publisher colophon

This essay has two aims: first, to reexamine the assumption that literature is evolutionarily beneficial, and second, to argue that, rather than focusing on the alleged biological base of literature, we should examine the similarities and differences between biological and literary evolution. To illustrate the usefulness of such examination, I briefly discuss terms such as “survival” and “lineage.” The article concludes with the suggestion that literature is good for us, not necessarily because it contributes to life but because it contributes to a life worth living.

During the past couple of decades the evolutionary approach to literary studies has gained momentum and produced a growing number of studies and thought-provoking debates.1 The time has come to reexamine core assumptions of the evolutionary approach to literary studies and to offer several conceptual and methodological clarifications. Without such clarifications this attractive and high-profile approach would have become an ephemeral mutation rather than an enduring and fruitful branch of literary studies.


The use of biological terms in literary studies is by no means new. It can be traced back to the first systematic treatment of literature in Western culture: in his Poetics, Aristotle describes the evolution of tragedy as if it were a living organism: “Tragedy advanced by slow degrees; each new element that showed itself was in turn developed. Having [End Page 272] passed through many changes, it found its natural form, and there it stopped.”2 The application of the deterministic model of a life cycle, with its inevitable stages of birth, maturity, and old age, to the complex and unpredictable history of literary genres is based on confusion between organisms/texts and species/genres.3 Note also that biological species do not evolve according to the stages of an organism’s life cycle.

At the turn of the twentieth century, as part of the growing impact of Darwinian ideas, attempts were made to apply Darwinian (or allegedly Darwinian) principles to society and culture. Most of these attempts, notably those by Herbert Spencer, the most famous promoter of these ideas, had very little to do with Darwin or with biological evolutionary thinking.4 As part of this wave, several thinkers tried to apply evolutionary terms specifically to literature. For example, Ferdinand Brunetière in France proposed to describe literary history as “a struggle for survival” among literary genres, while John Addington Symonds in England suggested describing the literary genius as a “mutation.”5 These ideas encountered perceptive criticism from literary scholars and philosophers,6 and subsequently were abandoned.

During the last couple of decades a new wave of studies has emerged advocating an evolutionary approach to literature (EAL). Unlike thinkers of the turn of the twentieth century, who envisioned general laws of evolution equally applicable to biology, society, and culture, EAL scholars take the cue from important developments in disciplines such as evolutionary psychology, evolutionary anthropology, and sociobiology.7 Evolutionary psychology argues that certain psychological traits (and the behavior associated with these traits) are adaptations: they were selected, and ingrained in the human brain, because they had contributed to the survival of individuals or populations. Evolutionary psychologists attempt to corroborate these ideas by showing that, among other things, certain psychological traits are universal—they can be found all over the globe, from early childhood.

In a similar manner, advocates of EAL argue that literary competence, or literary activities, or the capacity to produce and comprehend fiction (i.e., literature) is an adaptation. To support this claim, they introduce evidence from both “horizontal” and “vertical” levels: on the synchronic level they show that literature is ubiquitous in different societies all over the world, and on the diachronic level they show that literary activities can be detected at an early stage of individual development (e.g., small children listening to fictional stories) as well as at an early stage of population development (e.g., literary texts of ancient or “primitive” [End Page 273] cultures). The more evidence that is gathered from these fields, the more the case of EAL seems to gain credence.

This highly schematic description does not do justice to all the nuances or emphases in works associated with EAL. When we focus on rigorous formulations of this approach, however, one core assumption stands out: “Literature and the other arts fulfil adaptive functions that are peculiar to themselves and that could be fulfilled by no other means.”8 Thus, literature is with us because it has been (and probably still is) evolutionarily beneficial; or, to put it more simply, because it is “good for us.”


Before examining more closely the assumption that literature is evolutionarily beneficial, let me start with a personal anecdote. As a teenager I was an avid reader of fiction and, one day, after checking out a book from the public library, I started reading it on my way back home. I was so greatly immersed in the unfolding story—exercising certain mental modules, simulating the protagonist’s actions, developing my theory of mind, my empathy, and my other mental, moral, and social skills—that I didn’t notice the electricity pole on the pavement and bumped straight into it. This painful incident taught me an unforgettable lesson about certain nonbeneficial effects that can be associated with reading fiction.

