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.
Carroll's reading of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights proceeds from such assumptions: He notes that the story of the tempestuous relationship between the foundling Heathcliff and Catherine Linton (née Earnshaw), who are raised as brother and sister, is usually discussed as a "conflict between unregulated, demonic sexual passion and tamely civilized behavior." Critics typically explicate Wuthering Heights in terms of Heathcliff and Catherine's struggle with their quasi-incestuous desires. Such a Freudian focus, argues Carroll, "erroneously" imports incest into a text where it is not a central issue (he cites Hamlet as a similar instance of critical malfeasance). Instead, Carroll argues that something else is at work.
Drawing on current ethological research, Carroll documents that boys and girls who are raised as siblings, even if they are not related, are "genetically programmed" to find sexual relations distasteful. Given that, he writes, "we can conjecture that Heathcliff and Catherine…raised as brother and sister, are not engaged in a primarily sexual liaison as adults, that the relationship is essentially regressive, motivated by an appeal to childhood….The violent and histrionic displays in which both Heathcliff and Cathy engage would be seen not as Byronic sexual displays but rather as infantile tantrums pathologically (and lethally) affiliated with adult power." Drawing on biographical detail, Carroll concludes that Wuthering Heights is a "projective representation of Emily Brontë's overly enmeshed (but not incestuous) relationship with her alcoholic brother Branwell."
Carroll's approach is basically traditionalist in terms of subject matter (a classic novel) and method (a thematic reading, authorial biography). That approach hardly exhausts the possibilities of evolutionary criticism, either in topic or temperament. In Mimesis and the Human Animal, for instance, Storey draws on all manner of literary texts--old and new, high and low, lasting and ephemeral. He discusses the characters Volpone, Sgt. Bilko, and Lex Luthor in a single sentence; references to the Spanish Golden Age drama Celestina rub up against mentions of the sitcom Cheers. While Carroll's introduction to Evolutionary and Literary Theory is a decorous (though full-scale) assault on poststructural thought, Storey comes out swinging in a "Pugnacious Preface" that features the Brechtian epigraph, "Why should we still want to be so clever when at long last we have a chance of being a little less stupid?"
Where Does Comedy Come From?
Storey explicates the biological underpinnings of the tragic and comic genres. Discussing the latter, Storey "approach[es] laughter and smiling--universal reactions of human beings to specifiable classes of stimuli--as evolved responses of an apparently adaptive kind." This is where the crab-eating monkey and relaxed open-mouth displays come into play: Laughter and smiling and their flip sides, anger and crying, turn out to have common roots in the mammalian fight-or-flight response to ambiguous circumstances. Any sudden, startling, or incongruous situation, Storey explains, may lead to laughter and smiling, or if it's deemed dangerous, to avoidance, anger, and tears.
What's common to "laugh-inducing situations" across cultures, he writes, is the presence of a "masterable discrepancy." If you can resolve a difficult or foreboding situation, you're likely to laugh, smile, or feel relief. Such is the evolutionary basis, argues Storey, for the comic genre. Make the situation unmasterable, and one moves into the realm of tragedy, with all its fear, trembling, and pathos. He further notes that the common biological basis for both genres helps explain why it is often difficult to draw a bright line between the two.
Where Carroll and Storey spend much of their time explicating specific works of literature, Alexander Argyros suggests a third way of doing evolutionary criticism. His A Blessed Rage for Order scarcely mentions literary works per se, save for the title's allusion to a Wallace Stevens poem. Instead, Argyros is more interested in the sort of theoretical and philosophical expositions about writing that characterize much poststructuralist criticism and contemporary literary "theory." While all the evolutionary critics engage poststructuralism at length, Argyros seems more sympathetic to it than most; he spends the first third of the book in an affectionate, if relentless, critique of the thought of Jacques Derrida, the Big Kahuna of deconstruction.
