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Darwinian literary studies

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Darwinian literary studies

Darwinian literary studies (a.k.a. Literary Darwinism) is a branch of literary criticism that studies literature in the context of evolution by means of natural selection, including gene-culture coevolution. It represents an emerging trend of neo-Darwinian thought in intellectual disciplines beyond those traditionally considered as evolutionary biology: evolutionary psychology, evolutionary anthropology, behavioral ecology, evolutionary developmental psychology, cognitive psychology, affective neuroscience, behavioural genetics, evolutionary epistemology, and other such disciplines.[1]


  • Scope 1
  • Adaptive function of literature and the arts 2
  • Hypotheses about Formal Literary Features 3
  • Distinguishing literary Darwinism 4
  • Bibliography 5
  • Critical commentaries 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9


Literary Darwinists use concepts from evolutionary biology and the evolutionary human sciences to formulate principles of literary theory and interpret literary texts. They investigate interactions between human nature and the forms of cultural imagination, including literature and its oral antecedents. By “human nature,” they mean a pan-human, genetically transmitted set of dispositions: motives, emotions, features of personality, and forms of cognition. Because the Darwinists concentrate on relations between genetically transmitted dispositions and specific cultural configurations, they often describe their work as "biocultural critique.”[2]

Darwinian literary studies arose in part as a result of dissatisfaction with the poststructuralist and postmodernist philosophies that came to dominate literary study during the 1970s and 1980s. In particular, the Darwinists took issue with the argument that discourse constructs reality. The Darwinists argue that biologically grounded dispositions constrain and inform discourse. This argument runs counter to what evolutionary psychologists assert is the central idea in the "Standard Social Science Model": that culture wholly constitutes human values and behaviors.[3]

Many literary Darwinists aim not just at creating another “approach” or “movement” in literary theory; they aim at fundamentally altering the paradigm within which literary study is now conducted. They want to establish a new alignment among the disciplines and ultimately to encompass all other possible approaches to literary study. They rally to Edward O. Wilson’s cry for “consilience” among all the branches of learning. Like Wilson, they envision nature as an integrated set of elements and forces extending in an unbroken chain of material causation from the lowest level of subatomic particles to the highest levels of cultural imagination. And like Wilson, they regard evolutionary biology as the pivotal discipline uniting the hard sciences with the social sciences and the humanities. They believe that humans have evolved in an adaptive relation to their environment. They argue that for humans, as for all other species, evolution has shaped the anatomical, physiological, and neurological characteristics of the species, and they think that human behavior, feeling, and thought are fundamentally shaped by those characteristics. They make it their business to consult evolutionary biology and evolutionary social science in order to determine what those characteristics are, and they bring that information to bear on their understanding of the products of the human imagination.[4]

Evolutionary literary criticism of a minimalist kind consists in identifying basic, common human needs—survival, sex, and status, for instance—and using those categories to describe the behavior of characters depicted in literary texts. Others pose for themselves a form of criticism involving an overarching interpretive challenge: to construct continuous explanatory sequences linking the highest level of causal evolutionary explanation to the most particular effects in individual works of literature. Within evolutionary biology, the highest level of causal explanation involves adaptation by means of natural selection. Starting from the premise that the human mind has evolved in an adaptive relation to its environment, literary Darwinists undertake to characterize the phenomenal qualities of a literary work (tone, style, theme, and formal organization), locate the work in a cultural context, explain that cultural context as a particular organization of the elements of human nature within a specific set of environmental conditions (including cultural traditions), identify an implied author and an implied reader, examine the responses of actual readers (for instance, other literary critics), describe the socio-cultural, political, and psychological functions the work fulfills, locate those functions in relation to the evolved needs of human nature, and link the work comparatively with other artistic works, using a taxonomy of themes, formal elements, affective elements, and functions derived from a comprehensive model of human nature.[5]

Contributors to evolutionary studies in literature have included humanists, biologists, and social scientists. Some of the biologists and social scientists have adopted primarily discursive methods for discussing literary subjects, and some of the humanists have adopted the empirical, quantitative methods typical of research in the sciences. Literary scholars and scientists have also collaborated in research that combines the methods typical of work in the humanities with methods typical of work in the sciences.[6]

