Evolutionary literary scholars, commonly called “literary Darwinists,” use concepts from evolutionary biology and the evolutionary human sciences to formulate principles of literary theory and interpret literary texts. They investigate interactions between “human nature” and the forms of cultural imagination, including literature and its oral antecedents. By “human nature,” they mean a pan-human, genetically transmitted set of dispositions: motives, emotions, features of personality, and forms of cognition. Because the Darwinists concentrate on relations between genetically transmitted dispositions and specific cultural configurations, they often describe their work as “biocultural critique.”
Typically, the literary Darwinists argue that any literary text can be analyzed at four levels: (1) as a manifestation of a universal human nature; (2) as a special instance within a specific cultural formation that organizes the elements of human nature into shared imaginative constructs (conventions, beliefs, myths, and traditions); (3) as the work of an individual author, whose identity has been shaped by some unique combination of inherited characteristics and historical circumstances; and (4) as a specific imaginative construct that reflects cultural influences but also displays original creative power.
The first monographs in this movement appeared in the mid 1990s (Carroll 1995; Storey 1996). Recent years have witnessed many new monographs, articles, edited collections, and special issues of journals. The journal Philosophy and Literature has been a main venue for articles adopting a biocultural perspective, but the Darwinists have also published widely in other journals. Several Darwinists from the humanities have published essays in social science journals, and some have used the empirical, quantitative methods characteristic of the sciences. Most literary Darwinists, though, have used the discursive methods traditional in the humanities. Whether empirical or discursive in method, evolutionary critique in the humanities is necessarily interdisciplinary, crossing the divide between science and the humanities. In 2009, a new annual journal, the Evolutionary Review: Art, Science, Culture (TER), was created specifically to provide a cross-disciplinary forum for biocultural critique. Aiming to demonstrate that an evolutionary perspective can encompass all things human, the first volume of TER (2010) contains essays and reviews on evolution, science, society, politics, technology, the environment, film, fiction, theater, visual art, music, and popular culture. TER contains essays by both scientists and humanists—with some humanists writing on scientific subjects, and some scientists writing on subjects in the humanities. In this respect, TER follows the pattern set by three collections of essays dedicated to evolutionary literary study: The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative, edited by Gottschall and Wilson (2005), Human Nature: Fact and Fiction, edited by Headlam Wells and McFadden (2006), and Evolution, Literature, and Film: A Reader, edited by Boyd, Carroll, and Gottschall (in press).
Many of the Darwinists do not regard their approach as just
one of many potentially fruitful approaches to literature. They believe that
evolutionary research provides a comprehensive, empirically sound, and
scientifically progressive framework for the study of literature. Accordingly,
they believe that biocultural critique can and should ultimately subsume all
other possible approaches to literary study. Most literary Darwinists refer
approvingly to sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson’s concept of “consilience”: the
unity of knowledge (1998). Like
In its simplest, crudest forms, evolutionary literary criticism consists only in identifying basic, common human needs—survival, sex, and status, for instance—and using those categories to describe the behavior of characters depicted in literary texts. More ambitious efforts pose for themselves an overarching interpretive challenge: to construct continuous explanatory sequences linking the highest level of causal evolutionary explanation to the most particular effects in individual works of literature. Within evolutionary biology, the highest level of causal explanation involves adaptation by means of natural selection. Starting from the premise that the human mind has evolved in an adaptive relation to its environment, literary Darwinists undertake to characterize the phenomenal qualities of a literary work (tone, style, theme, and formal organization), locate the work in a cultural context, explain that cultural context as a particular organization of the elements of human nature within a specific set of environmental conditions (including cultural traditions), identify an implied author and an implied reader, examine the responses of actual readers (for instance, other literary critics), describe the socio-cultural, political, and psychological functions the work fulfills, locate those functions in relation to the evolved needs of human nature, and link the work comparatively with other artistic works, using a taxonomy of themes, formal elements, affective elements, and functions derived from a comprehensive model of human nature.
