Literary Darwinism in Theory and Practice


By Joseph Carroll

State University of New York Press, Albany 2011

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Why the prohibition against art in Judaism and Islam?  Does the distillation of the fear, the module of mind wherein we measure ourselves against potential opponents light up upon hearing the name of God?  Might an image of God minimize this lighting up in an MRI scan?


Perhaps Matthew Arnold was on to something.  He wanted art that uplifted man, made him seem more noble.  Served a social purpose.  This is seen in the different reception to popular histories and academic histories.  One tells our story proudly, the other obscurely censures us.


Pride at your team winning connects narrative to biology to narrative.


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3 – The central concept in both evolutionary social science and evolutionary literary study is “human nature.” 


Carroll lays out a model of human nature that incorporates the features on which most practitioners in the field would agree.




One crucial element of human nature remains at least partially outside this consensus model: the disposition for producing and consuming literature.


To survive the arts must have a function.  The opposite view implies a vision of human nature with no ties to adaption.


The most modest claim that can be made is that literary Darwinism should be include as just one more school of literary criticism.   More ambitiously, they aim at full consilience.


6 – “Characteristically, they distinguish themselves from “cultural constructivisits who effectively attribute exclusive shaping power to culture.  The Darwinists typically focus on “human universals” or cross-cultural regularities that derive from regularities in human nature.”


7 - This is different from “cognitive poetics” that Ellen Spolsky champions. These folks “emphatically” distance themselves from literary Darwinists. Spolsky seeks “not to displace but to supplement poststructuralist approaches to literature like deconstruction and New Historicism.”


But if evolutionary psychology can give a true and comprehensive account of human nature, distinctions like cognitive poetics cannot stay separate. 


Spolsky argues that the supposedly modular character of the mind approximates to deconstructive accounts of the de-centered and fragmented self.   Lisa Zunshine is closer to this by taking in cognitive aspects but muting sociobiological aspects.   She emphasizes the Theory of Mind (TOM). But, she stops looking at EP at TOM.


Among evolutionary literary critics (ELC) Brian Boyd has gone farther than any other scholar in assimilating information directly from cognitive psychology, especially cognitive developmental psychology.    He says findings in cognitive psychology make sense because they are embedded in the findings of evolutionary psychology.  He emphasizes the continuity between ‘play’ in animals, human curiosity, and the generation of novelty in forms.  He has looked at the Oddyssey and Lolita. 


LD will need to connect cognitive structures with specific literary structures and figurative modes. Boyd, Michelle Scalise – Sugiyama, and Francis steen use goal-orientation and problem – solving to construct basic frameworks for the analysis of narrative. Daniel Nettle does a variant.




IN 2005 Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson published “The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative.”  It equally includes literary scholars and scientists. Robin Headlam Wells, Human Nature: Fact and Fiction has a similar range of contributors.   Carrol did Evolution, Literature and Film. 


In terms of full works, Robert Storey’s Mimesis and the Human Animal: On the Biogenetic Foundations of Literary Representations sketches in features of a “biogrammar” a model of human nature.



In Carroll’s Evolution and Literary Theory, he identifies three chief levels for the analysis of meaning in texts: a) elemental or universal human dispositions (human nature): b) the organization of those dispositions within some specific cultural order; and c) the particularities of individual identity in represented subjects, authors and readers. 


10 - Ellen Dissanayake defines her work in contrast to “culturalist” principles.  Gottschall in Literature, science and a new humanities also goes over the sense of crisis in the humanities. 


In On the Origin of Stories: Boyd does the same.


Harold Fromm does eco criticism.  .


12 - Brett Cooke shows the way a dystopic novel systematically violates EP findings.   Marcus Nordlund compares the findings on love to those in Shakespeare.   He contrasts his view with purely “culturalist views.”


Moving beyond the analysis of represented subject matter, several scholars have used EP to examine the interplay of perspectives among readers, authors, and characters.  Robert Story, Carrol and Sugiyama all look at reader response from an evolutionary perspective using game theory and theory of ‘costly display.”  William flesch identifies depictions of altruistic punishment as the main way that authors engage readers emotionally.    Michael Austin delves into manipulative deceit and self-delusion in pov.  This shades into tone.


In Carroll’s look at Hamlet he incorporates the neurobiology of depression, kinds of emotional responses to Hamlet, and compare reader’s replies in various periods of history. 




