January 27, 2006 | David F. Coppedge

Darwin Acid Eats Literature

A potent acid has fallen on the bookshelf, eating away the minds and intentions of its characters, dissolving romances and adventures into a hideous morass of uniform consistency.
    Prominent evolutionist Daniel Dennett, author of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, wrote that evolution is like a “universal acid” that cannot be contained in its scientific vial.  It spills over onto every traditional belief and transforms everything it touches.  For an example, look what it does to literature.  John Whitfield, a freelance science writer from London, writing in Nature,1 explored the concept of “Literary darwinism”2 as a form of “Textual selection.”  In the article, a cartoon shows a monkey with Darwin’s face pondering Homer’s Iliad.  What is “literary darwinism”?  It is looking at all the characters and actions in literature as outworkings of the processes of evolution.  It is reading literature through the glasses of an evolutionary theory of mind.  It interprets every action of the characters as sexual strategies to pass on one’s genes.

When, at the beginning of The Iliad – and Western literature – King Agamemnon steals Achilles’ slave-girl, Briseis, the king tells the world’s greatest warrior that he is doing so “to let you know that I am more powerful than you, and to teach others not to bandy words with me and openly defy their king”.  But literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall believes that the true focus of Homer’s epic is not royal authority, but royal genes.
    Gottschall is one of a group of researchers, calling themselves literary darwinists, devoted to studying literature using the concepts of evolutionary biology and the empirical, quantitative methods of the sciences.  “Women in Homer are not a proxy for status and honour,” says Gottschall.  “At bottom, the men in the stories are motivated by reproductive concerns.  Every homeric raid involves killing the men and abducting the women.”  The violent world of the epics, he says, reflects a society where men fought for scarce mates and chieftains had access to as many women as slaves and concubines.  And he thinks that everything written since Homer is open to similar analysis. (Emphasis added in all quotes.)

Lest one think this is an idle pastime of a few academic elitists, Whitfield explains that literary darwinists are on “a crusade, an attempt to shake up literary criticism.”  They believe they have the scientific approach, founded on an evolutionary theory of mind, that will bring an objective “truth” to literary criticism.  Approaching texts with reference only to “the subjective and the social”, in their opinion, fails to understand “human motives and cognitive biases” that have been shaped by evolution.
    This sounds like a new variety of social deconstruction, but its promoters say it’s not.  “The problem, say the literary darwinists, is that for the past few decades the humanities have, in the case of critics deconstructing texts, denied the need for a theory of human nature, asserting that the study of texts can be concerned with nothing outside those texts.”  According to one literary darwinist, earlier forms of social deconstruction only got parts of the truth but missed the important thing:

Those influenced by freudianism, for example, might read a novel looking for hints of a child’s sexual desire for its parent.  A marxist would seek out economic and class conflicts.  [Joseph] Carroll [U of Missouri, St. Louis] has no truck with this: “The theories up to this point have all had a little bit of the truth, but have also all been fundamentally flawed,” he says.  “None comes to terms with the fundamental facts of human evolution.”

How does literary darwinism work in practice?  Whitfield gives a few examples that illustrate the breadth of the territory eyed by this new crusade:

  • Poetry:  One literary darwinist “uses ideas from cognitive science in her analysis of the mother-child bond in William Wordsworth’s Prelude.
  • Novels:  “A darwinian analysis of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, he [Carroll] says, goes beyond the simple idea that women look for fortune in men, to show how such animal concerns are filtered through the vast flexibility of human behaviour, cultural conditions and individual variation.

    “I don’t look at Pride and Prejudice and try to sort out what is biological and what is cultural,” says Carroll.  “I look at it and examine the way underlying biological dispositions are organized in a specific cultural ecologyNobody in the novel escapes the problems of mate selection, status and forming alliances.  But the characters also integrate these concerns with human qualities, such as intelligence, character, morals and cultivation.”  The noble, romantic characters, such as Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy, integrate successfully, hiding their reproductive issues beneath their social graces.  The more comic characters, such as Elizabeth Bennett’s mother, do not (although in marrying off her daughters, she is quite the evolutionary success).

  • Comedy:  “Romantic comedies play upon the audience’s pleasure at seeing reproductive strategies rewarded.”
  • Tragedy:  Tragedies, like when Medea kills her children, “appeal by invoking recoil from maladaptive acts.”
  • Folk literature:  Gottschall found that “the majority of folk tales feature brave heroes marrying beautiful heroines, with the two living happily ever after.”

To the literary darwinists, therefore, everything in the arts and humanities is fair game.  Novels and poems, epic tales and movies, histories and fantasies – indeed, everything written about the human condition – are the spoils of war as the scientists invade the humanities, gathering rich data on the “natural history of our species.”  As they plunder, texts are robbed of their original meaning and whatever the authors thought they were saying.  Everything must now be reinterpreted according to the Laws of Natural Selection and Sexual Selection.
    Like any conquerors, the literary darwinists argue they are improving a bad situation.  They feel they are filling a void left by a long tradition of literary criticism that has “lost its place” and is wandering in a sphere of “obscurantism and irrelevance” with arguments settled solely by the one who “deploys the sharpest rhetoric and the best memory.”  In its place, literary darwinism offers “testable, durable knowledge” by applying “evolutionary psychology” to “work out what a story is ‘really’ about, not in some ultimate, metaphysical sense, but in the sense of whether a wide range of people interpret a work in the same way.”
    Does this mean that literary darwinism is concerned primarily with attaining a new social consensus, with political ramifications?  It seems so.  Whitfield ends, “Ultimately, the theories of human nature that become widely held in a society will influence how that society believes people respond to their environments, and how they should be treated.”  The literary darwinists are not just trying to toss one more opinion into the ring.  They really are on a crusade.  Whitfield quotes Gottschall,3 “Literary scholars aren’t harmless,” Gottschall says.  “When we get it wrong it matters.”

1John Whitfield, “Literary darwinism: Textual selection,” Nature 439, 388-389 (26 January 2006) | doi:10.1038/439388a.
2Notice that Whitfield’s frequent use of uncapitalized darwinism, darwinist and darwinian demonstrates that Darwin’s name has become an idiomatic parcel of the English language.
3Jonathan Gottschall is co-editor of a series of essays on literary darwinism, entitled, The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative (eds Gottschall, J. & Wilson, D. S., Northwestern Univ. Press, Evanston, Illinois, 2005).  He also has an upcoming book, The Rape of Troy: Evolution, Violence, and the World of Homer.

Friends, Romans, first Corinthians, lend me your ears.  I come to bury Darwin, not to praise him.  The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.  So let it be with Darwin.  The noble Gottschall hath told you Homer was ambitious: if it were so, it were a grievous fault, and grievously hath Darwin answered it…. O judgement!  thou art fled to brutish beasts, and men have lost their reason.  Bear with me; my heart is in the coffin there with Wordsworth, and I must pause till it come back to me.
    If you have had enough of Darwin’s acerbic dregs, if you shudder at the destruction left in his wake, if this reduction of all that is noble and praiseworthy into sexual actions of mindless selfish genes leaves you horrified (realizing that no land is exempt, not even Narnia nor Jerusalem), if you have woken up to realize this is a crusade of titanic proportions, if you understand that Dennett’s universal acid has congealed into The Blob that is on the move, swallowing whole universities and institutions (12/21/2005), then rise to the occasion.  The darwinists have a vulnerability that neutralizes their acid and turns it into harmless vapor.  If you were perceptive, you caught it in their very words.  Joseph Carroll spoke of “the truth.”  Say those three little words that make the orcs freeze in their tracks and stab their own chests: What is Truth?

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