The one concept that most clearly distinguishes the literary Darwinists from other current schools of literary theory is “human nature.” In the last two decades of the twentieth century, this concept was rejected by most literary theorists. Before that time, though, most creative writers and literary theorists presupposed that human nature was their subject and their central point of reference. The literary Darwinists argue that the concepts available in the evolutionary human sciences converge closely with the understanding of human nature available in common speech and articulated more fully in literary texts. When writers invoke human nature, or ordinary people say, “that’s just human nature,” they presuppose a shared set of ideas about the characteristics that typify human behavior. Evolutionary psychologists use the term “folk psychology” to designate these common, intuitive ideas. By using modern scientific concepts of human nature, literary Darwinists believe that they can construct interpretive critiques that are concordant with the intentional meanings of literary texts but that encompass those meanings within deeper levels of bio-cultural explanation.
The folk understanding of human nature includes the basic animal and social motives: self-preservation, sexual desire, jealousy, maternal love, favoring kin, belonging to a social group, and desiring prestige. It also includes basic forms of social morality: resentment against wrongs, gratitude for kindness, honesty in fulfilling contracts, disgust at cheating, and the sense of justice in its simplest forms—reciprocation and revenge. All of these substantive motives are complicated by the ideas that enter into the folk understanding of ego psychology: the primacy of self-interest and the prevalence of self-serving delusion, manipulative deceit, vanity, and hypocrisy. Folk versions of ego psychology might seem to have a cynical tinge, but they all imply failures in more positive aspects of human nature—honesty, fairness, and impulses of self-sacrifice for kin, friends, or the common good.
The model of human nature available in the evolutionary
human sciences is a relatively recent construct, and indeed, as of 2009, it is still under construction. Though
with antecedents extending back to
In the first decade of the twenty-first century, behavioral ecologists and developmental psychologists formulated the systemic idea necessary to make sense of human nature as an integrated set of adaptive mechanisms. The term for this systemic idea is “human life history.” All species have a “life history,” a species-typical pattern for birth, growth, reproduction, social relations (if the species is social), and death. For each species, the pattern of life history forms a reproductive cycle. In the case of humans, that cycle centers on parents, children, and the social group. Successful parental care produces children capable, when grown, of forming adult pair-bonds, becoming functioning members of a community, and caring for children of their own. “Human nature” is the set of species-typical characteristics regulated by the human reproductive cycle. This concept of human nature assimilates the sociobiological insight into the significance of reproductive success as a regulative principle, and it allocates proximal mechanisms a functional place within the human life cycle.
Human life history is similar in some ways to that of chimpanzees, but humans also have unique species characteristics deriving from their larger brains and more highly developed forms of social organization. Human offspring take longer to reach adulthood than the offspring of any other species; their brains take longer to mature and their social, technical, and intellectual skills take longer to develop. In ancestral human populations, provisioning the metabolically expensive human brain required dual parental care and a sexual division of labor, with males doing the hunting and females doing the gathering and cooking. Hunting provided important but irregular supplies of animal protein. Bearing and tending children made hunting impracticable for females, but female gathering insured that the family group received regular provisioning despite unsuccessful days spent in hunting. Cooking made food consumption much more energy efficient, reducing the size of the gut and releasing metabolic resources for a larger brain.
In humans as in most species, males compete for sexual access to females. Consequently, for pair-bonded dual parenting to have evolved in large, cooperative social groups containing multiple adult males, humans had to have developed cultural norms defining and limiting rights of sexual access to females. Other species have adaptations for cooperation in social groups with specialized functions and status hierarchies. Humans alone regulate conduct by appealing to cultural norms. Using cultural norms requires a capacity for symbolic thought that exceeds the cognitive capabilities of any other species. The hunter-gatherer way of life thus formed a complex of interdependent causal forces in which specifically human cognitive capabilities co-evolved with specifically human strategies for nutrition, reproduction, and social organization.
