Darwin and Dickens

By Gillespie, Nick | Reason, November 1998 | Go to article overview
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Darwin and Dickens

Gillespie, Nick, Reason

A new breed of literary critics is using evolution to explain literature - and to challenge intellectual orthodoxy.

Flip to pages 160 and 161 of the recent book with the tongue-tying, brain-busting title Mimesis and the Human Animal: On the Biogenetic Foundations of Literary Representation, and you will find something unprecedented in the annals of literary criticism: scientific line drawings of the "relaxed open-mouth display of [the] crab-eating monkey" and a diagram tracing the "phylogenetic development of laughter and smiling" in primitive mammals, chimpanzees, and human beings. Mimesis and the Human Animal, written by Temple University English professor Robert Storey, is not, mind you, an explication of Pierre Boulle's 1963 novel Planet of the Apes; nor is it an au courant cultural studies analysis of the Curious George children's series. Rather, Storey's book seeks to answer no less traditional a question than, "What does it mean to say that art imitates life?"

The casual reader - or even the seasoned literary scholar - an be excused for being disoriented by the monkey pictures: Just what on earth could a crab-eating monkey (or even one that preferred lobster) possibly have to do with Shakespeare and The Scarlet Letter? What could "relaxed open-mouth displays" possibly have to do with Milton and Moby-Dick?

Plenty, it turns out. Or at least that's the case spelled out in Mimesis and the Human Animal's densely argued and heavily footnoted 274 pages. Storey contends that literary critics need to "take seriously the implications of human evolution" for their field. Human society, he argues, "exfoliates from human biology," and his book attempts to parse the "biogrammar," or underlying range and rules, of a culture underwritten by evolutionary "strategies of survival." Forget about William Carlos Williams's famous modernist red wheelbarrow, goes this line of thinking. So much more depends on the relaxed open-mouth display of that crab-eating monkey.

Storey is one of a growing number of scholars linking literary studies with recent and ongoing developments in evolutionary theory. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I am a former graduate student of Storey's and am mentioned in the acknowledgments of his book.) Over the past decade or so, such efforts have become numerous and widespread enough to suggest, in his tentative phrase, "something very like a 'movement.'" Though such scholars take various approaches and have important differences with one another, all agree, as Storey parsimoniously puts it, that "biology counts."

In Evolution and Literary Theory (1995), Joseph Carroll, an English professor at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, argues that "knowledge is a biological phenomenon, that literature is a form of knowledge, and that literature is thus itself a biological phenomenon." In Reading Minds: The Study of English in an Age of Cognitive Science (1991), University of Maryland English professor Mark Turner analyzes "acts of language, including literature, as acts of a human brain in a human environment which that brain must make intelligible if it is to survive."

In Natural Classicism (originally published in 1985 and reissued in 1992), REASON contributing editor and University of Texas at Dallas English professor Frederick Turner (no relation to Mark Turner) links recurrent, cross-cultural rhyme and meter patterns to specific structures in the human brain; more recently, in The Culture of Hope (1995), he writes of a "camp" of artists and critics inspired by the recognition "that evolution - a concept now extended by scientists to cover not just biology but the whole of the physical universe - is productive of novel forms of order." In A Blessed Rage for Order: Deconstruction, Evolution, and Chaos (1991) Turner's U.T.-Dallas colleague Alexander J. Argyros synthesizes aspects of E.O. Wilson's foundational text Sociobiology with the "emerging science of chaos" to lay out a "new understanding of art.

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