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On the Origin of Novels? Encountering Literary Darwinism

By posted at 6:00 am on February 6, 2014 22

Twenty minutes into Ridley Scott’s most recent addition to the Alien franchise, the film’s female protagonist, played by Noomi Rapace, attempts to explain to her crew why the scientific vessel Prometheus has spent four years travelling to the faraway moon of LV-223. While expounding her theory of how life on planet Earth was begun by an ancient, enigmatic species dubbed “Engineers,” the vessel’s zoologist, played by Rafe Spell, is unable to contain his skepticism: “Do you have anything to back that up? I mean, look: if you’re willing to discount three centuries of Darwinism, that’s…[sardonic thumbs-up]…but how do you know?”

This scene aboard the Prometheus serves as a useful parallel to the debate which forms the backdrop to this essay. If we swap 2093 for the present, deep space for this planet’s university English departments, and the origin of humanity for the constitution of modern literary study, we have the basic features of the ongoing clash between literary Darwinism and the rest of the literary establishment. Because the accusation that literary Darwinists level at their colleagues is identical to that of Prometheus’s exasperated zoologist: one of discounting the whole of evolutionary theory, in exchange for their own inadequate and vacuous ideas.

Why should readers of The Millions care about a dispute occurring amidst the cloistered halls of English faculties? Aren’t most debates within literary academia so esoteric, so riddled with obscurantist jargon, that they bear very little relation to the actual reading of books?

Not in the case of literary Darwinism. On the contrary; this self-described “robust guerilla band” intend, eventually, to be able to tell us a number of very straightforward things: why we write, why we read, and why we write the things we write and read the things we read.

coverDefined simply, literary Darwinism is the practice of using the theory of evolution to understand books. Just as a Marxist critic would emphasize the appearance of class conflict, or the postcolonial critic would focus on the influence of a bygone empire, a literary Darwinist would pick up a novel and highlight the various ways in which they see evolution doing its thing. (And they invariably do see it.) Where another critic might discuss how Pride and Prejudice dramatises the search for self-understanding, or evokes the stultifying conformity of Victorian Britain, a literary Darwinist would stress the fact that all the women compete to marry high-status men, thereby complying with the Darwinian idea that females seek out mates who will assure the success of their genetic offspring.

covercoverWhere a historicist critic might investigate Faust’s roots in Polish folkore, a literary Darwinist would focus on how it upholds the essential moral character of most literature. (And in turn, via its prescriptive morality, helps evolving societies to unify and thrive.)

This summarizes the two main strains of Literary Darwinism. At the crude end, is old-fashioned textual analysis, but through a Darwinian lens — as in the Pride and Prejudice example. This mostly takes the form of uncovering innate patterns of human behaviour: childbearing, the acquisition of resources, intergroup competition and cooperation, etc. Sometimes this is carried out with nuance and care, as in Jonathan Gottschall’s The Rape of Troy: Evolution, Violence and the World of Homer (2008). Other times, though, it can produce analysis which makes Sparknotes read like James Wood. Witness the following, from the pop-sciencey Madame Bovary’s Ovaries: “Females are egg makers; males, sperm squirters. The truly important thing about Othello wasn’t the color of his skin, his age or his war record. Rather, Othello was all about sperm; Desdemona, eggs.”

covercoverOn the more interesting (and academic) end of things, the Literary Darwinists are interested in the adaptive function of literature; as in the Faust example. Their theories vary, from those who posit that storytelling is essentially a form of sexual display (à la Geoffrey Miller’s The Mating Mind) to those who see it as a way of constructing a shared social identity. A few of them entertain the idea that these imaginative abilities are evolutionary by-products (also known as “spandrels”); the offshoots of other, more obviously practical cognitive developments. Most of them, though, posit that the literary imagination is a specific, evolved trait, which — like the opposable thumb, or the neocortex — enabled our Pleistocene-era descendants to better survive their environment. Thus Jonathan Gottschall declares that “fiction is a powerful and ancient virtual reality technology that…allows our brains to practice reacting to the kinds of challenges that are, and always were, most crucial to our success as a species.” And Brian Boyd — whose On the Origin of Stories is probably the best single work of literary Darwinism — states that “by refining and strengthening our sociality, by making us readier to use the resources of the imagination, and by raising our confidence in shaping life on our own terms, [literature] fundamentally alters our relation to the world. The survival consequences may be difficult to tabulate, but they are profound.”