One personal anecdote cannot of course undermine a prolific field of study. It does, however, chime nicely with novels like Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Austen’s Northanger Abbey, and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary: all these novels describe how characters bump (metaphorically) into reality as a result of reading fiction, and warn against certain nonbeneficial effects associated with reading fiction. When we are reminded of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, reputed to be a literary work that prompted copycat suicide,9 we also realize that literature’s effects can sometimes be fatal. Furthermore, evidence suggests that many artists and poets suffer from serious psychological disorders and die younger than people in other occupations.10 My personal anecdote, the famous novels that warn us against excessive reading of fiction, “the Werther effect,” and evidence about the troubled lives of artists and poets—all could be dismissed as unrelated facts gathered by a skeptic. A hasty dismissal of these facts, however, would block us from acknowledging the fact that literature sometimes has adverse effects. [End Page 274]

An open-minded approach concedes that literature—an umbrella term referring to a highly heterogeneous group of texts and activities—can appeal to different emotional, cognitive, and aesthetic dispositions, some of which are not necessarily evolutionarily beneficial. I acknowledge that sometimes literature contributes to individuals engaged in literary activities, and sometimes it does not; that sometimes it contributes to social cooperation and cohesion, and sometimes it encourages social disruption; that sometimes it broadens, enriches, and challenges accepted ideas, and sometimes it reiterates clichés and reinforces stereotypes. To argue that literature’s raison d’être lies in its presumed evolutionary function is to ignore its autonomous, heterogeneous, multifaceted nature.

The notion of evolutionary benefit is based on the principle of cost-benefit analysis, and studies that search only for the presumed beneficial effects and ignore the nonbeneficial effects are, at best, partial. A true cost-benefit analysis needs to factor in potential nonbeneficial effects. Only after we have delineated, weighed, and calculated the beneficial and nonbeneficial effects of literature will we be in a position to corroborate the hypothesis that literature is evolutionarily beneficial. According to Stephen Davies’s perceptive critique of literary Darwinians, they “hardly ever take seriously the need to establish that the benefits in question outweigh the costs and that the allegedly adaptive characteristics are heritable” (TAS, p. 162).

The idea that literature is evolutionarily beneficial is sometimes also linked to the idea that literature contributes to a benevolent, morally better society. Paul Hernadi, for example, states that “on balance, literary world-making has proven quite effective in curbing our egotistical inclinations toward malice and freeloading.”11 Regardless of our position in relation to the philosophical question of whether man is “naturally” good or evil, Hernadi’s statement about what literature accomplishes “on balance” does not come with any data to support it.

The fact that certain widespread modes of human behavior are in some ways beneficial does not make these activities adaptations or essentially evolutionarily beneficial. The widespread activity of smoking cigarettes, for example, could theoretically be described as evolutionarily beneficial: smoking was considered, until recently, “cool,” hence it contributed to people’s attractiveness as mating partners in sexual reproduction; smoking also enhances the smoker’s social skills and cooperation (“do you have a light?”); and contributes to social economic growth by supporting the tobacco industry. Do such benefits make smoking cigarettes evolutionarily beneficial? Even the PR people at Philip Morris International [End Page 275] Inc. would not contemplate such argument. Of course I am not arguing that literature is like smoking. The ad absurdum example of smoking simply illustrates that certain widespread activities may have certain benefits, but having those benefits does not make them evolutionarily beneficial.

Any attempt to establish EAL on solid ground needs first to explicate the key notion of successful human survival, and to specify the criteria for measuring that survival. Should we measure the number of offspring? Or perhaps we need to measure subjects’ longevity, or wealth, or social status? Should we measure successful survival of individuals or of populations, since human beings are, after all, social creatures? Over what time span do we need to follow an individual or a population in order to declare that they demonstrate successful survival? Unfortunately, no satisfactory answers were given to these key questions in EAL studies.

The basic argument that literature is evolutionarily beneficial can be developed in two directions: one that focuses on individuals (“literature is good for me”), and the other on populations (“literature is good for us”).

(a) Literature is good for me

One interesting attempt to link developed artistic (including literary) skills to biological evolution, suggested by Geoffrey Miller, focuses on sexual reproduction.12 Simply put, a skilled serenade singer will attract a suitable bride, much like the singing of a male bird will attract breeding partners. The assumption that developed artistic and literary skill is functional in sexual reproduction seems to find support in the fact that, throughout history, men (and not women) have excelled in the arts. Hence, literature is good for me (that is, if I am a man). Miller’s ideas have already raised apt criticism from Brian Boyd, a proponent of EAL himself, who points out several facts that do not agree with Miller’s assumption. For instance, adolescent girls also go wild over female bands, not only male bands, contrary to what we would expect according to Miller’s approach (OOS, pp. 75–76). More recently, Davies has offered additional, critical remarks (TAS, pp. 125–26).

