyche: books “cheer . . . guests / With Banquettings to be—“; they “Enamor—in Prospective--” (Poem 249).

In fact, the visions designed by literary artists prove so alluring, so all-absorbing, that writers sometimes point to the perils inherent in their potency. The imaginary world of chivalry, preserved and disseminated in books, provides the motivating impulse behind Don Quixote’s mad questing. Forged in the world of mind, Don Quixote’s ideals are as admirable as they are ridiculous, as inspiring in theory as they prove destructive in practice. In the character of his eccentric protagonist, Cervantes highlights the dangers of committing oneself with excessive zeal to a single fictional reality. As Carroll indicates, “we do not have the option of living outside our own imaginative constructs.” For members of the human species, “life consists / Of propositions about life” (Stevens, “Men Made Out of Words”). Typically, however, we are “constantly forming and reforming” the imaginative structures that shape meaning for us. Don Quixote has become stuck in a single mental construct; he is resistant to influences that might modify or correct the vision of life transmitted by the one imagined world he has determined to prefer.

Stephen Crane illustrates the same problem in “A youth in apparel that glittered” (Poem 27). In this tiny narrative, a young man dazzled by tropes from tales of chivalric valor puts on the costume of knighthood and strolls into a “grim forest.” Assaulted there by a dagger-wielding “assassin / attired all in garb of old days,” the youth welcomes a death that corresponds so perfectly to his literature-fed fantasies: “‘I am enchanted, believe me, / To die, thus, / In this medieval fashion, / According to the best legends.’” Here an individual’s dream of fictive glory proves antithetical to survival, a circumstance that Crane notes with ironic mockery. At the same time, however, he emphasizes the almost dumbfounding ability of the human imagination to shape significance and inspire action. Formed by both literary and folk traditions in art, the youth’s ambitions override adaptations that ordinarily guide behavior. In depicting the situation as he does, divided between horror and derision, Crane offers a backhanded tribute to the psychological power inherent in imaginative and aesthetic constructs. Employing different imagery, Emily Dickinson makes a similar point about the force of literature in her poem “A Word dropped careless on a Page” (Poem 465). Art “may stimulate an eye” at a remove of “centuries,” influencing thought, motivating action, and evoking emotion long after its “Maker” is dead. Comparing these long-lasting effects to “infection” that “breeds,” Dickinson conjures up the image of an epidemic: art resembles a fast-spreading contagious disease. Carriers of infectious ideas and ideals, works of art are agents of unstoppable transmission. Like Cervantes’s’ portrait of the idealistic but lunatic Don Quixote, or Crane’s of a fatally romantic youth, Dickinson’s metaphor elevates art by exploring its potentially sinister effects. Transmitting its messages with subtlety and swiftness, art builds alternative worlds so alluring that its audience occasionally may be drawn into maladaptive modes of action. Because its influence operates in the arena of mind, moreover, art is not susceptible to physical challenge or repulsion.

If the effects of art typically proved deleterious to fitness, obviously, art-making activity long ago would have been eliminated from the human repertoire of behaviors. Writers who represent cases such as those just cited are using extreme instances to highlight the potency and the importance of art, individually and communally, in human life: “the whole race is a poet that writes down / The eccentric propositions of its fate” (Stevens, “Men Made Out of Words”). Soothing and organizing interior tumult, art helps to shape meaning and clarify options. To discover support for Darwinian theories of art in the very artifacts under analysis may seem solipsistic, but it is no different from using the insights of folk psychology as rough-and-ready confirmation of Adaptationist theories of behavior. In and of itself, such confirming evidence is insufficient, but it is nonetheless useful in ongoing discussions of the evolutionary functions art may have served in a variety of human environments. Since the virtual world constructed by each work of art is in important ways unique, furthermore, fears that the introduction of “rigorous empirical analysis” into literary methodology will reduce the field to a mechanical gathering of statistics, or cognitive mapping, should be allayed (in target article). “Impersonal, objective scrutiny” of the psychological mechanisms to which art appeals will supplement, rather than replace, detailed attention to singularities of aesthetic design and cultural context shaping individual works—and the “phantom” but “sweeter” worlds those works conjure.

Return to Top


Response to Joseph Carroll’s “An Evolutionary Paradigm for Literary Study”


Michelle Scalise Sugiyama

Anthropology Department and

Institute of Cognitive and Decision Sciences

University of Oregon, Eugene 97403


Implicit in all evolutionary hypotheses regarding the function of narrative is the assumption that stories transmit information. Despite this, Carroll argues that narrative is not “didactic” in function. The essence of his position is as follows: “The idea of art as a source of information or exemplary lessons in conduct has some merit, but information can be delivered in other ways more efficiently, and didacticism, like novelty, leaves out too much of what is peculiar and specific to art, while also excluding too many instances of art that could not plausibly be described as didactic.”

Webster’s dictionary defines didactic as “intended to convey instruction and information.” Storytelling clearly fits this definition: it conveys information and, as a communicative act, it is intentional (Sperber and Wilson). An inescapable conclusion follows: there are no instances of storytelling that are not didactic.

Thus, the argument against “didacticism” is largely semantic. For example, Carroll argues that “the arts fulfill a vital adaptive function” by creating “an imaginative universe in which the forces at work in the environment and inside the mind are brought into emotionally meaningful relations to one another.” He adds that this “is not the same thing as providing practically useful information or an objectively accurate map of the external environment.” However, if the arts bring “the forces at work in the environment and inside the mind into emotionally meaningful relations to one another” (italics added), then the arts provide “practically useful information” about “the external environment.” Meaning is information, and information that is “vital” is both practical and useful. Moreover, information need not be objective to be accurate or useful; it need only be reliable. If information provided by imaginative universes did not reliably correspond to the external environment, the arts could not “fulfill a vital adaptive function.” The evaluative criteria that Carroll presents in an earlier essay are grounded on just such a correspondence between the external environment and imaginative universes: he critiques Kurtén’s and Auel’s respective depictions of Neanderthals for being inconsistent with archaeological evidence, arguing that “in fiction the rules of evidence and logic do count. They are important elements in the integrity of conception in the representation of the subject” (Literary Darwinism 173).

The conversation about didacticism is really a conversation about design, as evinced by Carroll’s claim that didacticism “leaves out too much of what is peculiar and specific to art.” He is referring here to the subjective, emotional, aesthetic, and qualitative aspects of art. I believe that conceptualizing narrative as a system for transmitting adaptively useful information includes all of these qualities. The remainder of this response will address these aspects of narrative design with respect to what Carroll calls didacticism and what I call the information transmission hypothesis (Scalise Sugiyama “Narrative as Social Mapping”). It should be noted that Carroll’s paradigm embraces both art and narrative, whereas my hypothesis refers exclusively to narrative.

There is no substantive conflict between Carroll’s claim that literature “produces subjectively modulated images of the world and of our experience in the world” and my claim that narrative is a system for storing and transmitting adaptively useful information by simulating the human environment. All information transmitted from one human to another is “subjectively modulated” in that it is filtered first through the transmitter’s and then through the receiver’s fitness interests, abilities, and experience (for example, beliefs, desires, feelings). Hence, it goes without saying that any adaptively useful information acquired through communication with a conspecific is also subjective. Storytelling is triply so: (1) story content is inherently biased by the priorities and prejudices of the storyteller (Scalise Sugiyama, “On the Origins”); (2) each character embodies a unique set of abilities, goals, and perspectives through which he/she views the world (Scalise Sugiyama “Feminine Nature”); and (3) La Jalousie notwithstanding, narrative gives us (subjectively modulated) access to the minds of others (Scalise Sugiyama, “Feminine Nature”). Thus, narrative paradoxically gives us access to subjective information (e.g., the “true” feelings, values, and opinions of others) that is mediated by the subjectivity of the narrator. Obviously, this information must be taken with a grain of salt because, to the extent that the narrator’s goals conflict with the audience’s, it is likely to be biased. With its multiple layers of subjectivity, then, narrative engages and may help calibrate mechanisms for “considering the source” (Tooby and Cosmides, “The Past”)—that is, for monitoring the conditions under which and the ways in which information may be biased.

More provocative is Carroll’s claim that art functions to organize “motivational systems disconnected from the immediate promptings of instinct,” which is based on Wilson’s view of art as a response to uncertainty. Wilson argues that one of the distinguishing characteristics of humans is their “high intelligence” (Consilience 224) and that there has not been sufficient time for algorithms to evolve that would enable humans to “cope with the vastness of new contingent possibilities revealed by” this capacity (225). The arts remedied this situation by making our ancestors feel that they had control over the powerful, unpredictable forces that impinged on their daily survival: sickness, famine, predators, enemies, weather. Significantly, Wilson asks whether—but does not argue that--the arts are an adaptation: “If the arts are steered by inborn rules of mental development, they are end products not just of conventional history but also of genetic evolution. The question remains: Were the genetic guides mere byproducts—epiphenomena—of that evolution, or were they adaptations that directly improved survival and reproduction?” (224). He does not proffer an answer to this question, and speaks only of the arts as having “originated” (218), and having been “invented” (225) by humans.

Wilson’s argument that the arts provided a remedy to the “confusion caused by intelligence” (225) hinges on high intelligence having evolved rather recently and rapidly, both of which are unlikely. Complex adaptations tend to evolve gradually (Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker; and Williams), and the trend toward encephalization is no exception. It began roughly 2 mya with the emergence of H. habilis (mean endocranial volume 630 cc), and continued with the emergence 1.8 mya of H. erectus (mean endocranial volume 1000 cc), the emergence around 400,000 bp of archaic H. sapiens (mean endocranial volume 1200 cc), and the emergence around 130,000 bp of anatomically modern humans (mean endocranial volume 1560 cc) (Klein). Two million years is ample time for mechanisms mitigating the effects of high intelligence to co-evolve—which would be necessary if high intelligence did indeed impose severe fitness costs. (Strangely, in a rumination that contradicts his own argument, Wilson posits that human capacity to produce art might have been “perfected in small steps across millennia” [227].) An organism that became paralyzed by confusion due to its awareness of the uncontrollable forces of nature would simply not survive. This is the line that Carroll takes, arguing that the arts are an “adaptive response to the adaptive problem produced by the adaptive capacities of high intelligence.”

An alternative hypothesis, of course, is that high intelligence is not behaviorally paralyzing. This is the view articulated in the cognitive niche hypothesis (Tooby and DeVore). Like Wilson, Tooby and DeVore argue that what distinguishes humans from other species is their highly developed ability to represent contingently true information, including hypothetical propositions. Tooby and DeVore refer to this ability as instrumental intelligence, by which they mean the ability to create and maintain cognitive cause-and-effect models of our environment. This view, like Wilson’s, acknowledges that acquisition of this capacity was potentially costly, but characterizes the problem differently: the circumstances under which a contingently true proposition is valid may fluctuate; hence, the danger in using contingently true information lies in applying it to the wrong contingency. The solution to this problem is scope syntax—a sub-system for monitoring and updating the limits within which contingently true information is valid (Cosmides and Tooby; and Tooby and Cosmides, “”Does Beauty Build?”). In contrast to Wilson, then, they see this capacity as empowering: cognitive models are used as guides for prejudging which courses of action will lead to which results. In short, instrumental intelligence enabled our ancestors to plan. Far from paralyzing them, this ability allowed our hominid forbears to tap hundreds of previously inaccessible resources—e.g., bone marrow, mollusks, burrowing animals, plants with toxic compounds—through the use of tools. Archaeological evidence supports the hypothesis that instrumental intelligence began developing early in hominid prehistory: humans were using and making stone tools by at least 2 mya.

Instrumental intelligence is also what enables humans to tell stories. A story is a set of cause-and-effect representations of possible human environments, possible human goals, possible strategies for pursuing them, and possible outcomes of those strategies (Scalise Sugiyama, “Food,” “Narrative as Social Mapping,” and “How an Interest”). In other words, narrative is planning: “Imagery is the representation of perceptual information in a format that resembles actual perceptual input” which “may serve to unlock, for the purposes of planning, the same evolved mechanisms that are triggered by an actual encounter with a situation displaying the imagined perceptual and situational cues” (Tooby and Cosmides, “The Past” 416). Narrative is not a solution to the problems inherent in representing contingently true information; rather, the ability to represent contingently true information is what makes narrative possible.

Also provocative is Carroll’s proposition that “[m]eaning in art works through emotional and aesthetic impact.” This is a reasonable claim that is almost surely true of much of the meaning in art, but it is difficult to align with Carroll’s earlier claim that art functions to organize “motivational systems disconnected from the immediate promptings of instinct.” To see this, we need to understand how meaning is communicated through emotional and aesthetic impact. Emotional and aesthetic systems are motivational systems. Emotions respond to situational cues by signaling (i.e., conveying information to) cognitive structures relevant to addressing that situation. For example, catching one’s mate in flagrante delicto activates the emotion of sexual jealousy. This emotion, in turn, signals the suite of mechanisms that respond to infidelity: “physiological processes are prepared for violence; the goal of deterring, injuring, or murdering the rival emerges; the goal of punishing or deserting the mate appears; the desire to make oneself more competitively attractive appears” (Tooby and Cosmides, “The Past” 410), and so on.

