[Paleopsych] NYT Mag: The Literary Darwinists

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The Literary Darwinists

    By D. T. MAX

    Jane Austen first published "Pride and Prejudice" in 1813. She had
    misgivings about the book, complaining in a letter to her sister that
    it was "rather too light, and bright, and sparkling." But these
    qualities may be what make it the most popular of her novels. It tells
    the story of Elizabeth Bennet, a young woman from a shabby genteel
    family, who meets Mr. Darcy, an aristocrat. At first, the two dislike
    each other. Mr. Darcy is arrogant; Elizabeth, clever and cutting. But
    through a series of encounters that show one to the other in a more
    appealing light - as well as Mr. Darcy's intervention when an officer
    named Wickham runs away with Elizabeth's younger sister Lydia (Darcy
    bribes the cad to marry Lydia) - Elizabeth and Darcy come to love each
    other, to marry and, it is strongly suggested at book's end, to live
    happily ever after.

    For the common reader, "Pride and Prejudice" is a romantic comedy. His
    or her pleasure comes from the vividness of Austen's characters and
    how familiar they still seem: it's as if we know Elizabeth and Darcy.
    On a more literary level, we enjoy Austen's pointed dialogue and
    admire her expert way with humor. For similar reasons, critics have
    long called "Pride and Prejudic" a classic - their ultimate (if not
    well defined) expression of approval.

    But for an emerging school of literary criticism known as Literary
    Darwinism, the novel is significant for different reasons. Just as
    Charles Darwin studied animals to discover the patterns behind their
    development, Literary Darwinists read books in search of innate
    patterns of human behavior: child bearing and rearing, efforts to
    acquire resources (money, property, influence) and competition and
    cooperation within families and communities. They say that it's
    impossible to fully appreciate and understand a literary text unless
    you keep in mind that humans behave in certain universal ways and do
    so because those behaviors are hard-wired into us. For them, the most
    effective and truest works of literature are those that reference or
    exemplify these basic facts.

    From the first words of the first chapter ("It is a truth universally
    acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must
    be in want of a wife") to the first words of the last ("Happy for all
    her maternal feelings was the day on which Mrs. Bennet got rid of her
    two most deserving daughters"), the novel is stocked with the sort of
    life's-passage moments that resonate with meaning for Literary
    Darwinists. (One calls the novel their "fruit fly.") The women in the
    book mostly compete to marry high-status men, consistent with the
    Darwinian idea that females try to find mates whose status will assure
    the success of their offspring. At the same time, the men are
    typically competing to marry the most attractive women, consistent
    with the Darwinian idea that males look for youth and beauty in
    females as signs of reproductive fitness. Darcy and Elizabeth's flips
    and flops illustrate the effort mammals put into distinguishing
    between short-term appeal (a pert step, a handsome coxcomb) and
    long-term appropriateness (stability, commitment, wealth, underlying
    good health). Meanwhile, Wickham - the penniless officer who tries to
    make off first with Darcy's sister and then carries off Lydia - serves
    as an example of the mating behavior evolutionary biologists call (I'm
    using a milder euphemism than they do) "the sneaky fornicator theory."

    Humans beyond reproductive age also have a part to play in the
    Literary Darwinist paradigm. Consider Mrs. Bennet, Elizabeth's mother.
    Jane Austen calls her "invariably silly," and most critics over nearly
    two centuries have agreed. But for Literary Darwinists, her marriage
    obsession makes sense, because she also has a stake in what is going
    on. If one of her daughters has a child, Mrs. Bennet will have further
    passed on her genetic material, fulfilling the ultimate aim of living
    things according to some evolutionary theorists: the replication of
    one's genes. (J.B.S. Haldane, a British biologist, was once asked if
    he would trade his life for his brother's and replied no, but that he
    would trade it for two brothers or eight cousins.)

