Homo Oneginensis: Pushkin and Evo-Cognitive Approaches to Literature

By Dolack, Tom | Style, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Homo Oneginensis: Pushkin and Evo-Cognitive Approaches to Literature


Dolack, Tom, Style


In 2003 Jonathan Gottschall published one of the seminal articles in the field of evolutionary literary criticism, "The Tree of Knowledge and Darwinian Literary Study." Gottschall's primary conceit is that knowledge is structured like a tree with physics, being the most basic, as the trunk. Chemistry then emerges from physics and biology from chemistry. The crown of the tree is composed of the social sciences and the humanities. Each of these disciplines is an autonomous area of intellectual investigation, but is not hermetically sealed from the disciplines around it. While one could know everything we have heretofore discovered about physics, it would still be impossible to predict in detail what we currently know about chemistry. Yet nothing in chemistry violates the laws of physics. To put it another way, chemistry fits within physics while not being strictly reducible (in the derogatory sense of the term) to it. The same can be said for biology and chemistry. Describing the process by which a string of DNA is transcribed into RNA and then translated into proteins, and how those proteins are assembled into the parts of an organism that interact with its environment can, at least in theory, be done in terms of chemical reactions, yet the interminably long string of reactions required for something so ordinary as a fish swimming away from a disturbance in the water would fail to explain in a meaningful way why the fish behaved the way it did. For that biology is necessary. What follows is an attempt to apply this model in a practical way to literary studies.

The most basic level of literary inquiry is where literature comes from and what function it serves. Evolutionary approaches are specifically tailored to this first question and should be central to answering the second. While a behavior's provenance need not be its destiny, the role that literature (in the broad sense of narrative since we are also speaking of pre-literate times) and the other arts played in our evolutionary heritage can speak to its current function. After all, the question of phytogeny is an important one for definition: we cannot define something without knowing what it is meant to do. The evolutionary approach, supported by work in cognitive neuroscience, is ideally suited to answering these important, and all -toooften-ignored, questions. If this were the only contribution these interdisciplinary efforts could make, it would still be an important addition to the field.

Returning to Gottschall's tree metaphor, the arts are towards the top, but even within that category we can make a hierarchy that conforms to the same rubric. Within literature specifically we can distinguish between the study of trends within literary history; the study of how our universal, evolved cognitive predispositions interact with specific historical, social, and cultural contexts to produce texts that are "adapted" to that specific environment; the study of how minds process and make meaning out of texts; and finally the close reading of the details of specific texts.

Some confusion has been caused by not distinguishing between these various levels. Much excellent work has been produced in the first three of these categories, but it has been my impression that what evolutionary and cognitive critics have produced in the fourth category has been of little potential interest to those not in the field, and much of what has been of interest has actually been the result of more standard approaches, even when couched in scientific terminology. But this is entirely consistent with the model as presented. The level of fine-scaled textual analysis so far is simply not directly tractable with the tools of evolutionary psychology or cognitive science, but this does not mean scientific approaches should be thrown out for that. The trick is to find their most productive application. I contend that the broader the focus, the more directly useful scientific approaches will be for literary studies. …

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