Adaptation: On Literary Darwinism | The Nation


Adaptation: On Literary Darwinism

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But the attractiveness of a theory is no brief for its validity. Because storytelling, absent literacy, leaves no record, Boyd's reasoning rests entirely on analogy and deduction. Primates do this, children do that, contemporary hunter-gatherers do the other; therefore this is what primitive humans must have done. Fiction serves these functions now; therefore it always has. This kind of thinking may be clever, but it isn't science. It also overlooks the crucial phenomenon of functional shift. What evolved for one purpose can end up developing many others. It further assumes that we know not only when storytelling began, 40,000 or 100,000 years ago rather than 10,000, but when fictional storytelling began. For the question of fictionality is one of the most vexed in this whole area of study. It is easy to see why ancient hunter-gatherers might have told factual stories: "When Ogg tried to cross the big woods, he was eaten by a pig"; "Wilma found much good eggs beneath the spotted bird." But why would anyone want to tell stories that don't have that kind of truth value? More to the point, when did we start doing so? The question becomes sharper when we remember that stories that look fictional to us may not have seemed so to their original audience. Homer did not think he was making fiction. Indeed, when the novel began to re-establish itself during the Renaissance, it took several centuries for European culture to accustom itself to the notion of fictionality--the idea that something can be true without being factual.

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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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Boyd has indeed produced a theory, but only in the common sense of the word: a bright idea that doesn't have a lot of evidence to back it up. Much the same can be said of literary Darwinism in general, which necessarily shares the vices of its parent discipline: armchair speculation, blithe conjecture and bald assertion. ("Writing is much younger than cave painting, but fictional storytelling is far older.") "No doubt" and "it seems very likely" stand in for observation and proof. Hypotheses in one chapter become axioms in the next. Dutton quotes Pinker on the universality of language--listening to unknown tongues, Pinker says, "I imagine seeing through the rhythms to the structures underneath, and sense that we all have the same minds"--without seeming to grasp that Steven Pinker's feelings do not constitute scientific evidence. And while most of these writers are more sensible, Carroll trades freely in the ethnocentrism and lack of historical perspective that have brought EP into disrepute ("Western achievements do in fact represent the highest level yet attained by any culture"; "society...is still in the process of conducting experiments in such matters as dissolving the nuclear family"). He also suffers from a bad case of what we might call Frye's disease (after the great critic Northrop Frye), an excessive attachment to taxonomic schemas (the two "psycho-physiological" orientations, the "five factors of personality," the "seven basic emotions").

Most important, the Darwinists commit the very sin of which they (rightly) accuse the acolytes of Theory: ignoring contradictory evidence. Dutton may be the worst offender. To take just one example, he opens The Art Instinct by discussing a study that found that when people around the world were polled about the kind of painting they most wished to see, the overwhelming preference was for a landscape with people, water and animals. Dutton interprets this predilection in evolutionary psychological terms: humans want to look at scenes that resemble the Pleistocene savanna. But he not only dismisses Arthur Danto's culturalist interpretation--that the preference reflects the global diffusion of Western calendar art--without subjecting it to serious evaluation, he also neglects evidence that undermines his own theory. As he notes, the same study discovered that the world's favorite color is blue, not green, and others have found that landscape preferences typically include post-Pleistocene features like roads, cottages and fields. He also fails to mention that only three of the fourteen countries represented in the preference poll lie outside of Europe and North America, or that the respondents were self-selected.

The tendency of Dutton's ideas to disintegrate under pressure is typical of evolutionary psychology. Rather than testifying to the novelty and vigor of the field, the diversity of theories within Darwinian aesthetics--Carroll's cognitive regulation, Dutton's sexual selection, Boyd's cognitive play and so forth--merely shows how feeble they all are. Choosing among them would be like trying to decide which imaginary girlfriend to sleep with. Besides, the true test of a theory is application. As Boyd says, "Evolutionary literary criticism will be worth a detour into biology and psychology only if it deepens our understanding and appreciation of literature." So far, the record is not good, and for entirely predictable reasons. Evolutionary psychology is a theory about what all human beings have in common. It cannot, by definition, tell us why individual cultures differ from one another, still less why individual works or authors do. But such differences are precisely what criticism wants to know: how Roman theater emerged from Greek forms; what made the novel such an important mode of expression in nineteenth-century Russia; why love looks different in Petrarch than it does in Sade. Answering such questions requires not a generic idea of human nature but a fine-grained and deeply informed knowledge of historically particular human cultures.

Again and again, Darwinian criticism sets out to say something specific, only to end up telling us something general. An essay that purports to explain Shakespeare's preeminence as a playwright argues instead that drama appeals to us because it portrays the social dynamics of small human groups (as evidenced by the fact that Shakespeare's casts range from eighteen to forty-seven characters). Boyd devotes a hundred pages to the Odyssey without saying anything he couldn't have said with Anna Karenina or Middlemarch or Proust. The discussion is nothing more than an illustration of Darwinian ideas, not an explication of Homeric meanings. Indeed, it's an illustration of largely one idea, that before an artist can even worry about meanings, he needs to figure out how to hold his audience's attention. If the point sounds banal, that is squarely within the emerging disciplinary tradition. I have read any number of Darwinian essays about Pride and Prejudice (one critic calls it their "fruit fly"), but I have yet to read one that told me anything interesting. The idea that the novel is about mate selection does not count as an original contribution.

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