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Compliments and complements.

From the evidence offered in Carroll's target article, we can say that Darwinian Literary Studies (DLS) have come of age. Once Ellen Dissanayake (What is Art For?, Homo Aestheticus) demonstrated the presence of "making special," a feature salient to natural selection, in works of art of all cultures, all periods, it seemed evident, at least to a few of us, that all artistic media would be encompassed in a paradigm like that described by Carroll. Looking back over the past three decades, from Dissanayake's first article on art and ritual ("Hypothesis"), it seems obvious that the time was ripe. Until the mid-nineties the nascent field was characterized by something like "convergent evolution," as investigators working independently arrived at similar conclusions. Carroll' s Evolution and Literary Theory (1995) had a profound impact and became a rallying point for the field. It set out a large-scale theoretical program and helped isolated researchers realize that they were part of a collective effort. Carroll has continued to play a major role in this effort both by pursuing his own individual research and by repeatedly surveying and critiquing the field as a whole. The target essay makes bold and sweeping claims. Some readers might understandably quail at the prospect of an all-encompassing, apparently monolithic, critical perspective conveyed in often alien language and suggesting, perhaps, an air of arrogant intellectual superiority. I strongly support the general program described by Carroll, but I think some qualifications and modulations could help promote wider acceptance.

The chief promise of DLS lies in its potential to explain what I term differential interest. The central function of any viable modern work of art is to attract our attention. Some do this better than others, indeed, repeatedly, possibly for predictable reasons. Darwinian scholars often cite the universality of themes related to genetic issues readily adducible to genetic influences. Although literary fashions change, some subjects are virtually ubiquitous, while others are rarely, if ever encountered. Incest avoidance, romantic love, birth defects, interpersonal justice, and other issues of adaptive significance not only are universal. Ancient environments are often reflected in modern literature. Albeit snakes are now a minor threat, science fiction continues to swarm with "Dracs," much as folktales once teemed with dragons. (58) The same plots get written over and over again because we never tire of reading them. Others are ignored. One exception derives from a wager: Chekhov's story about an ashtray.

A related feature is that these so-called universals appear to elicit nearly inexhaustible interest. This is certainly a feature of oral literature; however rich a given tradition, it is nevertheless quite restricted by modern standards. Just the same, it presumably sufficed to satisfy its host population over the course of entire lives. Inevitably this meant rehearing the same tales several, possibly many times. Perhaps this is why we find them so replete with universals, although, no doubt, other factors are involved. Some of this same limitation may be perceived in other modern narrative media shared by most Western cultures. The core opera repertory could be said to number less than two hundred works. Yet more (or, literally, less), full-length narrative ballet is dominated by the same six or seven pieces. (59) And it may hold true for us, inasmuch as most scholars of modern literature reread favorite classics with deepening satisfaction.

The relationship of DLS to other critical perspectives is not necessarily hostile. One obvious exception is the cultural constructivists' complete rejection of genetic influences on human behavior, a position increasingly untenable in the face of recent behavioral science. But need we throw out the baby with the bath water? Are there no valid findings of LitCrit that may find a welcome place in Carroll's paradigm? For example, consider the issue of bias, relevant to deconstruction. Much of evolutionary psychology concerns how our cognition is not a seamless, let alone faultless, general processor, but rather is conditioned by ancestral (and relatively recent) history; we are somewhat predisposed to select certain behavioral alternatives instead of others. There may be common ground regarding the pervasive force of ideology, which may be attributed to the needs of social bonding. After all, political theories like the divine right of kings and fascism that now seem ridiculous to many of us once held sway over large populations. Could this same penchant for gullibility pertain to the hold fictions have on us?

DLS promises to help us understand super-stimuli or exaggeration. Compared to reality, works of art tend to exaggerate the iterance or urgency of a biological issue. Much as male peacocks exhibit outlandish tail leathers to catch the eyes of peahens, artists have recourse to human "universals" to attract our attention. They may need to exaggerate these common proclivities or, more likely, what triggers their expression, if only to out-compete other artists who are doing likewise. Of course, exaggeration may be counterposed with understatement, as artists vie for our attention. Preliminary results suggest that Darwinist tenets are easier to apply to narrative fiction than to actual human behavior, perhaps for the same reason. I am at present finding more incest in War and Peace than can be discerned in Tolstoy's social environment. Utopian fictions almost eerily conform to or reverse traditional patterns of human nature, probably more than any actual society. (60) And operas are, well, operatic.

Acceptance of the evolutionist paradigm by the academic establishment also may depend, however, on how Darwinist scholars address questions such as those before. My expectation is that some answers will be found in the interconnection of evolutionary psychology and cognitive studies (or at least, as Carroll describes it, its most proximate wing), especially in so-called Theory of Mind.