Argyros also moves beyond biological evolution to discuss wider-ranging and far more speculative matters: "Recent developments in a congeries of different disciplines, ranging from high-energy physics to biogenetic anthropology, suggest the contours of a stunningly beautiful model of cosmic evolution," he writes, drawing heavily on chaos theory. "Rather than a flat web of traces, the universe appears to be a marvelously complex, and frequently tangled, dynamical hierarchical system." The interest in different forms of evolution leads him ultimately to suggest that art is "simply the result of [an] incongruity between a rapidly evolving cultural world and our evolutionary heritage."
From such a point, Argyros develops a theory about the function of storytelling, its larger social purpose, and its apparent universal appeal. The creation and interpretation of literature, he argues, participate in creating a "gene-culture coevolution, a positive feedback system" in which genes generate basic rules for culture and "cultural practice creates selective pressure for the survival of certain genes." Since "literature is a model through which factual and counterfactual possibilities may be staged," he says, it gives "human societies…the capacity to identify and rank possibilities." The imagined worlds created through all forms of storytelling, then, are means through which individuals and societies envision and move toward their futures.
From Science to Subversion
To appreciate fully how different evolutionary approaches to literatures are, one needs to understand a few things about contemporary literary studies, particularly poststructuralist assumptions about science. As Frederick Crews has accurately put it, poststructuralism, a set of related ideas associated with figures such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Roland Barthes, "has been all but officially recognized as the new academic establishment." Its assumptions writes Crews, are often "treated as self-evidently valid." If poststructuralism does not quite constitute an express "flight from science and reason" (as the title of a recent anti-poststructuralist collection would have it), it certainly travels in that general direction.
As its name suggests, poststructuralism was born out of "structuralism," a school of thought identified with French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss that achieved prominence in the humanities and social sciences in the 1950s and '60s. Structuralism was based on the search for deep, underlying similarities in cultural phenomena, including myth, art, and literature. After identifying analogous "structural" relationships (or "isomorphisms"), the structuralist could then compare apparently different objects of study and tease out larger, deeper meanings.
Lévi-Strauss used such a method to read different versions of the Oedipus myth (including Freud's) and Zuni Indian creation myths, concluding that they all dealt with a culture's inability to move from a primitive conception of human beings as "of the earth" to "the knowledge that [they] are actually born of man and woman." In keeping with his comparative approach, Lévi-Strauss stressed cognitive and cultural relativism. He dismissed "prevalent attempts to explain alleged differences between the so-called primitive mind and scientific thought," arguing instead "that the kind of logic in mythical thought is as rigorous as that of modern science."
Structuralism aspired to the status of a "science"--indeed, its proponents considered it the ultimate "science of man." Poststructuralism effectively turned structuralism against itself by insisting that structuralist readings only make sense within constantly changing and ultimately subjective contexts: What Lévi-Strauss's readings really exposed was the structure of his thought; other readers would have other responses. As the French critic (and onetime champion of structuralism) Roland Barthes put it, "Everything signifies ceaselessly and several times, but without being delegated to a great final ensemble, to an ultimate structure." There is, in the end, no final, ultimate meaning--only ongoing interpretation.
The turn to poststructural literary analysis in the early 1970s, write Nancy Easterlin and Barbara Riebling in After Poststructuralism (1993), "initially generated excitement because it seemed to tear the field of literary studies wide open, subjecting texts to radically subversive readings….Through an endless play of signifiers, the tyrannical world of finite textual meaning was replaced by a free realm of infinite ambiguity….Liberated from fixed systems of meaning, [the critic] ruled a vast empire of play and pleasure."
The poststructuralist position on science essentially boils down to a variation on Freud's famous rhetorical question, "Does not every science come in the end to a kind of mythology?" That is, science and the rational analysis it attempts are not qualitatively different from other sources of knowledge. Indeed, contrary to its grand claims to "universal" truth, science is merely one subjective form among others. What's more, like any other system, it only makes sense within its own set of self-confirming rules.
