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In this week’s eSkeptic David Michelson reviews The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative. (Edited by Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2005).

David Michelson is a graduate student in English literature and evolutionary studies at Binghamton University. At this time, his focused interests in evolutionary literary criticism include individual differences in character representation, reader-response, and middle aged male sexuality. In addition to evolution and literature, three beautiful ladies occupy his time, Stacie, Mojo and Gogo, the last two being his adorable cats.


human with a typewriter

Reading Homo sapiens

by David Michelson

In 1995 Michelle Scalise Sugiyama reviewed Joseph Carroll’s Evolution and Literary Theory for Skeptic. In her review Sugiyama observed that

Carroll’s book is the first major work in over a century (since Taine, 1879) to situate the creation and interpretation of literature within the sphere of human biology … Carroll’s study is at once the wrecking ball of poststructuralism and a possible blueprint for a new, biology-based literary criticism. Whether or not his bid is accepted, only time will tell. 1

In the decade since she wrote her review, Sugiyama and a growing number of literary scholars have set their collective sights on Carroll’s and likeminded literary theorists’ vision for a biologically informed branch of literary studies. 2 This mushrooming school of young literary scholars and seasoned professors has arisen in opposition to the rather insular culture of anti-scientism and radical political posturing that is commonplace in most English and cultural studies departments today. Those English professors who use their lecture podium as a pulpit for radical political views have been remarkably effective at inculcating students in varying degrees of allegiance to social constructivism (commonly referred to as poststructuralism, postmodernism, or deconstruction but here collapsed for convenience sake into the term preferred by the authors in The Literary Animal: constructivism). 3

In its most virulent form, constructivism regards the scientific method as no more truthful than any other means for understanding human social life and artistic production. Predictably, however, constructivists endow their alternative, subjective models of human behavior with the same explanatory potential as those arrived at in the sciences by repeatable experimentation. As E.O. Wilson notes in his preface to The Literary Animal, this

cleavage between naturalism and social constructivism … extends to the foundation of knowledge itself. Either the great branches of learning — natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities — can be connected by a web of verifiable causal explanation, or they cannot.

Because the sort of constructivists found in English departments are suspicious of most normative social structures, science included, the consilience extolled by Wilson is often viewed as myopically and detrimentally western, white, and patriarchal in practice. The extremity of this virulent form, however, often suffers from caricature. In more moderate forms constructivists are concerned with claims about the naturalness of human behavior and human institutions, particularly when they concern such “hot button” topics as gender, politics, race and violence. 4 If “naturalness” is their nemesis, the alternative that constructivists posit is an often seemingly unconstrained behavioral plasticity that allows them to freely reimagine rather than scientifically defend their conception of our social, political and personal worlds.

The untested and oftentimes loopy logic of present day literary and cultural criticism has led many outsiders to question the very place and purpose of English departments within the academy. 5 Even within English departments a growing number of politically-minded literary critics are coming to see that strong forms of social constructivism are seriously flawed models for fomenting progressive political change. 6 It is out of this strong constructivist collapse that emerges the most recent, forward-looking and promising raise to Carroll’s bid for the future of literary studies, the 12-essay volume, The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative, edited by Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson.

The sense that The Literary Animal is part of an exploratory expedition, blazing a new path across infamously hostile territory, is captured in the title to the introduction: “Literature: A Last Frontier in Human Evolutionary Studies.” Wilson and Gottschall rightly admit that although “[n]umerous evolutionists and literary scholars have become interested in exploring this territory … it [evolution] has not become part of the normal discourse for the field of literary studies as a whole.” The editors ask us to remember that virtually every other academic discipline was initially uninviting toward evolutionary inroads, despite their eventual acceptance. In order to quell any rising alarms or fears of hostile takeovers from humanists (the evolutionists are coming! the evolutionists are coming!) Gottschall and Wilson remind English professors that historically, when evolution comes into contact with another discipline, “non evolutionary perspectives have not become obsolete; the task of integration is much more interesting and symbiotic than simple replacement.” Emollient comments like this are present throughout The Literary Animal and are one of its many admirable strengths. Unlike some early evolutionary treatises on literature and constructivism, The Literary Animal largely maintains a congenial and positive tone that is inviting to anyone interested in genuine interdisciplinary dialogue.