    It is useful to know a bit about current literary criticism to
    understand how different the Darwinist approach to literature is.
    Current literary theory tends to look at a text as the product of
    particular social conditions or, less often, as a network of
    references to other texts. (Jacques Derrida, the father of
    deconstruction, famously observed that there was "nothing outside the
    text.") It often focuses on how the writer's and the reader's
    identities - straight, gay, female, male, black, white, colonizer or
    colonized - shape a particular narrative or its interpretation.
    Theorists sometimes regard science as simply another form of language
    or suspect that when scientists claim to speak for nature, they are
    disguising their own assertion of power. Literary Darwinism breaks
    with these tendencies. First, its goal is to study literature through
    biology - not politics or semiotics. Second, it takes as a given not
    that literature possesses its own truth or many truths but that it
    derives its truth from laws of nature.

    "The Literary Animal," the first scholarly anthology dedicated to
    Literary Darwinism, is to be published next month. It draws from the
    various fields that figure in Darwinian evolutionary studies,
    including contributions from evolutionary psychologists and biologists
    as well as literature professors. The essays consider the importance
    of the male-male bond in epics and romances, the battle of the sexes
    in Shakespeare and the motif in both Japanese and Western literature
    of men rejecting children whom their wives have conceived in adultery.
    "The Literary Animal" spans centuries and individual cultures with
    bravura, if not bravado. "There is no work of literature written
    anywhere in the world, at any time, by any author, that is outside the
    scope of Darwinian analysis," Joseph Carroll, a professor of English
    at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, writes in an essay in "The
    Literary Animal." Why bring literature into what is essentially a
    social science? Jonathan Gotschall, an editor of "The Literary
    Animal," offers an answer: "One thing literature offers is data. Fast,
    inexhaustible, cross-cultural and cheap."

    There is a circularity to an argument that uses texts about people to
    prove that people behave in human ways. (I'm reminded of the Robert
    Frost line: "Earth's the right place for love:/I don't know where it's
    likely to go better.") But Literary Darwinism has a second focus too.
    It also investigates why we read and write fiction. At the core of
    Literary Darwinism is the idea that we inherit many of the
    predispositions we deem to be cultural through our genes. How we
    behave has been subjected to the same fitness test as our bodies: if a
    bit of behavior has no purpose, then evolution - given enough time -
    may well dispense with it. So why, Literary Darwinists ask, do we make
    room for this strange exercise of the imagination? What are reading
    and writing fiction good for? In her essay "Reverse-Engineering
    Narrative," Michelle Scalise Sugiyama tries to simplify the question
    by picking stories apart, breaking them down into characters,
    settings, causalities and time frames ("the cognitive widgets and
    sprockets of storytelling") and asking what purpose each serves: how
    do they make us more adaptive, more capable of passing on our genes?

    F or the moment, Literary Darwinism is a club that may grow into a
    crowd; there are only about 30 or so declared adherents in all of
    academia. (The wider field of biopoetics - which relates music and the
    visual arts to Darwin as well - can claim another handful.) But it has
    captured the imagination of a number of academics who grew up with
    other literary critical techniques and became dissatisfied. Brian
    Boyd, for instance, a well-known scholar of Vladimir Nabokov and
    professor at the University of New Zealand in Auckland, changed his
    focus in his 40's to Literary Darwinism, gripped by what he calls its
    "one very simple and powerful idea."

    It may seem strange that English professors in search of inspiration
    would turn to evolutionary biology, but you should never underestimate
    the appeal of the worldview Darwin formulated. It has a way of
    capturing people's attention. While not everyone enjoys being reminded
    that humans descend from monkeys (or even worse, from prokaryotic
    bacteria), many of us like the subtle reassurance that Darwinism
    offers. Despite its theory that unceasing change is the essence of
    life, it can be perceived as a reassuring philosophy, one that
    believes there are answers. And a philosophy that implies "survival of
    the fittest" pays a great compliment to all of us who are here to read
    about it. So it is little surprise that evolutionary biology has come
    to be invoked not merely as a theory about changes in the physical
    makeups of living beings but also as an explanatory tool that appeals
    to both academics and to everyone's inner pop psychologist. (Jack
    Nicholson explaining his bad-boy behavior to an interviewer for The
    New York Times in 2002: "I have a sweet spot for what's attractive to
    me. It's not just psychological. It's also glandular and has to do
    with mindlessly continuing the species.")

