Jane, Meet Charles
Literature, Evolution and Human Nature
by Brian Boyd, professor of English at the University of Auckland, New Zealand
Philosophy and Literature 22 (1998): 1-30
Author's presentation

The article is in three parts:
 

I. Much current thinking, in literary theory as in the social sciences, stresses that culture stamps itself so firmly on the soft stuff of the human mind that it is meaningless to talk of a universal human nature. Recent findings in evolutionary psychology suggest that this is wrong, and that the mind is highly organized in ways that evolved as our forebears adapted to the Pleistocene environment. In fact a complex common architecture of the mind seems to be necessary even to explain how culture can make us as different as we are. 
II. An understanding of the force of evolution in shaping our minds seems likely to have profound consequences for literary criticism. It promises to offer ways of understanding human minds, as the producers and consumers and subjects of literature, that are neither parochial nor deceived by what seems obvious, automatic and "natural," and that will make it possible to integrate literary with scientific explanations of the world; it invites us to ask why we have evolved to derive pleasure from invented stories about others and from playing with words, images and ideas; it suggests that literature has emerged from ordinary human competences, and is therefore less culture-bound and indeterminate than much recent criticism claims; and it may provide a model for the evolution of literature through the interaction of the humanly universal, the culturally specific, and the distinctively individual.
III. Since Jane Austen pays less attention to the body than any other novelist, and Fanny Price seems less at home in her body than any other Austen heroine, Mansfield Park provides a useful test case. Austenís novels harness situations as central to evolution as mate selection and the role of female choice, situations that are therefore charged with an emotional power that explains in part the wide appeal her work has in spite of its circumscribed setting and range. But these situations also invite a particularly intense form of the social and moral monitoring that have been crucial to the evolution of primate species in general and humankind in particular. The other part of Austenís appeal is that she meets these situations with new narrative techniques and a new suppleness of tone that allow her new standards of accuracy in rendering the sensitivity we can have in our most charged moments of interacting with our own kind.
 
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