Unnatural Selection

Or, How I could have told you why people like Emma.




The latest public discussion about the fate of literary criticism features The Literary Darwinists. With articles appearing in The Boston Globe, The Chronicle, The Nation and elsewhere, there’s a certain buzz. Literary Darwinists are reacting to the rather pitiful — and undisputed — state in which literary criticism finds itself. Particularly within the academy, literary studies is floundering as a discipline without a clear sense of how to move forward. A good deal of what’s written is such convoluted nonsense that reading it amounts to self punishment. The critic William Deresiewicz recently wrote an article in which he concluded: “The real story of academic literary criticism today is that the profession is, however slowly, dying.”

Enter the Literary Darwinists, ready to get serious. People who call themselves Darwinists can always, if nothing else, be counted on for their seriousness. They’ve whipped out the scientific method (always intimidating to your everyday literary types) and begun hammering away on the relationship between biology and literature. One-upping the New Critics, who wanted a rigorous method without all the icky scientific procedures and techniques, the Darwinists promise to clean up the nonsense and give us some verifiable facts about what literature does and how it operates. Not such a bad proposition on the face of it. A big part of literature is constituted by people talking about literature, and one of the more enjoyable things on this planet, in my humble opinion, is that ongoing conversation. For that reason alone, the Literary Darwinists are welcome to the party.

Here’s what they bring to the party: In essence, the Literary Darwinists want to replace the “fuzzy” language and complexity of literary studies with empirical data. They think they’re able to show, through careful scientific study, that responses to works of literature can be traced back to biological impulses in the same way that, say, our desire for sweet foods is explained as a survival instinct. D.T. Max, in an essay for The New York Times Magazine about the emergence of Literary Darwinism says that its “goal is to study literature through biology — not politics or semiotics,” that “it takes as a given not that literature possesses its own truth or many truths but that it derives its truth from laws of nature.”

It is of some interest, I suppose, to look to evolutionary biology in order to find out how and why the initial impulse to tell stories might have emerged in prehistoric societies. But it is far from clear that such an approach takes you very far. Just because I have an explanation for the root cause of our desire for stories and by extension for literature, that does not mean that every discreet act of literature, every novel, is better understood by tracing back to those biological causes. (In philosophy school we used to snatch out our G.E. Moore and call this a naturalistic fallacy.) We may have, historically, started to like stories because they served to benefit our survival. But once that liking was present it became interesting for its own sake and we were off to the races, from Homer to Finnegan’s Wake. I would very much like to see a straight Darwinian analysis of a complicated and essentially plotless book like William Gaddis’ JR or John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor.

Of course, these concerns would be moot were it the case that the Literary Darwinists produce compelling literary criticism. Alas, it is not the case. Indeed, the real proof of Literary Darwinism’s sterility is in its pudding. It is not good pudding, rather more like cornmeally polenta, or something that curdles. It tells us, at great length, things that we don’t really need to know. In a typical paper, “Are the Beautiful Good in Western Literature?: A Simple Illustration of the Necessity of Literary Quantification,” by one of the more prominent Literary Darwinists, Jonathan Gottschall, we are treated to the results of the crucial debate on whether literary protagonists are more likely to be portrayed as physically attractive than antagonists. Here’s the result:

In the sample as a whole, protagonists were about 50% more likely to be portrayed as physically attractive. This pattern was also evident in each of three historical eras: the twentieth century, the nineteenth century, and centuries prior to the nineteenth. All protagonist-antagonist differences were statistically significant except for in the twentieth-century sample where, although results fell short of the conventional significance threshold (P=.07), they still pointed in the predicted direction.

Like you, I was on the edge of my seat regarding the “conventional significance threshold” but luckily we now know definitively that bad people are usually ugly (in books anyway). Likewise for the work of Joseph Carroll, who has, with at least a notable obsession, subjected Jane Austen’s novels to a withering barrage of statistical analyses in order to find out, for example, whether people tend to “dislike,” have “sorrow” for, have “interest” in, or “root” for Austen’s female protagonists. Poor Emma with her -0.17 score, so unrooted for! Carroll concludes that, “All of Austen’s novels move inevitably toward a culminating state of connubial felicity,” (he means the characters like to get married) a conclusion also drawn, no doubt, by those who simply read the novels. He concludes further that readers of Jane Austen tend to enjoy the prospect of being drawn into the happy world of 19th-century privilege. I’m glad to find out I’m not alone in this (and Austen does tend to cleanse the palate after too much Dostoyevsky).

These thrilling insights would be more tolerable if the Darwinists would stick to their chosen scholarly niche and statistically analyze to their hearts’ content. They do not. Instead, they sally forth blinking and wide-eyed from their laboratories proclaiming a general salvation for what ails the study of literature in general. Mr. Gottschall is fond of calling his new method “the way and the light” (presumably having first asked himself what statistically significant method Jesus would have applied to Pride & Prejudice). Reading the works of Literary Darwinists, it doesn’t take long to recognize that these chaps are spoiling for a fight. They are out to smite all the dragons of postmodernism, Marxism, and relativism. To wit, the usual suspects.

