Against Literary Darwinism

Kramnick_pic Jonathan Kramnick in Critical Inquiry:

Literary Darwinism promises to show that literature played an important role in the evolution of the species, but what adaptive function could be served by bare themes, by subject matter as such? Failing to describe how “the adapted mind produces literature,” literary Darwinism often falls back on more general and even genteel notions of improvement (LD, p. xii). The move has a certain logic. Literary Darwinism has a difficult time finding a place for literary forms in the story of adaptation under selection pressure. At the same time, it is committed to the proposition that literature must have helped us to become the species we are. The result of this curious imbalance is that literature simply is about who we are in a relatively straightforward and uplifting sense. Literary texts provide “lively and powerful images of human life suffused with the feeling and understanding of the astonishingly capable and complete human beings who wrote them.”77 There is something tender-hearted in this bid for the function of literature to create “healthy human possibility” (LD, p. 68). It exchanges a hardheaded naturalism for mushier notions of moral cultivation. and strikes an ethical note reminiscent of F. R. Leavis. But surely this is a most remarkable turn of events. Casting about for a function specific to literature, the friends of adaptation seem to settle for it making us better, more decent, or more complete human beings (see LD, p. 68). Yet value-laden ideas like complete humanity have no meaning in the terms of evolutionary or any other science and tell us very little about any cultural artifact. And this is precisely my point. With the turn to a kind of pabulum, Darwinian criticism seems not very scientific at all.