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Darwinian Literary Studies (aka Literary Darwinism) is a branch of literary criticism that studies literature in the context of evolution through natural selection, specifically gene-culture coevolution. It represents an emerging trend of neo-Darwinian thought in intellectual disciplines beyond those traditionally considered as evolutionary biology; for example, the rapidly growing fields of evolutionary psychology and evolutionary epistemology.


Tenets of Darwinian literary studies

Darwinian literary studies arose in part as a result of dissatisfaction with the poststructuralist and postmodernist philosophies that came to dominate literary study during the 1970s and 80s. In particular, it took issue with the argument that discourse constructs reality[1], and argues that evolution precedes, and to some extent explains, discourse. This position disagrees with the standard social science model that argues culture constructs human values and behaviors.

As Leda Cosmides and John Tooby indicate in their essay "The Psychological Foundations of Culture," scientific models and theories allow us to sense abstract objects and relationships just as our eyes and ears allow us to sense concrete ones. In Darwinian literary studies, as in evolutionary psychology, "[t]he tools of evolutionary functional analysis function as an organ of perception, bringing the blurry world of human psychological and behavioral phenotypes into sharp focus and allowing one to discern the formerly obscured level of our richly organized species-typical functional architecture."[2] In other words, since the human mind is embodied in evolving organic structures such as the brain, researchers should be able to explain aspects--not only of cognitive systems such as language ability, but of cultural systems such as art and literature--in terms of the environmental factors, or selection pressure, that give rise to them. A chief goal of Darwinian literary studies is to show how the reading and writing of literature contributes to the inclusive fitness of the human organism. In this sense the discipline relates closely to adaptationism, and it shares with the adaptationist social sciences the ultimate goal of understanding human nature.

A good example of applied Darwinian criticism is Joseph Carroll's reading of Pride and Prejudice, which shows how the fundamental biological problem of mate choice informs the plot of Austen's novel[3]. In this view, the novel narrates a social order in which males compete on the basis of socioeconomic attributes such as money and rank, whereas females compete according to 'personal' attributes such as youth and beauty. The story of Darcy and Elizabeth's courtship establishes a model for partial subversion of this social order, since the couple manage to abide by it even though the proximate causes of their mutual attraction have more to do with the conventionally undervalued attributes of dignity, honesty, kindness, and intelligence. A Darwinian critic might argue that the whole book functions as a tool for humans to perceive, order, and make sense of the conflicting impulses that characterize romantic relationships.

Notable Darwinian critics and contributors to the field

  • Brian Boyd
  • Joseph Carroll
  • Brett Cooke
  • Ellen Dissanayake
  • Nancy Easterlin
  • Jonathan Gottschall
  • Michelle Scalise Sugiyama
  • Robert Storey
  • Frederick Turner

Notable Books

Listed alphabetically.

  • Barash, David P. 2005. Madame Bovary's Ovaries: A Darwinian Look at Literature. Delacorte Press.
  • Boyd, Brian. 2009. On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition. and Fiction. Harvard University Press.
  • Carroll, Joseph. 1995. Evolution and Literary Theory. University of Missouri.
  • Carroll, Joseph. 2004. Literary Darwinism. Routledge.
  • Cooke, Brett. 2002. Human Nature in Utopia: Zamyatin's We. Northwestern University Press.
  • Gottschall, Jonathan, and David Sloan Wilson, eds. 2005. The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative. Northwestern University Press.
  • Gottschall, Jonathan. 2007. The Rape of Troy: Evolution, Violence, and the World of Homer. Cambridge.
  • Nordlund, Marcus. 2007. Shakespeare and the Nature of Love: Literature, Culture, Evolution. Northwestern University Press.
  • Storey, Robert. 1996. Mimesis and the Human Animal: On the Biogenetic Foundations of Literary Representation. Northwestern University Press.

It should be noted that, in addition to these texts, cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker devotes the final chapter of his massive treatise on human nature, The Blank Slate, to a brief Darwinian exegesis of a handful of his favorite books.

External links


  1. ^ See Terry Eagleton, "Post-structuralism" in Literary Theory: An Introduction Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983
  2. ^ "The Psychological Foundations of Culture." Retrieved 9/30/2006.
  3. ^ Carroll, Joseph. Human Nature and Literary Meaning: a Theoretical Model Illustrated with a Critique of Pride and Prejudice


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