Aesthetic systems work in a similar fashion, guiding behavior by causing us to experience pleasure when we do something that increases our chances of surviving and reproducing (e.g., sex, eating, sleeping). We find a given object, phenomenon, or behavior attractive (i.e., beautiful, interesting, fun) because it exhibits cues that, in ancestral environments, signaled that it would have been advantageous to pay attention to it (Tooby and Cosmides, “Does Beauty Build?”). Obviously, not all of the activities we find pleasurable (e.g., sex, eating, sleeping) function to convey meaning. But many do: activities such as babbling, chase play, and stargazing furnish the mind with information requisite to the development and/or calibration of specific adaptations (language, predator evasion, and perception systems, respectively). Engaging in these activities provides our brain circuitry “with the information, procedures, and representations it needs to behave adaptively when called upon to do so” (Tooby & Cosmides, “Does Beauty Build?” 16). Tooby and Cosmides argue that engaging in fictional worlds may serve a similar function. This is very different from arguing that the arts function to organize “motivational systems disconnected from the immediate promptings of instinct.” The former view posits that motivational systems prompt humans to engage in behaviors (e.g., fiction) that organize adaptations. The latter view reverses the causal order, positing that art behavior organizes motivational systems, presumably providing them with the information they lack due to being “disconnected from the immediate promptings of instinct.” This view begs the question, if motivational systems must be organized by art behavior, what motivates humans to engage in art behavior?

Additionally, it is not clear what it would mean for motivational systems to be “disconnected from the immediate promptings of instinct.” Motivational systems are instincts, if by “instinct” we mean cognitive mechanisms designed by natural selection to solve an adaptive problem. If motivational systems somehow became disconnected from the “promptings of instinct”—that is, if they no longer responded to situational cues—then they wouldn’t respond to simulations of those cues (e.g., art) either.

Tooby and Cosmides’ discussion of the relationship between emotion and planning (“The Past”) bears on the evaluative aspect of narrative, by suggesting how engaging in narrative might calibrate adaptations. They argue that one function of emotion may be to recalibrate decision-rule weightings. Death, for example, “may involve guilt, grief, and depression because of the problem of recalibration of weights on courses of action. One may be haunted by guilt, meaning that courses of action retrospectively judged to be erroneous may be replayed in imagination over and over again, until the reweighting is accomplished” (“The Past” 416). They further suggest that imagined courses of action may have the same effect. Although they don’t mention narrative per se, imagined courses of action are, of course, the foundation of narrative. On this view, then, certain of the emotional responses evoked by a story may encourage us to replay the courses of action it depicts (i.e., tell/listen to it repeatedly), thereby recalibrating the weightings of the decision rules triggered by the story situation. This may very well be what Carroll means when he proposes that the arts constitute an “emotionally meaningful cognitive map [that] provides points of reference within which humans adjust their sense of the relative value and significance of things”: recalibrating can be likened to “adjusting,” and weightings can be likened to “a sense of the relative value and significance of things.”

The most parsimonious view at this point is that a story is a set of representations that mimic situational cues that our motivational systems are designed to respond to. Once engaged, these motivational systems trigger mechanisms dedicated to processing the information contained in the represented cues. Although hypothetical, these representations nevertheless contain reliable information about the physical and social environment--including motivational systems (e.g., human emotional responses). It doesn’t really matter whether we characterize this information as “objective” or “subjective.” What matters is whether or not the information is reliable—can it be used as if it were true? If so, and if possessing and using such information can increase an individual’s fitness, then it falls under the umbrella of “adaptively useful information.”

Given such an elegant system, Carroll’s claim that “information can be delivered in other ways more efficiently” is surprising—especially since ethnographic evidence suggests the opposite. Exploitation of the hunter-gather niche demands exhaustive knowledge of a given habitat and its inhabitants, including humans. This information must be retained to be useful: a delivery system that does not embed this information in long-term memory cannot be said to be efficient. There may be quicker ways of delivering information than telling a story, but speed isn’t everything, and in modern foraging societies, where there are no mass media, oral traditions are veritable repositories of information critical to survival and reproduction.[47] The efficiency of such a system and the significance of the information it transmits may be hard to see through the informational effluents of recent modern environments. Nevertheless, oral traditions were quite likely the first information technology utilized by humans, and are the logical place to begin looking for narrative design and function.

Return to Top


Literary Darwinism as Science and Myth


Roger Seamon


            The program of Darwinian literary study (DLS) that Joseph Carroll advances in “An Evolutionary Paradigm for Literary Study” encompasses a number of projects whose relationships are unclear, whose ambitions are unrealizable, and whose interpretive power is weak. However, the most disturbing aspect of the project is that it depends on misunderstanding the nature of literary study.

            Literary study is not now, and never has been, a progressive science whose aim is “generating new knowledge.” in the form of scientific theories; its purpose is to carry on a literary tradition, whose remoteness, of one kind or another, presents a barrier to that aim. The study of Latin and Greek literature is the model. Literary study establishes texts, tries to determine meanings in historical context, and produces narratives based on those meanings. The purpose of literary study is the transmission, transformation, and even creation of literary traditions—think of F. O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance. Literary study is not “about” those traditions, it is a constitutive part of the them. The scholar thus has a very different relationship to literary works than a scientist, who seeks causal explanations rather than interpretations and narratives. Literary scholarship is an enterprise that has long done its work more or less well, and the current danger to the field is not the absence of a unifying scientific theory but the replacement of classic literary works and major traditions with “cultural texts” that may not even be literature at all.

            The crisis in literary study that Jonathan Gottschall traces to “a methodological failure to produce empirically valid and progressive forms of knowledge” (quoted by Carroll) is, in fact, a minor part of the tradition of literary study itself. When vernacular literatures were introduced to the curriculum of research universities in the late nineteenth century they had to overcome the objection that literature in one’s native language, unlike the classics, did not require disciplinary study. Since vernacular works were addressed to and readily understood by educated adults, what would one be tested on—one’s taste? To counter these objections the literary scholars introduced and made central to the discipline the history of modern languages, which yielded “laws,” and Anglo-Saxon. As F. W. Bateson says: “When we came into being some seventy years ago the superimposition of Eng. Lang. on Eng. Lit. . . . was tactically necessary to meet the objection that Eng. Lit. per se would be a ‘soft option’” (222).

            The worry that motivated this initial defensive effort has been felt ever since, and it is science that has usually been called to the rescue. In 1893 Richard Green Moulton published Shakespeare as a Dramatic Artist; a Popular Illustration of the Principles of Scientific Criticism, and New Criticism was based, in part, on the linguistic theories of Russian Formalism. Psychoanalytic theories, Marxism, structural linguistics and other alleged or actual sciences have also been used to make scientific claims for literary study. The case for making it a science was made most forcefully by Northrop Frye in the “Polemical Introduction” to his Anatomy of Criticism, and Frye offered his own archetypal theory. Three decades later Jonathan Culler said that structuralist literary theory was an attempt to “revitalize criticism and free it from an exclusively interpretive role[by] developing a programme which would justify it as a mode of knowledge” (viii). Nothing like a science of literature emerged from these efforts., and DLS will, I believe, meet the same fate as earlier efforts to make literary study a science.

            What, then, is DLS? Consider Carroll’s claim that DLS has “an obligation to situate texts and critical histories in the broader context of evolutionary social science, connecting local critical perceptions with general principles of literary theory, and integrating these principles with principles of psychology, linguistics, and anthropology.” That is a recipe for a hodge-podge of theories within theories, and is of a piece with the strange ambition that animates the project, to create “an integrated body of knowledge extending in an unbroken chain of material causation from the lowest level of subatomic particles to the highest levels of cultural imagination.” The cosmologists can’t yet get past the first few milliseconds, but never mind, it will soon smooth sailing from the big bang to James Joyce. Although this is absurd as a scientific project, there is an understandable ambition behind it.

            Since the rise of science, non-believing intellectuals have produced grand narratives that claim to be based on, or compatible with, science ,and which offer comprehensive accounts of human existence. These myths, as I shall call them, are meant to replace the Christian story. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit is the earliest such myth; Marx and Freud followed in his wake, and that is what Carroll and others hope for from Darwin. Carroll wrote in 2002 that “we are on the verge of synthesizing [the] elements” necessary for a “full and adequate conception of human nature” (“Emerging Research Program” 1). That is what myths do, but not science, since “human nature” is a folk psychological concept. However, if history is any guide, it is precisely as myth that DLS might find its way into the curriculum as part of what Carroll calls “the practical work of interpretive criticism.”

            There are precedents for this. What happens is that literary scholars appropriate scientific vocabularies to offer interpretations rather than scientific theories, and, despite appearances, these are completely different enterprises. Let me explain.

            Literary interpreters routinely talk about the themes of literary works, and these themes connect elements in the work to concerns that resonate with us and our students. Thus, we might speak of the theme of barbarism and civilization in Othello. Talking about literary works this way makes them mean something to us, whatever they may have meant to their original audience. But themes are, as it were, optional (one can understand Othello perfectly well without ever thinking about civilization and barbarism), and therefore weak academically in the research environment, and so academic literary interpreters have, since the 1930s, used vocabularies taken from various real or putative sciences as a way of making their interpretations look scientific and therefore necessary if one is to really understand literary works.[48] Linguistics, psychology, anthropology, and sociology have been the main sources of these interpretations.[49] However, offering an explanation of Othello’s actions in Darwinian terms is not a scientific explanation but a rhetorical move whose aim is to enhance the value of both Shakespeare and Darwinism by showing that a masterpiece is intuitively deep about human nature and that Darwinian science is able to (finally) reveal a deep truth about a great work. Neither claim is true, but the method has worked for Marxists, Freudians, Jungians, structuralists and others, so why not for Darwinians? The answer to that question is bleak, but that is greatly to Darwinism’s credit. How so?

            Darwinism, as an interpretive schema, has the virtue of being based on a true theory, but it will have a very short run in academia, because as an interpretation of life it is dull and empty of meaning. Freud offers a conflict-ridden account of individual development and its discontents, and Marx provides us with a brilliant story about how society develops through class struggle and how social injustice is maintained. There is a “fall” in both stories, which accounts for human suffering, and both offer a vision of the future to guide us, the admittedly modest replacement of some id by the ego and, much more grandly, a classless society.

            What does Darwinism offer along these lines? The Darwinian vision is something like Eliot’s “birth, copulation, and death,” the universals that are part of our animal inheritance plus a few of our own, although as we find language, song, and tool use in other animals, our uniqueness dims. Where is the drama that successful interpretations of human life offer, or even a distinctive human nature? Darwinism will fail as an interpretive schema because it is mythically impoverished. Darwin tells us an awful truth; we are headed nowhere special without a purpose or a compass.[50] That is why the Darwinians will be lucky even to achieve a place in those collections of approaches that Carroll sees as just a small step on the way to hegemony and which tend to be hospices for expiring interpretive schemas.

            Perhaps the oddest of Carroll’s claims for DLS is that in the consilient academy “humanistic sensitivity to the fine shades of tone and style in literary works will have blended seamlessly with a rigorous empirical analysis of cognitive mechanisms, and a facility in writing elegantly nuanced prose will mingle happily with the severe logic of a quantitative methodology. Scholars and scientists occupied with literary study will balance easy grace between impersonal, objective scrutiny of science and a passionate humanistic responsiveness” (32). This is bizarre—or perhaps a joke? It never has been, is not now, and never will be the case that academics will routinely produce elegantly nuanced prose (of course a few do). Indeed, such prose is usually deprecated as appropriate to what Northrop Frye called “public critics,” whose job is to convey through lively plot summary and evocative language the feel of literary works so that the audience of common readers can get some sense of whether or not they might like the book. That scientists will become literary scholars and develop a talent that literary folk reject is an even wilder surmise. If this is the aim of the Darwinian program it is certain that it will not be achieved.

            Nothing I have said denies that perhaps some day scientists will understand the brain mechanisms that underlie irony, metaphor and other aspects of literature, and why such aspects of language were adaptive (although that seems immensely more difficult). At the moment, however, there seems to be merely a plethora of speculations. Some think there is a story module, while William Ramsey says of what he calls narrative intelligence, "[t]he processing is highly distributed throughout the entire system, and there are no task‑specific modules, discrete symbols or explicit rules that govern the operations” (cited by Herman). If the science is still so uncertain, many of Carroll’s claims are very premature. But even were the scientists to find out what mechanisms enable us to tell and understand stories, and how that behavior is an adaptation, the theories would have no bearing on literary study, just as theories about the mechanisms that enable outfielders to track fly balls do not shed any light on or enhance appreciation of baseball. And shedding light on and enhancing the appreciation of literary works and traditions are what literary study does and should do.

Return to Top


Good and Bad Reductionism: Acknowledging the Power of Culture


Edward Slingerland

University of British Columbia


            As someone who has written at length on the need for vertical integration or consilience between the natural sciences and the humanities, I am obviously in agreement with the majority of Carroll’s argument. I particularly think it is important to recognize, as Carroll notes, that any work in academia worth its salt is “reductive” in some respect—that is, seeks to explain a particular phenomenon in terms of more basic, general principles. The common tendency in the humanities to use “reductionistic” as a peremptory term of dismissal is therefore entirely unjustified. I do think, however, that it is important to distinguish between “good” and “bad” forms of reductionism, and to make it clear that consilience, properly understood, involves an ongoing respect for the relative autonomy of the levels of explanation studied by the humanities. I do not think that this is something with which Carroll would disagree, but at points in his essay his rhetoric suggests otherwise. If those of us who support evolutionary approaches to the humanities wish to win broader acceptance among our colleagues, it is incumbent upon us to make it clear that consilience does not entail—as many humanists fear it does—collapsing humanities departments into biology departments, denying the significance of human-level truths, or reducing human culture to a mechanistically-expressed phenotypic trait.