    Literary Darwinism - like many offshoots of Darwinism - tends to find
    favor with those looking for universal explanations. Like Freudianism
    and Marxism, it has large-scale ambitions: to explain not just the
    workings of a particular text or author but of texts and authors over
    time and across cultures as well. It may also allow English professors
    to grab back some of the influence - and money - that the sciences, in
    the Darwinian fight for university resources, have taken from the
    humanities for the past century. But for now, to march under the
    Literary Darwinist banner you had better be independent and unafraid.
    "The most effective and easiest form of repudiation is to ignore us,"
    Carroll says.

    Literary Darwinists give off a cultlike vibe. When they talk about
    like-minded academics who won't acknowledge their beliefs in public,
    they sometimes call them "closeted." The 56-year-old Carroll's own
    conversion to the discipline took place when, as a young, tenured but
    disgruntled professor of English at the University of Missouri at St.
    Louis in the early 90's, he picked up "The Origin of Species" and "The
    Descent of Man" and had an "intuitive conviction" that he had found
    the master keys to literature. Carroll had always liked big ideas;
    he'd had a "big Hegel phase" when he was 21. "The basic conception
    crystallized for me in a matter of weeks," he remembers, and the notes
    he began taking "at high intensity" formed themselves into the
    founding text in the field, "Evolution and Literary Theory," published
    in 1995.

    Jonathan Gottschall, a 33-year-old editor of "The Literary Animal,"
    began his graduate studies in English at the State University of New
    York at Binghamton in 1994 and was surprised at how little his
    professors cared about linking literature with "the big, Delphic
    project of seeking the nature of human nature. They didn't believe in
    knowledge. In fact they could only render the word in quotes." When he
    found a copy of the zoologist Desmond Morris's 1967 book, "The Naked
    Ape," in a used bookstore, Morris's observations on the overlap
    between primate and human behavior spoke to him. (Animals often play a
    role in these conversion narratives: Ellen Dissanayake, the author of
    "What Is Art For?" and a biopoeticist at the University of Washington,
    was primed for her conversion in part by watching the behavior of wild
    animals - her husband at the time was a director at the National Zoo
    in Washington - and comparing them to her young children.)

    Soon after reading "The Naked Ape," Gottschall reread the "Iliad," one
    of his favorite books: "As always," he writes in the introduction to
    "The Literary Animal," "Homer made my bones flex and ache under the
    weight of all 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, tattooing their chests and bellowing
    their power in fierce competition for social dominance, desirable
    mates and material resources." He brought his ideas to class. "When I
    would say things like 'sociobiology' and 'evolutionary biology' in
    class," Gottschall remembers, "my classmates would hear things like
    'eugenics' and 'Hitler.' It was a measure of how toxic the material

    His interest in Literary Darwinism does not seem to have helped
    Gottschall's career - "The Literary Animal" was rejected by more than
    a dozen publishers before Northwestern University Press agreed to take
    it on. And Gottschall himself remains unemployed (though that is a
    condition familiar to many English Ph.D.'s). Literary Darwinists claim
    that no acknowledged member of their troupe has ever received tenure
    in this country. "Most of my closest friends ended up at the Ivies or
    their equivalents," Joseph Carroll says, while he is at "a branch
    campus in a state university system."