Miller’s intriguing ideas are symptomatic of attempts to offer bio-evolutionary explanations for cultural phenomena and hence deserve further attention. First, if artistic excellence were a successful strategy in human sexual reproduction, we would be walking among herds of Shakespeares, Austens, Michelangelos, and Beethovens. For better or for worse, this is not the case (despite what teachers in creative writing classes may tell us). Miller perhaps succeeds in evading this problem by resorting to the notion of “creative intelligence” rather than talking about specific, artistic, creative intelligence (see TMM, pp. 6, 7, 72). Everybody [End Page 276] can agree that creative intelligence gave Homo sapiens an edge, but how exactly does artistic creative intelligence surpass other kinds of creative intelligence, such as technological? I suspect that for our ancestors—and not only for them—the invention of a new, effective weapon was more evolutionarily beneficial than the invention of a novel rhyme.

Second, the idea that men’s artistic talents attract better brides has very little to do with historical reality. Throughout the greater part of human history, the common practice was that of arranged marriages, in which the bride had almost no say in choosing the bridegroom. Matchmaking was much more like a commercial transaction between in-laws than like the X Factor television show. Even in the open market of modern society, the artistic talents of a potential bridegroom are probably not at the top of the list for most women (unless his artistic talent is accompanied by economic success or social status). To explain the small number of excellent, recognized women artists we do not need to resort to an alleged bioevolutionary explanation. Rather, we can simply acknowledge the fact that throughout most of human history, patriarchal societies did not give women the opportunity to excel in any profession or art beyond domestic occupations.

Whereas the idea that artistic and literary talents are evolutionarily advantageous remains speculative, compelling evidence asserts that certain literary activities correlate with self-destructive behavior. As mentioned earlier, artists in general and poets in particular suffer more serious psychological disorders (depression, bipolarity, addiction, substance abuse, and suicidal tendencies, for example) and shorter lives than people in other professions. These studies do not show that the writing of poetry causes psychological disorders, let alone that the writing of poetry is biologically maladaptive; after all, poets can give birth to offspring before (tragically) dying young. Nonetheless, a psychologically unstable parent usually does not provide a nurturing environment for raising children.

(b) Literature is good for us

Literature may not be beneficial for many literary people (notably poets) but, one could argue, it is still evolutionarily beneficial for populations. Poets’ personal lives may be miserable, but society as a whole benefits from their achievements, which enhance the creative intelligence of readers. As a consequence, society will better survive and prosper. The argument that artists are society’s “sacrificial lamb” for enhanced survival is suggestive and thought-provoking, but it is hard to imagine how the argument can be corroborated or tested empirically. [End Page 277]

Furthermore, several conspicuous historical cases suggest that factors much more important than literary achievements can contribute to improving the successful survival of societies. Developed literary skills did not do much good, for example, to the Romans who, during the fifth century, lost ground to populations (the Huns, Visigoths, and Vandals) far inferior in literary achievements. If we decide to focus on biological reproduction as an indication of society’s survival, the big numbers in most countries today point, by and large, to an inverse proportion between natural increase and cultures developed in arts and literature. Almost all European countries characterized by rich literary traditions demonstrate a negative natural population increase, while the biggest natural increase is found in several African countries, characterized by modest written literary traditions. Thus, the idea that developed artistic and literary skills are predictive of a population’s natural increase is clearly false, at least in today’s world.

All these cases can remind us that societies and cultures are complex, multifaceted, dynamic systems that may be developed in some aspects but not necessarily in others. North Korea, for example, is a significant military power but is not well known for its artistic and literary achievements or for its strong economy, while Saudi Arabia is well known for its economic wealth but much less so for its achievements in literature and the arts. These examples not only illustrate that there is no necessary correlation between different layers of society and culture but also underline the complexity of the notion of successful human survival. We can talk about different degrees of success in different aspects of human survival: the Athenians and Romans did not survive as functioning societies, but their cultural legacy (in law, philosophy, literature, arts, etc.) remains very much alive. Thus, despite the fact that they did not succeed in surviving as functioning societies, the survival of their cultural inheritance is a success story.