            Carroll notes the existence of a group of scholars interested in cognitive approaches to literature who nonetheless seem determined to distance themselves from literary Darwinism. This is, on the face of it, rather puzzling: the human cognitive system is a product of evolution, so it is hard to imagine why someone interested in human cognition would have an allergy to evolutionary theory. No doubt some of this leeriness results from a visceral aversion liberal intellectuals tend to exhibit toward any mention of Darwinism or evolution: in my experience, the leap from “Darwinism” to “Nazism” or “eugenics” is an almost Pavlovian response for most humanists, and it takes some work to overcome this indefensible and intellectually lazy response. In addition, as I have argued elsewhere, a powerful source of resistance to applying evolutionary theory to human beings is our innate mind-body dualism (a product of our Theory of Mind): we are comfortable talking about non-human animal behavior or “merely physical” aspects of human beings (our organs, our limbs) in evolutionary terms, but the mind and its products strike us as being qualitatively different in some way. In this sense, it could be said that we are built by evolution to have trouble believing in evolution as a universal explanatory framework. The combination of our innate resistance to physicalism and the historically-conditioned kneejerk reaction against Darwin means that any attempt to advance literary Darwinism is going to be an uphill battle.

            One way to make progress in this battle is to make it clear that vertically integration does not entail eliminative or “greedy” reductionism, whereby the heuristic importance and relative autonomy of higher-level entities is denied. A glance at the natural sciences allows us to get a good grasp of what “good” reductionism looks like. Neuroscience is dependent upon organic chemistry, which in turn is dependent upon physical chemistry, which in turn is dependent on physics. The nature of this dependence is such that lower levels of explanation exert an important constraining function on the higher levels. A hypothesis in organic chemistry that violates everything that we think we know about physical chemistry is likely to be rejected out of hand; if not, it would require a complete rethinking of physical chemistry. The argument behind vertical integration is that the levels of explanation studies by the humanities need to be plugged into their proper place at the top of this hierarchy of explanation, and be subjected to the same constraint of overall “consilience.” At the same time, this does not entail the disappearance of human-level disciplines, or their absorption into lower levels, because as we move up the explanatory chain we witness the emergence of new heuristic entities, which possess their own novel organizational principles. Organic chemistry has not been replaced by quantum physics because organic molecules have a set of emergent properties, and are governed by a set of emergent principles, that are simply not predictable or tractable from the perspective of quantum physics. This is why biology and chemistry departments continue to enjoy autonomy from physics departments, and why humanities departments are not going anywhere even if the academy were to fully embrace vertical integration.

            At many points in his essay, this seems to be what Carroll is arguing with regard to evolutionary psychology and the study of literature: theories that we propose about reader response or the functioning of particular rhetorical forms need to be informed and constrained by what we know about how the human mind works. “Trying to isolate literary study from psychological and historical generalizations is a sophistical maneuver,” he observes, “that will not stand against the simplest appeal to factual evidence.” He rightly points out that the key flaw common to most of the currently dominant approaches to literature is that they “emphasize the exclusively cultural character of symbolic constructs,” and therefore create an intellectual environment in which natural scientific knowledge about human nature or cognition “can exercise no constraining force on culture.” One immediate and important affect of adopting a vertically-integrated stance to the humanities would be the elimination of a variety of widely-believed but empirically indefensible views about human cognition and culture—such as the “blank slate” view of human nature or the ideal of disembodied reason—and Carroll notes that this is an important “negative” service to be performed by literary Darwinism: “If evolutionary literary study did nothing more than clear away…distorting theoretical impedimenta…[it] would have performed a valuable service.” In addition, of course, there is also an important positive dimension: once literature is placed in its proper relationship to lower levels of explanation, such as evolutionary theory or cognitive science, a plethora of new hypotheses about literature immediately suggest themselves, accompanied by a powerful new explanatory framework and set of vocabulary.

            So far, so good. My one concern about Carroll’s presentation of his position, however, is that one sometimes gets the sense that he is advocating the stronger, “biology subsumes all” position that humanists rightly want nothing to do with. Examples of Carroll’s sometimes troubling rhetoric include his characterization of literary Darwinism’s goal as “sweep[ing] past inclusion” in traditional institutional structures and “subsum[ing] all other possible approaches to literary study,” as well as his metaphor of literary Darwinism as a city core “swallow[ing] up” outlying enclaves in an inexorable advance. Jettisoning strong forms of social constructivism would indeed mark an important “shift” in our “frame of interpretation,” and bringing evolutionary theory and cognitive science to bear on literary studies in an explicit and systematic way would mark a real revolution in literary studies methodology and rhetoric. However, because fields such as literary studies tend to concern themselves overwhelmingly with emergent structures and idiosyncratic cultural histories, it is not clear to me that adopting a vertically-integrated perspective would have such a global and dramatic effect on the day-to-day work of most literary scholars. This is particularly the case when one recognizes, as Carroll does, that many literary scholars in fact implicitly share many of the assumptions of a vertically-integrated approach—such as important commonalities in human nature, universality in narrative forms, etc.—even if they deny these commonalities in their rhetorical and theoretical posturing.

            I have a colleague whose research interest focuses on the intersection of poetics and political patronage, as manifested in the production of official poetry anthologies. She often asks me why someone like her would care about vertical integration. One answer is that adopting a vertically-integrated perspective—for instance, learning something about evolutionary psychology and cognitive science and taking it seriously in her work—might very well, as Carroll notes, involve an important shift in her overall interpretative framework. The typical Foucaultian framework we all imbibed in graduate school encourages her to see her work as documenting the manner in which aesthetics is primarily driven by politics and power, with “beauty” revealed as no more than culturally-specific construction. An evolutionary framework might lead her to focus more on coalition-formation, prosociality, and aesthetic forms as in-group markers—an important advance over Foucault because it would allow her to plug her work into a much broader and more powerful explanatory framework, one that also has the wonderful virtue of being empirically plausible.

            However, it is also important to acknowledge that 90% of her work is concerned with the specifics of how this particular person commissioned this particular poetry anthology, and how this historical event influenced some very culturally- and linguistically-specific forms of poetic expression. Evolutionary theory does not speak directly to these issues. Carroll rightly criticizes Eugene Goodheart and the common move to metaphysical dualism that argues that, while science studies regularities of dumb nature, the humanities study the ontologically unique and unpredictable movements of the mysterious human Geist. If the humanities were only concerned with uniqueness they would not represent academic disciplines—literary study would be no more than an exercise in stamp collecting. Nevertheless, the task of explaining and understanding literature often operates at a such a high level of emergent specificity that evolutionary psychology is only marginally more relevant than quantum mechanics, and this is why traditional forms of literary study will continue to function more or less autonomously even within a vertically-integrated framework. Familiarity with the literature on coalition-formation and prosociality is not going to tell my colleague anything about the specific aesthetic choices made by competing factions of poets, and this is one of the central questions that she is interested in answering. Again, I don’t think that Carroll would necessarily disagree with any of this, but it would behoove him to make it clearer to his colleagues that, while consilience would provide an important new explanatory framework within which literary studies could operate, it does not necessarily entail radical alterations in one’s everyday methodology, vocabulary or focus of interest. Literary scholars do not need to stop talking about history and genre, or confine themselves only to terms and concepts drawn from evolutionary psychology.

            A related point is that Carroll also at times gives the impression that he views culture as a more-or-less direct expression of innate human psychological mechanisms—à la E.O. Wilson’s (in)famous metaphor of the human brain as “an exposed negative waiting to be dipped in developer fluid” (Sociobiology 156)—rather than a potentially autonomous force in its own right. It is true that, as Carroll notes, “culture translates human nature in social norms and shared imaginative structures,” but it is also important to recognize that culture regularly transforms human nature and cognition in important ways. One doesn’t have to be a wild-eyed social constructivist to acknowledge this point—much of the most interesting recent work in evolutionary psychology and embodied cognition has focused on the co-evolution of human cognition and culture—but the overall thrust of Carroll’s argument leaves one with the impression that all significant structure comes from innate human nature, and that cultural variation is a mere epiphenomenon. I fear that one unfortunate effect of many recent attempts to bring a robust conception of human nature back to the fore is the creation—perhaps often unintended—of a false dichotomy between nature and nurture: that the only alternatives are embracing full-blown social constructivism or believing in a single, universal human nature that merely gets “translated” into various cultures. In fact, a vertically-integrated, embodied approach to human culture—one fundamentally informed by evolutionary theory and the latest discoveries in cognitive science—can take us beyond such dichotomies. The work of scholars such as Pete Richardson and Rob Boyd has shown how cultural forms themselves are subject to a kind of evolution, constrained by the structures of human cognition but also exerting their own independent force. In fact, cultural evolution may have driven human genetic evolution, favoring our big brains, linguistic skills, and ultra-sociality, the three hallmarks of our species. Similarly, conceptual metaphor and blending theory give us very specific models for understanding how universal, innate human cognitive patterns can get projected into new domains or combined to generate entirely novel, emergent structures. Human cognitive fluidity, ratcheted up over time by cultural entrenchment, can shape human emotions, desires and perception in quite novel and idiosyncratic ways—from the subtle Japanese aesthetic sentiment of mono no aware (lit. “the sorrow of things”) to the sort of “cultivated needs” explored in depth by theorists such as Pierre Bourdieu.

            Carroll does not explicitly deny the importance of such work, and does make passing reference to cognitive fluidity and cognitive linguistics. More of an acknowledgement of how culture can play an active role in reshaping human nature, however, would go a long way toward winning over skeptical humanists—for whom the dazzling variety of various human cultures and the nuances of specific cultural products are the most salient features of human beings—and help to bring the literary Darwinians in from the jungles of their guerilla war.

Return to Top


Literature as Self-Engineering: An Evolutionary Hypothesis


David Livingstone Smith


“Literature always anticipates life. It does not copy it, but moulds it to its purpose”

 – Oscar Wilde


Joseph Carroll points out in his target article that there is not yet a consensus about the role of literature and the other arts in human evolution. It is note even clear whether or not the art has an adaptive function. If art is adaptive, there must be a reproductively significant problem for which it was, and perhaps still is, a solution. But what is this problem, and how art provide a solution for it? Answering this question should be at the top of the agenda of anyone seriously interested in a Darwinian approach to literary studies. Carroll takes up the challenge, and after surveying the main contenders – the hypotheses offered by Pinker, Miller, Dissanayake and Boyd – he concludes that Edmund O. Wilson’s hypothesis about the evolution of art is the most promising option currently on the table. While I am sympathetic with Carroll’s aim, I have doubts about the adequacy and coherence of Wilson’s hypothesis. In this commentary, I will set out what I think is wrong with Wilson’s approach, and then go on to gesture towards an alternative that promises to give a more adequate account of the adaptive function of literature.

Wilson holds art is an adaptation: a solution to a problem in living rather than a mere byproduct of evolution, and that as such, it contributed directly to the survival and reproductive success of our prehistoric ancestors. On this view, the adaptive problem for which art supplied a solution was a consequence of the evolution of the human brain. Our “extremely high intelligence, language, culture, and reliance on long-term social contracts…gave early Homo sapiens a decisive edge over all competing animal species, but they also extracted a price we continue to pay, composed of a shocking recognition of the self, of the finiteness of personal existence, and of the chaos of the environment” thus rendering us “psychological exiles” (224-25). In response to this crisis of awareness, early human beings invented the arts to “express and control through magic the abundance of the environment, the power of solidarity, and other forces in their lives that mattered most to survival and reproduction…. The arts still perform this primal function, and in much the same ancient way” (225-26, emphasis added).

As enticing as this hypothesis may seem, it is difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile Wilson’s claim that art is an adaptation with his subsequent claim that art is magic. Magic does not enhance reproductive success, nor does it help us to live longer, attract more fertile mates, or have healthier offspring. Although one might argue that magical practices and beliefs provide a reproductive advantage by decreasing stress, this explanation does not seem credible. The costs of art – the time, resources and energy invested in artistic production – would have been unlikely to outweigh what is presumably a relatively small advantage provided by stress-reduction. Also, quite apart from its specifically biological shortcomings, the conjecture that art began and continues to function as a magical way to control the environment strikes me as implausible. It seems to me that most of us seem to be blissfully oblivious to the menacing shadow of mortality, and do not cling to art to soothe our existential pain or provide an illusion of control in a chaotic and hazardous world.

If imaginative culture is an adaptation it must have made a significant difference to the material conditions of the lives of prehistoric men and women. But how did it do this? Imaginary culture presupposes the capacity for imagination, so in order to answer this question we will need to understand the adaptive function of imagination simpliciter. There are a dozen or more conceptions of imagination scattered through the scientific and philosophical literature, but for the purpose of this analysis we can start with a conception of it as “the ability to think of whatever one acknowledges as possible in the spatio-temporal world” (Stevenson 241). Prior to the evolution of the capacity for imagination, our ancestors’ minds must have been as rigidly bound to the deliverances of their sense organs as the minds of nonhuman primates are today. Presumably, there was a time when our ancestors believed only what they could see, touch, taste, smell or hear. However, once their brains evolved the cognitive horsepower to move across the landscape of thought from the observed to the unobserved, they became able to make inductive inferences about the world, and this newfound capacity enabled them to anticipate a whole range of dangers and opportunities that would otherwise have remained beyond their ken.

