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.