In his survey of recent works by proponents of “Darwinian Lit-Crit,” Steven Pinker notes that these works do not go beyond “the looser analogies between biological and cultural evolution that have been bruited for decades” (“TCSL,” p. 165). I believe that a much bigger problem with advocates of EAL lies in their attempt to explain literature by means of its alleged biological function, but without providing sufficient evidence. Should we thus abandon any attempt to discuss the [End Page 278] connection between biological and literary evolution? Not necessarily. However, rather than focusing on the alleged biological basis of literary phenomena, we should focus on the analogies between biological and literary evolution. Through a systematic, comparative analysis of several aspects of biological and literary evolution, we can: (a) overcome several conceptual and methodological problems associated with EAL (notably its fascination with the idea that literature can be explained by biology); (b) examine carefully what these two fields share and in what ways they differ; (c) call attention to valuable research that has already been conducted on different aspects of literary evolution; and (d) suggest useful questions for further research. As a bonus, the systematic comparative discussion can also answer Pinker’s critical challenge regarding “the looser analogies” that are too common in the field. Thus, in the following paragraphs I offer a comparative discussion of several aspects of biological and literary evolution, and briefly illustrate the usefulness of such discussion for the study of literary evolution.

Selection and survival

Similarities: Only a small part of the (literally and metaphorically) newly born individuals in both fields (organisms and texts, respectively) survive. Note that the principle of selection can operate in different degrees of “cruelty” in both areas: i.e., the ratio between the number of created individuals and those that survive may vary. In biological evolution, the ratio between created and surviving organisms mostly depends on the specific species and its survival strategy. One female elephant gives birth to four to twelve calves during her lifetime, and in order to maintain a stable population level, about half of them need to survive; hence, modest (natural) “cruelty” comes into play. (Needless to say, Homo sapiens can make survival much crueler, to the point of making elephants an endangered species.) One female carp, on the other hand, spawns about one hundred thousand eggs per kilogram of body weight; even if she is a lucky lady, only a very small fraction of them will survive (otherwise, planet Earth would swiftly become swamped with carp).

In literary evolution we can also find different ratios of survival between created and surviving texts, and this ratio usually depends on the specific genre and its demands. If all epic poems that have ever been written were to survive, we would probably need to add just a few shelves to our library. If, however, all works of fiction (or all love poems written by adolescents) were to survive, we would probably need to build new libraries. Despite differences in the specific ratio, the basic principle of selection is still operative in both fields: not all created individuals [End Page 279] survive. Whereas the notion of the survival of a living organism is relatively simple (it is either alive or dead), the notion of the survival of a literary text is more complex. To understand what is involved in the survival of literary texts, we need to understand the important differences between the two fields.

Differences: First, we should note an important difference between the compared individuals in the two fields. Whereas a living organism is a concrete, discrete, physical entity (e.g., Bambi, not just any white-tailed deer), a literary text is not restricted to a single physical entity, because several copies of the same text may exist. Second, the meaning of the terms “survival,” “dead,” and “alive” are different when applied to organisms and to literary texts. In some cases, a literary text (with one or several copies) has literally perished: for instance, those manuscripts are lost forever because they were burnt in the great fire in the Alexandria Library. In many cases, however, we can also refer to the “death” of a literary text despite the fact that a copy or copies of it still exist somewhere (in print or, today, in electronic format). We can refer to texts as “dead” when nobody reads them or alludes to them; the only effect they have in the world is that they pile up dust on the shelf (or occupy space on a hard-disk drive). The notion of “dead texts” is related to another important difference between the meaning of the term “survival” in the two fields. Whereas the notion of the survival of an organism is binary (alive or dead), the “survival” of a literary text is gradated: it is more or less “alive” (or “dead”) depending on how much it is read, reread, alluded to, interpreted, translated, and adapted.

Furthermore, whereas the death of an organism is final and irreversible, the “death” of a literary text is reversible: after being “dead” for some time, it can find new readers, be republished, etc. What the Renaissance did for Greco-Roman literature on a grand scale illustrates a process that occasionally occurs on a smaller scale. The story about the discovery of texts written by a literary genius whose works had been totally forgotten is probably a Romantic myth.13 Nonetheless, unlike dead organisms, a “dead” text can always, at least in principle, be “revived.”

I posit a few research questions pertinent to literary selection and survival: for example, what are the relevant channels of survival for literary texts (reading, interpreting, alluding, adapting to other arts)? The important work of Daniel Milo delineated several channels for the survival of texts and for the survival of their authors’ names.14 I myself examined some data about the presence of certain texts on different layers of culture and tried to check for a correlation between them [End Page 280] (e.g., does the fact that a text has many readers predict activities on other channels?).15

There are several indications that where the core of the literary canon is concerned (Homer and Shakespeare, for instance), there is a positive correlation between different channels (DGB, pp. 49–53). After we map the relevant channels of literary survival and collect the relevant data, we are able to wrestle with the sixty-four-million-dollar question of literary history: why do certain literary works survive better than others? Is it thanks to their intrinsic aesthetic or archetypal qualities, or because they serve the interests of the ruling hegemony, as Foucault-inspired critics insist? Several indications suggest that we need also to factor in an additional explanation: after a literary work has acquired an established canonical status, a self-propelling dynamic is set in motion, which reaffirms that status through rereadings, adaptations, echoes, and artistic dialogues (pp. 62–66). This self-propelling dynamic by which “standard” or “canonical” models are reproduced is probably shared not only by biology and technology, as suggested by Stephen J. Gould,16 but can also be found in the formation of the literary canon.

