From Evolution Comes Literature

Joseph Carroll, 02.05.09, 06:00 PM EST

Charles Darwin And Evolution

Literature depends on literacy, a very recent acquisition in human evolutionary history–so recent that it cannot plausibly be considered an adaptation. But people in all non-literate cultures use language, tell stories and play with words in creative and evocative ways. Written language is just a cultural technology that extends those universal human aptitudes.

Literature and its oral antecedents are thus part of the basic profile of “human nature.” Over the past 15 years or so, literary scholars in a small but now rapidly growing group have argued that producing an adequate theory of literature requires an evolutionary conception of human nature. By assimilating evolutionary social science, these “literary Darwinists” aim to form a new paradigm for the study of literature.

Not surprisingly, that grand ambition has often met with a skeptical response: “There have been previous efforts to establish a scientifically based criticism–Marxism, psychoanalysis, structuralism. All these efforts have failed. Why would your effort be any different?”

Not a bad question, but we have a good answer. This effort is different because the historical moment is ripe. We now have, for the first time, an empirically grounded psychology that is sufficiently robust to account for the products of the human imagination.

Sciences do not typically spring full-blown from the mind of a single originator. Often, some creative thinker will assimilate the efforts of predecessors, synthesize them, correct them and add some crucial conceptual component that makes all the pieces fit in a functional way. When that happens, what philosophers of science call a paradigm forms.

The current effort to integrate literary study with the evolutionary social sciences can be located within a nested series of three previous paradigm formations, each of which served as a necessary precondition for the one that followed: Charles Lyell’s paradigm in geology in the early 19th century; Charles Darwin’s in evolutionary biology later in the century; and the still-emerging paradigm in evolutionary social science.

In the decades immediately preceding Lyell’s publication of Principles of Geology (1830-33), geologists had become so disgusted with grand and fanciful speculation that they had renounced general theories and devoted themselves instead to producing an accurate map of geological strata.

Lyell assimilated these efforts and introduced “uniformitarianism,” the idea that geological features result from the accumulated effects, often minute, of the geological forces visibly at work all around us.



This idea fundamentally shaped Darwin’s vision of the history of the earth and informed his theory of natural selection. Darwin’s speculations about human nature in The Descent of Man were prescient, but the times were not yet ripe for their implications. Evolutionary social science–a melding of parts of biology, psychology and anthropology–did not become a cumulative research program until the last quarter of the 20th century.

Until the past few years, three theoretical obstacles hampered efforts to form a satisfactory paradigm in this arena. For one, early sociobiologists insisted that “selection” takes place only at the level of the gene and the individual organism. But David Sloan Wilson has spear-headed the now largely successful effort to resuscitate the idea of “group selection” and use it as the basis for a more adequate understanding of human sociality.

In the 1990s, evolutionary psychologists distinguished themselves from sociobiologists by emphasizing “proximate mechanisms”–like parts of the brain, hormones and pheromones–that mediate reproductive success. But in constructing their model of “the adapted mind,” these researchers left out the idea that general intelligence is flexible; that humans can, to a certain extent, consciously direct their actions. Books such as Kim Sterelny’s Thought in a Hostile World (2003) and David Geary’s The Origin of Mind (2005) demonstrate how that oversight can be corrected.

The third major deficiency was an inadequate appreciation of the co-evolution of genes and culture–the idea that culture operates in reciprocally causal ways with the biologically mediated features of human nature. That obstacle too is now giving way. Theorists such as Ellen Dissanayake, E. O. Wilson, Brian Boyd, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, Denis Dutton and I have made increasingly effective arguments that culture–literature and the other arts–are functionally significant features of human evolution.

Have these gradual shifts finally produced a conceptual framework with true explanatory power? I think they have. The relationship between evolution and literature provides a crucial test. Research in the next few years will determine whether we can generate a cumulative body of explanatory principles rooted in Darwinian theory, that are in themselves simple and general but nonetheless encompass the particularities and complexities of literature and the other arts.

Joseph Carroll is Curators’ Professor of English at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. His book Evolution and Literary Theory (1995) is often regarded as a founding text in “Literary Darwinism,” the field given its name by the title of his essay collection Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature and Literature (2004). His scholarly work includes an edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (2003). Links to these books and to a number of more recent essays can be found on his Web site:

Can we prove what we read and write is rooted in biology?


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