Adaptive function of literature and the arts

The most hotly debated issue in evolutionary literary study concerns the adaptive functions of literature and other arts—whether there are any adaptive functions, and if so, what they might be. Proposed functions include transmitting information, including about kin relations, and by providing the audience with a model and rehearsal for how to behave in similar situations that may arise in the future.[7] Steven Pinker (How the Mind Works, 1997) suggests that aesthetic responsiveness is merely a side effect of cognitive powers that evolved to fulfill more practical functions, but Pinker also suggests that narratives can provide information for adaptively relevant problems. Geoffrey Miller (The Mating Mind, 2000) argues that artistic productions in the ancestral environment served as forms of sexual display in order to demonstrate fitness and attract mates, similarly to the function of the

  • Mathias Clasen's website (in English and Danish)
  • The Evolutionary Review: Art, Science, Culture
  • The Literature Project: Maya Lessov's Interviews with Scholars Involved in the Debate over the Two Cultures

External links

  1. ^ For an overview of evolutionary research in the human sciences, see Human Behavior and Evolution Society
  2. ^ For introductory commentaries on evolutionary studies in the humanities, see Harold Fromm, "The New Darwinism in the Humanities", Hudson Review; D. T. Max, "The Literary Darwinists", The New York Times; John Whitfield, "Literary Darwinism: Textual Selection", Nature; Mark Czarnecki, "The Other Darwin", Walrus Magazine.
  3. ^ On the conceptual character of poststructuralism, see Terry Eagleton, "Post-structuralism" in Literary Theory: An Introduction, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983); M. H. Abrams, "The Transformation of English Studies: 1930-1995", Daedalus; and Jonathan Culler, Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997). For Darwinist critiques of "cultural constructivism," see Brian Boyd, "Getting It All Wrong"; and Joseph Carroll, "Pluralism, Poststructuralism, and Evolutionary Theory,".
  4. ^ For general statements about the aims of scholars in this field, see Brian Boyd, "Literature and Evolution: A Bio-Cultural Approach"; Interview with Joseph Carroll, "What Is Literary Darwinism?"; Jonathan Gottschall, "The Tree of Knowledge and Darwinian Literary Study"; Maya Lessov, A Filmed Interview with Joseph Carroll, Brian Boyd, and Jonathan Gottschall; and Marcus Nordlund, "Consilient Literary Interpretation".
  5. ^ For an analysis of the topics and approaches in this field, see Joseph Carroll, "Evolutionary Approaches to Literature and Drama". For examples of interpretive essays by evolutionary critics, see The Narrative CorpseBrian Boyd, "Art and Evolution: Spiegelman's ; )LolitaBrian Boyd, "The Art of Literature and the Science of Literature" (on ; Brian Boyd, "On the Origin of Comics: New York Double-Take"; "The Picture of Dorian GrayJoseph Carroll, "Aestheticism, Homoeroticism, and Christian Guilt in ; Wuthering HeightsJoseph Carroll, "The Cuckoo's History: Human Nature in ; "Pride and PrejudiceJoseph Carroll, "Human Nature and Literary Meaning: a Theoretical Model Illustrated with a Critique of ; Nancy Easterlin, "Hans Christian Andersen's Fish out of Water"; Nancy Easterlin, "Psychoanalysis and the 'Discipline' of Love'" (on Wordsworth); "IliadJonathan Gottschall, "Homer's Human Animal: Ritual Combat in the ; The ChildrenJudith Saunders, "Evolutionary Biological Issues in Edith Wharton's ; and Judith Saunders, "Male Reproductive Strategies in Sherwood Anderson's 'The Untold Lie'".
  6. ^ For examples of evolutionary criticism making use of empirical, quantitative methodology, see Carroll, Gottschall, Johnson, and Kruger, "Agonistic Structure in Nineteenth-Century British Novels: Doing the Math"; : A Revised Solution to an Old Evolutionary Riddle"Homo sapiensJonathan Gottschall, "Greater Emphasis on Female Attractiveness in ; Jonathan Gottschall, "A Modest Manifesto and Testing the Hypotheses of Feminist Fairy Tale Studies"; Jonathan Gottschall, "Response to Kathleen Ragan's 'What Happened to the Heroines in Folktales?'"; Jonathan Gottschall and Marcus Nordlund, "Romantic Love: A Literary Universal?"; Johnson, Carroll, Gottschall, and Kruger, "Hierarchy in the Library: Egalitarian Dynamics in Victorian Novels; and Stiller, Nettle, and Dunbar, "The Small World of Shakespeare's Plays". Essays by scientists using the discursive methods typical of work in the humanities are included in the collections of essays edited by Boyd, Carroll, and Gottschall; Gottschall and Wilson; Headlam Wells and McFadden; and Martindale, Locher, and Petrov.
  7. ^ a b The Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, Edited by Robin Dunbar and Louise Barret, Oxford University Press, 2007, Chapter 44 Evolutionary approaches of literature and drama by Joseph Carrol
  8. ^ For commentaries on the adaptive (or non-adaptive) functions of the arts, see Brian Boyd, "Evolutionary Theories of Art," in The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative, ed. Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson (Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP), 147-76; Joseph Carroll, filmed lecture "On the Function of Imagination, at the National Humanities Center, 2007; 42 (2008): 119-28StyleJoseph Carroll, “Adaptationist Literary Study: An Emerging Research Program,” ; and in the same volume Joseph Carroll, "Rejoinder," pp. 349-68; Joseph Carroll et al. "The Adaptive Function of Literature and the other Arts, Online Colloquium, the National Humanities Center, 2009; Steven Pinker, "Toward a Consilient Study of Literature," a review of The Literary Animal, Philosophy and Literature 31 (2007): 162-178;Catherine Salmon and Donald Symons, "Slash Fiction and Human Mating Psychology," Journal of Sex Research 41 (2004): 94-100;John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, "Does Beauty Build Adapted Minds? Toward an Evolutionary Theory of Aesthetics, Fiction, and the Arts," SubStance 30.1&2 (2001): 6-27; E. O Wilson chapter ten in Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998).
  9. ^ E. S. Rabkin, and C. P. Simon, “Age, Sex, and Evolution in the Science Fiction Marketplace.” Interdisciplinary Literary Studies, 2 (2001): 45-58.
  10. ^ See , 23 (1999): 313-33Philosophy and LiteratureBrian Boyd, “Literature and Discovery,” ; 26 (2002): 443-55.Philosophy and LiteratureNancy Easterlin, “Romanticism’s Gray Matter,”
  11. ^ On the relations between cognitive rhetoric and literary Darwinism, see 42 (2008): 105-108StyleJoseph Carroll, "An Evolutionary Paradigm for Literary Study,” ; 25 (2001): 314-34Philosophy and LiteratureF. Elizabeth Hart, “The epistemology of cognitive literary studies, ; Alan Richardson and Ellen Spolsky, eds., The Work of Fiction: Cognition, Culture, and Complexity, Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004.