Chance and regularity

Similarities: Both the biological and literary fields contain a great element of chance (or unpredictability) on the level of creation (of organisms or texts, respectively). Once organisms or texts encounter their (natural or cultural) environment, however, certain regularities are set into motion. In normal sexual reproduction in nature, it is impossible to predict mutations or even all the characteristics of an offspring. When organisms encounter their natural environment, however, certain regularities affect them and we can make certain predictions: specific organisms will probably thrive in this nurturing environment or perish in that hostile one, for example. Furthermore, when an inhospitable environment puts pressure on organisms, they may migrate to find a more hospitable habitat.

The dual principle of chance and regularity can also be found in the literary field. Certain cognitive constraints are placed on our imagination: we cannot visualize four-dimensional objects, for instance, or apprehend embedded intentionality beyond four or five levels.17 Aside from these cognitive constraints, however, we can introduce almost any novel element or combination of elements: da Vinci introduced several “wild,” unpredictable ideas that were implemented only centuries later, and an author can write a truly novel, unpredictable, avant-garde text. In one important sense, every introduced element is novel. Paradoxically, even if one replicates past elements, they are no longer “the same”: the new [End Page 281] use or context endows the old element with new meaning or function, so that a passage taken verbatim from an existing text turns into an allusion or a quote. In practice, most innovations are minor and new literary works resemble existing ones in most important aspects; after all, we tend to stick to the familiar. Nonetheless, no one can predict what novelties will be introduced by authors or artists.

Once a literary work enters the public sphere, however, certain regularities are set into motion. It is difficult to foresee what specific novelties will gain a stronghold in the literary system. We can, however, offer satisfactory accounts of the reception or rejection of certain works in the past: a Romantic comedy, for example, did not have a chance to gain a stronghold in medieval Europe because the cultural environment was controlled by the Catholic Church (see Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose). We can also offer cautious, reasonable predictions: e.g., an avant-garde, enigmatic poem will probably not become a popular read, and a popular romance novel will probably not become part of the literary canon. The relevant cultural and literary environment (of popular reads or canonical literature) imposes certain regularities and restrictions on the reception of literary creativity.

Differences: It is more difficult to predict the outcome of the encounter between literary works and their cultural environment than that of the encounter between organisms and their environment. In both areas, many factors can affect the specific outcome, but in the literary field at least one additional factor further complicates the situation: the demand for innovation. Biological evolution, despite what the term might suggest, favors stability: as long as there is equilibrium between a species and its environment, its best strategy for survival will be that of faithful reproduction. Human history, on the other hand, is characterized by a constant drive for change, for going beyond, for producing “too much,” to use Milo’s apt term.18 In the literary field, new literary works do not simply replicate existing ones. The degree of pressure for innovation in the arts may vary: it is smaller in traditionalist societies and in popular culture than in modern society and in high culture, especially since the Romantic era. According to Colin Martindale, the increased pressure for novelty, which stands in conflict with communicability, might even lead to a tragic extinction of modern high art.19 Even traditionalist societies and popular culture, however, hold an expectation that new literary works will not be exact replicas of past ones. Due to the expectation for innovation, predicting which new variations will be favored becomes almost impossible, except in extreme cases. This pressure for innovation [End Page 282] has been evident since the dawn of human history, encapsulated in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s concluding line of “Ulysses”: “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

The demand for innovation is closely related to another interesting difference between the two fields: the pace of cultural and literary change is much faster than that of changes in nature. Whereas in nature significant changes (such as the appearance of new species) usually occur over the course of a very long time, sometimes even millions of years, significant changes in culture and literature (such as the emergence of new genres or styles) take place much more quickly. Whereas in nature a millennium is but the blink of an eye, the cultural and literary system has needed only three millennia to observe a comprehensive change in genres, subgenres, styles, techniques, and themes. Despite the speedy pace of such change, not everything changes: certain general modes (poetry vs. prose, say) and specific structures (like stories with happy endings) are quite persistent. As far as the pace of change is concerned, culture is nature played in fast-forward and, during the past few decades, in hyper-fast-forward.

