If you’ve heard the term “Literary Darwinism,” you may have been tempted to lump it in with the list of schools of thought conjoining evolutionary thinking with, well, almost everything. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit I did the same.
But the simple fact that this field has in the last couple of decades attracted a diversity of credible thinkers, from the sciences and literary studies alike, urged me to take a closer look. After all, there aren’t many fields featuring in their ranks both preeminent scientists like E. O. Wilson and renowned authors like novelist Ian McEwen. The closer look led me to the work of the field’s most respected thinkers, among them Joseph Carroll.
Joseph Carroll, professor of English at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, wrote the book on Literary Darwinism, literally. Literary Darwinism (2004), and before it, Evolution and Literary Theory (1995), are considered the foundational texts in the field. No article is written about Literary Darwinism that doesn’t quote Carroll, and no anthology in the field is complete without his contribution (notably, The Literary Animal (2005). He recently spent some time with Neuronarrative discussing what Literary Darwinism is all about, addressing a few of the main criticisms levied against it, and envisioning what the future may hold for evolutionary thinking and literary study.
You’ve been called a “founder of Literary Darwinism.” What is Literary Darwinism?
Literary Darwinists integrate literary concepts with a modern evolutionary understanding of the evolved and adapted characteristics of human nature. They aim not just at being one more “school” or movement in literary theory. They aim at fundamentally transforming the framework for all literary study. They think that all knowledge about human behavior, including the products of the human imagination, can and should be subsumed within the evolutionary perspective.
Over the years, Darwinians have been criticized for over-applying evolutionary explanations to social and cultural phenomena. What makes the effort you are undertaking now different from those of the past?
From my perspective, previous evolutionary studies in the human sciences have not erred in extending evolutionary explanations into social and cultural areas. If they have fallen short, it is only in not more fully integrating social and cultural levels of explanation with evolutionary levels. Virtually all evolutionists in the humanities and social sciences explicitly formulate “bio-cultural” ideas. That is, they recognize that humans are cultural animals. For the “cultural constructivists” who still dominate the humanities, “culture” operates autonomously, generating all thought and emotion, all sense of individual and collective identity, constrained by no biological dispositions any more general than, say, physical hunger. (And even hunger, like sexuality, one would be sure to be told, is “constructed.”)
Evolutionists identify a rich array of innate, genetically transmitted dispositions that strongly constrain sex roles, family relationships, social interactions, and the forms of cognition. They also recognize that none of these dispositions articulates itself in a cultural vacuum. Dispositions for transmitting information in non-genetic ways appear in various species-primates, cetaceans, and corvids, for example-but only humans produce symbolic structures that embody ethical norms, depict the world and human experience, and evoke subjective sensations. Only humans configure the elements of their experience in shared symbolic systems. All differences of social and material organization constitute divergent ways of organizing the universal dispositions of human nature, and each specific organization manifests itself in distinct artistic, religious, and philosophical traditions.
One could “over-apply” evolutionary explanations to any given culture only by falsely reducing the particular organization of that culture to some set of human universals. This would be a failure in degree of “resolution,” like not having enough pixels to get a decent picture on one’s computer screen. Such failures can and should be corrected. The formula is fairly simple: Every specific culture consists in a particular organization of genetically transmitted dispositions shared by all members of the human species. One task for biocultural critics is to describe in fine detail the particular organization of human universals that distinguishes any given culture. Another task is, so far as possible, to explain how that organization arose-to identify its source in specific ecological and social conditions and in the available materials of “imaginative” culture, that is, religious, philosophical, and artistic traditions. And yet another task, especially for humanists, is to interpret the aesthetic and affective character of any given cultural organization. Cultural critics need to know what the universal forms of imagination are, how they vary from culture to culture, how those variations constrain the range of imaginative possibility for any given author, and how each individual work produces some specific imaginative effect.
It is not possible to “over-apply” evolutionary explanations to social and cultural phenomena, though it is easy enough to apply them badly or incompletely. One can apply them badly by not combining a sufficient number of analytic elements from an evolutionary view of human nature and by not considering sufficiently the way the elements of human nature interact with environmental conditions, including cultural conditions.
Many cultural theorists under-apply evolutionary explanations. They neglect or explicitly repudiate the idea that genetically transmitted dispositions fundamentally constrain the organization of all cultures. They identify “culture,” in a circular way, as the sole cause of cultural phenomena, or they give lip-service to the “bio-cultural” idea while tacitly reducing the biological part of the interaction to a negligible “physical” aspect entirely distinct from thought, feeling, motive, and behavior. Such under-applications dominated mainstream cultural theory through the first three quarters of the twentieth century. They still dominate literary study. When critics of a bio-cultural approach charge evolutionists with taking a “reductive” view of human affairs, most of the time what they really mean is that they would like to continue taking a purely culturalist, “constructivist” approach to human affairs, leaving out the biological altogether or reducing it to a negligible minimum.
You’ve said in a recent article that “literacy is a very recent acquisition in human evolutionary history.” Tell us a bit about how we know this to be the case.
Evidence for written languages occurs first in state societies of the ancient Near East. All known hunter-gatherer cultures, on first contact with Europeans or Asians, have lacked written language, though of course they all have spoken language. Childhood development also provides evidence on this topic. All normally developing children spontaneously acquire spoken language. Literacy comes much later in childhood and usually has to be taught, a process extending well into adult life. If it is not actively taught, children often do not acquire the ability to read, even if the larger culture in which they live is widely literate.