See also

Some of the commentaries included in the Stylespecial double issue of are critical of literary Darwinism. Other critical commentaries include those of William Benzon, "Signposts for a Naturalist Criticism," (Entelechy: Mind & Culture, Fall 2005/Winter 2006); William Deresiewicz, “Adaptation: On Literary Darwinism,” The Nation June 8, 2009: 26-31; ,Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of FictionWilliam Flesch, (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2008); ,Darwinian Misadventures in the HumanitiesEugene Goodheart, (New Brunswick: NJ: Transaction, 2007); Jonathan Kramnick, "Against Literary Darwinism," in Critical Inquiry, Winter 2011; "Debating Literary Darwinism," a set of responses to Jonathan Kramnick's essay, along with Kramnick's rejoinder, in Critical Inquiry, Winter 2012; Alan Richardson, “Studies in Literature and Cognition: A Field Map,” in The Work of Fiction: Cognition, Culture, and Complexity, ed. Alan Richardson and Ellen Spolsky (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004 1-29); and Lisa Zunshine, "What is Cognitive Cultural Studies?," in Introduction to Cognitive Cultural Studies (Johns Hopkins UP, 2010 1-33). Goodheart and Deresiewicz, adopting a traditional humanist perspective, reject efforts to ground literary study in biology. Richardson disavows the Darwinists' tendency to attack poststructuralism. Richardson and Benzon both align themselves with cognitive science and distinguish that alignment from an alignment with evolutionary psychology. Flesch makes use of evolutionary research on game theory, costly signaling, and altruistic punishment but, like Stephen Jay Gould, professes himself hostile to evolutionary psychology. For a commentary that is sympathetic to evolutionary psychology but skeptical about the possibilities of using it for literary study, see Steven Pinker, "Toward a Consilient Study of Literature," a review of The Literary Animal, Philosophy and Literature 31 (2007): 162-178.

