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The literary animal : evolution and the nature of narrative

by Jonathan Gottschall; David Sloan Wilson;

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Good Collection Essays on Evolutionary Literary Criticism   (2012-11-13)

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by vleighton

  This volume contains a set of scholarly essays on literary criticism from an evolutionary psychology (EP) perspective. It is difficult to give an edited collection a single grade, as the essays are of varying quality. Nevertheless, I have not run across an essay that I hated, and most of the essays I have read are solid, though not all excellent, so a four star is reasonable. I will list the essays below with my opinion of their content and quality.

  Forwards: I was unimpressed by the forward by E. O. Wilson. I did enjoy the second forward by Frederick Crews. Crews starts by pointing out that he had been a sharp critic of the earlier attempts to write evolutionary literary criticism (ELC). He explains why this collection is an improvement. One nice detail of Crews’ essay is that he critiques and analyzes what consilience means and how it is fundamentally limited.

  Ian McEwan's article is a general argument in favor of ELC, and it is an okay read. It is reprinted here from elsewhere. Good but not eye-opening. He discusses Darwin's own writings on man and E.O. Wilson's speculations on what a termite philosopher might say. McEwan lists the many thinkers and writers who have insisted that on a given day, human nature changed. Woolf, TS Eliot, Burckhardt, etc. implicitly argue that human nature is an historical product. An advocate of ELC by contrast would argue that human nature has a more durable aspect which is shaped by biology. McEwan critiques theories of an entirely malleable human nature, such as John Watson's Behaviorism and Margaret Mead's anthropology.

  The next essay is by D. S. Wilson himself, and it is a good read. It is not on ELC per se. It argues that a less extreme version of social constructivism is good so long as it is compatible with evolution. Wilson's version of evolution is different from that of many other evolutionary theorists, so this thesis is not universally accepted. Wilson has argued that human beings experience both individual selection and group selection. Group selection is driven by non-genetic processes of cultural evolution. He argues that narrative has a strong effect on human behavior, and that, for human groups, "adaptation to current environments proceeds in part through the creation and selection of alternative narratives" (21). Human nature is flexible to culture, but it is not completely flexible. This essay is not about applying biological evolution in your literary criticism, but rather showing how narrative is a mechanism for human cultural evolution.

  The essay by Dylan Evans is fun, even though it is only tangentially related to ELC. Evans had gotten interested in Lacan's ideas when he was in Argentina. There, psychoanalysts actually use Lacan's teachings as the basis for clinical therapy. Evans spent years digging down to where he could fully understand and defend Lacan's theories. As part of that effort, he wrote the *Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis.* When he finally mastered Lacan, he discovered that Lacan's theories are in fact bogus. To quote Gertrude Stein, there is no there there. One can imagine the difficulty this caused in his life. After abandoning Lacan, he embraced EP as a paradigm with a foundation in real, observable phenomena. This essay is useful to literary critics because in the US and Britain, Lacan's ideas are a fashionable framework for interpreting literature. The moral: don't base your literary interpretation on a view of human nature that is fundamentally wrong, it can only lead you astray.

  I actually take issue with Evans' conclusion to a small extent. If the author believed in a model of human nature and structured the text to be consistent with that mistaken view, then it is useful to analyze the text within that framework even if it is false to human nature. For example, James Joyce was a follower of Freud, so it is useful to understand Freud when reading Joyce's texts, even though Freud has been largely debunked in the field of psychology. (But one should be aware of that fact also.) Or to take an older example, Renaissance art accepted astrological influences as true. You need to know the astrology to interpret the work, even though astrology itself is also bogus. I feel that the primary meaning of the text flows from the intentions of the author. A critic should start by understanding what the work meant to the author, even if the critic then eventually goes on to study what it might also mean to the broader community, etc.

  Daniel Nettle's essay is a good read. It studies drama from the ELC point of view. He starts with general reasoning about evolution and literature, and his conclusions are similar to Sugiyama's (below). Nettles defines drama, and then tries to derive a theory of drama from evolutionary premises. He then compares his theory to other drama theories throughout history. Finally, he offers a typology of drama. His two main motivations in drama are status-striving and mate-courting. If the motive is status and the outcome is positive, then the story is heroic. If status and negative, then tragic. If mating and positive, then it is a romantic comedy. If mating and negative, then the play is a love tragedy, such as Romeo and Juliet. He applies his ideas to Shakespeare's Hamlet in detail and to other plays in passing. Like Crews, he argues that each text tries to push the boundaries of its category, so any one play might not fit neatly into the typology.