Cognitive traits are invisible to natural selection unless they have a reproductively significant impact on behavior, and thought produces behavior only if it is conjoined with belief. So, in order for imaginative thought to be selected into their cognitive repertoire, early human beings had to negotiate the tricky transition from operating on the principle of “seeing is believing” to the principle of “seeing with the mind’s eye is believing”. How did this happen? It seems likely that the brain system responsible for inferential thought co-opted the representational systems previously dedicated to the sense organs. This would account for an important feature of imagination: its qualitative, quasi-sensory character. It is precisely this feature of imagination that supplies its special motivating power.

These considerations bring us to a second conception of imagination as “the ability to entertain mental images” (Stevenson 243). It is, as Aquinas put it almost eight hundred years ago, “a creative activity, whereby the imagination forms for itself an image of something absent, or something perhaps never seen” (I 85 ad 3). As useful as this ability was, it left the human mind with a critical vulnerability. From this point onward, fantasy and reality would compete for control of human behavior. The mind’s tendency to be swept along by fantasy was the price that our species paid for acquiring the ability to make inductive inferences.

Like all biological functions, imagination can either succeed or fail to achieve its adaptive purpose; it succeeds when an envisaged possibility turns out to be an actuality, and it fails when what is imagined does not mesh with how things really are. This brings us to a third definition of imagination as “the ability to think of something which the subject believes to be real, but which is not real” (Stevenson 242). There is an obvious connection between the failure of imagination to achieve its purpose and the literary enterprise. After all, literature traffics in fiction: literary narratives that do not represent the world precisely as it is. It was this contrast between reality and fiction that inspired Plato’s fulminations against poetry in The Republic and David Hume’s characterization of poets as “liars by profession” who “endeavor to give an air of truth to their fictions” in his Treatise of Human Nature (87). Shakespeare, too, was alert to the epistemically dissonant character of poetry:

The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,

Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name (Wordsworth edition, V, 1.12-17)

These reflections seem to suggest that literature is nothing but a disease of imagination, but this conclusion would be too hasty. There is a clear distinction between the purpose of imagination and the purpose of literature. Imagination aims to represent the world as it really is. But literature has a different aim: its purpose is to misrepresent the world. Just as imagination fails when it does not manage to represent the world accurately, literature fails when it represents the world too accurately. The point of literature is not to describe the world as it is, but to artfully misrepresent it in ways that transform our relationship with reality, and thereby transform our behavior. The function of literature is to shape human action.

To explore this conjecture further, we need to take seriously Hume’s description of the poet-as-liar. Although lying is a distinctively human form of deception, non-verbal deception pervades the natural world. From the misleading chemical signals purveyed by the humble virus, to the sophisticated Machiavellian maneuvers of chimpanzees, living things seem intent on pulling the wool over one another’s eyes. The purpose of deception is to manipulate the behavior of others to one’s own advantage. Consequently, successful deceivers have an edge in the struggle for existence. We human animals are natural born liars too, and our lies have the same biological purpose as the deceptive strategies of non-human organisms (for a more detailed account see my book Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind).

Unlike other animals, human beings also have the ability to lie to themselves. Although self-deception appears disadvantageous, it may have a biological purpose. According to the hypothesis first advanced by the sociobiologist Robert Trivers “the overriding function of self-deception is the more fluid deception of others. That is, hiding aspects of reality from the conscious mind also hides these aspects more deeply from others” (“Introduction” vii). Self-deception is an adjunct to interpersonal deception, and helps us to reap the advantages accrued from deceiving our conspecifics. If Trivers is right, self-deception is a psychological trait that succeeds when it disrupts our contact with reality in the service of a more pressing goal – the goal of manipulating others to serve one’s interests.

Deceiving others is not the only contribution that self-deception makes to our lives. I argued in The Most Dangerous Animal that prehistoric hominins almost certainly had an innate, biologically determined aversion to spilling the blood of community members, but no reservations about killing their neighbors to acquire their resources. However, thanks to the expansion of the human brain, our ancestors eventually became capable of entertaining concepts, including the concept of a human being. This dawning awareness precipitated a psychological conflict between the warlike urge to kill other human beings, bred into them by millions of years of evolution, and inhibitions against violence flowing from the recognition of the human status of their neighbors – their membership in an extended human “community” (for a similar argument, see Roscoe). So, to be psychologically capable of butchering other human beings, our ancestors had to find a way to override their natural inhibitions against killing, and they seem to have accomplished this by exploiting the psychological vulnerability created by the evolution of imagination. They recruited the resources of imaginative culture to generate evocative images depicting their neighbors as less than human, and therefore as lying outside the moral universe. Although propaganda is regarded today as a degenerate form of literature, it may have once been a primary function of story telling. If I am right, literature originated as a form of self-engineering, a method for manipulating our own behavioral dispositions by canalizing deep, biologically rooted passions to produce novel forms of behavior. As we have seen from the case of war, some of these behaviors were adaptive. Others, such as voluntary celibacy, self-mutilation and human sacrifice, were not.

In conclusion, I think that Wilson correctly stressed the intimate tie between art and behavioral flexibility, but his account of that relationship needs to be inverted. Behavioral flexibility was the consequence rather than the cause of the evolution of art. Arguably, even today, the role of art is to structure human behavior, and when contemporary human beings find themselves moved by a poem, a novel or a fine theatrical performance, they experience a faint glimmer of the primal power of literature to move us to action.

Return to Top


The Evolutionary Paradigm: the View from Film Studies


Murray Smith, University of Kent


In his commentary on the emerging paradigm of evolutionary literary studies, Joseph Carroll paints a compelling picture of a vibrant new field of enquiry. He presents a brilliant synthesis of key debates and positions within evolutionary theory, paying detailed attention to the advocates as well as the assailants of an evolutionary perspective on the arts, in a manner which is at once trenchant, lucid and nuanced. He also weaves in discussion of more general and central issues in literary theory, such as the relationship between generalization and the particular work, and the nature of “reduction.” For all these reasons, the essay ought to be of great interest not only to card-carrying evolutionists and fellow-travellers, but to anyone interested in literary theory as such. Carroll has done a service to literary studies in “cognitively mapping” evolutionary theory, to use one of his own central terms, in such clear and engaging terms.

But nobody is perfect. There are a number of issues raised by Carroll on which more needs to be said, as I am sure Carroll would be the first to acknowledge. One of the indirect virtues of the evolutionary paradigm is that it brings humanistic enquiry into the arts into closer dialogue with the social and natural sciences, and with the “naturalistic” strand of contemporary philosophy. This genuine interdisciplinarity – as distinct from the routine quality of a great deal of work in the humanities that flies under the flag of interdisciplinarity – imposes a lot of hard reflection on epistemological matters, and raises the standard of argument. Whatever the fate of evolutionary theory as a whole and the particular schools of thought within it, literary studies can only benefit from engagement with the ethos and methods of the sciences, in the spirit urged by Carroll, even as it retains a distinct identity.

In describing the current state of play within literary studies, Carroll discusses the relationship between the relatively well-established school of “cognitive poetics,” and the more recent wave of evolutionary literary theory. A parallel situation exists within film studies: “cognitive film theory” has established itself as a minority but inflential voice within the discipline, consolidating itself through an academic society, specialist conferences and journal issues, and a steady stream of publications. “Evolutionary cognitivism” exists as a minority within that minority, and a controversial one to boot. As in literary so in film studies in this respect: all evolutionists are cognitivists, but not all cognitivists are evolutionists.


Nature and culture

The most influential conception of the relationship between the natural and cultural, certainly within the humanities, is given usefully stark expression by Fredric Jameson in the passage quoted by Carroll: “nature is gone for good.” One of the more important philosophical expressions of this idea is due to Hegel, who conceives of human subjectivity (Geist) as in a state of “alienation” from the natural order. Because human beings have the capacity to reflect upon their impulses and instinctive reactions, they become detached from the natural world in which no such reflection is found. This argument is echoed uncannily in the passages quoted by Carroll from E.O. Wilson’s Consilience, where Wilson speaks of the centrality of “instinct” to the behaviour of all animal species bar human beings, and the human “psychological exile” that this entails. Wilson’s formulation points the way towards a “naturalized” alternative to Hegelian “alienation,” an alternative developed by Carroll in his essay. On this alternative conception, culture is not alienated from or opposed to nature, but recognized as a part of nature – specifically a crucial part of that bit of the natural world we call “human nature.” As Carroll notes, humans can survive and develop physiologically outside of a cultural setting, as in the case of feral children, but such children are radically incomplete as human beings. The natural developmental course of a human child involves development and maturation through cultural practices, including language; it thus makes no sense to place culture outside of the domain of nature when it comes to humans.

Indeed, recent research shows that we are not the only species to possess culture, if by “culture” we mean practices (“suites of local traditions” – [Whiten PP #]] which are specific to particular communities within a species, transmitted mimetically across generations within these communities rather than genetically. Chimpanzees display cultural variation across a wide range of behaviours, including termite harvesting and hand-clasping related to grooming (Whiten, de Waal). Similarly, we ought to be cautious in how we use the concept of “instinct” to draw the line between humans and other animal species. Are all non-human animals equally driven by instinct pure and simple ? Don’t some animals – primates and dolphins perhaps – possess powers of deliberation of a different order to insects ? Within philosophy of mind, a debate now exists over the notion of “animal rationality,” recognizing the possibility and reality that at least certain species possess sufficient mental complexity that their behaviour cannot be adequately understood through “instinct” alone. [Similarly, “proto-morality” has been identified among some non-human primates.] Thus in respect of both culture and rationality [and even morality] there is greater continuity between humans and other species than traditional conceptions of human being have acknowledged; resistance to this idea only demonstrates the extent to which the implications of Darwin’s theories have still not been properly digested. It doesn’t follow from these points about non-human culture and rationality that there is not a gulf separating human and non-human psychology. Culture surely is fundamentally important to human development and flourishing in a way that it is not even for the most sophisticated non-human species. But the continuity of species underlines the fact that culture needs to be understood as an aspect of nature, one that plays an especially important role for the human species. Far from diminishing or undervaluing what makes humans distinctive in the animal world, approaching humans naturalistically – seeing our “species-typical” characteristics as a part of the natural world – allows us to obtain a more precise understanding of human nature and the human condition, of that “psychological exile” of which Wilson writes.

One upshot of this is that humans naturally understand the world from within a particular cultural perpective. Even that small community of humans we know as “scientists,” part of whose job it is to stand outside of any such perspective and obtain the “view from nowhere” (Nagel [[PP #]), will in their everyday dealings view the world in this fashion. And this is the stuff of the humanities – of literature, film, and the other arts, which all form part of and arise from the fabric of particular cultures: just as there no fully-flourishing “non-cultural” humans, so there are no cases of genuinely non-cultural art works. (And logically speaking, why shouldn’t there be?) The questions which humanists are thus charged with asking – concerning the form, meaning and value of works of art – will thus never be answered in a fully satisfying manner at the universal level alone. It is thus crucial that Carroll’s model for an evolutionary form of literary criticism involves the integration of the universal, the cultural, and indeed the individual levels of analysis. Denuded of these more proximate and finer-grained layers, an analysis of a literary work distilling only its universal components will feel abstract and incomplete; a multi-level account, combining all three layers, promises the richest and most satisfying account of all.


Grand theory and the “middle level”

In discussing the various modes of literary criticism of the last half-century or so, Carroll posits a continuum from impressionistic commentary to the systematic, theory-driven analysis of texts. Carroll is right to heap scorn on anti-theoretical particularism, at least as an all-encompassing account of literary studies; and elsewhere in his essay, equally justified in questioning the easy-going pluralism of a certain strain of cognitive poetics which seeks quick and comfortable reconciliation with other, more established, schools of theory (like deconstruction). (I don’t rule out reconciliation and integration between apparently contradictory or incommensurate theories – rather I agree with Carroll that one cannot simply declare peaceful co-existence at the outset.) But in doing so, Carroll puts all his money on evolution as a new “grand theory,” albeit the right one. Carroll couldn’t be more explicit about this. The trouble, of course, is that history is littered with the corpses of similarly righteous (and sincere) advocates of this or that True Theory of Everything. Carroll refers in passing to Frederick Crews’ parody of evolutionary literary criticism, but without acknowledging the principled skepticism of Grand Theory as such underpinning Crews’ various writings. Is there a danger that Darwinism will come to serve as still another “intellectual narcotic,” to use Crews’ phrase (Skeptical xi), a dogma blinding us to the complexities of literature? Within film studies there has been special attention to this problem, not least among those most sympathetic to analysis informed by evolutionary and cognitive principles, who have argued for “middle-level” research and “piecemeal” theorizing in place of grand theorization (Bordwell, N. Carroll).

The two problems with “grand theory” that I want to focus on briefly here are what I’ll call the problem of relevance and the problem of dependence. The problem of relevance takes us back to Carroll’s tripartite model of analysis – evolved universal attributes, culturally-specific instantiations of these attributes, and variations at the level of the individual – but now with a worry attached. What do we learn when we set a literary work against the backdrop of “ultimate” evolutionary explanations, as distinct from more proximate explanatory factors ? How informative is the level at which we identify the evolved universals at work within a text ? Gregory Currie worries that “evolution can be of aesthetic relevance only to the biggest of big pictures,” and that with respect to the understanding of particular works, it “looks like a blunt instrument” (Currie, 242). The related problem of dependence also bears upon the relations between ultimate and more proximate levels of analysis. If we forge our proximate explanations in a fashion such that they are neutral or agnostic with respect to larger and more distant questions, we insulate them from a problematic dependence on a particular account of the ultimate factors. If we tie our proximate explanations closely to a particular ultimate explanation and that explanation falls, the proximate explanations will go with them.

