Flip to pages 160 and 161 of the recent book with the tongue-tying, brain-busting title Mimesis and the Human Animal: On the Biogenetic Foundations of Literary Representation, and you will find something unprecedented in the annals of literary criticism: scientific line drawings of the "relaxed open-mouth display of [the] crab-eating monkey" and a diagram tracing the "phylogenetic development of laughter and smiling" in primitive mammals, chimpanzees, and human beings. Mimesis and the Human Animal, written by Temple University English professor Robert Storey, is not, mind you, an explication of Pierre Boulle's 1963 novel Planet of the Apes; nor is it an au courant cultural studies analysis of the Curious George children's series. Rather, Storey's book seeks to answer no less traditional a question than, "What does it mean to say that art imitates life?"
The casual reader--or even the seasoned literary scholar --can be excused for being disoriented by the monkey pictures: Just what on earth could a crab-eating monkey (or even one that preferred lobster) possibly have to do with Shakespeare and The Scarlet Letter? What could "relaxed open-mouth displays" possibly have to do with Milton and Moby-Dick?
Plenty, it turns out. Or at least that's the case spelled out in Mimesis and the Human Animal's densely argued and heavily footnoted 274 pages. Storey contends that literary critics need to "take seriously the implications of human evolution" for their field. Human society, he argues, "exfoliates from human biology," and his book attempts to parse the "biogrammar," or underlying range and rules, of a culture underwritten by evolutionary "strategies of survival." Forget about William Carlos Williams's famous modernist red wheelbarrow, goes this line of thinking. So much more depends on the relaxed open-mouth display of that crab-eating monkey.
Storey is one of a growing number of scholars linking literary studies with recent and ongoing developments in evolutionary theory. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I am a former graduate student of Storey's and am mentioned in the acknowledgments of his book.) Over the past decade or so, such efforts have become numerous and widespread enough to suggest, in his tentative phrase, "something very like a `movement.'" Though such scholars take various approaches and have important differences with one another, all agree, as Storey parsimoniously puts it, that "biology counts."
In Evolution and Literary Theory (1995), Joseph Carroll, an English professor at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, argues that "knowledge is a biological phenomenon, that literature is a form of knowledge, and that literature is thus itself a biological phenomenon." In Reading Minds: The Study of English in an Age of Cognitive Science (1991), University of Maryland English professor Mark Turner analyzes "acts of language, including literature, as acts of a human brain in a human environment which that brain must make intelligible if it is to survive."
In Natural Classicism (originally published in 1985 and reissued in 1992), REASON contributing editor and University of Texas at Dallas English professor Frederick Turner (no relation to Mark Turner) links recurrent, cross-cultural rhyme and meter patterns to specific structures in the human brain; more recently, in The Culture of Hope (1995), he writes of a "camp" of artists and critics inspired by the recognition "that evolution--a concept now extended by scientists to cover not just biology but the whole of the physical universe--is productive of novel forms of order." In A Blessed Rage for Order: Deconstruction, Evolution, and Chaos (1991) Turner's U.T.-Dallas colleague Alexander J. Argyros synthesizes aspects of E.O. Wilson's foundational text Sociobiology with the "emerging science of chaos" to lay out a "new understanding of art." Anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake has authored two wider-ranging forays into general artistic activity, What Is Art For? (1988) and Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why (1992). Further attempts to create an evolutionary-based or influenced criticism have been outlined by another half-dozen or so people.
The burgeoning interest in evolution's intersection with culture has implications far beyond the somewhat cramped confines accorded literature within the ivory tower. This sort of criticism represents the most thoroughgoing assault on the powerful intellectual orthodoxy that University of California at Berkeley English professor Frederick Crews has dubbed "the Poststructuralist Vanguard"--those "cutting edge" schools of thought in the humanities and social sciences that emphasize the "social construction" of reality.