For poststructuralists, scientific inquiry cannot lead to anything approaching "objective" reality, either because no such thing exists or because, if it does, it is ultimately unknowable since the language we use to discuss it is inherently distorting and inadequate. In Derrida's famous phrase, "There is nothing outside the text"; that is, there is no way to get beyond language, to reach a vantage point from which we can verify or refute our basic systems of knowledge. "There is no meta-language," proclaimed Jacques Lacan, another major poststructuralist thinker, "for it is necessary that all so-called meta-language be presented to you with language."
What About Antibiotics?
When coupled with the work of the hugely influential French thinker Michel Foucault, such insights lead to an extreme conceptual relativism. Since no theory is objectively "truer" than another, the dominance of one theory over another is seen as less a function of that theory's explanatory power and more an artifact of intimidation and social control.
In an ambivalent homage to Francis Bacon (usually vilified as the apotheosis of the desire to understand something only to control it), poststructuralists equate claims to "knowledge" with the exercise of power; indeed, Foucault took to writing about "power-knowledge." In such an analysis, Enlightenment "science" and "rationality," far from liberating society from superstition and stultifying tradition, are simply new ways of gaining social or political control. In works such as The Birth of The Clinic (1963) and Discipline and Punish (1975), Foucault argued that the rise of modern medicine and progressive penal reform hardly represented the systematic, humane improvements their defenders claimed. Instead, they represented little more than new, increasingly efficient and insidious strategies of domination and repression. Indeed, in Discipline and Punish, Foucault suggests that the Catholic Inquisition--usually cited as a model of anti-Enlightenment inquiry--actually provided modern science with "its operating model." Both, he wrote, essentially express "an authoritarian search for a truth."
The upshot of such thinking is a skepticism toward all systems of knowledge, especially those, such as science, that make claims to objectivity. As Duke University's Stanley Fish has written, "The givens of any field of activity--including the facts it commands, the procedures it trusts in, and the values it expresses and extends--are socially and politically constructed, are fashioned by man rather than delivered by God or Nature." Hence, poststructuralism's emphasis on the "social construction of reality" and its attempts to "denaturalize" linguistic, social, and political practices--to show that any given system's foundations are ultimately built on sand.
Such moves often have considerable rhetorical and explanatory power. For instance, in Madness and Civilization (1961) Foucault's discussion of the rise of mental institutions in modern Europe, while historically suspect in many regards, nonetheless draws attention to how definitions of "insanity" and "mental illness" can function as ways of stigmatizing and controlling political dissent or other forms of unpopular behavior (an argument with significant parallels to Thomas Szasz's The Myth of Mental Illness, also published in 1961). Similarly, poststructuralists are undeniably right that mistaken and mendacious appeals to "God or nature"--and science itself--have often underwritten all sorts of repressive policies, ranging from slavery to denying women the right to vote to imprisoning homosexuals.
At the same time, poststructuralists pay a high price for maintaining what detractors refer to as "dogmatic skepticism" and what proponents celebrate as "radical subversion." "It is now the received wisdom that Western science and technology are merely hegemonic cultural constructions," writes Joseph Carroll. But "if those who propound these views were to take their propositions seriously enough to live by them, and not merely write books propounding them, the propositions themselves would soon disappear along with the observers….People who make such airy claims about science…still have their children vaccinated…use antibiotics, visit the dentist regularly, and willingly undergo surgical procedures designed to save their lives." The viability of such methods, Carroll underscores, does not depend on the beneficiary's belief in or understanding of the medical model.
In a poststructuralist context, then, the evolutionary critics--what with their references to "biological modes of thought," "primate evidence," and "scientific rationality"--are not simply slightly out of step: They are beyond the pale, beholden as they are to spuriously "objective" facts, "transparent" truths, and "transcendent" positions.
Interestingly, the evolutionary critics (and the science they rely on) are quick to underscore the provisional nature of knowledge and recognize the ways in which social and cultural factors can muddy analysis. Modern science, while pursuing an ideal of complete understanding, acknowledges only partial success as inevitable. A similar sense of what might be called epistemological humility pervades the work of the evolutionary critics.
