Literary evolution

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Britt Peterson's article on Literary Darwinism in the most recent Chronicle of Higher Education Review ("Darwin to the Rescue") points to the use of numbers as a central doctrinal conflict in literary scholarship:

[Northrup] Frye argued that, while the critic should understand the natural sciences, "he need waste no time in emulating their methods. I understand there is a Ph.D. thesis somewhere which displays a list of Hardy's novels in the order of the percentages of gloom they contain, but one does not feel that that sort of procedure should be encouraged."

Over the last decade or so, however, a cadre of literary scholars has begun to encourage exactly that sort of procedure, and recently they have become very loud about it.

Jonathan Gottschall is one of that loud cadre, and his 5/11/2008 piece in the Boston Globe ("Measure for Measure") frames the idea of quantification in a more positive way:

Literary studies should become more like the sciences. Literature professors should apply science's research methods, its theories, its statistical tools, and its insistence on hypothesis and proof. Instead of philosophical despair about the possibility of knowledge, they should embrace science's spirit of intellectual optimism. If they do, literary studies can be transformed into a discipline in which real understanding of literature and the human experience builds up along with all of the words.

Peterson's Chronicle Review article suggests a rather narrow idea of what the loud cadre think should be counted:

The most prominent (at least in the nonacademic media) are the Literary Darwinists, whose work emphasizes the discovery of the evolutionary patterns of behavior within literary texts — the Iliad in terms of dominance and aggression, or Jane Austen in terms of mating rituals — and sets itself firmly against 30 years of what they see as anti-scientific literary theories like poststructuralism and Marxism.

This description apparently assigns to literary studies the role of finding classical allusions for evolutionary psychologists. That's not poststructuralism, certainly, but it seems a little thin as the foundation of an intellectual discipline. In contrast, the Wikipedia article on Darwinian Literary Studies gives a more abstract and impressive spin to the task of uncovering evolutionary themes in cultural productions:

Darwinian literary studies […] took issue with the argument that discourse constructs reality, and argues that evolution precedes, and to some extent explains, discourse. This position disagrees with the standard social science model that argues culture constructs human values and behaviors. […] A chief goal of Darwinian literary studies is to show how the reading and writing of literature contributes to the inclusive fitness of the human organism. In this sense the discipline relates closely to adaptationism, and it shares with the adaptationist social sciences the ultimate goal of understanding human nature.

And Gottschall's Globe article cites a wider range of empirical investigations, including psychological study of readers' "emotional and analytic responses", and stylometric analysis of "how literary traditions change over time".

Peterson's Chronicle Review article also surveys some of the other perspectives, named and nameless, that are competing for shelf space with Literary Darwinism:

A less-expected attack, however, comes from similarly marginalized scholars who, like Kentucky's Zunshine, study related fields like cognitive theory and empirical literary research. Like the Literary Darwinists, such scholars, to varying degrees, work at the juncture of literary theory and scientific methods. Those who turn to cognitive theory fit into several different subfields, including literary critics who use empirical data, collaborating with neuroscientists and experimental psychologists to study the connections between brain function and reading. Some adherents, like Nancy Easterlin, of the University of New Orleans, draw both on cognitive theory and evolutionary psychology in their work. Easterlin works with a broad assortment of approaches, including Darwinist-based feminism and what she calls "cognitive ecocriticism." It is the pro-science literary scholars who don't use evolutionary psychology who tend to be the most skeptical that the Literary Darwinists will succeed in transforming literary studies forever.


The Italian literary scholar Franco Moretti, now at Stanford University, isn't in the field of cognitive literary studies, but his work frequently gets lumped in with the empiricists because of its particularly scientific and mathematical nature. He has been writing about the connections between evolution and literary theory for many years. He reiterates in an e-mail message the argument that Literary Darwinism doesn't address literary form, that it's concerned with external issues that avoid literature's literary nature: "If Literary Darwinism manages to improve the way to understand and explain literary form, then it will be a great step forward, but if it eludes form, or just doesn't 'see' it, then it will mean exactly nothing."

Moretti is the author of an interesting short book, "Graphs, Maps, Trees" (2005), reviewed here by Cosma Shalizi.

The idea of approaching literary criticism in a scientific spirit is nothing new — I.A. Richards, for example, saw literary analysis as a form of rational inquiry no different in kind from psychology, linguistics, or anthropology. In Practical Criticism (1930), he analyzed the responses of dozens of anonymized undergraduates to dozens of anonymized poems; and he notes that because in that way "we gain a much more intimate understanding both of the poem and of the opinions it provokes", he was "not without fears that my efforts may prove of assistance to young poets (and others) desiring to increase their sales. A set of formulas for 'nation-wide appeal' seems to be a just possible outcome."

