What is Literary Darwinism? An Interview with Joseph Carroll

oct-2008If 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?

carroll_bookFrom 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.

carrol_quote2One 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.

literary_animalWe 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.

carroll_quote1I’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.


I know you have done quite a bit of work to understand the co-evolution of genes and culture. Tell us about how this interaction works and why it’s important to understand it.

E. O. Wilson, prescient in this as in so many other respects, followed up On Human Nature (1978) with Genes, Mind, and Culture: The Coevolutionary Process (1981), co-authored with Charles Lumsden. Wilson saw clearly that while human nature was driven by biology, it was also always embedded in culture. He and Lumsden tried to work out the mathematics of gene-culture co-evolution and met with a very mixed reception. The mathematical modeling has in late years been gaining much ground but remains very abstract, connecting very little to specific, individual cultures. (See several of the essays in The Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, edited by Dunbar and Barrett.) Meanwhile, the more discursive theoretical understanding of culture has been developing almost independently of the mathematical modeling. I’ll take the time to give a little perspective on this development.

In 1992, The Adapted Mind, edited by Barkow, Cosmides, and Tooby, founded “evolutionary psychology” as a school, distinguishing that school sharply from “sociobiology” as represented by Wilson and evolutionary anthropologists such as Napoleon Chagnon and William Irons. The evolutionary psychologists emphasized “proximal mechanisms” and discountenanced the idea that reproductive success could be a direct motive in human affairs. They envisioned the mind as a bundle of hard-wired “modules,” bits of neural circuitry designed to solve problems within a Pleistocene environment. One main motive for this scheme was to offer an alternative to the “blank slate” model of the mind that still prevailed in standard social science (Pinker, The Blank Slate). The blank slate is the cognitive correlative to “cultural constructivism,” the idea that all content in the mind derives from culture-all belief, thought, feeling, and value. Repudiating the idea that the mind itself contains no structures prompting and constraining the construction of meaning had to be done, but in accomplishing that necessary historical task, the evolutionary psychologists got the evolved character of the human mind rather badly out of focus. They eliminated “domain-general” intelligence, that is, a flexible general intelligence, good for all purposes. They repudiated general intelligence because thought it dangerously close to the idea of “general learning” to which standard social science had reduced human psychology, with such vacuous results. Their motive was understandable, but it placed them in an awkward position vis a vis reality, since the human mind does in fact clearly display flexible general intelligence. Theoretically wishing it away just wouldn’t wash. This matter has now been set to rights in books such as Kim Sterelny’s Thought in a Hostile World and David Geary’s The Origin of the Mind.

In developing their skewed model of the human mind, the evolutionary psychologists committed themselves to the view that humans possess a “stone-age mind.” Nothing that wasn’t daily routine for an ancestor living a million years ago could be admitted into the range of adaptively functional cognitive attributes. Now, as it happens, massive evidence indicates that somewhere between 100,000 and 40,000 years ago, “something happened,” as Joseph Heller might put it. There was a transformation in human culture that anthropologists designate “the human revolution.” Specifically human forms of imaginative culture-art, decoration, ceremonial burial-appeared for the first time, and along with them, complex multi-part tools, sewn clothing, and extended forms of trade, implying more complex forms of social organization. Steven Mithen first made this case vividly, countering “narrow-school” or “orthodox” evolutionary psychology, in The Prehistory of the Mind (1996). Many others have now contributed to this argument, and the argument seems to have been decisively settled. “Narrow-school” or “orthodox” evolutionary psychology was right in much of the theory it shared with broader schools of evolutionary thinking, but much of what distinguished it as a specific theoretical school was simply wrong. Nicholas Wade’s book Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors (2006) summarizes the recent genetic, archeological, paleontological, and linguistic evidence on the transformations in the past 100,000 years. (Also see Mellars et al., Rethinking the Human Revolution, 2007.)

