Tim Horvath
Literary Darwinism and Literary Darwinisms: Let the Games Begin…
1 January 2005

In Evolution and Literary Theory (1995), a work boasting the heft of a local telephone directory, Joseph Carroll essentially called for a new era in literary studies; the transition he delineated would require two phases. First would have to come a veritable razing of the existing structure, the Derridean and Foucauldian-dominated poststructuralist paradigm which was, he argued, hopelessly flawed, and ultimately constructed on egregiously shoddy foundations. Indeed, Carroll's own book served as a formidable wrecking ball, devoting a considerable proportion of its 515 pages to such polemical labor. The second phase was and remains, of course, the reconstruction of literary studies on sounder cornerstones, namely Darwinian ones, and in particular those of evolutionary psychology. Now, at last, Literary Darwinism reaches us, a slenderer book which takes as optimistic an attitude as one could imagine for its far-reaching agenda, and offers up some sample blueprints for what the reconstruction will entail.

Carroll’s unswerving optimism is refreshing and lends a sense of inclusiveness and shared purpose to his work, all too rare in academic criticism. His liberal use of “we” is no accident; it feels as though “we” might be collectively striving for a tangible feat, such as a manned Mars mission, except of course that in this case, the venture will carry us into exclusively intellectual frontiers. Along the way, the arguments are delivered so straightforwardly and unpretentiously that at times it feels as if he is understating the magnitude and potential ramifications of the endeavor. To cite a few noteworthy instances:
Neither statement alone provides adequate structure, but if we combine them and mediate between them, we shall find that we now have the means for analyzing literary representations and for understanding the psychological foundations of literature.[on synthesizing Mithen and Gazzaniga] (103)

The failure of cognitive rhetoric is one of the most encouraging developments in the literary theory of the past decade. It is encouraging because the cause of failure is easy to diagnose, and the diagnosis points us very clearly in the direction we need to take. (105)

 The effort to construct a paradigm for Darwinian literary criticism and the effort to construct a paradigm for the broader field of Darwinian psychology...need each other. Fortunately, they are both within reach, and by reaching the one, we can reach the other. (189)
One is tempted to say, “Two paradigms in an afternoon of reading...is that all?” For, as illustrated above, Carroll’s quarry is nothing less than the consilience that he praises in the work of E.O. Wilson. Throughout the book, Carroll reiterates and reassures the reader that such a goal is not only achievable, not only laudable, not only inevitable, but that it really oughtn't to be all that difficult, if one — or we -- can only navigate our way through the Scyllas and Charybdises of muddled thinking, obscurantism, false analogy, and self-aggrandizement. In this sense, the book is suffused with a humility which places it firmly in the company of esteemed forerunners such as Wilson and even Darwin himself. Carroll has great respect for "the common reader” (145), in terms of both taste and sensibility, although he draws the line at certain species of pop prehistoric fiction, no matter how many copies flew off the shelf.
In large part, the volume unites between two covers an assortment of essays previously published in forward-thinking literary journals that have proved hospitable to Darwinian analyses, along with journals focused primarily on evolutionary theory, such as Evolution and Human Behavior and Human Nature, which have themselves opened up lanes for traffic creeping in the opposite direction toward literature and the arts. Occasionally, the “previously-published” nature of these pieces is made evident by the way in which ideas repeat in multiple essays, but this is a small ante for larger riches. The very act of arranging these essays into a single work makes for an indispensable resource for anyone concerned with ideas which, if we take Carroll's word for it, are themselves going to be indispensable in future scholarship. Moreover, one of the three brand-new essays in the book, "Human Nature and Literary Meaning," does more than its share -- it is surely the most useful and groundbreaking chapter in the entire book.  In fact, this chapter could have, and deserves to have, a significant impact on not only discussions in the humanities, but in the social sciences themselves. In pushing for this radical revamping of the field of literary studies, Carroll winds up proposing a more subtle, but equally critical shift in evolutionary psychology itself -- rather than merely applying a closed theoretical system "to" literature, Carroll argues boldly that evolutionary psychology needs to challenge some of its own assumptions and prematurely-ossified doctrines, and that the study of literature provides precisely the occasion for such a healthy shake-up. After all, one of the more delicious consequences of his theory is that literary writers are conceived of as intuitive psychologists, who provided humanity with the most astute and searching “data” and “commentary” available until psychologists came along to hang up shingles and formalize a field; we can envision the cultural icon of Shakespeare, unschooled formally but somehow peering and tapping into humanity’s deepest character, as representative of all writers in this regard.