13 – folk psychologists say “Oh. That’s just human nature.”  This refers to: basic animal and social motives: self-preservation, sexual desire, jealousy, maternal love, favoring kin, belonging to a social group, desiring prestige.”  Usually they also have in mind basic forms of social morality: resentment against wrongs, gratitude for kindness, honesty in fulfilling contracts, disgust at cheating and a sense of justice.”


These are complicated by self-interest, self – serving delusion, manipulative deceit, vanity, and hypocrisy.  They imply moral failings in honesty, fairness, and self-sacrifice for kind, friends, or the common good.


Postmodernists have put all such ideas about human nature out of play. 


EP distinguishes between ultimate forces (genes continuing) and proximate forces (tricking a girl into sex).  We have a species typical pattern of life “parents, children and social group” are the aims. 


With other animals we share impulses of ‘approach’ and ‘avoidance.’  Affiliation and dominance; mother-infant bonding.  Forming coalitions with large social groups.


We are different than other animals on a spectrum.  Small birth canals mean our bigger brains require more gestation. 


Living in multi-male groups lowers paternity certainty. Dispositions for pair bonding and sexual jealousy are prominent features in the evolved dispositions of males.  Females are also distinctive in having menopause. 


Women have more paternity certainty.  Males more into short term bonding.   Siblings are more alike than others, but also rivals for paternal resources.


Theory of mind and language mediate human relations in distinctively human ways.

Self-awareness is necessary element of moral consciousness, and is the precondition for self-esteem, embarrassment, shame, and guilt.  Theory of mind guesses the beliefs feelings, and desires of others.    At 3 – 4 we realize that people have beliefs other than ours.  


17 – “Language is the chief medium for conveying information in non-genetic ways.  That kind of informational transmission is what we call “culture”: Arts, technologies, literature, myths, religions, ideologies, philosophies, and science.  From the evolutionary perspective, culture does not stand apart from the genetically transmitted dispositions of human nature.  It is rather, the medium through which we organize those dispositions into systems that regulate public behavior.”


The culture in which an author writes provides a proximate framework of shared understanding between the author and his or her projected audience, but every specific cultural formation consists in a particular organization of the elemental dispositions of human nature.”




(18) “The most influential schools have been those that use Marxist social theory, Freudian psychology, Jungian psychology, phenomenological metaphysics, deconstructive linguistic philosophy and feminist gender theory.”  From a post modern perspective, any appeal to (19) “human nature” would necessarily appear as a delusory reification of a specific cultural formation.”


Evolutionists and cultural constructivists are right; genes constrain a culture and direct human behavior AND arts can shape human experiences.


Many EP totally ignore the arts.  Many cultural constructivists have sought to collapse biology into culture. 


Always invoking more and more modularity evades the idea of fitted adaptive strategies. 


:inker says that the arts are not specifically adaptive, they are just unintended consequences of already present modules – art, pornography, psychoactive drugs, and rich food are all cognitive cheesecake. They exploit mechanisms already giving pleasure – with just a little informational benefit added.   Tooby and Cosmides, in “Does Beauty Build Adapted Minds?” modify their nonadaptive position, but not that it builds on earlier architecture which carries the adaptive load.


A second hypothesis from evolutionary psychology is from Geoffrey Miller.  They are like the peacock tail. The weakness is that it sees the biologically expensive human brain as useless ornamentation. 


To solve the puzzle of adaptive function we have three criteria:

1)   Define art in a way that identifies what is peculiar and essential to it.

2)   Identify the adaptive problem this behavioral disposition would have solved in ancestral environments;

3)   Identify design features that would efficiently have mediated this solution.


23 – 1) We can define art as the disposition for creating artifacts that are emotionally charged and aesthetically shaped in such a way that they evolke or depict subjective, qualitative sensations, images, or ideas.


This arts solves an adaptive problem by organizing motivational systems disconnected from the immediate promptings of instinct. 


The design features that mediate this function are capacities for producing artistic constructs.


23 - Wilson “If the arts are steered by inborn rules of mental devolopment, they are end products not just of conventional history but also of genetic evolution.  The question remains: Were the genetic guides merely byproducts – epiphenomena – of that evolution or were they adaptations that directly improved survival and reproduction. And, if adaptations, what exactly were the advantages conferred?”  Wilson speaks of our psychological exile, not being instinct driven, and that arts help guide us in this exile.


Freedom is the key to human success and it is also an invitation to disaster.  There is not enough time for heredity to cope with the vastness of new contingent possibilities revealed by higher intelligence . . . art fills the gap.


This puts art alongside religion and ideology.


