Applied Evolutionary Criticism

Article excerpt


Over the past five decades, much progress has been made in fields related to genetic biology as the "new synthesis" of natural selection has been utilized to illumine social and cultural organization the world over. Evolutionary psychologists account for "universal" characteristics shared by all humans by pointing to modular cognitive structures that largely took shape during the hunter-gatherer environment of the Pleistocene era, the greater part of our common history as a species. While critics argued that such crude concepts as sexual selection, incest avoidance, and, in general, inclusive fitness could not account for the fine detail of human life and experience in the modern era, proponents have devised a number of new cognitive tools, such as social selection and Theory of Mind, to strengthen this still emerging paradigm--one familiar to readers of Style from the 2008 forum on adaptationist literary study (42.2-3).

Critical approaches to literature that acknowledge and utilize advances in science allow us to openly engage these issues, not by simply referring to "folk psychology" or intuitive insights about human nature in the broadly humanist critical tradition of previous generations that was superseded by "Theory." Rather, they can take into account gene-culture "co-evolution" and the significance of mental predispositions shaped by evolution, comprising both specialized proclivities and general intelligence. Despite their diversity, culture and the arts cannot be adequately explained solely as social constructions, certainly not when we observe how they are expressed everywhere within a relatively narrow range--a constraint we adduce to a shared human nature. The field of evolutionary psychology, with its developing models of human nature, derives not from speculative ideology but rather scientific methodology. Working hypotheses that help to explain human ties to the natural world and to each other are open to revision as new evidence is assessed, both without and within literary studies. In evolutionary criticism (henceforth, evocriticism) an interdisciplinary engagement with evolutionary psychology offers an open ended opportunity to explore universal tendencies associated with human nature as reflected in the composition, reception, and interpretation of literary works. An understanding of the natural foundations of human behavior, psychology, cognition, and culture leads to powerful new perspectives on the motives of characters and authors, the persistence of archetypal themes, and the functions of storytelling.

Evocriticism attempts to apply developments in the natural and social sciences both to individual masterpieces in particular and to the entire enterprise of composition and consumption of art and literature in general. (2) According to Brian Boyd, "[a]n evolutionary approach to literature can encourage literary scholars to learn from the strengths of science without abandoning their own expertise" (386).While evocritics employ a variety of methods, they all assume that natural selection has produced a common landscape of the human mind and that universal tendencies are reflected in the composition, reception, and interpretation of literary works. Because evocriticism deals with human universals by focusing on features found in all cultures and historical periods, evocritics suggest this perspective may be ideally suited to comparative literary and interdisciplinary studies. They believe that we can make use of concepts developed by biologists, anthropologists, and evolutionary psychologists in developing our own applications of human nature to the study of literary texts, as we link the predispositions of human nature to both human culture and the subjective experience of the individual, in writing and in reading texts. Evocritical conceptions of individual human volition, social culture, and a "universal" human nature work together in complex but comprehensible ways inasmuch as they constitute adaptations to past physical and social environments. …