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The evolving study of literature.

Carroll offers a wide-ranging survey o["literary Darwinism." Along with his prior surveys, it will certainly serve as a starting point for research in what he hopes will become a burgeoning field. He is, however, rightly concerned that this new angle on the critical analysis of literature should not become another erratic on the plains of the post-modern glaciation. Recognizing the possiblity of a fresh start, grounded on the foundations of the historical sciences, his ultimate hope is for literary Darwinism to contribute new knowledge. If this is plausible, it could add to the storehouse of consilient knowledge that has emerged from Darwin's holistic evolutionary perspective. That, certainly, would be something that literary criticism has not attempted or been known for, of recent. The basis for optimism regarding the possibility of creating new knowledge in literary Darwinism is sound--nothing less than the holistic ecology of evolutionary biology and the interconnections of emergent complexity in the cosmos (Kauffman 119). The literary Darwinists reviewed by Carroll attempt to describe the manifestation of this interconnectedness at the level of human culture and reflection. Tenuous as first steps may be, we see here a solid foundation from which to escape the political forms that have stymied humanistic scholarship.

Carroll's optimism regarding the possibilities for a new contribution to knowledge draws our attention directly to manifestations of evolutionary nature in literature and the arts and particularly to the disputed topic of human universals. Universals are central adaptive characteristics that have emerged as the human species interacted with its terrestrial environment over millions of years. Of course some foundational elements of these universals emerged before humans, making their cultural expression the more powerful and universal (Shubin 27). The basic responses and emotions deriving from the biological prime directives (survival and reproduction) are pre-human and constitute the core of perennial literary themes such as love and war. Identifying and describing the manifestation of these universals in literature and the arts is the first great challenge in implementing literary Darwinism as a practical criticism. Repeatedly in Carroll's survey of existing research, one senses a struggle to make the connection between the simple elegance of the Darwinian mythos and the cultural and psychological complexities of literature and the arts. The surveyed results offer a quilt-work of suggestions ranging from the fundamental to the overwrought. So, for example, Brian Boyd's hypothesis that literature is "cognitive play that develops creativity and helps form social identity" (109-10) seems only weakly connected to the temporal character of literature. Under the heading "The Adaptive Function of Literature," similar suppositions (focusing attention on adaptive salients (Dissanayake), focusing shared attention (Boyd), and social cohesion (Boyd and Dissanayake) do not seem to possess the low-level hooks that one looks for in a biologically rooted cultural form. Carroll himself observes that the suggested adaptive functionality of enhancing creativity is not specific to the arts; technology does this as well.

In several places Carroll describes observations that converge on a connection between a basic literary form and a primary environmental condition. In an earlier book, Evolution and Literary Theory, Carroll linked several literary phenomena under the rubric "cognitive mapping" (109). Several independent studies in his survey agree that the link between story and environmental processes lies near the centre of literature's adaptive function (for example, Panksepp & Panksepp; E.O. Wilson's scenario machine; Tooby & Cosmides' "powerful organizing effect"). Carroll extrapolates this function from narrative to the arts generally. Although this linkage may be apparent in other arts of spatio-temporal representation, generalization at this point seems a mistake. The focus on story and its direct connection to environmental events is a solid lead, the best and broadest example of human ecology evoking literature. E.O. Wilson's surmise that literature and the other arts meet some deep emotional needs ([the] "need to produce and consume imaginative artifacts would be as real and distinct a need as hunger, sex, or social interaction") is derivative from this fundamental functionality. Given the early stage of literary Darwinism it seems advisable for primary energies to concentrate on the basics. A focus on the narrative form of literature provides two important linkages for literary Darwinism: one, an immediate linkage with the orienting Darwinian narrative of life; the other, a connection between a cultural form and the pervasive environmental condition of causally connected events. Like many of the stories from the ancient world that achieved "classic" status, the Darwinian story of evolution provides an encompassing narrative, mirroring and mapping the natural historical processes in which humans find themselves. Although a great deal of human adaptation is unconscious and genetically based, literature is at least partly a product of conscious adaptation. And at the centre of literary structures of representation we find story--a representation of the matrix of environmental events and agentive behaviours that constitute the human environment. Stories are "cognitive maps" (109) by which conscious adapters navigate, remember, and communicate valuable information about their environment. Of course cognitive maps were not, in the first instance, full blown literature. The novel comes much later, but the simple beginnings of story certainly would have provided human ancestors with a competitive edge over other organisms relying on comparatively glacial and unreflective genetic memories. The same holds true with regard to inter-human competition. Groups with the most accurate stories would also have been in a position of competitive advantage (just as Darwin saw that those with the greatest internal cohesion would be ahead of the others). (79)

Carroll's concern that the new Darwinian perspective should not become just another critical approach is justified. Academic libraries are stuffed with scholarship that takes more space on shelves than in heads. Darwinism teaches us to ask what something is for, what its adaptive purpose is. When something loses utility it atrophies and turns to dust, an alarm raised by the dusty volumes in academic libraries. So what hope is there for a literary Darwinian to make a contribution in its native environment, where fame may be built on the biophobic perception that culture has escaped its natural ecology (135)? Perhaps the best course would be for literary Darwinism to take a chance and stop trying to reform the old haunts of literature and the arts. Carroll mentions conference proposal rejections for a Darwinian perspective perceived as not on the post-modern edge. I expect that his experiences have been duplicated many times. What, then, about a contribution not to literature and the arts but rather along the lines of one of the oldest forms of humanistic reflection? "Know thyself": for the last 150 years or so, many of the most penetrating insights into the human condition have come from Darwinism and the historical sciences. "Darwinian literary studies" marries an evolutionary framework that provides a new critical perspective with the natural reflective qualities of the best in literature. Taken together and set on a new page uncoloured by the politics of humanistic discourse there is a good hope that literary Darwinism might add at least some of the self- knowledge we seem to need to steer culture's course back toward something fit for nature's ecology.

Lyle Eslinger

University of Calgary
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Title Annotation:Responses
Author:Eslinger, Lyle
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2008
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