24) Thus it is complimentary to extended childhood, male-female bonding coupled with male coalitions, dual parenting, postmenopausal survival, longevity, the development of skills for the extraction of resources, and the enlarged neocortex that suppresses impulses and engages in long term planning, symbolic ability to identify with extended social groups (tribal instinct) egalitarian dispositions operating in tension with conserved dispositions for individual dominance., and the power to subordinate, in some degree, impulses of survival and reproduction to the formal dictates of imagined virtual worlds.”


Our new cerebral expansion allowed foresight, hindsight, and the brain power to peer into other minds and entertain alternative courses of action. “What makes humans unique, perhaps more than anything else, is that we are a linguistically adept story telling species.  This is part of the larger gene-culture coevolution.


Fictive narratives that inspire excitement and empathy are universal. 


27 – Modern symbolic culture runs counter to the EP conception of human cognitive evolution to massive modularity.  Thus they treat is as merely a side effect to adaptive structures.   “Culture” cannot build structures out of nothing.


One of the chief aims for evolutionary studies is to analyze the way any given culture organizes the elements of human nature.  This can be done by looking at its literature.


28 – “We live in the imagination.  For us, no action or event is ever just itself. It is always a component in mental representations of the natural and social order, extending over time. All our actions take place within imaginative structures that include our vision of the world and our place in the world – our internal conflicts and concerns, our relations to other people, our relations to nature, and our relations to whatever spiritual forces we imagine might exist.  We live in communities that consist not just of the people with whom we come directly into contact but with memories of the dead, traditions of our ancestors, our sense of connection with generations yet unborn. . . . in imaginative structures – social, ideological, religious or philosophical that subordinate our individual selves to some collective body.”


If it is true that arts are adaptively functional, they would be more than cheesecake, they would be motivated as emotionally driven needs.




To be reductive, usually, is seen as having failed in subtlety.  And, yet ‘reduction’ is the ultimate aim in all efforts at producing real knowledge.


Can the Darwinists produce new knowledge?  That is the most serious challenge posed to the evolutionary literary critics.


Can the Darwinists produce information that is not only new but true? Is an EP question post-modernists would not understand.


On the level of interpretation, they can situate any given text or set of texts in relation to the pressure points in human nature.  This opens up a new range of aesthetic sensations and a new range of comparative analysis for Darwinian critics.  These are not metaphysical abstractions.  They relate art to survival, reproduction, kinship, social affiliation. dominance, aggression, and the needs of the imagination.


The shape of human life shared by all authors and readers.  DWL can thus note how authors vary from the norms, and place these in categories and integrate them with other social sciences.


Gottschall does this with the Illiad when he concerns himself with the loss of the woman by Achilles.  Robert Storey and Michelle  Sugiyama both discuss reader responses to Hamlet in Nigerian tribal populations.

Daniel Nettle locates Shakespeare within elemental motives of status seeking and mate selection. These move in the opposite direction of Body who uses Hamlet, the Odyssey and Lolita to demonstrate the expansiveness of readings from cognitive mechanisms and evolutionary themes.


One of the showpieces of evolutionary anthropology is to show that the oedipal theory is wrong.  Oedipus Rex is better seen within the work on incest avoidance.




Tony Jackson notes that theory can inform literary interpretation.  But can literary interpretation inform theory?


Goodheart says we have no need of proving from a dualistic perspective: Science does that, art imagination.


Kruger and Fisher have used depictions of male characters in Byron and Scott to see if people respond to their mating strategies in predictable ways.  Salmon and Symons have done empirical work with romance and porn.   Miall and Dissanayake have done empirical work with mother-infant interaction.  Gottschall, Johnson, Kruger and Carroll do so in reader response for Victorian novels in this volume.


Schools need to train literary folks in quantitative methods.




The most important alternative to adaptionist views is cultural constructivism. 


