Sunday, September 16, 2007

Nature, Nurture, Literature

Oh, the poor books. The poor novels, poems, and fairy tales, endlessly re-stuffed into the hopper of the career-scholarship machine and crapped out of the bottom as worms of pink ground meat. For decades we’ve suffered the exaggerated silliness of deconstruction and postmodernism, whose central doctrine is that “discourse” (cultural stuff) creates reality. Sooner or later it had to elicit a reaction, a counter-swing to some counter-folly. The swing began in the mid-1990s and has been picking up speed lately: Darwinian literary criticism.

Its reasoning goes like this: People evolved. So whatever people do must reflect the forces of evolution. And that must include fiction-writing. So evolutionary biology must be the key to understanding fiction, not to mention everything else about being human. As a reviewer in
Science put it in 2006, “everything human ultimately derives from the evolved body and brain, no matter how much culture and individual consciousness are capable of varying the forms of expression.” [1] The real drivers of literary form must, therefore, be Darwinian forces: mate selection, competition for scarce mates, the production of progeny. “Truth is beauty, beauty truth”—and they both boil down to getting laid.

Notice, in the passage just quoted, the distinction-erasing tendency of “ultimately,” the implicit assumption-mongering of “no matter how much culture and individual consciousness are capable of varying the forms of expression.” Really? No matter
how much? But if we were capable of “varying the forms” a lot, mightn’t we reach a point where the relevance of specific evolutionary processes became small, even zero? Yes, we might.

Darwinian lit crit is an obvious truth inflated into an all-encompassing fallacy. The obvious truth is that certain ground rules are indeed set by biology. It is imperative that babies get made, or there will quickly be no more human race. Biology therefore requires that most of us have an abiding interest in the acts that make babies, and so we do. (Though not all of us, and not all the time.) So does this anciently obvious fact, even with all its more recent Darwinian refinements, tell us anything interesting about literary texts? Why should it? The fallacy of Darwinian lit crit is the same as of all other fad-reductionist schools of literary theory, Marxist, Freudian, deconstructionist, and other, namely, the assumption that bedrock constraints explain details. But constraints don’t explain, they constrain—an entirely different thing. Although everybody and everything in
Pride and Prejudice obeys the law of gravity, Newton has nothing nontrivial to say about our experience of that book. Ditto Darwin.

The Darwinian lit critics are effectively arguing, Look, your brain evolved, so everything your brain does is controlled by evolution. Darwin owns your ass and we own Darwin’s, so bend over. The radical deconstructionists respond, Oh yeah? Well, everything you’re saying right now was
learned. If not for socialization you wouldn’t be speaking a language or reading Darwin or anything. If you’d been raised alone in closet, just you and your DNA and soup from a spigot, you would be a drooling nonperson right now. Everything’s culture, and we own culture, so you bend over. But then a physicist comes in and says: All you fools reside on a clod of dirt running around a ball of gas owned by Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein and some other guys, all of whom I own, so you, etc.

Eventually one gets sick of it, finishes one’s drink, and goes out for a breath of fresh night air.

The Darwinian lit critics leave out a few things. First, the fact that we actually know nothing about what role, if any, storytelling has played in human evolution. Human beings existed for hundreds of thousands of years before inventing writing, so we don’t even know what stories have been told for something like 99% of human history—and even if we knew the stories, that wouldn’t prove a dong-dong thing about how natural selection may or may not have shaped them. Romantic love as a major concern of literature, by the way, only appeared about five or six hundred years ago. There are no hard data at all, none, linking literary content to evolutionary process—only pseudo-Darwinian speculations that some people happen to find congenial.

Second, they cherry-pick. They choose literary works in which “mate selection” figures prominently, then talk about how the characters instantiate Darwinian imperatives of mate selection. They avoid the hard cases. What about
The Lord of the Rings, not exactly an obscure work? Frodo not only doesn’t mate, he doesn’t even flirt. So why are millions of people reading Tolkien instead of how-to dating manuals? Oh, one can always inject more hot air into the theory balloon, cover any case. Frodo saves the world, and what could be more important to evolutionary continuity than saving the world? Yeah, let’s talk the evolution of altruism! But at this point, we can shrug and walk away. Beating Sauron saves hobbit DNA from being fed to orcs, but that’s not why people read Tolkien. A book having the very same plot, but stripped of the atmospherics that are actually the whole point, would not be read at all.

Third, the Darwinian lit critics leave out much of what literature is actually about. Here are a few literary concerns that could only be forced into a Darwinian explanatory mold by implausible twisting: weird atmospheres as in Poe, historical remoteness, love of home places, love of alien places, adventure, religious awe, supernatural dread, nostalgia, love of the inanimate or nonhuman, philosophy, nationalistic feeling, longing for aloneness, longing for good death, unrequited love, exquisite suicide. More could be named. I’m not equally attracted to all these things, but all are common in literature. Consider a book as unpretentious as Edgar Rice Burroughs’s
A Princess of Mars (1917), which has probably sold over a million copies. Sure, John Carter eventually gets into the loincloth of “the incomparable Deja Thoris” and they make some babies. All very Darwinian, except that the mating-game is here only a flimsy convention, a formality, a pretext for the real joy of the book: its particular atmosphere, the feel of Barsoom, of the dry sea-beds, abandoned cities, weird creatures, swordplay. Those who say that this atmosphere is mere bait for a Darwinian trap should have to explain, in convincing detail, why any bait is required at all, if the Darwinian trap is our real interest, and why this bait. If Darwinian strategies are what we really want, why don’t we just write books that talk explicitly about them? Why muck about with dead civilizations and the twin moons of Mars racing across the sky when we could be reading Harlequins? For that matter, why read romances set in a Regency England that never was when we could be studying straight-up, no-nonsense mating manuals set in more contemporary, and therefore more relevant, surroundings?

Because literary desire, even at its most dilute, is not reducible to reproductive strategy.

According to the reviewer in
Nature quoted earlier, Darwinian lit crit is cool because it makes it

easier to explain why people spend so much time reading literature. If someone sits for a long time with a book in his hands, he is probably extracting something interesting from it. In evolutionary currency, ‘something interesting’ relates to reproduction, either directly or indirectly (social competition, for example). [2]

A long, happy essay could be had out of kicking this remarkably loveless and nearsighted remark around until it wore out, but I will close with C. S. Lewis’s alternative account of why we read: [3]

My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. . . . Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. . . . [I]n reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.


[1] Harold Fromm, “Reading with Selection in Mind,”
Science 311(2006): 612-613.

[2] Michel Raymond, “Literature Red in Tooth and Claw,”
Nature 435(2005): 28.

[3] C. S. Lewis,
An Experiment in Criticism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1979, pp. 140-141.

Illustration from Thomas Hardy,
Tess of the D'Urbervilles. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1893.