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Literary Darwinism

by PhilipJ on 29 January 2006

This week’s Nature has an interesting article (subscription required) on a new trend in literary theory: interpreting literature from the point of view of evolutionary biology, and using empirical, quantitative methods borrowed from the sciences.

When, at the beginning of The Iliad — and Western literature — King Agamemnon steals Achilles’ slave-girl, Briseis, the king tells the world’s greatest warrior that he is doing so “to let you know that I am more powerful than you, and to teach others not to bandy words with me and openly defy their king”. But literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall believes that the true focus of Homer’s epic is not royal authority, but royal genes.

The rational for this kind of analysis, says Joseph Carroll at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, is that literature is shaped by human motives and cognitive biases, and that these must be taken into account when analysing a text. In contrast, literary theorists have long denied the need for anything external to the body of work being studied. That, or they look at a text through a rather particular lens:

Those influenced by freudianism, for example, might read a novel looking for hints of a child’s sexual desire for its parent. A marxist would seek out economic and class conflicts. Carroll has no truck with this: “The theories up to this point have all had a little bit of the truth, but have also all been fundamentally flawed,” he says. “None comes to terms with the fundamental facts of human evolution.”

As to how empirical, quantitative methods are used:

Gottschall and Carroll [...] are also currently analysing the data from an online questionnaire that gathers people’s responses to characters in nineteenth-century fiction; they aim to see how these compare to the personality categories and goals defined in evolutionary psychology.

By borrowing the scientific method, says Gottschall, literary scholars can work out what a story is ‘really’ about, not in some ultimate, metaphysical sense, but in the sense of whether a wide range of people interpret a work in the same way. Such an approach, he says, is needed if literary scholarship is to create testable, durable knowledge — and to prevent arguments being settled solely by who deploys the sharpest rhetoric and the best memory.

I find this strangely at odds with how “real science” works. Scientific theories are not determined by the popular vote, but this is precisely how these literary theorists are proposing to decide what a story is actually about. I know, I know, literature isn’t science, but still. Call me a boring scientist, but I like the fact that people interpret art in a variety of ways. I also fail to see what’s so bad about someone settling an argument by having the sharpest rhetoric and best memory—isn’t that what debating is all about?

  1. luke Quinton    4555 days ago    #
    Completely agree with the last paragraph here, Mr. J. As a student of literature, a few things come to mind for me. What this study is looking for is basically, what we call “reader response” criticism. Except the aim here is to “validate” it by finding the most commonly held interpretations about a work. Basically, the majority decides the “true” meaning of a particular work.
    Of course, these guys are completely out of touch with literary movements of the last hundred years or so. We tried that in the mid 1900’s and essentially failed. Thus the search for minority voices in the Western Canon.
    Art, as you said, is never one thing. Unlike the article’s comments, art is never examined with the “text” alone, but it is the interaction with the individual that, in part, creates meaning. The critic is never the only judge of a work’s meaning.
    So, I welcome more efforts to bring Imperial methods into art criticism. They can try, but I won’t hold my breath. In the meantime, I agree… seems to me these folks are missing the point.
  2. PhilipJ    4554 days ago    #
    I don’t think it is necessarily useless to have a “most probable interpretation” database for things, but I certainly don’t think this should be the link to deciding what the stories/pictures/whatever are actually about.

    I am still particularly confused by the need for this standardisation for to “prevent arguments being settled solely by who deploys the sharpest rhetoric and the best memory.”

    If that isn’t what wins arguments, what is?

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