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Darwin meets literary theory

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 20, Number 1, April 1996
pp. 229-239 | 10.1353/phl.1996.0008

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Philosophy and Literature 20.1 (1996) 229-239

Critical Discussions

Evolution and Literary Theory, by Joseph Carroll; xi & 518 pp. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995, $44.95.

In my experience, most literary theorists, even those who participate in conferences called "Literature and Science," know little about evolution, and don't want to know. For them, "science" means information theory, chaos or catastrophe theory, fractals, pataphysics, "autopoeisis" or self-organization, emergence, cyborgs, hypertext, virtual signs and other aspects of sci-fi, or techno-politics. (I encountered these subjects at a comparative literature conference I attended in March 1995.) These "scientific" positions are used as trendy metaphors for talking about chance, uncertainty, accident, ideology, and multidimensionality in literary works or in the aims of their authors. In other words, the buzzwords of contemporary science become one more angle from which to view or project another facet onto the glassy, self-reflective edifice of contemporary literary theory, rather than a means from which to shatter it and build again from scratch with more earthy, substantial materials. Joseph Carroll's book provides the view and the means for this genuinely new and constructive (if initially destructive) possibility.

It is ironic that in the present critical climate the very virtues of the book might be seen by some as faults -- e.g., the lucid, elegant writing and the erudition and interdisciplinarity of the work as a whole. Carroll writes clearly, authoritatively, without jargon, and with frequent, delicious wit. His values, aims, explanations, evidence, and criticisms are concisely and plainly stated. This is in marked contrast to the enigmatic and idiosyncratic nature of much recent criticism, and might have the initially disorienting effect of returning to earth and breathing pure oxygen after one has become accustomed to the thin and rarefied atmosphere of remote, icy peaks.

Carroll offers wide-ranging and illuminating discussions of standard literary and critical works from both the European and Anglo-American tradition over the past several centuries, and refers to dozens of writers from diverse periods and nationalities. Additionally he enlists, and criticizes where appropriate, ideas from such diverse nonliterary figures as Darwin himself and writers about Darwin, T. H. Huxley, Konrad Lorenz, John Bowlby, Sir John Eccles, the prominent sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists, S. J. Gould, Richard Lewontin, Derek Bickerton, Piaget, Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, Clifford Geertz, H. J. Eysenck, Cardinal Newman, Thorstein Veblen, Trotsky, Raymond Williams, and Richard Rorty, among others.

One can be forgiven for wishing to forego an exploration of this demanding array of knowledge argued from the unfamiliar perspective of evolutionary biology. For in order seriously to consider Carroll's new way of looking at human endeavor (including literature) one must also look critically at what was laboriously mastered during all those years of graduate school and tenure-driven writing for publication. No one wants to be persuaded to give up a view of the world that has been mastered with painstaking diligence. Still less does anyone want to spend time with something that according to conventional academic wisdom is downright wrong-headed. This is really the challenge of Carroll's book -- because such minor matters as the plain unfashionable title, clear writing, impressive erudition, and dated or forgotten thinkers can be overcome if the stakes are high enough.

I wish to suggest that the stakes are high enough and that the time is right for this inevitable change of viewpoint. Along with others in diverse fields such as cognitive and developmental psychology, personality theory, neurology, medicine, sociology, political science, epistemology, cultural anthropology, ethics, and linguistics, I find the Darwinian perspective to offer the most comprehensive and viable possibility for an understanding of human behavior and culture, including the arts. Joseph Carroll admirably articulates this position and applies it to literary theory. I invite scholars who think that evolutionary explanations are erroneous, dangerous, reductionist, simplistic, or irrelevant to read Carroll and deal seriously with his arguments. His book should be the central text for theory classes and seminars, as well as the subject of conferences. Those who would dismiss it should have the courage and curiosity to lay aside their misgivings and have a look. Especially those who are dissatisfied with the surfeit of tinselly...


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