Since Richards was a man of his class and his times, the concept of  increasing sales via "formulas for nation-wide appeal" fills him with ironic mock-horror, and in fact Practical Criticism uses only qualitative methods of analysis. But it's still more empirical, in the modern sense, than much of the psychology and anthropology of its era.

Now I.A. Richards is three intellectual generations or more in the past. Today, the field of literary scholarship is faced with the problem of how to assimilate several large — and somewhat opposed — intellectual movements that have been in play for several decades in neighboring disciplines, while American English professors — along with some anthropologists and others — have been rescuing French philosophy from the French and pursuing other complex and engrossing ideas.

50 years ago, linguistics and psychology came to terms with the idea that human nature as well as nurture influences language and communicative behavior.  And 25 years ago, linguistics, psychology and computer science came to terms with the idea of modeling the structure and use of language as statistical patterns rather than categorical rules. (This is a radical oversimplification, and ignores several other relevant areas of conflict, such as form vs. function — as always, the Language Log Customer Relations Department stands ready to refund double your subscription price in case of less than full satisfaction.)

Of course, these movements were the swings of a generational pendulum, not a linear intellectual progression from old to new. People have been arguing epistomological empiricism, nativism and rationalism since Plato, and the strong empiricist domination of the mid-20th century was ripe to fall, long before Noam Chomsky gave it a push in the late 1950s. Similarly, the near-elimination of statistical methods from linguistic studies in the 1960s and 1970s was a radical anomaly, against the background of Zipf, Turing and Shannon.

But anyhow, there's been a lot of activity in these areas, and a certain amount of progress — and it's normal for disciplines to develop by importing and applying their neighbors' ideas. So if you're a young and ambitious literary scholar, you could do worse than to learn something about modern psychology and linguistics, especially those concepts and techniques that can easily be applied to texts.

And sure, you should learn about evolution as well. You might not agree with Daniel Dennett's maxim that "in culture, as in biology, there are many questions, but only one answer" (i.e. variation and selection), but you ought to have your counter-arguments lined up in advance.


  1. Rosie Redfield said,

    August 3, 2008 @ 3:27 pm

    Note that most evolutionary biologists are now eschewing the words "Darwinism" and "Darwinian". This is at least partly because use of these words is being exploited by creationist claims that evolutionary biology is a personality cult and/or that its validity is dependent on Darwin's writings. (See Olivia Judson's recent NYT article.)

  2. Mark Liberman said,

    August 3, 2008 @ 4:33 pm

    I've moved a long and somewhat off-topic comment by "robinr" here, where you can read the whole thing if you want. The general idea is summed up by the last sentence:

    "I'm not sure that any shift in methodology means much if the only texts analyzed/taught as "literature" are those in a small literary canon."

  3. John Cowan said,

    August 3, 2008 @ 4:47 pm

    I suspect that Frye's objection was not to the idea of sorting things by gloominess, but to the notion that there is any quantifiable stand-in that adequately represents gloom. He was a man who didn't found a school, and if other people insisted on calling his approach "archetypal criticism" and dragging in Jung, he didn't object — much. For him, all approaches were sound, and what troubled him was not other people's truths, but their insistence that all other ways were heresies and of the Devil, or newfangled and worthless, or old-fashioned and worthless. Polysemous interpretation was for him a plain fact.

    He also said that every work of literature — and he took an expansive view of the subject if anyone did — was at the center of literature. You could start with any poem, any novel, anywhere, and if you followed the connections it would lead you everywhere.

  4. Mark Liberman said,

    August 3, 2008 @ 5:00 pm

    John Cowan: I suspect that Frye's objection was not to the idea of sorting things by gloominess, but to the notion that there is any quantifiable stand-in that adequately represents gloom.

    But I suspect that Frye also felt that in general, framing a hypothesis in quantitative terms, or even counting things as a way of evaluating a qualitative hypothesis, was not very interesting. As far as I know, he never did it, or commented favorably on someone else's efforts in that direction.

    Of course, Darwin mostly didn't count things either. Nor did Malinowski or Chomsky or Minsky.

