Adaptation: On Literary Darwinism
It leads you out of the maze into a new gaudy lecture-room where MacCann, with one hand on The Origin of Species and the other hand on the new testament, tells you that you admired the great flanks of Venus because you felt that she would bear you burly offspring and admired her great breasts because you felt that she would give good milk to her children and yours. —James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
The appeal of evolutionary psychology is easy to grasp. Just think of Annie Hall. The last few decades have left us so profoundly disoriented about the most urgent personal matters--gender roles, sexual norms, the possibility of creating lasting romantic relationships, not to mention absolutely everything to do with family structure--that it's no surprise to find people embracing a theory that promises to restore order. Once we had religion to tell us who we are. Then, for a while, we had Freud. Now we have evolutionary psychology, which, as an attempt to construct a science of human nature on Darwinian principles, marshals two of the most powerful ideas in contemporary culture: science, our most authoritative way of knowing, and nature, our highest ground of moral appeal. No wonder the field is catnip to journalists and armchair theorists alike. Equip yourself with a few basic concepts--natural selection, inclusive fitness, mating choice--and you, too, can explain the mysteries of human existence. That evolutionary psychology has no real intellectual credibility, that mainstream biology regards it as a house of sand, rarely seems to come up. EP is the Malcolm Gladwell of science: facile and glib, but so persuasive and charming that no one wants to ruin the fun.
To be fair, the problem lies less in the field's goals than in its claims. Much of its opposition is misguided and out-of-date. For a long time, evolutionary approaches to human behavior were discredited by the specter of Social Darwinism. More recently, the concept of a unitary human nature has been condemned as a form of bourgeois universalism--that is, of disguised ethnocentrism. But those who reject the notion of human psychology as a product of evolution (that is, of nature rather than culture) would undoubtedly recoil at the idea that human physiology is not a product of evolution. The only alternative is creationism. And if our bodies have evolved, then so have our minds, which a materialist philosophy (one that doesn't depend on supernatural entities like the Christian soul) must regard as products of our bodies--of our brains, nerves, sense organs and so forth. Surely no one would dispute that there is a universal bee nature or dog nature or chimpanzee nature. Why not then acknowledge, at least in principle, a universal human nature, however various its elaborations in culture?
The question is, What does it consist of, how did it arise and can we discover it? Here is where evolutionary psychology falls down. EP claims that the human mind evolved in the Pleistocene, the 1.6 million years during which Homo sapiens emerged on the African savanna. EP seeks to identify apparently innate and cross-culturally universal aspects of human behavior (like speech), then tries to construct scenarios to explain why such behaviors would have been adaptive--would have promoted individual or collective survival and reproduction--in the Pleistocene environment. This all sounds reasonable until you discover that: (1) we don't actually know what the Pleistocene environment looked like; (2) we don't know how our Pleistocene ancestors lived; and (3) we now believe that evolution might happen a lot faster than we used to think, so much of our psychology may not be a product of the Pleistocene at all but of the 10,000 years since the emergence of civilization. There are other problems with the stories that EP likes to make up about how we got to be the way we are. They still have no support in genetics. If something's not genetic, it's not evolved. Also, not all behaviors (or physiological structures) are the result of selection pressures. Some are byproducts of other capacities, as literacy clearly is. Some are the result of functional shifts (insects' wings, for example, seem to have developed at first to regulate heat). Finally, there are some deeply ingrained human behaviors that seem very hard to justify in adaptive terms.
It is with a particular class of these that literary Darwinism--and Darwinian aesthetics in general--is concerned. Human beings expend an enormous amount of energy doing things that don't seem to have any survival value: singing, dancing, painting caves, decorating spears and, above all, telling stories. (Think how much time you spend consuming fictional narratives--novels, movies, TV shows--in one form or another.) The nascent field of Darwinian aesthetics seeks to account for the art-making impulse in evolutionary psychological terms. If art is a product of the mind, and the mind is a product of evolution, then art is a product of evolution. Again, as an intellectual project, this is perfectly valid. But there are also strong selection pressures pushing in the direction of such an approach. Evolutionary thinking is, at present, an aggressively expansive species within the academic world, a kind of emergent Homo sapiens outcompeting the old-school Neanderthals across a wide swath of intellectual territory. Having colonized the social sciences--where it has begun to displace the view, predominant throughout the twentieth century, that the mind is a highly malleable product of culture--it has now set its sights on the humanities, the last area of resistance. To subdue it would mean realizing E.O. Wilson's dream of "consilience" (Wilson is, among many other things, the godfather of evolutionary psychology), the unification of the domains of knowledge, from physics all the way up to aesthetics, on the basis of a single set of principles.
