University of Missouri, St. Louis
Teaching Literary Darwinism
A Historical Overview
During the late 1980s, profoundly dissatisfied with the poststructuralist ideas that had come to dominate departments of English, I was casting about for ideas sufficiently general and basic to provide a new framework for literary study. In 1990, I read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and Descent of Man. I had more or less always known about the theory of adaptation by means of natural selection, and had accepted it, but had not really thought much about it. As a student and professor, I had been preoccupied with studying languages, literature, and cultural
history. Biology seemed relatively remote from my professional scholarly concerns.
I finally got around to reading Darwin chiefly because he was in one of my special areas of scholarly interest: Victorian non-fiction prose. Understanding an idea theoretically and absorbing it imaginatively are different things. Reading Darwin’s own works had a massive and instantaneous impact on my imagination. For the first time, I fully understood that all things human, including language and culture, are
necessarily embedded in biological processes that extend back for billions of years.
No idea could have been more general and basic. The Darwinian vision gave me the framework I needed for constructing a literary theory I could use.
About the same time that I was reading Darwin, I became aware that the social sciences were undergoing a watershed shift toward evolutionary thinking. That research program was still in its early stages but already had important things to say about motives, emotions, cognitive processes, gender, childhood development, family bonds, and social interaction. All those topics are obviously relevant to the subjects depicted in literature. I already knew, of course, that in most current literary theory psychology was dominated by Freudian ideas and social relations by Marxist ideas. Language had been colonized by the Derrideans, and gender appropriated by the feminists. I had strong reservations about the validity of all those theories, and thus also about the way they blended into the poststructuralist
amalgam. Feeling confident that empirically grounded ideas coherently integrated within an evolutionary matrix could provide a better alternative, I set out to integrate
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evolutionary social science with literary theory. The first main fruit of that effort was Evolution and Literary Theory (1995). All my subsequent work has been a continuation of the research program sketched out there.
During the past two decades, while developing Darwinist ideas for literary
study, I’ve also been teaching courses that incorporate evolutionary research. In total, I have taught twenty-five courses that contain substantial evolutionary material—all but one at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, either seminars in the graduate program in the English department or seminars in an interdisciplinary undergraduate Honors College. (The exception was an intensive summer graduate seminar in Denmark.) Those twenty-five courses group into two distinct sets that have interlaced chronologically through the twenty years: (1) a graduate seminar
in literary theory that I have taught fourteen times; and (2) eleven interdisciplinary seminars, eight for undergraduates, and three for graduate students.
My home page contains a sample syllabus and sample paper topics: http://www.umsl.edu/~carrolljc/
The course in literary theory, “Introduction to Graduate Studies,” is divided
into two parts: basic concepts in literary theory and a survey of the various current theoretical schools. Since poststructuralist theory has not changed substantially in the past twenty years, most of the components of this course have remained fairly stable. Only one component, literary Darwinism—evolutionary literary theory and criticism—has been highly volatile. It has increased in the proportion of the course devoted to it, and it has changed dramatically in content several times. By describing those changes, I shall be giving something like a history of the development of literary Darwinism over the past two decades.
I taught three of the interdisciplinary seminars twice each and five once each. I use the seminars to integrate teaching with my current research interests, which change over time. Describing the seminars will in part reflect my own personal trajectory but will also suggest a range of possible evolutionary topics, angles of approach, and organizational strategies.