Here are a few research questions that are pertinent to the effect of the cultural environment on literary creativity. Literary historiography should pay special attention to the fate of certain established literary traditions when they meet an inhospitable cultural environment: do these traditions simply vanish, do they transform, or migrate into a more hospitable environment? Several important cases suggest that established literary traditions do not simply vanish into thin air but, rather, they migrate to new, more hospitable places. When comedy met with a hostile environment in medieval Europe, for example, it found its way instead to improvised shows in public markets, and some of its elements reinvented themselves in morality plays (where some depicted Satan as a comic character).

Martindale’s detailed, empirical analyses of changes in English poetry offer valuable data and insights that historians of English poetry usually do not address.20 These studies also call attention to the general question of the levels on which changes occur: do most changes occur on the “surface” level of literary works (such as style) as opposed to “deeper” levels (such as plot structures)?

Another interesting research question has to do with the “rhythm” of change. Niles Eldredge and Stephen J. Gould’s notion of “punctuated equilibrium,”21 according to which evolution proceeds in intermittent periods of stasis and rapid changes, can offer a valuable framework [End Page 283] for describing literary changes throughout history (e.g., the relatively rapid changes in literary genres and repertoire introduced during the Renaissance after a long “stasis” in medieval times).


Similarities: Organisms and species (biology), just like texts and genres (literature), are not created ex nihilo. In both fields we can detect a line of lineage. In biology the literal line of lineage—of parents, grandparents, and previous generations—can be detected on the genetic level. The literary lineage of metaphorical parents, grandparents, and previous generations is usually described in terms of influence or adopted models: so, Virgil’s Aeneas can be described as a poetical offspring of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and Milton’s Paradise Lost as a poetical off-spring of Homer’s and Virgil’s Classical epics, combined with the Bible. When we examine more closely the relationship between parents and offspring in the two fields, however, several differences stand out.

Differences: First, whereas biological lineage can be objectively examined (DNA tests establish parenthood or detect a species’ ancestral line), literary lineage relies on the interpretation of texts and hence is more open to debate (e.g., is Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex the “ancestral father” of detective stories?). Second, and most important, whereas biological lineage is a unidirectional, chronological line whereby parents beget offspring, who in their turn beget offspring, literary lineage works in precisely the opposite way: literary children “beget” their parents. This seemingly paradoxical formulation is not a real paradox: when authors choose to tread in the footsteps of other authors, to define their own poetic identity against theirs, the former designate the latter as their literary “parents.”

The reversed logic of literary parent/child relationships is highly evident in the first steps of authors to define their poetical identity, when they are still under the shadow of their poetical “parents.” This reversed logic also characterizes the “birth” of new literary genres. Fielding’s declaration on the title page of Joseph Andrews that he is writing “in the manner of Cervantes,” for example, signals the emergence of the new genre of the novel with Cervantes as its “founding father,” thereby becoming a recognized fact on the literary scene.22

Another interesting difference, closely related to the “retroactive” lineage, is that, unlike in nature, an author’s choice of literary “parents” is not limited to the previous literary generation. Authors dissatisfied with the poetics of the preceding literary generation may seek alternative models in the works of a literary “grandparent,” or “aunt,” or even adopt a “parent” from outside their literary tradition (such as a Western [End Page 284] poet who chooses to write haikus). These two differences are related to the fundamental difference between nature and culture: unlike in nature, cultural changes are carried out by goal-oriented subjects, who are able to transcend their immediate time and space thanks to culturally transmitted symbolic information.23

Here are research questions pertinent to literary lineage: Is it possible to detect recurring patterns of literary lineage? The Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky claimed that he had discovered the “law” according to which “in the history of art the legacy is transmitted not from father to son, but from uncle to nephew.”24 Whereas the term “law” is probably too rigorous, Shklovsky’s formulation undoubtedly calls our attention to a prevalent pattern of literary lineage that requires further research.

In principle, we can distinguish between three types of literary lineage: (1) a “natural,” direct move from parents to children, characteristic of periods of continuity and relative stability; (2) a chess “knight” as it moves from uncle to nephew, characteristic of dynamic periods of literary change; and (3) a chess “queen” that bypasses preceding generation(s) and seeks alternative literary models either in the far past or in foreign literature. This latter kind of literary lineage characterizes dynamic periods that either revive old models (as the Renaissance did with Greco-Roman models), or import foreign models to reshape local literary traditions (the way French authors of the eighteenth century imported English literary models). Further research into these patterns of literary lineage may yield useful insights into the options and paths of literary evolution.

