There's an interesting article on literary Darwinism in this Sunday's Times Magazine. I'm sure those of you who know my general fascination with evolutionary psychology and consilience would assume that I'm a literary Darwinist as well, but the truth is I have some doubts about the project, which I've been following on and off for the past few years. I wrote a little about this in the introduction to Mind Wide Open, but my general concern is that, almost by definition, the Darwinian insights that literary critics can use are the least interesting thing about evolutionary thinking. Because ev psych is concerned with human universals, most of the behavior it describes is the stuff of cliché: women are attracted to high-status men, people tend to value the lives of their near-relatives over the lives of strangers, and so on. What's fascinating in ev psych is not usually the behavior it documents, but rather the way it explains the evolutionary roots of that behavior. (I know many of you out there think those explanations are merely just-so stories, but whether you buy them or not, they're the intellectually meaty part of the model.) And it seems to me that literature doesn't really bring anything new to that part of the story. It's true that you can find plenty of examples of status-seeking and kin preference and incest taboo in the canon, but you can also find plenty of examples of characters dutifully obeying the laws of gravity as well -- and that's not going to tell you anything interesting about physics, right?
The Literary Darwinists that I've read tend to talk about the way great works of literature shine light on the human universals described by the ev pysch canon. But I think the more interesting application would be to shine the light in the other direction: if we know something about human universals from the sciences, then we can use that knowledge to gain a better appreciation of the achievements of culture. We can point to the historical places, or the elements of our own society, where we've ventured the furthest from our biological inclinations. And what better place to look for those wanderings than in the canon of world literature?
That said, this review by the excellent Denis Dutton makes me wonder if there's more to it than I've perceived so far.