According to Literary Darwinist Jonathan Gottschall, there's a malaise among literary scholars today that can be cured with a dose of the scientific method. "Almost 99.999% of literary hypotheses aren't tested in that way," says Gottschall, and as a result "there is no progress of knowledge because nothing can be wrong."
Gottschall, who is 33 and holds a Ph.D. in English, recently co-edited The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative (Northwestern University Press, 2005), a collection of essays that unites humanists and evolutionary scientists, including luminaries such as novelist Ian McEwan and biologist E.O. Wilson. Together, they argue that an understanding of the evolutionary foundations of human behavior, psychology and culture can produce powerful new perspectives on storytelling.
How do you define Literary Darwinism?
All literary theory—Marxism, psychoanalysis, postmodernism—is ultimately based on a theory of human nature. A Darwinian literary approach takes its guidance from theories of human behavior and psychology that are now emerging in the evolutionary sciences.
What drew you into the field?
In my second year of graduate school, I walked into a used bookstore and came across Desmond Morris' The Naked Ape, an early attempt to look at the human animal the way a zoologist would. I found the idea of studying humans just like any other animal to be very powerful. Morris' book, although out of date, changed me. I started looking at literature in an altogether new way.
What did you find when you started reading literature through this new lens?
[The Iliad] was particularly significant for me because I was reading it while also reading Morris and other texts on sociobiology. As a result, Homer's evolutionary themes were jumping off the page. Right away I was seeing the drama of naked apes competing for social status and material resources; as well, they were competing directly and indirectly over women...You know, Einstein once said that theory defines what we can see. If Literary Darwinism has anything going for it we should start to see things in literature that weren't seen before, or seen as crisply before. I say this because I feel that I saw things in Homer that even 2,600 years worth of Homer scholars hadn't seen.
Do you expand on these insights in your forthcoming book, The Rape of Troy: Evolution, Violence, and the World of Homer (Cambridge, est. 2006)?
Yes, I use an evolutionary lens to flip conventional commentary on Homeric disputes. Instead of suggesting that winning women is merely a proximate goal masking competition for wealth, power and prestige, an evolutionary perspective suggests that honor, political power and social dominance are the proximate routes to the ultimate goal of women--for Homer's heroes and for ordinary men.
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