Consider the 2008 winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, The Counterfeiters, which tells the story of a group of (mostly) Jewish concentration camp inmates working on the large-scale counterfeiting of British and US currency, a strategy devised by the Nazis to undermine the Allied economies. Even in this most emotionally-charged and politicized of contexts, we can identify a range of evolved, universal factors which fundamentally structure the dramatic situation. Much of the film is concerned with the will to survive in the most invidious circumstances, and with the psychological and social tactics necessary for a chance of survival in them. The drama is played out in terms of social dominance and affiliation – leadership, followship, imprisonment, in-out group dynamics – both between the Nazi authorities and the prisoners, and within the community of prisoners, whose unity is under pressure continuously from the tensions between individual and collective interests, short- and long-term gains, and the interests of different prisoner groupings emerging from differential treatment by the Nazis. The entire drama might be understood as a complex elaboration of the kinds of scenario explored in game theory, like the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Unlike such models, however, the film dwells on the psychological and emotional costs of survival under such conditions, focussing on the dilemma faced by its central protagonist as he is forced to choose between between individual, short-term survival, and long-term goals and underlying commitments.

Thus far, though, the fact that the film is a story based on a particular strand of the history of World War II and the concentration camps, plays no essential role in the analysis. At the universal level, the story as I’ve described it shares much with Brett Cooke’s analysis of the dystopian fiction We, alluded to by Carroll. The Counterfeiters might be understood along similar lines as a fable about the depersonalizing effects arising from the deprival of basic, evolved human needs, psychological as well as physical. A more complete and satisfying understanding of the film thus necessitates attention to the level of cultural and historical specificity, concerning (most obviously) Nazi ideology, policy and practice. It also requires attention to the level of the individual work – considering, for example, the distinctiveness of this story as a story about the Holocaust, and the particular style and tone of the film’s depiction of the death camps. The “grand theory” worry, as stated in the problem of relevance, is that it is only really at the levels of cultural and individual specificity that the truly informative explanations are forged.[51] A level of analysis so abstract and “ultimate” that it cannot distinguish between an anti-communist dystopian fable and a Holocaust drama based on historical fact must indeed be a “blunt” instrument.

If I’ve understood this line of thinking correctly, it is not convincing, and Carroll’s multi-level model of literary analysis stands. Why so ? It is hard to see how incorporating the universal level of analysis in any way damages the cultural and individual levels, even if it constrains them by limning the universal “pressure points” underpinning the drama. The three levels certainly aren’t mutually exclusive, logically speaking. Nor need attention to the universal level distract us from the importance of the cultural and individual levels; criticism is not a zero-sum game. Indeed attention to the universal alongside the cultural and the individual surely enriches these more specific layers of analysis. The “common frame of reference” provided by evolutionary theory enables us to appreciate more sharply the distinct solutions to universal problems generated by particular cultural traditions, and individual agents (like artists and authors) working within them (Smith). The identification of recurrent, “broad and deep” motifs in literary form across cultures and history provides a plausible explanation for the common cross-cultural appeal of works of art and literature, which frequently escape the bounds of the particular cultural tradition in which they were created (Dutton).

Indeed it is notable that, in the West at least, the “folk psychology” of criticism – everyday talk about films and works of literature – incorporates reference to many universalistic concepts, like “human nature” and “basic instinct,” just as much as it depends on culturally-specific concepts. As Carroll notes, this kind of convergence between the “common understanding” and the implications of evolutionary theory stands in its favour relative to other theories. Finally, in relation to Crews’s concerns about the dogmatic and “self-validating” (Skeptical xi) tendency of theory as such, it is important to note that Carroll argues for two distinct, if overlapping, programs in literary studies: the evolutionary project, and the empirical project. Bringing the ethos and methods of the empirical sciences into the study of literature need not be tied to any particular evolutionary theory, or even evolutionary theory at all. Where evolutionary theory is brought into play, however, it too is and must be subject to empirical scrutiny: note Carroll’s exposition of the debate around “massive modularity” within evolutionary psychology, as an instance of this kind of empirically-driven revision. So long as evo-lit, along with evolutionary theory more generally, can maintain this “open” and self-questioning character, there is hope that it will not turn into just another Theory of Everything heading for the trashcan of history.

Two other worries are worth briefly noting. First, Carroll’s overview of literary Darwinism appears to be wholly organized around and driven by the interventions of evolutionary psychology. Carroll underlines the centrality of psychology to the evo-lit research program, and makes it plain that such psychology is genetically-mediated. There is at least one other branch of evolutionary theory, however, which deserves a hearing in the context of literary and art theory – the branch that concerns itself with cultural evolution, that is, with the variation and selection of ideas and practices within the sphere of culture. In contemporary debate, this question has mostly been debated under the banner of “memetics” – Richard Dawkins uncannily catchy name for a cultural equivalent to genetics, the term itself embodying the idea of an idea which spreads rapidly because of its fitness within a given cultural environment, in this case the environment of intellectual debate around evolution. The term itself is controversial, but we shouldn’t allow that to blind us to the highly plausible notion that there is a dimension of cultural change at the “population-level,” where patterns of change emerge from the aggregated choices of individuals, but without the goal-directedness of individual actions (see also Whiten). Such supraindividual, population-level patterns are thus “blind” in a manner parallel to the operations of natural selection. Individual psychology is still part of the picture here, but not in the way envisaged by evolutionary psychology.

The second concern bears upon the adaptive function of literature that Carroll distills from his own work and other evolutionary theorists like Wilson: literature functions to regulate the potential chaos arising from human intelligence and the overcoming of purely instinctive behaviour, furnishing “an emotionally meaningful cognitive map [which] provides points of reference within which humans adjust their sense of relative value and the significance of things.”This is an appealing formulation, proferring a plausible characterization of a “species-typical” evolutionary problem in terms that traditional humanists will recognize as their own – emotion, value, significance. Evolutionary theory and traditional literary enquiry appear to speak to one another on equal terms here. But I wonder if this definition encompasses too much, or rather more than Carroll has in mind. Doesn’t ideology perform this function too ? Indeed, don’t all cultural phenomena serve this orientational and motivational function to some degree ? A Coors beer ad orients towards certain values and steers us motivationally as much as Middlemarch (indeed, the relative simplicity and directness of the ad may make it more effective with respect to this orientational function). Carroll’s account of the adaptive function of literature may point towards a surprising convergence with cultural studies, which delights in the levelling of cultural distinctions.

If these questions do hit upon a raw nerve, there may be more than one available response to them. Perhaps the adaptive function of literature – if such there is – needs to be recast to give more prominence to play and creativity (as in Brain Boyd’s evolutionary account of fiction, cited by Carroll). Or perhaps, at the level of adaptive function, literature, propaganda and other overtly ideological tools do form a natural kind. This wouldn’t stop us from making a principled distinction between literature and ideology; but it would prevent us from founding that distinction on the rock of adaptive function. Pinker may be right that much of what we value has emerged as a by-product rather than as a direct adaptation, but wrong to imply that this strips such phenomena of their value. The road from “is” to “ought” is never that direct.

Return to Top


Response to Joseph Carroll’s An Evolutionary Paradigm for Literary Study


Ellen Spolsky, Bar-Ilan University


I am confused about Joseph Carroll’s “we.” Citing his own earlier work, Carroll notes that he once admitted that “we do not yet have a full and adequate conception of human nature.” This we may be no more than a variation of “one”—anyone. But then we hear that, time having passed, Carroll himself is now able to “lay out a model of human nature that incorporates the features on which most practitioners in the field would agree.” He does this in 1600 words. Does he consider himself one of the community of “practitioners?” Or are they the community of scientists and social scientists who are trained in those fields? If the second, and that seems more likely, by what authority does he asks us to accept as accurate or useful his summary of a field that is neither his nor ours? Beyond my general ability to follow rational argument, how can I evaluate the claims made therein? The most surprising is the claim that he reports finding a “consensus” model. Am I being asked to believe that although my own academic area of literary theory is cross-hatched by contested claims, the field of evolution and evolutionary psychology is blissfully free of conflict and competition? Especially when it comes to a model (of all things!) of human nature? I am being asked to believe in Tinkerbell.

Speaking as one who is quite interested in the scientific fields of evolutionary biology and cognitive science, I must protest that it is entirely unreasonable for literary scholars to be asked to build their own work on a homogenized summary of a field they are not trained to critique, in which they are not trained to recognize overgeneralizations from data, to spot weak or faulty research assumptions, to notice the lack of or poorly defined control groups, or the misplaced use of statistical models. It is, indeed, ridiculous for literary scholars to include themselves within the “we” who now “have a model of human nature,” since, as even an amateur reading of the weekly New York Times science page repeatedly demonstrates, claims about the universals of human nature remain well beyond consensus.

While I leave it to others to point out how much of Carroll’s “model” consists of unproved, even unprovable hypotheses, most still actively in dispute, Carroll knows perfectly well that his summary is inadequate for any purpose beyond piquing the interest of the uninformed. He acknowledges this by providing an example of a “professional” use of these scientific fields for the study of literature, the work of Brian Boyd, whom he praises for “expertise in assimilating information from the social sciences;” Boyd, we are meant to understand, does his homework. With “explicit and detailed reference to evolutionary social science, Boyd demonstrates that the findings of cognitive psychology make sense ultimately because they are embedded in the findings of evolutionary psychology.” To be professional, on this view, is to “assimilate” (which I take to mean accept and adopt) the claims of two fields in which you are not trained to be a critical reader! And Carroll hasn’t even had time to mention the exciting developments in systems biology, clearly relevant as a third field underpinning whatever ultimately emerges as a description of human nature, but also a field in which competing hypotheses are vigorously argued.

I was about to submit, then, as my first complaint, that Carroll is asking us to adopt as guiding principles his versions of what two or three scientific fields are about, ignoring the quite reasonable and normal controversy within them about both basic principles and about details. We must do this, I infer, even though we as literary scholars have none of the training that would be needed for us to make properly critical use of their conclusions, because this is the way we will be able to generate “new” knowledge about literature. I am stopped from advancing this criticism, however, because just as he asks us to make this commitment, Carroll notes that there is “one crucial element of human nature [that] remains at least partially outside this consensus model and that is “the disposition for producing and consuming literature and the other arts.” Within evolutionary social science, divergent hypotheses have been formulated about the adaptive function of the arts.” The good news here is that apparently when it comes to a part of social science that Carroll actually knows something about from his own professional training in literature, he does notice a fissure. And if he can notice an area of controversy here, I ask, shouldn’t he be a bit more suspicious about the consensus he supposes to exist in the rest of the field? Carroll at this point seems almost on the verge of realizing that while he cannot advance that theory as an evolutionary psychologist or biologist, he himself is in possession of a vast amount of knowledge that the social scientists themselves are in no position to evaluate or use. He fails, however, to take this next step – to follow his own evidence. I would like, then, to amplify the intimation he provides and claim that the position of an outsider to a field, a position we literary scholars inhabit in respect to evolutionary biology and psychology, is in fact a fine place from which to make a contribution to the clarification of the issue or nexus of issues we may label as human nature, a subject in which many different fields have an interest, and none, I would add, a proprietary interest. Questions such as the putative adaptive function of the arts are not going to be answered only by questionnaires and statistics. We can, however, (and note the different we) bring our own expertise to the discussion of the hard question of the function of fiction and of apparently “useless” art work.

My revised complaint, then, is that Carroll has positioned himself, and asks us to join him, in a situation where he doesn’t belong—where he has no choice but to listen and to “assimilate,” and has only a weak and derivative power to critique. Why would we want to do this when we can bring to the discussion of the function of creative work our knowledge of a large range of texts stretching over many centuries of human creativity in many different cultural settings, and our own well-honed sensitivity to those texts? And in so doing, make our own contribution to the ongoing project of describing human nature through the study of literary texts and their functions. Indeed, Carroll does mention some of the projects already underway in this direction by literary scholars, but seems to measure them against the hypotheses of the sociobiologist, E.O. Wilson.  

Why again, the scientism? As scholars trained to read texts and study them in their flowering or evanescent cultural contexts, we have evidence that the scientists don’t know about and wouldn’t be able to learn much from if they did. We have centuries of evidence about human relationships and motivation, about economic, or motherly or mating behavior. We have been trained in theoretical thinking about artwork and in historical methodologies that can make an enormous contribution to the interdisciplinary project which the study of human nature surely is. We already have very satisfying ways of studying the artifacts of art and literature, of philosophy and history so as to advance the understanding of the relationship of individuals to their world. Why, then, shouldn’t we continue to do what we are already doing, as many of us in cognitive literary theory are doing, and that is using our own ways of understanding of our texts to challenge, refine, and to call attention to some of the oversimplifications produced by evolutionary and social science. The new perspective is provided by the questions posed by a Darwinian way of thinking, but not by any consensus of axioms, since that barely exists.

