A Consilient Canon? Bridges to and from Evolutionary Literary Analysis

By Amigoni, David | English Studies in Canada, June-September 2006 | Go to article overview

A Consilient Canon? Bridges to and from Evolutionary Literary Analysis


Amigoni, David, English Studies in Canada


Jonathan Gottschali and David Sloan Wilson, eds.

The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative.

Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern

University Press, zoos. PP. xxvi, 304.

David P. Barash and Nanelle R. Barash, Madame

Bovary's Ovaries: A Darwinian Look at Literature.

New York: Delacorte Press, 2005. pp. 262.

IN HIS FOREWORD TO The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative, a new collection of twelve original essays promoting the claims of evolutionary literary analysis, the eminent biologist E. O. Wilson imagines that we are poised on the brink of "one of the great events of intellectual history. Science and the humanities united!" (vii). The proposed unification will not, however, command easy assent in English and literary studies. For literary studies will be expected to discard many of the intellectual paradigms with which it has worked in the last thirty or so years. These paradigms--Marxist, feminist, psychoanalytic, and deconstructionist--so the argument of The Literary Animal runs, are derived from a "social constructionist hypothesis" which has been disproved by neo-Darwinist philosophers and scientists, most prominently E. O. Wilson, Daniel C. Dennett, Steven Pinker, and Richard Dawkins. Diverting us away from the "blank slate" theory of mind, David Sloan Wilson, Jonathan Gottschall, and their fellow contributors propose to put us in touch with the biological baseline that drives human nature and the literary representations drafted in its name. This will be the basis for literature's new "consilience" with science. Consilience, the title of Wilson's 1998 book on the "unity of knowledge," is a word which looms large in The Literary Animal's articulation of its rationale. And it is a rationale that has caught the ear of the international media. As Gowan Dawson has recently pointed out, The Literary Animal has been the subject of articles in The New York Times (November 2005), The Guardian (November 2005), Nature (January 2006), and Science (February 2006) (Dawson, 308).

The simultaneous publication of David and Nanelle Barahhes Madame Bovary's Ovaries: A Darwinian Look at Literature thus begins to look like another step in a movement to gain control of the literary field, wresting it from its social constructivist defenders. Wilson sees the prime actors in this movement as "embattled, even scorned by tenured constructivists" (Gottschall and Sloan Wilson, viii); Frederic Crews, a long-time critic of theory and a defender of empirical methods, sees the advent of evolutionary literary analysis as an opportunity "to reclaim governance of the field--its appointments and promotions, its curricula, its standards for publication, its manner of debate--from the fast-talking superstars who have prostituted it to crank theory, political conformism and cliquishness" (xv). The Barashes (father and daughter collaborators) acknowledge the work of the embattled few, naming Brian Boyd, Jonathan Gottschall, Joseph Carroll, Robin Fox, and Michelle Sugiyama, all of whom are contributors to The Literary Animal. For the Barashes, these writers direct their efforts at a "technical audience" (13), while their own book aims to address, as their title intimates, a popular readership. E. O. Wilson--who appears to be everywhere--provides a jacket comment hailing this "important new development in literary criticism" and praising its "very readable prose style." This is the Barashes on Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary:

   Anna and Vronsky know perfectly well they want to have sex.
   But it's the evolutionary logic behind it--the reproductive
   payoff and ultimate motivating force--that operates not only
   below the belt but also below the level of conscious awareness.

      By the same token, it is worth noting that Emma Bovary
   and her beaux--the wealthy rake Rodolphe and the attractive
   law student Leon--seemed no more eager to reproduce
   . 

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