Critical commentaries

Discussion Groups: Online forums for news and discussion include the Biopoetics listserv, the Facebook group for Evolutionary Narratology, and the Facebook homepage for The Evolutionary Review. Researchers with similar interests can also be located on by searching for people who have a research interest in Evolutionary Literary Criticism and Theory / Biopoetics or in Literary Darwinism or Evolutionary Literary Theory.

Symposia: A special double-issue of the journal (vol. 42, numbers 2/3, summer/fall 2008)Style was devoted to evolutionary literary theory and criticism, with a target article by Joseph Carroll ("An Evolutionary Paradigm for Literary Study"), responses by 35 scholars and scientists, and a rejoinder by Carroll. Also, a special evolutionary issue of the journal Politics and Culture contains 32 essays, including contributions to a symposium on the question "How is culture biological?", which includes six primary essays along with responses and rejoinders.

Journals: Much evolutionary literary criticism has been published in the journal Philosophy and Literature. The journal Style has also been an important venue for the Darwinists. Social science journals that have published research on the arts include Evolution and Human Behavior, Evolutionary Psychology, and Human Nature. The first issue of a new annual journal, The Evolutionary Review: Art, Science, Culture appeared in 2010 and ceased publication in 2013.

Edited Collections: The volume edited by Boyd, Carroll, and Gottschall (2010) is an anthology, that is, a selection of essays and book excerpts, most of which had been previously published. Collections of essays that had not, for the most part, been previously published include those edited by Cooke and Turner (1999); Gottschall and Wilson (2005); Headlam Wells and McFadden (2006); Martindale, Locher, and Petrov (2007); and Hoeg and Larsen (2009).