One of the crucial things we know as literary scholars is the price the social sciences pay for the reduction away from the unusual or rare occurrences in human life. In his desire to be accepted as a practitioner (indeed as the founder) of the new social science of evolutionary literary theory, Carroll’s production of a story about human nature fudges its crucial instabilities and gradience just when it gets interesting to us in the literature departments. On the description of human nature he provides, “human nature’ is understood as something like a collection of “genetically mediated characteristics typical of the human species.” He expands on the next page: “Evolution has shaped the anatomical, physiological, and neurological characteristics of the species, and …human behavior, feeling, and thought [so that they are] fundamentally constrained and informed by those characteristics.” Here again, Carroll fails to notice important hints in his own discourse – here the important modifiers buried in the word “typical” and in the word “constraints.” These words indicate general but not absolute control, and it is just here that a deep and wide familiarity with literary texts and other art forms is going to be the most useful in enriching the description of human nature. From where we stand as literary scholars, we should be working to argue and to demonstrate that the full project of understanding human nature is not going to succeed without an understanding of exceptionality. It is only through an account of the occasional, the unusual and the non-typical that change can be understood. It is somewhat ironic, then, that this hypothesis, so important to those of us who may spend years studying one text, is also central to evolutionary theory. Instead of arguing that we (all of us) are still constrained by the genetic limits that structured our existence on the Pleistocene savannah, some social scientists have already begun to work out the mechanics of co-evolution. They are beginning to find evidence about how culture interacts with biology to produce not only cultural but even genetic change.

It seems clear that an understanding of the exceptions which literature regularly describes—the “tellable” to use Mary Louise Pratt’s word for those occurrences in which literature and art are focally interested – is what is needed for the interdisciplinary project of literature and cognitive science. It is, in fact, ludicrous to think that in the project of describing human nature, the novels of Jane Austen are needed to confirm the understanding that mating is crucial for the continuation of the species! Instead of rewriting our knowledge so that social scientists will find it comfortable – tabulating, for example, the percentages of male and female characters in folktales – we may ask, for example, what can be learn about gender and mating from the dyad of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly (Milan, 1904) and the American playwright, David Henry Hwang’s award winning drama of 1988, M. Butterfly? It is unfortunate that Carroll encourages projects he calls literary, but which seem aimed at turning our knowledge into their kind of knowledge instead of using our knowledge to discuss mutually interesting questions.

Ultimately what Wilson called consilience is not going to be achieved by importing the methods appropriate to the laboratory or even to social science inquiry into the humanities. Consilience is more likely to come from a general recognition that there are different kinds of reduction—different methodologies that need to find out how to appreciate each other’s insights. It’s not consilience when I distort my subject matter so that it fits someone else’s analytical instruments. If “we” are going to be one community, we need to learn how to use each others’ deepest understanding by working in multiple directions at once.

Return to Top


Robert Storey


            Carroll continues to show his superb mastery of the field here, and I can add little to his summary of the accomplishments, struggles, and schisms that mark that field’s progress. Where I might hang a footnote is to his response to that “crucial element of human nature” that “remains at least partially outside [the] consensus model: the disposition for producing and consuming literature and the other arts.” Like Carroll, I believe that all the arts have adaptive value; in fact, I would go farther and affirm with Ellen Dissanayake that the arts give evidence in human beings for a “biologically endowed adaptive behavioral proclivity” (“’Making’” 27). I am in complete agreement with Carroll’s objections to Pinker’s relegation of the arts to pleasure-machines, as well as to Miller’s characterization of them as “useless ornaments.” His defense is quite strong. But I am uneasy with Carroll’s own alternative hypothesis, at least as regards literature, the art that is at the focus of the essay. Here is Carroll’s explanation:

The adaptive value of high intelligence is that it provides the means for behavioral flexibility, for dealing with contingent circumstances and hypothetical situations. That behavioral flexibility has made of the human species the most successful alpha predator of all time, but achieving dominance in this way has come with a cost. [E.O.] Wilson speaks of the “psychological exile” of the species. . . . The proliferation of possibilities in “mental scenarios” detached from instinct produces a potential chaos in organizing motives and regulating behavior and the elemental passions that derive from human life history. The arts are thus an adaptive response to the adaptive problem produced by theadaptive capacities of high intelligence.

The human being of “high intelligence” is no longer a creature of “instinct,” true, but I would argue that it is not necessarily prey to “chaos” in its organizing and regulating skills, however numerous the “mental scenarios” it entertains. The “motives,” “behavior,” and “passions” that Carroll is referring to belong presumably to the human social world (“human life history”), and, for that world, the creature without instincts has evolved a finely tuned system of emotions. That system is more than adequate to the demands of social scenarios of both the immediate moment and the far-flung future, and it makes stabilizingly good sense of the events of both the near and the distant past (if we give, of course, some allowance to the ways egotism always skews the results!). With Wilson, I agree that our species is psychologically exiled, but not, I think, from its once instinctively managed social skills. The nature of that exile will be addressed later in this response.

            A second point of divergence between Carroll and me is the definition of art, specifically, here, of literary art. I agree strongly that to solve “the puzzle of adaptive function,” we must first “define art in a way that identifies what is peculiar and essential to it.” But I have difficulty in descrying a definition of Carroll’s own in his essay. The closest we seem to come to it is in the remarks that Carroll quotes from the book he has co-authored with Johnson and Kruger: “Literature and its oral antecedents derive from a uniquely human, species-typical disposition for producing and consuming imaginative verbal constructs.” The phrase “imaginative verbal constructs” can embrace much that is not art, of course: Gossip is often quite imaginative, but it is also often rambling, shapeless, tediously tendentious, and dull. We need, to set the stage, a sharper definition of art and a convincing account of the adaptive function that is unique to it.

            I have found a no more compelling definition than that of Ellen Dissanayake, who has given it elaboration in three books and dozens of articles over the last twenty years or so. Art, she insists, should be linked not exclusively to artifacts but to a specific kind of behavior. That behavior she calls “making-special.”

      Each of the arts can be viewed as ordinary behavior made special (or extra-ordinary). This is easy to see in dance, poetry, and song. In dance, ordinary bodily movements of everyday life are exaggerated, patterned, embellished, repeated—made special. In poetry, the usual syntactic and semantic aspects of everyday spoken language are patterned (by means of rhythmic meter, rhyme, alliteration, and assonance), inverted, exaggerated (using special vocabulary and unusual metaphorical analogies), and repeated (e.g., in refrains)—made special. In song, the prosodic (intonational and emotional) aspects of everyday language—the ups and downs of pitch, pauses or rests, stresses or accents, crescendos and diminuendos of dynamics, accelerandos and rallentandos of tempo—are exaggerated (lengthened and otherwise emphasized), patterned, repeated, varied, and so forth—made special. In the visual arts, ordinary objects like the human body, the natural surroundings, and common artifacts are made special by cultural shaping and elaboration to make them more than ordinary. (“’Making’” 30-31)

Carroll has expressed reservations about such a definition, pointing out that prisoners’ striped uniforms are “special” garments but cannot be regarded as art (pers. comm.). But the example seems to me weak: The stripes in question are not an elaboration upon the uniform but a simple code, like a traffic sign: “Prisoner Inside.” Dissanayake herself has conceded that both play and ritual are not excluded by the definition, but I think that our instincts rebel in admitting at least the first of those behaviors into the realm of art. As the early evolutionary aesthetician Felix Clay remarked: “No doubt there is a superficial resemblance between some of the forms of art and play; one important difference that we must note is that every manifestation of art produces something—the essence of it involves the alteration of matter in the creation of new forms [either in the concrete or, as with pantomime or dance, in the cultural memory]” (31). And, as for ritual, Dissanayake has in her latest book brought it comfortably within the fold: “’Ceremony,’” she writes, is “a one-word term for what is really a collection or assembly of elaborations (of words, voices, actions, movements, bodies, surroundings, and paraphernalia)—that is, of arts (chant or song, poetic language, ordered movement and gesture or dance, mime, and drama, along with considered and even spectacular visual display)” (Art 138).

            But why does the human being “make special”? What adaptive function does such a behavior have? The usual answer is that, in its ceremonial form, it ensures group cohesiveness; in Dissanayake’s words, it promotes “communality and one-heartedness” (“Making” 33). But I suspect that cohesiveness is a spin-off—albeit an extremely valuable one—from the original function of the arts. To get at that function, we should reinsert the arts into the lives of their earliest creators. Steven Pinker thinks that, to understand art, “We need to begin with . . . paintings on black velvet” (How 523). But that is not where our ancestors began. They began apparently with displays associated with shock and pain and intensively deliberative labor—at least so the artifactual evidence indicates. (We have no way of knowing when dancing and chanting and singing and drumming evolved—or what exactly they were like at their inception.) The manipulation of red ochre (presumably to paint the body), cranial deformation, filed or ablated teeth, beads manufactured as ornaments: these are among the earliest surviving testimonials of human “making-special.” Each changed the reassuringly familiar human image in jarring, even grotesque ways, sometimes (as in the sharpening of teeth, still performed by some present-day tribal groups—with machetes) at the cost of great pain and precious time. (White notes that “Experiments conducted with elephant ivory at New York University [NYU], using faithful replicas of Aurignacian tool-forms, suggest an average time per basket-shaped bead of well in excess of an hour” [554].) Art for the peoples of the early Upper Paleolithic had nothing to do with bare-breasted señoritas couched coyly against backgrounds of black velvet: Their art, as the anthropologist David Stout has argued about the art of modern “primitives,” was intended, not to push the “pleasure buttons” (Pinker, How 525), but most probably to evoke awe. Early art, I suggest, as Dissanayake does (Art 131), was inseparable from early religion; the two seem to have co-evolved. Art, in its “specialness,” served religion as a bridge to the sacred world.

            This last point deserves considerable elaboration, not something that I have very much space for, so I must beg indulgence from the reader for my sketchiness. The chief proponents, among anthropologists, for the theory that religion evolved as an “adaptive complex” are Candace S. Alcorta and Richard Sosis, who argue that religion emerged in response to “increased competition between groups for patchy resources” (347): “Religious symbols . . . provided tools for creating cooperative coalitions across time” (348). In other words, religion evolved—as so many others before them have argued—“to differentiate and cohesify [human] groups” (348). But this explanation does not satisfy me. The purely material problem that they describe could easily have been met by a purely material solution. Why is it assumed that religion, and not, say, well-armed conscripts of zealous thugs, was best suited to “differentiate and cohesify human groups”? My own theory is that religion evolved to solve a metaphysical problem, one that could not have been solved in any other way. When Wilson speaks of the “psychological exile” of the species, he describes that exile in specific terms: “The great apes have the power of self-recognition, but there is no evidence that they can reflect on their own birth and eventual death” (245). I think it was the latter of those two mysteries that excited the most reflection (because it excited the most fear and anguish) among our early art-making ancestors. Religion was their response to that mystery, and the arts were the tools for gaining public access to its “special” deathless realm and, in the process, uniting initiates in their faith and thereby strengthening them in their convictions.

            That religion was born of the consciousness of every individual’s inevitable death is argued most persuasively by Conrad Montell, who concedes that his position is “highly speculative” (1). But, for all its speculativeness, it addresses the problem of the emergence of religion with fiercely compelling force. How confront or escape a predator—death—that, unlike every other predator, cannot apparently be defeated? And how live in the world in psychological comfort—which is to say, with robust inclusive fitness—with the daily knowledge of one’s own inevitable defeat?

      What “tools” might be found or made to “reshape” death? Those who had the ability to think such questions were on their way to answers. Early humans who developed rituals to mourn the dead, and then developed magic or religion to make the apprehension of death “bearable,” would      function better: would tend to be less debilitated by fear of death, as individuals and in community. (Montell 17)

Such humans used the newly acquired faculty of reflection (“imagination,” in Montell’s terminology) to amass redemptive evidence of a world beyond this material one and so beyond the jaws of death. In dreams, in drug- or trance- or dance-induced transports and hallucinations, and even in psychotic episodes (as when the schizophrenic is guided by “voices”), early reflective humanity undoubtedly found much that was suggestive of such a world. But only through art, deployed in ritual, could public access to that world be established and assured. Art was “special” to our early ancestors not only in sensory but also, more importantly, in ontological terms. Like holy water, which both is and is not H2O, the artfully elaborated object, movement, or sound served as a portal between this world and the noumenal Other. And still does so for many today: “In the quasi-spiritual connotations of capital-A art,” writes Dissanayake, “it is as if there is a sort of archetypal memory of what the arts [once] did for us” (What 168). (In defense of which I quote the capital-A abstractionist Mark Rothko: “The people who weep before my pictures,” he once told an interviewer, “are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them” [May 119].)