In doing so, Literary Darwinism has a tendency to “solve” problems in literary studies by reducing the claims of literary theory to a row of laughable straw men. The infamous, deconstructionist idea of the “Death of the Author” has little to do with what Gottschall thinks it does. Gottschall thinks that, “Roughly speaking, [the Death of the Author] means that authors have no power over their readers. When we read stories we do not so much yield to the author’s creation as create it anew ourselves — manufacturing our own highly idiosyncratic meanings as we go along… If it is true, there can be no shared understanding of what literary works mean.”

Not even close. The “Death of the Author” is not the theory that biographical authors have nothing to do with works or that readers do not perceive a strong authorial voice when they do their reading. It is, instead, the denial that the author of the work is the source from which springs all meaning and interpretation. It takes the final authority of interpretation away from the author, who now becomes simply the writer. Gottschall’s error, since he doesn’t really understand the theory, is to think that such a claim can be falsified with a few quantifiable studies. So he gathers up “500 literary scholars and avid readers” in order to “survey” their impressions of various characters in 19th-century novels. It turns out that many of the impressions were shared across the board. Voila! The author is reborn. But the claim that X number of people perceive a strong authorial voice when they read Jane Austen has nothing to do with what evil French theorists like Roland Barthes or Michel Foucault or anyone else is talking about with the Death of the Author. It may be that there is a strong authorial voice in Emma. That still says nothing about where that strong authorial voice comes from, or whether it can be reduced to the biological facts of Jane Austen’s life or her specific intentions in writing any specific novel. If it can, if the author is the final stopping point for any interpretation of literature, then we all might as well tear up our Homer now. But we don’t, because that would be stupid. Death of the Author folks are simply pointing out that all the facts in the world about Jane Austen are not going to exhaust the category of things you can say about a book by Jane Austen and why it is a piece of literature worth reading.

This is not to say you can’t or shouldn’t say anything interesting about the biographical Jane Austen in reference to her works. By all means, talk about Jane Austen, but know that when you do so you have not located the final and authoritative place from which to understand the literature she produced. Indeed, it will probably also turn out that the person, Jane Austen, is quite a complicated mess of different influences and intentions anyway. You can’t simply shake works of literature through a series of procedures in order to finally discover what they’re “really” about and nail that down once and for all. More importantly, perhaps, most of us wouldn’t want to. The Literary Darwinists would have us believe that the study of literature is a steadfast accumulation of data pushing us ever closer to the truth. I think it’s more like a roller coaster ride going nowhere. What I’m getting at here is that the Literary Darwinists would tear down the roller coasters.

The most telling deficiency of this approach is that it’s difficult to find much discussion of literature as literature at all in the writings of the Literary Darwinists. It seems they don’t want to get too tied up in it, to come to literature with any preconditions. Here again, is Jonathan Gottschall: “Setting things right will require an embrace not only of science’s theories and methods but also of its ethos — its aspiration to disinterested inquiry and its measured optimism that the world can, in the end, be better understood.” But interested inquiry, dear Darwinists, is the whole point of literature. That’s where the fun is. That is where literature begins to mean something to a particular person in a specific act of reading. And literature will be OK, even after being subjected to all that interest.

In short, your detachment does the opposite of giving you perspective: It takes you out of the game altogether. To say something interesting about literature means, first and foremost, that you care. Literature has to mean something to you as a reader and as a critic you have to have a position toward the literature you are reading. That position may be more or less persuasive but it is what makes literature live. The literary critic at The New Yorker, James Wood, is wrong about more things than I have time to enumerate. But one essay from Wood is worth the entire output of the Literary Darwinists. You’ll learn how to read from Wood, how to care about literature and how to be involved in it. You’ll become a participant in the ongoing project of literature. No such thing will occur while reading the Literary Darwinists. Instead, you risk becoming the sort of person who writes sentences like, “We adopt an evolutionary view of human life history, regard the substantive categories in the questionnaire as a reasonable approximation of the basic components of human nature, postulate that agonistic structure exists and can be effectively reduced to Valence and Salience, and hypothesize that in responding to novels readers simulate the experience of emotionally responsive social interaction” (Carroll).

In the end, one wonders whether Literary Darwinism isn’t, at its core, the result of a deep-seated (and misplaced) fear common to those who use phrases like “our moral compass,” the sorts who worry about this or that position leading to “anarchy.” Gottschall writes, “Instead of philosophical despair about the possibility of knowledge, [literature professors] should embrace science’s spirit of intellectual optimism. If they do, literary studies can be transformed into a discipline in which real understanding of literature and the human experience builds up along with all of the words.”

But Mr. Gottschall, literature is already a place where real understanding of the human experience can be found. I’m sorry that the insights to be found are not tidy enough for you. But we’re an untidy species. There are surely biological causes for that untidiness but locating them doesn’t do anything to clean up the mess. If you want to get closer to that mess, if you really want to face the immense clutter of the human-all-too-human, literature is a good thing to acquaint yourself with. If not, well … there are so very many professions. • 3 October 2008


Morgan Meis has a PhD in Philosophy and is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for n+1, The Believer, Harper’s Magazine, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He won the Whiting Award in 2013. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. A book of Morgan’s selected essays can be found here. He can be reached at morganmeis@gmail.com.


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