  • Anderson, Joseph. 1996. The Reality of Illusion: An Ecological Approach to Cognitive Film Theory. Southern Illinois Press.
  • Austin, Michael. 2010. Useful Fictions: Evolution, Anxiety, and the Origins of Literature. University of Nebraska Press.
  • Barash, David P., and Nanelle Barash. 2005. Madame Bovary's Ovaries: A Darwinian Look at Literature. Delacorte Press.
  • Bordwell, David. 2008. Poetics of Cinema. Routledge.
  • Boyd, Brian. 2009. On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition. and Fiction. Harvard University Press.
  • Boyd, Brian, Joseph Carroll, and Jonathan Gottschall, eds. 2010. Evolution, Literature, and Film: A Reader. Columbia University Press.
  • Carroll, Joseph. 1995. Evolution and Literary Theory. University of Missouri.
  • Carroll, Joseph. 2004. Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature. Routledge.
  • Carroll, Joseph. 2011. Reading Human Nature: Literary Darwinism in Theory and Practice. SUNY Press.
  • Carroll, Joseph, Jonathan Gottschall, John Johnson, and Daniel Kruger. 2012. Graphing Jane Austen: The Evolutionary Basis of Literary Meaning. Palgrave.
  • Coe, Kathryn. 2003. The Ancestress Hypothesis: Visual Art as Adaptation. Rutgers University Press.
  • Cooke, Brett. 2002. Human Nature in Utopia: Zamyatin's We. Northwestern University Press.
  • Cooke, Brett, and Frederick Turner, eds. 1999. Biopoetics: Evolutionary Explorations in the Arts. ICUS.
  • Dissanayake, Ellen. 2000. Art and Intimacy: How the Arts Began. University of Washington Press.
  • Dissanayake, Ellen. 1995. Homo Aestheticus. University of Washington Press.
  • Dissanayake, Ellen. 1990. What Is Art For? University of Washington Press.
  • Dutton, Denis. 2009. The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution. Oxford University Press.
  • Easterlin, Nancy. 2012. A Biocultural Approach to Literary Theory and Interpretation. Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Fromm, Harold. 2009. The Nature of Being Human: From Environmentalism to Consciousness. Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Gottschall, Jonathan. 2008. Literature, Science, and a New Humanities. Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Gottschall, Jonathan. 2007. The Rape of Troy: Evolution, Violence, and the World of Homer. Cambridge.
  • Gottschall, Jonathan. 2012. The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Houghton Mifflin.
  • Gottschall, Jonathan, and David Sloan Wilson, eds. 2005. The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative. Northwestern University Press.
  • Grodal, Torben. 2009. Embodied Visions: Evolution, Emotion, Culture, and Film. Oxford University Press.
  • Headlam Wells, Robin. 2005. Shakespeare's Humanism. Cambridge University Press.
  • Headlam Wells, Robin, and JonJoe McFadden, eds. 2006. Human Nature: Fact and Fiction. Continuum.
  • Hoeg, Jerry, and Kevin S. Larsen, eds. 2009. Interdisciplinary Essays on Darwinism in Hispanic Literature and Film: The Intersection of Science and the Humanities. Mellen.
  • Hood, Randall. 1979. The Genetic Function and Nature of Literature. Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.
  • Love, Glen. 2003. Practical Ecocriticism: Literature, Biology, and the Environment. University of Virginia Press.
  • Machann, Clinton. 2009. Masculinity in Four Victorian Epics: A Darwinist Reading. Ashgate.
  • Martindale, Colin, and Paul Locher, and Vladimir M. Petrov, eds. 2007. Evolutionary and Neurocognitive Approaches to Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. Baywood.
  • Nordlund, Marcus. 2007. Shakespeare and the Nature of Love: Literature, Culture, Evolution. Northwestern University Press.
  • Salmon, Catherine, and Donald Symons. 2001. Warrior Lovers: Erotic Fiction, Evolution, and Female Sexuality. Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
  • Saunders, Judith. 2009. Reading Edith Wharton through A Darwinian Lens: Evolutionary Biological Issues In Her Fiction. McFarland.
  • Storey, Robert. 1996. Mimesis and the Human Animal: On the Biogenetic Foundations of Literary Representation. Northwestern University Press.
  • Swirski, Peter. 2010. Literature, Analytically Speaking: Explorations in the Theory of Interpretation, Analytic Aesthetics, and Evolution. University of Texas Press.
  • Swirski, Peter. 2007. Of Literature and Knowledge: Explorations in Narrative Thought Experiments, Evolution, and Game Theory. Routledge.
  • Vermeule, Blakey. 2010. Why Do We Care about Literary Characters? Johns Hopkins University Press.

In addition to books oriented specifically to literature, this list includes books on cinema and books by authors who propound theories like those of the literary Darwinists but discuss the arts in general.


Cognitive Rhetoric: Practitioners of "cognitive rhetoric” or Mark Turner. Other literary scholars associated with cognitive rhetoric include Mary Thomas Crane, F. Elizabeth Hart, Tony Jackson, Alan Richardson, Ellen Spolsky, Francis Steen, and Lisa Zunshine.[11]

). Comeuppance) and William Flesch (Beethoven's Anvil Other critics or theorists who have some affiliation with evolutionary biology but who would not identify themselves as literary Darwinists include William Benzon ([9] Literary Theorists who would call themselves “literary Darwinists” or claim some close alignment with the literary Darwinists share one central idea: that the adapted mind produces literature and that literature reflects the structure and character of the adapted mind. There are at least two other ways of integrating evolution into literary theory: cosmic evolutionism and evolutionary analogism. Cosmic evolutionists identify some universal process of development or progress and identify literary structures as microcosmic versions of that process. Proponents of cosmic evolution include Cosmic Evolutionism and Evolutionary Analogism:

Distinguishing literary Darwinism

[7] Some Darwinists have proposed explanations for formal literary features, including genres.

Hypotheses about Formal Literary Features


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