Secular Apocalypses: Darwinian Criticism and Atwoodian Floods

By Hoogheem, Andrew | Mosaic (Winnipeg), June 2012 | Go to article overview

Secular Apocalypses: Darwinian Criticism and Atwoodian Floods


Hoogheem, Andrew, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


This essay engages Brian Boyd's On the Origin of Stories, a major work of evolutionary literary criticism, with Margaret Atwood's dystopia The Year of the Flood. Bringing these texts into dialogue demonstrates both the power of and some potential limits to an evocritical interpretive paradigm, particularly with respect to religion.

From its inception about a decade ago, controversy has surrounded the notion of a Darwinian or evolutionary literary criticism. Proponents of an "evocritical" approach have watched evolutionary models move beyond biology to take hold in such disciplines as anthropology, economics, psychology, and even religious studies and are now seeking to bring a biocultural perspective to bear on the field of literary studies, a perspective they believe will reorient it around testable hypotheses rather than dogmatic ideologies, and around human universals rather than cultural particulars. If the project sounds grand, the rhetoric accompanying it has at times been even more so. In a foreword to a book of literary criticism, for instance, renowned biologist E.O. Wilson writes that a day is coming when "the great branches of learning--natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities--can be connected by a web of verifiable causal explanation" (vii). Likewise Joseph Carroll, a leader in the movement, contends in his Literary Darwinism that "Darwinian literary critics should rejoice that the development of the whole field is now producing a model of human nature that converges with their needs and interests as literary critics" (216). In the same book he offers an interpretation of Pride and Prejudice as a text about mate selection, a reading that he claims surpasses not just "traditional, common-language criticism" but also "the various forms of theory-driven criticism that emerged under the umbrella of postmodernism in the past three decades or so" (213).

Yet others have seen in the Darwinian model an approach whose very applicability to literary studies is doubtful at best. So Frederick Crews, elsewhere at least cautiously supportive of evocriticism, questions whether "much of anything is explained" by the reading of Pride and Prejudice I just mentioned, charging that "the very choice of a realistic novel about courtship seems all too convenient on Carroll's part" (157) and naming a number of not insignificant works that would likely prove more resistant than Austen's novel to a Darwinian interpretive schema. (1) More damningly, Roger Seamon contends that literary studies "is not now, and never has been, a progressive science whose aim is 'generating new knowledge' in the form of scientific theories" and that by envisioning it in this way, evocritism "depends on misunderstanding the nature of literary study" (261). The invocation of Darwin, he argues, is at bottom a not especially novel attempt to give interpretations the weight of scientific theories: "The method has worked for Marxists, Freudians, Jungians, structuralists, and others," he dryly observes, "so why not for Darwinians?" (263). In another response to Carroll, Blakey Vermeule strikes a more irenic tone but agrees that critics who look to Darwin fundamentally miss the point: "Aesthetic power--the love and appreciation of great art--taps into that old oceanic feeling. Humanists are tour guides to the ocean's depths as much as, and probably more than, we are oceanographers sitting on the surface and measuring the sea" (303).

In the end, of course, the success or failure of evocriticism will depend on the extent to which it opens up substantial new avenues of inquiry or leads to novel insights, unreachable by other means, into a broad array of literary texts. And so in an effort to propel this discussion of evocriticism's strengths and weaknesses forward on at least one front, I want to bring into conversation two volumes released within weeks of each other in 2009, Brian Boyd's On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction and Margaret Atwood's The Year of the Flood. …

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