Saturday, June 30, 2007


One of my colleagues and I were talking about teaching theory. When I teach our theory course, I start with Marx, then do some Freud (and Lacan, a little), then turn to feminism (starting with Virginia Woolf, and including Gayle Rubin's great essay "The Traffic in Women," which picks up beautifully on Marx and Freud and into Levi-Strauss).

My colleague wondered why we don't teach Darwinian theory, since it's the most well-supported and influential theory around, pretty much.

So I'm trying to think of ways I might find Darwinian theory useful in analyzing or understanding texts. I haven't read much in the way of Darwinian or evolutionary theory since I was an undergrad, and what came to mind first was the really irritating socio-biology I had to read then. The irritating part was the deep sexism. If you've read socio-biology from the 70s and 80s, you know what I mean: the arguments that male humans were innately more sexually active than female humans, and more sexually desiring. This irritated me as an undergrad, even, but our sexual jokes tend to focus on male desire and female lack of desire, right?

But when I was in the Peace Corps, I lived in an area where three indigenous cultures came together. One of these cultures deeply believed that women were so sexually active and predatory that men were pretty much endangered any time they were alone with a woman. The solution in this culture was (of course) that women pretty much took a kid or another woman as a chaperone any time they wanted to go out. So that made me question the things I'd read and been taught.

When I really got into early modern culture, I learned that a ton of the sexual jokes involve men who are cuckolds; there's even a word for a cuckold who's happy about it, a wittol (usually because he's happy someone else is satisfying his wife). There are also lots of jokes about horny widows. So it looks like early modern culture thought of women as somewhat more sexually active and desiring than men.

So I tend to think that evolutionary theories about human behavior need to be way more culturally aware than they were then. But I don't necessarily think that's an easy direction, given the level of institutionalized sexism (including in the sciences).

Then I started thinking about the ways texts and art work on our brains. In English, for example, short rhymy lines tend to feel funny. But I don't know poetry in every culture; do people have the same reaction across cultures, or is this reaction a matter of cultural training on some level?

Poe thought that certain sounds evoked certain responses. But would that hold across cultures? English doesn't use all the sounds humans can make, and doesn't distinguish between some sounds that other languages do. It's hard for me to think that there's a way to use evolutionary theory to explain poetic responses in anything but uselessly broad strokes.

Is there something innate in the way that humans create narratives? How could we figure that out without some other sort of narrative forms?

And what would that sort of thing tell me about King Lear?

In a way, relativity is more useful in helping me understand how artist in the early 20th century were exploring ways of representing human experience and the problems of objectivity. But I can't imagine being able to use it usefully for Shakespeare or early modern texts, and really, that's the test for me.

I'm obviously missing what might be a fruitful approach, but I'm not seeing it. Help me out?

(nb. For texts and such by authors who were influenced by Darwin or evolutionary theory, bringing evolutionary theory in makes obvious sense, of course, in the same way that understanding medieval Christianity is vital to understanding Chaucer. But when we're really after theory qua theory, we want it to have explanatory power beyond it's direct influence, right?)


  1. I can see one small way in which you could connect evolution to literature, and that's in terms of what texts survive. I.e. the texts that become well-known and survive the "test of time" do so because they have some sort of evolutionary advantage over the others (e.g. early manuscripts that were popular were copied more, and therefore a copy was more likely to survive). These then influence the texts that are created after them ("reproduction") and that way pass on their genes down the line. The ones that aren't as "fit" by some measure of fitness die out and their ideas with them :)

  2. But StyleyGeek, that doesn't work for an explanation of so many medieval texts that were unknown from the Reformation to the 20th century and yet have since become canonical, oft-taught texts -- Margery Kempe, for example.

    No, in fact, evolutionary theory is in many ways a bad theory for cultural products, because they just don't work like biological entities. And, in fact, *bad* Darwinism has had an undue influence on literary history -- it actually was a small influence on approaches to literary history in the early 20th century. Those trees of manuscripts where scholars posited some lost "ur" copy are in part a kind of evolutionary diagram. But worse, medieval English drama studies was under the sway of a false, whiggish "evolutionary" theory (the kind that assumes that later forms must also be "more complex" -- read, better), and had the dating and development of drama all wrong. One element of that -- the idea that vernacular drama "evolved" from church drama -- still holds sway over non-specialists and drives me freakin' batty!

