Culture Magazine

All Hail Our Darwinian Overlords!

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
This piece was originally published in The Valve, 30 May 2009. I'm republishing it now because it stands in thematic counterpoint to a major essay I'm currently slogging my way though, Computational Linguistics and Literary Studies in Search of Love (working title). As the reach of the title suggests, I'm taking stock of where literary studies is and where it might go in view of a very different discipline. Well, Joseph Carroll has his ideas on those matters as well. Color me skeptical.
Joseph Carroll has been the chief theorist and proselytizer of literary Darwinism. David DiSalvo has a long interview with him at Neuronarrative.
DiSalvo first asks what literary Darwinism is:
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.
An ambitious program, to say the least. But let's leave it alone for a bit – I'll offer an alternative view a bit later – and allow Carroll continue. He talks broadly about reductionism, culture, literacy, the adaptive value of literature, an empirical study of characters in canonical 19th C. British novels, the brain, human emergence and interaction between scientists and humanists.
The conversation then returns to the future of literary studies. Here's the downside scenario:
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.
Unless the humanities in general come to grips with the last three or four decades of work in psychology, biology, and neurosciences, and so forth, Carroll believes "they are doomed to irrelevance and triviality."
If, however, the humanities, and literary studies in particular, undertakes to assimilate this work, here's the possible upside:
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.
We've got two decades to prepare ourselves for the new dispensation:
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.
I have no objections, in principle, to a new framework. I just don't see that literary Darwinism is deep enough to be such a framework. That's a bit much to take on here and now (more griping here).
I will note that I'm consistently puzzled about what's evolutionary or Darwinian about this approach, whatever its intellectual merit may prove to be. It's never been clear to me just what makes evolutionary psychology so, well, "evolutionary." Oh, I know the rationalization, it's about our evolved human nature. And surely we're evolved, no? But, it's one species, just one, and the evolutionary psychologists have (conceptually) stopped the clock on it. So there's not much evolution in this psychology.
The application of those ideas to literature, however, changes things a bit. Now you've got a subject matter with a real history and lots of forms, lots of morphology. Here you could be sensibly evolutionary - though you'd have to conceptualize evolution in the cultural realm - and the Darwinists ignore the possibility. I see no interest in literary form, precious little in language, nor in literary history. And yet this is supposed to be the source of a revolution in the study of literature.
I don't buy it. As far as I can tell "evolution" and "Darwin" function mostly as intellectual brand identifiers and little more. The actual thinking being done owes little to either. As for making the world anew, I don't believe that is on the agenda, not the way I read the current practical criticism of the Darwinists.
Now let me offer an alternative view of the future of literary studies. I agree with Carroll that explicit steps need to be taken to assimilate the newer psychologies and I believe that perhaps in fifteen or twenty years literary studies will be conducted within a different framework. But I do not believe literary Darwinism will be the primary source of that framework. It's not even clear to me that that framework will even have a primary source, not if those sources are to be identified with existing disciplines or constellations of disciplines. I believe that the cognitive and neurosciences will also play a role in that framework (nor do I think either of them can simply be assimilated to evolutionary psychology; they have independent intellectual roots and methongs – but that's a rather large discussion).
I believe many of the current "isms" that seem so sclertic must necessarily exert their own pressures and influence on this new framework, whatever it is. Their concerns are real and important and are not going to disappear under pressure from the newer psychologies.
And then there is the possibility that the study of children's literature will no longer to consigned to schools of education – such a development would be a real head-spinner.
I venture to say that evolutionary thinking will play an important role in that framework, but it will be cultural evolution, not biological. The fundamental terms of an approach to cultural evolution have yet to be worked out, though there is a good deal of work going on of various kinds (for my own highly biased view, look here) nor do I think they will have been worked out in twenty years. But we will be further along than we are now. Cultural evolution necessarily implies cultural difference, and so the last three or four decades of work on ethnicity, colonialism, and related matters will certainly have a home here, as will historicism. Nor can I see gender issues disappearing as they have a non-trivial cultural component.
As for the burgeoning practice of literary Darwinism, perhaps it will have dissoved as a distinct intellectual formation, its work having been done. If it continues to exist, however, it will do so only as a particular school within that future framework. Perhaps it will even retain its reputation for scrappy defensive maneuvering against all comers.
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For my current views on where we should be headed see, e.g. The Key to the Treasure IS the Treasure.

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