Darwinian literary criticism

Nature has a short feature by John Whitfield about the new wave of Darwinism in literary criticism.

Darwinism is a sort of a misnomer (or, maybe, the most respectable way of naming it) since the premise of this style of text analysis is that the specific principles of evolutionary psychology can shed light on literary works.

So what does it mean to read literature through a darwinian lens? At one level, it can seem remarkably obvious. In their recent book Madame Bovary's Ovaries, evolutionary psychologists David and Nanelle Barash argue that a darwinian understanding of female mate choice shows why the eponymous adulteress takes lovers who are more attractive and accomplished than her mediocre husband. This may sound crass, but [Joseph] Carroll argues that the approach is capable of subtlety. A darwinian analysis of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, he says, goes beyond the simple idea that women look for fortune in men, to show how such animal concerns are filtered through the vast flexibility of human behaviour, cultural conditions and individual variation.
"I don't look at Pride and Prejudice and try to sort out what is biological and what is cultural," says Carroll. "I look at it and examine the way underlying biological dispositions are organized in a specific cultural ecology. Nobody in the novel escapes the problems of mate selection, status and forming alliances. But the characters also integrate these concerns with human qualities, such as intelligence, character, morals and cultivation." The noble, romantic characters, such as Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy, integrate successfully, hiding their reproductive issues beneath their social graces. The more comic characters, such as Elizabeth Bennett's mother, do not (although in marrying off her daughters, she is quite the evolutionary success).

I think the review is a bit simplistic, and superficial in its discussion of other modes of textual analysis:

The problem, say the literary darwinists, is that for the past few decades the humanities have, in the case of critics deconstructing texts, denied the need for a theory of human nature, asserting that the study of texts can be concerned with nothing outside those texts. Or else they have been stuck on theories of human nature that are rooted in the subjective and the social.
Those influenced by freudianism, for example, might read a novel looking for hints of a child's sexual desire for its parent. A marxist would seek out economic and class conflicts.

Before I was an anthropologist, I worked with New Historicist and poststructuralist readings of texts. I will say that these methods have possibly much more interest for many texts just because the biological issues are very simple. For noncontemporary works, the historical and cultural context is generally the more interesting contrast to the present, and the more difficult to get inside of -- which is precisely why they involve careful analysis.

Personally, I would say that bringing the topic of mate selection into Pride and Prejudice may look obvious, but actually does have a fairly radical result: are we willing to assert that the psychological differences among different characters are evolved strategies? Or deal seriously with Jane Austen's view of the heritability of such strategies (pretty strong, if she was typical of her age)?

How does the logic of the fictional plot, based as it is on nineteenth-century assumptions of human nature, compare to real nineteenth-century outcomes? Consider the movie, "Pretty Woman" -- we know that the story is a fairy-tale that is unlikely to happen, but what specific elements of plot are present that make it seem credible given what we know about contemporary prostitutes? Pride and Prejudice is no less a fairy-tale, in some respects. If the Darwinian account has value, it should address surprising disagreements between the cultural and biological in these stories. And the technique certainly has promise in that context.

A note to aspiring lit students: if you are reading about it as a "new trend", it's already old. I suggest styling yourself as a "post-Darwinian" analyst, and examining the issue of randomness vs. directedness in external events that affect characters. After all, the reason why stories are written is that they portray certain sequences of events that occur to authors. But this leaves two interesting questions: to what extent are these structured in a similar way to narrative memories of events that actually happen to people; and does a divergence from randomness in the occurrence of events spark any kind of special psychological recognition? Are the patterns statistically different in different cultural traditions? I'm thinking the expository styles of the great Irish authors might stand out relative to other English-language works. Are plots like punctuated equilbria?


Whitfield J. 2006. Literary darwinism: Textual selection. Nature 439:388-389. Full text