Academic journal article Style

Teaching Literary Darwinism

Academic journal article Style

Teaching Literary Darwinism

Article excerpt

A Historical Overview

During the late 1980s, profoundly dissatisfied with the poststructuralist ideas that had come to dominate departments of English, I was casting about for ideas sufficiently general and basic to provide a new framework for literary study. In 1990, I read Darwin's On the Origin of Species and Descent of Man. I had more or less always known about the theory of adaptation by means of natural selection, and had accepted it, but had not really thought much about it. As a student and professor, I had been preoccupied with studying languages, literature, and cultural history. Biology seemed relatively remote from my professional scholarly concerns. I finally got around to reading Darwin chiefly because he was in one of my special areas of scholarly interest: Victorian non-fiction prose. Understanding an idea theoretically and absorbing it imaginatively are different things. Reading Darwin's own works had a massive and instantaneous impact on my imagination. For the first time, I fully understood that all things human, including language and culture, are necessarily embedded in biological processes that extend back for billions of years. No idea could have been more general and basic. The Darwinian vision gave me the framework I needed for constructing a literary theory I could use.

About the same time that I was reading Darwin, I became aware that the social sciences were undergoing a watershed shift toward evolutionary thinking. That research program was still in its early stages but already had important things to say about motives, emotions, cognitive processes, gender, childhood development, family bonds, and social interaction. All those topics are obviously relevant to the subjects depicted in literature. I already knew, of course, that in most current literary theory psychology was dominated by Freudian ideas and social relations by Marxist ideas. Language had been colonized by the Derrideans, and gender appropriated by the feminists. I had strong reservations about the validity of all those theories, and thus also about the way they blended into the poststructuralist amalgam. Feeling confident that empirically grounded ideas coherently integrated within an evolutionary matrix could provide a better alternative, I set out to integrate evolutionary social science with literary theory. The first main fruit of that effort was Evolution and Literary Theory (1995). All my subsequent work has been a continuation of the research program sketched out there.

During the past two decades, while developing Darwinist ideas for literary study, I've also been teaching courses that incorporate evolutionary research. In total, I have taught twenty-five courses that contain substantial evolutionary material--all but one at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, either seminars in the graduate program in the English department or seminars in an interdisciplinary undergraduate Honors College. (The exception was an intensive summer graduate seminar in Denmark.) Those twenty-five courses group into two distinct sets that have interlaced chronologically through the twenty years: (1) a graduate seminar in literary theory that I have taught fourteen times; and (2) eleven interdisciplinary seminars, eight for undergraduates, and three for graduate students. My home page contains a sample syllabi and sample paper topics: http://www.umsl.edu/~carrolljc/. The appendices to this essay also contain sample syllabi.

The course in literary theory, "Introduction to Graduate Studies," is divided into two parts: basic concepts in literary theory and a survey of the various current theoretical schools. Since poststructuralist theory has not changed substantially in the past twenty years, most of the components of this course have remained fairly stable. Only one component, literary Darwinism--evolutionary literary theory and criticism--has been highly volatile. It has increased in the proportion of the course devoted to it, and it has changed dramatically in content several times. …

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