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Literary Animal

Evolution and the Nature of Narrative

Gottschall, Jonathan, and David Sloan Wilson

Publication Year: 2005

In recent years, articles in major periodicals from the New York Times Magazine to the Times Literary Supplement have heralded the arrival of a new school of literary studies that promises or threatens to profoundly shift the current paradigm. This revolutionary approach, known as Darwinian literary studies, is based on a few simple premises: evolution has produced a universal landscape of the human mind that can be scientifically mapped; these universal tendencies are reflected in the composition, reception, and interpretation of literary works; and an understanding of the evolutionary foundations of human behavior, psychology, and culture will enable literary scholars to gain powerful new perspectives on the elements, form, and nature of storytelling.

Published by: Northwestern University Press

Front matter

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pp. v-vi

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Foreword from the Scientific Side

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pp. vii-xi

The cleavage between naturalism and social constructivism in literary theory highlighted by the essays to follow extends to the foundation of knowledge itself. The essence of the matter, I believe, is as follows: Either the great branches of learning—natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities—can be connected by a web of verifiable causal explanation or they cannot. Either existence can be ...

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Foreword from the Literary Side

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pp. xiii-xv

Among the routines common to literary critics and their nearest evolutionary cousins, the chimpanzees, perhaps the most conspicuous is the grooming behavior of back scratching. In one species a partner plucks out fleas with the Triversian expectation of a symmetrical favor; in the other, buddies write prefaces and blurbs for buddies who will be likely to reciprocate. But wait a minute. The people ...

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Introduction: Literature—a Last Frontier in Human Evolutionary Studies

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pp. xvii-xxvi

This book attempts to understand the nature of literature from an evolutionary perspective. We call literature one of the last frontiers because it is an easily documented fact: choose any subject relevant to humanity—philosophy, anthropology, psychology, economics, political science, law, even religion—and you will find a rapidly expanding interest in approaching the subject from an evolutionary ...

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The subject of literary studies is ultimately the human mind—the mind that is the creator, subject, and auditor of literary works. The prime activity of literary critics of all theoretical and political slants has been to pry open the craniums of characters, authors, and narrators, climb inside their heads, and spelunk through all the bewildering complexity to figure out what, ultimately, makes them tick. What are ...

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Literature, Science, and Human Nature

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pp. 5-19

Greatness in literature is more intelligible and amenable to most of us than greatness in science. All of us have an idea, our own, or one that has been imposed upon us, of what is meant by a great novelist. Whether it is in a spirit of awe and delight, duty or scepticism, we grasp at firsthand when we read Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary what people mean when they speak of greatness. We ...

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Evolutionary Social Constructivism

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pp. 20-37

Evolutionary theory has been controversial throughout its history for reasons that go beyond religious matters. Even among nonbelievers, something momentous and contentious appears to be at stake. The controversy also transcends knowledge of the subject. It has not quieted over the decades, despite tremendous advances in knowledge, and it currently divides the foremost authorities on ...

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From Lacan to Darwin

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pp. 38-55

This is the story of an intellectual journey. It starts with my enthusiastic embrace of the ideas of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and ends with my eventual rejection of those ideas some five years later. Between those two events, I wrote a book about Lacan, which has since become a standard reference text for those working with Lacanian theory.1 Nowadays, eight years after the ...

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What Happens in Hamlet? Exploring the Psychological Foundations of Drama

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pp. 56-75

Performing the imaginary is big business. According to the British government’s Social Trends survey, 23 percent of Britons over fifteen went to a play in 1999. No data are given on how often they went, but even assuming that the average was only twice, that would be 22 million visits, not counting children’s theater. The cinema was even more popular, with 56 percent of adults visiting, and a total of ...

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Human Nature and Literary Meaning:A Theoretical Model Illustrated with a Critique of Pride and Prejudice

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pp. 76-106

The common notion of what Darwinian literary criticism could or should do is that Darwinian critics should, first, look into evolutionary psychology to identify universal, basic forms of human behavior—human universals—and that they should then examine this or that literary text to demonstrate that the characters in that text behave in precisely the way that evolutionary psychologists predict ...

