- Cognitive Theory and Literature
How much of what we are as human beings is innate, and how much is learned? And what would these questions have to do with understanding literature? The relation of nature to nurture is a very old question, but two recent collections in literary criticism, and as well a recent monograph on virtue ethics, offer some suggestive examples of new ways humanities scholars can approach this old question with new insights from cognitive science.
In literary study there seem to be two overlapping yet distinct strains of literary criticism using recent cognitive science. These strains have emerged in the last two decades to answer the question of what is innate or learned with a counterpoint to the current literary critical consensus. Both strains draw on evolutionary psychology and current theories of cognitive science, and both strains employ universals of human nature as defined by recent cognitive science [End Page 353] for literary study. Where they differ is in their different emphasis on evolution and, most importantly, in their relation to other current methods of literary criticism that deny human universals and instead see humans as socially constructed.
One strain, variously named but perhaps best known as Literary Darwinism, is focused on showing how literature grows out of an evolutionarily adaptive aspect of human nature that has been hardwired into all human brains. This idea of what makes us who we are contrasts both with the classic Enlightenment and economic view of humans as rational animals, as well with the familiar religious view of humans as vehicles of sin, grace, and eventual redemption in a fallen world. Rather, Literary Darwinism offers a purportedly scientific view of contemporary human nature as the adapted product of evolution; as such, it subsumes both the rational and the religious, and indeed all of the rest of human behavior, within the horizon of adapted traits shaped by natural selection.
Literature in this view is the necessary outcome of evolutionarily adaptive properties of the mind that helped those who had such minds to reproduce and pass on these traits down from the Pleistocene era (about 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago) to modern humans. This purportedly helps to explain why humans have evolved into the literary animals we are today. Various modules in the brain linked to literary ability, the argument goes, helped us survive. From an evolutionary perspective, it is on the surface an interesting and plausible thesis, and a number of scholars are currently exploring this terrain, including Dennis Dutton in The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution and Brian Boyd in On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction. Others in this camp include Joseph Carroll and Jonathan Gottschall.
One might wonder what the problem in literary study would be for which cognitive science would be the answer, but these Literary Darwinists are not shy in pointing out where they see most current literary criticism going wrong. They seem to see themselves as bringing the scientific light of day through evolutionary psychology to otherwise darkened English departments hopelessly mired in the dead end of ideologically driven relativism. Instead of focusing on literature as the site where the discursive differences that constitute culture shape the individual, as does much of contemporary criticism, these Literary Darwinists turn this approach on its head by searching in literature not for difference but for evidence of a common human nature, as revealed by evolutionary psychology, and for the way that common human nature in the end shapes culture. They have thrown down the gauntlet against relativism and social construction theories, arguing not that society has no effect on individuals, but rather that a [End Page 354] common human nature inscribed at the genetic level in the end does more to shape culture than to be shaped by it. The distance from the assumptions and...