You’ve also said that “culture–literature and the other arts–are functionally significant features of human evolution.” Some would argue that this position is too reductionistic–that the arts are too rich and complex to be categorized this way. How do you reply to this argument?
Identifying adaptive functions for the arts need not detract from the richness and complexity of the arts. My own view on the adaptive function of the arts is that they provide an imaginative universe in which we recognize the emotionally and conceptually significant features of our experience. The arts delight us with the satisfactions of understanding-not abstract, detached understanding, as in the sciences, but emotionally responsive, subjectively positioned understanding. They make us feel the weight and value of things. They give us the sense of things, absorbing the qualities of “felt life” but also composing, condensing, arranging them so as to bring out their essential features.
We quite literally live in such imaginative structures, with all their sensory and emotional qualities, and we also stand apart from them, looking at them. That dual perspective, inside an imaginative construct, seeing from within it, and outside it, looking in on it, is a peculiar quality of the “aesthetic.” Specifically aesthetic, imaginative forms of pleasure are as distinct as the pleasures we get from satisfying hunger, fulfilling sexual desire, or meeting with friends.
The old Horatian saw, “dulce et utile,” to give pleasure and instruction, points at the kind of fulfillment art provides. One can of course too easily translate the “utile,” instruction, into didacticism: “The moral of the story is.” That can easily be reductive and boring. But even that reduction has its element of truth. Who has ever been bored by Aesop? Learning lessons like those Aesop teaches is evidently part of our total subjective experience and is thus part of what art encompasses. But then, what does art not encompass? It takes in the whole world and all our experience in the world. It makes up imagined worlds. All that is adaptively functional. It helps us organize our experience and orient ourselves to the world of possibility.
The general function of the arts is to make imaginative sense of the world. As I see it, the challenge for an evolutionary understanding of the arts is to render this general proposition more analytically useful by linking specific works of art with more particular psychological and social functions. For instance, several of the theorists discussing the adaptive function of the arts have emphasized “social cohesion” as one of its functions. Now, there are many instances where social cohesion is evidently at work. Art is integral to social and religious rituals all over the world. Our rites of passage almost always involve music and pageantry (weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs). But then there are also works of art, especially in the modern age, that seem designed to subvert and disrupt normal modes of thinking and traditional values. One has to look at specific cases and see exactly what is being accomplished, what sort of “psychological work” is being performed.
I’ll give just a couple of examples. For the past five years I’ve been working on a book project with three other researchers, a literary scholar (Jon Gottschall) and two psychologists (John Johnson and Dan Kruger). We put up an on-line questionnaire and listed about 2,000 characters from Victorian novels, asking respondents to score the characters on motives and personality; assign the characters to roles as protagonists, antagonists, or minor characters; and give a numerical rating to their own emotional responses to the characters. We found that antagonists are characterized almost exclusively by dominance behavior-seeking wealth, power, and prestige. They have no affiliative dispositions.
Protagonists, in contrast, are communitarian, keen to take care of kin, make friends, and work cooperatively with others. We argue that this pattern exactly parallels the social dynamic in hunter-gatherer cultures, as delineated by Christopher Boehm in Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. Individual people love dominance for themselves but hate it in others. Hunter-gatherers compromise by working collectively to suppress dominance in individuals. No one gets all the dominance he or she wants, but no one has to submit to dominance from other individuals, either. The agonistic structure of the Victorian novel, on average, strongly stigmatizes dominance behavior and valorizes communitarian dispositions. The novels evidently provide a medium through which readers participate in a collective cultural ethos that valorizes communitarian behavior. That communitarian, egalitarian ethos is part of the evolved structure of the human motivational system. The novels provide a medium through which that ethos can be activated on a large cultural scale. In that sense the novels fulfill an adaptive social function-at least one adaptive social function. They might well fulfill other social functions, and they might fulfill psychological functions that could not properly be called social.
Along with the website listing all the characters from many novels, we put up a website dedicated solely to a single novel, Hardy’s The Mayor of Caster Bridge. We solicited respondents from among Hardy specialists. For that novel, we discovered patterns in the “agonistic structure” that are radically different from those in most other novels. The protagonist, Michael Henchard, has antagonistic features; the most typically protagonistic character, Elizabeth-Jane, is a minor character; and readers’ emotional responses register extraordinarily high levels of “indifference” to all the characters. This novel, then, doesn’t fall under the adaptive explanation of the other novels. It doesn’t perform the same kind of psychological work. What it does, we think, is adopt a certain stance toward the world, a stance of reflective, stoic detachment. This is a defensive stance, a coping strategy.
In the broadest sense, in my view, that’s what all novels are. They reflect a point of view, a specific way of organizing the world so that it conforms to the artist’s particular needs, the artist’s characteristic way of organizing his or her perceptions, thoughts, and feelings. When we read novels, we are participating vicariously in the novelist’s point of view–the novelist’s whole vision of the world. We learn that way, not just about what is being depicted, but about the novelist’s way of looking at things. That kind of knowledge is good to have in itself, as social information, but we might also use it in a more practical way, picking up possible strategies for coping with challenges in our own lives.