  Joseph Carroll's essay is not a good read, but it may turn out to be an important contribution to theory. Carroll was one of the few ELC writers whose earlier work is cited by other contributors, so I was eager to read the Carroll piece in this collection. Carroll is a bit stiff and condescending to those who disagree with him, and he has a detailed theoretical framework that he insists is necessary to ELC, so there are many thinkers who are not on board for his full programme. He even disapproves of much of EP, arguing that it will not be a paradigm of psychology until it "includes an understanding of how the specifically human pattern of life-history ... responds with flexible but integrated strategies to the wide range of physical and cultural conditions ..." (77). The basis of his psychology is a concept called a behavior system. He lists five analytical concepts that are necessary to ELC, including that human nature is "a structured hierarchy of motives" and that "point of view is the locus of meaning" of a narrative. He goes on to chart the hierarchy of motives that he feels make EP a full-fledged theory of psychology. He ends the essay with an analysis of Austen's Pride and Prejudice, where he explains how both the hierarchy of motives and the centrality of point of view operate in practice. Frankly, I don't think his theory works well for genre other than novels and short stories. In this volume, I prefer Sugiyama's reverse engineering of narrative (below).

  The aspect of this essay that I like is Carroll's view of intentionality. He argues that the point of literary criticism is to find out what a text's meaning is (94), and that its meaning flows primarily from the intentions of the author (90). (One might suppose that that perspective was obvious, but many literary theorists deny it.) He also acknowledges the point of view of the story's characters and the story's audience. This last POV allows a bit of reception theory and new historicism. I do feel that the critic should analyze a text to try to learn the intentions of the author, though I admit that such a meaning is not the entire reason for studying a text.

  One aspect of evolution that justifiably scares political liberals and leftists is the idea that because there is a biological survival of the fitted, some individuals will be better at surviving than others, and that one can then claim that some humans are superior to others (at least in that sense). This focus on the individual can lead to discrimination by some individuals or groups against others, or to a cold lassiz-faire instead of a social contract. Carroll does not shy away from this explosive issue. He argues both that general intelligence is important and that individual differences matter (81). He criticizes EP for avoiding these issues and praises the older sociobiology for including them. For example, general intelligence is then one of the features in a mate that Austen's characters are looking for, and the conflict of the courtship is for the smart ones to avoid the dumb ones. By focusing on these issues, though, Carroll may be missing D.S. Wilson's point that storytelling is part of group selection and cultural evolution. So a text may have a meaning that is relevant to the broader cultural politics of the society without being part of the author's conscious intentions.

  Nordlund's essay on romantic love is a bit thin. If the reader is familiar with differential mating strategies between men and women popularized by David Buss (men being less choosy about opportunistic mating than women, for example), then the essay does not add much. Nordlund discusses and argues against theories that romantic love is entirely socially constructed and unique to Western culture. His best contribution is the analogy of eating (109). Different societies eat different foods, at different times, and in different ways, but no one doubts that everyone experiences hunger and has to eat. Likewise, different cultures have different manifestations of romantic love, but no one should doubt that everyone has the capacity to feel the same basic sexual attraction and engage in courtship rituals. Nordlund argues that two instincts (Bowlby's emotional attachment theory and the general drive for sex) are functionally independent but interconnected. He then applies his theory to Shakespeare's "problem plays," "Troilus and Cressida" and "All's Well that Ends Well." Conflicting mating strategies explain the behavior of the women in the plays better than theories that argue that their actions represent Shakespeare's attempts to subvert the dominance structures of patriarchal societies. His goal in this analysis is to show how biology, culture, conventions of literary genre, and Shakespeare's own artistic goals clash and interrelate. Okay, but fairly predictable.