  5. Nicholas Tam said,

    August 3, 2008 @ 6:19 pm

    My understanding has always been that Frye eschewed empirical/Galilean methodologies of investigation because he saw literary theory as being analogous to mathematics – the axioms and consequences of formal structures that one may study as a system apart from its real-world instances and manifestations (i.e. works of literature themselves). In fact, he makes that comparison explicit in Anatomy of Criticism. This isn't to say that he didn't draw on examples – far from it – but his conception of literary theory was by no means intended to provide a best-fit description of observable phenomena.

    As for Darwinian literary studies, I am pleased to see it actually investigate problems of cognition and go beyond presenting yet another metaphor for how literature proliferates. On a note that may or may not be related, I think there is plenty of room for quantifiable studies of how information theory and Dawkins' "memetics" figure into the picture. What I don't see happening is a defeat of fuzzy-philosophy literary theory: like formal linguistics, the fate of empirical methods as applied to large-scale texts and bodies of discourse is to emerge as its own disciplines.

    In my experience, theorists and philosophers who sit apart from empirical studies will always go on doing their own thing as if their problems were never solved, usually by rephrasing their questions of interest to capture an even bigger picture. "Yes, but you haven't answered my question."

  6. Tyson Burghardt said,

    August 3, 2008 @ 6:53 pm

    Somewhere in the article someone complains that the trashcanned theories of other social sciences always find their way, in desperation, at last to literary theory (they speak explicitly of Marxism and Freudianism). It strikes me as ironic that literary Darwinism should be the solution, when no evolutionary biologist has sincerely described their discipline as Darwinism in many years–though Darwin popularized the idea of descent with modification, you see, he didn't and couldn't know the mechanisms of genetics, and so it is his ideas along with the so-called modern synthesis of biological knowledge that now constitute evolutionary theory.

  7. Nicholas Tam said,

    August 3, 2008 @ 7:43 pm

    Tyson: I think there is a compelling reason why literary theory tends to be a trashcan. It's that, independent of their actual practical applicability to real-world models of economies and psychologies alike, Marxism and Freudianism provide fruitful metaphors for the way that authors/readers construct events into narratives (and by extension, the conclusions that we humans leap to when we try to build abstract understandings around our chaos of perceptual data) regardless of whether or not the ideas are bunk. No matter how much Sigmund Freud has been discredited, the Freudian vocabulary can go a long way when it comes to describing what's going on in, say, the films of Alfred Hitchcock.

    In other words, literary theory tends to give otherwise discredited theories a free pass because constructed, hypothetical realities need not follow the same rules as our external reality. Literature is made-up, nyah nyah nyah.

    You're right, though, to point out that "Darwinism" is one of those dustbin words, and I think it goes beyond the fact that it has been appropriated into the political rhetoric of creation "scientists". To attach "Darwinism" to Darwin's name is to, by implication, impose false limits on evolutionary theory, as if it hasn't gone anywhere in the past century and a half. As you correctly point out, nothing could be further from the truth. We certainly don't speak of Einsteinism or Newtonism, though I suppose we refer to "Newtonian physics" from time to time, as if to emphasize the tight assumptions of classical, billiard-ball constraints.

    Once again, I don't know enough about Darwinian literary theory to determine if this is merely poor judgment in nomenclature, or if they are specifically trying to work off Darwin's step forward, and not a metaphor of change based on what we know from evolutionary biology today. Probably the former. If it is the latter, any attempt to be taken seriously by rigorous scientific standards may already have a serious obstacle to overcome. The way I see it, the whole point of the Darwinian-theory ballyhoo in the first place is to move entirely away from the dustbin of, "Marx/Freud/Darwin may be dead, but they still provide a useful metaphor."

  8. Allison S said,

    August 3, 2008 @ 10:15 pm

    Maybe this is wishful thinking on my part, but when I hear the term "Literary Darwinism" I imagine the study of the traits and adaptations writers insert (perhaps through an "intelligent design") into their works that makes it more or less "successful" – and of course there will be plenty of fodder for phd dissertations defining "successful." I have heard posited (probably in one of the cognitive science popular non-fiction I find myself addicted to – this one most recently: ) the idea of "self-replicating ideas" or memes – an idea has features that help it be passed on and thus "succeed." The idea no more controls its features (like being "true" or making the holder of the idea "happy" of "powerful") than a moth controls whether it's brown or white.

    Perhaps one could track the aspects of literature in this way? If one could identify these traits and track them across different literary texts and see how they compete with one another (does the simple rhyme and bawdiness of the limerick overcome the heartaching beauty of Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings"? Are these two even attempting to occupy the same niche?) and completely turn the canonical concept of literature on its head?