Additional comparative discussion of terms like “speciation,” “adaptation,” and “dissemination” may contribute to our understanding of literary evolution and offer useful hypotheses for researching such evolution’s modes and dynamics.


Literature, clearly, is not only a mode of superficial entertainment; it fulfills certain important functions for us and contributes, among other things, to our development of certain linguistic, mental, and social skills.25 One can learn much from, among other things, EAL studies on the ubiquity of literature, on its beneficial effects, on aesthetic universals,26 on literary universals,27 and on its role in arousing emotional contagion (see “AAB”). [End Page 285]

Note that similar ideas can be found in the rich history of literary criticism. Cicero, for example, in defending the poet Archia in court in 62 B.C.E., declares that “[literary] studies sustain youth and entertain old age, they enhance prosperity, and offer a refuge and solace in adversity,”28 and many critics have taken the cue from Horace’s description of literature (in Ars Poetica, 18 B.C.E.) as “dulce et utile” and emphasized the “utile” part. The Romantic poet Shelley can even be declared the harbinger of EAL when he states in Defence of Poetry (1821) that poetry “awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought.”29 There is a great distance, however, between such suggestive formulations and making the correct inference that literature is a biological adaptation or is evolutionarily beneficial.

While discussing evolution and literature, we should not confuse basic linguistic and cognitive abilities with developed forms of literature. Just as there is a great difference between the basic human ability to build tools and the specific know-how of constructing a boat or a rocket, so there is also a big difference between the basic ability to produce and comprehend fictional utterances and the specific know-how of composing, comprehending, and enjoying an epic poem or a sonnet or a novel. The former may be a biological adaptation (or closely related to cognitive and linguistic abilities that are adaptations), but the latter, while based on the former, is rooted in culture.

Furthermore, when we discuss the evolutionary function of art and literature, it is vital to remember the difference between certain human activities and their artistic imitation. There is a difference in kind, not just in degree, between executing certain moves associated with sword fighting and performing Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance” in the final act of the ballet Gayane. The dance imitates the actual use of a saber in certain ways, but has its own autonomous conventions and logic. Elements that are vital to the art of ballet, such as the en pointe technique, are either irrelevant or even counterproductive to real saber use. Nobody would mistake a talented performer of the “Sabre Dance” for an able saber fighter (and vice versa). If a talented dancer were to be sent to a real saber fight he would probably be killed, and if an able saber fighter were to perform “Sabre Dance,” he would probably die of shame.

As suggested earlier, EAL’s failure to produce compelling evidence to support some of its basic assumptions (notably that literature is an adaptation) should not deter literary scholars from pursuing empirical research into different aspects of literary evolution. While pursuing [End Page 286] such studies, we can remind ourselves occasionally that literature is good for us not necessarily because it contributes to life but because it contributes to a life worth living.

David Fishelov
Hebrew University of Jerusalem


1. For prominent advocates of the evolutionary approach to literary studies see, for example, Joseph Carroll, Evolution and Literary Theory (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995); hereafter abbreviated ELT; Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012); Brian Boyd, On the Origins of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), hereafter abbreviated OOS; and, more recently, Noël Carroll, “Aesthetics, Art, and Biology,” Philosophy and Literature 38 (2014): 578–86, hereafter abbreviated “AAB.” For critical comments on EAL see, for example, Steven Pinker, “Toward a Consilient Study of Literature,” Philosophy and Literature 31 (2007): 161–77; hereafter abbreviated “TCSL”; Stephen Davies’s comprehensive The Artful Species: Aesthetics, Art, and Evolutions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), hereafter abbreviated TAS; Marisa Bortolussi, “Review of Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human,” Scientific Study of Literature 2 (2012): 317–21; Jan Verpooten, “Extending Literary Darwinism: Culture and Alternatives to Adaptation,” Scientific Study of Literature 3 (2013): 19–27.

2. Aristotle, Aristotle’s Theory of Poetry and Fine Arts, trans. S. H. Butcher (London: Macmillan, 1895), pp. 17–19.

3. David Fishelov, Metaphors of Genre: The Role of Analogies in Genre Theory (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993), pp. 22–23, 28–35.

4. Ernst Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), pp. 385–86.

5. Ferdinand Brunetière, L’Évolution de la poésie lyrique en France au dix-neuvième siècle (Paris: Hachette, 1895), and L’Évolution des genres dans l’histoire de la littérature (Paris: Hachette, 1898); John Addington Symonds, “On the Application of Evolutionary Principles to Art and Literature,” in Essays Speculative and Suggestive, vol. 1 (1890, repr., New York: AMS Press, 1970), pp. 42–83.

