Adaptation: On Literary Darwinism | The Nation


Adaptation: On Literary Darwinism

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Seeking to displace Theory, literary Darwinism may end by becoming it. Each is reductive. Each leads in outlandish directions that make sense only to initiates. Each has a penchant for hero worship. (For Dutton, the father of natural selection is not "Darwin," but "Darwin himself." Carroll makes a trinity of Darwin, Wilson and Pinker.) Each is predictable. If Marxist criticism is always about the rise of the bourgeoisie, literary Darwinism is always about mate selection or status competition. Each looks to literature only for confirmation of its beliefs. Shakespeare, it turns out, agrees with Darwin, as he once agreed with Freud and Frye. (Though if science is the exclusive standard of truth for the Darwinists, it's not clear why it matters whom Shakespeare agrees with.) Authors who won't get with the program--who don't deal with mate selection or status competition, or refuse to solicit our attention in evolutionarily correct ways--are demoted in rank. (Darwinian aesthetics exhibits a strong antimodernist animus, as if it were unnatural to prefer Conrad to Kipling, or Rothko to Rockwell.) That so many of the greatest works of literary art--the Iliad, the Aeneid, the Divine Comedy, Don Quixote, Hamlet, King Lear, Paradise Lost, Faust, Moby-Dick, the novels of Dostoyevsky, Joyce, Woolf and Coetzee--are ultimately concerned not with mate selection or status competition, however seriously they might consider such matters, but with the human place in the cosmos; that such a commitment is precisely what begins to distinguish these works from the kinds of things that are better studied with polling data and cheek swabs; that the finest books demand a criticism that attends to what makes them unique, not what makes them typical: these are not possibilities that literary Darwinism envisions.

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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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It is all too easy to foresee a future for literary criticism of MRI machines and statistical charts. (Finally, something the rest of the university can relate to!) English departments will turn themselves over to brain scans just as they turned themselves over to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When that future arrives, what will the classroom look like? Will it be a new gaudy lecture room where Brian Boyd, with one hand on The Origin of Species and the other hand on Consilience, tells you that "We may compare Lear's rage with the fury of an alpha male chimpanzee deposed from dominance, or note the sudden spike in levels of the stress hormone cortisol in animals that suffer loss in rank"? That really would be the death of humanism, not to mention the English major. Even if literary Darwinism were grounded in real science, it could never replace the subjective encounter with a text that lies at the heart of all reading and should lie at the heart of all pedagogy and all criticism. It is not Theory that has prevented literary studies from becoming a positivistic discipline; it is the nature of literature itself. That interpretation succeeds interpretation in a seemingly endless cycle is not a weakness of criticism but its essential strength. The great works persist because they have the power, in every age, to make us ask the most important questions, which are the ones that have no answers, or rather, that have only personal answers: What are we doing here? What does it feel like to be alive? What should we do with our time on earth?

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Darwinian aesthetics abjures the notion that science can replace art, but its idea of the latter is curiously small. For Dutton, the purpose of art is to "amuse, shock, titillate, and enrapture." For Boyd, "Science can explain human nature, but art's role is not to explain but to engage and to evoke." Both seem to miss the fact that science and art are different ways of knowing, equally valid but incommensurate. I can give you a scientific explanation of a moonrise, or I can say, with Verlyn Klinkenborg, that the moon rose like "a fat man climbing a ladder." The first understanding is rational and objective; the second is emotive, experiential, even somatic. Literary Darwinism will point out that the second can itself be explained in scientific terms, since the perception of metaphor is undoubtedly mediated by brain cells and neurotransmitters, just as Lear must have felt a wicked spike in his cortisol levels. In other words, while art is subjective, criticism doesn't need to be. But it does. The purpose of criticism is to understand the experience of art in experiential terms--in human terms, not numerical ones.

There is much talk among the literary Darwinists and their allies about not wanting to go back to the days of "old-boy humanism," with its "impressionistic" reading and "belletristic" writing. (Only in English departments could good writing be considered a bad thing.) But no matter the age or gender of the practitioner, any really worthwhile criticism will share the expressive qualities of literature itself. It will be personal, because art is personal. It will not be definitive; it will not be universally valid. It will be a product of its times, though it will see beyond those times. It will not satisfy the dean's desire for accumulable knowledge, the parent's desire for a marketable skill or the Congressman's desire for a generation of technologists. All it will do is help us understand who we are, where we came from and where we're going. Until the literary academy is willing to stand up in public and defend that mission without apology, it will never find its way out of the maze.

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