Literary Darwinism is divided into three sections. The first, "Mapping the Disciplinary Landscape," features Carroll engaging directly and explicitly with other thinkers and writers. This section in part reiterates, synoptically and in specific review contexts, the more polemical aspects of Evolution and Literary Theory, but also performs critical work of its own. The chapter on Pinker, for instance, establishes that literature itself cannot be written off merely as “mental cheesecake" (68),  a byproduct of other cognitive and behavioral adaptations, but instead demands its own day in the analytical spotlight.  The chapter on E.O. Wilson celebrates Wilson's accomplishments across the disciplines, and perceptively aims to rescue from Wilson's work a more nuanced perspective on literature than Wilson himself gives. To do so, Carroll extracts Wilson's own notion of "scenarios" from one part of Consilience and reapplies it to literature; this notion of scenarios later turns out to be the closest existing prototype for Carroll's own theory of the “total meaning structure” and “total meaning situation” (150), though the latter terms are original, and Carroll establishes them as his own.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly in this first section, Carroll painstakingly distinguishes the adaptationist program from what he believes to be well-intentioned but misguided attempts at integrating evolutionary theory with literature, such as the projects of cognitive rhetoricians like Turner and Lakoff, who implicitly cite evolution but neglect to explicitly ground their theories in it. Even less salvageable for Carroll is the work of those critics who adopt evolution as a guiding metaphor or principle, but in doing so distort natural selection as it applies specifically to products of the imagination. As a mere metaphor, it seems, “evolution” can hinder as much as help. The single theorist rightly credited with conducting book-length adaptationist criticism is Robert Storey, whose Mimesis and the Human Animal is a heavyweight contender in the field. Adaptationism, of course, means the program laid out by sociobiology, and then refined by evolution psychology, to study the mind and behavior as shaped by natural selection, using the scientific evidence that has been culled from numerous fields. Whatever one thinks of Carroll's hard-driving critiques of much of this work, his taxonomy is accurate and useful, and will help anyone attempting to survey the available options.

It’s really Part Two, though, where things start to gel, surge forward, and deliver on the promises of the title. In its six essays, readers will find the most constructive arguments, examples, and at last get to observe adaptationist criticism put to the test. (Although the third section, which incorporates two essays on Darwin and Darwinism, is intriguing, it seems peripheral to Carroll’s larger undertaking, and thus has the distinct feeling of afterthought). The first two chapters deal with universals, and introduce some of the key ideas which comprise Carroll’s synthesis. By crossing the cognitive archaeologist Steven Mithen’s notion of cognitive fluidity with the domain-specificity and modularity-centered model offered by Tooby and Cosmides, Carroll argues, we can begin to understand how literature operates adaptively. Correlating cognitive fluidity with general intelligence (g), Carroll draws our attention to the interplay of individuality and universality that is, of course, part of our everyday cognitive landscape, as well as the literary landscape.

It is here that Carroll speaks to the need for both the humanities and the sciences, even the Darwinists themselves, to question their assumptions. Carroll cites literary works as examples par excellence of individuality and general intelligence, two traits that he believes evolutionary psychologists too often lose sight of, in their zeal to reverse-engineer painstakingly-circumscribed domains. As he argues, we must afford as much attention to individuality as to the universals and statistical tendencies of human nature that scientific inquiry teases out. Even further, he breaks down this very dichotomy, reminding us that according to adaptationist arguments, individuality itself takes on certain universal forms that are predictable and somewhat regular. Invoking a number of models, such as life-history analysis and personality trait theory, Carroll is able to show how we can talk about characters not only as universal types, driven by the sorts of motives that “evolutionary psychology teaches us to expect,”  but as distinct individuals.
Moreover, authors can be analyzed in this way—one of his mantras in this section is that author, reader, and characters form a tripartite ensemble which any and every complete literary analysis will be obligated to consider. Each of this ensemble’s participants has a point of view, and thus Carroll calls upon this staple of traditional literary analysis to take on a new centrality in his schema. Underscoring the interplay of points of view that constitute literary works, Carroll arrives at his key notions of the “total meaning structure,” the author’s worldview as embodied dynamically through the characters in the text, and “total meaning situation,” which invites the reader’s point of view into this circuit. On the face of it, these ideas might sound relatively innocuous and even anti-climactic, vestiges of traditional criticism, except that they are integrated with evolutionary ideas in a way that thoroughly reinvigorates them.

