An Evolutionary Paradigm for Literary Study


Joseph Carroll


Contents                                                                                                HOME                                                                                                                                                                                                   

1.  The Current Institutional Position of Literary Darwinism

2.  Literary Darwinism and Cognitive Poetics

3.  A Selective Survey of Works in Evolutionary Literary Study

4.  A Model of Human Nature

5.  Shifting the Frame of Interpretation

6.  The Primacy of Psychology in Literary Study

7.  The Adaptive Function of Literature: A Controversy

8.  Reduction and the Problem of Generating New Knowledge

9.  The Question of Empirical Methodology

10. Conclusion: The Future



1. The Current Institutional Position of Literary Darwinism


Over the past thirteen years or so, evolutionary literary study has emerged as a distinct movement, and that movement is rapidly gaining in visibility and impact. More than a hundred articles, three special journal issues, four edited collections, and about a dozen free-standing books have been devoted to the topic. Many other articles and books are in press, under submission, and in preparation. Commentaries on the field have appeared in newspapers and journals all over the industrialized world, including notices in Nature, Science, and The New York Times Magazine. As it has gained in visibility, the movement has also attracted a good deal of criticism from diverse disciplinary perspectives—from traditional humanism, poststructuralism, cognitive poetics, and evolutionary social science. In four previous articles—the first in this journal in 2002, the most recent in 2007—I have surveyed contributions to the field, aiming at bibliographic inclusiveness.[1] In this present article, I shall not replicate those bibliographic efforts. Instead, I shall briefly describe some of the more important contributions, discuss key theoretical issues, and respond to representative critiques.

The central concept in both evolutionary social science and evolutionary literary study is “human nature”: genetically mediated characteristics typical of the human species. In the concluding paragraph of the survey I wrote in 2002, I said that “we do not yet have a full and adequate conception of human nature. We have the elements that are necessary for the formulation of this conception, and we are on the verge of synthesizing these elements” (611). Over the past six years, that effort of synthesis has advanced appreciably. In a subsequent section, I lay out a model of human nature that incorporates the features on which most practitioners in the field would agree. One crucial element of human nature remains at least partially outside this consensus model: 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. Theorists disagree on whether the arts have adaptive functions, and if they do, what those functions might be. The alternative hypotheses on this topic involve alternative conceptions of human evolutionary history and human nature. They are thus vitally important to the whole larger field of evolutionary social science, and they also have important implications for the practical work of interpretive criticism. I shall lay out the main competing hypotheses, criticize them, and make a case for one particular hypothesis. I shall also discuss two problems that are more particularly concerns for literary study: the challenge of generating new knowledge about literature, and the challenge of mediating between the discursive methods of the humanities and the empirical methods of the social sciences.

The most modest claim that could be made for evolutionary literary study is that it is one more “approach” or “school” that merits inclusion in casebooks and theoretical surveys. Along with Marxist, psychoanalytic, feminist, deconstructive, and New Historicist essays, one would thus have a Darwinian “reading” of this or that text, Hamlet or Heart of Darkness, say. Most casebooks of course do not yet include a Darwinian reading, and in truth the Darwinists have had a hard enough time even getting panels accepted at the MLA. My own favorite rejection note explained that the program committee felt that the Darwinian approach was too “familiar” and that what was wanted were proposals along more “innovative” lines—this in a year in which proposals with Lacanian, feminist, and Marxist themes achieved levels of production comparable to those of the American and Soviet military industries in the latter days of the Second World War. In his superbly witty parodies of literary schools in Postmodern Pooh, Frederick Crews includes a chapter on the evolutionary literary critics, ridiculing them in tandem with their peers in more firmly established schools, but this was merely an act of kindness. By including them, Crews gave recognition to a struggling minority that—whatever their failings (as he might see them) in doctrinaire narrowness—shares his respect for reason and evidence. In a recent essay in Style, James Mellard speaks with evident alarm about “a growing army of enthusiasts for a new Darwinian naturalism” (1). So far as this description applies to the social sciences, it is apt enough. Darwinian social scientists hold key positions in prestigious universities, publish works in the mainstream journals in their disciplines, and win large popular audiences among the educated lay public. The literary Darwinists, in contrast, could most accurately be characterized not as an army but as a robust guerilla band. That standing could change fairly soon. If the rate of current publication in the field continues or increases, before long sheer numbers will tilt the balance toward inclusion in casebooks more conventional than Postmodern Pooh.

Institutionally, the literary Darwinists occupy a peculiar position. On the one hand, they are still so marginal that being included in panel sessions and casebooks would constitute an advance in institutional standing. On the other hand, their ultimate aims sweep past any such inclusion. At least among their most ambitious adherents, they aim not at being just one more “school” or “approach.” They aim at fundamentally altering the paradigm within which literary study is now conducted. They want to establish a new alignment among the disciplines and ultimately to subsume all other possible approaches to literary study. They rally to Edward O. Wilson’s cry for “consilience” among all the branches of learning. Like Wilson, they 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. And like Wilson, they regard evolutionary biology as the pivotal discipline uniting the hard sciences with the social sciences and the humanities. They believe that humans have evolved in an adaptive relation to their environment. They argue that for humans, as for all other species, evolution has shaped the anatomical, physiological, and neurological characteristics of the species, and they think that human behavior, feeling, and thought are fundamentally constrained and informed by those characteristics. They make it their business to consult evolutionary biology and evolutionary social science in order to determine what those characteristics are, and they bring that information to bear on their understanding of the human imagination.

Virtually all literary Darwinists formulate “biocultural” ideas. That is, they argue that the genetically mediated dispositions of human nature interact with specific environmental conditions, including particular cultural traditions.[2] They nonetheless characteristically distinguish themselves from “cultural constructivists” who effectively attribute exclusive shaping power to culture. The Darwinists typically focus on “human universals” or cross-cultural regularities that derive from regularities in human nature. They recognize the potent effect of specific cultural formations, but they argue that a true understanding of any given cultural formation depends on locating it in relation to the elemental, biologically based characteristics that shape all cultures.

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2. Literary Darwinism and Cognitive Poetics


In their effort to bring about a fundamental shift in paradigm, the literary Darwinists can be distinguished from practitioners in a school that is in some respects their closest disciplinary neighbor—cognitive poetics. In her preface to a collection of essays in cognitive poetics, Ellen Spolsky explains that the cognitivists aim to “supplement rather than supplant current work in literary and cultural studies” (viii). She assures her audience that “these essays have no interest in repudiating the theoretical speculations of poststructuralist and historicist approaches to literature” (x). She and her colleagues wish only to enter into “a constructive dialogue with the established and productive theoretical paradigms” (x). Her co-editor, Alan Richardson, takes a similar line. Emphatically distancing the cognitivists from the literary Darwinists, he describes the work of the Darwinists “as an outlier that helps define the boundaries of cognitive literary criticism proper” (3). Describing the disciplinary alignments of individual contributors to the volume, he affirms that Spolsky seeks “not to displace but to supplement poststructuralist approaches to literature like deconstruction and New Historicism” (19), that F. Elizabeth Hart seeks only “to supplement ‘postmodern’ accounts of language, subjectivity, and culture” (20), and that Mary Crane “locates her work between cognitive and poststructuralist accounts of subjectivity, language, and culture” (21). [3]

Efforts to segregate cognitive poetics from evolutionary literary study are doomed to failure. One thinks of early stages in the development of American cities. Enclaves outside the city core are inevitably swallowed up as the cities expand outward. Evolutionary social science seeks to be all-inclusive. Because it is grounded in evolutionary biology, it encompasses all the more particular disciplines that concern themselves with human evolution, human social organization, and human cognition. As a distinct school within evolutionary social science, “evolutionary psychology” can be described as the offspring of a coupling between sociobiology and cognitive psychology.[4] Evolutionary psychologists derive from sociobiology an emphasis on the logic of reproduction as a central shaping force in human evolution, and they seek to link that logic with complex functional structures in cognitive mechanisms. Hence the title of the seminal volume in evolutionary psychology: The Adapted Mind (Barkow, Cosmides, and Tooby). 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. In the process of expanding outward from the logic of reproduction to the explanation of cognitive mechanisms, evolutionary social scientists have already given concentrated attention to many of the standard topics in cognitive psychology, for instance, to “folk physics,” “folk biology,” and “folk psychology”; perceptual mechanisms; the relation between “modularized” cognitive processes and “general intelligence”; the relation between emotions and conscious decision-making; mirror neurons,  “perspective taking,” “Theory of Mind,” and “metarepresentation”; “mentalese” and language acquisition; metaphor and “cognitive fluidity” or conceptual blending; “scripts” and “schemata”; and narrative as an elementary conceptual schema.[5] 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.