  The essay by Robin Fox on male bonding is a quick read but good because not predictable. It argues that many epics feature a heroic male bonding that competes with and overshadows heterosexual male-female mate bonding. Light on theory. Plenty of examples. Fox points out that in chimp social groups, the males are strongly connected as a band of brothers and the mating relationship is weak. The epic is a genre for male heroics, so it often features the male bond, such as Achilles and Patroclus. Fox argues from an evolutionary point of view, male bonding in hunting and war is just as critical to the survival of the human group as bonding with one's mate, and in that sense Fox's conclusions are not obvious from the EP literature.

  Part 2 of the collection has two essays on trying to explain why art exists from an evolutionary viewpoint.

  The essay by Brian Boyd is well thought out, so a good read though a bit heavy. Boyd tries to offer theories of art in general, including narrative but also music, performance, and visual art. He defines art as "an attempt to engage attention by transforming objects and/or actions in order to appeal to species-wide cognitive preferences" (148). He then reviews both traditional theories of art (Aristotle, Kant, etc.) and evolutionary theories (Pinker, Miller, Dissanayake, Cosimedes). His critiques of previous evolutionary theories is detailed and well thought out. Not surprising, given his definition of art, his own theory is that "the ability to share and shape the attention of others ... led to the development of art" (152).

  The essay by Sugiyama is a good read. It argues that the different arts are distinct. Her process is to reverse-engineer narrative to break it down into essential components and then investigate how those components would have offered an evolutionary selection advantage. The reasoning is tight and the logic moves quickly. This essay presages and is cited by Gottschall's more recent book, The Storytelling Animal.

  Part 3 has essays on Darwinian theory and scientific methods.

  The essay by Gottschall himself is a good read. It walks the reader through the use of statistical analysis to test feminist hypotheses of gender in folklore and their underlying theory. He tested the prevalence of these features in folktales: female passivity, a focus on female attractiveness, a marriage motive for women, and a disproportion of female antagonists over age 40. It shows that feminists that claim that European folklore was atypically oppressive of women are wrong. The same pattern is seen in folklore from all continents and from both hunter-gatherers and agrarian societies. Noteworthy is the finding that the European subsample "actually contained the highest proportion of active female protagonists in the study" (213). So western civilization, which gave rise to feminism, has had a long tradition of strong women. As for aged antagonists, he found that there is a general discrimination against elderly characters regardless of their sex.

  Gottschall even controlled for female versus male editors of tales, and he controlled for the male versus female workers who scored the results. Gottschall argues that these results offer evidence against the hard social constructivist principle that gender arrangements in a human society are arbitrary. He also argues against the post-modern skepticism that one can attain reliable knowledge at all, and he argues that statistical analysis yields more permanent conclusions.

  The essay by Kruger, Fisher and Jobling is okay, but is largely a testing within literature of psychological types pioneered by Draper and Belsky. Two types of male protagonists in British Romantic era novels, the proper (emotionally sensitive) hero and the dark hero, fit well with the cad versus dad mating strategy types found by Draper and company. The essay is primarily the report of a psychology study, testing American college women and their reactions to character descriptions from these novels. The data support the hypothesis that the proper versus dark heroes match the cad versus dad strategies, and that for the test subjects, the shorter the imagined relationship, the more likely the cad type would be appealing. The researchers also found that that those subjects who tested in the Bartholomew attachment test as "fearfully attached" were most likely to show a preference for the dark hero/cad strategy. These authors agree with Carroll that life-history analysis is important to EP and ELC.

  The essay by Salmon is a good read. It explores erotica, testing feminist theories of erotica against evolutionary theories. Male pornography is heavy on objectified visual stimuli and features minimal plot and a maximum of sexual encounters with strangers. By contrast, the romance novel, with a predominantly female readership, focuses on plot and usually ends with the start of a permanent emotional bond. If the romance is explicit, the sex is a means toward the emotional bond. The male hero is not submissive, but very masculine, physically and socially competent, like Russell Crowe's character in the movie Gladiator. Feminists often see male porn as oppressive to women and often see romances as women accepting their socially constructed submissiveness. Salmon points to two genre to debunk these claims: gay male porn and slash fiction. Gay porn has same features as heterosexual porn, except all the actors are enjoying themselves. Slash fiction is written by women for women, but features male homosexual relationships. An example of the slash is Kirk/Spock. Slash fiction shares most features of the female romance novel, heavy on emotional struggle and commitment. These two demonstrate that the gender-specific features are biologically based, not cultural.

  The afterword by Dutton is unimpressive.

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