Throughout all forms of their analysis, though — from crude readings of Othello to more sensitive works of scholarship — the literary Darwinists are united in epistemological stance. All of them reject the so-called Standard Social Science Model, as famously castigated in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate. They are philosophical materialists, and they believe we are first and foremost biological beings hardwired for a number of behaviour patterns. Indeed, most of the literary Darwinists portray social constructionism and its intellectual products — Derridean deconstruction, Foucauldian social theory, psychoanalysis — as something akin to an intellectual tragedy, and there is nothing that many of them enjoy more than mocking lit crit’s most polarizing product: capital-T Theory. Because Theory, as they (not without justification) see it, is just endlessly rococo speculation. And what the literary Darwinists want is something they see as more often reserved to the other side of campus: what Gottschall is fond of referring to as “durable knowledge.”

coverAnd this is where literary Darwinism gets interesting. Because far from being a niche academic concern, the movement, small though it is, plays into a much wider cultural tension. Carroll, Gottschall and their companions are wedded to a narrative of empiricism, positivism, quantification, and progress. They are triumphant rationalists. One can be pretty certain, for example, that as well as casting out Freud and Marx, they have little time for conspiracy theories or alternative medicine. And their aspirations are nothing if not lofty. As literary Darwinism’s most high-profile advocate, the American biologist E.O. Wilson, wrote in his foreword to the 2005 collection The Literary Animal: “if not only human nature but its outermost literary productions can be solidly connected to biological roots, it will be one of the great events of intellectual history. Science and the humanities united!

The problem, of course, is that all this comes off as an attempt to explain books. To reduce literature to sex, survival, and status. And understandably, this gets some people — particularly some book-lovers – a little riled. So we have a Guardian columnist declare that “literature is not an evolutionary join-the-dots…Such interpretations strip literature down to an impoverished universalism: a bland and neutral manuscript where ciphers of the same biological impulses and selfish genes can be repeated ad infinitum.” Similarly, writing a few weeks ago, the longtime critic of literary Darwinism William Deresiewicz rages that “Pride and Prejudice is about mate selection. Hamlet struggles to choose between personal and genetic self-interest…It isn’t even like using a chainsaw instead of a scalpel; it’s like using a chainsaw instead of a stethoscope.”

Such accusations are nothing new, of course. The idea that scientific explanation guts the aesthetic experience dates at least as far back as the Romantic poet John Keats’s remark that Isaac Newton destroyed the poetry of the rainbow by “reducing it to the prismatic colours.” And the entirety of continental philosophy from Hegel through to Derrida rejects the notion that the natural sciences have a monopoly on the comprehension of phenomena.

covercoverThe problem, though, is that one finds it hard not to sympathize with both camps. (I’m somewhat cheapening the debate here by presenting it as a simple one-on-one, but still.) On the one hand, it really does feel reductive to talk about Jane Austen as simply complex competition for mates. Even Jonathan Gottschall himself recognizes that “fictions, fantasies, dreams…they are the last bastion of magic. They are the one place where science cannot — should not — penetrate, reducing ancient mysteries to electrochemical storms in the brain or timeless warfare among selfish genes.” And his counter — “But I disagree. Science adds to wonder, it doesn’t dissolve it.” — can’t help but feel defensive and somewhat grasping, reminding one of the way Richard Dawkins constantly appeals to “wonder” as a panacea for a world he himself admits, as in River Out of Eden, is underpinned by “nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” There’s no escaping it: to say that Anna Karenina is first and foremost about sperm and eggs feels…wrong. What’s more, the literary Darwinists can be guilty of massaging their data. In The Storytelling Animal, Gottschall points to the fact that Dostoyevsky didn’t have Raskolnikov “live happily ever after” as proof of the moralism inherent in literature, but Dostoevsky — a devout Orthodox Christian and fervent anti-nihilist — was an author unusually attached to ideas of moralism. How to account for Mikhail Artsybashev, who came to prominence shortly after Dostoevsky, and cited him as a great influence, but whose much-censored works celebrated hedonism, sexual licentiousness, and even group suicide?

