Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Ethical Criticism and “Darwinian” Literary Study

Angus Fletcher, Another Literary Darwinism, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 40, No. 2, Winter 2014, 450-469.

It opens (450):
There are, Jonathan Kramnick has remarked, just two problems with literary Darwinism: it isn’t literary and it isn’t Darwinism. By allying itself with Evolutionary Psychology, it has not only eliminated most of the nuance from contemporary neo-Darwinism but reduced all literature to stories, taking so little account of literary form that it equates “Pleistocene campfire” tales with Mrs. Dalloway (“ALD,” p. 327).
Most of the article is intellectual history: Julian Huxley, H. G. Wells and the “New Biographers” in the early 20th century. From my point of view it’s all preliminary throat-clearing until very near the end.

What has caught Fletcher’s attention is the interest in behavior (p. 467):
There are no religious commandments or categorical imperatives or natural rights or anything else to give a spine to human life. This state of absence, as the Victorians discovered (and more recent thinkers such as Thomas Nagel have lamented), is unlivable. Because we are participants in a physical world, we must do something, and rather than surrendering us to the blind impulses of nature or the idols of moral idealism Huxley’s literary Darwinism reminds us of a neglected source of practical ethics: behavior. Over the past fifty years, the traditional place of behavior in ethics has been diminished by new trends in both the biological sciences and literary criticism.
Continuing on (p. 468):
To begin with, behavior is purely physical, and so it survives Darwinism’s metaphysical purge untouched. Moreover, as the New Biography demonstrates, the behaviors (or to use a more literary term, the practices) encouraged by literature can foster a sense of purpose, meaning, and hope that Darwin’s theory cannot. Such practices are not absolute or prescriptive — the more we explore the diversity of our literary traditions, the more we recover a library of different possibilities — but they do allow us to transition from a theoretical existentialism into a practical experimentalism. Where raw Darwinism carries us to a state of general tolerance, literature can help us seek the practices that allow us to thrive in our own particular fashion.
And now we get the payoff, ethical criticism (468):
If Darwinism leads toward a negative approach to ethics, and if literature’s role in this ethics is behavioral, then a major focus of literary Darwinism will be to identify literary forms that increase our ethical range by inhibiting intolerant behaviors. Many such behaviors originate in what seem to be permanent features of our brains: our emotional egoism, for example, or our diminished empathy for people of a different phenotype. Nevertheless, these behaviors can be reined in by other areas of our cortex, and if literature could uniquely facilitate such reining in, then it could be claimed as a Darwinian remedy for some of the antipluralist outcomes of natural selection.
And (469):
Where existing cognitive studies of literature have suggested that literature can exploit or improve our existing mental faculties, this behavioral approach to literary Darwinism thus opens the possibility that literary form might liberate us from certain aspects of our evolved nature. That is, instead of being a biological adaptation, literature could help us adapt our biology. This possibility is, of course, speculative. To test it would require intensive collaboration between literary scholars and biologists, and, as Kramnick points out, recent literary Darwinists have done little to foster the mutual respect necessary for such cooperation to occur. Yet here again, Huxley can offer us hope. Rather than displaying a “literary . . . resistance to biology,”84 his version of literary Darwinism clears away Lamarckism, vitalism, and other forms of pseudoscience. And rather than reducing literature to Pleistocene stories, it shows that works such as Eminent Victorians can encourage original ways to respond to our natural condition. Huxley, in short, makes evolution more Darwinian and life more literary, so, unlike the literary Darwinism that inspires Kramnick’s critique, Huxley’s version does not imply a zero-sum contest between aesthetic and biological value. Instead, it does for Darwinism and literature what it did for the warring subfields of evolutionary biology in the 1940s. Revealing them as partners, it urges them to embrace the comic opportunity of life.
Just what this means in practical detail is not at all obvious to me, nor is it to Fletcher. He seems to have some idea that, yes, evolution has bequeathed us a human nature, but we’re not necessarily stuck with it.

I’m with him. My preferred metaphor for thinking about this is that of board games, such as checkers, chess, or Go. Biology provides the board, the game pieces, and the basic rules of the game. But to play a competitive game you need to know much more than those rules. The rules tell you whether or not a move is legal, but they don’t tell you whether or not a move is a good one. That’s a higher kind of knowledge. Call it culture. Culture is the tactics and strategy of the game.

Literature, among other cultural practices, is a compendium of tactical and strategic practices. But a psychology that is going to tell us how those practices are constituted out of, constructed over, the raw stuff of biology will have to be more robust than any psychology currently being employed either by the Darwinians or the cognitivists. It will need the constructive capacities inherent in computational approaches, a matter which I’ve discussed often enough, see e.g. my working paper On the Poverty of Cognitive Criticism and the Importance of Computation and Form, or these posts.

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