How do we account for individuality and unique texture? While Darwinist studies have often emphasized proclivities found in most human societies, in other words, the commonalities of literature, scholars frequently are attached to the peculiar qualities of favorite, sometimes sui generis, texts. It stands to reason that both universals and individual particulars are characteristics of any literary classic, but some readers may think that Darwinians are answering the question of lesser interest. How can we explain not just panhuman features, often seen as evidence of a shared evolutionary history, but also unique qualities? Furthermore, how can the same genome (individual writer) produce hundreds of works, each bearing his or her individual stamp, but also each somehow different from the others?

Perhaps much of this can be attributed to social competition. Darwinism envisages a marketplace of competing interests. Much as higher species disseminate a great variety of genetic alternatives, the artistic marketplace is one of a waxing array of ideas. Other avenues to this issue of individuation and change are connected to the following two questions.

What is the relationship between an artistic text and reality? Naively stated, does art convey truth of some sort? Michelle Scalise Sugiyama advances the hypothesis that a major source of aesthetic attraction to stories lies in the information they impart ("Food"). This may work for traditional oral literature where useful data regarding prey and predators are mentioned, sometimes featured. But can this same thinking be applied to modern literature, let alone to abstract forms of art, such as instrumental music? I suggest that it can, if sufficiently abstracted beyond intended lessons to information about the environment, especially the human environment, that can be inferred from the text. Literary historians are aware of instances where real world discoveries are soon reflected in narrative, much as composers respond to the invention of new instruments or artists to new technologies such as lead tubes for oil paint. This also applies to new philosophical and psychological insights. Much of literary sentimentalism can be attributed to the recognition that the lower classes had sentiments similar in nature to those of the nobility. Indeed, literature can readily be seen as playing an active role in what is, after all, a co-evolutionary construct; culture is a means of accelerating biological adaptation, which itself is a means of retaining increasingly refined information. Scalise Sugiyama notes the vital insights modern narratives give into interpersonal politics and personal subjectivity ("Reverse"). Contemporaries often react to works of European literature as if they were about real people. Since the major selection pressure on us derives from other human beings, whereas we can learn to control most prey (often now livestock) and predators (seemingly destined to survive only in zoos), this consideration produces a model that yields unending competition and a consequent need for ever more insight into human nature, the major topic of literature. I propose that literature also serves to develop awareness of our own capabilities. Aesthetic cognition, whereby art occasionally provides productive thinking, may account for some of its appeal. In this may lie the satisfactions not only of literary and plastic portraiture but even of instrumental music and other nonrepresentational arts.

How can a largely static genome account for the increasing dynamism of stylistic change? Artistic history, if we look at the last few centuries, appears to be accelerating. I suggest we can quite plausibly argue that this is due, in large part, to the factors mentioned above: social competition among conspecifics, responses to increasingly dynamic environments, and a waxing interest in subjectivity. Style is more than mere form; to be viable it also needs to reflect modes of thought, often newly recognized ones. Frequently stylistic innovations are accompanied by novel insights, as in the case of Tolstoy's gestural language, Dostoevsky's multileveled subjectivity, or Joyce's stream-of-consciousness.

What is the Darwinian structure of a text? Probably, in a word, complex. Although Darwinist studies of individual works often focus on one or a few vital tenets, and the logic concerning a single strand may appear to be relatively simple, this is not to say that these are the only genetically-derived or--relevant drives at hand. One reason that I published a book on utopian fiction (Human Nature) was that I found that many different features of our evolved psychology were relevant to a reading of Evgeny Zamyatin's We, at least nine in all. I have since drafted a tenth chapter and still sense that I have only scratched the surface.

Moreover, genetic proclivities may counterpose one another just as easily as they may be complementary. Much aesthetic fascination may derive from the clash and/or choice of mutually exclusive goods or evils. As in the case of Romeo and Juliet, the internal structure may be agonistic, as we find in that play's selection between assortative mating (e. g., romantic love) and kin altruism (nepotism, family). (61) Many parts of our genome express themselves in our physiology and behavior. Their interaction, along with many environmental factors, greatly adds to our individuation. Should we expect art to be any less complex? Potentially everything about a classic text is subject to biocultural interpretation, and it would be difficult to think of a feature in such a text that is not vital to its aesthetic success. Much as I regard Joseph Carroll's magisterial study of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (Literary Darwinism) to be the finest produced heretofore in the field, I am confident he agrees that his is not the last word, that we may anticipate further Darwinian insights into this novel.

Though Darwinian Literary Studies have come of age, their agenda is hardly complete. Tasks like those outlined above will fill out the picture of what they promise for literary scholarship.

Brett Cooke

Texas A&M
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Title Annotation:Responses
Author:Cooke, Brett
Publication:Style
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2008
Words:1897
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