From the perspective of narrow-school EP, if the arts appeared only within the past 100,000 years or so, they had to be regarded as peripheral, adaptively inconsequential, mere offshoots of cognitive aptitudes that had evolved for other purposes. In How the Mind Works (1997), Steven Pinker recognized and boldly drew out these implications, declaring that the arts are essentially equivalent to masturbation and recreational drugs. They are technologies that humans, clever devils that they are, have devised to diddle their own pleasure centers in the brain. The alternative hypotheses, put forward in various forms by several theorists, is that the arts and other forms of imagination (religion, philosophy) have emerged in tandem with the higher human cognitive powers, not as side-effects but as functionally integral parts of the human brain. They have co-evolved with our capacity for looking into past and future, extending our vision beyond the immediate sensory present, and encompassing social and ecological networks visible only to the imagination.

When anthropologists speak of “culture,” they do not mean only high culture-art and philosophy. “Culture” includes technology and social organization. Conceiving culture in this broader sense, they often cite lactose tolerance as an instance of gene-culture co-evolution (Richerson and Boyd, Not by Genes Alone). Through natural selection, herding peoples have evolved enzymes that enable adults to digest milk. The cultural practice of keeping cattle serves as a selective force that alters the gene pool in a given population, and in turn the altered gene pool encourages the expansion of a pastoral economy. A similar logic applies to imaginative culture. Developing the power of envisioning the world imaginatively must have had adaptive value for our ancestors. Otherwise, they would not have devoted so much time to it or have developed so many cognitive aptitudes geared specifically for it. Those aptitudes, if they were adaptive, would have served as a selective force on the population, altering the gene pool, favoring those genes that facilitate producing and consuming works of imagination. Language offers a clear instance of this kind of selective pressure. At some point in the ancestral past, humans had no power of speech. Mutations enabling rudimentary forms of “proto-language” (Derek Bickerton) would have given some selective advantage to those who possessed them. That advantage would have increased the representation of those genes in the population at large, and the increase in those genes would have enhanced the linguistic character of the cultural environment, intensifying the selective advantage conferred by genes promoting the use of language.

carrol_quote3Darwin in Descent of Man postulated that the evolution of language was a central feature in the evolution of a specifically human mind, the one feature that most clearly distinguished it from the minds of other animals. Language is a chief medium for symbolic thought. Developing the capacity for symbolic thought enabled humans to build conceptual models of reality and operate on the basis of those models, rather than depending exclusively on the promptings of their senses and their emotional impulses. In the course of human evolution, building those models, operating conceptually, became perhaps the single most important selective feature in the human environment, the feature that made it possible for humans to achieve, as sociobiologist Richard Alexander designates it, “ecological dominance.” Humans occupy every available geographical niche, at least on land, and in every niche, they are the dominant predator.

Once that happens, once ecological dominance is achieved, the single most important selective factor in the human environment is other humans-both those with whom we form cooperative groups, and those who form competing, hostile groups. Symbolic thinking, driven by gene-culture co-evolution, enables humans to think in terms of groups larger than the bands of less than 200 that characterize chimpanzee social organization. They think, at the next step up, in terms of “tribes,” characterized by traditions and beliefs, strongly signaled by differences in ornamental style in dress and body markings. The evolutionary arms race among competing human groups has led ultimately to the creation of mega-groups-tribes, nations, religious con-fraternities, civilizations. All that is a product of gene-culture co-evolution. So, in answer to the question, “why is it important to understand gene-culture co-evolution,” the short answer is that it is the key to understanding everything that has happened in human evolution since humans first distinguished themselves, in cognitive aptitude and in behavior, from the ancestral apes that were the ancestors of both chimpanzees and human beings.


In coming years, what role do you think Literary Darwinism will increasingly play in the broader context of evolutionary theory?

I think literary Darwinism will continue to put constructive pressure on the evolutionary human sciences, drawing their attention insistently to the reality and significance of imaginative culture in the human behavioral repertory. With respect to the adaptive function of the arts, literary Darwinists have already entered into a symbiotic theoretical relationship with evolutionary scientists. In order to contribute even more effectively, many evolutionists in the humanities need to do more re-tooling, developing some at least rudimentary expertise in empirical and quantitative methods. Research on the relations between cognitive neuroscience and aesthetic experience can best be conducted by people who have expertise both in the sciences and the arts. Not everyone needs expertise in every area, but humanists need to know enough to be able to collaborate effectively with scientists.