In a discussion of the scientific method, Carroll draws a sharp distinction between the turn-of-the-century views of Leslie Stephen and later work by Karl Popper. Where Stephen believed in "accepted and ultimate truths," writes Carroll, Popper held that "all ideas are necessarily provisional conjectures and that none of them attains the status of absolute and final truth….Popper rightly rejects the naive positivist belief that there can be ideas that have no `hypothetical element,' that consist wholly of `fact,' and that are thus `ultimate truths' that need never be modified." In a similar manner, Storey writes, "The `truth of things' in all of its wholeness and baldness must forever elude the human mind."
In their emphatic rejection of traditional, dualist conceptions such as "nature vs. nurture" and "genetic vs. environmental determinism," the evolutionary critics display something like the poststructuralist penchant for showing how apparent oppositions collapse under close scrutiny. Certainly, they have little use for the exclusive categories of "nature" and "nurture." As Storey writes, "There is no separating the `innate' and the `learned.' Learning…can be carried out only by an organism biologically prepared to learn, and the `innate' can manifest itself only if environmental conditions allow. …Culture is both an expression and a critique of what the species…is biologically disposed to do." And as the evolutionary critics are quick to point out, "the natural"--an empirical category--bears no necessary connection to "the good"--a moral one.
None of this diminishes the evolutionary critics' vast differences with poststructuralism, chief among them the idea that science differs from other forms of discourse (especially in the requirement that it create falsifiable hypotheses) and the ability of human beings to gain knowledge of a world that exists beyond linguistic or cultural conventions. Such notions run completely counter to the philosophical anti-realism of poststructural thought and its unwillingness to acknowledge a world in which human beings have been marked by evolutionary processes.
The "Constructivists" Self-Destruct
So what's next in literary studies? In virtually any discussion related to evolution, the question of what the future holds is always lurking around the edges--even as one recognizes that evolution is much better at explaining the past than predicting any particular future. There seems to be a growing sense that poststructuralism and its various "constructivist" cognates may be headed, if not for extinction, then to a serious decline in population. This may ultimately have less to do with poststructuralism's validity and more to do with scholarly appetites for innovation and novelty. The plain truth is that every critical school becomes unfashionable over time. Having enjoyed a dominant position for about 25 years, poststructuralism is simply approaching that limit.
To be sure, poststructuralism's imminent death has been reported with great regularity. For over a decade, reports have been trickling in that Derrida is no longer in fashion in Paris, implying that, as with the lag between haute couture appearing on the runways in the City of Light and its ready-to-wear counterpart showing up at the Mall of America, his days--and those of his poststructuralist frères--are numbered.
Why might it actually be true this time? Partly due to poststructuralist "discoursing" on science, of all things. Consider the most public--and embarrassing--example of this: In 1996, Alan Sokal, a physics professor at New York University, published an article called "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" in the Spring/Summer edition of Social Text, a highly influential poststructuralist academic journal. In barely readable prose, Sokal purported to unmask the politically and philosophically reactionary Enlightenment "dogma" that "there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole; that these properties are encoded in `eternal' physical laws; and that human beings can obtain reliable, albeit imperfect and tentative, knowledge of these laws by hewing to the `objective' procedures and epistemological strictures prescribed by the (so-called) scientific method." He further argued that "recent developments in quantum gravity… the emerging branch of physics in which Heisenberg's quantum mechanics and Einstein's general relativity are at once synthesized and superseded," were consistent with various progressive political ideas. In other words, he wrote a quintessentially poststructuralist critique of science.
