On the Origin of Novels? Encountering Literary Darwinism

February 6, 2014 | 9 books mentioned 26 8 min read

Twenty minutes into Ridley Scott’s most recent addition to the Alien franchise, the film’s female protagonist, played by Noomi Rapace, attempts to explain to her crew why the scientific vessel Prometheus has spent four years travelling to the faraway moon of LV-223. While expounding her theory of how life on planet Earth was begun by an ancient, enigmatic species dubbed “Engineers,” the vessel’s zoologist, played by Rafe Spell, is unable to contain his skepticism: “Do you have anything to back that up? I mean, look: if you’re willing to discount three centuries of Darwinism, that’s…[sardonic thumbs-up]…but how do you know?”

This scene aboard the Prometheus serves as a useful parallel to the debate which forms the backdrop to this essay. If we swap 2093 for the present, deep space for this planet’s university English departments, and the origin of humanity for the constitution of modern literary study, we have the basic features of the ongoing clash between literary Darwinism and the rest of the literary establishment. Because the accusation that literary Darwinists level at their colleagues is identical to that of Prometheus’s exasperated zoologist: one of discounting the whole of evolutionary theory, in exchange for their own inadequate and vacuous ideas.

Why should readers of The Millions care about a dispute occurring amidst the cloistered halls of English faculties? Aren’t most debates within literary academia so esoteric, so riddled with obscurantist jargon, that they bear very little relation to the actual reading of books?

Not in the case of literary Darwinism. On the contrary; this self-described “robust guerilla band” intend, eventually, to be able to tell us a number of very straightforward things: why we write, why we read, and why we write the things we write and read the things we read.

coverDefined simply, literary Darwinism is the practice of using the theory of evolution to understand books. Just as a Marxist critic would emphasize the appearance of class conflict, or the postcolonial critic would focus on the influence of a bygone empire, a literary Darwinist would pick up a novel and highlight the various ways in which they see evolution doing its thing. (And they invariably do see it.) Where another critic might discuss how Pride and Prejudice dramatises the search for self-understanding, or evokes the stultifying conformity of Victorian Britain, a literary Darwinist would stress the fact that all the women compete to marry high-status men, thereby complying with the Darwinian idea that females seek out mates who will assure the success of their genetic offspring.

covercoverWhere a historicist critic might investigate Faust’s roots in Polish folkore, a literary Darwinist would focus on how it upholds the essential moral character of most literature. (And in turn, via its prescriptive morality, helps evolving societies to unify and thrive.)

This summarizes the two main strains of Literary Darwinism. At the crude end, is old-fashioned textual analysis, but through a Darwinian lens — as in the Pride and Prejudice example. This mostly takes the form of uncovering innate patterns of human behaviour: childbearing, the acquisition of resources, intergroup competition and cooperation, etc. Sometimes this is carried out with nuance and care, as in Jonathan Gottschall’s The Rape of Troy: Evolution, Violence and the World of Homer (2008). Other times, though, it can produce analysis which makes Sparknotes read like James Wood. Witness the following, from the pop-sciencey Madame Bovary’s Ovaries: “Females are egg makers; males, sperm squirters. The truly important thing about Othello wasn’t the color of his skin, his age or his war record. Rather, Othello was all about sperm; Desdemona, eggs.”

covercoverOn the more interesting (and academic) end of things, the Literary Darwinists are interested in the adaptive function of literature; as in the Faust example. Their theories vary, from those who posit that storytelling is essentially a form of sexual display (à la Geoffrey Miller’s The Mating Mind) to those who see it as a way of constructing a shared social identity. A few of them entertain the idea that these imaginative abilities are evolutionary by-products (also known as “spandrels”); the offshoots of other, more obviously practical cognitive developments. Most of them, though, posit that the literary imagination is a specific, evolved trait, which — like the opposable thumb, or the neocortex — enabled our Pleistocene-era descendants to better survive their environment. Thus Jonathan Gottschall declares that “fiction is a powerful and ancient virtual reality technology that…allows our brains to practice reacting to the kinds of challenges that are, and always were, most crucial to our success as a species.” And Brian Boyd — whose On the Origin of Stories is probably the best single work of literary Darwinism — states that “by refining and strengthening our sociality, by making us readier to use the resources of the imagination, and by raising our confidence in shaping life on our own terms, [literature] fundamentally alters our relation to the world. The survival consequences may be difficult to tabulate, but they are profound.”

