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Evolution of the theses

Jonathan Gottschall takes a novel approach to Darwinism.

MARXIST, RADICAL feminist, Foucauldian, deconstructionist, post-colonial and queer. It reads like the fight card for an ideological battle royal. In fact, these are some of the major schools of thought in literary criticism from the past 40 years - and they have much in common.

Central to these and all other approaches to understanding literature that are influenced by post-structuralism is the idea that there is no innate human nature. Nature is nurture or, put another way, our nature is to spoon up whatever culture happens to feed us - and we are what we eat.

Understanding a story is ultimately about understanding the human mind. The primary job of the literary critic is to pry open the craniums of characters, authors and narrators, climb inside their heads and spelunk through the bewildering complexity within to figure out what makes them tick.

Yet, in doing this, literary scholars have ignored the recent scientific revolution that has transformed our understanding of why people behave the way they do. While evolutionary biologists have irreparably shattered the blank slate, most students of the humanities still insist that humans are born all but free of any innate qualities.

My fellow literary Darwinists and I hope to change their minds. By applying evolution-based thinking to fiction, we believe we can invigorate the study of literature, while at the same time mining an untapped source of information for the scientific study of human nature (see "Truth in fiction"). Darwinian thinking can help us better understand why characters act and think as they do, why plots and themes resonate within such very narrow bounds of variation, and the ultimate reasons for the human animal's strange, ardent love affair with stories.

It may sound like an innocent endeavour, but this is potentially revolutionary. If literary Darwinism is mainly right, then much of what has been written and said in the realm of literary theory and criticism in the second half of the 20th century is in need of significant revision.

Literary Darwinism has emerged during a period of crisis in literary studies. Enrolments and funding are in decline, books languish unpublished as readerships dwindle, and prospects for new PhDs are abysmal. Perhaps worst of all, literary scholars are at risk of being presented as a laughing stock by novelists and held up to ridicule by satirical journalists. There is a dreadful sense that the whole reputation of the study of the humanities is in free fall.

This drop feels all the more vertiginous given the soaring stock of the sciences. While many literary scholars have responded by trying to knock science down a peg, literary Darwinists have taken the opposite tack. We have posed two questions: what exactly is science doing right that we are doing so wrong, and can we emulate it?

I BEGAN ASKING THESE questions in the mid-1990s while I was working towards a PhD in English literature. At the time, I was sceptical of much of what I was being told in my literary theory courses, but my reasons were vague and disordered. These misgivings coalesced when I chanced across a tattered copy of the zoologist Desmond Morris' book The Naked Ape in a used-book store.

While the specifics of the 1960s bestseller were outdated, its general attitude towards human behaviour was not. Morris argued that although humans have complicated culture and a stunning capacity to learn, this does not change the fact that we are also animals, vertebrates, mammals, primates and, ultimately, great apes.

Aspects of our culture and intelligence mean we are different from other apes but do not emancipate us from biology or lift us above other animals onto an exalted link of the chain of being. What's more, it follows that the behavioural characteristics of the human animal, just like the physical ones, should be understood as the products of a long evolutionary process. Morris did not claim this rendered all other perspectives on human behaviour obsolete, just that an important fact had been neglected to the detriment of our understanding: people are apes.

At exactly the same time I was reading The Naked Ape I was re-reading Homer's Iliad for a graduate seminar on the great epics. As always, Homer made my bones flex and ache with the terror and beauty of the human condition. But this time around I also experienced the Iliad as a drama of naked apes - strutting, preening, fighting and bellowing their power in fierce competition for social dominance, beautiful women and material resources. Darwin's powerful lens brought sudden coherence to my experience of the story, inspiring me to abandon my half-drafted PhD dissertation and instead undertake a Darwinian analysis of the Iliad.

The study began with a simple observation. Intense competition between great apes, as described both by Homer and by primatologists, frequently boils down to precisely the same thing: access to females. In Homer, conflicts over Helen, Penelope and the slave girl Briseis are just the tip of the iceberg. The Trojan war is not only fought over Helen, it is fought over Hector's Andromache and all the nameless women of ordinary Trojan men.

"Don't anyone hurry to return homeward until after he has lain down alongside a wife of some Trojan," the old counsellor Nestor exhorts the Greeks. Capturing women was not just a perk of war, it was one of the important reasons for war. Achilles conveys this in his soul-searching assessment of his life as warrior: "I have spent many sleepless nights and bloody days in battle, fighting men for their women."

more at: Evolution of the theses - Books - Entertainment - theage.com.au
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