As things currently stand, the use of cognitive psychology in literary study can be located on a spectrum running from deconstruction at one end to evolutionary psychology at the other. At the deconstructive end, practitioners seek only to redescribe poststructuralist ideas in terms derived from cognitive science. Spolsky, for instance, argues that the supposedly modular character of the mind approximates to deconstructive accounts of the decentered and fragmented self (Gaps 12). Somewhere closer to the middle of this spectrum, Lisa Zunshine references evolutionary psychology to support her claims that the human mind has evolved special powers of peering into the minds of conspecifics—what psychologists call Theory of Mind (ToM). Despite her appeal to selected bits of evolutionary psychology, 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, and in citing other literary scholars, she prudently avoids reference to most of the published work in evolutionary literary study. She unequivocally locates herself in the community of practitioners who explicitly segregate their work from the evolutionary literary critics. Moving toward the evolutionary end of the spectrum, in film theory, David Bordwell has long identified his work as “cognitive” in orientation, but he has increasingly envisioned cognitive mechanisms as the result of an adaptive evolutionary process, and he firmly contrasts his naturalistic vision with the prevailing poststructuralist theories in film studies. Bordwell and his associates have done excellent work in linking evolved cognitive mechanisms with specific formal features of film.[6]

Because evolutionary psychology draws heavily on cognitive developmental psychology, all evolutionary literary critics are in some measure de facto cognitivists. They vary, though, in the degree to which they have incorporated information on cognitive mechanisms not just indirectly through evolutionary psychology but directly from cognitive psychology. Among the evolutionary literary critics, Brian Boyd has gone further than any other scholar in assimilating information directly from cognitive psychology, especially cognitive developmental psychology. In this respect, as in others, Boyd’s work sets a high standard in professionalism. Like Bordwell, but with more 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.[7] Clearly, one central line of development for evolutionary literary study will be to link specific cognitive structures with specific literary structures and figurative modes, embedding both within the larger structure of evolved human dispositions. Within literary studies so far, the most advanced such work has concerned itself with the elements of fictional narrative. We await further developments in the study of poetic structures and drama.[8]

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3. A Selective Survey of Works in Evolutionary Literary Study


            Brian Boyd, Jonathan Gottschall, and I have recently compiled a reader in evolutionary literary study, provisionally titled Evolutionary Approaches to Literature and Film: A Reader in Art and Science (under submission). As we have gone over the materials for this volume, sorting and evaluating them, it has been evident that even five years ago we would not have been able to produce a collection that satisfied our own sense of scholarly and literary merit. The field has been developing very fast. A number of the items that we have chosen to include have not yet been published, and some are still under submission. Still, if we were compelled to select only from among already published items, we would now be able to put together a reader for which we would have no occasion to blush. The level of professionalism—of expertise in assimilating information from the social sciences, of clarity in theoretical principles, and of sophistication in the use of theory for the purposes of practical criticism—has steadily improved. A new high water mark for the field was registered in the edited volume The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative, co-edited by Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson. Gottschall is a literary scholar who has made pioneering efforts in using empirical methods in literary study, and Wilson is an evolutionary biologist with wide-ranging cultural interests. The volume includes forewords by both a scientist (E. O. Wilson) and a literary scholar (Frederick Crews), and the authorship of the essays is about equally divided between scientists and literary scholars. One rule we adopted in compiling the collection now under submission is that we would duplicate no essays from The Literary Animal. There will soon thus be available two collections of high quality, with no overlap between them. (A good many of the contributors, both scientists and literary scholars, will make appearances in both volumes.)

            The first full-length books that could clearly be classed as works of literary Darwinism appeared in the mid-nineties, my own Evolution and Literary Theory, and Robert Storey’s Mimesis and the Human Animal: On the Biogenetic Foundations of Literary Representations. Like many of the early essays in the field, these two books presented themselves as polemical confrontations between biological naturalism and poststructuralist efforts to dispense with nature. They both also contain elements of constructive theory. Storey sketches in features of a “biogrammar”—a model of human nature—and I work out correlations between elementary biological and literary concepts. I define character, setting, and plot in terms of organism, environment, and action, and I delineate literary activity as a form of “cognitive mapping”—a subjectively charged image of the world and of human experience in the world. I identify three chief levels for the analysis of meaning in texts: (a) elemental or universal human dispositions (human nature); (b) the organization of those dispositions within some specific cultural order; and (c) the peculiarities of individual identity in represented subjects, authors, and readers. I also argue for the systematic analysis of individuality through the incorporation of modern research into personality. In the essays collected in Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature (2004), I develop all these ideas and work toward producing a comprehensive model of human nature and of literary meaning. Several essays in this volume contain instances of practical criticism from a Darwinian perspective.

More recent works of general theory have continued to define their principles in contrast to purely culturalist principles. On the whole, though, the polemical element has diminished relative to the efforts of constructive formulation. Ellen Dissanayake, an evolutionary theorist of the arts, offers an example. In Homo Aestheticus (1992), she set an evolutionary vision of art in contrast to poststructuralist views. In her most recent book, Art and Intimacy: How the Arts Began (2000), she concentrates on developing the positive aspects of her theories. In Literature, Science, and a New Humanities (forthcoming), Jonathan Gottschall gives evidence for a pervasive sense of a crisis of morale in the humanities. He traces this crisis to a methodological failure to produce empirically valid and progressive forms of knowledge, but he is less interested in attacking a failed ethos than in offering an alternative. He argues that the humanities can benefit from incorporating scientific methods and, along with the methods, the ethos of empirical inquiry. Gottschall has published about a dozen articles in which he uses quantitative methods of “content analysis” to explore topics of sexual identity and characterization cross-culturally. Literature, Science, and a New Humanities includes several such studies as examples. Brian Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction (forthcoming) sets his work up against the culturalist models that still prevail in the humanities, but he occupies himself relatively little with criticizing poststructuralist formulations. Instead, he assimilates a vast range of research in evolutionary social science and incorporates that research in theories of writing and reading. He conceives of literature as a form of cognitive play that develops creativity and helps form social identity. He includes extended readings of individual texts in which he seeks to demonstrate that “a biocultural approach to literature invites a return to the richness of texts and the many-sidedness of the human nature that texts evoke.”[9] Harold Fromm is a founding figure in “ecocriticism,” and his intuitive naturalism has in recent years converged with “The New Darwinism in the Humanities,” the title of a set of essays included in From Ecology to Consciousness (forthcoming).[10] In an earlier book, Academic Capitalism, Fromm had actively engaged the prevailing poststructuralist orthodoxies. In his new book, collecting essays over a period of years, he is engaged with three primary topics in separate but cumulative phases: ecocriticism, the new Darwinism in the humanities, and a naturalistic philosophy of consciousness like that associated with Daniel Dennett.[11]

            The works of general theory noted above contain a fair amount of practical criticism but can be distinguished from works primarily dedicated to practical criticism. The first book-length work in practical criticism from an evolutionary angle was on Zamyatin’s dystopian novel We—Brett Cooke’s Human Nature in Utopia: Zamyatin’s We. Cooke draws on evolutionary psychology to delineate features of human nature—communal eating, play, charismatic authority figures, sex, filial relations, and visceral responses—that are systematically violated in dystopian fanatasies. He concentrates on Zamyatin’s novel but locates it within the broader context of all utopian and dystopian fiction.[12] In Shakespeare and the Nature of Love: Literature, Culture, and Evolution, Marcus Nordlund produces an account of love, romantic and filial, in which he integrates evolutionary research with research into Renaissance ideas about love. That account serves as the context for his reading of several Shakespeare plays. Nordlund contrasts his “biocultural” critique with purely culturalist perspectives on love and identity in the Renaissance. In Shakespeare’s Humanism, Robin Headlam Wells gives a detailed account of ideas of human nature active in the Renaissance and, like Nordlund, sets this account in contrast to current views that align the Renaissance writers with poststructuralist theories of cultural autonomy. (Headlam Wells has also co-edited a volume, Human Nature: Fact and Fiction, that like The Literary Animal includes essays by both scientists and literary scholars.) In The Rape of Troy: Evolution, Violence, and the World of Homer, Jonathan Gottschall integrates sociobiological theory with archeological and anthropological research in order to reconstruct the motivating forces in Homer’s cultural ecology. Gottschall vividly evokes the Homeric ethos and convincingly demonstrates the value of a biological perspective for analyzing a specific cultural formation.[13] In a context seemingly far removed from that of Homer’s barbarian warriors, Judith Saunders adopts a similar perspective, concentrating on the shaping force of reproductive logic, to analyze character and plot in the novels of Edith Wharton (not yet titled; under submission).[14] In Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction (forthcoming), William Flesch uses evolutionary game theory as a thematic filter for summarizing character interaction in a wide variety of literary works, including works of Shakespeare, Dickens, and James. Collaborating with three other scholars—Jonathan Gottschall and two psychologists (John Johnson and Daniel Kruger)—I have co-authored a book that uses empirical methods for analyzing characters and reader responses in dozens of Victorian novels: Graphing Jane Austen: Human Nature in British Novels of the Nineteenth Century (under submission).

            Many articles have been produced in this field. Rather than listing them here, later on I shall reference some of the more interesting ones to illustrate responses to a theoretical question about generating new knowledge through evolutionary literary study.