At the moment the issue came out, however, Sokal announced in the pages of another publication, Lingua Franca, that his Social Text piece was a fake, a mixture of "solecisms…citations of authority, plays on words, strained analogies, and bald assertions." Sokal explained that he perpetrated the hoax because he was troubled by what he saw as a decline in academic rigor in "certain precincts" of the humanities. "Would a leading North American journal of cultural studies …publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions? The answer, unfortunately, is yes," wrote Sokal. "I intentionally wrote the article so that any competent physicist or mathematician (or undergraduate physics or math major) would realize it is a spoof. Evidently, the editors of Social Text felt comfortable publishing an article on quantum physics without bothering to consult anyone knowledgeable in the subject." That Sokal shares Social Text's hard-left political leanings--indeed, he claims he was angered by the "progressive" left's turn toward "epistemic relativism"--only made the joke that much crueler.
Being had in such a forum is both humiliating and dispiriting, to say the least. In a response printed in Lingua Franca, the co-editors of Social Text passive-aggressively admitted that they "obviously…regret having published Sokal's article," let on that they considered Sokal's original manuscript "a little hokey," but said that they were willing to let "readers judge for themselves whether [they] were right or wrong" to publish the article. They also chided Sokal for fomenting left-wing infighting: "There is nothing we regret more than watching the Left eat the Left."
More interestingly, though, they attacked him for perpetuating the "caricature" of poststructuralists as "otherwordly fanatics who deny the existence of facts, objective realities, and gravitational forces. We are sure Sokal knows that no such persons exist." Stanley Fish, the executive editor at Duke University Press, which publishes Social Text, made a similar point in a New York Times op-ed piece on the matter.
Which means that poststructural thought, in the words of some of its better-known practitioners and in full public view, has been stripped of its very claim to difference. If it is merely suggesting that we should remain attentive to the limits of human knowledge and especially how they affect science, then poststructuralism is doing the same thing as its most insistent critics, but in a manifestly less informed way. Few critical movements can long survive such moments.
This is not to suggest that poststructuralism or its assumptions will vanish overnight. Just as some Neanderthals walked among Cro-Magnon man, so too do dying schools of literary criticism long overlap with ascendant ones. Indeed, contrary to poststructuralist notions of swift and complete "paradigm shifts," changes in literary criticism happen in a jerk-and-stutter fashion. The assumptions and methods of older schools are typically incorporated, in part or whole, consciously or not, into what comes next. Variations on the "New Critics"--who employed a critical method stressing close reading and formal elements of texts and who ruled the literary roost for much of the postwar period--still walk the halls of English departments.
While poststructuralism's fortunes may be on the wane, evolutionary criticism's appear on the rise. The study of literature has always been an interdisciplinary activity, drawing on anthropology, history, philology, psychology, and sociology. The evolutionary critics' ability to synthesize new and ongoing research and to adapt it to their own field provides a model of how such interdisciplinary study can work. Evolutionary criticism is also likely to benefit from a broader intellectual interest in, as the title of Steven Pinker's recent book puts it, How the Mind Works. The profusion of books dealing with that and related topics--The Symbolic Species, by Terrence Deacon; The Mind's Past, by Michael Gazzaniga; Language and Human Behavior, by Derek Bickerton; The Origin and Evolution of Intelligence, edited by Arnold Scheibel and J.W. Schopf; and Making Sense of Sex: How Genes and Gender Influence Our Relationships, by David Barash and Judith Lipton, to name but a few--suggests that criticism informed by research that transcends the nature-nurture debate will likely find a significant readership.
At the same time, evolutionary criticism likely has too narrow a focus and too technical a background for it to ever become much more than "something like a movement." Critical schools that achieve widespread institutional power are typically much more general in method and application. Whatever cachet it gains is much more likely to stem from its direct engagement with and thoroughgoing critique of poststructuralism, not from creating an army of critics who go into the classroom with Darwin in one hand and Dickens in the other. But there may well be a time in the not-too-distant future--Carroll suggests it's a matter of several decades, as the social sciences and humanities become more comfortable with the evolutionary paradigm--when undergraduates talk late into the night about monkeys, Milton, and the "obvious" connections between the two.