40 – 41 “A detailed survey of current problems in evolutionary psychology would include the following issues: the pace and nature of the evolution of language; the role of sexual selection in the development of higher cognitive faculties; homosexuality as daptation, by-product, or dysfunction; the relative causal force of foraging, cooking, innovation, group size, and social interaction in the evolution of he enlarged human brain; the relative causal force of male provisioning and female coalitions in the evolution of human family structures; the adaptive significane of individual differences in personality; the relation between cognitive “modules” and “general intelligence”; the number and character of “basic emotions”; the interaction between basic emotions and the Theory of Mind in the formation of more complex emotions; the limits of plasticity in the correlation between adaptively conditioned motive structures and affective responses; the exact character of the interactions between evolved cognitive mechanisms and fitness maximizing algorithms in human nature; the origin and nature of “altruism”; the existence of “tribal instincts” or social dispositions extending beyond kin but not restricted to direct social exchange; the exact nature of the interaction among multiple levels of selection (the gene, the individual, the kin group, and the larger social group); interactions between dominance, cooperation, and symbolic thinking in the evolution of elementary political dynamics; the way elementary political dynamics constrain complex social formation that contain advanced functional specialization and elaborate status hierarchies; the precise nature of gene-culture coevolution; the adaptive function of religion; and the adaptive function of literature and the other arts.”


The level of selection presses on literary theory as multilevel selection gains popularity in EP circles. This allows for group life above the level of the band, and solves the problem of altruism in the way that direct reciprocity never could. 


42 -  By gradually correcting the selectionist paradigm to include group-level processes for humans, evolutionary theorists clear the way for a better understanding of culture.  We usually think of mechanisms for enforcing social norms.  The next phase in evolutionary theory of culture will include the adaptive function of literature and other arts.



Declaring that literary study is somehow exempt from the advance of empirical knowledge licenses literary scholars to restrict their professional expertise to variations on old formulas.



Our culture, Kim Hill argues, is different from animal culture in that it advances through successive phases of innovation.  It also has norms or rules of behavior that are reinforced by punishments and rewards.  And signaling that perpetuates the rules. 


One error is to think we’re just like other species.  Another that we have nothing to do with them. 


44 – He wishes to separate the idea that culture can lead to gene changes (ie lactose) as gene-culture evolution separate from the idea of “cultural evolution;” that is that certain cultural figurations (memes) can be neutral in terms of surivival or work against reproductive success and nonetheless persist within limited parts of a population for a few generations.


Cultural evolution in this sense did not drive the evolutionary process that produced key features of an evolved human nature – big brains, linguistic skills, and ultra-sociability.  All these contribute to survival and are a part of normal natural selection. To be gene culture coevolution, and not just ‘cultural evolution’ there must be an interaction with genes.


45 - “Cultural evolution” is most famous with Dawkin’s “memes” and is deeply problematic and has never achieved general acceptance amongst evolutionary thinkers.  “No idea or cultural practice contains a molecular mechanism adapted by natural selection to replicate itself.”  They can only be perpetuated by” psychological responses that effect behavior.”


Boyd and Richerson do both.  Some are well grounded, some more speculative.


We should not ignore the group experience; it stretches our imagination beyond what the individual can imagine. 


Memes posses no internal replicative mechanism.  And, no structural principles that would approximate gene structure. Genes and organisms are interdependent.  Not memes and humans. Humans are not organized to replicate specific memes.




The logic of natural selection determines that all intimate relations involve conflict: Intimacy and opposition, cooperation and conflict.

This is different than the conflict in poststructuralist thought.  That conflict is measured against a norm of universal cooperative behavior and equality with no competing interests. 


If a homosexual author feels constrained to disguise such relationshiops, when a whole culture enforces a norm of selfless altruism, we look at  how an author filters their truths.  The conflict between the ned to be accurate and the need to feel good about ourselves is one of the battlegrounds of the self.”




Pinker’s adaptionist hypothesis are no more testable than those he disputes.  He says sugar provides metabolism, Dissanayake and Boyd argue that arts fix attention on adaptively salient concerns and promote social cohesion.  Carroll argues that literature provides emotionally saturated images for a psyche designed to assimilate such images and use them for evaluative, affective, and ultimately behavioral  orientation.  All are parallel.


We must move into paleoanthropology and psychological mechanisms. Gottschall is unhappy that these cannot be tested.  But look at the interlocking paths Darwin takes to answer his broad questions. It is not a matter of narrow question, narrow evidence.


If a behavior is universal, the default assumption is that it is adaptive.  And cheesecakes sweetness is a hyper stimulant, but it is still hyper of an adaptive trait. 


So, again, we must know 1) How the mind is designed to assimilate narrative 2) the way narrative influences behavior and 3) the way both these areas can be located within our developing knowledge of human cognition. 




The weakest aspect of “biocultural” theory is the “cultural” part. It is the single most important challenge facing the evolutionary human sciences.  So we need collaboration.  Scientific people are afraid of moving into humanities and vice versa.


It will be slow, but eventually truth and reality will win out against institutional bias and inertia. He is confident that the “biocultural” approach is the only route to the future.