Cheek Swabs for Hamlet

Cheek Swabs for Hamlet

THE SOURCE: “Adaptation: On Literary Darwinism” by William Deresiewicz, in The Nation, May 20, 2009.

Read Time:
3m 4sec

Are Homer, Shakespeare, and Cervantes products of natural selection, like the opposable thumb and the Galápagos finches? A small but militant group of literary Darwinists is shaking up the field of English literature with erudite books making such a case. But how, exactly, would storytelling have improved the fitness and increased the survival rate of Homo sapiens in the Pleistocene world?

William Deresiewicz, a former professor of English at Yale University and a contributing writer at The Nation, says that the rising group of literary Darwinists is seeking to dethrone the “abstrusiosities” of deconstructionism, social theory, and psychoanalysis that have reigned in English literature departments for the past few decades. The baleful prevalence of such theory, he says, has cut off the field from society, the main currents of academic thought, the average reader, and common sense.

Nascent literary Darwinism has endeavored to reseed the ground, trying to found a discipline of “new humanities.” University of Missouri, St. Louis, professor Joseph Carroll opened the debate in 1995 with the publication of Evolution and Literary Theory, arguing that fiction evolved as a form of “cognitive regulation.” With the great expansion of human intelligence thousands of years ago, storytelling emerged to bring “order to our newly complex inner world.” Brian Boyd, the author of On the Origin of Stories (2009), describes fiction as evolutionarily helpful because it is the “way we train our minds for the vital business of social existence.” Other Darwinists say that great writers help win the battle of natural selection because fiction extends the range of experience, empathy, emotions, and creativity.

Deresiewicz lauds the Darwinists for their practical conclusions but says that the need for their arguments only shows what a terrible pass the humanities have come to. Worse yet, he says, the Darwinists have a research program, and “few things in the academy are more powerful than that.” Some of them talk of putting readers in MRI machines to test their responses while studying, say, the Iliad. Or they suggest taking salivary swabs to provide “hormonal indicators of emotions experienced” during the reading of Hamlet. Deresiewicz writes that such schemes seem straight out of Gulliver’s Travels, in which one sage endeavored to extract sunbeams from cucumbers.

Evolutionary psychologists claim that “the human mind evolved in the Pleistocene, the 1.6 million years during which Homo sapiens emerged on the African savanna,” Deresiewicz writes. But the problem with this claim is that it is based entirely on analogy and deduction. Modern primates and hunter-gatherers act in certain ways, and their ancestors to the 50,000th generation might have acted exactly the same way. Or maybe not. Deresiewicz points out that nobody knows what the Pleistocene environment looked like, how our Pleistocene ancestors lived, or even if, perhaps, “our psychology may not be the product of the Pleistocene at all but of the 10,000 years since the emergence of civilization.”

In other words, there is no proof that any of the evolutionary deductions are true. Even if they are, evolutionary psychology is a theory about what human beings have in common. What literary critics want to know goes beyond whether literature is a good thing. They seek to describe how great works differ from one another, and what makes them great. Worthwhile commentary on literature will always be personal, and it will never be definitive or universally valid. It will never satisfy demands for marketable skills, or produce a generation of technologists. It will merely help humans understand, Deresiewicz says, “who we are, where we came from, and where we’re going.”

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