Equally, though, literary Darwinists are honest scholars, and theirs is a genuine intellectual enquiry. An assistant professor of English writes with conviction that “the humanity yet transcendence in Dostoevsky — to attempt to explain such things solely in terms of the bare forces of evolutionary survival risks altogether explaining them away.” Maybe so: but does such a risk mean that one simply doesn’t bother at all? Assuming one accepts the premises of evolutionary theory, including the fact that the human mind is evolved, and is serious about understanding literature (a product of that mind), is it good intellectual practice to simply ignore Darwinism altogether? Once one delves into the various rebuttals to literary Darwinism, it’s hard not to notice how many of them end up being longwinded appeals to emotion. Accusations of scientism and reductionism may or may not be warranted, but the fact remains: the most fundamental discovery in all of biological science remains more-or-less completely un-talked about in English seminars.

The humble book-lover, perhaps, has to simply tread the line as best they can. In closing, it might be instructive to turn to the case of Ian McEwan. Within the context of this discussion, McEwan is an interesting quantity. Not only is he arguably the most famous living English novelist, with a 40-year career and a Booker Prize behind him — he is also the only literary author to feature in the aforementioned 2005 collection The Literary Animal. Within his essay — a meandering paean to biology — McEwan states that “if one reads accounts of the systematic nonintrusive observations of troops of bonobo…one sees rehearsed all the major themes of the English nineteenth-century novel.” Only a year or two earlier, he had told The Paris Review that he saw fiction as a way “to play out our fears within the safe confines of the imaginary, as a form of hopeful exorcism.”

How does McEwan reconcile these views, one starkly reductive, one loftily poetic? Can fiction still provide, when on some level one believes that all the characters are just talking bonobos?

A 2013 article which McEwan wrote for the Guardian provides answers, of a sort. Discussing phases “when faith in fiction falters,” McEwan writes that he finds himself wondering “am I really a believer? And then: was I ever?” Approaching novels, he finds that “I don’t know how or where to suspend my disbelief.” (Bear in mind that Darwinism requires no such suspension: it is simply true, believed-in or otherwise.) When “the god of fiction” deserts him, McEwan finds himself reaching for books on “how the Higgs boson confers mass on fundamental particles, or how morality evolved.” (These barren patches strike one as a uniquely modern sort of artist’s dilemma; it’s hard to imagine Milton taking a hiatus from Paradise Lost to read about the first pendulum clocks.)

Slowly though, in spite of all the compelling non-fiction available, something happens: “Months can go by, and then there comes a shift, a realignment. It starts with a nudge. A detail, a phrase or a sentence, can initiate the beginning of a return to the fold.” McEwan doesn’t tell us how — probably he doesn’t know — but somehow, for all of science’s explanatory power, literature can’t be explained away.

The atheist may lie down with the believer, the encyclopedia with the poem. Everything   absorbed and wondered at in the faithless months — science, maths, history, law and all the rest — you can bring with you and put to use when you return yet again to the one true faith.





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22 Responses to “On the Origin of Novels? Encountering Literary Darwinism”

  1. Tim F
    at 11:48 am on February 6, 2014

    Surely we can anticipate an eventual reconciliation between biology’s currently-very-crude models of how the brain evolved, and literature’s ever-more-exquisitely-subtle appeals to that brain.

    Joyce must be the consensus metric here: his mastery of style, to evoke experience better than anyone before or since… and his exhaustive inventory of literary and historical themes, behind the riddles of _Finnegans Wake_.

    Has this Darwinist school even acknowledged _style_?