            And that experience produced—and still produces—enormous benefits. “Cohesiveness” is the most obvious of those benefits: Religion unites all its believers through its ideology and its ritual, and in their union is their strength. A growing body of research also indicates that individual believers, as could be expected, are better equipped physically in the “struggle for existence” than are those for whom death still bears a sting: “These studies,” write Alcorta and Sosis, “demonstrate decreased mental and physical health risks, faster recovery times for a wide variety of disorders, and greater longevity for those who regularly attend weekly Western religious services, even when social and lifestyle confounds are controlled (Hummer et al. 1999; Matthews et al. 1998; Murphy et al. 2000)” (324). And when the behaviors that were born of the religious impulse—the “making-special” that defines the arts—are visited upon unmistakably profane social scenarios, as in narrative, the artful and articulate acquire a powerful tool. Geoffrey Miller disagrees: “The best commands,” he writes in The Mating Mind, “are imperative sentences, not works of art” (263). In response, I direct the reader to a recent Jane Smiley novel, in which a character asks his lover if she has ever been to an AA meeting:

      “What they do at meetings is tell stories. You aren’t allowed to give advice or tell people what to do. You’re encouraged to tell your own story and leave it at that. The reason they do that is because alcoholics can be volatile and sometimes take offense. Telling stories is the least offensive way to communicate because it’s the least coercive. . . .” (235, my italics)

And when a non-coercive behavior, like story-telling, is “made special” by a master, it acquires the authority and persuasiveness of all successful art. Artful narratives, as Brian Boyd observes, “command and consecrate shared attention” (“The Origin” 204, my italics). They carry the rapt listener out of the gossipy profane and into the imaginatively sacred. And, in doing so, they construct whole lives and cultures. Merlin Donald is the most eloquent on this theme:

      Western religion, through its domination of the mythic resources of Europe, was able to influence every date on the calendar, every major architectural and engineering project, every library, and every philosophical and literary work.. . . Similarly, the Crusades were fought, and new continents conquered, largely because of an idea fixed in a narrative framework of what the world was like or should be like. Stories of imaginary places, like the kingdom of Prester John, or of the coming of the Apocalypse have inspired people to give up their roots to live in danger and often to die. (296)

“We are dominated by our stories,” writes Donald: “They not only can spell out the project of a life but can provide a sense of group identification that drives people to attempt almost anything” (295, 296). And when “consecrated” by art, they achieve transcendent power. It was through art’s awesomeness that early humanity found succor in its exile from innocence. “We like the world because we do,” wrote Wallace Stevens (913). I propose that we like it because art, as the handmaid of religion, redeemed it for us from death.

Return to Top


Evolution and Literary Study


Peter Swirski



Some disciplines are fortunate to find expositors who are as erudite as eloquent. Evolution had its Darwin, behaviourist psychology had Skinner, transformational linguistics had Chomsky—and Darwinian literary studies has Joseph Carroll. For almost two decades, he has done as much as anyone else to bring the discipline into being, then into focus, and “An Evolutionary Paradigm for Literary Study” is but the latest effort to forge a consilient paradigm of literary study. In the spirit and the letter of the essay, let me briefly comment on several research avenues for literary study it touches on.


1. The Turing Test


“Underlying this inquiry is the assumption that the evolution of computing machines will lead to the point when they become able spontaneously to create works of literature” (93).

Peter Swirski, Between Literature and Science


In the version of evolutionary psychology that lies behind Steven Pinker’s view of the arts, writes Carroll, “the governing conception of the mind is computational, and the governing metaphor for the mind is that of the computer”. Significantly, up until very recently the AI optimists were still reluctant to concede the defeat of the top-down (GOFAI) approach that spoon-fed computers information which, at some point, was supposed to jump-start independent thinking. Now we know it is a dead-end. A thinking computer will not be built: it will build itself by modifying its rulebook, erasing some pre-loaded instructions, adding new ones, and turning itself effectively into an intentional black box. In one word, it will evolve.

            Generally speaking, survival-oriented behaviour comes in two flavours (in actuality it is hard to find them in isolation). The first is the genotypal homeostat whose hard-wired instinct guarantee a swift response to standard environmental stimuli. The second is the phenotypal homeostat that learns—organizes behaviour on the basis of historically acquired knowledge. Learning is an organism's ability to acquire information and feed it back into its behaviour, including notably the learning process itself. The chronic absence of success in programming general problem-solving heuristics indicates that progress in that domain will come when computers will learn to learn. A learning machine will able to rewrite its program in the course of its operations, ultimately changing its configuration to the point where it may no longer be the original machine but a new, independently thinking one.

            There are principled ways of investigating whether computers can (be said to) think, and by far the most famous and controversial among them is the Turing test (TT). Most arguments about the evolution of thinking in computers end up being arguments about the validity and extension of the TT. Significantly, from the point of view of literary theorists, the heart of the matter is the subject’s verbal performance during the TT, which warrants analysis in linguistic, narratological, rhetorical, and cognate terms. Even more significantly from the point of view of literary evolutionary theorists, the variety of pragmatic Mutual Contextual Beliefs in this context implies the need to formulate a Theory of Mind by the examiner—or, in the upgrade of the test I proposed in Between Literature and Science—by the computer itself. Research in literary studies might make a contribution to the analysis of this dimension of evolving, thinking, and ultimately literature-creating (third-order) computers.


2. Game Theory


“Before drawing the two matrixes for the Mission Game, I must encourage readers to resist the feeling that this sort of analysis may be too arcane for them to understand.” (142)

Peter Swirski, Of Literature and Knowledge


Evolution and game theory fuse directly in evolutionary game theory. Insofar as it makes little sense to treat animals as rational decision-makers, evolutionary game theory treats environmentally stable outcomes as survival strategies sustained by evolution, whereby the payoffs for animal populations are assumed to reflect their degree of environmental fitness. In a notable reversal, of late evolutionary game theory has become of interest to social scientists. Game theoretic calculus can, as it turns out, be usefully applied to dynamic systems such as cultural formations, and the rationality assumptions of dynamic fitness are frequently better suited to reflect the iterative interactions of social systems.

            Although matrix analysis is an effective tool to analyze multiplex decision nodes, it is by no means a universal panacea for literary scholars. For one, it offers no reprieve from textual indeterminacy inherent in fiction. Even more important, identification of conflicts and players, enumeration of their strategic choices, and the (cardinal or merely ordinal) ranking of outcomes, can also be contentious. But this is where game theory comes into its own. Formally foregrounding its analytic assumptions, it invites alternative interpretations of events by offering an exact methodology to study personal—as well as interpersonal—aspects of character and plot. It makes explicit the psychological motivations and utilities of narrative agents, and when possible, offer a solution to the game in question.

            Given that most narratives are amenable to exploration along these lines, game theory can illuminate narrative conflicts as diverse as the beheading game in Sir Gawain, the tit-for-tat tug-of-war between Chaucer’s Miller and Reeve, Jane Austen’s parlour love “games”, and the strategic nuance of espionage games in Graham Greene. Indeed, this universality prompts Carroll to remark that the game theoretic framework may be useful “as a thematic filter for summarizing character interaction in a wide variety of literary works.” Most novels, after all, introduce complex characters and motivations, and most novelists intuitively employ game-theoretic principles to the extent that such principles are part of all human beings’ innate psychological equipment. In that sense, bringing those tacit procedures to the surface in the form of an explicit analytic framework can provide literary theorists with better access to the deep structures of human behavioural economy.


3. Thought Experiments


“The basic premise behind Of Literature and Knowledge is that the capacity of literary fictions for generating nonfictional knowledge owes to their capacity for doing what philosophy and science do—generating thought experiments” (4).

Peter Swirski, Of Literature and Knowledge


          Carroll draws attention to our capacity for thought experimenting by “contrasting instinct with the human capacity for considering counterfactual and hypothetical circumstances”. Counterfactual reasoning confers a distinct adaptive advantage inasmuch as it is a cheap and efficient way of dealing with an infinity of historical alternatives and future possibilities. The payoffs are fantastic in any environment whose instability exceeds the pace of natural selection to hard-wire organisms for behavioural contingencies. The Homo who could work out the decision nodes in their head, instead of slogging down every forking and beast-ridden path, greatly bettered his odds of making it to the mating season.

In the twilight of the nineteenth century, William James’s Principles of Psychology envisioned the mind as an all-purpose generator and selector of ideas best suited to deal with the world. In the twilight of the twentieth, E.O. Wilson’s Consilience fleshed out such adaptive faculties in terms of a prodigious library of scenarios. Not to be confused with Hollywood scripts, this technical term denotes mental coding networks—motion-picture engrams, if you like—that, processed in massive parallel, yield the decisions that we make in life. Like everywhere else, variation and fierce selection determine the degree of fit to the environment in question. Supporting a limitless array of responses, literary scenarios are a species of cognitive truck with the world.

The cognitive component should not be understood literally as a context-specific database of action scenarios but rather a contingent library of behavioural attitudes, emotions and dispositions. The fundamental question about its cognitive proficiency—especially salient in literary fictions, those multipurpose generators and selectors of “decoupled” ideas—is the dilemma of informativeness. Where does the knowledge of the real world reside in these unreal fantasies? What are the cognitive mechanisms that allow fictions to provide nonfictional knowledge? The narrative analogues to such cognitive mechanisms sketched in Of Literature and Knowledge are but the first steps on a road that beckons with a promise of putting literary studies on firm footing with regard to evolutionary epistemology.


4. Aesthetics


“For the record, no one, not even E.O. Wilson, has ever claimed that placing literature and literary studies in the context of empirical science could ever tap the full aesthetic nuance, formal artistry, or symbolic and interpretive contingency of literary works—the traditional provenance of literary criticism.”

Peter Swirski, Literature, Aesthetically Speaking


Insofar, writes Carroll, as evolution is the ur discipline that unites the hard with the social sciences and the humanities, literary Darwinists envision “an integrated body of knowledge extending in an unbroken chain of material causation from the lowest level of subatomic particles to the highest levels of cultural imagination”. Although one outspoken critic of such a vision has recently sought to counter the errors and mystifications allegedly perpetrated by evolutionary scholars, literary and not, Eugene Goodheart’s critique is a rhetorical legerdemain perpetrated by a confusion of literary research with aesthetic criticism. Axiological interpretation is a crucial element of literary-critical—more broadly, sociocultural—engagement with art. But evaluative criticism and interdisciplinary research are far from the same enterprise, for subjective and adventitious readings do not contribute to any cumulative research paradigm in any consilient sense of the word.

            Even as he vociferates against reductionism in the humanities, Goodheart himself adopts a dismayingly reductionist, i.e. bipolar view of literary research as a postmodern skepticism vs hardcore scientism. This caricature—which underpins his entire critique—could never do justice to the gamut of contemporary literary-critical responses to cognition and research. And yet, the critic’s warnings against impoverished translations of research data from one field into another are worth heeding insofar as they go to the heart of any interdisciplinary research program. Even in its short history, literary-evolutionary studies has been prone to cookie-cutter criticism, whereby literature is used mainly as a dough from which critics cut out just the parts that confirm theories from other fields. Such scholarship has to be warded off, for art is more than a compelling illustrator of established socio-biological theories.

            Literary studies may aspire not just to exemplify but complexify research in other disciplines. Within evolutionary studies, for instance, literary scholars can at a minimum ensure that the paradigm does not gloss over the adaptive function of human propensity for art. Literature multiplies models of reality that operate on the subjective and emotional level, organizing categories of human experience of the world. That is why, reading stories, we often feel that they ring true, even as it may not be easy to articulate this feeling in propositional form. This intuitive, not to say instinctive, determination of the (folk psychological) truth of the story is precisely what drives research into literary representations. Our brains and minds are hardwired to avoid dangers, distinguish friends from foes, spot cheaters or opportunities to advance our interests—in short, to form a passable picture of the world. And this behavioural baseline, expressed in the ubiquitous and universal criteria for representational truth, can furnish literary studies with a “ruler” for determining the accuracy of narrative models.

            This description feeds the argument that the adaptive function of literature is to create storyworlds within which we make (dispositional) sense of our own behaviour. Living in the imagination is a peculiarly human condition, whereby fictional events are synthesized into imaginative constructs that involve our sense of the total order of nature and human social relations extending in time. Much of the time we do not think about those relations in abstractions (a late part of human cognitive equipment). Instead, readers experience the complex order of things in narrative fictions supercharged with emotions. And because they are so charged and extend over time, these fictions acquire a dramatic character which makes us emote with imaginary people, which in turn helps us calibrate our own emotions, attitudes and behaviours—all of which is open not just to aesthetic interpretation, but to scientific analysis. And as such, I cannot do better than close with words that can serve as an epitaph for the whole section, article, and discipline:

            Science can explain why and how art has come to matter, but that will not give science the emotional impact of art, nor allow it to find a formula for art, nor make art matter less. If anything, it will only clarify why and how art matters so much (Boyd, “Evolutionary” 172).

Return to Top


Response to Joseph Carroll


Blakey Vermeule


            Joseph Carroll’s writing has been enormously important to me. Everything I say here is meant with the deepest appreciation for his energy, kindness, intelligence, and sheer dogged persistence in advancing the cause of literary Darwinism.  My remarks are skeptical, but only because I think appreciating art and explaining it are two somewhat distinct activities.  Darwinian literary study aims to improve the ways we explain art and to improve the content of our explanations. I heartily support this effort. I only doubt that it will make much difference to what English professors do, which is to help people touch the terrible danger and power of art. 

             When I started graduate school in 1990, we were required to take a course in literary methods. Most graduate programs offer such courses yet their contents are always changing, their syllabi shaped by the tastes of whoever is in charge.  This would hardly be true in any other discipline--physics, say, or economics, or musicology.  What does this tell us about literary methods? Years of pondering this question have led me to conclude that--to put it bluntly--there are no literary methods because literary study is not a discipline. Its practitioners are not scientists but members of a secular clerisy drawn to some branch or other of quasi-theological speculation.  To say this is in no way to impugn my profession. In fact I rather like this state of affairs. I  believe deeply in the transformative, inspirational, soul-shaking power of literature. I am enormously grateful that universities have, for reasons of their own, given a place to humanists to explore aesthetic power (even though nobody comes right out and admits that that’s what we do). In my own intellectual life I am a committed Darwinian and a rabid anti-mysterian. But I’ve come to believe that literary study is a branch of human spiritual practice rather than human knowledge--spilt religion, if you like, rather than spilt science.     

