Monday, April 14, 2008

The Hero with Twenty Faces: Darwinian Literary Studies

In teaching my graduate seminar on "American Political Novels," I have thought about how Darwinian science might illuminate the study of literature. Professional scholars in literary studies usually assume that literature belongs to the humanistic disciplines that must be radically separated from the natural sciences generally and from biological science in particular. But a small group of literary scholars have recently begun to apply Darwinian psychology to the study of literature. A couple of years ago, The New York Times Magazine published an article surveying the work of these folks--D. T. Max, "The Literary Darwinists" (November 6, 2005). One of the best of these scholars is Joseph Carroll, and he offers a good analysis of this research in his contribution ("Literature and Evolutionary Psychology") to The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology (2005) edited by David Buss.

I would say that literature is an emotionally-charged imaginative simulation of human experience. Literature has a universal appeal in so far as it explores a universal human nature. A Darwinian science of human evolution would account for human nature as manifested in the twenty natural desires that I have sketched out in various places. Literature engages our interest because it depicts the conflicts that arise within and between individuals as they strive to satisfy those natural desires over the course of their lives.

Literature displays not only the universality of human desires but also the cultural and individual variability in the expression of those universal desires. This creates the interesting complexity in human experience in which natural desires constrain but do not rigidly determine the customary traditions of social life and the variable temperaments of unique individuals. Literature helps us to understand and manage this complex interaction of universal nature, customary traditions, and individual choices.

Joseph Campbell's famous book The Hero with a Thousand Faces argues that literature around the world and throughout history portrays certain mythic archetypes that evoke a universal human psychology, which he thought was best explained by Carl Jung's psychoanalysis. I would see this as showing the universality of the twenty natural desires, which could be best explained as arising from the evolved nature of human beings.

In some ways, there is nothing new about this. Beginning with Aristotle's Poetics, students of literature have seen it as an artistic imitation of human nature. But the strength of Darwinian literary theory is that it offers a scientific explanation for the universal human nature that traditional literary scholarship has simply taken for granted.

Moreover, a Darwinian approach to literature can challenge those contemporary schools of literary study that deny human nature. Feminist theorists, for example, have argued that gender identity in European literature is an arbitrary social construction to enforce the patriarchal subordination of women to men. By contrast, Darwinian psychology would predict that although there will be great cultural and individual variation in the sexual differentiation of males and females, this variation will be constrained by the natural differences in the mental and behavioral propensities of men and women. This would predict that across all cultures, there should be certain regularities in the literary depiction of men and women. So even if there is much in the novels of Jane Austen that reflects the peculiarities of courtship and marriage in nineteenth-century Victorian England, her novels should also show some universal patterns of sexual mating that would be found in all cultures throughout history.

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