Hierarchies in Hell and Leaderless Fight Clubs: a More Modest Thesis Prospectus

Question:

Do the sciences of human behavior as practiced and understood in the Twenty-First Century have anything of value to contribute to the study of literature? Will the application of theories arising from the fields of evolutionary psychology and evolutionary anthropology to literary works yield anything beyond one more perspective in the seemingly endless succession of momentarily fashionable approaches to literary scholarship? Or is the scientific exploration of human behavior itself hopelessly incapable of transcending the culture in which it is undertaken? And, assuming any ultimate verdict on the value of evolutionary theories of literature is at present impossible to render, might they nonetheless shed some light on issues posing difficulties for other theoretical approaches? For instance, what accounts for centuries of readers’ sympathy toward characters who are on the surface meant to serve as villains? Milton’s Satan is a classic example of this phenomenon, while Palahniuk’s Tyler Durden is a more contemporary one. Are reader’s strong feelings on behalf of these antagonists understandable in terms of evolutionary theories of human behavior? And, if so, what does that suggest about the nature of human interest in fictional narratives like Paradise Lost and Fight Club?

Implications:

William Flesch, in his book Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction, theorizes that humans’ passion for fictional narratives emerges from a predilection for monitoring one another for signals of their capacity for cooperative relationships. Humans naturally favor conspecifics who prove themselves capable of setting aside their own rational self-interests to act on behalf of others or on behalf of the larger group to which they belong. And they demonstrate their own altruistic tendencies by favoring other altruists and punishing those who would take advantage of them. Does the character Satan in Milton’s epic poem somehow signal to readers that he is altruistic? And is there some type of underlying message about cooperation in the seemingly senseless violence in Palahniuk’s novel?

Flesch, however, leaves another dimension of evolutionary psychology unexplored, one which could provide much insight into the appeal of both Milton’s and Palahniuk’s stories. Anthropologist Christopher Boehm explores the human propensity toward forming hierarchies in his book Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. It turns out that, contrary to conventional wisdom, humans in foraging bands similar to those they have lived in for the vast majority of their time on earth are strictly egalitarian. Indeed, most contemporary hunter-gatherers would, with little prompting, express support for Satan’s famous line about it being better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven. And they would likely recognize many of the group dynamics Tyler Durden manipulates to gain ascendancy among the members of the fight clubs—as well as the ultimate necessity of having someone end his reign.

The theoretical foundation established by Flesch can likely support considerations of male competition for status, since one of the conditions thought necessary for the evolution of cooperation among humans is a relative absence of hierarchical behavior. One common form of selfishness humans are vigilant of in their neighbors is a strong motivation to dominate others. When a person, or a fictional representation of one, acquires influence incommensurate with others in the group, those other group members can be counted on to pay close attention to the way that person yields his (or less often her) power. If it turns out to be for the benefit of the group, the higher status individual will continue to have the support of the group. If it is to further selfish gains, the lower-ranking group members will usually act collectively to bring an end to his dominance. And this dynamic plays out in stories told by hunter-gatherers and writers in more complex societies alike.

Methods:

This project will explore the central characters of Paradise Lost and Fight Club in an attempt to illuminate readers’ feelings toward them. In particular, it will focus on Milton’s Satan and Palahniuk’s Tyler Durder, and will examine the way in which they are portrayed in search of recognizable signals of either selfishness or altruism. Such an exploration might also yield insights into how Boehm’s theories of human hierarchical or egalitarian proclivities can be integrated into the approach to literature set out by Flesch.