            All of this makes the challenge from Joseph Carroll and the literary Darwinians especially intriguing. Carroll argues that taking a consilient approach to literary study holds out the hope of progress in the discipline. What does this challenge mean? Where will it lead? I am desperately rooting for it to succeed simply out of intellectual loneliness. Theory is responsible for some of the deep eclecticism of today’s humanities, having become, in its terminal stages, so unfalsifiable as to leave people with nothing to say to each other. Someone can make a specious claim, about language or gender, and nobody will to refute it. Someone else can make another specious claim--and silence again. Pretty soon everyone is stuck in their own corner muttering to themselves--this is the university as Borges or Swift might have imagined it. Literary darwinism gives us a chance to speak with a common language, a language that runs with the grain of human nature rather than in any old direction. This will certainly improve the intellectual climate overall:  more interesting conferences, fewer silly statements, less hair-tearing, less teeth-gnashing (I speak for myself).

         So what are my doubts? Only that having a common, science-based language will make much difference to what English professors do.  Aesthetic power--the love and appreciation of great art--taps into that old oceanic feeling. Humanists are tour guides to the ocean’s depths as much as, and probably more than, we are oceanographers sitting on the surface and measuring the sea.  The most successful members of our profession are not philosophers or historians but still even at this late date, critics--people who explain really well what artists are up to (about which more in a moment). Whether it is practiced on the page or in the classroom, good criticism is a fiendishly difficult craft.  People crave explanations of art, insofar as they do, because knowing some context dramatically increases the pleasure art gives us.  Just as challenges from science have not in the least lessened the grip of religious belief on people’s psyches, so challenges from empiricist humanists are not going to lessen the grip of aesthetic power. And in the end, reaching towards those fragile works of mastery and genius is the work we’re called on to do.

         Let me give an analogy. In Richard Dawkins’s documentary on religious faith, The Root of All Evil, Dawkins travels to Colorado Springs to meet Ted Haggard, the pastor of the New Life Church, a massive dominionist congregation. (Dawkins filmed this segment just before Haggard, a husband and father of four children, was found to be visiting male prostitutes in Denver and buying crystal meth). In the video, Dawkins buttonholes Haggard and they exchange sharp words. Dawkins asks Haggard, in effect, how he can mislead his congregation so badly. Eventually Haggard throws Dawkins and his camera crew off church property and accuses them of telling his parishioners that they are “apes.” Watching the clip, all my sympathies lie with Dawkins. But I can’t help thinking that his scolding rationalism, though fun to watch, simply misses the point. The New Life congregants haven’t come to church for the theology. If the theology helps get them in the right frame of mind, so much the better. But really they come for the emotional pleasure, pleasure that the swirling lights and the loud music and the us-versus-them rhetoric help to trigger. 

         Drawing an analogy between the New Life Church and university humanities departments may sound nihilistic and mysterian indeed (not to mention suicidal). But to me the analogy is apt. Theory has taken hold in humanities departments because it is (or was) a branch of theology, not science. Its explanatory aims are finally subordinate to its emotive ones:  it gives people energy and the will to do the work.  Theory has been more or less overtly driven by a liberationist agenda—and it has developed strong resemblances to religious cults, in which powerful gurus dispense dogma and their disciples disseminate it. Some theory-centered disciplines make this more or less explicit. Take feminist studies.  Feminist studies has been driven explicitly by a liberationist agenda but it has signally refused to address—in fact has been entirely contemptuous of—the mounting evidence that there are significant hormonal, neurological, and cognitive differences between the sexes. If you can’t admit the question, you aren’t a discipline.  Michel Foucault, in other words, was onto something when he drew his famous distinction between scientific discourses and discourses that were under the sway of the “author-function.” The latter are schools of thought in which the founder’s charismatic presence determines what can be said or thought even many generations later (think Marxism, or Freudianism, or yes, Foucauldianism).

         Many of the intellectual movements embraced by the humanities have this character, which should be a clue to their quasi-religious status. So will clearing them away in favor of science really make a difference to what English departments do? Here again I am skeptical. Let me go back to that course I took in 1990. The profession of literary studies was invented, sort of, in the late 19th century. It was reinvented several times since then, especially forcefully in the 1920’s, the 1940’s and the 1970’s. In 1990 our literary methods course was divided into two parts. In the first part we learned some theory. English professors were still trying to make sense of what had happened in the 1970’s, so the theory we learned was a rough blend of the ideas of Paul de Man and Michel Foucault. But the second part of the course had a more practical character. It consisted of a set of instructions. 1. Pick a well-known text. 2. Write three papers about it.  The papers had to be in this order:  the composition history;  the reception history;  a critical crux. To do the last one, we went to the library and looked up the recent criticism in the giant bound volumes of the MLA bibliography. Then we picked some issue that people had found especially puzzling (like, say, why Robinson Crusoe finds only a single footprint on the sand of his island) and followed its trail back to its origins in the text. These instructions were quite useful and, as I recall, the papers I wrote were full of information. Information, facts, and some claims, too. Claims about what? When you get right down to it, the claims were simple. They were about what my author had thought he was up to, what he intended, what he meant.

                  When you strip out theory, the question of what an author intended is still, even now, at the core of the organized and professional study of literature. The question gets stretched this way and that, pulled on the rack of biography or mounted on the frame of historical narrative. But once you begin to parse the more elaborate claims, you realize that they can still be boiled down to authors and what they intended. Literary critics make claims about writers and artists, sometimes about the history of genre or the practice of literary forms. But these claims are usually meant to illuminate texts, writers, aesthetics.

            Can evolutionary theory intersect with literary study at this level? I’m not sure it can, or if it does, whether the answers will yield anything much in the way of literary knowledge. Let me give an example. For a long time I’ve been interested in the South African novelist and Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee.  One of his more persistent themes has been an older man’s lust for young women. The story he tells over and over again is of a man in his middle-middle to older middle age who thinks sexual thoughts about much younger women, sexual thoughts for which he feels he may be punished. The old man makes much of his physical decline:  “my thin shanks, my slack genitals, my flabby old man’s breasts, the turkey skin of my throat” (Waiting for the Barbarians). He makes much of his sexual impotence, his unattractiveness to women. The younger woman taunts him with her sexual potency, with her fertility, her availability to other men, but she withholds herself from him sexually. Why will he be punished for having sexual thoughts about her? Well he--the Coetzee persona, embodied in various male characters of his- doesn’t say directly but he leaves some clues. He thinks it is the condition of men to be punished by women, by feminists especially, for their desires. All of this is perfectly consilient with Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, and indeed closely related themes can be found in the writings of Coetzee’s contemporaries or near contemporaries--Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, V.S. Naipaul and others. But to explain why Coetzee chooses this theme, a critic would have to look into the role not of Darwin in his work nor of sexual selection on his psyche, but of his deep reverence for Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, for Becket and Kafka. Coetzee has philosophical ambitions, ambitions having to do with his belief that reason is a failed and failing implement. Whether he’s right about this, and whether his beliefs are ultimately consilient with biology, is not finally the sort of question a critic gets to ask. At least not if she’s trying to explain the writings of J.M. Coetzee and not to use his writing as a tool to some other unrelated ends.

 Return to Top


[1] See Boyd, “”Artistic,” “Art of Literature,” and On the Origin.

[2] Doidge speaks of “focused attention, the condition for plastic change” in the brain (111).

[3] See Inoue and Matsuzawa.

[4] See Tomasello et al.

[5] See Dissanayake, Art and Intimacy; Goleman; Hobson; and Trevarthen.

[6] See Gordon et al.

[7] See Levitin.

[8] See Richerson and Boyd; and Wilson and Wilson.

[9] See Tomasello et al.

[10] See Burghardt, “Darwin’s Enduring Legacy.”

[11] See also Dissanayake, Homo Aestheticus.

[12] See C. Darwin, The Expression.

[13] See Burghardt, “Instinct.”

[14] See Cooke, “Evolution of Interest.”

[15] See Cooke, “Microplots.”

[16] See Cooke, Human Nature.

[17] See Cooke, “Microplots.”

[18] Carroll generously acknowledged those efforts on my part. At the same time, he asserted, with disapproval, that Crews “is sympathetic to the political orientation of the poststructuralists, and he is disposed to give the strongest possible weight to the positive political motives for their theoretical formulations” (Carroll, Evolution 11). This was a misperception, perhaps deriving from an effort on my part to distinguish my position from that of Roger Kimball, who had objected to egalitarian sentiments per se on the academic left. From 1972 onward, I had repeatedly criticized the merely gestural radicalism of many literary academics (see System and Engagements). As that revolutionism-in-the-head became bundled with Contintental “Theory,” I demurred as forcefully as I could through both argument and satire, and I have continued to do so (see Critics, Postmodern, and Follies).

[19] Crews, Follies 8. See also chapters 14 and 15 of the same book.

[20] Despite the Laplacean air of this last sentence, other passages make it clear that Carroll is no believer in billiard-ball determinism in the cultural realm. By “material causation” he surely means that cultural manifestations result not from empty deductive constructs such as “the Western mind” or “the spirit of the age” but from conjunctions of real-world factors operating on individual persons.

[21] Carroll, “Human Nature” 95.

[22] Carroll, “Human Nature” 100.

[23] There is no unchallenged evidence for a psychic mechanism of repression. (For a recent comprehensive survey of the literature, see Rofé, “Does Repression Exist?”) Why does the scientifically minded Carroll feel entitled to put this threadbare concept to argumentative use?

[24] The outcome of my own attempt to uphold “community standards” at a conference on Freud is one vivid instance of this phenomenon; see Crews, Follies 79-82.

[25] Thanks to Ranja Knöbl and Joseph Carroll for their help in translating this paper.

[26] For a sketch of the field see Eibl, “Naturwissenschaft.” See also the recent exchange in the Journal of Literary Theory: Kelleter, “A Tale”; and Eibl, “On the Redskins”; and see our review of The Literary Animal (Eibl and Mellmann, “Literatur.”).

[27] See Carroll, “Steven Pinker’s Cheesecake”; for an indirect response see Pinker, “Toward” 169-73; and, finally, the section on “The Adaptive Function of Literature” in the target article.

[28] For a comprehensive discussion of this distinction and the meaning of the word “adaptive” see Tooby and Cosmides, “The Past.”

[29] See also Eibl, “Adaptationen.”

[30] See Groos, Die Spiele der Menschen and Die Spiele der Tieren, referenced in Bühler, Die geistige Entwicklung and Die Krise.

[31] See Schwender; and Mellmann, Emotionalisierung, 42ff. and “Literatur.“

[32] For a survey on emotional effects of literature see Mellmann, “Biologische Ansätze.”

[33] Tooby and Cosmides, “Does Beauty Build?” 20-22. See also Cosmides and Tooby, “Consider.” Gehlen (Der Mensch) had already conceived of the ‘unhinging’ of drive and action as the origin of culture.

[34] Tooby and Cosmides, “Does Beauty Build?” 20. See also Cosmides and Tooby, “Consider.” On the role of language see Eibl, “Vergegenständlichung.”

[35] See C. Darwin, The Expression 166.

[36] Also see Boyd, “Evolutionary.”

[37] See for example the discussion in the Journal of Literary Theory: Eibl, “On the Redskins”; and Kelleter, “A Tale” and “The Polemical Animal.”

[38] In Tomasello et al., compare the account of sharing intentions as the basis of human communication, and see their references to Grice and to Sperber and Wilson.

[39] See Kelleter, Tale; Eibl, Redskins; Kelleter, Polemic.

[40] See Kelleter, “Polemic.

[41] See Singer, Beobachter 120-143.

[42]That unified explanation is intrinsically satisfying,” Carroll claims. Even if this was true—which I doubt—the question of adequate unification would remain.

[43] Also see Eibl and Mellmann’s highly critical review of The Literary Animal (“Literatur”).

[44]Darwin, however, unlike his predecessors and contemporaries, believed that distinct races were not distinct species. He understood that “race is not an empirically supported basis for biological differentiation in the genuinely scientific sense of the word” and that “‘the races of man are not sufficiently distinct to coexist without fusion’” (Niro 98-99).

[45]Carroll employs similar language in his astute essay, “Human Universals and Literary Meaning: A Sociobiological Critique of Pride and Prejudice, Villette, O Pioneers!, Anna of the Five Towns, and Tess of the d’Urbervilles” (Literary Darwinism 129-45).

[46] See Pinker, The Blank Slate and How the Mind Works.

[47] See Biesele; Blurton Jones and Konner; Mithen, Thoughtful; and Rink 1875/1997. See also Scalise Sugiyama, “Food.”

[48] Hyman describes modern criticism as “the organized use of non-literary techniques and bodies of knowledge to obtain insights into literature,” and he says that “the bodies of knowledge of most usefulness to criticism are the social sciences” (Armed 3).

[49] For an account of how academic interpreters use scientific vocabularies to create non-scientific interpretations, see Seamon.

[50]Carlyle had this to say about Darwinism: “If true, it was nothing to be proud of, but rather a humiliating discovery, and the less said about it the better” (cited in Hyman, Tangled Bank). That doesn’t quite get things right, but the sentiment should not be ignored once Darwinism leaves the edifice of scientific achievement.

[51] See Flesch 205, note 6.