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  • Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction
  • Blakey Vermeule
Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction, by William Flesch; 264 pp. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008, $39.95.

What does it mean when the second sentence of a book on the evolutionary psychology of fiction reads, "I, too, am suspicious of evolutionary psychology"? Perhaps literary critics are too used to this sort of disclaimer to find it odd. Every critical movement eventually spawns doubters, apostates, skeptics, and hand-wringers—all of whom tend to be fully paid-up members. A writer claims that she, too, is suspicious of a theory. Then she engineers her own downstream structure that looks a lot like the upstream edifice but with a few ornamental tweaks. The tweaks are signs of the anxiety of influence. The writer knows that she is working within a pre-designed space. To relieve her worry about not having designed the space herself, she shakes her fist at the designer and complains about his prototype. Then she uses it anyway.

But what if the prototype does not yet exist, let alone grown shabby from overuse? Flesch repudiates what he then goes on to create almost from scratch. (I will say more in a moment about why I use the word almost.) Evolutionary literary criticism is a field both unlikely and inevitable. Unlikely because the academic humanities are still in the grip of blank-slate thinking. Inevitable because experimental psychology is now driven by a strong adaptationist program. Literary criticism has always looked to academic psychology for some of its heft. Indeed the recent explosion of interest in cognitive approaches to literature shows no signs of abating. So the odds are good that evolutionary psychology will work its way into the humanities, though perhaps not in the form that some of its more ardent supporters hope. After all, literary studies is like a certain fictional village in Ancient Gaul that never could be conquered. Asterix, Obelix and their friends either absorb the Roman imperialists or set them to squabbling. The phalanxes of centurions crumble at the gates. Discipline breaks down. And so it is with the well-ordered progressive lab-based disciplines that humanists fantasize about.

Flesch has written a great and original book, but it is neither particularly well-ordered nor is it lab-based. And therein lies the force of his paradoxical [End Page 221] second sentence. He is extremely well-read in the burgeoning literature of evolutionary psychology but he is a philosopher not a scientist, a Romantic not a rationalist. He remains loyal to his own discipline even as he sees the potential for reinventing it. His view is that evolutionary literary criticism has not yet produced much good literary criticism. He seems to think that what has been written so far flattens literature or perhaps tries to nail it to the wall like melted custard.

What might he mean by this? Let me concoct my own fanciful example of the flattening impulse. One strategy that women use to pick a mate is the simple heuristic of what is called satisficing: pick the best, especially if your choices are limited. Sometimes satisficing means trading quality for availability. This heuristic is a standard feature of marriage plot novels, though it is usually an option that the heroine does not have to exercise. Minor characters, however, are not so lucky. An example is Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice. She is neither handsome, clever, nor particularly rich. She turns out to care neither for men nor for matrimony. Yet she wants to make a good home away from her stuffy parents. So she exercises her heuristic: make the best of a bad lot. When her friend Elizabeth Bennet rejects a proposal from the officious Mr. Collins, Charlotte sees her chance. She woos Mr. Collins with flattery and kindness. Soon they are married and Charlotte has her own comfortable home at Rosings, the seat of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Is she happy? Is she in love? No. But having satisficed, she is satisfied.

This kind of analysis is certainly true as far as it goes. But it is not exactly...


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pp. 221-224
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