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4. A Model of Human Nature


            Writing from the perspective of a traditional humanist, Eugene Goodheart has devoted a book to repudiating Darwinian thinking in the humanities: Darwinian Misadventures in the Humanities. Questioning the claims of evolutionary psychology to give us an adequate account of human nature, he says, “Human nature may not be a blank slate, but do we know enough to know what is inscribed upon it?” (18). In the manner in which it is posed, this is not a very serious question. Goodheart himself does not want an answer. Still, the question itself is well worth asking and deserves an answer. The literary Darwinists have committed themselves to the proposition that it can be answered in the affirmative. As Alan Richardson observes, the evolutionary critics differ from the cognitivists “in their high evaluation of the progress of scientific psychology” (14). In the remainder of this section, I shall outline what scientific psychology can now tell us about human nature, and in the following sections I shall draw out some of the critical implications of that knowledge.[15]

Natural selection operates by way of “inclusive fitness,” 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. Evolutionary psychologists commonly distinguish between inclusive fitness as an “ultimate” force that has shaped behavioral dispositions and the “proximal” mechanisms that mediate those dispositions.[16] The motives and emotions shaped by natural selection include those directed toward survival (obtaining food and shelter, avoiding predators) and toward reproduction, a term that includes both mating effort and the effort aimed at nurturing offspring and other kin. Species vary in length of life, developmental trajectory, forms of mating, the number and pacing of offspring, and the kind and amount of effort expended on parental care. For any given species, the organization of these basic biological processes constitutes a distinct species-typical pattern of “life history.” Like the species-typical pattern of life history for all other species, the species-typical pattern of human 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.[17]

Humans share with all animals a physiology organized in basic ways around reactive impulses of “approach” and “avoidance.” They share with other social animals dispositions organized around affiliation and dominance.[18] Like all mammals, they have evolved systems of mother-infant bonding, and like chimpanzees, they have evolved dispositions for forming coalitions within large social groups. All of these characteristics are part of the species-typical repertory of dispositions that we call “human nature,” but none of them is exclusive to humans. The traits that are most distinctively human constitute an integrated suite of anatomical, physiological and behavioral features. Humans are bipedal, but proportional to body size they have much larger brains than other primates. Upright posture produces a narrowed birth canal. The problem of squeezing a large brain through a narrowed birth canal requires that human infants be born in an “altricial” or relatively helpless state. Human infants are heavily dependent on parental care for much longer than other animals, and they have, further, a greatly extended period of childhood development—the period previous to reproductive maturity. In ancestral environments (and typically still today), the dependency of human infants has required paternal investment—that is, care and resources provided by fathers. Humans share the characteristic of paternal investment with many birds and some other animals but with very few other mammals. Humans are the only animals that both have paternal investment and also live in large groups containing multiple males who form complex coalitions. Males of all species have evolved in such a way as to avoid investing in the offspring of other males, and living in multi-male groups reduces paternity certainty. Dispositions for pair bonding and sexual jealousy are thus prominent features in the evolved dispositions of human males. Human females are also 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.[19]

Humans like other animals share fitness interests with their mates and their offspring, but, except in the case of monozygotic twins, the fitness interests of even the most closely related kin are not identical, and the logic of natural selection has shaped human dispositions in such a way that all intimate relations involve conflict. Females invest more than males in bearing and rearing children, and they also have certainty that their offspring are their own. Human males have evolved a reproductive strategy that includes both paternal investment and a disposition for low-investment short-term mating. Human females have evolved a need to secure the bonded attachment of a male willing to invest resources in them and their offspring, but they have also evolved dispositions for taking advantage of mating opportunities with males who have higher quality than their own mates. Male and female relations are thus not only intense and passionate in their positive affects but also fraught with suspicion, jealousy, tension, and compromise. These relations often work smoothly enough for practical purposes, but they not infrequently break down in rejection, separation, abandonment, violent struggle, abuse, and even murder. Parents and children share a fitness interest in the success of the child—in the child reaching maturity and achieving successful reproduction. But the fitness interests of a child and parent are not identical. A child has one hundred percent fitness interest in itself. Each parent has only a fifty percent genetic investment in a child, and investment in any one child has to be deducted from investment in other children or potential children. Parents must often disperse resources over multiple offspring who each wish more than an even share. Parents preferentially invest in certain offspring, and they must also balance the effort they give to mating with the effort they give to parenting. Siblings form a natural social unit, allied in competition with non-related people, but they are also caught in intense competition with one another. Mating involves a coalition between two people who are not related by blood. They share a fitness interest in their own offspring, but they differ in the interest they have in the welfare of the kin they do not share with their mate. Even in nuclear families, fitness interests involve conflicts, and in step-families those conflicts are sharply exacerbated. The workings of inclusive fitness thus guarantee a perpetual drama in which intimacy and opposition, cooperation and conflict, are inextricably bound together.[20]

Because of their extended childhood development, humans have a long period in which to develop the social skills required by living in exceptionally complex social environments. Those social environments are structured by kin relations, flexible and multiple social coalitions, status hierarchies, and in-group/out-group relations.[21] Two features of the distinctively human suite of characteristics, both dependent on the expanded human brain, are particularly important in mediating these social relationships: (a) Theory of Mind and (b) language. Theory of Mind consists in the ability to attribute mental states to one’s self and others, and it is thus the basis for self-awareness and for an awareness of others as distinct persons. The rudiments of Theory of Mind have been found in chimpanzees and some other animals, but the highly developed forms found in humans are unique. Self-awareness is a necessary precondition for the sense of personal identity—the sense that one has a distinctive set of traits, personality features, motive dispositions, social connections, and personal experiences, all extending continuously over a lifetime. Self-awareness is a necessary element of moral consciousness, and it is the precondition for self-esteem, embarrassment, shame, and guilt.[22] In its other-directed aspect, Theory of Mind is the capacity for envisioning the inner mental state of other humans, their beliefs, desires, feelings, thoughts, and perceptions. A key diagnostic characteristic for this aptitude is the ability to recognize that other people can have beliefs different from one’s own, an ability that emerges in normally developing humans between the ages of three and four.[23] Language is the chief medium for conveying information in non-genetic ways. That kind of informational transmission is what we call “culture”: arts, technologies, literature, myths, religions, ideologies, philosophies, and science. From the evolutionary perspective, culture does not stand apart from the genetically transmitted dispositions of human nature. It is, rather, the medium through which we organize those dispositions into systems that regulate public behavior and inform private thoughts. Culture translates human nature into social norms and shared imaginative structures.[24]

            When we speak of “human nature,” it is generally to this whole suite of characteristics—some common to all animals, some exclusive to mammals, some shared with other primates, and some peculiarly human—that we refer. These characteristics are so firmly grounded in the adaptive logic of the human species that they exercise a constraining influence on every known culture. Individuals can and do deviate from species-typical characteristics, but the recognition of the species-typical nonetheless forms a common frame of reference for all people. Adaptations emerge from regularities in ancestral environments, and the basic ground plan of human motives and human feelings forms one of the most important such regularities within the ancestral environments of modern humans.[25] Because people are such intensely social animals, because their socio-sexual relations are so extraordinarily complex and highly developed, and because successfully negotiating with other humans is one of the most important skills contributing to survival and to successful reproduction, having an intuitive insight into the workings of human nature can reasonably be posited as an evolved and adaptive capacity.[26] That adaptive capacity constitutes a “folk psychology,” and it is in literature that folk psychology receives its most complete and adequate articulation.            

            The culture in which an author writes provides a proximate framework of shared understanding between the author and his or her projected audience, but every specific cultural formation consists in a particular organization of the elemental dispositions of human nature, and those dispositions form the broadest and deepest framework of shared understanding. Many authors make overt and explicit appeals to “human nature.” By delineating the folk concept of human nature, we can reconstitute the shared framework of understanding within which authors interact with readers. That shared framework includes intuitions about persons as agents with goals, basic human motives, basic emotions, the features of personality, the phases of life, the relations of the sexes, filial bonding, kinship relations, the opposition between affiliation and dominance, and the organization of social relations into in-groups and out-groups.

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5. Shifting the Frame of Interpretation


            Whether traditionally humanistic or poststructuralist in orientation, 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. The most influential schools have been those that use Marxist social theory, Freudian psychology, Jungian psychology, phenomenological metaphysics, deconstructive linguistic philosophy, and feminist gender theory. Poststructuralist literary criticism operates through a synthetic vocabulary that integrates deconstructive epistemology, postmodern Freudian analysis (especially that of Lacan), and postmodern Marxism (especially that of Althusser, as mediated by Jameson). Outside of literary study proper, the various source theories of poststructuralism converge most comprehensively in the cultural histories of Michel Foucault, and since the 1980s, Foucauldian cultural critique has been overwhelmingly the dominant conceptual matrix of literary study. Foucault is the patron saint of New Historicism. Post-colonialist criticism is a sub-set of historicist criticism and employs its synthetic vocabulary chiefly for the purpose of contesting Western hegemony. Queer theory is another sub-set of historicist criticism and employs the poststructuralist vocabulary chiefly for the purpose of contesting the normative character of heterosexuality. Most contemporary feminist criticism is conducted within the matrix of Foucauldian cultural critique and dedicates itself to contesting patriarchy—the social and political predominance of males.

            Each of the vocabulary sets that have come into prominence in literary criticism has been adopted because it gives access to some significant aspect of the human experience depicted in literature—class conflicts and the material base for imaginative superstructures, the psycho-symbolic dimensions of parent-child relations and the continuing active force of repressed impulses, universal “mythic” images derived from the ancestral experience of the human race, elemental forms in the organization of time, space, and consciousness, the irrepressible conflicts lying dormant within all partial resolutions, or social gender identity. All of these larger frameworks have enabled some insights not readily available through other means. They have nonetheless all been flawed or limited in one crucial respect. None of them has come to terms with the reality of an evolved and adapted human nature.

            Humanist critics do not often overtly repudiate the idea of human nature, but they do not typically seek causal explanations in evolutionary theory, either. In the thematic reductions of humanist criticism, characters typically appear as allegorical embodiments of humanist norms—metaphysical, ethical, political, psychological, or aesthetic. In the thematic reductions of postmodern criticism, characters appear as allegorical embodiments of the terms within the source theories that produce the standard postmodern blend—most importantly, deconstruction, feminism, psychoanalysis, and Marxism. In their postmodern form, all these component theories emphasize the exclusively cultural character of symbolic constructs. “Nature” and “human nature,” in this conception, are themselves cultural artifacts. Because they are supposedly contained and produced by culture, they can exercise no constraining force on culture. Hence Fredric Jameson’s dictum that “postmodernism is what you have when the modernization process is complete and nature is gone for good” (ix). From the postmodern perspective, any appeal to “human nature” would necessarily appear as a delusory reification of a specific cultural formation. By self-consciously distancing itself from the folk understanding of human nature, postmodern criticism loses touch both with biological reality and with the imaginative structures that authors share with their projected audience. In both the biological and folk understanding, there is a world outside the text. From an evolutionary perspective, the human senses and the human mind have access to reality because they have evolved in adaptive relation to a physical and social environment about which the organism urgently needs to acquire information.[27] An evolutionary approach shares with the humanist a respect for the common understanding, and it shares with the postmodern a drive to explicit theoretical reduction. From an evolutionary perspective, folk perceptions offer insight into important features of human nature, and evolutionary theory makes it possible to situate those features within broader biological processes that encompass humans and all other living organisms.

