Looking for detractors of Literary Darwinism
June 3, 2008 6:45 AM   Subscribe

Literary Darwinism: A relatively new field of evolutionary psychology / literary theory. What has recently been written in argument against it?

I have read through some of the works of:

Joseph Carroll
Ellen Dissanayake
Jonathan Gottschall
Robert Storey
Michelle Scalise Sugiyama

...and a few others, yet I am having a hard time finding critical work designed to bring down the arguments of Darwinian Literary Studies. It appears that the field of Poststructuralism is one of the main targets of Literary Darwinism's (Lit-Dar) proponents.

Has anyone attempted to re-address the balance?

I have found little in Lit-Dar writings about specifically text and textuality, something the Postmodernists very much conern themselves with. Surely there is some work on the subject that addresses its absence from Lit-Dar writings?

(I am not interested in the critique of Evolutionary Psychology - of which there is plenty - unless it specifically addresses the Literary and Textual concerns of Darwinian Literary Studies.)

Thanks a lot
posted by 0bvious to Writing & Language (7 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
The second link in your google link -- this NY Times Magazine Story -- approaches parts of your question.

In any case, thanks for bringing this up. I'd never heard of Literary Darwinism before. At first blush (and as your query suggests), the theory seems focused on interpreting/analyzing the behavior of literary characters through the lens of evolutionary biology at the expense of analysis of analysis of text and technique and so on. A Literary Darwinist analysis of irony might be fun.
posted by notyou at 7:30 AM on June 3, 2008

There was a FPP about this not so long ago, linking to Steven Pinker's review of Gottschall & Wilson. You might also be interested in William Benzon's Signposts for a Naturalist Criticism (another critical response to Gottschall & Wilson) and Raymond Tallis's The Neuroscience Delusion (a no-nonsense piece of theory-bashing, chiefly aimed at A.S. Byatt's 'neuroaesthetics' but with a few well-aimed shots at literary Darwinism as well).
posted by verstegan at 7:47 AM on June 3, 2008

"For the moment, Literary Darwinism is a club that may grow into a crowd; there are only about 30 or so declared adherents in all of academia." This explains why there is not much of a critique yet.

To me, it sounds first of all like a circular enterprise, and secondly like a pseudo-scientific enterprise because the hypotheses are non-falsifiable.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:45 AM on June 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

I doubt that it can be "brought down" as such. Science is supposed to be falsifiable and have predictive power: you can bring down a scientific theory by falsifying it, or showing it to be unfalsifiable, or pointing to a lack of prediction.

But literary criticism is not a science. It's subjective. There's not much you can do to bring down a particular approach except say that you don't find it useful or illuminating.

Literary Darwinism does seem to have some of the weaknesses of evolutionary psychology. Sex in humans seems to have a social role as well as a direct biological one. Humans have sex much more often than many other species and without a mating season; more than is necessary just to reproduce.

You might compare it to grooming in chimpanzees. That has an immediate practical purpose of removing parasites, but also a social role of forming bonds. If you look at a chimpanzee troop and say "the dominant male gets groomed a lot, so he must have particularly many fleas" you're making a mistake. But by seeing sex as something purely done for reproduction, it seems to me that Literary Darwinists are doing something similar.

It may or may not be true that all behaviour is designed ultimately for reproduction. But if so, we still don't know what the intermediate steps are. Maybe there's an evolutionary imperative to, say, have homosexual sex in order to form social alliances to gain food. Literary Darwinism can't really tell us if there is or isn't though; and with a little ingenuity you can explain pretty much any behaviour you like. So, it's not terribly useful.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 9:19 AM on June 3, 2008

It seems to be literary criticism for people who are not interested in literature. I don't see how one could "bring down" its arguments other than by saying "What you say may be interesting to people who want literary examples to spice up their discussions of evolution, but it is of no interest to people who like literature for the traditional reasons people like literature."

From another perspective, it is just another in an endless series of NEW! brands of criticism designed to topple the previous lions and gain tenure, respect, and sexual partners for its proponents. When I was teaching in an English department thirty years ago, "reception theory" was the Hot New Thing. This too shall pass.
posted by languagehat at 9:57 AM on June 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks a lot...

I think 'bring down' was too strong of a phrase in retrospect, I merely meant 'to criticise'.

I am definitely coming at Literary Darwinism from the humanities, rather than from the sciences and do believe that it has something to say about literature and the arts - as do all critical schools. It has got a lot to say about the emergence of art, in evolutionary terms, but as far as I can see, very little to say on the vast swathes of different forms and functions that art has assumed over the millenia.

I had really hoped that the more established critical schools might have tried to address some of the issues Literary Darwinism brings up. It is quite sad to see it shrugged off or ignored. There was a time when Postmodernism was the young pretender trying "to topple the previous lions and gain tenure, respect, and sexual partners for its proponents".

Oh, how all rebels eventually become the establishment.
posted by 0bvious at 10:16 AM on June 3, 2008

I don't see much substantive content here to argue against.
posted by clockzero at 12:49 PM on June 3, 2008

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