  2. bobby
    at 11:48 am on February 6, 2014

    Interesting article, but Owen, the author, should know, surely, that all of Jane Austen’s novels are set in GEORGIAN England, during the reign of George III, and in no way reflect Victorian England or Queen Victoria’s rule (who came after and whose reign is recognised as a completely different period culturally, politically and economically). Owen should have known this otherwise it gives the impression that s/he hasn’t read the books s/he cites, which in the case of Austen seems evident!

  3. Mike F
    at 12:01 pm on February 6, 2014

    Nice piece, nice at least to see academia reacting to wider intellectual trends, for good or for ill

    And bobby – is that really the thing you felt compelled to comment on? Amongst thousands of words, a slight and passing error in historical terminology which has no real bearing on the actual thrust of the article? Internet pedantry at its finest!

  4. Josef Zeko
    at 12:15 pm on February 6, 2014

    How can you write this article without a single mention of the Neech?

    Or the Nazis, for that matter… or the Stalinists???

  5. Zac
    at 12:33 pm on February 6, 2014

    Very interesting article!
    One slight problem with the conclusion, however, where the author states: “These barren patches strike one as a uniquely modern sort of artist’s dilemma; it’s hard to imagine Milton taking a hiatus from Paradise Lost to read about the first pendulum clocks.”

    In fact, the telescope appears throughout Paradise Lost, and Milton was quite obsessed with Galileo and his invention!

    http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2008/06/02/080602crat_atlarge_rosen?currentPage=all

  6. Ms_N_Abyme
    at 10:44 pm on February 6, 2014

    As literary Darwinism’s most high-profile advocate, the American biologist E.O. Wilson, wrote in his foreword to the 2005 collection The Literary Animal: “if not only human nature but its outermost literary productions can be solidly connected to biological roots, it will be one of the great events of intellectual history. Science and the humanities united!” Moo!

  7. anton
    at 5:44 pm on February 7, 2014

    Darwinism is true whether you believe in it or not, but the theories on darwinism by Pinker and Dawkins are not necessarily so. Their theories in fact are at times not any less speculative than the Theory they decried. Take for example Dawkin’s original claim of fame: the meme. There is no proof for it and in fact it does not qualify as a scientific theory. It’s a simple speculation applying the darwinist model to ideas which ironically resembles the self reproducing/differentiating entities present in the philosophy of post-modernists like Baudrillard and Deleuze but with the cloak of scientificity trying to give it more credibility.

    In the end the problem with literary darwinism is that it understands, often, very little of darwinism or of literature.
    From one side it is still a matter of debate in the biological sciences how much the gene leads the way and how much its expression is instead determined by the environment.
    On the other side one can’t shake the feeling that while darwinism can explain the origin of our interest in books, it misses the historical dimension literature. That is that our novels and poems are not only the product of a historical man (which a certain darwinism can try to deny with its genetic determinism) but also the result of works responding and quoting other works. This dialogue between books is a historical/cultural dimension that no biology can ever flatten on genetics.

    And lastly there is a point made by Aristotle (hardly an enemy of science) on why Darwinism, or any science, can’t be the last word on literature: there can’t be a science of the individual. And great books are individuals, not genres, what makes them valuable is not how they respect regularity but the way they break it.

  8. Cary
    at 2:12 pm on February 9, 2014

    “our novels and poems are . . . also the result of works responding and quoting other works. This dialogue between books is a historical/cultural dimension. . . ”

    Precisely what I anticipated the article would be about.

  9. Stewart Godshall
    at 6:10 pm on February 9, 2014

    Really enjoyed this essay M. Owen. Great thought provoking stuff. ( I need a second, probably third pass) Wanted: more deep thinking essays on the written word, the highest form of artistic human expression. But hey, that’s just my opinion.