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The Problem of Romantic Love: Shakespeare and Evolutionary Psychology

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pp. 107-125

What is the nature of love? This is an ambitious question, and one that has inspired innumerable literary works. Perhaps for this reason the philosopher Jon Elster thinks we can learn more about an emotion like romantic love “from moralists, novelists, and playwrights than from the cumulative findings of scientific psychology.”1 But here we encounter a major obstacle since most of the academic ...

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Male Bonding in the Epics and Romances

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pp. 126-144

From Gilgamesh and Enkidu, through David and Jonathan, up to Holmes and Watson, Aubrey and Maturin, or Butch and Sundance, the male bond has been celebrated in literature, song, and drama. The combative male group from Jason and the Argonauts through the Knights of the Round Table and Robin Hood and his Merry Men to the Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven exercises a constant fascination. ...

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The two articles in this section propose different solutions to the evolutionary riddle of art, especially narrative art. (For different perspectives see Carroll, D. S. Wilson, part 1.) The puzzle is roughly this: in ancestral environments characterized by intense competition for survival and reproduction, how could the evolutionary process “allow” any animal to spend (waste?) so much time producing, ...

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Evolutionary Theories of Art

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pp. 147-176

Although discussing religion, Daniel Dennett could easily have had art in mind when he wrote: “Any phenomenon that apparently exceeds the functional cries out for an explanation. We don’t marvel at a creature doggedly grubbing in the earth with its nose, for we figure it is seeking its food; if, however, it regularly interrupts its rooting with somersaults, we want to know why. What benefits are ...

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Reverse-Engineering Narrative: Evidence of Special Design

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pp. 177-196

Life as a hunter-gatherer is difficult, arduous, and dangerous. Given these conditions, why would our Upper Pleistocene ancestors bother to take the time to tell stories? For we can be pretty sure that they did. Anatomical evidence, as well as the very complexity and universality of the language faculty itself, suggest that language—a necessary condition for storytelling—is highly likely to have developed ...

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Can literary scholarship benefit not only from evolutionary theory but also from the quantitative methods scientists use to explore their fields of research? In many ways the premises of this section are more radical than those featured in previous sections. Two of the articles in this section (by Gottschall and by Kruger, Fisher, and Jobling) suggest that many (though by no means all) literary problems are ...

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Quantitative Literary Study: A Modest Manifesto and Testing the Hypotheses of Feminist Fairy Tale Studies

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pp. 199-224

In the early 1660s a London haberdasher of small wares named John Graunt—a self-made and self-educated man—had an inspiration. Since the sixteenth century London’s Bills of Mortality had listed all “The Diseases and Casualties” of the week, partly to serve as an early warning system during plague time. For instance, during the week of April 11–18, 1665, one died from cancer, twenty-one from ...

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Proper Hero Dads and Dark Hero Cads: Alternate Mating Strategies Exemplified in British Romantic Literature

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pp. 225-243

Contemporary literary research is generally not held to the standard of scientific responsibility. Although theories of human behavior in the sciences are adopted only after being supported by empirical testing, many literary researchers are not overly concerned with the empirical viability of the theories of behavior on which they base their work. Some appear to prefer one theory to ...

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Crossing the Abyss: Erotica and the Intersection of Evolutionary Psychology and Literary Studies

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pp. 244-258

When Don Symons and I wrote our book, Warrior Lovers: Erotic Fiction, Evolution, and Female Sexuality, we were asked to choose a phrase from it to go on the dust jacket. We chose, “To encounter erotica designed to appeal to the other sex is to gaze into the psychological abyss that separates the sexes.”1 At times, it seems that an even greater gulf separates the worlds of evolutionary psychology and literary ...

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pp. 259-264

Works of literary criticism and theories of literature are portrayals and understandings of the human mind’s storytelling capacities. Think of them as an analogy with visual portrayals—drawings and paintings—of the human body. A period spent teaching in the fine arts department of my university has provided me with a useful lesson or two in this connection. Much art practice today forsakes ...

Works Cited

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pp. 265-300


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pp. 301-304

E-ISBN-13: 9780810161832
Print-ISBN-13: 9780810122864

Page Count: 336
Publication Year: 2005

Edition: 1

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Literature and science.
  • Evolution (Biology) in literature.
  • Human beings in literature.
  • Narration (Rhetoric).
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