Short Cuts

Thomas Jones

That the human brain is the way it is because it evolved to be that way is what you might call a no-brainer. As Ian Hacking said in the last issue of the LRB, quoting Steven Rose quoting Theodosius Dobzhansky, ‘nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.’ Since we use our brains to make up stories, and to make sense of the stories of others, it’s hard to disagree with the idea that the capacity for storytelling is the result of evolution. And it’s easy enough to concoct prehistoric situations in which making up stories would have been an aid to survival or reproduction, or both.

Once upon a time, there were two cavemen called Bill and Ben, who were rivals for the affections of a beautiful cavewoman called Beryl. (If you think this story is going to take a reactionary turn, you’re not wrong. But that’s because it belongs in the tradition of evolutionary psychology just-so stories, which have a tendency to provide a pseudoscientific – because unfalsifiable – justification for the status quo. As how could they not? Since the circular logic behind them goes something like this: things are how they are; they are this way because that’s how they evolved; here’s a plausible reason for them to have evolved this way; they couldn’t be any other way.) One day, Bill returned to the cave after a morning’s hunting and told an elaborate and plausible story about how he had killed the sabretooth tiger that had been terrorising the neighbourhood. Ben, delighted at the news, rushed out of the cave to enjoy the tiger-free sunshine and tell the neighbours. He was promptly eaten by the sabretooth, which Bill hadn’t killed after all. With Ben out of the picture, and Beryl suitably impressed by his tall tales of heroism, Bill was comfortably able to pass on his genes, which all lived happily ever after.

Well, maybe. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine how an animal in possession of memory and language could avoid telling stories. And this is one of the problems with all attempts to explain the causes of evolutionary adaptations: not only is there often no way of knowing for sure what environmental pressures shaped any given adaptation; there’s often no way of knowing for sure what’s an adaptation and what’s a by-product, or ‘spandrel’ (to use Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould’s architectural analogy). In their introduction to The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative (Northwestern, $29.95), a collection of essays which will be published later in the autumn, Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson are good enough to acknowledge this problem, and even admit that the essays collected in their book are likely to contain large errors. But they haven’t let this stand in their way.

The Literary Animal is a founding text in the emerging school of Darwinian literary theory. Darwinism has been taken on board by every other discipline, but literature is ‘a last frontier in human evolutionary studies’. Literary theory has long had Marxist, psychoanalytic and feminist incarnations, so why not a Darwinian one? Especially since Marxism, psychoanalysis and feminism have been scientifically discredited, apparently, by evolutionary psychology, though that might come as a surprise to Richard Lewontin, for example, who is not only an evolutionary biologist but also a bit of a Marxist. Anyway, The Literary Animal wants to wrest Eng. Lit. out of the clutches of the misguided, scientifically illiterate social constructivists who currently dominate the field. Literature is concerned with the study of human nature; evolutionary psychology is the key to human nature; it’s a no-brainer. Except it isn’t, because the interactions among what Lewontin has called the ‘triple helix’ of gene, organism and environment are so complex that a reductive evolutionary approach to many of the products of those interactions – such as literature, or the structure of a democratic society – will invariably fail to provide enriching or useful insights. It’s a question of scale, much as a deep understanding of quantum mechanics won’t make you a better driver, or help you fix your car when it breaks down.

Scepticism is just what the embattled editors of The Literary Animal would expect from an outdated, discredited, social constructivist, ideologically motivated member of the literary studies establishment. It’s true that my objections are in part ideological; but it’s not as if evolutionary psychology isn’t ideological itself, although its proponents invariably resort to the traditional conservative claim that it isn’t ideology because it’s simply the truth. And it’s surely right to be suspicious of a way of thinking about the world that is so often used to reinforce an unjust status quo. Feminist critics, so the ‘Darwinian’ theory goes, are right that there are many fewer female protagonists and writers in the Western canon than male ones, but they shouldn’t complain because there’s a sound evolutionary reason for this: it’s a reflection of human nature. This isn’t, in effect, all that different from saying that God made man in His own image, and woman second.

The Literary Animal has attracted some starry contributors: there are forewords by E.O. Wilson and Frederick Crews, and an essay by Ian McEwan, whose latest novel is – depressingly – the favourite to win the Man Booker Prize. Saturday offers a good example of the way a cursory acquaintance with neuroscience can be bad for literature: its splendidly unconvincing protagonist, Henry Perowne, is a brain surgeon whose thought processes read less like a brain surgeon’s than those of a novelist who’s recently done a lot of research into neurological lore and terminology. Perowne pales into plausibility, however, when an enraged psychopath who has broken into his house is prevented from committing an act of violence by a recital of ‘Dover Beach’. In The Literary Animal, McEwan discusses Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, and the evidence it provides for a universal human nature. This leads on to the insight that the ‘human essence’ of Penelope’s reaction to Odysseus’ return is instantly recognisable to a modern reader, even if Odysseus’ guilt-free slaughter of the suitors is alien to us. He’s not wrong: you might even call his conclusion a no-brainer.