The Literary Animal tackles a huge topic: the nature and representation of narrative and its role in the evolutionary scheme of human affairs, past and present. Despite other essay collections on evolution, literature and the arts, 7 The Literary Animal is the first volume of evolutionarily focused essays on the multifaceted nature of narrative, which is defined here as oral and written literature. This definition encompasses theater, film, television, novels, poetry, erotica, folktales, the narrative activities of journal writing and the hypothesized narrative processes underlying our conscious thought.

The editors believe their collection speaks to three major themes, each addressing a specific question:

  • What is literature about?
  • What is literature for?
  • What does it mean for a seemingly nonscientific subject such as literature to be approached from the perspective of a scientific discipline such as evolution?

The essays are divided into four sections: Evolution and Literary Theory, Darwinian Literary Criticism, The Evolutionary Riddle of Art, and Darwinian Theory and Scientific Methods.

To address such a wide range of topics the editors have culled a stellar cast of diverse contributors, including prefaces by such luminaries as E.O. Wilson and Frederick Crews, and an afterward by Dennis Dutton. Individual chapters are penned by two-time Booker Prize winning novelist Ian McEwan, well known anthropologists Daniel Nettle and Robin Fox, and those familiar with evolutionary literary studies will recognize Joseph Carroll, Jonathan Gottschall, Michelle Scalise Sugiyama, Brian Boyd, and Ian Jobling.

In the introduction Gottschall and Wilson relate their respective stories about how they became interested in literature from an evolutionary perspective. Notable is Gottschall’s experience as a graduate student, one which will likely resonate for many young scholars who are frustrated by the virtual absence of evolutionism in contemporary literature departments. Gottschall retells the story of how his evolutionary-themed dissertation was effectively deemed off-limits by his otherwise interdisciplinary English department faculty. Serendipitously, it was through this most irrational limitation that Gottschall met Wilson, with whose assistance he completed his dissertation.

Three essays from The Literary Animal to which I will pay particular attention, address some of the most pressing issues and problems facing those who already or may soon wish to integrate evolutionary with literary studies. The opening essay by novelist Ian McEwan is a gem (prepare to laugh out-loud at an anecdote about Virginia Woolf and a certain stain). McEwan reclaims the privilege often denied to authors by many constructivists to speak on behalf of the psychical continuities between author, reader, and historical time when he asserts that

Literature flourishes along the channels of this unspoken agreement between writers and readers, offering a mental map whose north and south are the specific and the general. At its best, literature is universal, illuminating human nature at precisely the point at which it is most parochial and specific.

While McEwan admits that cultural specificities are interpretive luxuries, he asserts that such historical details are often unnecessary for understanding the human condition at the center of all stories from Gilgamesh to Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

McEwan’s observation is noteworthy because it directly contradicts the hallowed constructivist position that “human nature is a specific historical product…that there is no human nature at all beyond that which develops at a particular time and in a particular culture.” McEwan rightly diagnoses this misguided endeavor as “the central project of intellectual history — to ask at which moment, in which set of circumstances, we became recognizable to ourselves.” It is neither exclusively the historical lurch nor the abrupt rupture with the past, McEwan argues, but the continual, common crawl of human nature that is chronicled in stories across cultures. The vast body of world literature is intelligible and translatable precisely because it speaks to the most recognizable aspects of our shared human nature. While making the indispensable point that literary critics should understand history and human nature in evolutionary as well as culturally specific contexts, McEwan’s essay wields the term “human nature” rather uncritically. 8 This is no real fault of the essay as its purpose in this volume is not to adjudicate between competing paradigms of human nature. The specificity and nuance found lacking here is properly addressed in the subsequent essay.

Following on McEwan’s heels, David Sloan Wilson’s chapter assesses the merits of competing paradigms of human nature and social constructivism. The admirable synthesis Wilson hopes to produce is evident in his title, “Evolutionary Social Constructivism.” A subsidiary aim of his essay is to propose a theory for how narrative is currently adaptive in our non-Pleistocene world. Although other essays in the volume consider why narrative may have been adaptive in a Pleistocene environment (Sugiyama reverse engineers narrative; Brian Boyd surveys adaptationist theories of narrative), Wilson considers how such a ubiquitous activity as narrative functions in modern environments.

