Three Books on Sociobiology and the Arts

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Three Books on Sociobiology and the Arts

Biopoetics: Evolutionary Explorations in the Arts

Edited by Brett Cooke and Frederick Turner

Other contributors: Nancy Aiken, Wayne E. Alien, Alexander Argyros, Joseph Carroll, Kathryn Coe, Lee Cronk, Koen Depryck, Ettenn Dissanayake, Nancy Easterlin, Brian K. Hansen, Joseph D. Miller, Eric S. Rabkin, Daniel Rancour-Laferriere, Gary Westfahl

ICUS (International Conference on the Unity of the Sciences), 1999, 466 pages

Madame Bovary's Ovaries: A Darwinian Look at Literature

David P. Barash and Nanelle R. Barash

Delacourte Press, 2005, 262 pages

The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative

Edited by Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson

Other contributors: Brian Boyd, Joseph Carroll, Frederick Crews, Denis Dutton, Dylan Evans, Maryanne Fisher, Robin Fox, Ian Jobling, Daniel J. Kruger, Ian McEwan, Daniel Nettle, Marcus Nordland, Catherine Salmon, Michelle Scalise Sugiyama.

Northwestern University Press, 2005, 304 pages

Sociobiology has endowed the scholarly world with a newly-identified (but not truly new) subdiscipline: "adaptationist literary studies," also referred to as "Darwinian," "selectionist," or "evolutionary." The Russian Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky once noted that while samovars could be used instead of hammers to drive nails, this was not their intended purpose, nor was it the most productive way to employ them. Many of the still clumsy attempts to apply sociobiology to the arts create the same impression, but this is a field engrossed in the search for itself. There is a sense of excitement, of discovery, and discoverers are by definition brash. Some of the theories require a grain of salt and a sense of humor.

Although the new discipline is small in the number of its adherents, it is amazingly disparate in its approaches, and thus I opt here for a sort of a hunt-and-peck approach - like the field itself. I freely confess that I do not do full justice to the various points of view presented in the book, and I apologize for that, but I do not see that it is possible to approach so many topics in any other way. Two of these books are, after all, collections of articles rather than monographs. So if you are not familiar with attempts to apply sociobiology to the arts, try to tolerate my telegraph style, and when you will have finished reading this review, you will have a basic acquaintance with both the promise and the weaknesses of the discipline. If at that point you want to learn more, try Joseph Carroll's Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature (Routledge, 2004) or a fairly early collection The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture, edited by Jerome H. Barkow, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby (Oxford University Press, 1992). Four of the five books contain extensive bibliographies.

Biopoetics: Evolutionary Explorations in the Arts

This collection was published by the International Conference on the Unity of the Sciences, and the contributors are indeed in search of a methodology which would permit the arts to be studied according to the same principles as mathematics and physics. I will attempt to list at least some of their salient ideas:

Brett Cooke in his introduction points out the newness of the field and traces its origins back to Edward O. Wilson, and his 1975 book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Sociobiology views human society as operating according to principles observed in insect colonies, and that is why Wilson's research caused such a furor. In as much as Sociobiology is considered "paradigmchanging," Cooke provides selections of and commentary on the biologist's writings, trying to reveal just how aesthetics might be of adaptive advantage, but Wilson is not an aesthetician and the approach comes off as rather hit-and-miss. In all fairness to Cooke, such a statement accurately sums up the state of the new field itself. …