Thursday, January 08, 2009

Darwinian Human Nature in Victorian Novels

Previously, I have written about the possibility of a Darwinian literary theory. Recently, the online journal Evolutionary Psychology has published an article that illustrates how this might be done.

The authors adopt Chris Boehm's theory of how human nature evolved in egalitarian hunter-gatherer groups in which the natural desire of the few for dominance was checked by the natural desire of the many to resist exploitative dominance. If this has become part of our universal human nature, then, we might expect this would influence how literature depicts the conflicting motivations of protagonists and antagonists in literature and how readers will react to these literary depictions. We could predict that readers will like the cooperative behavior of protagonists and dislike the dominance behavior of antagonists. The authors of this article confirm this prediction through an empirical study of how 519 respondents assessed the behavior of characters in over 200 British Victorian novels. The authors conclude: "If dispositions for suppressing dominance fulfill an adaptive social function, and if agonistic structure in the novels and reinforces dispositions for suppressing dominance, the current research would lend support to the hypothesis that literature fulfills an adaptive function."

I welcome this kind of research as contributing to what I have called "Darwinian liberal education." Against the fragmentation of knowledge that dominates higher education today, liberal education should strive for a unification of knowledge that brings together the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities into a common intellectual quest to understand human life in the natural order of the whole. This is what Edward O. Wilson calls "consilience." And as Wilson indicates, evolutionary biology is crucial in providing the common ground for uniting all the disciplines through a biological understanding of human nature.

Most scholars in literature and the arts resist this unification of knowledge through Darwinian science, because they assume this means a crude reductionism that cannot account for the complex mental experience of symbolic meaning that comes through the artistic imagination. In fact, people like Wilson do sometimes endorse a strong reductionism that assumes that everything should ultimately be reducible to physics and chemistry. But a more plausible view of consilience recognizes the emergent complexity of human experience so that higher levels of complexity are constrained by, but not reducible to, the laws of physics and chemistry. Some of my posts on consilience as emergent complexity can be found here, here, and here.

This article escapes the pitfalls of strong reductionism and implicitly endorses emergent complexity, because the authors employ a theory of gene-culture coevolution in which human nature emerges not from genes alone or culture alone but from the complex interaction of genes and culture over human evolutionary history. Victorian novels are products of a unique cultural history, but they also manifest an enduring human nature shaped in human evolutionary history.

Although I generally agree with the claims of this article. There are some points where I would like some clarification. Like most proponents of evolutionary psychology--particularly, those under the influence of Leda Cosmides and John Tooby--the authors of this article assume that human nature was shaped during the hunting-gathering history of the human species during the Paleolithic era. But as many critics have noted--for example, David Buller--this assumption that the genetic evolution of the human species was fixed in the hunting-gathering past and has never changed much since then is highly dubious. Studies of recent human evolution over the past 10,000 years throw into question the claim that human psychology shows a "stone age mind" that has not evolved since the invention of agriculture and the settlement of cities and state societies.

I also question the authors' assumption that human beings by nature always feel aversion towards the desire for social dominance. I have argued that the desire for dominance or status is one of the twenty natural desires in the profile of human nature. Human beings generally desire social status through comparative social ranking. Their esteem for themselves requires that they be esteemed by others whose judgments they respect. Human beings attain high social status through prestige, fame, or honor within the groups to which they belong. Although some societies are much less hierarchical than others, all societies rank individuals as higher or lower based on age, sex, kinship, wealth, power, and other forms of ascribed and achieved statuses. Individuals become dominant through any trait or activity that produces deference in others. A few charismatic individuals become heroic leaders because of their extraordinary power to win the respect of the people around them. Men generally have a stronger desire for dominance in social hierarchies than do women. Men compete for mating opportunities, and dominant men are generally more attractive to potential mates.

I agree with Boehm that the natural desire for dominance is checked by the natural desire of subordinates to be free from exploitative dominance. But this does not mean that dominance behavior is always bad. After all, the whole point of seeking the honor or glory of high status is that this means being admired by others.

In fact, the authors of this article report as an "anomalous finding" that male protagonists who do not seek dominance are scored by readers as low on "interest." "They are not intent on acquiring wealth and power, and they are thoroughly domesticated within the forms of conventional propriety. They serve admirably to exemplify normative values of cooperative behavior, but in serving this function they seem to be diminished in some vital component of fascination, some element of charisma. They lack specifically male qualities of aggressive assertion; they lack power, and in lacking power, they seem also to lack some quality that excites intensity of interest in emotional response." Doesn't this suggest that there is something in human nature that can make male dominance behavior powerfully attractive?

One of the authors of this article--Jonathan Gottschall--has elsewhere applied Darwinian reasoning to the study of Homer's heroes. A comparative study of the Greek culture of male honor and dominance and the Victorian culture of bourgeois values might illuminate our natural ambivalence about male dominance behavior in that we admire it and fear it at the same time.

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