Throughout all forms of their analysis, though — from crude readings of Othello to more sensitive works of scholarship — the literary Darwinists are united in epistemological stance. All of them reject the so-called Standard Social Science Model, as famously castigated in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate. They are philosophical materialists, and they believe we are first and foremost biological beings hardwired for a number of behaviour patterns. Indeed, most of the literary Darwinists portray social constructionism and its intellectual products — Derridean deconstruction, Foucauldian social theory, psychoanalysis — as something akin to an intellectual tragedy, and there is nothing that many of them enjoy more than mocking lit crit’s most polarizing product: capital-T Theory. Because Theory, as they (not without justification) see it, is just endlessly rococo speculation. And what the literary Darwinists want is something they see as more often reserved to the other side of campus: what Gottschall is fond of referring to as “durable knowledge.”

coverAnd this is where literary Darwinism gets interesting. Because far from being a niche academic concern, the movement, small though it is, plays into a much wider cultural tension. Carroll, Gottschall and their companions are wedded to a narrative of empiricism, positivism, quantification, and progress. They are triumphant rationalists. One can be pretty certain, for example, that as well as casting out Freud and Marx, they have little time for conspiracy theories or alternative medicine. And their aspirations are nothing if not lofty. As literary Darwinism’s most high-profile advocate, the American biologist E.O. Wilson, wrote in his foreword to the 2005 collection The Literary Animal: “if not only human nature but its outermost literary productions can be solidly connected to biological roots, it will be one of the great events of intellectual history. Science and the humanities united!

The problem, of course, is that all this comes off as an attempt to explain books. To reduce literature to sex, survival, and status. And understandably, this gets some people — particularly some book-lovers – a little riled. So we have a Guardian columnist declare that “literature is not an evolutionary join-the-dots…Such interpretations strip literature down to an impoverished universalism: a bland and neutral manuscript where ciphers of the same biological impulses and selfish genes can be repeated ad infinitum.” Similarly, writing a few weeks ago, the longtime critic of literary Darwinism William Deresiewicz rages that “Pride and Prejudice is about mate selection. Hamlet struggles to choose between personal and genetic self-interest…It isn’t even like using a chainsaw instead of a scalpel; it’s like using a chainsaw instead of a stethoscope.”

Such accusations are nothing new, of course. The idea that scientific explanation guts the aesthetic experience dates at least as far back as the Romantic poet John Keats’s remark that Isaac Newton destroyed the poetry of the rainbow by “reducing it to the prismatic colours.” And the entirety of continental philosophy from Hegel through to Derrida rejects the notion that the natural sciences have a monopoly on the comprehension of phenomena.

covercoverThe problem, though, is that one finds it hard not to sympathize with both camps. (I’m somewhat cheapening the debate here by presenting it as a simple one-on-one, but still.) On the one hand, it really does feel reductive to talk about Jane Austen as simply complex competition for mates. Even Jonathan Gottschall himself recognizes that “fictions, fantasies, dreams…they are the last bastion of magic. They are the one place where science cannot — should not — penetrate, reducing ancient mysteries to electrochemical storms in the brain or timeless warfare among selfish genes.” And his counter — “But I disagree. Science adds to wonder, it doesn’t dissolve it.” — can’t help but feel defensive and somewhat grasping, reminding one of the way Richard Dawkins constantly appeals to “wonder” as a panacea for a world he himself admits, as in River Out of Eden, is underpinned by “nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” There’s no escaping it: to say that Anna Karenina is first and foremost about sperm and eggs feels…wrong. What’s more, the literary Darwinists can be guilty of massaging their data. In The Storytelling Animal, Gottschall points to the fact that Dostoyevsky didn’t have Raskolnikov “live happily ever after” as proof of the moralism inherent in literature, but Dostoevsky — a devout Orthodox Christian and fervent anti-nihilist — was an author unusually attached to ideas of moralism. How to account for Mikhail Artsybashev, who came to prominence shortly after Dostoevsky, and cited him as a great influence, but whose much-censored works celebrated hedonism, sexual licentiousness, and even group suicide?