  10. J. Nelson Leith
    at 8:10 am on February 10, 2014

    Intriguing, at least until the sadly predictable part about traditionalists responding to scientific arguments with “It can’t be so!” The desire among traditionalist critics to protect the perceived value of their books from evolutionary theory is hardly distinguishable from the creationist’s desperate attachment to a materialist interpretation of Genesis. (Perhaps we should send Bill Nye to go have a chat with Deresiewicz and the staff at the Guardian!)

    I was a little surprised, however, that the evolutionary theorists consistently focus on stories as an *adaptation* of humans, and not as adaptive entities themselves evolving in the environment of human psychology and culture. Far more interesting to me than why humans tell stories is the question of why some stories are more successful than others.

  11. Damon
    at 1:42 pm on February 12, 2014

    ” a literary Darwinist would stress the fact that all the women compete to marry high-status men, thereby complying with the Darwinian idea that females seek out mates who will assure the success of their genetic offspring.”

    Good luck winning over feminist critics with that one…

  12. Damon
    at 1:57 pm on February 12, 2014

    Quite simply, I fail to see how literary Darwinism does anything to help authors or the creative process, let alone understand literature. It seems like a way for people who can’t get their heads around the subjectivity of literary language to butcher books down to something they can exert control over. Why would I ever care what EO Wilson, a man with no literary credentials, cares about literature? He wants to reduce art (as literature and music, etc.) down to rational processes, but this flies in the face of the definition of art as it has been laid down for millenia. Literary Darwinism expels from literature what Nietzsche described as the Dionysian, the emotional and self-expressive force. In short, literary Darwinism doesn’t take literature as its subject matter so much as it twist literature into a string of anecdotes that fit the theories of mostly bad literalist writers and prose stylists. There’s nothing even empirical about it, so even calling it Darwinism is a misnomer.

    I love evolutionary theory and I love literature well enough to know they go together like dairy and citrus. Literary Darwinism = literature for people who hate literature.

  13. Damon
    at 2:02 pm on February 12, 2014

    “the most fundamental discovery in all of biological science remains more-or-less completely un-talked about in English seminars.”

    Yeah. Because their ENGLISH seminars. Not Biology seminars. When do biology seminars ever talk about Shakespeare and Dante?

  14. Damon
    at 3:35 pm on February 12, 2014

    @ J Nelson

    “The desire among traditionalist critics to protect the perceived value of their books from evolutionary theory is hardly distinguishable from the creationist’s desperate attachment to a materialist interpretation of Genesis. ”

    First off, I think you mean “LITERAL” interpretation. I don’t know what’s material about New Earth creationism. As an admirer of Deleuze, my work constantly engages with evolution, materialism, and empiricism, between the lines if not directly. I see most of the advocates of literary Darwinism as latent-Platonists who have no right to call themselves empiricists. I’m concerned with the individual, as Aristotle, a true empiricist, understood it.

    Second, how about you get your head out of your mighty ass of scientism before you start comparing people you don’t know to creationists? You’re so ignorant of literary criticism its offensive. Do you really think that we, as trained literary critics, read metaphor and allegory literally? Don’t you think one of the first things we notice reading Moby-Dick is the old-fashioned pre-Darwinian biology? Don’t you think that, as trained literary critics, who spend our lives studying unreliable narrators and intertextuality (the “conversation” between texts as they are produced and consumed by authors and readers, as when you read P&P alongside the Origin of Species), we know to check our backs for bias and projection?

    It seems to me that certain literary “Darwinists,” so used to scientific method as they are, are fish out of water when it comes to trying to understand the deliberately subjective world of literature. They try using literature to illustrate their unfalsifiable hypotheses about the origin of humanity for want of actual, material, evidence. Saying there’s anything empirical about that is absolutely unbelievable to me. I’d love to see any of these charlatans try to “explain” Nabokov, in lieu of the other generic and worn-out books they tend to take up as examples.

    I don’t see myself as protecting literature from “evolutionary theory.” I see myself as becoming irate at a bunch of philistines stepping out of their field to try and control the scholarship around a subject they know nothing about, and attempt to take jobs from my friends and colleagues for themselves and their friends (and that’s what this is about, a personal power struggle between extended social networks over humanities departments, more than anything scholarly). Literature itself doesn’t need protection. It will go on, outside of universities if it must, and literary Darwinists will have nothing to do with it, so ignorant of literary composition and removed from literary circles as they are.

