Survival and Fiction


A new book and a new article in Salon are raising a topic we posted about way back in July 2008, on a different blog. The topic is Literary Darwinism—or evocriticism, as the new book’s author calls it.

Basically there are some academics who believe—rightly—that the study of literature is becoming an endangered species, and who argue—not so rightly—that we can save it by embracing a scientific approach to literary analysis. Specifically, they consider works of literature in terms of the lessons of evolutionary biology.

D.T. Max explains it better than we can.

Just as Charles Darwin studied animals to discover the patterns behind their development, Literary Darwinists read books in search of innate patterns of human behavior: child bearing and rearing, efforts to acquire resources (money, property, influence) and competition and cooperation within families and communities. They say that it’s impossible to fully appreciate and understand a literary text unless you keep in mind that humans behave in certain universal ways and do so because those behaviors are hard-wired into us.

That’s from his article in The New York Times Magazine in 2005.

The new article in Salon (about which more later) was written by Laura Miller.

Laura Miller’s article is a review of this new book.

Another good overview was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The Boston Globe published a manifesto by Jonathan Gottschall, one of the leading Literary Darwinists.

And just to round out the reading list, Denis Dutton made a related argument last year in a book called The Art Instinct.

Finished reading all that? Okay.

We have some powerful mixed feelings about the idea of reading fiction with Charles Darwin by our side.

First, in a broad sense, we are totally stoked about the underlying principle of evaluating fiction in terms of a universal human need for stories. This is something Laura Miller describes well.

Why do human beings spend so much time telling each other invented stories, untruths that everybody involved knows to be untrue? People in all societies do this, and do it a lot, from grandmothers spinning fairy tales at the hearthside to TV show runners marshaling roomfuls of overpaid Harvard grads to concoct the weekly adventures of crime fighters and castaways.

For decades the trend in academia has been to analyze literature in terms of other fields, like queer theory, post-colonial politics, or African-American studies. The assumption was that we could validate the study of literature by showing that it helps to shape our identities. Lately that assumption has been challenged by a more conservative movement that seeks to restore interest in the canonical works and show that literature can be valued on aesthetic principles alone. Both of these approaches are useful, and we’re glad people are feuding over literary studies. But nobody in the academy is really speaking to the central issue, as we see it, which is that stories are how we view the world. Here at The Fiction Advocate, our preoccupation with fiction falls more in line with fields like narratology, stylistics, and yes, now that you mention it, evolutionary biology.

When Miller describes Boyd’s book, she makes the best argument we’ve ever heard for the vitality of fiction.

Human beings are what biologists call “hypersocial,” more social by far than any other animal, and the major product of our deep investment in sociality is our culture…. In short, humanity itself is an element, like the weather or seasons, that each of us needs to negotiate in order to survive… Fictional stories encourage and permit us to hypothesize, to speculate about potential situations we’ve yet to encounter and to anticipate how to respond appropriately… Good storytellers earn attention and admiration, and they also provide their audience with the pleasure of a communal experience that strengthens the bonds within a group. They set forth the group’s shared beliefs, myths, symbols and history (real or legendary), creating a greater identity, a culture, that can expand beyond the boundary of small, local communities where everyone knows each other personally.

Yowza! The Fiction Advocate and this analysis are sitting in a tree. The Fiction Advocate and this analysis are K-I-S-S-I-N-G.

It’s funny that Brian Boyd calls the approach “evocriticism,” indicating that the field has adapted and evolved since the days when it was known as “Literary Darwinism.”

Last year, when we posted about this, Literary Darwinism didn’t exactly impress us. The research that Jonathan Gottschall cites in his article for The Boston Globe, in particular, struck us as borderline useless. We said:

Some of the work being done by Literary Darwinists makes it seem like they were excited to open a brand new toolbox, only to find there was nothing to build. Like the survey of beauty myths across different civilizations. Okay, so you discovered the ratio for descriptions of female attractiveness versus male attractiveness in folk tales is 6:1… AND? I would think that anyone who studies literature would LAUGH at the notion of analyzing it with simple ratios. But not these guys.

The studies in Graphing Jane Austen claim that, in spite of what the post-everything scholar might claim, certain characters ARE more universally villainous or sympathetic than others. Thanks. But were we really suffering under the illusion that, in a post-everything world, the author’s role is dead and nobody can tell the difference between Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham anymore?

Although the Literary Darwinists made an appealing argument, they couldn’t translate their big theory into a viable methodology for looking at fiction. Which… is kind of the point. Every example they gave was out-of-touch with the reasons we read fiction in the first place, and we just sort of cringed.

Laura Miller echoes our thoughts about worthlessness of the Jane Austen argument, and about the difficulty of using these branches of science to describe something as shifting and nuanced as literature. But we love Miller’s article because she maintains hope that evocriticism has the potential to be HUGE one day, as long as it focuses on the art of narrative instead of particular works of literature.

Until it evolves into something that can “save” literary criticism, evocriticism will remain a great theory, and a terrible methodology.



  1. This just reminds me how much I hate literary theory, which is always about putting literature into some manner of false framework. Here, it’s Darwinism, which sounds really cool–art and science commingling, on my!–until you realized that the Freudians once thought they were doing something similar. Can one really justify what’s come from that? I’ll go so far as to say that theory is what is endangering the study of literature.

    That said, I do think there’s something to the idea that reading and writing are an escape from loneliness, though I’m not sure the claim that those are social activities holds water. After all, both are done in solitude. Jonathan Franzen has written very eloquently about this:

  2. Fiction Advocate, do the proponents of evocriticism suggest that, from text to text, traits which are beneficial to a text’s survival will be more likely to be reproduced in other texts?

    Or is it merely that a certain method of analysis can reveal underlying, universal human needs?

    I have major beef with both of those ideas but could use some clarification, since you’ve clearly done your homework.

    Great post!

  3. Good questions, Danny Bayridge. The first one is kind of what Denis Dutton is talking about in the book linked above. He describes the success of different works of art in terms of how they appeal to our biological impulses. Your second question is more like what the evocritics or Literary Darwinists are talking about. Like, if you read “The Corrections” from their point of view, you’ll see that Franzen is basically exemplifying and reinforcing the most basic human decisions that we can make.

  4. Whoa, dude, Matt: literary theory “is always about putting literature into some manner of false framework”? I object. Literary theory is a philosophy of storytelling, and while the frameworks employed to analyze storytelling may or may not strike you as sound, they are usually valid. I think the idea that theory is endangering literature as a study is just silly, mostly because (like poetry) the number of people who practice theory is pretty damn close to the number of people who read it. It’s a tiny, tiny world that is ever-less relevant (except when it’s not) and probably has very little effect on anything ever, let alone the demise of the study of literature. But I (double dog) dare you to find the literary theorist who does not also love books, particularly studying books. It’s too thankless an endeavor in which to engage for any other reason than a deep sense of love for reading. They may be self-important, and obnoxious and often wrong, and I agree that there is an over-categorization of theory that seems unnecessary at best and damaging at worst, but writing theory is always an act of engaging with and thus preserving, albeit occasionally pretentiously, literature.

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