The humanities, meanwhile, are undergoing their own struggle for survival within the academic ecosystem. Budgets are shrinking, students are disappearing, faculty positions are being lost, institutional prestige has all but evaporated. As the Darwinists are quick to point out, a lot of this suffering is self-inflicted. In literary studies in particular, the last several decades have witnessed the baleful reign of "Theory," a mash-up of Derridean deconstruction, Foucauldian social theory, Lacanian psychoanalysis and other assorted abstrusiosities, the overall tendency of which has been to cut the field off from society at large and from the main currents of academic thought, not to mention the common reader and common sense. Theory, which tends toward dogmatism, hermeticism, hero worship and the suppression of doctrinal deviation--not exactly the highest of mental virtues--rejects the possibility of objective knowledge and, in its commitment to the absolute nature of cultural "difference," is dead set against the notion of human universals. Theory has led literary studies into an intellectual and institutional cul-de-sac, and now that its own energies have been exhausted (the last major developments date to the early '90s), it has left it there.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Literary Darwinism's reductive tendencies enforce an impoverished view of both literature and life. Because it deals only with fiction and drama, the narrative modes, the field ignores one of the three major branches of literature, lyric poetry, altogether. Then there is the sensitivity with which it handles the things it does address. "Genre," Carroll says, "is largely a matter of feeling--tragedy is sad, and comedy happy." First of all, genre is not largely a matter of feeling; it is largely a matter of form. Second, Carroll's scheme leaves no room for mixed cases like dark comedy or tragicomedy. Third, Oedipus Rex or King Lear may leave us feeling many things--stunned, emptied, exhilarated, exalted; Aristotle's catharsis of pity and terror will probably never be improved upon as a description of that unique state--but "sad" is not one of them. Another study cracks the conundrum of Hamlet. It turns out the play is about choosing between personal self-interest (taking over the kingdom by killing your uncle) and genetic self-interest (letting Mummy provide you with a few siblings, who would carry a share of your genes). Aside from being completely daft, and missing everything important about the play, this reading ignores the fact that, with a 30-year-old son, Gertrude is not going to be having any more babies anytime soon.
The exception to all this is The Rape of Troy. Gottschall's study of Homer is prudent, patient, thoroughly researched and very smart. Gottschall argues that the violence of Homeric society reflects the struggle among men over reproductive resources--mainly women, of course--in self-reinforcing conditions of scarcity. He draws not only on the Iliad and the Odyssey but on archaeology, anthropology and the history of Homeric scholarship to illuminate neglected aspects of the epics and put together a wide-ranging understanding of the behavior of Homer's characters, holding out the promise that Darwinian insights might, as part of a far larger battery of critical tools, prove useful to literary scholarship. Still, there are problems. Gottschall can explain the ordinary course of Homeric behavior, but he can't explain the exceptions. He can't explain moments when the meaning of an action is literary rather than anthropological (like Odysseus' "bizarre cruelty" in concealing himself from his old father, the climax of the theme of disguise), and he can't explain behavior that rises above the norm. In other words, he can't explain the poems' essential subject: heroism. Why does Achilles sacrifice himself to avenge a beloved friend when his status as a great warrior is already secure and he knows he can retire to a long and fertile life at home? Why does Odysseus risk years of peril at sea to return to a wife who can no longer provide him with offspring when he could be scattering his seed across the Mediterranean?
In any case, Gottschall has moved on to other things. His second book represents an initial glimpse at the brave new world of the "new humanities" that its title foresees. Gottschall doesn't just want to make literary studies Darwinian, he wants to make it quantitative. So we get statistical analyses of folk tale collections designed to show that the obsession with female beauty is not confined to the West, or that romantic love is a human universal. Forthcoming work, undertaken with Carroll and others, uses polling data to disprove the postmodern belief in "the death of the author" by showing that writers really do have an effect on the way people react to their books. There are several things to say about this and similar work. For one thing, a lot of it isn't literary at all. It simply uses literature as a source of data for social-scientific investigation, and it takes no cognizance of literary form--that is, of what makes literature different from other modes of discourse. For another, unlike fields such as criminology or public health that were transformed by the introduction of statistical methods, literary studies is not concerned with large classes of phenomena of which individual cases are merely interchangeable and aggregable examples. It is concerned, precisely, with individual cases, and very few of them at that: the rare works of value that stand out from the heap of dross produced in every age.
Finally, these common-sense conclusions about beauty, love and the death of the author are noteworthy only in relation to the nonsense of Theory. That such arguments need to be made in the first place only shows what a pass we have come to. If literary Darwinism does nothing more than discredit the old paradigm, it will have done very well indeed. But it will, I fear, do a great deal more. The Darwinists have a research program, and few things in the academy are more powerful than that. Gottschall wants to put readers in MRI machines to test their responses, though he is also willing to take advantage of less expensive technologies, like "simple salivary swabs that can provide hormonal indicators of emotions experienced during reading." Carroll lauds a study that analyzed the creative process by giving subjects a personality test "to determine their position on a scale of Machiavellianism," then had them write short stories. Hearing of such remarkable schemes, I feel I've been transported, with Gulliver, to the Academy of Lagado, where one sage endeavored to extract sunbeams from cucumbers, and another sought to restore ordure to the condition of food.
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.
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?
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.