    If anyone warrants a creationism comparison, it’s the literary Darwinists insisting that literature professors teach evolution. It’s like teaching the Book of Genesis in science classes.

  15. Damon
    at 3:49 pm on February 12, 2014

    Neo-Darwinism needs post-structuralism if it wants to be naturalistic. Anything else would be contaminated by ideology.

  16. JT Velikovsky
    at 2:34 am on March 15, 2014

    Hi All,

    I’m JT Velikovsky, I’m a Literary Darwinist (aka: biopoeticist, evocritic)
    (ie – Cooke’s 1999 term, Boyd’s 2012 term).

    Great article, MM. (What’s your PhD on?)

    Some good Comments too, but – most of the commenters here seem to have an array of false assumptions about what evocriticism (and even: evolution) is…

    Please see my doctoral research blog:
    http://storyality.wordpress.com/

    And maybe read through it all, in order:
    http://storyality.wordpress.com/an-index-to-this-blog/

    Or perhaps even first just choose those topics that you may be unclear on…
    (eg The rational vs the Romantic view of Creativity, etc)

    And especially see this post:
    http://storyality.wordpress.com/2013/08/23/storyality-71-consilience-is-coming-read-all-about-it/

    And – see also, Posts #100-108 there (see the Index), on Memetics.
    (Memetics has come a long way since 1976).

    Hopefully, that should likely clear away many misunderstandings about literary Darwinism… (and indeed: Evolution).

    ie Evocritcism certainly doesn’t “flatten everything back to genetics”, as not even Darwin’s theory of evolution (nor the Modern Synthesis) does that.
    It’s (evocriticism) actually the bio-psycho-socio-geo-politico-cultural-cosmic approach.
    ie Holistic, not reductionist.

    With creative artifacts, such as novels, movies, etc – You need to look at all those 7 systems, and, how they interact over time (ie historically).
    ie – Biology (and even, within that, genetic predispositions) is just one small part of the seven systems. But – evolution itself is not reductionist or determinist, so it’s a big mistake to think (or, assume?) Literary Darwinism is.

    Also, Damon – I’d note, Professor Brian Boyd is actually the world expert on Nabokov. So – by all means read his (amazing) work on `Lolita’ (one of my favourite works of art). Maybe see also, the documentary on `The Lolita Riddle’ (just as an aside).

    Also – not that it’s all that important, I’m also a million selling transmedia author (film, games, novels, TV, comics, songs etc). Speaking as a professional creative – and an academic scholar – Evocriticism is indeed, really the only reliable way to analyze how literature and culture (ie: creativity) actually works; all the other (prior) approaches are deeply problematic (eg say, Deconstruction, or Marxism, ie literary “Theory” etc).
    Especially problematic is, using Aristotle’s ideas. They are all very outdated now (2300 years on). See Daniel C Dennett and Arthur Koestler if you want philosophy.
    Also, there are many feminists in Literary Darwinism,see the 100 biocultural PhDs here:
    http://storyality.wordpress.com/2013/12/12/storyality-97-biocultural-dissertations/

    Damon, also – to be clear, (and perhaps allay some of your fears) it’s not a political movement at all. It’s just the inevitable unity of knowledge. Read `Consilience’ (Wilson 1998) and `Creativity’ (Csikszentmihalyi 1996) (which Wilson is in).
    Also – read `The Anthill’ (2010) by EO Wilson, it’s an amazing work of literature (i.e. novel).

    So, you really should not have to feel threatened by any of it. Read those books on Consilience at post #71… Should allay your fears.