    And perhaps when doing so we can realize why no one ever reads Ethan Frome except because we are forced to by 11th grade high school English teachers? Or is *that* its survival adaptation?

  9. Bill Benzon said,

    August 4, 2008 @ 8:12 am

    This dance has been going on for awhile. For an informal chronology of literary studies and cognitive science over the last half-century, go here.

    For the record, I did a dissertation on "Cognitive Science and Literary Theory" back in 1978, at SUNY Buffalo. The degree was awarded by the English Department, but I spent a great deal of time moon-lighting in Linguistics, where I worked with the late David G. Hays, one of the founders of computational linguistics. Much of my dissertation was, in effect, a technical exercise in knowledge representation, using Hays's semantic networks model to analyze a Shakespeare sonnet. I published a preliminary version of that analysis in the Centenial Issue of MLN (Modern Language Notes): William Benzon, "Cognitive Networks and Literary Semantics," MLN 91, 5: 952-982. Alas, my work never found an audience, which is one reason I now suffer the embarrassment of having to toot my own horn; I'm tired of seeing these capsule histories written without mentioning my work at all, especially since that work is distinctly different from this more recent work and thus, on that account, worthy of attention.

    More recently I've published two long articles in PSYART in which I use a wide range of work from cognitive science, neuroscience, and evolutionary psychology to examine "Kubla Khan" and "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison."

    BTW, Moretti's right, without attention to literary form, the literary Darwinists will get nowhere, nor will the literary cognitivists.

  10. Bill Benzon said,

    August 4, 2008 @ 9:32 am

    An another thing, the "Darwin" in literary Darwinism seems to me mostly PR. Darwin was deeply interested in the history of plant and animal life and knew a great deal about it. It is on that knowledge that he based his account of evolution. The literary Darwinists do not seem interested in literary history at all, that is, in the variety of literary forms as they unfold across time. They may have programmatic statements expressing interest in that, but it's not something they do, at least not at this time. The certainly do not approach the study of literature in a way that's analogus to Darwin's study of life forms. Nor do they display much interest in linguistics and cognition.

    I've written a review essay in which I compare Moretti's work with that of the literary Darwinists.

  11. dr pepper said,

    August 4, 2008 @ 2:26 pm

    Never mind the "one true king", i would have expected the marxist analysts to harp on the seldom questioned social and ethnic hierarchies in Tolkien.

    As for darwinism, has anyone done a meta analysis of the growth, development, and competitive outcomes of various approaches to literature?

  12. Luther Blissett said,

    August 4, 2008 @ 5:22 pm

    Alison: Franco Moretti has been looking at those sorts of issues for a while. His theory is that writers and cultures produce new forms all the time (mutations), but these new forms only "stick" under certain historical conditions.

    So we can find novel-like things before the novel takes off as a form, just as we can find postmodern-novel-like things before the postmodern novel predominates. But only under certain conditions could the novel-like thing find a foothold, a social use, and so produce something like cultural "offspring" in the form of other novels. But at no point did the ur-form of the novel have some set function or use. It was just a mutation of some other cultural form. Perhaps the author had certain reasons to mutate a past form, but that's no guarantee that the author's original sense of function with stick with the form as it grows. (For example, the typographical experiments we see in early avant-garde poetry can be traced back to print experiments in turn-of-the-century advertising. But this doesn't mean that the avant-garde poetry is somehow "tainted" by the commercialism of its origins.)

    What I like about Moretti's ideas (as I understand them) is that they leave room for the author. We can still say that Proust innovated a new kind of novel, even as we trace the way he picked up on other formal mutations before him.

  13. Lo mejor de la semana (19 de julio al 5 de agosto) | Ficta eloquentia said,

    August 4, 2008 @ 7:24 pm

    […] Literary Evolution, de Mark Liberman. Una interesante cantidad de enlaces y de diversas posturas sobre lo que ha venido en llamarse Estudios Literarios Darwinianos (Darwinian Literary Studies). […]

  14. Stephen Jones said,

    August 5, 2008 @ 6:58 am

    I've just finished reading Kundera's The Curtain, which is about the novel.

    I always maintain that if there were such a thing as a distinct Western School of Thought, Kundera would be its High Priest. I'm sure he would be chuckling at the idea of 'scientific' literary criticism.

    Valery had an interesting comment on this kind of effort. 'Trying to play chess following the rules of checkers."

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