Academic journal article Style

Adaptationist Literary Study: An Emerging Research Program

Academic journal article Style

Adaptationist Literary Study: An Emerging Research Program

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

In the past decade or so, a small but rapidly growing band of literary scholars, theorists, and critics has been working to integrate literary study with Darwinian social science. These scholars can be identified as the members of a distinct school in the sense that they share a certain broad set of basic ideas. They all take "the adapted mind" as an organizing principle, and their work is thus continuous with that of the "adaptationist program" in the social sciences. Adaptationist thinking is grounded in Darwinian conceptions of human nature. Adaptationists believe that all organisms have evolved through an adaptive process of natural selection and that complex functional structure in organic development gives prima facie evidence of adaptative constraint. They argue that the human mind and the human motivational and behavioral systems display complex functional structure, and they make it their concern to identify the constituent elements of an evolved human nature: a universal, species-typical array of be havioral and cognitive characteristics. They presuppose that all such characteristics are genetically constrained and that these constraints are mediated through anatomical features and physiological processes, including the neurological and hormonal systems that directly regulate perception, thought, and feeling.

Adaptationist social scientists identify "the adapted mind" as the foundation of human culture. Adaptationist literary scholars concur, and they seek to bring literature itself' within the field of cognitive and behavioral features susceptible to an adaptationist understanding. They identify human nature as a biologically constrained set of cognitive and motivational characteristics, and they contend that human nature is both the source and subject of literature. They are convinced that through adaptationist thinking they can more adequately understand what literature is, what its functions are, and how it works--what it represents, what causes people to produce it and consume it, and why it takes the forms it does.

What I propose in this article is to give a sense of where Darwinian literary study now stands and to suggest where it might be headed. After sketching out the history of Darwinian social science, I shall distinguish the adaptationist research program from other forms of evolutionary thinking in literary study. I shall identify the main contributors to adaptationist literary study and describe some of their accomplishments. At the end of the article, I shall take up a basic problem within the adaptationist program--the problem of the adaptive function of imaginative constructs--and propose a solution for that problem.

The Origin of Species was published in 1859, and within a decade it had almost completely changed the general view of evolution in the minds of the educated public. While writing the Origin, Darwin had been fearful of endangering his general theory of evolution by alarming people in their most tender ideological anxieties. Consequently, he had mentioned human beings only in passing. Close to the end of the Origin, surveying the prospects for the theory he has propounded, he declared, "In the distant future, I see open fields for far more important researches. Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation. Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history" (488). The future was not so distant as Darwin fancied, at least not in the short run. Darwin was himself much surprised by the magnitude of his success in establishing the basic principle of "descent with modification," and the success gave him the heart to fulfill his own prediction--to throw light on man and his history, and to place psychology on a new foundation. In The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), he located human beings in their ancestral lineage as primates. …

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