The real payoff only becomes evident once Carroll advances two additional and related ideas which are, in my view, the most compelling in the book: that of “the need to create cognitive order” as a universal human motive, and the notion of the “cognitive behavioral system,” which he lays alongside those systems which others have posited and sketched out previously, which have developed to respond to concerns of survival, technology, mating, parenting, kin, and social existence. Literary works are created by, and about “people seeking to perceive meaning in or impose meaning on the events of their own lives and the lives of every person they know” (202). (One of the surprising and somewhat refreshing benefits of buying into a Darwinian perspective on literature is that anything that can be said about authors can by definition also be related to characters in some way, and vice versa; how strange that it should often appear strange that one is reflecting on people and not only textual and cultural constructs.) The systems of meaning that authors manifest through their writings, for Carroll, are close kin to philosophical systems and religious ones, and even serve similar purposes—not necessarily to reveal truth, but to establish “cognitive order.”  His argument culminates in the point that the “mental maps” or “models” that literary works constitute have an actual “regulati[ve]” function. Carroll phrases it in succint and memorable fashion:

The arts make sense of human needs and motives. They simulate subjective experience, map out social relations, evoke sexual and social interactions, depict the intimate relations of kin, and locate the whole complex and interactive array of behavioral systems within models of the total world order. Humans have a universal and irrepressible need to fabricate this sort of order, and satisfying that need provides a distinct form of pleasure and fulfillment. (198)

While simple on the surface, this valorizing of cognitive order has profound implications for reading, some fortunate and some not. Carroll’s actual readings of novels, the “pragmatic” side of this chapter, are convincing only to a point. For instance, he is positively delightful in showing us how Jane Austen manifests her own authorial perspective in her characters as well as the tone of Pride and Prejudice, which in turn is designed to harmonize with the readership she seeks to entertain and engage. Ironically, in fact, the dullards in the story who Austen dismisses, as she exposes cognitive styles ranging from the witty to the obtuse, are dullards precisely because they only see in terms of universals; there is a mobeius-strip like quality to Carroll’s synthesis of literature and psychology, as he revels in the charming irony that Mrs. Bennett might be the spitting proto-image of social scientist who simply can’t bear to allow the results to interfere with his/her hypothesis.

 However, the method threatens to demote books, sometimes unfairly, which exhibit those traits of cognitive order and coherence less readily. Thus Bronte’s Vilette, Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!, and Bennett’s Anna of the Five Towns are treated largely as aesthetic scrambles to compensate for the sexual frustrations and societal discrimination that their authors presumably confronted, and in the latter case, as a contrived effort ensuing from a confused dichotomy held by the author. The danger here is analogous to the danger that Carroll himself warned us about earlier in naïve adaptationist criticism, where the behavior of the characters is seen as merely reflecting a template handed off by the sciences. Although Carroll is operating at a much more sophisticated level of analysis than those who do “evolved-trait pattern-matching,” he is nevertheless, in my view, decidedly less generous toward those authors who are struggling with and perhaps against the normative. What this in part boils down to is a debate about what will serve as “cognitive order”; I personally find the psychological interpretation of Anna which Carroll concocts to serve as a ludicrous counterexample to be actually somewhat convincing, while he, evidently, finds this interpretive “scenario” of his to be “forced and labored” (140).

In other words, the most stringently adaptationist Darwinism is not going to get us into instant agreement about some fundamental matters, such as what constitutes a great piece of writing, or even why a character is made to act in such-and-such a way. And this is a resoundingly wonderful outcome—with Darwin at last in and on the field (and not just some ringer wearing Darwin’s uniform and copping some of his moves), the games have just begun. Therefore, this is precisely what I would like to propose, for the moment, in replacing the teetering poststructuralist property—rather than doing too much building just yet, perhaps now is the time to install a playing field upon which many activities can take place, all of them grounded in the terra firma of adaptationism. In fact, I would like to call for a Darwin on every team, which makes for many Darwins, a literary Darwinist pluralism, in which we maintain the strict adherence to adaptationism, but remain reasonably flexible in terms of the manner in which we apply such thinking to literature, and how we use literature to, as Carroll urges, rethink the social sciences.

