Sunday, November 06, 2005

Survival of the Fittest Literarily

D.T. Max has a great article on a small movement within university English departments called "Literary Darwinism," in the NYT's Magazine today. What is this you ask? How does it differ from conventional literary theory and criticism? I'll leave it to Max:
It is useful to know a bit about current literary criticism to understand how different the Darwinist approach to literature is. Current literary theory tends to look at a text as the product of particular social conditions or, less often, as a network of references to other texts. (Jacques Derrida, the father of deconstruction, famously observed that there was "nothing outside the text.") It often focuses on how the writer's and the reader's identities - straight, gay, female, male, black, white, colonizer or colonized - shape a particular narrative or its interpretation. Theorists sometimes regard science as simply another form of language or suspect that when scientists claim to speak for nature, they are disguising their own assertion of power. Literary Darwinism breaks with these tendencies. First, its goal is to study literature through biology - not politics or semiotics. Second, it takes as a given not that literature possesses its own truth or many truths but that it derives its truth from laws of nature.

"The Literary Animal," the first scholarly anthology dedicated to Literary Darwinism, is to be published next month. It draws from the various fields that figure in Darwinian evolutionary studies, including contributions from evolutionary psychologists and biologists as well as literature professors. The essays consider the importance of the male-male bond in epics and romances, the battle of the sexes in Shakespeare and the motif in both Japanese and Western literature of men rejecting children whom their wives have conceived in adultery. "The Literary Animal" spans centuries and individual cultures with bravura, if not bravado...There is a circularity to an argument that uses texts about people to prove that people behave in human ways. (I'm reminded of the Robert Frost line: "Earth's the right place for love:/I don't know where it's likely to go better.") But Literary Darwinism has a second focus too. It also investigates why we read and write fiction. At the core of Literary Darwinism is the idea that we inherit many of the predispositions we deem to be cultural through our genes. How we behave has been subjected to the same fitness test as our bodies: if a bit of behavior has no purpose, then evolution - given enough time - may well dispense with it. So why, Literary Darwinists ask, do we make room for this strange exercise of the imagination? What are reading and writing fiction good for? In her essay "Reverse-Engineering Narrative," Michelle Scalise Sugiyama tries to simplify the question by picking stories apart, breaking them down into characters, settings, causalities and time frames ("the cognitive widgets and sprockets of storytelling") and asking what purpose each serves: how do they make us more adaptive, more capable of passing on our genes?
Personally, I think this is a great area for further research that could tell us alot about humans as social animals. Biologically speaking, why do we create stories? Why do we on average sympathize with some stories more than others? Why do literary archetypes span millennia and myriad cultures? Indeed, do certain aspects or themes have to be present for critics to accord "classic" status to the work? All good questions which could reveal the socio-biological continuum of emotion and experience from primitive man to modern man. (Sorry for being gender specific ladies.)

I'm fascinated by evolution and how it affects nearly every academic field -- personally I think a certain moral foundation essential to social cohesion was the product of natural selection -- so I'm interested in the Literary Darwinists findings. It should make for some fun academic reading, if academic reading can ever truly be "fun."