Literary Darwinism and the psychology of fiction

The application of evolutionary theory (specifically evolutionary psychology) to literature seems to be one of these faddish theories that keeps on cropping up. I’ve just read another article extolling it (http://www.seedmagazine.com/news/2006/04/shakespeare_meets_the_selfish.php) while last year a book, Madame Bovary’s Ovaries: a Darwinian Look at Literature came out (see http://denisdutton.com/barash_review.htm for reviews and further links).

I am sceptical about evolutionary psychology anyhow, which seems to me prone to combining poor scientific method with reactionary ideology, but its application to fiction seems particularly half-baked. Given much of the literature discussed was written before the theory of evolution was known (and thus the author can’t have been influenced by it), why would we expect to find examples of evolutionary processes in their work?

There are two possible answers to this. One is that if behaviour that is evolutionarily adaptive is happening in real life, then an author writing naturalistically might portray it accurately. The other is that an author may subscribe to (or may have his/her characters subscribe to) a morality which has some overlap with Social Darwinism/evolutionary psychology. For example, an author may write about a society where the capture and rape of women in warfare is admirable.

But the problem for literary Darwinists is that an author creates his/her fictional world, not simply reflects real life, and the characters don’t necessarily abide by ordinary patterns of human nature. And a lot of humans’ actual behaviour isn’t in accordance with evolutionary theories. For example, in Darwinian terms it is suicidal (almost literally) to be celibate, yet a substantial percentage of the medieval population took up this lifestyle.

The example that Jonathan Gottschall gives in the latest article is pretty daft if you consider it for a moment. Homer’s works are really all about the winning of women? Has he read the Odyssey? There are several heroes (Odysseus, Agamemnon, Diomedes and probably others) who lose or almost lose their wives simply because they’re away from home so long. Helping to retrieve Helen of Troy and acquire some slave girls hardly compensates in genetic terms for ten years on the windy plains of Troy for anyone with a family. And what is more contrary to Darwinian imperatives than Agamemnon sacrificing Iphigenia, his own daughter? The whole ethos of the heroic life is that a heroic early death is better than ignominious survival. In evolutionary terms, however, Achilles, dying without (as far as Homer tells us) leaving any children, is a dead end.

Many other literary motifs are equally daft in evolutionary terms. In a world of Darwinian fiction, Romeo and Juliet, still in the prime of their fertility, would not kill themselves over their lost love. There would be little or no homoerotic literature (exclusive homosexuality is another evolutionary dead end). Wives would not sacrifice themselves for their husbands (since they are not genetically related), while fathers would sacrifice themselves for their daughters as much as they do for their sons. Romantic fiction would rather lose its thrill, since the hero would inevitably chose the most beautiful or richest girl to wed. If the Darwinian literary theorists really aspire to being scientists (as they claim), I think this is one hypothesis that needs to be tested and then falsified.

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3 thoughts on “Literary Darwinism and the psychology of fiction

  1. Hello 🙂
    Well, in psychoanalytical theory, if I am not mistaken, writers tend to write what they have restored in their minds for a long time–something like their suppressed wish, to make people know what they have in mind.
    Am I right?

    Like

  2. Hello 🙂
    Well, in psychoanalytical theory, if I am not mistaken, writers tend to write what they have restored in their minds for a long time–something like their suppressed wish, to make people know what they have in mind.
    Am I right?
    Regards, Nana

    Like

  3. Had a quick look at your links – ‘pretty daft’ is the kindest thing to be said. Darwin himself felt tortured (he suffered many psychosomatic symptoms) about the effect his theory of Natural Selection would have on contemporary thinking. Had he foreseen this he’d have surely curled up and died.

    Like

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