6. See, for example, René Wellek, “The Concept of Evolution in Literary History,” Concepts of Criticism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973), pp. 37–53; Jean-Marie Schaeffer, Qu’est- ce qu’un genre littéraire? (Paris: Seuil, 1989), pp. 47–63.

7. See, for example, Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (New York: Viking, 2002); Lance Workman and Will Reader, Evolutionary Psychology: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014); Edward O. Wilson, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975). [End Page 287]

8. Joseph Carroll, “Evolutionary Approaches to Literature and Drama,” in Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, ed. R. I. M. Dunbar and L. Barrett (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 640; see also Joseph Carroll’s argument that knowledge is a biological phenomenon and literature is a form of knowledge (ELT, pp. 2–3, 43–44).

9. David P. Phillips, “The Influence of Suggestion on Suicide: Substantive and Theoretical Implications of the Werther Effect,” American Sociological Review 39 (1974): 340–54.

10. Arnold M. Ludwig, “Creative Achievement and Psychopathology: Comparison among Professions,” American Journal of Psychotherapy 46 (1992): 330–56; Sagit Blumrosen-Sela, “The Transition of Writers from Poetry to Prose Writing: Psychological and Literary Aspects” (Ph.D. dissertation, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1999), pp. 112–13; James C. Kaufman, “The Cost of the Muse: Poets Die Young,” Death Studies 27 (2003): 813–21.

11. Paul Hernadi, “Literature and Evolution,” Substance 30 (2001), p. 65.

12. Geoffrey Miller, The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature (New York: Anchor Books, 2001); hereafter abbreviated TMM.

13. See Robert Escarpit, Sociology of Literature, trans. Ernest Pick (London: Frank Cass, 1971), p. 84; Daniel S. Milo, “Le phénix culturel: de la résurrection dans l’histoire de l’art. L’exemple des peintres français (1650–1750),” Revue Française de Sociologie 27 (1986): 481–503.

14. Daniel S. Milo, “Aspects de la survie culturelle” (Ph.D. dissertation, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, 1985).

15. David Fishelov, “Dialogues with/and Great Books, with Some Serious Reflections on Robinson Crusoe,” New Literary History 39 (2008): 335–53, and Dialogues with/and Great Books: The Dynamics of Canon Formation (Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2010); hereafter abbreviated DGB.

16. Stephen J. Gould, “The Panda Thumb of Technology,” in Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1991), pp. 59–72.

17. Robin Dunbar, “On the Origin of the Human Mind,” in Evolution and the Human Mind: Modularity, Language, and Meta-Cognition, ed. Peter Carruthers and Andrew Chamberlain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 238–53.

18. Daniel S. Milo, L’invention de demain (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2011).

19. Colin Martindale, “The Evolution and End of Art as Hegelian Tragedy,” Empirical Studies of the Arts 27 (2009): 133–40.

20. Colin Martindale, “The Evolution of English Poetry,” Poetics 7 (1978): 231–48, and “Evolutionary Trends in Poetic Style: The Case of English Metaphysical Poetry,” Computers and the Humanities 18 (1984): 3–21.

21. The two scholars first introduced this model in Niles Eldredge and Stephen J. Gould, “Punctuated Equilibria: An Alternative to Phyletic Gradualism,” in Models in Paleobiology, ed. Thomas J. M. Schopf (San Francisco: Freeman Cooper, 1972), pp. 82–115.

22. David Fishelov, “The Birth of a Genre,” European Journal of English Studies 3 (1999): 51–61. [End Page 288]

23. For an enlightening discussion of the “symbolic inheritance system,” see Eva Jablonka and Marion J. Lamb, Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variations in the History of Life (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), pp. 193–223.

24. Victor Erlich, Russian Formalism: History, Doctrine (The Hague: Mouton Publishers, 1955), p. 260.

25. Keith Oatley, “Why Fiction May Be Twice as True as Fact: Fiction as Cognitive and Emotional Simulation,” Review of General Psychology 3 (1999): 101–17.

26. See, for example, Denis Dutton, “Aesthetic Universals,” in The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, ed. B. N. Gaut and D. M. Lopes (New York: Routledge, 2001), pp. 203–14.

27. See, for example, Patrick C. Hogan, “Literary Universals,” Poetics Today 18 (1997): 223–49.

28. Cicero, “Speech in Defense of Aulus Licinius Archias the Poet,”

29. Percy B. Shelley, A Defence of Poetry and Other Essays, [End Page 289]

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.