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Adaptation: On Literary Darwinism | The Nation

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Adaptation: On Literary Darwinism

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Enter the literary Darwinists, a still-small but militant insurgency dedicated to overthrowing the existing order in favor of a diametrically opposite approach. Their goal is not only to reseat literary studies on a basis of evolutionary thinking but to found a "new humanities," as the title of one book puts it, on scientific principles: empirical, quantitative, systematic, positivist, progressive. Instead of theory giving way to equally fanciful theory and interpretation succeeding equally subjective interpretation, literary studies would henceforth involve the gradual accumulation of objectively verifiable knowledge and thus a "shrinking [of] the space of possible explanation" such as has occurred in the sciences, where all research must either situate itself within the framework of existing theory or challenge it directly. And just as chemistry rests on physics and biology on chemistry, the foundation on which the humanities would rest, following the logic of consilience, would be the new biological theory of the human mind (the thing that produces the humanities in the first place): evolutionary psychology.

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William Deresiewicz
William Deresiewicz is a Nation contributing writer whose Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and...

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Literary Darwinism dates back to the mid-'90s, with the publication of Joseph Carroll's Evolution and Literary Theory, but the field has picked up steam of late (and like all things evolutionary psychological, garnered a healthy amount of media attention). The Literary Animal, with contributions from more than a dozen scholars, came out in 2005. Last year, Jonathan Gottschall, the field's most prominent young voice (and energetic propagandist), published two works, The Rape of Troy, a Darwinian study of Homer, and Literature, Science, and a New Humanities, a blueprint for disciplinary transformation. Denis Dutton's The Art Instinct, which covers the arts more generally, came out earlier this year. Dutton, founder of the Arts & Letters Daily website, is also editor of Philosophy and Literature, which has become the go-to journal for Darwinian literary scholarship--no doubt in part because such work is shunned by mainstream academic publications. (The tendency among literary Darwinists to cast themselves as an embattled minority may be self-dramatizing, not to mention self-pitying, but that doesn't mean it's wrong, and it explains their desire to appeal over the heads of the gatekeepers to the popular press.) Finally, Brian Boyd, the Nabokov scholar, has just produced On the Origin of Stories, which, as the title suggests, aspires to be a major synthesis.

The literary Darwinian project--and that of Darwinian aesthetics in general--falls into two broad categories: theory and criticism. The first seeks to explain why literature or art evolved in the first place, the second to understand individual works, authors, genres and so forth in the light of Darwinian insights. As a theoretical effort, literary Darwinism is a direct extension of evolutionary psychology, though in some ways it sets itself against the parent discipline. Evolutionary psychology has had a tendency to trivialize the arts. Steven Pinker, EP's popularizer par excellence, sees the arts as nothing more than mental "cheesecake," useless technologies designed to stimulate evolved pleasure centers the way junk food hijacks our once-adaptive tendency to seek out fats and sweets. Pinker even warns against "invent[ing] functions for activities that lack design merely because we want to ennoble them with the imprimatur of biological adaptiveness."

Darwinian aesthetics has responded to this challenge along a number of lines. Carroll, still a major player in the field, argues that fiction in particular evolved as a form of cognitive regulation. With the vast new realms of mental possibility opened up by the explosion of human intelligence around 40,000 years ago, storytelling, with its integration of the emotional and the conceptual, emerged as a way of bringing order to our newly complex inner world. Dutton, whose chapter on fiction largely follows Carroll, sees music, dance and the visual arts in terms of sexual rather than natural selection. In natural selection, the environment determines which organisms will survive long enough to reproduce. In sexual selection, organisms themselves--in most cases, the female of the species--decide whom to reproduce with. Sexual selection was Darwin's answer to the conundrum of phenomena like the peacock's tail, anatomical features that seem superfluous and even maladaptive. Peacocks have big tails, the thinking goes, because peahens like them, and peahens like them because they provide a handy "fitness test." A healthy tail means a healthy peacock--a peacock with good genes to pass on to its offspring. This, Dutton claims, is why music, art and dance first developed: to woo women with displays of fitness, a history still evident, he says, in the overwhelming proportion of popular songs that talk of love.

Boyd, a clearer and more careful thinker than most of these other writers, rebuts the sexual-selection hypothesis by noting that animals mainly sing for purposes of cooperation, not sexual display. His highly intelligent, impressively learned and patiently elaborated theory of the origin of fiction and the other arts begins with the idea that art is cognitive play. Humans and other intelligent species engage in prolonged periods of physical play as children--mock combat, feats of balance and coordination--in order to train themselves to deal with situations they will face as adults. Art, beginning with the songs of mothers and infants, trains our minds. Cognition is, first and foremost, pattern recognition, and art is concentrated pattern. But humans are also intensely social animals--the source of our evolutionary success--and the life of small human groups, as primate studies suggest (and everyday experience confirms), requires a constant effort of social cognition: eye contact, shared attention, awareness of status hierarchies, sensitivity to what others may be feeling, intending, discovering, believing. That's where storytelling comes in. For what are our stories about if not the interpersonal dynamics of small human groups, whether the warriors at Troy or the courtiers at Elsinore? Fiction, Boyd claims, is the way we train our minds for the vital business of social existence.

Other benefits follow. Fiction extends our range of experience, teaches empathy, develops the prosocial emotions and enhances creativity by encouraging us to imagine alternative possibilities. This is all very attractive. I, for one, agree with Boyd that fiction confers these blessings, and while Pinker's ideas of nobility may differ a bit from my own (survival not being, in my view, the highest of aspirations), I am perfectly prepared to accept that fiction's functions emerged for evolutionary reasons. Diffusion of Boyd's ideas might even, in our utilitarian and scientistic society, restore the prestige of the arts and humanities, and who knows, maybe even their funding. Imagine the Times headline: Researchers Find Arts Have Value.

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