New Science, Old Myth: An Evolutionary Critique of the Oedipal Paradigm

By Sugiyama, Michelle Scalise | Mosaic (Winnipeg), March 2001 | Go to article overview

New Science, Old Myth: An Evolutionary Critique of the Oedipal Paradigm


Sugiyama, Michelle Scalise, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


Arguing that literary scholarship remains largely oblivious to important late-twentieth-century scientific advances in human cognition and behaviour, this essay reviews biological and anthropological evidence contradicting the oedipal model, and presents an evolution-based analysis of the Oedipus myth.

Literary interpretation and theory derive their legitimacy from the tacitly accepted yet largely unexamined premise that characters are representations of human beings and, as such, exhibit the same psychology as their author and audience. To put it another way, literary characters do not exhibit the thought processes of okapis, ostriches, octopi, or any other species. (Even the metamorphosed Gregor Samsa thinks, perceives, and responds primarily as a human.) We assume that literary characters have human beliefs, desires, emotions, and perceptions, for example, that a (mentally competent) character's conceptualization of dog, fetch, and devotion reliably corresponds to our own. By virtue of its subject matter, then, all literary criticism is in one way or another psychological criticism, and, in a fundamental way, literary study is the study of human cognition.

Nicholas K. Humphrey writes that the "novelist is in the most literal sense a 'modeller' of human behaviour, someone whose skill as a psychologist is required not simply to comprehend but to invent the things that other people do" (67, emph. in original). The same principle applies to the literary scholar, whose skill as a psychologist is required to understand the things that literary characters and narrators do. Yet, despite the fact that literary scholarship regularly makes assumptions about the operations of the mind, its practitioners customarily receive no training in cognitive design and evolution. This essay addresses a specific--yet widespread--manifestation of this problem: the persistence of the oedipal paradigm. This model, which in various literary permutations is commonly invoked to analyze everything from male sexuality to family dynamics to narrative structure, is founded upon an inaccurate conception of what the mind is designed to do. Freud did not understand that, in order for a psychologi cal feature to evolve, it has to contribute to fitness (a biological term referring to the differences in physical and psychological attributes that cause some individuals within a given population to contribute more genes to subsequent generations than other individuals do). As a result, he posited a highly unlikely phenomenon. Freud's mistake is understandable, but, given what is now known about human cognition, behaviour, and biology, the continued use of this model by his intellectual descendants is not.

In this essay, I am not presenting a critique of Freud or his work per se. The problems inherent in much of Freud's methodology and theoretical conclusions have been elucidated by several critics (Crews; Daly and Wilson, Homicide; Degler; Eysenck; Grunbaum; Sulloway). Rather, I seek to acquaint literary scholarship with the integrated approach to human cognition known as evolutionary psychology, which conceptualizes the mind as a vast set of operations, each designed by natural selection to solve a specific problem. Specifically, I argue that the incest-avoidance mechanism proposed by the oedipal model does not accord with the principles of natural selection or what is known about the evolved design of the mind. I am not the first to present an evolutionary critique of the Oedipus myth (Daly and Wilson, Homicide; Erickson). Previous analyses, however, are aimed at social scientists; my analysis is aimed at a literary audience unfamiliar with evolutionary theory and incest-avoidance research. I begin with a br ief description of the principles of evolutionary psychology; next, I review evidence contradicting the Freudian explanation of incest avoidance and present an evolutionary explanation in its stead; finally, I analyze the Oedipus myth in evolutionary terms to demonstrate one of many interpretive applications of this new model and the vast potential it offers to literary study.

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