I'll be paring this down a bit. My advisors felt that the project spelled out here is more appropriate for doctoral disseration or some such longer work.
Grandeur in This View of Literature?
What, if anything, can evolutionary theory contribute to the study of literature? Is it possible to study literature scientifically, and if so what are the advantages and disadvantages of doing so? The trend among literary theorists is to regard science in general, and evolutionary theory in particular as deeply suspect since they have historically functioned as ideological justifications for various types of violence and oppression. Yet, by unmooring literary scholarship from sound epistemology, critics almost inevitably fall victim to what Frederick Crews calls “the fast-talking superstars who have prostituted it to crank theory, political conformism, and cliquishness” (xv). Will E.O. Wilson’s idea of consilience between science and the humanities be just another trendy fashion among literary scholars—if it ever takes hold at all? Will science ever serve any role in the humanities other than that of ideological bastion of European male hegemony? Does an evolutionary approach to literature hold promise in the quest for insights based on sound reasoning that go beyond mere justification for the political status quo?
The primary function of a literary theory is to offer insight into works of literature, what they mean, why they appeal or fail to appeal to readers, how they are influenced by and how they in turn influence the cultures in which they emerge and in which they are appreciated. But the insights borne of the application of a theory to a text cannot be taken as evidence of that theory’s validity. Many literary works have been interpreted psychoanalytically, for instance, and the application of Freud’s theory has yielded insights into those works. But, as evidence against psychoanalytic theories mounts, those insights must be called into question. Theories must be validated independently of their application to texts. And the validity of insights produced through the application of theories is contingent on the validity of those theories.
Interpreting a literary work from the perspective of one or another ideology is usually an easy task, regardless of whether that ideology is scientifically grounded. The question then becomes are there empirically validated theories that might be of interest to literary scholars? If so, do they yield insights into literary works beyond simple distillations of the prevailing culture? Once the difficulty of arriving at scientifically sound theories and the threat that such theories somehow encourage the oppression of women and minorities are dealt with, a third potential stumbling block remains. If a scientific theory of narrative is possible, might it reduce literature to a set of mechanistic principles, and thus rob it of some of its mysterious capacity to enchant audiences? Or might such a theory somehow enrich the experience of literature?
This project will begin with an exploration of some current approaches to bringing literature into the realm of human biological and cultural evolution. The most promising of these approaches to date sees storytelling as emerging from evolved dispositions toward monitoring other people for signals of their propensity for either selfishness or altruism, and toward signaling one’s own altruism by emotionally favoring altruistic characters. This approach is described by William Flesch in his book, Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction. Is Flesch’s theory valid? Does it offer any insight into actual literary works?
The second part of the project will explore possible methods whereby theories of narrative may be tested to establish their validity. Of course, these tests must go beyond seeing whether or not applying the theory generates insights into a literary work, because it’s possible for invalid theories to generate invalid insights. The tests must involve predictions emerging from the theories that can either fail or succeed. One possible way to test Flesch’s social monitoring and volunteered affect theory, for instance, would be to sample a large body of works to see if a strong trend exists for stories to focus on conflicts between selfish characters and altruistic ones. If such conflicts only show up in a minority of literary works, or if they take place only at the periphery of most stories, then the prediction, and the theory along with it, fail.
Since gathering such a large sample would be a daunting endeavor, bringing with it a large risk of confirmation bias, previous attempts by scholars to come up with exhaustive catalogues of plot and character types may be of use. Ronald Tobias’s 20 Master Plots and Georges Polti’s The Thirty-six Dramatic Situations suggests themselves as good sources for data.
The third and final part of this project will consist of an application of evolutionary theories of literature to diverse works so that an (unavoidably subjective) assessment of the value of the insights can be made. Works from different historical eras and spanning a wide breadth of geographical space may serve to highlight the complementary roles of universal cognitive mechanisms and cultural traditions. What counts as altruism, for instance, might vary across cultures. Likewise, each culture tends to sanction certain selfish acts more than others. So the basic framework of selfless protagonist and selfish antagonist can take on countless forms and carry with it important information about a culture and what’s expected of individuals living in it. Possible candidates for this type of analysis are Milton’s Paradise Lost—an interesting case because many readers sympathize strongly with Satan, the antagonist—and Palahniuk’s Fight Club, a modern cult classic in which one character teaches the other the importance of self-destruction.