The evolutionary study of specific cultural periods has barely begun. One promising line of approach was sketched out recently by Daniel Lord Smail, in On Deep History and the Brain (2008). Smail is a historian specializing in the middle ages. He demonstrates that one can give a psychopharmacological profile of a whole epoch, correlating ecological conditions (starvation, war, plague), social conditions (predatory social hierarchy, anarchic social instability), and the kinds of hormones and neurotransmitters that are affected by conditions such as severe ecological stress. Environmental conditions affect the brain, and the brain produces imaginative works. The lines of correlation can be worked out most effectively, again, by people who have expertise both in science and in areas such as history and literary study.

Ideally, the barriers separating the humanities and the evolutionary social sciences will eventually give way to interdisciplinary studies that incorporate multiple forms of expertise. Many researchers in the evolutionary human sciences are necessarily interdisciplinary-cutting across the lines of genetics, ecology, evolutionary biology, anthropology, developmental psychology, and cognitive neuroscience. The dividing line between that whole array of disciplines and the humanities is merely conventional, and it is a barrier that serves the interest of no one. A few individual researchers have already taken steps to cross this barrier. Major advances will depend partly on one main institutional reform: setting up interdisciplinary graduate programs in the humanities and the evolutionary human sciences. Those programs would train graduate students in the elementary forms of empirical research and statistical analysis, giving them the equipment they need to specialize in empirical work on humanistic subjects, to collaborate with empirically trained researchers, or, at a minimum, to make good, critical use of research from the sciences.


In coming years, what role do you think Literary Darwinism will increasingly play in the broader context of literary study?

I think it could go one of two ways. Literary study could continue to insist on disconnecting itself from empirically discernible facts about human nature and human cognition, or it could realize that science is not a threat and a competitor but an ally in the quest for human understanding. If it takes the former course, I think it will continue to decline catastrophically in prestige, enrollments, and funding. Its practitioners will either continue to invent arcane verbal systems designed for the superficial reprocessing of canonical literary texts, or they will resign themselves to the ever more tenuous elaboration of the sophistical quibbles at the heart of postmodern literary theory.

Literary study is clearly in very serious trouble-demoralized, disoriented. The impulses that generated the poststructuralist revolution some three decades ago have long since lost all momentum, and no one has been able to offer a new inspiration that has tapped the energies latent within the large pool of talent in the profession as a whole. Moreover, the talent pool has itself been depleted in ways that are now impossible to calculate with any precision. Many of the best and brightest potential students, undergraduate and graduate, have looked at the horizon of expectations in literary studies and have left the field entirely, choosing instead some other academic field, or a profession such as law or medicine. Had I been an undergraduate choosing a major any time within the past two decades, I probably would myself have chosen some other line of work.

The diagnosis of malaise in the professional academic study of literature is not just a criticism delivered from practitioners in other disciplines or malcontents within the discipline itself. Phrases like “the crisis in the humanities” have appeared regularly as the heading for special issues of major journals and edited collections. Writing in Profession 2005, surveying the lamentable condition of the profession and reciting the doleful statistics that reveal its decline, Louis Menand called for some kind of radical innovation, some way out of the dark, some tunnel through the cave-in-a way out, any way out, only just not one single specific way out: “consilience,” that is, integrating the humanities with the evolutionary human sciences. That way out, he declares, would be “a bargain with the devil”.