    The alpha male of Literary Darwinism is the 76-year-old Harvard
    biologist Edward O. Wilson. "There's no one we owe so much,"
    Gottschall says. Wilson contributed a foreword to "The Literary
    Animal" in which he writes that if Literary Darwinism succeeds and
    "not only human nature but its outermost literary productions can be
    solidly connected to biological roots, it will be one of the great
    events of intellectual history. Science and the humanities united!"
    Wilson has been working for 30 years to prepare the way for such a
    moment. In 1975, he began the expansion of modern evolutionary biology
    to human behavior in his book "Sociobiology: The New Synthesis." In
    the last chapter, he tried to show that evolutionary pressures play a
    big role not just in animal societies but also in human culture. "Many
    scientists and others believed it would have been better if I had
    stopped at chimpanzees," Wilson would remember later, "but the
    challenge and the excitement I felt were too much to resist."

    In "On Human Nature," published three years later, Wilson revisited
    the question with new energy. The field that emerged in part out of
    his work, evolutionary psychology, asserts that many of our mental
    activities and the behaviors that come from them - language, altruism,
    promiscuity - can be traced to preferences that were encoded in us in
    prehistoric times when they helped us to survive. According to
    evolutionary psychologists, everything from seasonal affective
    disorder to singing to lifesaving is - or at least might be -
    hard-wired. Evolutionary psychologists also try to demystify the
    nature of consciousness itself, positing, for example, that the brain
    is a collection of separate modules evolved to serve mental
    operations, more like a Swiss Army knife than a soul. A controversial
    implication of their theories is that evolution may be responsible for
    some inequalities among groups. One has only to recall the trouble
    that Lawrence Summers, Harvard's president, brought on himself earlier
    this year when he speculated that evolution might have left women less
    capable than men of outstanding performance in engineering and science
    to see how the notion continues to roil us.

    All the same, today we speak casually of innate preferences, adaptive
    behavior and fitness strategies. Consider how evolutionary psychology
    has displaced Freud. Who, upon discovering that a remote tribe had an
    incest taboo, would ascribe it to unconscious repression on the part
    of the sons of their sexual attraction to their mothers? Instead, we
    would likely cite an evolutionary biology principle that states that
    we have evolved an innate repulsion to inbreeding because it creates
    birth defects and birth defects are a barrier to survival.

    In a recent telephone conversation, I asked Wilson to assess the state
    of the revolution he helped touch off. How far had sociologists and
    psychologists gone in folding evolutionary principles into their work?
    Wilson laughed and said silkily, "Not far enough, in my opinion."
    Nonetheless, he looks forward to seeing sociobiology dust the wings of
    the arts - especially literature - with its magic. "Confusion is what
    we have now in the realm of literary criticism," Wilson writes in his
    foreword to "The Literary Animal." He amplified the point on the
    phone: "They just go on presenting it, teaching it, explaining it as
    best they can." He saw in literary criticism, especially the school
    led by Derrida, a "form of unrooted free association and an attempt to
    build rules of analysis on just idiosyncratic perceptions of how the
    world works, how the mind works. I could not see anything that was
    truly coherent." Predicting my objection, he went on: "We're not
    talking about reducing, corroding, dehumanizing. We're talking about
    adding deep history, deep genetic history, to art criticism."

    Literary Darwinists use this "deep history" to explain the power of
    books and poems that might otherwise confuse us, thus hoping to add
    satisfaction to our reading of them. Take for instance "Hamlet."
    Through the Literary Darwinist lens, Shakespeare's play becomes the
    story of a young man's dilemma choosing between his personal
    self-interest (taking over the kingdom by killing his uncle, his
    mother's new husband) and his genetic self-interest (if his mother has
    children with his uncle, he may get new siblings who carry
    three-eighths of his genes). No wonder the prince of Denmark cannot
    make up his mind.

    Or look at Jonathan Gottschall's study of the "Iliad," which
    emphasizes how the fighting over women in the epic is not the
    substitute for the fight over territory, as commentators usually
    assume, but the central subject of the poem, occasioned by an ancient
    sex-ratio imbalance, a fact he unearthed in part from studies of the
    archaeological records of contemporary grave sites.