    And – by all means – do be eclectic, and try and import some ideas from people like Deleuze or even Aristotle into evocriticism – *if they actually work* – but, post-structuralism won’t work… – It’s deeply anti-realist, Foucault is the same. A quote from Gottschall ‘s excellent “Literature, Science and a New Humanities” (2008) might help to explain why:

    `The Lunacy of One Idea – As Brian Vickers (among others) has pointed out, literary analysis has been dominated by intellectual “Masters”: Marx, Freud, Jung, Saussure, Barthes, Derrida, Frye, Lyotard, Althusser, Kristeva, Butler, Lacan, Jung, Foucault, and so on. The “master narratives” composed by these thinkers and elaborated by their devotees are typically determinist, reductionist, and highly aggressive. They suggest that all aspects of human conscious and unconscious life are determined by language, early childhood trauma, class striving, the conspiracies of patriarchs or plutocrats, or competing discourses of power. Even post-structuralist theory – which was famously defined by Lyotard as skepticism toward grand narratives and as a “war against totality”- provides an especially aggressive, deterministic (with human beings defined not as relatively free agents but as “subjects” of cultural and linguistic forces), and reductive narrative that embraces all totality. As Cunningham writes, while post-structuralists set their faces “against Grand Narratives and Keys to All Mythologies, as delusive and imperialist, and all that, Theorists have managed to erect the Grandest Narrative of all – Theory – the greatest intellectual colonizer of all time” (2005, 28). A more sympathetic commentator, Madan Sarup, reaches the same conclusion, and asks: “Why is Lyotard telling us yet another grand narrative at the end of grand narrative?” (1993, 146). I think that the answer to Sarup’s question is that grand narrative is inescapable. Human cognition operates by devising large narratives and reducing phenomena to the terms of those narratives (see Gazzaniga 2000). And would we really wish it otherwise? Are the subjects we study – to borrow the idiom of creationist pseudoscience – really irreducibly complex? Is “reductionism” really a nasty word? Does it deserve its status as a term of opprobrium? The alternative to some form of reductionism is, I think, well described in Darwin’s letter to Henry Fawcett: “About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorize; and I well remember someone saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel pit and count the pebbles and describe the colors. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!” (F. Darwin and Seward 1903, 194–196)’ (Gottschall 2008a, pp. 35-6)

    And a quote from Boyd (2010) also helps to explain: please allow me one more quote, if you will…because, with regard to certain common misconceptions and assumptions made about the consilient biocultural approach to studying literature, film, or culture in general, it is germane to further examine the charges of `reductionism’ and `determinism’ that are sometimes brought against the consilient approach…

    In `On The Origin Of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction’, Professor Brian Boyd (2009) addresses the label of `reductionism’ sometimes levelled at the evolutionary perspective on literature:

    `I recall a colleague asking, as academics do: “What are you working on?” “I’m trying to figure out,” I answered, “an evolutionary – Darwinian – approach to fiction.” Not waiting to hear more, he shut down his face and the conversation: “That must be very reductive.” “No, not reductive, but expansive,” I might otherwise have answered: extending the historical context from decades to millions of years, and increasing the historical precision, from decades down to the moment of choice. An evolutionary understanding of human nature has begun to reshape psychology, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, economics, history, political studies, linguistics, law, and religion. Can it also help explain even art, even human minds at their freest and most inventive? In art, as in so much else we had thought uniquely human, like tool-using or tool-making, counting or culture, we have begun to find precursors elsewhere in nature. But can evolution account even for the one human art with no known precedent, the art of fiction? Can it show why, in a world of necessity, we choose to spend so much time caught up in stories that both teller and told know never happened and never will? I want to show that it can, in ways far less reductive than much recent literary scholarship, in ways both wider in scope and finer in detail.’ (Boyd 2009, pp. 1-2)

    So, yeah… Damon if you aren’t yet convinced, maybe try reading the 40 or so books at: `Consilience in the Arts’
    http://storyality.wordpress.com/2013/08/23/storyality-71-consilience-is-coming-read-all-about-it/

    And, at that point, I’d be more than happy to discuss evocrit, aka biopoetics, or Literary Darwinism, with you, again… But – you shouldn’t feel this threatened by it. (ie by Evocrit.)
    …Try it – you might even like it :)

    – Hope that helps?

