Evolutionary Psychology and Literature: Just more Pseudoscience?

by F.

Evolutionary Psychology is a blunt instrument. So blunt that it is quite close to being a pseudoscience.

The so-called evolutionary psychologist can invent stories about “The Ancestral Environment” and give the impression that this story is empirically testable. But we know very little about The Ancestral Environment and often the predictions made from theorizing about it are empirically false.

Here’s Richard Posner engaging in this practice regarding the gender gap in intellectual performance (via the always excellent The Frontal Cortex):

the mean performance of women in college and university is superior to that of the men, but the variance of male performance is greater and as a result there are more male geniuses. There is no reason why the difference in variance should result in higher average male earnings; that higher average is probably the result of women’s spending less time in the work force because of pregnancy and child care. Women’s greater proclivity for child care may well have a biological basis, as may the difference in variance that I mentioned. In the “ancestral environment”–the term that anthropologists use to describe the prehistoric period in which human beings reached approximately their current biological state–women who were “steady” would have tended to have the maximum number of children, while natural selection might favor variance in male abilities because variance would produce some outstanding men who would tend to reproduce more than other men (including the “steadies”) in the polygamous conditions of prehistoric society. If the explanation based on evolutionary biology is correct, women will continue to be “underrepresented” in high-achievement positions in many fields; why anyone should care is beyond me.

University of Chicago faculty say the craziest shit, don’t they? Anyway, another example of this tendency comes in the book The Literary Animal. This is one of those “We have a new paradigm!” sorts of books that probably oversells the new paradigm in the interest of helping along academic careers. Academics sell stuff just like everyone else. Of course, the old paradigm is absolute shit—Freud, Critical Theory, Post Structuralism and so on—so almost any substitute will be better. And this “Darwinian Literary Theory” is better. But it’s still not very good. Like, not at all.

Here’s a short summary of the book, which is a collection of papers by various authors. Basically, for any article, I want to know “Who is telling me this?” and “What is the point?” So that’s what those bolded phrases are about, below. Also, TYPO ALERT: this is raw text typed as I read. You may encounter TYPOS. Yes, I know. It’s TERRIBLE. I am a BAD PERSON.


The Literary Animal (2005)

Forward by E.O. Wilson. Wilson is one of my idols. Great introduction.

Forward by Frederick Crews. I missed the point of this and didn’t feel motivated to find it.

Introduction by Johathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson. The usual sort of introduction. No new news here.

Part I: Evolution and Literary Theory

Unifying Idea of Part I: How Evolutionary Theory can apply to literature.

“Literature, Science, and Human Nature” by Ian McEwan. Who’s Talking? A writer of fiction. The Point? I can’t find it—seems to be a more-or-less arbitrary collection of anecdotes about writers and scientists, ending with a sentence to the effect that, “Both art and science study human nature.” Thanks for that insight, Ian.

“Evolutionary Social Constructivism” by David Sloan Wilson. Who’s Talking? Prof of Biology and Anthro at Binghampton. The Point? There is a middle ground between social constructivism and evolutionary psychology. Both can learn from each other.

“From Lacan to Darwin” by Dylan Evans. Who’s Talking? Cog scientist with background in Psychoanalysis at a small English university. The Point: Lacanian theory is wrong. This is my story, from believer to apostate.

“What Happens in Hamlet? Exploring the Psychological Foundations of Drama” by Daniel Nettle. Who’s talking? Lecturer in Psych at University of Newcastle. The Point? Presents a sketch of a theory of why, from an evo-bio standpoint, drama may be interesting to human beings. Sets out 6 propositions about drama, none of which seem to fit the evidence very well.

“Human Nature and Literary Meaning: A Theoretical Model Illustrated with a Critique of Pride and Predjudice” by Joseph Carroll. Who’s Talking? Prof of English at University of Missouri-St Louis. The Point? Propounds a “model” of human nature (yes, seriously) and then applies it to Pride and Predjudice. This is risible. A complete travesty.

“The Problem of Romantic Love: Shakespeare and Evolutionary Psychology ” by Marcus Nordlund. Who’s talking? Post doc in lit at Uppsala University. The Point? When we look at “Love” in certain works, we find that the Darwinian perspective gives a better explanation for character behavior than others do. Duh.

“Male Bonding in the Epics and Romantics” by Robin Fox. Who’s Talking? Prof of Anthro at Rutgers. The Point? Evolution has hard-wired us to male-bond. Here are some examples form literature that show how strong the bond is.

Part II: The Evolutionary Riddle of Art

Unifying idea of Part II: What is the evolutionary explanation for art making?

“Evolutionary Theories of Art” by Brian Boyd. Who’s Talking? Prof of English, Univ of Auckland. The Point? Outline of various theories, including social cohesion, by product, for sexual selection (like Peacock’s tail) showing creative intelligence, and that fiction helps mold the mind (sort of like cognitive exercise).

“Reverse-Engineering Narrative: Evidence of Special Design” by Michelle Scalise Sugiyama. Who’s Talking? “Affiliate” of cog sci and English program at U of Oregon. The Point? “Narrative is an information storage and transmission system, which indicates that, in foraging and other preindustrial cultures, indivduals get the vast majority of their knowledge from other group members” and it appears to be “specially adapted” for.

Part III: Darwinian Theory and Scientific Methods

Unifying idea of Part III: Quantitative Methods can be used to study liturature and to find things out about human nature.

“Quantitative Literary Study: A Modest Manifesto and Testing the Hypothesis of Feminist Fairy Tale Studies” by Jonathan Gottschal. Who’s talking? Ph.D. in English. The Point? we should study quantitatively theories about literature. Examples from his statistical work on fairy tales from around the world. Conclusions include: few female protagonists; female protags were passive and not physically heroic; the beauty of female characters was stressed; marriage was considered important; and older (greater than 40 years old) female characters were stigmatized, e.g., played the roll of antagonists.

“Proper Hero Dads and Dark Hero Cads: Alternate Mating Strategies Exemplified in British Romantic Literature” by Daniel J. Kruger, et al.Who’s Talking? Researcher in psych at Michigan, and others. The Point? The authors tested a hypothesis (women prefer Dad’s for long term relationships, Cads for short ones) by giving college students a couple of passages the characters in which exemplified one or the other type of man. The hypothesis was confirmed, showing that women judge fictional characters as they do real characters.

“Crossing the Abyss: Erotica and the Intersection of Evolutionary Psychology and Literary Studies” by Catherine Salmon. Who’s Talking? Asst. Prof of Psych at Univ of Redlands. The Point? Here are a number of evolutionary observations about pornography, including Romance Novels. The metholodogical background. The economic background of the porno/romance industry. The Romance Novel, in which the woman looks for a permanent bond, her one true love. The Romance Hero is usually like Russel Crowe in Gladiator—he’s no emo guy. Feminist takes on pornance. “Slash Fiction” male/male romance written by women.

Afterward by Denis Dutton. Who’s talking? Philosopher doing phil and literature. The point? a future aesthetics should be naturalistic. “The objective now within our reach would be a naturalistic aesthetics grounded in a valid human psychology that not only explained art but explained the appeal of varying, and sometimes contradictory, traditional theories of art.” Previous theories get a few things right at the expense of others.