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6. The Primacy of Psychology in Literary Study


           Cultural critique characteristically insists on cultural differences, and the emphasis on specific forms of culture clearly gives access to a major dimension of literary meaning. Humans are adaptively organized to construct cultures and to assimilate cultural information. Through “gene-culture co-evolution,” the development of the capacity for advanced cultural organization has fundamentally altered the human genome.[28] Most human interactions are organized within cultural systems, and cultural systems profoundly influence most individual human experience. All experience is, nonetheless, individual. We can postulate collective entities and endow them, metaphorically, with the powers of experience—“the experience of a century,” “the American tradition,” or “the Western mind.” On the literal level—the level at which “experience” correlates with neurological events—all such collective entities instantiate themselves in individual minds. No physical, neurological entity corresponding to a transcendent collective mind—a mind existing outside and independently of individual minds—has ever been identified. Individuals can exist without cultures—individual organisms, and even individual human beings, as in the case of feral children. Cultures cannot exist without individuals. If all individual human beings became extinct, human culture would cease to exist.

In several obvious and basic ways, the central organizing unit in human experience is the individual human being. Humans are physically discrete. Individual persons are bodies wrapped in skin with nervous systems sending signals to brains that are soaked in blood and encased in bone. Each individual human brain contains a continuous sequence of thoughts, feelings, and memories constituting a distinct personal identity. People engage in collective activities and share experiences, but when an individual person dies, all experience for that person stops. Motivations, actions, and interpretive responses all originate in the neurological events in individual brains. Thoughts, feelings, and memories are lodged in individual brains, and individual persons form the central organizing units in narrative depictions. Authors and readers are individual persons, and characters in fiction are fictive individual persons. Because experience is individual, the analysis of fictional narrative is always, necessarily, psychological analysis. Characters are individual agents with goals. Novelists and playwrights are individual persons who construct intentional meanings about those characters, and readers are individual persons who interpret those meanings. It is not possible to speak of depicted narrative events without at least tacitly identifying agents and goals, and virtually all literary commentary makes at least indirect reference to the intentions of authors and the imputed responses of readers.

            Fictive depictions originate in psychological impulses, depict human psychology, and fulfill the psychological needs of readers. In all critical commentary, some form of psychological theory, implicit or explicit, is always at work. Literature itself embodies an intuitive folk psychology at its highest level of articulation, and impressionistic literary commentary draws freely on that collective body of folk psychology. In commenting on literature—on characters, authors, and readers—literary critics often also make explicit appeal to fundamental underlying principles of psychological causation. To engage responsibly in critical psychological analysis, we have no choice but to make appeal to those theories that seem to us most adequate. For evolutionists, the most adequate theories are those best grounded in empirical research, most fully rationalized in established knowledge of human evolutionary history, and most fully integrated with contiguous scientific disciplines. While invoking specific psychological theories, evolutionary literary scholars must also explicitly incorporate some theory about the nature of literature and the way it fits within the larger patterns of human life history.

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7. The Adaptive Function of Literature: A Controversy


            Arguments on the adaptive function of literature and the other arts have occupied more of the shared attention of evolutionary psychologists and evolutionary literary scholars than any other topic. In How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker made a provocative argument that the aesthetic aspects of the arts might not be adaptive at all; they might, he contended, merely be parasitic side effects of cognitive aptitudes that evolved for other functions (524-43; also see The Blank Slate 404-20). To illustrate this idea, he drew parallels between art and pornography, psychoactive drugs, and rich foods like cheesecake. In a recent review of The Literary Animal, he notes that humanists have argued this point with him endlessly, and he suggests that their arguments are motivated chiefly by a wish to confirm the dignity and prestige of the arts (“Toward” 169-70). Arguments countering Pinker have drawn attention to two aspects of the arts that are characteristic, defining features of adaptations: they are universal in human culture, and capacities for producing and consuming at least rudimentary forms of art develop reliably among all normally developing humans. Theorists also 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. Pinker’s counter to these arguments is to insist on one further feature of an adaptive function: it must display complex functional structure that can plausibly be identified as efficiently solving adaptive problems within ancestral environments. Pinker acknowledges that fictional narratives might have informational content of some utility in providing game-plan scenarios for practical problems that might arise at some point in the future. All the other features of the arts, he suggests, reflect only the human capacity to exploit its evolved dispositions for the purposes of generating pleasure. This sort of pleasure, detached from all practical value for the purposes of survival and reproduction, would be equivalent to the pleasure derived from masturbation.

            A second hypothesis from the side of evolutionary psychology, equally provocative in its own way, has been proposed by Geoffrey Miller. Miller argues that all displays of mental power, including those of the arts, might have had no adaptive value but might have served, like the peacock’s tail, as costly signals indicating the general fitness of the person sending the signal. Miller’s hypothesis identifies virtuosity in overcoming technical difficulty as the central defining characteristic of art (281). Since Miller grants that the arts and other forms of mental activity, once they got started, might have been co-opted or “exapted” for adaptively functional purposes, his argument reduces itself to an argument about the original function of the arts. Miller’s wider argument about the origin of all higher cognitive powers has an obvious and, to my mind, decisive weakness: it requires us to suppose that the enlarged human brain—so costly, so complex and functionally structured, and so obviously useful for so many practical purposes in life—evolved primarily as a useless ornament for the purposes of sexual display. Virtually all commentators would acknowledge that human mental abilities can be used for sexual display, as can almost any other characteristic. We use bodily powers, clothing, and housing for sexual display, but we do not suppose that physical strength, clothing, and shelter have no primary functions subserving the needs of survival and the forms of reproduction not associated with display. Acknowledging that adaptively useful capacities can be deployed in a secondary way for the purposes of sexual display tells us nothing about any specific adaptive function those capacities might have.

            Even if we overlook the weakness in Miller’s broader hypothesis about the adaptive utility of the higher cognitive powers, his hypothesis about the arts says so little about the qualities and features that are specific to art that it has little explanatory value. Pinker’s hypothesis is more challenging. He might be right that humanists object to his arguments at least in part because those arguments seem to diminish the dignity of the arts, but I think many of these objections come from a deeper and more serious level—from a feeling that Pinker’s hypothesis, like Miller’s, fails to give an adequate account of his subject. Those who have sought to counter Pinker’s hypothesis have a strong personal sense of what art and literature mean for them, and they have an intuitive conviction that their own experience of the arts cannot adequately be reduced to didactic lessons and pleasurable fantasy.

            Evolutionists in the humanities have identified various adaptive functions they think the arts might fulfill. Ellen Dissanayake argues that the arts exploit cognitive preferences to focus attention on adaptively salient features of life. Brian Boyd argues that “an explanation of art and fiction in terms of shared attention can account for both origin and function” (“Evolutionary” 170), and he further appeals to the power of art in stimulating general creativity. He defines art as “behaviors that focus not on the immediate needs of the here and now but on directing attention and engaging emotion for its own sake, even toward distant realities and new possibilities” (“Evolutionary Theories” 152). Both Dissanayake and Boyd, along with other writers, emphasize the idea that the arts subserve the purposes of social cohesion.[29] Drawing on work in cognitive developmental psychology, Boyd delineates several cognitive and behavioral components that enter into the production and consumption of art: enhanced pattern recognition, pretend play, shared attention, heightened sociality, social attunement, narrative, fiction, Theory of Mind, and metarepresentation (the awareness of representation as representation). Explaining the way such components converge for the specific purposes of artistic activity provides an answer to half of Pinker’s challenge. Producing and consuming art necessarily engages complex structures in the mind. Some of these structures, like those involved in fictional narrative and the production of aesthetically modulated verbal design, are particular to literary art, not merely instances of some more general adaptive mechanism. The other half of the answer to Pinker’s challenge is to identify the adaptive problem these complex structures are designed to solve.

The idea that art enhances creativity in general seems problematic. If creativity were the adaptive target, generating cognitive novelty in technology would serve as well as art, would feed off of basic mechanical aptitudes, which activate their own forms of pleasure, would provide a medium of shared attention, and would have more obvious immediate utility. Moreover, art as a means of stimulating innovation in general is too roundabout; there are too many aspects of art that are not necessary to creativity and that, if creativity were the adaptive target, would have to be regarded as adventitious to the central adaptive function of the arts. (Dissanayake, concentrating on traditional tribal cultures, does not treat of creativity as essential to artistic production.) The idea of art as a source of information or of 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. The idea that art can be used to enhance social cohesion has obvious merit, since one can readily envision many instances of art being used to communicate shared cultural values—from church rituals to communal song and dance to literary traditions. But it is of course also the case that art can be used to subvert social norms and to assert anarchic individuality. (Spolsky, following a trend in postmodern ideology, emphasizes the cognitively subversive idea of art, and that idea accords well enough also with the notions of play and creativity to which Boyd gives a particular emphasis.) [30]

To solve the puzzle of adaptive function, we have to satisfy three criteria: (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 this solution. Various writers have formulated propositions that collectively meet these three challenges. We can define art as the disposition for creating artifacts that are emotionally charged and aesthetically shaped in such a way that they evoke or depict subjective, qualitative sensations, images, or ideas. Literature, specifically, produces subjectively modulated images of the world and of our experience in the world. The disposition for creating such 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. The design features that mediate this adaptive function are the capacities for producing artistic constructs such as narrative and verse and emotionally modulated musical and visual patterns.