To appreciate Wilson’s argument it is necessary to think outside the common conception of narrative as simply novels and poems. Wilson suggests that because humans are constantly adjusting to novel and unprecedented modern environments in which genetic if-then rules fail as viable plans for individual and collective action, stories act as “new and untested guides to action, the retention of proven guides to action, and the all important transmission of guides to action from one person to another. In short, stories often play the role of genes in non-genetic evolutionary processes.” Wilson’s theory is consistent (with some historical qualifications that McEwan’s essay addresses) with Benedict Anderson’s constructivist ideas in Imaginary Communities 9, a text popular amongst scholars who study the relationship between narratives and the nation state. Anderson argues that western nationalisms — a nations’ collective assimilation to a pervasive societal narrative — was made possible, in part, by the rise of print culture, of which the novel was a significant contribution. If stories are indeed like genes, the success of specific nations in fostering nationalistic allegiance should correlate with the emotional potency of the content in their respective “grand narratives.” The emerging nationalistic stories of recently decolonized countries could be examined in light of this theory and specific hypotheses could be formulated and tested about which narratives specific populations find agreeable or disagreeable at specific historical moments. However, before postcolonial theorists jump at this chance, Wilson understands that more fundamental misconceptions need to be dissolved.

Wilson’s chapter is by far the most diplomatic of all the essays in The Literary Animal. Demonstrating the possibility for honest mutual understanding and friendly dialogue is effectively the hinge that will open or close doors to the evolutionary paradigm in English departments. If politically-minded constructivists cannot accept the fact that evolution is not all genetic determinism and naturalized excuses for oppression, they will continue to regard it as an elite construction for maintaining an undesirable and inimical status quo. While others have stressed points similar to Wilson’s elsewhere, his is the most honest and concerned attempt to date, one which realizes that literature is the “battle ground” on which the larger epistemological war between Darwinian naturalism and relativism is being waged. To his credit, Wilson also calls for sociobiologists to engage more seriously with certain aspects of social constructivism, principally its contribution to understanding culture as a viable non-genetic process that influences human behavior.

To begin chipping away at the genetic determinism fallacy, Wilson succinctly and lucidly introduces constructivists to the concept of behavioral plasticity. He demonstrates that our evolved domain-general intelligence allows us to problem solve at the very point where genetic if-then rules break down. Fascinatingly, Wilson shows how some aspects of if-then genetic determinism are actually compatible with constructivist positions. His summary of Margo Wilson’s and Martin Daly’s study of male risk taking and female early pregnancy rates in inner-city Chicago is a compelling and instructive example that any constructivist would appreciate. However, Wilson is quick to point out that just because if-then rules break down, it does not imply that anything goes in terms of human behavior. He wishes to drive home the point that “there is a difference between potential for individual and societal change and equi-potential. If by blank slate we mean “anything can be written with equal ease,” then that part of the metaphor is false.” To learn just what is feasible in terms of progressive social projects, “the way forward for social constructivists,” Wilson contends, “is to become sophisticated about evolution, not to deny its relevance to human affairs.” While Wilson’s essay succeeds in what it sets out to accomplish, one is left wondering just what are and wherefrom originate these “constraints” on our behavior.

In terms of literary criticism, Joseph Carroll has done more than any other evolutionary literary theorist to suggest just what scholars in this nascent field should do and which models of human behavior they should utilize. In his essay he delineates a model for determining literary meaning as it relates to a rather novel but appropriately complex understanding of human behavior. Carroll makes the point so often missed by students of literature that

to treat characters as if they were actual people is to ignore the whole concept of ‘meaning’ in literature, and to ignore meaning in literature is something like ignoring the concept of ‘energy’ in physics or the concept of ‘life’ in biology.

Carroll erects his model upon the foundation of “cognitive behavioral systems,” a theory borrowed from Darwinian psychiatrists. Behavioral systems focus on the function and causal relations between “central categories of life-history,” which are “birth, growth, death and reproduction.” These categories are further dissolved into two fundamental forms of human effort — somatic and reproductive — that Carroll then elucidates through a reading of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

This model of human behavior stresses the importance of domain general intelligence, or what David Wilson called behavioral plasticity. Significantly, Carroll’s model is meant to be a careful and thoughtful departure from the rather narrowly conceived positions of sociobiologists and “narrow” evolutionary psychologists who see humans as “fitness maximizers” and “adaptation executors” respectively. While Carroll’s earlier work endorsed some of the foundational theories of “narrow” 10 evolutionary psychology (that he here rebukes), his reconfigured model of literary meaning and human nature exemplifies the extent to which evolutionary literary critics must be willing to rethink their ideas in light of new evidence from the behavioral sciences. At this point, Carroll actually seems to be ahead of many evolutionary psychologists in addressing their most vocal critics. The importance of Carroll’s essay is that it demonstrates to evolutionarily minded literary critics that they must fully understand not only the nuances appropriate for literary study, but the continuing debates in fields like evolutionary psychology as well. Ultimately, the model of human behavior that literary critics employ will determine the legitimacy and longevity of their interpretive claims. To Carroll’s credit, he has fashioned and adapted his model for literary meaning in a manner that meets the challenges posed by critics of “narrow” evolutionary psychology, the school of thought from which literary Darwinists frequently draw their knowledge of human behavior.

