According to Hilary and Steven Rose in the latest issue of New Left Review, Charles Darwin's 200th Birthday last year and the 150th anniversary "of the publication of The Origin [of Species] saw the famously modest biologist turned into that very 21st-century phenomenon, the global celebrity." (p.93)
In keeping with this picture, the commemorative buzz around Darwin and his work portrayed its originality via the "Great Man Theory" (93-94), rather than acknowledge -- as historians of science have -- that his discoveries were fruit of a historical process with many contributors. (This can't be said, though, about the recent film Creation, which acknowledges that Alfred Russel Wallace "got there first" as it were.)
Rose and Rose suggest that this bias distorts the way evolutionary theory is currently being adapted throughout the culture. From "evolutionary aesthetics" to economics and literary criticism, these authors see a tendency to erase the social in favor of an individualist (i.e. "selfish genes") version of biology. (91, 107)
Reading their piece, I remembered hearing about "the new Evolutionary Literary Criticism" but never quite knowing what it was. So I dug up two pieces I had glanced at in the past that bring together aspects of the theory of evolution and literary studies.
After reading them more carefully, I have to admit finding the whole discourse more interesting than I had assumed.
On the Origin of Stories
Even a socially oriented literary critic such as Terry Eagleton admits some fascination with "evocriticism". Writing back in 2009 about a book by Brian Boyd titled On the Origin of Stories, Eagleton thought it might offer a corrective to some of the excesses of what's now mainstream literary scholarship.
"Given the rampant culturalism of much current literary work, which can see the natural only as an ideologically insidious 'naturalizing'," Eagleton writes, "it is agreeable to read a work which discusses Homer cheek by jowl with allusions to dung beetles, the neocortex and cases of sexual harassment among pigeons."
What Eagleton likes about such criticism is that it offers a way to speak about "nature" again -- something lost in postmodern thinking, even, as he says, in "an ecological age."
At the same time, where Boyd's book fails is that often it uses its complex scientific vocabulary merely to restate truisms about literature. It's as if such work has discovered a new vocabulary in which to dress-up cliches.
To ilustrate, Eagleton offers this example: " 'We may never be shipwrecked on a desert island like Robinson Crusoe,' Boyd consolingly informs us, 'but we can learn from the example of his fortitude, resolution and ingenuity.' " For this we need Darwin?
"In Boyd's evolutionary world," he adds, "nothing seems to be done just for the hell of it." As Eagleton points out, we often derive pleasure from the arts because they give us a break from our utilitarian lives.
Franco Moretti on Sherlock Holmes
Back in 2004, the distinguished literary scholar Franco Moretti employed evolutionary theory in, to my mind, a much more interesting way (later collected in Graphs, Maps, Trees). Like Darwin, Moretti does sweeping quantitative surveys of his subject matter. His research covers forgotten literature -- as Darwin's did failed species.
This allows him to pose questions about literature in a new way. In one study, he wonders why, out of the hundreds of British crime stories of a certain period, it is only Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes tales that are still read today. Why did this particular "literary organism" avoid extinction?
His answer is just as original. In neo-Darwinian fashion, Moretti locates the survivability of Doyle's stories in a single ("genetic") trait: their use of clues. Clues became extremely popular as this genre evolved, but Doyle's stories used them better than anyone else.
What does "better" mean? Moretti is refreshingly specific. Only the Sherlock Holmes stories 1) made clues integral parts of the narrative (not just add-ons for popularity sake) and 2) created clues that were "decodable" by the reader. (49-50)
Many such stories contained one or the other trait -- but very few contained both, and in as masterful way as Doyle's did. As a result, crime fans kept (and keep) coming back to Sherlock Holmes (while competitors end up in the remainder pile).
But Why Do People Like Clues in the First Place?
Moretti works with a form of popular literature in the example I gave. You wonder what he'd do with "fine art." And you wonder also about something even more basic: why do readers find clues absorbing in the first place?
Is that a question simple enough for a Darwinian answer?