Animals of other species make tools, share information, and learn behaviors from observing each other. Because humans have exceptionally large brains, they have been able to expand these rudimentary capabilities in three ways unique to human culture: (1) they produce art; (2) they retain and develop social, mechanical, and intellectual innovations, adding new innovations to old; and (3) they extrapolate general ideas. Animals of other species produce emotionally expressive vocalizations and engage in play. Humans alone produce oral narratives and visual artifacts designed to depict objects and actions, evoke subjective sensations, give aesthetic pleasure, and delineate through symbols the salient features of their experience. Through cumulative innovation, humans have transformed techniques into technology, tribes into civilizations, discoveries into progressive sciences, and artistic novelties into aesthetic traditions. By extrapolating general ideas, they have produced theology, philosophy, history, the sciences, and theories about the arts.
The most hotly
debated issue in evolutionary literary study concerns the adaptive functions of
literature and other arts—whether there are any adaptive functions, and if so,
what they might be. Steven Pinker (1997) suggests that aesthetic responsiveness
is merely a side effect of cognitive powers that evolved to fulfill more
practical functions, but Pinker also
suggests that narratives can provide information for adaptively relevant
problems. Geoffrey Miller (2000) argues that artistic productions serve as
forms of sexual display. Brian Boyd (2009) argues that the arts are forms of
cognitive “play” that enhance pattern recognition. Boyd and
According to the hypothesis that the arts function as media for psychological organization, the uniquely human need for art derives from the unique human powers of cognition. To all animals except humans, the world presents itself as a series of rigidly defined stimuli releasing a narrow repertory of stereotyped behaviors. For human minds, the word presents itself as a vast and potentially perplexing array of percepts, inferences, causal relations, contingent possibilities, analogies, contrasts, and hierarchical conceptual structures. High intelligence enables humans to generate plans based on mental representations of complex relationships, engage in collective enterprises requiring shared mental representations, and thus produce novel solutions to adaptive problems. Humans do not operate automatically, but neither do they operate on the basis of purely rational deliberations about means and ends. Art, like religion and ideology, is charged with emotion, and indeed, religion and ideology typically make use of the arts to convey their messages in emotionally persuasive ways. In all known societies, humans regulate their behavior in accordance with beliefs and values that are made vividly present to them in the depictions of art, including fictional narratives.
Ways of exploring and evaluating hypotheses about the adaptive function of the arts include paleoanthropological research into the evolutionary emergence of symbolic culture, cross-cultural ethological research into artistic practices among hunter-gatherers and tribal peoples, neuroscientific research into the way the brain processes artistic information, psychological research into the way art and language enter into childhood development, and social science research into the systemic social effects produced by shared participation in imaginative experience.
Jonathan Gottschall has conducted numerous quantitative
studies on folk tales and fairy tales across multiple cultures in different
continents (2008a). In his study of Homer’s epics, Gottschall (2008b) integrates
sociobiological theory with archeological and anthropological research in order
to reconstruct the motivating forces in Homer’s cultural ecology. He also vividly
evokes the Homeric ethos. Robin Headlam Wells (2005) and Marcus Nordlund (2007)
both locate Shakespeare’s plays within the context of Elizabethan views on
human nature. Robert Storey (1996) discusses reader responses to Hamlet among a Nigerian tribal
population, thus illuminating the pan-human features of the text and also
delineating a culturally circumscribed interpretive perspective. Joseph Carroll
(in press) also discusses Hamlet,
incorporating recent research on personality and the neurobiology of depression
and examining the emotional responses of playgoers and readers in various
literary periods. Carroll (2004) uses biocultural methods to interpret various Victorian
novels. Using quantitative methods, Carroll, Gottschall, Johnson, and Kruger
(2008) identify ancestral political dispositions governing the organization of
characters in Victorian novels.
SEE ALSO: Authorial Intention; Cognition/Cognitive Studies; Cognitive Approaches; Cultural Anthropology; Cultural Studies; Form; Function; Gender and Cultural Studies; Gender Theory; Genre; Imaginary/Symbolic/Real; Implied Author/Reader; Linguistics and Semiotics; Latino/a Theory; Master Narrative/Metanarrative/Metadiscourse; Mimesis; Poststructuralism; Science Studies; Social Constructionism.
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Carroll is Curators' Professor of English at the