Unless the humanities are willing to make a bargain with this particular devil, I think they are doomed to irrelevance and triviality. Thirty years ago, that was not the case. Thirty years ago, there was no mature science of human nature. To do the best one could with the materials at hand-who could have asked for more than that? But now, to refuse to recognize and to assimilate the best that is currently known and thought in the world, to refuse to make advances where advances so clearly beckon, to prefer asphyxiation in the dark of a collapsed mine shaft. . . . well, we might just have to wait for that generation to die out.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that literary study manages to get past its own blockages. What then? All the world is before them: large-scale explanatory principles to hash out, a whole taxonomy to found on underlying principles of human nature, whole cultural epochs to analyze from a bio-cultural perspective, multitudes of texts to locate, with all their specific meaning structures and imaginative forms, in these yet-to-be-established bio-cultural contexts. We have before us the macro-world of human evolutionary history and the micro-world of the brain, cultural history to incorporate with human universals; neuroimaging and neurochemical analysis to integrate with tonal and stylistic analysis.

The kind of work I’m describing here would not merely offer new lenses through which to view existing knowledge. It would provide a starting point for a continuous, progressive program in creating new knowledge. Literary Darwinists have to assimilate the best insights of previous theory and criticism, but they have to reformulate those insights within a completely new framework located within the larger, total field of the human sciences. They cannot merely take concepts ready-made from existing evolutionary theories of culture. They have to absorb evolutionary theories, examine them critically, push back when the theories are inadequate to the realities of literary experience, and formulate new fundamental concepts in literary study-formal, generic, and historical. They have to participate in fashioning the linkages between their own specific fields of endeavor and the broader field of the evolutionary human sciences. They have to make the world anew.

To bring literary study back into good health, to give it hope and promise, the one thing most needed is to create interdisciplinary programs enabling graduate students to make a bargain with the devil-that is, to train themselves in empirical methods, to acquire familiarity with the flood of information on the evolved and adapted character of human nature, and to devise creative ways to use this information in the professional study of literature. Virtually all currently productive literary Darwinists already had tenure when they set out on this path. More are joining them all the time. Eventually, soon perhaps, a few more programs will open up for graduate students. At some point, we’ll see the tipover effect. Five years ago, literary Darwinism was just a mild sensation on the margins of literary study. It is now a swelling tide. In five years, ten, maybe fifteen, possibly even twenty, I think it will have fundamentally altered the framework within which literary study is conducted.


Last question:  What’s your favorite work of literature?

I’m going to fudge on this question, expanding it to take in more than one genre and more than one phase of my own imaginative life-not a single “favorite,” but some few favorites. The most intense and vivid imaginative experience I ever had was in reading the major poems of Wallace Stevens’ culminating visionary phase, especially “The Owl in the Sarcophagus.” I’ve also had some fine high moments with Keats, sensually rich and meditatively pure. Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles gave me my richest, warmest, most lyrical and emotionally absorbed experience in reading a novel. When I first read George Eliot’s Middlemarch, I had the kind of epiphanic experience-expanding my own imagination to its limits-that I had also with the late visionary poetry of Wallace Stevens, though the mode, of course, was different. I have to confess that when I first read Stevens, I was a half-witting participant in the late Romantic effort to preserve some imaginative realm for “spiritual” experience.

As I was writing my book on Stevens, that belief faded and failed, and I had to finish the book in grim scholarly determination just to tell the truth about Stevens, a truth few other critics had even glimpsed-the simple observation that he is essentially a religious poet. Something similar happened in my history with Middlemarch, which has a divided world view. One view is shrewdly realistic and ironic (a perspective embodied in the character Mary Garth). The other is idealistic, spiritual, moralistic, a perspective embodied in Dorothea Brooke. In the moralistic vein, Dorothea does what Stevens did in the visionary, lyrical vein-offers a secular imaginative approximation to a religious world view. I bought into that, thus giving evidence that at that time, in my early twenties, I was still only gradually withdrawing from a religious world view. That “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” has been a chief trajectory of the modern imagination. My own trajectory just recapitulated it in brief and in small. Nowadays, Dorothea’s ardent spiritual yearnings just get on my nerves. Stevens doesn’t, though. I wrote an article for a Cambridge Companion to Stevens a few years ago and revisited all his work and my own writing on it. It was like reliving the most intense love affair of one’s youth. As in a museum, perfectly preserved, untarnished, lovely in memory, but no longer part of the actual world.