The core element in this hypothesis—the adaptive problem art is designed to solve—is formulated most clearly by E. O. Wilson in Consilience. Wilson directly poses the question also posed by Pinker:

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? And if adaptations, what exactly were the advantages conferred? (224)

Wilson’s answer to this question draws a decisive cognitive line between the mental powers of humans and other animals. Other animals are “instinct-driven” (225). Humans are not. “The most distinctive qualities of the human species are extremely high intelligence, language, culture, and reliance on long-term contracts” (224). 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. Wilson speaks of the “psychological exile” of the species (224-25). 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 in the world. Those images mediate our behavior and the elemental passions that derive from human life history. The arts are thus an adaptive response to the adaptive problem produced by the adaptive capacities of high intelligence.

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. All our actions take place within imaginative structures that include our vision of the world and our place in the world—our internal conflicts and concerns, our relations to other people, our relations to nature, and our relations to whatever spiritual forces we imagine might exist. We locate our sense of our selves and our actions within imaginative structures that derive from our myths and artistic traditions, from the stories we tell, the songs we sing, and the visual images that animate our minds and cultivate our perceptions. We do not have the option of living outside our own imaginative constructs. “Meaning” for us is always part of some imaginative structure, and art works constantly at forming and reforming those structures. Used in this way, the word “meaning” does not of course signify only didactic lessons and thematic patterns. Meaning in art works through imaginative effects—through emotional and aesthetic impact—as much as through mimetic content or thematic abstraction. In literature, it works through representations, through emotionally charged images of ourselves, our cultural identities, and the forces of nature.

            The contrast between Wilson’s and Pinker’s hypotheses on the arts involves a basic difference in the way they envision human cognitive evolution. Pinker comes to evolutionary psychology not through sociobiology but through cognitive science. In this version of evolutionary psychology, the governing conception of the mind is computational, and the governing metaphor for the mind is that of the computer. In Pinker’s vision of human cognitive evolution, humans faced certain adaptive problems involving survival and reproduction. All the basic problems were practical problems. The mind was geared to solve those problems in optimally efficient ways in a relatively stable hunter-gatherer ecology—the “environment of evolutionary adaptedness,” or EEA. Sociality and language were part of the human adaptive repertory. Imaginative culture was not. Imaginative culture, whenever it appeared in human evolution, was just added on as a parasitic by-product of the cognitive/behavioral mechanisms that solved practical problems. In Wilson’s vision, in contrast, the expanding human brain permitted “flexibility of response and the creation of mental scenarios that reached to distant places and far into the future” (225). The capacity for producing emotionally charged imaginative artifacts developed in tandem with the capacity for producing an imaginative virtual world. This alternative vision of human cognitive history is vividly evoked by the cognitive neuroscientists Panksepp and Panksepp:

What those vast cerebral expansions that emerged during the Pleistocene probably provided was a vast symbolic capacity that enabled foresight, hindsight, and the brain-power to peer into other minds and to entertain alternate courses of action, thereby allowing humans to create the cultures that dominate our modern world. . . .

What makes humans unique, perhaps more than anything else, is that we are a linguistically adept story-telling species. That is why so many different forms of mythology have captivated our cultural imaginations since the dawn of recorded history. (126-27)

In the early phases of evolutionary psychology, as a specific school within evolutionary social science, theorists seeking to counter the concept of the mind as a “blank slate” committed themselves to the idea of “massive modularity,” the idea that the mind operates almost exclusively through dedicated bits of neural machinery designed to solve specific adaptive problems in an ecologically stable ancestral environment. Cognitive modules—the neural machinery dedicated to sight, for example—are characterized by automaticity and efficiency. The idea of massive modularity thus carried within itself a general sense of humans as adaptation-executing automata. The idea of massive modularity over-generalizes from the most hard-wired components of the brain. It is a massive oversimplification of human cognitive architecture, and it is already fading into the archives of intellectual history. Its residual influence makes itself felt, though, in the ongoing debate over the adaptive function of imaginative culture. Theorists swayed half-consciously by the vision of massive modularity would have an understandable difficulty in making sense of that “vast symbolic capacity” that so signally distinguishes the human species.[31]

By satisfying the three criteria stipulated previously—isolating art, identifying an adaptive problem art would have solved, and identifying features of art that mediate the solution—we still would not, of course, have proved that this particular adaptationist hypothesis is correct. We would only have established that it could be regarded as a reasonable working hypothesis. Developing the hypothesis would involve the same kind of reasoning and evidence that enter into all other adaptive hypotheses—research into human evolutionary history, developmental cognitive psychology, and the analysis of “mechanism” at the level both of neurophysiology and of formal aesthetic structure. (The governing schema for these categories of evidence is that of Tinbergen’s classic formulation of the four parts of an “ethological” analysis—phylogeny, ontogeny, mechanism, and adaptive function.)[32] The hypothesis would gain in strength in the degree to which it could be used to link causal chains extending across diverse fields of inquiry—for instance, cross-cultural anthropology, developmental psychology, social psychology, cognitive neuroscience, linguistics, literary study, film studies, and research into the visual and aural arts.

Like other adaptationist hypotheses, Wilson’s hypothesis about the adaptive function of the arts could be falsified. With respect to literature in particular, if one could demonstrate that dispositions to produce and consume imaginative verbal artifacts are not universal and reliably developing, that they have no characteristic formal properties corresponding to specific cognitive structures, or that they have no effects on adaptively significant behavior (sexual or social), the hypothesis would be falsified. If, through paleoanthropological research, one could demonstrate that the arts, whatever effects they might have in contemporary environments, could not have produced similar effects in ancestral environments, the hypothesis would be cast into a highly problematic light. Even then, though, in order decisively to falsify the hypothesis, one would have to demonstrate that human cognitive evolution had simply stopped at some point in the past, before the arts began to have psychologically and socially significant effects.

Several evolutionists from the humanities and the sciences, have formulated hypotheses on the arts similar to those formulated by Wilson. Peter Swirski follows Wilson in contrasting instinct with the human capacity for considering counterfactual and hypothetical circumstances: “Swift but unswerving, instinctive responses are a maximin bet on the constancy of the environment: maximum efficiency for the minimum of fuss. But where time is not of the essence and environmental stimuli are complex, the mental calculus comes triumphantly into its own” (88). He invokes Wilson’s hypothesis that the human mind is adaptively designed to produce “a prodigious and constantly updated library of scenarios” (74), and he argues that “literary scenarios are extensions of adaptive behavior to the human environment, whether bio-physical or socio-cultural in nature” (89). This aspect of Wilson’s theory accords with Pinker’s idea that literary plots provide game plan models, but Swirski acknowledges that literature also often “transmits a more holistic sense of the world and the individual” (94). Robert Storey suggests something of what is involved in this more holistic sense. He affirms that “the human subject” is “a seeker and maker of meaning first of all” (101). He insists that meaning is emotional and subjective, and he locates the largest organizing forms of meaning in generic structures like those of tragedy and comedy.

Like Storey, Ellen Dissanayake affirms that humans have a species-typical need “for finding and making ‘meaning’” (Art and Intimacy 74). Like Wilson and Swirski, she contrasts human motivational systems with the much simpler ways in which the behavior of other animals is regulated by automatic processes. She observes that “nonhuman animals are born generally knowing what to do” but that humans “have to learn the rules and schemes that make their world orderly—comprehensible and manageable” (79). She blends imaginative culture in with other forms of cultural organization, but she attributes to the arts a particularly potent force in shaping cultural values. In her understanding, all the forms of cultural imagination “direct our attention to particularly biologically significant things and help us to know what to think and do about them” (73). Dissanayake locates the prototypical experience of art in the rhythmic and emotionally modulated interactions of mothers and infants. Those interactions are verbal and expressive but not didactic or thematic. In this conception, the springs of art are closer to song and to lyric poetry than to narrative prose.

The kind of “meaning” provided by art can operate entirely without words and virtually without concepts, through images, sounds, and aesthetic patterns alone. For literature or its oral antecedents, though, meaning typically does involve concepts, and it usually also involves the positioning of human subjects within some imagined world. As Terrence Deacon puts it, “We tell stories about our real experiences and invent stories about imagined ones, and we even make use of these stories to organize our lives. In a real sense, we live our lives in this shared virtual world” (22). Thinking along similar lines, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, seminal theorists in evolutionary psychology, tacitly identify narrative as the central form of art. Tooby and Cosmides explain that they had once themselves regarded the arts as an evolutionary by-product but have become dissatisfied with that explanation. They give several reasons for their dissatisfaction: (a) involvement in fictional, imagined worlds is a human universal; (b) the arts are intrinsically rewarding; (c) fictional worlds engage emotions while detaching the actions that are usually prompted by emotions; and (d) humans have evolved specialized cognitive machinery for participating in imagined worlds (“Does Beauty Build?” 7-9). They conclude, “We think that the human mind is permeated by an additional layer of adaptations that were selected to involve humans in aesthetic experiences and imagined worlds” (11). Affirming a principle that should awaken responsive chords in the minds of humanists, they argue that narrative representations “have a powerfully organizing effect on our neurocognitive adaptations” (21).

