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The Tragic Evolutionary Logic of The Iliad

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 34, Number 1, April 2010
pp. 234-247 | 10.1353/phl.0.0069

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Jonathan Gottschall has conquered the oldest and craggiest peak of Western literature, The Iliad, by a new face. He stakes out the Darwin route to Homer so directly and clearly that he makes the climb inviting and inspiring even to curious newcomers without high-altitude evolutionary training. And the vista he opens up offers us a chance to look in multiple directions: at Homer, at literary evolutionism and its possibilities, and at Gottschall's role in exploring this new route to discovery.

One previous monograph has investigated a single literary work from a Darwinian viewpoint: Brett Cooke's analysis of Evgeny Zamyatin's 1921 science-fiction classic, We.1 Cooke's Human Nature in Utopia, by showing how Zamyatin appeals to the evolved nature of readers, in the face of the denial of human nature in his imagined One State and in early Soviet Communism, deepens our natural response to a modern classic. But where Cooke merely succeeds, Gottschall triumphs. The Rape of Troy not only deepens our response to a classic discussed for almost three millennia but also explains the world of Homer in a way no one could have seen without the multi-million-year perspective evolution allows—and does so with conceptual clarity, tight argument, effortless imagery, and copious verbal energy.

Gottschall emphasizes that his "evolutionary anthropology of conflict in Homeric society" does not attempt a Homeric "theory of everything" (pp. 3, 9). There is much of interest in The Iliad he does not touch on, and much even in possible evolutionary approaches to Homer that he does not consider. He focuses intently on a single two-part question: Why is there so much violence in the Iliad, and what effect does it have on how those in Homeric society see their world?

After a brilliant introductory overview, he shows in his first two chapters how over the last century Homerists have increasingly turned to comparative anthropology to augment the meagre direct data. They have clarified that the Iliad was long obscured by later Western assumptions about states and kings, and that the poem probably reflects something like Homer's own world, within (at about 800 BCE) the late Greek Dark Age, a pre-state society in many ways closer to Highland New Guinea than to the worlds of Caesar or Charlemagne.

Everyone who knows about the Trojan War knows that the Greeks fight Troy because the Trojan prince Paris took Helen from her husband, the Greek lord Menelaus. But readers of the Iliad want to know why thousands of soldiers on both sides persisted through ten years of brutal battle. Surely war on this scale cannot have been over just a woman? Scholars have proposed many explanations of what was really at stake. Immortal honor for men all too aware, day after bloody day, of their own physical mortality? Power? Status? Material goods? Prestige goods? A chance to neutralize enemies?

By drawing on evolutionary biology and anthropology, Gottschall can show that this war, like most human violence against other humans, and even like most intraspecies animal violence, stems ultimately from male competition over females. He introduces the powerful and far-reaching principle of differential parental investment developed by Robert Trivers.2 As Gottschall lucidly elaborates: "males will attempt to mate more promiscuously both because sex is cheaper for them, and because they have the potential to produce many offspring with multiple females. I emphasize the words 'attempt' and 'potential' because if every male adopts a relatively promiscuous strategy, and if some males succeed, then other males will not reproduce at all" (p. 44). The far more divergent rates of reproductive success among males than among females prove to be the key determinant. Gottschall sums up: "males typically face higher risks of total reproductive failure and higher hopes of extraordinary reproductive success. This creates strong incentives to compete for mates. Males who are better able to compete for access to scarce female reproductive capacity, in whatever form the competition takes, pass on genes more effectively than rivals" (p. 45). The clarity and logic of the theory, and its fit with evidence across species and across human times, places and cultures, allow it to explain not just violence...



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