I lost all literal religious belief-became a confirmed atheist-when I was sixteen, but it took another fourteen years or so to drain out the last of the late romantic imaginative spiritualism. In this gradual fading, my own experience is something like that of Darwin, who never underwent any convulsive loss of religious faith (unlike many of his contemporaries). The final paragraph of On the Origin of Species invokes “the Creator.” After that, as Darwin explains in his autobiography, his sense of things faded into the light of common day. That kind of perspectival change radically alters one’s whole repertory of imaginative response.

Reading On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man were transformative experiences for me. When I was sixteen, I had read in a biology textbook that all features of all organisms were the product of interactions between genetically transmitted dispositions and environmental conditions. That observation had instant, axiomatic conviction for me, and it was the first step in completely altering my metaphysical perspective-leading to the loss of religious faith. (If all behavior is ultimately determined in this way, “free will” in any ultimate sense is illusory, and the idea of divine punishment and reward is outrageous.) Then a few years later I read H. G. Wells’s Outline of History, a big two-volume work that started with the history of the earth and went on through the evolution of hominids before settling into the standard rise and fall of civilizations. Wells was T. H. Huxley’s student and had an excellent grasp of the logic of adaptation by means of natural selection-hence his classic science fiction works The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Time Machine. I absorbed Darwin’s theory through Wells. So, I was a Darwinian at that point without ever having read Darwin.

carroll_quote5I first read The Origin and The Descent in 1990. I had already been working for a couple of years at reconstructing literary theory from the ground up-trying to rescue it from the postmodernists, but working only with broad general categories of theme and genre. Reading Darwin made vividly apparent to me that all things human, including the products of the human imagination, simply had to be conceived within the total evolutionary development of all living things. Wells was good, but not that good. Darwin gave me my first real imaginative sense of deep evolutionary time. When speaking above about the way imaginative works help us organize the sphere of our experience, that’s the sort of thing I have in mind. It’s one thing to understand a theory, be able to recite its terms, and even believe it. It’s another thing to have an imaginative grasp of that theory so that you never see anything in the world in quite the same way again. Darwin had a vision of deep time, and he located all living things in that vision. Like hundreds of thousands of other theorists-biologists, geneticists, anthropologists, psychologists, and now literary and aesthetic philosophers-the imaginative power of Darwin’s vision has fundamentally shaped my own sense of the world. That would worry me a lot if I weren’t as certain as I can be that Darwin got it right, as right as it can be gotten at the present time.

One of the main ways science has fundamentally altered our imaginative experience over the past few centuries is that simply getting it right now counts for so much. The romantics rebelled and wanted to insist that passion and aesthetic quality are themselves ultimate arbiters of imaginative vision. Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That’s a mistake. The current adherents of this sort of mistake are less likely to be aesthetes than utopian ideologues. The postmodern version of Keats’s dictum would go something like this: beauty is politically correct, political correctness is beautiful, and truth is a bourgeois fiction. For evolutionists, in contrast, truth comes first and is non-negotiable.

carro_quote4The truth is, humans are a tiny blip on the most recent moments in the almost unimaginable trajectory of deep time. Nonetheless, in our miniscule habitation in a remote corner of the universe, we are able to look back over deep time and recognize our own place in it. That makes us special. So far as we know, within the horizon of all our discoveries, there is nothing quite like the human imagination anywhere else in the universe. If there is, we shall be most interested to find out about it. Meanwhile, we make sense of what we know. The imagination is one of the things we know, and it is the means through which we know everything else. It is worth a lot of study, and really, we have only just gotten started thinking about it.

