"No Ideas but in Things": Fiction, Criticism, and the New Darwinism

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In the past decade or so, a small but rapidly growing band of literary scholars, theorists, and critics has been working to integrate literary study with Darwinian social science.

--Joseph Carroll, Literary Darwinism

Ian McEwan is among the most honored of today's novelists. Three of his novels have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, a fourth, Amsterdam, won that award, and some of his other works have won yet other prestigious ones--the Whitbread Award by The Child in Time and the Somerset Maugham Award by his story collection First Love, Last Rites. His most recent novel, Saturday (2005), made almost every list of best books of the year and has been a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic. Of his generation of novelists, he has emerged as among the most consistently productive and critically appreciated. While McEwan's works exhibit rather traditional realist techniques, they bring something new to contemporary fiction in the author's attaching himself to a new Darwinism, that emerging mode of philosophy and interpretation claiming roots in cognitive science associated with brain science, evolutionary psychology, and evolutionary social science. Quite overtly, McEwan has allied himself with others who work the same field either as literary scholars and critics or as scientists in disciplines associated with evolutionary biology. For instance, in a Salon interview with Dwight Garner associated with the publication of his seventh novel, Enduring Love (1998), McEwan has said that his own "particular intellectual hero" is the sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson. Moreover, in McEwan's acknowledgments appended to that novel and intended, apparently, to contextualize it, Wilson's name shows up, along with titles of three of his books--Biophilia, On Human Nature, and The Diversity of Life. It is not surprising, then, given McEwan's critical prestige and his avowed thematic intentions, that he has become the face of the new Darwinism in fiction. If there were any doubt remaining regarding his ideological placement, it will be allayed by McEwan's appearance in a new book called The Literary Animal, in an essay entitled "Literature, Science, and Human Nature." There, McEwan addresses some of the issues the new Darwinism foregrounds in the interface of fields--literature and science--conventionally regarded as offering so radical a dualism.

Despite--or because of--McEwan's avowed interests, that novel Enduring Love has become something of a lightning rod for interest, pro and con, in neo- or "Ultra"-Darwinism. For instance, sociologists Paul Higgs and Ian Rees Jones have noted that the "fact that a novel such as Enduring Love can deal with, and to a considerable degree, sympathize with evolutionary psychology demonstrates the impact of what Steven Jay Gould has called 'Ultra-Darwinism.'" From the side of medical sociology, these researchers worry that "evolutionary psychology ultimately reduces the social to the biological in ways that generally preclude further analysis of the complexity of social relations" (27). From the side of literary criticism, however, there are other issues (less important, of course, in the great scheme of things) that may trouble one's sleep about the new Darwinists if not neo-Darwinism itself. One is whether it is a simple matter to incorporate science in literary criticism. Some critics apparently believe that merely claiming to use a scientific method is sufficient to make it so. As Jean Jacques Weber wonders, in a review of cognitive poetics, if "cognitive poeticians rely upon a new terminology rooted in cognitive science, does this confer a scientific character upon their analyses?" (519). The answer is, not necessarily.

A writer as prestigious as the novelist A. S. Byatt (perhaps most famous for Possession) may well illustrate the slippage between "applying" science and simply "doing" literary criticism "invoking" science. In a recent critical essay, Byatt links a discussion of Donne to brain science as outlined in a work by Jean-Pierre Changeux entitled L'Homme neuronal. …