As enthusiastically as the contributors to this volume look forward to elucidating literature with evolutionary insights, it is repeatedly suggested that evolutionists in the hard sciences ought to rethink literature “as a source of data that can be analyzed quantitatively.” To this point, the last three essays in this volume are among some of the first ambitiously quantitative and statistical studies of human behavior using literature as a database. Daniel Kruger, Maryanne Fisher, and Ian Jobling use “Proper” and “Dark” hero archetypes from British Romantic fiction to test female mate preferences in respect to the evolutionary literature on cads and dads; Catherine Salmon demonstrates how the sub-genre of “Slash” erotica fiction is surprisingly consistent with theories on female mate investment; and Jonathan Gottschall tests feminist claims about western folktales by conducting a content analysis of 1,440 world folktales from six continents. Projects of similar and greater breadth, spanning entire centuries of literary history and genre, are in the works and will likely be published in the coming year.

Quantitative studies will take some getting used to for many humanists trained in subjective measures for empirical validity. Many readers who enjoy literary criticism might agree with Frederick Crews’ observation in the introduction to The Literary Animal, that “such discourse looks nearer to anthropology and psychology than to criticism per se.” By no means though do any of these essays suffer from the detached and impersonal objectivity that often characterizes scientific journal writing. Indeed, a warmth of spirit and a tenderness for the human subject is here present if not occasionally rescued from decades of postmodern fragmentation and depreciation.

Evolutionists and constructivists who are willing to read this volume will be pleasantly surprised by the lucidity of writing, compelling arguments, spirit of cooperation, and generosity of endnotes, all of which make The Literary Animal preeminently approachable, readable, and valuable for any student or professor wishing to cross that rather illusory bridge in their mind between the Darwinian behavioral sciences and the humanities. One might say that The Literary Animal has effectively completed the long and difficult construction of that bridge with twelve new sturdy planks. When — not whether — seems to be the most appropriate forecast this time around for predicting the end to the climatic shift that is currently underway in literary studies.

References & Notes
  1. Skeptic, Vol. 4, No. 4: 94–96.
  2. For a review of contributions to the field of evolutionary literary studies see Joseph Carroll. Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature. Routledge: New York, 2004. xv-xvii.
  3. To appreciate the nuance of these terms in simple language, see Christopher Butler. Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2002. Jonathan Culler. Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1997.
  4. Steven Pinker. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Viking, 2002.
  5. Christopher Hitchens. Book review of The John Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. The New York Times Book Review. May 22, 2005. 18–19. New Literary History. Vol. 36. Winter 2005. Essays on the Humanities. This latter volume is devoted entirely to debating the “crisis” in the humanities.
  6. Satya Mohanty. Literary Theory and the Claims of History: Postmodernism, Objectivity, Multiculturalism. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1997. Paula Moya and Michael Hames-Garcia, Eds. Reclaiming Identity: Realist Theory and the Predicament of Postmodernism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
  7. Nancy Easterlin and Barbara Riebling, Eds. After Poststructuralism: Interdisciplinarity and Literary Theory. Evanston. Northwestern Univ. Press, 1993. Brett Cooke and Frederick Turner, Eds. Biopoetics: Evolutionary Explorations in the Arts. Lexington, KY: ICUS, 1999. Joseph Carroll. Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature. Routledge: New York, 2004.
  8. David Buller. Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005. 419–81.
  9. Benedict Anderson. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Verso: London, 1991.
  10. The definition of “narrow” comes from Steven J. Scher and Frederick Rauscher, Eds. Evolutionary Psychology: Alternative Approaches. Boston: Kluwer, 2003. 9‏19. Other critiques include, Kim Sterelny and Julie Fitness, Eds. From Mating to Mentality: Evaluating Evolutionary Psychology. New York: Psychology Press, 2003. David Buller. Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005.

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