The word "pluralism" is loaded, because Carroll convincingly asserts that Stephen Jay Gould appropriated the term in rhetorical efforts at self-aggrandizement (230). The feud between Gould and mainstream evolutionary psychologists has seen much spilled ink, and does not need to be rehashed here. “Pluralism” is a vague term, and perhaps too easy—who would object to pluralism, after all, in our age of the triumph of liberal democracies? But nothing requires that we invoke pluralism as a term which denotes revolutionary alternatives or checks and balances to the force of natural selection; in fact, its practical and methodological value lies in characterizing the adaptationist program itself at its best. Carroll's arguments about the cognitive-behavioral system and the evolved "need for conceptual and imaginative order" are bracing and well worth pursuing, but it is important to note that there are alternative Darwinian applications which might be equally compelling, which need not compromise the integrity and assiduousness of the adaptationist directive.

I will propose several as thought-experiments, then; indeed, as Carroll reminds us, empirical experiment is an essential next step in confirming or disconfirming their ultimate validity. Although Carroll favors the notion of “cognitive order,” it could be the case that certain types of cognitive disorder, in small installments, are actually adaptive, exactly as Carroll himself argues that evolutionary psychology needs to be wary of becoming too set in its ways. Indeed, one might argue that the challenges to societal and dyadic norms posed by certain books are precisely what readers need, cognitively and otherwise, to enhance their ability to negotiate an ever-shifting social landscape.

Or, we might heighten our attention to the notion of immersion, which certainly seems to be a part of the experience of readers of literature, presumably at the conscious behest of authors. Storey, in Mimesis, brings up Csikszentmihalyi’s notion of “flow,” and flow states; is there something adaptive about getting caught up in characters, situations, settings, which narrative enables? As one hypothesis as to why this might be the case, consider that great literature might be not cheesecake, as Pinker had it, but a banquet for the mind, the only entity other than “the real world” capable of enlisting and engaging most or all of our evolutionary propensities, from theory of mind, to visual perception, to pretense, to setting-assessment, to scenario-spinning, to the calculus of mating strategies, and so on and so forth. The comprehensiveness of literary works in terms of engaging the full spectrum and hierarchy of our evolutionary systems might provide an alternative means of thinking about aesthetic value and the like, and the reader’s ability to become immersed in the text might be the phenomenological yardstick of such value.

Or, consider literary works as reflections of competing energies and concerns, not the outmoded Freudian ones, but Darwinian ones, as exemplified by the work of such thinkers as Janet Mann and Sarah Blaffer-Hrdy, as well as anyone applying game theory to behavior. In fact, evolutionary psychology and its constituent fields are replete with work on tradeoffs and cost-benefit effects, and so one might raise the question in regard to literary works: for example, is there a tradeoff effect between verbal lushness and character realism, or between character development and plot? Might different writing  styles represent the outgrowths of certain strategic authorial tradeoffs?

Note that it would all-too-easily be possible to fumble the above hypotheses by treating them as mere metaphors, plucked from the pages of Evolution and Human Behavior and the other source-texts at the leading edge of evolutionary psychology and applied in slapdash fashion. To do justice to them would mean careful attention to the literal and empirical phenomena of cognitive disorder, immersion, and cost-benefit analysis, not merely to the more readily-distorted abstract notions. The same is the case for the countless alternative hypotheses sure to emerge from the fertile relationship between literature and evolution. Ultimately, the point is not that the above or future hypotheses are more likely to be true than Carroll’s—I think in at least some measure he may prove to be right -- but rather to remind ourselves continually that as we hopefully usher in a new era, we have an incredibly rich and diverse toolkit with which to approach literary interpretation. Thus, along with methodological rigor, we should uphold and indulge the cognitive flexibility that appears to have brought us, with Carroll spearheading the effort, this far.