Looking back over these courses gives me one main impression: that both
evolutionary social science and evolutionary literary study have been steadily becoming more mature and sophisticated. In the past twenty years, evolutionary social science has seen four major developments: (1) incorporating general intelligence in its model of human cognition, thus radically modifying the “massive modularity” of early evolutionary psychology; (2) incorporating a more sophisticated understanding of adaptations for group life; (3) developing a systemic understanding
of the total organization of human motives through the life span; and (4) beginning
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to develop an understanding of the crucial way in which genetic changes and culture have interacted in human evolution.1 Darwinian literary theorists have assimilated the developments in evolutionary social science, produced plausible hypotheses about the adaptive functions of literature and the other arts, made effective use of human life history theory as a framework of interpretive critique, and succeeded in giving systematic biocultural
accounts of specific literary works within their total cultural setting. They have offered cogent alternatives to historicist accounts of cultural identity and Freudian accounts of psychosexual development. They have integrated personality psychology with the analysis of individual characters, incorporated the idea that reading fiction is a form of simulated social activity, used evolutionary concepts to analyze tone and authorial persona, and developed specifically evolutionary concepts of particular
genres such as horror and dystopian fiction. They have produced many essays on individual literary works and several in-depth studies of specific authors.2
The Graduate Course in Literary Theory
The first half of the literary theory course is devoted to basic concepts and
topics: genre, period, realism and symbolism, and scientific realism vs. epistemic constructivism (Popper vs. Kuhn). I begin the course with overview essays representing traditional humanism, poststructuralism, and biocultural theory. The various theoretical schools included in the second half of the course include psychoanalysis, Marxism, deconstruction, Foucauldian cultural critique (New Historicism), feminism, and (since 1999) literary Darwinism. Between 1992 and 1998, evolutionary essays were distributed through the whole course but not given a slot of their own as a distinct school of literary theory.
The class meets once a week, and each literary school is allotted just one
week. Assigned readings for any one week come to between 200 and 300 pages. For each topic, so far as possible, essays are assigned that represent opposing perspectives. Classes devoted to literary schools include essays by founders such as Freud or Derrida, essays by some of their most prominent followers, essays critical of their theories, and one or more essays illustrating the application of the theories in interpretive literary criticism. I use three sets of primary texts as focal points for the essays in interpretive literary criticism: a cluster of Romantic poems, Hamlet, and Heart of Darkness. Hamlet and Heart of Darkness are in casebooks
that contain essays representing the various theoretical schools (though not literary Darwinism). The cluster of Romantic poems is introduced along with a set of major essays defining the Romantic period. Those poems and essays all occupy the class devoted to the concept of literary period. Other essays in that class deal
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with nineteenth-century realism and with “symbolism” as a period at the end of the century. The class session on Romanticism leads into the sessions devoted to realism and symbolism and to epistemic realism vs. conventionalism. Interpretive essays on Romantic poetry are also assigned for the classes devoted to Marxism, feminism, and psychoanalysis. One class period early in the semester is devoted to Hamlet and Heart of Darkness, with only scholarly background material included along with the primary texts. The idea there is to give students a chance to discuss
the texts in their own terms before evaluating theory-laden interpretive essays on the primary texts.
From the beginning, I have used evolutionary epistemology and evolutionary
psychology to counter the cultural constructivism that is a defining feature of poststructuralist thought. The first chapter of Konrad Lorenz’s Behind the Mirror is a classic essay in evolutionary epistemology. Karl Popper had a running feud with Thomas Kuhn, author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a seminal text in constructivist thinking—the idea that reality does not strongly constrain our ideas. Constructivist epistemology extends easily into constructivist psychology and sociology. In other class sessions, I include essays on the biological basis of human nature, gender, and sociality. Derek Bickerton and Steven Pinker have supplied essays on language as alternatives to Derridean linguistic philosophy. I have often used Thorstein Veblens’s classic Darwinist essay on Marx in the class
session devoted to Marxist literary criticism. Hans Eysenck, a biologically oriented psychologist, has supplied critical commentaries on Freud and an empirical essay on the psychological basis of ideology. Daly’s and Wilson’s Homicide (1988) has a good section evaluating Freud’s Oedipal theory from an evolutionary perspective.
For the class session on feminism, various essays over the years have contributed information on the biological basis of gender identity. In 2008, I added the first chapter of Vandermassen’s Who’s Afraid of Charles Darwin?; that chapter provides an astute comparison of biocultural and culturalist views of gender identity. The Literary Animal was published in 2005 and became an assigned text until it could be replaced, in 2010, with Evolution, Literature, and Film: A Reader, which contains many of the photocopied essays I had been assigning for years. The selections in ELF have a cut-off date of early 2008. Already, then, if one uses this volume as a base text, one must supplement it with essays and book excerpts that have appeared since it was produced.
In addition to essays in Darwinist literary theory and criticism, ELF contains
background readings in evolutionary biology and a sampling of essays contributing to the debate on the adaptive functions of the arts. At more than 500 pages of
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small print, the volume is too large to be consumed in its entirety in a course that contains heavy reading in other areas. To use it in its entirety, a whole course has to be designed around it. I’ll talk about two such courses in a subsequent section of this essay.