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Hans Christian Andersen's Fish Out of Water

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 25, Number 2, October 2001
pp. 251-277 | 10.1353/phl.2001.0028

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Philosophy and Literature 25.2 (2001) 251-277


Now that Darwinian literary criticism is on the horizon, the natural human tendency to codify manifests itself in calls to summarize succinctly what such an approach entails. Though clarity is always to be praised, bioevolutionary critics need to guard against the reductiveness that has beleaguered attempts at a scientifically grounded literary criticism since the early twentieth century; most especially, we should think twice about limiting the interpretation of complex and varied works to selected sociobiological themes divorced from other biocultural considerations. David Sloan Wilson makes much the same point to students of evolution when he quotes Celia Heyes in a recent review of Evolutionary Psychology, David Buss's new textbook: "When I first encountered the term 'evolutionary psychology,' I thought it referred to the study of how mind and behavior evolved. But I was mistaken. In current usage, 'evolutionary psychology' refers exclusively to research on human mentality and behavior, motivated by a very specific, nativist-adaptationist interpretation of how evolution operates."

If, as D. S. Wilson suggests, evolutionary psychology thus narrowly defined threatens to produce a limited understanding of human mind and behavior and, in the process, fragment the discipline of psychology further, how much less potentially productive is such an approach for those of us whose central objects of study, cultural artifacts, are as the products of behavior even further removed from the study of mind? Leda Cosmides and John Tooby are most explicit about the falsity of assuming that psychological adaptations determine behavior. This being so, it seems impossible that such adaptations could determine the meaning of artworks, which are themselves the products of complex human behaviors. As I hope this discussion of Hans Christian Andersen's "Little Mermaid" will demonstrate, an approach to aesthetics strictly following the lead of evolutionary psychology as currently defined, while supplying valuable general insights about the motives for artistic behaviors and the cognitive processes engaged in them, cannot by itself inform us about the meaning of individual artworks. This is a crucial issue, since interpretation is the fundamental pursuit of scholars in fields like mine, literary studies.

Putting the question of interpretive frutifulness aside for the moment, it can be said unequivocally that criticism that fails to be sensitive to mutation and change is not properly Darwinian. Evolutionary psychology and sociobiology themselves maintain that our psychic architecture is comprised of domain-specific competences; the result, as E. O. Wilson points out, is that the human mind is not designed to understand reality but is instead an instrument for survival and reproduction. "Natural selection," says Michael Ruse, "works in a gerry-building fashion, making do with what it has at hand." Though our various evolved competences cannot be radically dissonant if the organism is to survive, neither are they logically integrated, neatly interlocking "modules." Under some environmental conditions, specific adaptations or epigenetic rules are not likely to produce a competitive advantage while other very different adaptations certainly will, and hence the flexibility of the organism ensures its survival. If, for instance, I place my coffee mug down on my desk and at that exact moment two cars collide on the street outside, familiarity with my environment militates against invocation of the causal rule, even though such a rule is incontrovertibly part of our adapted psychology. Knowing, then, that we share an evolved psychic architecture whose patient excavation, so to speak, will result in a progressively better defined concept of human nature, and knowing too that the behavior of human beings as writers as well as other kinds of agents varies under divergent environmental conditions, Darwinian criticism should be sensitive to the complex relationship between individual adaptations, the total array of adaptations, subjective cognitive processes, and environmental circumstances that give literary works enduring significance. In contemplating literary meaning, as with aesthetics, we should be mindful that epigenesis is not simply the instantiation of epigenetic rules. Ideally, literary interpretation should be informed by the evolution of mind, behavior, and culture, to modify Heyes's phrase, and speculation about the formal or thematic role of ancient adaptations in literature is only part of that process.

Since about 1950, attempts to explain the structure, content, and function of...

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