    Any feedback on my research (http://storyality.wordpress.com/an-index-to-this-blog/) always welcome.

    Best,

    JT

  17. Brian Boyd
    at 5:19 pm on March 17, 2014

    Following up JT’s comments: if anyone actually wants to read some literary Darwinism, rather than theorize from a position of ignorance what it must be like; if anyone wants, as Damon says, to see one of us tackle Nabokov; or, as others, comment, to see us tackle style (or allusion, or subjectivity, or ideas other than mate selection), then here’s an article of mine on Lolita:
    https://www.academia.edu/1452860/The_Art_of_Literature_and_the_Science_of_Literature

    Damon also asks: “When do biology seminars ever talk about Shakespeare and Dante”? For instance, when biologists at Harvard got together with Stephen Greenblatt, Gillian Beer and myself to talk about life history theory (a subfield of evolutionary biology) in relation to The Winter’s Tale.

  18. Alex C. Parrish
    at 7:24 am on March 18, 2014

    Anton said: “And lastly there is a point made by Aristotle (hardly an enemy of science) on why Darwinism, or any science, can’t be the last word on literature: there can’t be a science of the individual. And great books are individuals, not genres, what makes them valuable is not how they respect regularity but the way they break it.”

    Aristotle never commented “on why Darwinism” can or cannot be anything. Darwin lived roughly 2200 years after Aristotle died. This statement is misleading and based purely on your interpretation of a text (read in translation?) that was not engaged in the debate we are discussing.

    Moreover, our view of science has changed in the past couple of millennia. While speculating about which side Aristotle would come down on is interesting (and, in fact, I do this in my own book for different purposes), it has no bearing on our current ability to account for human and nonhuman animal behavior — including the production and consumption of art — through neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory.

    Science has advanced since Aristotle, and will continue to do so; will literary theory? Only if we have some method of self-correction when we go off course. This is what the literary Darwinists are hoping to develop: some method of ‘checking our work,’ to borrow a phrase from math education.

    “In the end the problem with literary darwinism is that it understands, often, very little of darwinism or of literature.”

    You’ll never know until you try reading it. Your comments make it apparent that you haven’t bothered. And, if your ahistorical interpretation of Aristotle is any indication, you’re not as up-to-date on either literary criticism or the history of science as you’d like to believe, either.

    Please don’t attack ideas about which you know very little. Your comment was extremely aggressive, and its venom unwarranted.

  19. StoryAlity #110 – Twenty (-Something) Controversies in Ten Domains | StoryAlity
    at 5:23 am on March 25, 2014

    […] So since doing the StoryAlity research, one of my hobbies is collecting controversies. Arguably, some of these `controversies’ listed below, aren’t in fact even valid controversies; but rather – just: widespread misunderstandings / incorrect underlying assumptions / arguments-from-ignorance and/or personal-incredulity – as also recently witnessed, in some Comments, on this excellent article: http://www.themillions.com/2014/02/on-the-origin-of-novels-encountering-literary-darwinism.html […]

  20. StoryAlity #71 – Consilience is coming… | StoryAlity
    at 11:39 pm on April 13, 2014

    […] also this blog post, for an overview of the literature on evocriticism: http://www.themillions.com/2014/02/on-the-origin-of-novels-encountering-literary-darwinism.html (Note also the Comments… and, note how many misunderstandings there are, about (a) What […]

  21. StoryAlity #116 – StoryAlity Theory @ `Interventions and Intersections’ 2014 (UWS PG Conference) | StoryAlity
    at 9:34 am on July 15, 2014

    […] Also, you may even like to read one of Professor Brian Boyd‘s excellent papers on Nabokov, such as say, The Art of Literature and the Science of Literature (2008). There is also a great article on Consilience and Evocriticism at The Millions. […]

  22. StoryAlity #119B – Modernist Times Symposium – November 2014 | StoryAlity
    at 3:09 pm on November 22, 2014

    […] is also an interesting article here, about Evocriticism, on The […]

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