Weighing the alternative explanations presented by Pinker and by Tooby and Cosmides, Catherine Salmon and Donald Symons give credence to both and suggest a way that these alternative causal hypotheses can be used in judgments of literary quality:

Written fiction probably contains elements of both engagement of organizing adaptations and of pleasure circuit lock-picking, and different kinds of fiction may contain different proportions. Perhaps “great” works of fiction are those that most fully engage organizing adaptations, which is why they have survived the tests of time and translation, while “lesser” fiction, including genre romance novels, may primarily pick the locks of the brain’s pleasure circuits ( “Slash Fiction” 95)

Salmon and Symons argue convincingly that Romance novels appeal to female mating fantasies and that pornography appeals to male mating fantasies. Pinker’s concept of the arts as evolutionary by-products accords most closely with genres like romance and pornography that simply activate pleasurable fantasies. It accords least closely with genres like tragedy that engage painful emotions but leave us feeling that we have a deeper and more adequate understanding of the elemental forces in nature.

In several articles, I have invoked Wilson’s hypothesis about the adaptive function of the arts and have sought to describe the way in which the arts produce “cognitive order.” For instance, in “The Human Revolution and the Adaptive Function of Literature,” I argue,

Modern humans cannot choose not to live in and through their own imaginative structures. The world presents itself to them not merely as a series of stimuli releasing stereotyped responses but as contingent circumstances containing complex causal processes and intentional states in other minds. . . . Action within that world takes on a definite value and meaning only within some given imaginative structure—some order of symbols vividly present to the imagination. (41)[33]

In such formulations, the word “order” connotes no necessity of harmonious resolution. Dissonance, both formal and substantive, can be an integral and necessary part of any imaginative construct. An imaginative construct evokes or depicts the underlying order of human experience, and that experience is by its very nature fraught with conflict. Not all conflict is resolved, either in life or in art. The sense of satisfaction and of aesthetic pleasure that we experience at the conclusion of Oedipus Rex, Antigone, Hamlet, or King Lear has almost nothing to do with pleasurable fantasy. It has a great deal to do with what, in a different explanatory context, Freud calls “the reality principle,” the feeling that we have come to grips with reality (462-63). The quality of pleasure in this sensation is almost opposite to the quality of pleasurable fantasy, which depends on an escape from limiting conditions in reality.

If the hypothesis formulated by Wilson is correct, the arts fulfill a vital adaptive function. They 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. That is not the same thing as providing practically useful information or an objectively accurate map of the external environment. An emotionally meaningful cognitive map provides points of reference within which humans adjust their sense of the relative value and significance of things. In their adaptively functional aspect, literature and the other arts would serve as devices of behavioral orientation. On the basis of what we can observe in all known cultures, the arts enter profoundly into normal childhood development, mediate the relations between individuals and their culture, and help orient individuals to the whole larger world in which they live.[34]

By localizing the neurological character of specifically aesthetic responses, cognitive neuroscience could provide an important test of Wilson’s hypothesis. If the arts have a vital adaptive function in their own right, literature and the other arts would be motivated as emotionally driven needs. The need to produce and consume imaginative artifacts would be as real and distinct a need as hunger, sex, or social interaction. Like all such needs, it would bear within itself, as its motivating mechanism, the impetus of desire and the pleasure and satisfaction that attend upon the fulfilling of desire. That kind of fulfillment would not be a parasitic by-product of some other form of pleasure, nor merely a means for fulfilling some other kind of need—sexual, social, or practical. Like all forms of human fulfillment, the need for art could be integrated with other needs in any number of ways. It could be used for sexual display or the gratifications of sexual hunger or social vanity, and it could be used as a medium for social bonding, but it would nonetheless be, in itself, a primary and irreducible human need. If it is the case, as I think it is, that all mental events correspond to specific neurological activity, it should be possible to identify specifically aesthetic forms of neurological activity.

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8. Reduction and the Problem of Generating New Knowledge


            In literary criticism, the word “reductive” is typically used with a pejorative connotation, the idea that a reading strips out essential features in a text or falsely conflates too many features with some one feature wrongly invested with elemental significance. To be “reductive” is to have failed in subtlety and justness. And yet, “reduction” is the ultimate aim in all efforts at producing real knowledge. We seek to reduce the multiplicity of surface phenomena to underlying regularities. We presuppose that some form of conceptual or causal hierarchy is built into the very nature of our subject, whether that subject is some aspect of the natural world or a literary text. Even the most rudimentary form of literary commentary—analytic summary or paraphrase—constitutes an exercise in reduction. As I already argued, both traditional humanists and poststructuralists have their own typical forms of reduction. In this respect, the Darwinists do not differ from critics in other schools. They differ only in the terms to which they seek to reduce texts.

            Can the Darwinists produce new knowledge? That challenge is the most serious challenge that has been posed to the evolutionary literary critics.[35] The Darwinists would themselves add a further challenge alien to the relativist mindset of their poststructuralist critics. Can the Darwinists produce formulations that are not only new but true? In one respect, the Darwinists start at what, from a poststructuralist perspective, might seem a disadvantage. If they believe that texts embody a folk understanding of human nature and that texts are communicative constructs, they must also suppose that most texts are understood reasonably well at the level of common language and common knowledge. They have no pre-fabricated sign systems, like those of Lacan or the Althusserian Marxists, into which they are prepared to translate the common-language content of a text. Are they then reduced to ordinary analytic summary, but without consoling recourse to the idealizing sentiments of the humanists?

Producing new knowledge—real knowledge, knowledge that is consilient with the broader world of empirical research—is difficult in literary study, as it is in other fields, but it is not impossible. The Darwinists can aim at extending, refining, correcting and contextualizing the common understanding. On the level of interpretive criticism, they can situate any given text or set of texts in relation to the pressure points in human nature. They can identify the biological forces that are invoked or repressed in any given work and can assess how those forces impinge on meaning. That interpretive effort opens a new range of aesthetic sensations and a new range of comparative analysis for the Darwinian critics. 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. Physical realities and the rhythms of the life cycle shape the analytic categories through which Darwinians make sense of literary depictions. The governing terms in human life history are a matrix for other terms that are analytically neutral but resonant with elemental power and pregnant with qualitative differences. The shape of human life history is a basic reality shared by all authors and readers. Differences in the way any given author envisions that life history are essential to the imaginative qualities that distinguish the author, and those differences enter minutely into the subtlest nuances of tone, style, and formal organization. An evolutionary perspective can thus provide a comprehensive framework for comparing the perspectives of authors, the organization of meaning in texts, and the responses of readers. Moreover, like critics from other schools, literary Darwinists have a scholarly responsibility to adjudicate differences in the critical tradition, with all its local agendas and cultural conditioning. They also have 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 those principles with principles of psychology, linguistics, and anthropology. They have an opportunity to synthesize ideas and insights from diverse fields, and those integrations can often lead to new concepts. Those new concepts, in turn, should provide the instruments for new critical insights into familiar texts.

            To give some instances. Few if any literary works have been more discussed than those of Homer and Shakespeare, and yet the Darwinists have devoted a good deal of attention to both. By locating the Iliad within the context of modern sociobiological theory, Gottschall assimilates previous explanations of Homeric conflict within a single, unified causal structure. That unified explanation is intrinsically satisfying, and it also brilliantly illuminates the imaginative qualities of the poem. As Gottschall observes, concentrating on the struggle for women among Homer’s barbarian warriors “helps to explain more about Homeric society than its relentless violence; it also sheds light on the origins of a tragic and pessimistic worldview, a pantheon of gods deranged by petty vanities, and a people’s resignation to the pitiless dictates of fate” (from the introduction). Robert Storey and Michelle Scalise Sugiyama both discuss reader responses to Hamlet among a Nigerian tribal population, thus illuminating both the universal features of the text that are available across divergent cultures and the interpretive limitations in a culturally circumscribed critical perspective.[36] Daniel Nettle is both an evolutionary psychologist and a professional Shakespearean actor. Commenting on Hamlet and several other plays of Shakespeare, he correlates the generic structure of comedy and tragedy with elemental motives of status-seeking and mate selection.[37] This effort in strong reduction moves in a direction opposite to that of Brian Boyd, who uses Hamlet, The Odyssey, Lolita, and other texts to demonstrate the “expansiveness” of readings that can incorporate a diversity of cognitive mechanisms and evolutionary themes. In discussing Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who, Boyd triangulates the story with appeals to highly particularized local cultural history (post-war Japan), developmental cognitive psychology, and universal human motives. In his commentary on the comics artist Spiegelman, Boyd brings his analytic repertory to bear on the cognitive strategies of avant garde art. [38] One of the showpieces of evolutionary anthropology is a decisive demonstration that Freudian Oedipal theory is quite simply mistaken.[39] In “New Science, Old Myth: An Evolutionary Critique of the Oedipal Paradigm,” Scalise Sugiyama removes Sophocles’ play from the distorting context of Freudian Oedipal theory and locates it within the more illuminating context of evolutionary findings on incest avoidance. Making use of the same body of research, Nancy Easterlin examines feminist psychoanalytic accounts of Wordsworth’s autobiographical poetry (“Psychoanalysis”). By invoking John Bowlby’s ethological research into attachment between mothers and infants, she produces a more cogent and adequate account of her subject. (In “From Lacan To Darwin,” Dylan Evans describes his own gradual disenchantment with Lacanian psychology.) Focusing on Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, Ian Jobling explains how principles derived from evolutionary psychology can deepen our understanding of common critical observations. He gives evidence that critics have commonly observed a split between “dark” and “light” heroes in Scott’s novels, and he argues that such observations have remained merely descriptive.