    So I say bah! to evolutionary theory outside of biology! It's funny though -- I think Freud is a crock when it comes to actual pyschology, but still find his theories somewhat useful in literary study. Perhaps that's because he was often using literature for his psychological models, so it's really already a literary theory. So usefulness and reliability in its own field isn't necessarily a measure of a theory's usefulness for literature.

    OK, I've babbled on enough.

  3. Have you heard of the book Madame Bovary's Ovaries: A Darwinian Look at Literature? I haven't read it, but know someone who has and that person was very unimpressed -- but it does try to do what you're talking about, I think.

  4. StyleyGeek, One difficulty is that evolutionary theory depends on genetic inheritance, and textual productions just don't have that.

    Dr. V, Poorly understood evolutionary theory (as in the idea that complexity must increase over time) makes for bad conclusions! I think you're on to something about why Freud is useful!

    Dorothy W, Nope, I haven't heard of it. I've read Madame Bovary, though, so do I get some points? (And, of course, Woody Allen's brilliant short story about Madame Bovary!)

  5. You probably already know this (and I'm sorry to blab on, if you do) but Elizabeth Grosz is doing work on temporality these days, and has a book in which she tries to reclaim Darwin (writing about him alongside Nietzsche and Bergson). It's called In the Nick of Time. I dunno - maybe it would be a helpful way of thinking about evolutionary theory from a non-scientific - pure theory - perspective.

  6. There was a good article by Adam Gopnik about Darwin in the New Yorker last fall. He made what I thought was an interesting theoretical claim that Darwin wrote Origin in the way novelists write novels--as an accumulation of detail, giving me a new way to think about how novels are made.

  7. Anonymous1:11 PM

    There are people who use evolutionary theory, less in terms of cultural survivals, but rather in what ways one form of a multi-form text might 'fit' better into a certain cultural situation. Less of a teleological evolution than one in which features of innovation in oral or some written compositions might work better for certain audiences and the like. In fact rather than emphasizing a 'ur-text', the approach can look at all the different manifestations of a multiple-witness text, ie all the little letters on those stemmata, in interesting ways. In terms of drama, you wouldn't so much construct positive/negative evolutionary scales, but you might say one performance went over well and another didn't, consider the reasons for the positive reception of one and the negative reception of the other, and see if these observations tell us anything about what text or performance was 'fittest' as in most apt, thereby informing what a textual community values (through what it considers most apt, eg well-delivered lines, or impromptu humour, period sets in authentic settings or modernized adaptations and so on). Or something along those lines. It's not necessarily how I approach things, but I've heard a few papers.

    Many of the ways people have tried to justify the unjustifiable using the idea of survival of the fittest (which they almost invariably think means the 'strongest') may be the reason many of us react viscerally when someone tries to use evolutionary theory to explain things.

    Perhaps: Slavica Rankovic,
    "Emerging from the 'Horizon of Expectations': the Evolutionary Quality of the Sagas of Icelanders and Serbian Epic Poetry," QUAESTIO 2 (2001)
    ISSN 1471-3314 · ISBN 0-9532172-5-6
    It's basically an in-house Cambridge, Dept of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic publication and perhaps not so widely available.

    Easier to get a hand on (though perhaps not so full-out Darwin): Michael Drout, "A Meme-Based Approach to Oral Traditional Theory," Oral Tradition 21.2 (2006); it is free and on-line (thanks to the forward thinking of John Miles Foley).

  8. Let me second the reference to Grosz, whom I heard speak last year. The way her work translates Darwin into what we do in literature can best be applied to the old nature vs. culture tension, so while Lear may not be blown wide open by such an analytical tool, Wordsworth, or Emerson, or even most Early American lit could be, I'd bet.