Evolutionary Studies—an entry for Blackwell’s Encyclopedia of Literary and Cultural Theory (forthcoming)

Joseph Carroll


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 Wilson, they regard evolutionary biology as the pivotal discipline uniting the physical sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. They draw heavily on research in multiple interlocking fields of evolutionary biology and the evolutionary human sciences: physical and cultural anthropology, paleontology, cognitive archeology, ethology, sociobiology, behavioral ecology, evolutionary psychology, primatology, comparative psychology (research comparing humans and other animals), developmental psychology, family psychology, cognitive, affective, and social neuroscience (research focusing on brain mechanisms), personality theory, behavioral genetics, linguistics, and game theory (mathematical modeling of social interactions).


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.


Human Nature and Human Life History Theory


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 Darwin’s Descent of Man (1871), the evolutionary human sciences did not begin to develop in a systematic, collective way until late in the 1960s, with the advent of “sociobiology.” Sociobiologists tended to concentrate on reproductive success not just as a long-term principle regulating natural selection but as a direct motive for individual people. In the 1990s, “evolutionary psychologists” distinguished themselves from sociobiologists by deprecating reproduction as a direct motive and emphasizing instead the “proximate mechanisms,” such as sexual desire, that advanced reproductive success in ancestral environments. Melding sociobiology with cognitive science, evolutionary psychologists described the brain as a collection of “modules,” that is, dedicated bits of neural machinery designed by natural selection to solve specific adaptive problems in ancestral environments. While concentrating on specific psychological mechanisms, the evolutionary psychologists lost sight of the larger systemic organization of human behavior. Instead of formulating a comprehensive model of human nature, they merely offered open-ended and unorganized lists of specialized modules.


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 Controversy over the Adaptive Function of Literature and the Other 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 Ellen Dissanayake (2000) also argue that the arts provide means of creating shared social identity. Dissanayake, Joseph Carroll (2008), and Denis Dutton (2009) all argue that the arts help organize the human mind; the arts give emotionally and aesthetically modulated form to the relations among the elements of human experience. The idea that the arts function as means of psychological organization subsumes the ideas that the arts provide adaptively relevant information, enable us to consider alternative behavioral scenarios, enhance pattern recognition, and serve as means for creating shared social identity. And of course, the arts can be used for sexual display. In that respect, the arts are like most other human products—clothing, jewelry, shelter, means of transportation, etc. The hypothesis that the arts help organize the mind is not incompatible with the hypothesis of sexual display, but it subordinates sexual display to a more primary adaptive function.


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.


Examples of Biocultural Critique     


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. Judith Saunders (2009) locates Edith Wharton’s novels in cultural environments ranging from that of the patrician elite in the American fin de siècle to that of decadent cosmopolites in the Jazz Age. Brett Cooke (2002) situates Zamyatin’s dystopian novel We in the utopian/dystopian literary tradition and also in the socio-political conditions of Soviet Russia. Brian Boyd (2009) gives close attention to specific cultural beliefs and practices in Homeric Greece and also focuses minutely on the political context—Japan shortly after the Second World War—to which Dr. Seuss responds in Horton Hears a Who. The essays in a collection by Hoeg and Larsen (2009) focus on issues specific to Hispanic cultural contexts.



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. 





Boyd, B. (2009). On the origin of stories: Evolution, cognition, and fiction. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Boyd, B., Carroll, J., & Gottschall, J. (eds.) (in press). Evolution, literature, and film: A reader. New York: Columbia University Press.

Carroll, J. (1995). Evolution and literary theory. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

Carroll, J. (2004). Literary Darwinism: Evolution, human nature, and literature. New York: Routledge.

Carroll, J. (2008). An evolutionary paradigm for literary study. Style, 42 (2/3), 103–135.

Carroll, J., Gottschall, J., Johnson, J. A., & Kruger, D. J. (2009). Human nature in nineteenth-century British novels: Doing the math. Philosophy and Literature 33 (1): 50–72.

Carroll, J. (in press). Intentional meaning in Hamlet: An evolutionary perspective. Style.

Cooke, B. (2002). Human nature in utopia: Zamyatin’s We. Evanston: Northwestern University Press

Darwin, C. (1871; 1981). The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex (ed. J. T. Bonner and R. M. May). Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Dissanayake, E. (2000). Art and intimacy: How the arts began. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Dutton, D. (2009). The art instinct: Beauty, pleasure, and human evolution. New York: Bloomsbury.

Gottschall, J. (2008a). Literature, science, and a new humanities. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gottschall, J. (2008b). The rape of Troy: Evolution, violence, and the world of Homer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gottschall, J., & Wilson, D. S. (eds.) (2005). The literary animal: Evolution and the nature of narrative. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Headlam Wells, R. Shakespeare’s humanism (2005). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Headlam Wells, R., & McFadden, J. (eds.) (2006). Human nature: Fact and fiction. London: Continuum.

Hoeg, J., and Larsen, K. S. (eds.) (2009). Interdisciplinary essays on Darwinism in Hispanic literature and film: The intersection of science and the humanities. New York: Mellen.

Miller, G. (2000). The mating mind: How sexual choice shaped the evolution of human nature. New York: Doubleday.

Nordlund, M. (2007). Shakespeare and the nature of love: Literature, culture, evolution. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Pinker, S. (1997). How the mind works. New York: W. W. Norton.

Saunders, J. (2009). Reading Edith Wharton through a Darwinian lens: Evolutionary biological issues in her fiction. Jefferson, NC: McFarland,

Storey, R. (1996). Mimesis and the human animal: On the biogenetic foundations of literary representation. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Wilson, E. O. (1998). Consilience: The unity of knowledge. New York: Knopf.



Joseph Carroll is Curators' Professor of English at the University of MissouriSt. Louis. His books include monographs on Matthew Arnold and Wallace Stevens, Evolution and Literary Theory, and Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature. He has produced an edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. He is a co-editor of Evolution, Literature, and Film: A Reader, and he co-edits The Evolutionary Review: Art, Science, Culture.