All literary criticism relies on assumptions about human nature, but these assumptions have never been clarified or justified. Indeed, in the cultural determinist atmosphere that prevails in contemporary literary criticism, it is taboo even to make reference to “human nature.” This absence of a theory of human nature in literary criticism is one of its major weaknesses (31).

Brett Cooke’s appeal to basic features of human nature proves effective as a thematic grid for organizing the whole field of utopian and dystopian literature. In her reading of Edith Wharton’s novel The Children, Judith Saunders uses a sociobiological account of human life history to examine social configurations arising from the disruption of normal childhood development in the milieu of Jazz Age hedonism, thus usefully connecting human universals with local cultural history.

In my own essay on Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, I bring together various strands of criticism—the autobiographical and psychodramatic elements, the influence of Pater’s aestheticism, the submerged homoeroticism of the text, and the Christian themes. I draw on recent studies in queer theory but locate them within a broader theoretical context derived in part from Darwin’s own theory of the evolved moral dispositions of human nature and in part from Donald Symons’ evolutionary researches into the psychological character of homoerotic sexual relations. I have also used evolutionary psychology for comparing levels of integration between human nature, cultural order, and individual identity in five novels (Literary Darwinism 129-45); and I have articulated principles of literary evaluation from an evolutionary perspective in relation to novels depicting Paleolithic life (163-85). In a reading of Pride and Prejudice, I integrate elements from life-history theory with an analysis of interplay in point of view among characters, authors, and readers (206-16). In the empirical study Graphing Jane Austen, I co-author an interpretive critique of Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge in which we offer a fundamental interpretive revision of the critical tradition on that novel. We also use quantitative methods to delineate features of tone and gender across all of Austen’s novels. We demonstrate that the common idiom of literary commentary can be effectively reduced to a structured set of categories lodged within a theoretically grounded model of human nature and of literature, and we maintain that by analyzing the relations among specific individual findings, we have discovered patterns of meaning that are not readily apparent when each finding is observed in isolation.

For the past three decades, crucial elements of the common understanding have been ruled out of play in poststructuralist discourse—mimetic referentiality, human nature, and the individual human “subject” as an originating source.[40] If evolutionary literary study did nothing more than clear away these distorting theoretical impedimenta, returning criticism to a ground of common understanding from which critics would still be required to generate new knowledge through scholarly research, they would have performed a valuable service. At the present time, producing a firm empirical foundation for elementary concepts that are integral with the literary tradition has a distinct value in its own right. Any scholar can benefit from having a solid basis on which to dispute false psychology, false epistemology, and inadequate social theories. But the Darwinians need not rest content with this merely negative merit. The examples I have cited here should be sufficient to indicate that an evolutionary perspective can meet the challenge of generating literary knowledge that is both new and valuable.

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9. The Question of Empirical Methodology


            Assessing the prospects for cognitive literary study, Tony Jackson points to an asymmetry in the relations between an empirical theory and its interpretive applications in literary study: “An application of that theory to literature may well change something of our understanding of literature, but it is difficult to see how the interpretive practice can possibly change the theory” (“Issues and Problems” 177). Even if the theory produces illuminating insights into texts, the absence of a reciprocal influence on the theory must be felt as a source of frustration for scholars who use the theory. As Jackson rightly observes, “a truly dialectical relationship between theory, method, and practice seems to provide a basic intellectual appeal to the majority of scholars” (178). Most literary scholars have no training in quantitative methods, little or no understanding of statistics, and no sense of how to contrive an experimental design aimed at falsifying a hypothesis. How then are they to respond to the problem of the asymmetry identified by Jackson?

As a defensive measure, it is always possible to deny that literary scholars have any need for empirical knowledge. Eugene Goodheart takes this tack. Like many humanists, Goodheart is an epistemological and metaphysical dualist. He believes that the sciences deal with regularities in the physical world, and the humanities deal with qualitatively unique individual texts (23). In practice, of course, no literary scholar concerns himself only with the qualitatively unique. All literary scholars make appeal, in however occasional or opportunistic a fashion, to regularities of human nature and of cultural tradition. Goodheart hedges his claims by arguing that literature is not exclusively but only primarily interested in the qualitatively unique (20), but in celebrating the spiritual power of humanistic experience, Goodheart himself makes appeal to archetypal motifs of spiritual redemption—that is, to regularities of literary figuration grounded in regularities of human psychology (37). Much serious traditional scholarship concerns itself not with special cases but with regularities in the literary tradition. Goodheart’s appeal to archetypal patterns is extended on a monumental scale in Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism. M. H. Abrams’ The Mirror and the Lamp invokes heavy symbolic reductions to organize vast tracts of literary history. Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel articulates major trends in the development of narrative and formulates fundamental principles of realist representation. Such a list could be extended almost indefinitely. The point should be clear. 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 regularities of human psychology. Need they then be wholly dependent on the productions of adjacent fields? That depends on their own initiative. A substantial number of literary scholars have made some efforts to incorporate empirical methods from the social sciences.[41] A smaller number have made efforts to adopt empirical methods and also to locate those methods within the field of Darwinian social science. As mentioned in a previous section, Jonathan Gottschall has successfully used word searches to study cross-cultural depictions in folk and fairy tales (Literature). Kruger, Fisher, and Jobling have used depictions of male characters in Byron and Scott to test whether contemporary readers respond to contrasting male mating strategies in predictable ways. Salmon and Symons have used empirical methods in examining romance and pornography. Stiller and others have used empirical methods in assessing group size and social links in plays and soap operas.[42] Miall and Dissanayake have done an empirical prosodic analysis of mother-infant interaction. In Graphing Jane Austen, Gottschall, Johnson, Kruger and I have used a model of human nature to examine characterization and reader response in numerous characters from dozens of novels. In the conclusion to this book, we explain the significance we think this kind of research has for both literary study and evolutionary social science:

Research that uses a purely discursive methodology for adaptationist literary study remains passively dependent on the knowledge generated within an adjacent field, and it does not contribute in any very substantial way to that primary source of knowledge. The methodological barrier that separates discursive literary study from the adaptationist program in the social sciences limits the scope and significance both of literary study and of adaptationist social science. The production and consumption of literature is a large and vitally important part of our specifically human nature. An artificial barrier that leaves adaptationist literary scholars in the stance of passive consumers of knowledge also leaves adaptationist social scientists cut off from any primary understanding of one of the most important and revealing aspects of human nature. Literature and its oral antecedents derive from a uniquely human, species-typical disposition for producing and consuming imaginative verbal constructs. Removing the methodological barrier between humanistic expertise and the expertise of the social sciences can produce results valuable to both fields. (from the conclusion to the book)

In Graphing Jane Austen, we make specific predictions and test specific hypotheses, but some of the most important conclusions we reached were surprising to us. These conclusions have broad general implications and constitute new knowledge—not just empirically confirmed formulations of commonly received and accepted ideas. (Our focal point was “agonistic structure” or the nature and organization of protagonists, antagonists, and minor characters in the novels.) We analyze our findings by reference to sources in evolutionary social psychology, research into personality, and the theory of basic emotions. We draw on concepts in both psychology and literary theory, and we regard our findings as contributions both to literary knowledge and to evolutionary psychology.[43]

This whole area of research is less well developed than areas that depend on purely discursive techniques of theoretical formulation and literary interpretation. The capital costs in gaining appropriate expertise are steep—steep for literary scholars, who would have to gain some familiarity with empirical methods, and steep also for psychologists and anthropologists, who would need to assimilate concepts and modes of thinking characteristic of the humanities and appropriate to them. The costs are steep, but the benefits are potentially very large. The chief obstructions are not intrinsic but institutional. Given a few programs in which such work was encouraged, and in which the appropriate interdisciplinary training for graduate students was put into place, it is quite certain that ambitious young scholars, suitably geared in aptitude and interest, would quickly find ways to extend and develop the few pioneering efforts that have been made so far. The purely discursive study of science and literature, from largely culturalist and Foucauldian perspectives, has been a growth industry for nearly two decades. That approach to interdisciplinary study gives predominating place to an ideologically charged rhetorical analysis of science. It is surely now time for both literary scholars and scientists to explore the possibilities of a different form of interdisciplinary study, a form that gives a predominating place to scientific method and the scientific ethos. (One such program is already in place, the evolutionary studies program originated by D. S. Wilson at SUNY Binghamton.)[44]

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10. Conclusion: The Future


            Who knows? Perhaps in ten or twenty years, looking back, cultural historians will be denying that the humanities and the evolutionary social sciences were ever in any way at odds with one another. The integration of historical scholarship with a knowledge of human universals will have become standard equipment in literary study. Humanistic expertise in manipulating cultural figurations will have flowed into a smooth and harmonious stream with Darwinian findings on the elemental features of human nature. 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 with easy grace between the impersonal, objective scrutiny of science and a passionate humanistic responsiveness. All of this is possible, and it is worth working toward. Any of it that we can realize will be a gain for ourselves and a contribution to the sum of human understanding.


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[1] See Carroll, “Emerging Research Program,” “Evolutionary Approaches,” “Introductory Guide,” and “Literature and Evolutionary Psychology.” For other surveys, see Fromm, “Plato to Pinker” and “Back to Nature Again.”

[2] See, for example, Boyd, “Literature” and “The Origin”; Carroll, Evolution and Literary Darwinism; Cooke, Human Nature; Dissanayake, Art and Intimacy; Easterlin, “Hans”; Gottschall, Rape of Troy and “The Tree”; Headlam Wells; Jobling; McEwan; Nordlund; and Storey.

[3] For similar appraisals of the disciplinary alignments of the contributors to cognitive poetics, see Jackson, “Issues” and “Questioning.”