Equally, though, literary Darwinists are honest scholars, and theirs is a genuine intellectual enquiry. An assistant professor of English writes with conviction that “the humanity yet transcendence in Dostoevsky — to attempt to explain such things solely in terms of the bare forces of evolutionary survival risks altogether explaining them away.” Maybe so: but does such a risk mean that one simply doesn’t bother at all? Assuming one accepts the premises of evolutionary theory, including the fact that the human mind is evolved, and is serious about understanding literature (a product of that mind), is it good intellectual practice to simply ignore Darwinism altogether? Once one delves into the various rebuttals to literary Darwinism, it’s hard not to notice how many of them end up being longwinded appeals to emotion. Accusations of scientism and reductionism may or may not be warranted, but the fact remains: the most fundamental discovery in all of biological science remains more-or-less completely un-talked about in English seminars.

The humble book-lover, perhaps, has to simply tread the line as best they can. In closing, it might be instructive to turn to the case of Ian McEwan. Within the context of this discussion, McEwan is an interesting quantity. Not only is he arguably the most famous living English novelist, with a 40-year career and a Booker Prize behind him — he is also the only literary author to feature in the aforementioned 2005 collection The Literary Animal. Within his essay — a meandering paean to biology — McEwan states that “if one reads accounts of the systematic nonintrusive observations of troops of bonobo…one sees rehearsed all the major themes of the English nineteenth-century novel.” Only a year or two earlier, he had told The Paris Review that he saw fiction as a way “to play out our fears within the safe confines of the imaginary, as a form of hopeful exorcism.”

How does McEwan reconcile these views, one starkly reductive, one loftily poetic? Can fiction still provide, when on some level one believes that all the characters are just talking bonobos?

A 2013 article which McEwan wrote for the Guardian provides answers, of a sort. Discussing phases “when faith in fiction falters,” McEwan writes that he finds himself wondering “am I really a believer? And then: was I ever?” Approaching novels, he finds that “I don’t know how or where to suspend my disbelief.” (Bear in mind that Darwinism requires no such suspension: it is simply true, believed-in or otherwise.) When “the god of fiction” deserts him, McEwan finds himself reaching for books on “how the Higgs boson confers mass on fundamental particles, or how morality evolved.” (These barren patches strike one as a uniquely modern sort of artist’s dilemma; it’s hard to imagine Milton taking a hiatus from Paradise Lost to read about the first pendulum clocks.)

Slowly though, in spite of all the compelling non-fiction available, something happens: “Months can go by, and then there comes a shift, a realignment. It starts with a nudge. A detail, a phrase or a sentence, can initiate the beginning of a return to the fold.” McEwan doesn’t tell us how — probably he doesn’t know — but somehow, for all of science’s explanatory power, literature can’t be explained away.

The atheist may lie down with the believer, the encyclopedia with the poem. Everything   absorbed and wondered at in the faithless months — science, maths, history, law and all the rest — you can bring with you and put to use when you return yet again to the one true faith.

is a British author who has published non-fiction with Aeon, The Point, Folha de São Paulo, MAKE Magazine, and others. He obtained his PhD at the University of British Columbia, and now runs a design and animation studio called Misfit Productions and an independent press called Misfit Press.