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  • The Human Revolution and the Adaptive Function of Literature
  • Joseph Carroll


Before the advent of purely culturalist ways of thinking in the early decades of the twentieth century, the idea of "human nature" was deeply ingrained in the literature and the humanistic social theory of the West.1 In the past three decades, ethology, sociobiology, and evolutionary psychology have succeeded in making the idea of "human nature" once again a commonplace of public discourse, but the actual shape and content of human nature, even among Darwinian social scientists, remains controversial. Human nature is the product of evolution, and for Darwinians, concepts about the structure of human nature are necessarily bound up with concepts about the course of human evolution. My purpose in this essay will be to examine two chief alternatives in the current Darwinian understanding of human evolution and human nature, to advocate one of these alternatives, and to assess its implications for Darwinian literary study. One alternative can be identified with evolutionary psychology, and the other, the one I shall advocate, with evolutionary anthropology and cognitive archaeology. For the sake of economy, I shall refer to the former as the EP model and to the latter as the EACA model.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the main theoretical controversy in Darwinian social science was that between the sociobiologists and Darwinian anthropologists, on the one side, and the evolutionary psychologists on the other. The point at issue was whether "fitness maximization" or the desire to maximize reproductive success could serve as a direct motive in human behavior. The sociobiologists tended to assume it could; the [End Page 33] evolutionary psychologists instead insisted that fitness maximization was mediated through "proximal mechanisms" such as the male desire for sex and the female desire to acquire resources from male sexual partners. In the arena of received professional opinion, the evolutionary psychologists won this debate, and evolutionary psychology is now the mainstream, establishment creed in Darwinian social science.2 Its hegemony is evidenced by a flood of popular expositions and textbooks. The majority of these expositions give little evidence that the authors are themselves alert to the speculative character of the fundamental concepts of their creed, and the chief tenets of the creed have often been reiterated in a naively uncritical way.

The chief tenets of orthodox evolutionary psychology are (a) that the structure of the human mind stabilized during the Pleistocene (beginning about 1.6 million years ago); (b) that the human mind is "modular" in character—consisting of discrete bits of dedicated neural circuitry automatically activated by environmental releasers; (c) that human cognitive aptitudes and motivational structures are firmly adapted to the hunter-gatherer life-style of the Pleistocene—the "environment of evolutionary adaptedness" or EEA; and (d) that the adaptation to Pleistocene conditions carries with it, as a necessary corollary, a "mismatch" between the adapted human mind and all cultural ecologies more complex than that of hunter-gatherers. The core concept, the idea on which all the others depend, is that of the EEA:

What we think of as all of human history—from, say, the rise of the Shang, Minoan, Egyptian, Indian, and Sumerian civilizations—and everything we take for granted as normal parts of life—agriculture, pastoralism, governments, police, sanitation, medical care, education, armies, transportation, and so on—are all the novel products of the last few thousand years. In contrast to this, our ancestors spent the last two million years as Pleistocene hunter-gatherers, and, of course, several hundred million years before that as one kind of forager or another. These relative spans are important because they establish which set of environments and conditions defined the adaptive problems the mind was shaped to cope with: Pleistocene conditions, rather than modern conditions.3

For evolutionary psychologists, the difference between our Paleolithic ancestors and ourselves is a difference not in anatomical and neurological character but only in external "circumstances." In the EP model, the structure of the human mind at the present time and the structure [End Page 34] of the mind of, say, half a million years ago, would be the same. They would be equally the mind of the Pleistocene.

The EP model of...


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