Sunday, February 15, 2009

Literary Darwinism

 
A reader tells me that Trent University (Peterborough, Ontario, Canada) celebrated Darwin's birthday with a talk by Joseph Carroll on The Historical Position of Literary Darwinism. She asked me what I thought of Literary Darwinism.

I had never heard of it so I asked my good friend "Google" and he (she?) didn't disappoint. There's a Wikipedia entry on Darwinian Literary Studies (aka Literary Darwinism).
As Leda Cosmides and John Tooby indicate in their essay "The Psychological Foundations of Culture," scientific models and theories allow us to sense abstract objects and relationships just as our eyes and ears allow us to sense concrete ones. In Darwinian literary studies, as in evolutionary psychology, "[t]he tools of evolutionary functional analysis function as an organ of perception, bringing the blurry world of human psychological and behavioral phenotypes into sharp focus and allowing one to discern the formerly obscured level of our richly organized species-typical functional architecture."[2] In other words, since the human mind is embodied in evolving organic structures such as the brain, researchers should be able to explain aspects--not only of cognitive systems such as language ability, but of cultural systems such as art and literature--in terms of the environmental factors, or selection pressure, that give rise to them. A chief goal of Darwinian literary studies is to show how the reading and writing of literature contributes to the inclusive fitness of the human organism. In this sense the discipline relates closely to adaptationism, and it shares with the adaptationist social sciences the ultimate goal of understanding human nature.
So it's closely related to adaptationism and evolutionary psychology, eh? I don't think I'm going to like literary Darwinism. Sounds like just another misinterpretation of evolution by a bunch of non-scientists.

Let's look at an example.
A good example of applied Darwinian criticism is Joseph Carroll's reading of Pride and Prejudice, which shows how the fundamental biological problem of mate choice informs the plot of Austen's novel[3]. In this view, the novel narrates a social order in which males compete on the basis of socioeconomic attributes such as money and rank, whereas females compete according to 'personal' attributes such as youth and beauty. The story of Darcy and Elizabeth's courtship establishes a model for partial subversion of this social order, since the couple manage to abide by it even though the proximate causes of their mutual attraction have more to do with the conventionally undervalued attributes of dignity, honesty, kindness, and intelligence. A Darwinian critic might argue that the whole book functions as a tool for humans to perceive, order, and make sense of the conflicting impulses that characterize romantic relationships.
I don't know whether I count as a "Darwinian critic" or not but it seems to me that Austen is pointing out that women can be either smart or stupid when it comes to choosing a mate and so can men. Jane Austin is describing the breakdown of an English social order that existed prior to the nineteenth century. That social order is very different than those in other societies at the same time (e.g. India, China, North American natives), which, in turn, is probably nothing like the society of our ancestors 50,000 years ago. I don't see what this has to do with human evolution—or whatever these English scholars mean by "Darwinism."


6 comments :

  1. We had somebody talking about Darwin's contribution to "naturalistic theater." Her talk was actually kind of interesting, but if she was trying to connect it to actual evolutionary theory somehow, the attempt was lost on me.

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  2. . . . not only of cognitive systems such as language ability, but of cultural systems such as art and literature

    I don't think they know the difference between "reproduction" and "a reprroduction"

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  3. 10,000 Year Explosion

    I bet the book will feel too adaptationist-leaning to Larry.

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  4. A chief goal of Darwinian literary studies is to show how [sic] the reading and writing of literature contributes to the inclusive fitness of the human organism.

    Really? Then why would Darwinian literary critics waste time analyzing Darcy's and Elizabeth's mating strategies? They're not humans; they're fictional characters. They don't have any inclusive fitness.

    If they want to show whether* and how literature contributes to the inclusive fitness of the human organism, they should analyze the mating strategies of people who read P. and P. (versus people who don't).

    That would still be a waste of time, IMO, but at least they'd be using methods appropriate to their chief goal.


    *It would also be nice if their chief goal didn't just assume that reading and writing literature contributes to fitness, but given how many biologists treat everything as an adaptation, I guess we shouldn't expect better of literary critics on that point.

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