Such ideas--along with the poststructuralist penchant for using "moral intimidation" to cow dissenters--have proven intellectually corrosive, says Crews. Though simpatico with poststructuralists' politics, he is disturbed by the substitution of utopian fantasies for a "willingness to face up to the best available knowledge of our world." "Real harm is being done," he writes, "to the cause of empirical rationality, which has been tacitly devalued by many poststructuralists and explicitly condemned as oppressive by some others."
In the longstanding nature-nurture debate, poststructuralists stake out a position that's basically off the scale: Not only is all human behavior an artifact of environment, "nature" itself is a wholly ideological construct, a mystifying abstraction invoked to justify the status quo or some inevitably retrograde social arrangement. By championing the scientific method, rational analysis, and the idea that there is something approaching an objective, knowable reality--concepts derided by poststructuralists as tools of repression and self-deluding bourgeois ideology--the evolutionary critics may well help replace a generally unexamined belief in the supremacy of environmental conditioning with a more nuanced appreciation for how genetic and environmental factors affect human activity, including the art we produce and consume.
On the face of it, the pairing of evolution and literature seems likely to produce some sort of Frankenstein monster: freakish at best (The Naked Ape meets The Hairy Ape) and disturbing at worst (The Bell Curve meets The Bell Jar). Yet much of the work produced so far is interesting and engaging, offering alternative readings of established literary works and pointing to new areas worth investigating.
The core concept of Darwinian evolution is that life--plant and animal, insect and human--struggles to adapt to its environment. Life forms that adapt successfully flourish; those that don't perish. Over millions of years, this process of reward and punishment has led to tremendous variation both within species (certain beaks work better for certain birds in certain environments) and among species (it doesn't pay for us all to be birds). Where early evolutionary theorists often posited human beings as the "highest" achievement of evolution, contemporary theorists stress instead the proliferation of adaptive strategies and life forms. Evolution is recognized as a process with no particular end point; indeed, it's conceived as something like a relentless diversity machine (albeit one with dire results for most new variations).
According to evolutionary theory, there are all sorts of "proximate," or immediate, causes of behavior, but the ultimate cause of activity is an attempt to maximize reproductive success, to keep on keeping on, either at the level of individual organisms or at the level of genes themselves. Millennia of such attempts have left their marks on all life forms, including humans: We have inherited all sorts of physical and mental structures (color vision, distinct genitalia for men and women, emotions, etc.) and predispositions to certain types of behaviors (forming groups, caring for infants, creating rituals, etc.) that somehow paid off in the past. Far from being a tabula rasa that can be wiped clean and rewritten time and again, humans are born with certain constraints, tendencies, and proclivities that, in combination with environmental factors, determine behavior.
In Taking Darwin Seriously (1986), the philosopher of science Michael Ruse writes, "Two tigers were seen going into [a] cave. Only one came out. Is the cave now safe? Again: you have to travel across a plain to get to your hunting grounds. You can only walk a limited distance in this heat. Should you set off now? Should you wait until tomorrow? Should you plan to camp out for the night?...The proto-human who had...[a] disposition to take seriously the law of the excluded middle, and who avoided contradictions, survived and reproduced better than he/she who did not." For better or worse, argue the evolutionary critics, we are descendants of that savvy proto-human. And like all heirs, we have inherited traits--good, bad, and indifferent--from long-dead ancestors.
Joseph Carroll provides perhaps the most clear-cut example of how such insights can be used in literary criticism. Noting that evolution does not mean that "all organisms, and especially not all human organisms, are directly seeking to maximize their reproductive success," it "does imply that all innate human psychological structures have...evolved under the regulative power of reproductive success and that these innate structures remain fully active at the present time." For Carroll, the "single most important corollary of this principle, for the purposes of literary analysis, is that reproductive success, in its twin aspects of sexual union and the production of successful offspring, is central to human concerns and thus to literary works." The hunt is on, in other words, to see how "strategies" of "reproductive success" play out in literary texts--or to tally the costs of repressing the same.