When epic boys meet Hardy girls

July 13, 2001

Is our ability to tell stories as much a product of evolution as our ability to make tools? So say the Darwinians set to explode conventional literary theory. Jerome Burne reports.

Revolution was being fomented last month in a basement of University College London. A small group of agitators from American and Australian universities were using new research to blow up the foundations of English departments all around the country.

Their leader is Joseph Carroll, professor of English at the University of Missouri St Louis, who declares in his manifesto, Evolution and Literary Theory , that "a very large proportion of the work in critical theory that has been done in the past 20 years will prove to be not merely obsolete but essentially void. It is a dead end. A misconceived venture."

He and his co-conspirators presented papers claiming that current approaches to literary criticism were totally inadequate, not just for handling classics such as Homer, but even for providing a cogent critique of children's stories. And as for understanding Wordsworth's Lucy poems - forget it.

Even more unacceptable than their demands for the removal of existing literary criticism is their planned replacement for it. They prefer a Darwinian-based theory of literature, founded on the insight that literature "is a means by which human organisms articulate and communicate their knowledge of reality". And they were meeting under the cover of the three-day Human Behaviour and Evolution Society meeting, where the air was thick with such phrases as "kin-directed altruism", "mate choice" and "cryptic ovulation". Evolutionary psychology is a fledgling and controversial discipline that assumes our minds, just as much as our bodies, have been the target of ruthless evolutionary pruning.

"Once you accept that our brains and our bodies have been shaped by natural selection," Carroll says, "you realise that our ability to tell stories is just as much affected by its survival value as is our ability to make tools."

Some of the ways you might go about tying narrative to its biological roots were sketched out by Brian Boyd, professor of English at the University of Auckland. Far from being a rarefied human attribute, he suggests, there are elements of narrative to be found among all social animals. Stories need heroes and a plot, and animals need a rudimentary version of the same thing, known as agency and goals. They have to be aware of other animals as threats or opportunities. Narrative also needs an audience, and humans, like other social animals, crave attention and enjoy sharing. Monkeys dance together, songbirds duet, we tell stories.

In addition, our primate cousins are very sensitive to social dues. They form alliances, share things and expect something back. Fights frequently start as punishment for an ape that has not kept his side of a bargain.

Combine that social sensitivity with human language ability, and you have the basic literary form - gossip. So, far back in our history, we had an understanding of who was doing what to whom, and the ability to gossip about it.

The one literary element that is missing is empathy - the ability to put yourself into another's shoes. Evolutionary psychologists call that the theory of mind, and all sorts of experiments have shown that children get the idea that others can have different beliefs from them fairly early on. From that follows such literary devices as false belief, otherwise known as dramatic irony.

Boyd applies these and other evolved "mental modules" to a children's story, Horton Hears a Who by Dr Seuss, which is about an elephant who can hear the cries of a race of tiny creatures on a speck of dust. Written at the end of the second world war, the story was attacked as an allegory about Japan that showed "patronising condescension".

Taking an evolutionary perspective, however, Boyd shows how the story allows children to explore their emerging notions of false belief - the other animals do not believe Horton - using a rhythmic structure very like the one to which all infants are programmed to respond.

Homer's blood-drenched epics are far removed from this, but these sagas of alpha males calling on kinship loyalty to secure access to fertile females might have jumped straight from an evolutionary psychology text, once you start looking at literature through that lens. "Homeric scholars have traditionally contended that the winning and amassing of women was merely the proximate goal," says doctoral student Jon Gottschall. "They claim that the Iliad and the Odyssey are really about honour and political power. But they have got things entirely backwards. Political power and social dominance are primarily ways to get women."

He suggests that it was the preference for sons and the problems with resources that this created that was at the root of ancient Greece's cycles of conflict. "All the violence becomes ordered and comprehensible when looked at in this way," Gottschall claims. "When the evolutionary model does catch on, and it's too powerful not to, Marxism, psychoanalysis and radical feminism will cease to have any part to play in literary criticism. Their fundamental premises are founded in antiquated and repudiated theories of human nature."

Evolution, in contrast, focuses on behaviour that increases your chances of leaving a lot of offspring. "The important factors are things like support for kin, men being worried that they are the father of a child, choosing the right mate and incest avoidance," says Brett Cooke, professor of Russian at Texas A&M University. "These are exactly the themes that endlessly come up in literature. Boy-meets-girl is the oldest plot in the book because that is the point at which we have a chance of influencing our genetic future."

Carroll explores some of the possibilities in the journal Interdisciplinary Literary Studies . Although he admits, after describing the gloom of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles , that it is a challenge for the sociobiological approach to explain how such a catalogue of misery contained beauty and power.

And there are other problems for this approach. While it is obviously good at handling sex, what about death, or religion for that matter?

One sympathetic critic has pointed out that if the litcrit revolutionaries are successful, they may kill off the discipline altogether, demoting literary scholars to little more than support staff for psychologists and historians.

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