[4] See Barrett, Dunbar, and Lycett 8-21; D. M. Buss, New; Dunbar and Barrett, “Evolutionary”; Gangestad and Simpson, “An Introduction”; Hagen and Symons; Laland and Brown; Mamelli; Pinker, “Foreword”; Sterelny, Thought 234-35; and E. O. Wilson, Sociobiology v-viii.

[5] See for instance Baron-Cohen; Barrett, Dunbar, and Lycett 295-350; Barton; Bickerton; Chiappe and MacDonald; Damasio; Deacon; Geary, The Origin; Jellema and Perrett; Kirby; MacDonald and Hershberger; Mithen, Prehistory and “Mind”; Panksepp; Pinker, How the Mind Works, Language, and Stuff of Thought; Pinker and Jackendoff; Plotkin; Premack and Premack; Rizzolatti and Fogassi; Stone; Tomasello et al.; and Wyman and Tomasello.

[6] See Anderson; Anderson and Anderson; Bordwell; Bordwell and Carroll; Plantinga and Smith; Smith; and Tan.

[7] See Boyd, “Art of Literature,” “Literature and Evolution,” On the Origin, and “The Origin.”

[8] On narrative, in addition to Boyd’s work cited in the previous note, see Carroll et al., Graphing; Scalise Sugiyama, “Narrative Theory” and “Reverse-Engineering”; and Steen. On poetic meter, see Turner 61-110. On the number and organization of social groups in drama, see Matthews and Barrett; Stiller and Hudson; and Stiller, Nettle, and Dunbar.

[9] For a polemical essay by Boyd, see “Getting It All Wrong,” in which Boyd responds to Louis Menand’s repudiation of Wilsonian “conslience.” Also see Menand.

[10] For other ecocritical works closely affiliated with evolutionary literary study, see Easterlin, “Loving”; Love, “Ecocriticism,” Practical Ecocriticism, and “Science.” Also see Carroll, Literary Darwinism 85-100.

[11] Other forthcoming books of related interest include Dutton, The Art Instinct; Grodal, Embodied Visions. Also see Slingerland, What Science Offers.

[12] Other chief “biopoetical” works by Cooke include “The Promise” and “Sexual Property.”

[13] Components of this study have been published as articles. See Gottschall, “An Evolutionary” and “Homer’s.”

[14] For a chapter published as an article, see Saunders, “Evolutionary.” For another sociobiologically oriented essay by Saunders, see “Male.” For a set of sociobiological literary critiques geared toward a popular audience, see Barash and Barash.

[15] Portions of this section have been adapted from an essay, “Introductory Guide,” in the journal Ometeca. This section and the two following have been extracted from the introduction and conclusion to Graphing Jane Austen.

[16] See Pinker, How the Mind Works; Symons, The Evolution and “On the Use”; and Tooby and Cosmides, “Psychological Foundations.”

[17] See Hill and Kaplan; Kaplan and Gangestad, “Life” and “Optimality”; Kaplan, Gurven, and Lancaster; Kaplan, Hill, Lancaster, and Hurtado; Lancaster and Kaplan; Low; and Lummaa.

[18] See Boehm; A. Buss; Cummins; Gray; MacDonald, “Evolution, Culture” and “Evolution, the Five-Factor Model”;  and Plutchik.

[19] See Bjorklund and Pellegrini; D. M. Buss, The Dangerous Passion and Evolution of Desire; Deacon; Flinn and Ward; Geary, “Evolution,” Male, and The Origin; Geary and Flinn; Hill; Hill and Kaplan; Low; Schmitt; and Symons, The Evolution.

[20] See Bjorklund and Pellegrini; D. M. Buss, The Evolution; Daly and Wilson; Flinn and Ward; Geary, Male and The Origin; Geary and Flinn; Hamilton; Salmon; Schmitt; Symons, The Evolution; Trivers, “Parental Investment” and Social Evolution.

[21] See Alexander, The Biology; Boehm; Cummins; Flinn and Ward; Geary and Flinn; Harris; Kurland and Gaulin; Kurzban and Neuberg; Pinker, Stuff of Thought 380, 401-409; Premack and Premack; and Sober and Wilson.

[22] See Budiansky; A. Buss; Darwin; Focquaert and Platek; Hauser; Lewis; Paulhus and John; and Tomasello et al.

[23] See Baron-Cohen; Barrett, Dunbar, and Lycett 295-321; Premack and Premack; Rizzolatti and Fogassi; Stone; Tomasello et al.; and Wyman and Tomasello.

[24] For formulations on the relations between human nature and culture, see Baumeister; Boyd, “Art and Evolution,” “Literature and Evolution,” and “The Origin”; Brown; Carroll, “Aestheticism,” Evolution, and Literary Darwinism; Cooke, Human Nature; Dissanayake, Art and Intimacy and Homo Aestheticus; Easterlin, “Hans”; Fromm, From Ecology; Gottschall, “The Tree”; Headlam Wells; Headlam Wells and McFadden; Nordlund; Panksepp and Panksepp; Plotkin; Richerson and Boyd, Not by Genes; Sterelny, Thought; Storey; Tooby and Cosmides, “Does Beauty”; and E. O. Wilson, Consilience 210-37.

[25] See Alexander, “Evolution”; Baron-Cohen; Brown, Human Universals and “Implications”; Dunbar, The Human Story; Flinn and Ward; and Mithen, Prehistory.

[26] See Baron-Cohen; Boyer; Dunbar, The Human Story; Geary, The Origin, 131-39, 330; and Mithen, Prehistory.

[27] See Lorenz 1-19.

[28] See Barrett, Dunbar, and Lycett 351-83; Boyd and Richerson; Deacon; Heinrich and McElreath; Hill; Kirby; Laland; Lumsden and Wilson; McElreath and Heinrich; Plotkin; Richerson and Boyd, Not by Genes; Shennan; Sterelny, Thought; Tomasello et al.; D. S. Wilson, “Evolutionary” and “Group-Level Evolutionary Processes”; and E. O. Wilson, Consilience.

[29] See Boyd, “Evolutionary” and On the Origin; Dissanayake, Art and Intimacy,  “Universality,” and “What Art Is.”

[30] On art as a means of promoting social cohesion, also see Coe; Dunbar, “Why.” On art as a means of enhancing creativity, also see Swirski 75. On narrative as a means for transmitting adaptively relevant information or providing models for behavior, see Pinker, “Toward” 173-74, How the Mind Works 539-43; and Scalise-Sugiyama, “Reverse-Engineering” 190.

[31] For critiques of “narrow” or “orthodox” evolutionary psychology, see Barrett, Dunbar, and Lycett 8-21; Carroll, “The Human” and Literary Darwinism 190-99; Dunbar and Barrett, “Evolutionary”; Griffiths 106-36; Hill; Laland; Mithen, The Prehistory; Panksepp; Panksepp and Panksepp; Sterelny, “An Alternative” and Thought. For  evolutionary accounts of human cognitive architecture broader than that in orthodox evolutionary psychology, see Geary, “Motivation to Control” and The Origin; and Sterelny, Thought. On the developmental plasticity of human cognitive architecture, see Deacon; Panksepp; Plotkin; and Sterelny, Thought.

[32] See Tinbergen.

[33] Also see Carroll, “The Adaptive,” “Evolutionary Approaches,” “Literature and Evolutionary Psychology,” and “Literature as a Human Universal.”

[34] On mother-infant interaction as a well-spring of aesthetic responsiveness, see Dissanayake, Art and Intimacy. Also see Easterlin, “Psychoanalysis.” For a commentary on the importance of the arts in childhood development, with special reference to abused children in the novels of Dickens, see Carroll, Literary Darwinism 63-68. For an interpretative critique that uses developmental psychology to analyze narratives aimed at children, see Boyd, On the Origin and “The Origin.”

[35] See Jackson, “Questioning” 319, 322, 328; and Pinker, “Toward” 175.

[36] See Scalise Sugiyama, “Cultural”; and Storey 131-35.

[37] See Nettle, “What” and “The Wheel.”

[38] See Boyd, “Art and Evolution,” “The Art of Literature” (on Lolita), “Literature” (on Hamlet), On the Origin (on The Odyssey and Dr. Seuss), and “The Origin.” On the use of Adaptationist categories in the analysis of postmodern fiction, also see Easterlin, “Do Cognitive.”

[39] See Daly and Wilson 107-21; and Degler 245-69.

[40] See Abrams; Bordwell; Bordwell and Carroll; Boyd, “Art and Evolution” and “Getting It All Wrong”; Carroll, Evolution and Literary Darwinism 15-27; Cooke, Human Nature and “Toward”; Dissanayake, Homo Aestheticus; Crews; Fromm, Academic Capitalism; Gottschall, Literature and “The Tree”; Headlam Wells; Headlam Wells and McFadden; Love, “Science”; McEwan; Slingerland; Storey; and E. O. Wilson, Consilience.

[41] For instances and further references, see Martindale; Miall; Moretti; and Van Peer. Also see the website for the International Society for the Empirical Study of Literature and Media:, accessed February 15, 2008.

[42] See Matthews and Barrett; Stiller and Hudson; and Stiller, Nettle, and Dunbar.

[43] For a pilot study using categories similar to those used in Graphing, see Carroll and Gottschall.

[44] For information on the EvoS program at SUNY Binghamton, see, accessed February 15, 2008. For further information on evolutionary literary studies, including posted articles, see the websites of Brian Boyd,; Joseph Carroll,; Harold Fromm,; and Jonathan Gottschall, accessed February 15, 2008. A website consolidating information on evolutionary literary studies is in preparation at