Stevens, Eliot, and Darwin have been among the major relationships in my imaginative life, but I have been highly promiscuous, with lots of little affairs along the way. I love movies and had rich imaginative moments, in my youth, with early Bergman, especially Wild Strawberries. When I first saw it, Jansco’s The Peach Thief was one of the finest films I had ever seen. Kronenberg’s The Fly has a “touchstone” value for me, forming a symbolic cluster that stimulates creative thinking even to this day. I have a personal fondness for Annaud’s Quest for Fire. Annaud succeeds in imagining what it might be like to be a scarcely articulate early human shivering in a swamp, with nothing to protect you but your own wit and courage and the few simple tools you can construct. Despite everything that can legitimately be said against it, I think Polanski’s Tess is a cinematic masterpiece. I probably won’t live long enough to see that judgment vindicated. And of course, maybe I’m wrong.

Heinrich Heine’s cultural histories captivated my imagination. Friedrich Schiller’s aesthetic theory in Über Naïve und Sentimentalische Dichtung so enthralled me that I named my first Dachshund Friedrich. Guy de Maupassant’s earthy sensual human warmth still seems to me one of the great good things in life. Matthew Arnold, despite his mutton chops, remains a guiding star in my sense of what a cultural, critical vision can do. When I was a child, I loved and annually re-read Huckleberry Finn, Little Men, The White Panther, Rifles for Watie, Half Magic, and A Wrinkle in Time. Having kids of my own gave me a welcome opportunity to revisit those wonders and add many others, including Across Five Aprils, The Phantom Tollbooth, and The Adventures of Stanley Kane. Some things you can come to early; for others you have to wait. I was middle-aged before the symphonic, orchestral magnificence of King Lear became imaginatively intelligible to me. In contrast, when I last re-read Little Men and followed it up with Jo’s Boys, a couple of years ago, Alcott’s insidious strategy for undermining and suppressing specifically male motivational dispositions, as personified in Dan, irritated me. What was I thinking, at the age of ten?

Der Zauberberg, Catch-22, Le Siècle de Louis Quatorze, Tom Jones. La Jument Verte, The History of Mr. Polly, Salammbô, the Annales of Tacitus, Coming up for Air. . . . Once one starts down memory lane, it’s hard to stop. Becoming a professor of literature is something like taking a vow of poverty. There are so many of the “good things,” as Trollope lovingly calls them, one must give up-money, status, security, fine houses, rich clothing, ease, and luxury. But then, one gets to spend one’s life having love affairs with books.

Over the past twenty years or so, I’ve branched out and had passionate flings with works in personality psychology, sociobiology, and anthropology. Doing that has been fun, but it has also helped solve a very serious problem I had been having for many years-the problem of finding things to do in literary study that weren’t just fun but also serious, constructive, adult. In Middlemarch, one of Eliot’s protagonists, the medical doctor Lydgate, has serious scientific ambitions. “He was fired with the possibility that he might work out the proof of an anatomical conception and make a link in the chain of discovery.” I know just how he felt. There is a passion for discovery, for constructive, creative thought. Close reading satisfied that need in literary study for just a little while, a few decades in the middle of the previous century. During that same period, people could do serious scholarly work, not the most exciting kind of thing, but solid, constructive work, producing editions, collecting letters, writing biographies.

Then, in the last quarter of the century, “Theory,” as it rather fatuously designated itself, gave people the exhilaration of creative, speculative thought, but the whole enterprise was shot through with sophistical fallacies, so the excitement was febrile, half delirious, corrupted. How to produce serious, real knowledge, constructive knowledge, within the field of literary study? By incorporating it within the whole broader field of the evolutionary human sciences, retaining what is peculiar and special to the nature of literary experience, making full professional use of all one’s own experience, but integrating all that with the broader world of empirical, scientific knowledge about human nature.



Filed under Interviews

14 responses to “What is Literary Darwinism? An Interview with Joseph Carroll

  1. Great post and interview–Carroll has done some fascinating work.

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  3. What a lovely introduction to a scholar that I now very much want to know more about.

  4. Peachy

    Let’s get on with consilience, then. Time it is a-wasting. The theory game has been destructive. The serious study of literature needs to share the oxygen evident in the serious study of science.

    Thankyou, Dr. Carroll, for leading the way towards this evolved approach.

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