    One of the central beliefs of evolutionary psychology is that pleasure
    is adaptive, so it is meaningful that Literary Darwinism is enjoyable
    to practice. But while its observations on individual books can be fun
    and memorable, they also feel flimsy. As David Sloan Wilson, an editor
    of "The Literary Animal" and a professor of biology and anthropology
    at SUNY-Binghamton, puts it, "Tasty slice, but where's the rest of the

    And Literary Darwinism is not equally good at explaining everything.
    It is best on big social novels, on people behaving in groups. As the
    British novelist Ian McEwan notes in his contribution to "The Literary
    Animal," "If one reads accounts of . . . troops of bonobo . . . one
    sees rehearsed all the major themes of the English 19th-century
    novel." But I don't think even by stretching one's imagination
    primates evoke "The Waste Land" or "Finnegans Wake." Tone, point of
    view, reliability of the narrator - these are literary tropes that
    often elude Literary Darwinists, an interpretive limitation that can
    be traced to Darwin himself; his son once complained that "it often
    astonished us what trash he would tolerate in the way of novels. The
    chief requisites were a pretty girl and a good ending." Darwin was
    drawn to books that were Darwinian. Similarly, Literary Darwinists are
    better on Émile Zola and John Steinbeck than, say, Henry James or
    Gustave Flaubert. I would read their take on Shakespeare's histories
    before the tragedies and the tragedies before the comedies, and in
    "The Tempest" I'd be curious about their observations on the Prospero,
    Miranda and Fernando triad but not on Caliban or Ariel. I don't care
    if there are selection pressures on mooncalfs and sprites.

    Ultimately, Literary Darwinism may teach us less about individual
    books than about the point of literature. But what can the purpose of
    literature be, assuming it is not just a harmless oddity? At first
    glance, reading is a waste of time, turning us all into versions of
    Don Quixote, too befuddled by our imaginations to tell windmills from
    giants. We would be better off spending the time mating or farming.
    Darwinists have an answer - or more accurately, many possible answers.
    (Literary Darwinists like multiple answers, convinced the best idea
    will win out.) One idea is that literature is a defense reaction to
    the expansion of our mental life that took place as we began to
    acquire the basics of higher intelligence around 40,000 years ago. At
    that time, the world suddenly appeared to homo sapiens in all its
    frightening complexity. But by taking imaginative but orderly voyages
    within our minds, we gained the confidence to interpret this new
    vastly denser reality. Another theory is that reading literature is a
    form of fitness training, an exercise in "what if" thinking. If you
    could imagine the battle between the Greeks and the Trojans, then if
    you ever found yourself in a street fight, you would have a better
    chance of winning. A third theory sees writing as a sex-display trait.
    Certainly writers often seem to be preening when they write, with an
    eye toward attracting a desirable mate. In "The Ghost Writer," Philip
    Roth's narrator informs another writer that "no one with seven books
    in New York City settles for" just one woman. "That's what you get for
    a couplet."

    Yet another theory is that the main function of literature is to
    integrate us all into one culture; evolutionary psychologists believe
    shared imaginings or myths produce social cohesion, which in turn
    confers a survival advantage. And a fifth idea is that literature
    began as religion or wish fulfillment: we ensure our success in the
    next hunt by recounting the triumph of the last one. Finally, it may
    be precisely writing's uselessness that makes it attractive to the
    opposite sex; it could be that, like the male peacock's exuberant
    tail, literature's very unnecessariness speaks to the underlying good
    health of its practitioner. He or she has resources to burn.

    Generally, Literary Darwinism positions literature not as a luxury or
    as an add-on but as connected with our deepest selves. There is a
    grandeur to this view, and also a good deal of conjecture. That is
    because evolutionary biology is unusual among the sciences in asking
    not just "how" things work but also "why" - and not the why of local
    explanations (Why does water freeze at 32 degrees?) but the why of
    deeper ones, why something exists (Why did we evolve lungs? Why do we
    feel love?). There is no lab protocol to solve these sorts of
    mysteries, which the inductive techniques of science are poorly
    designed to answer, and so in the end, evolutionary biologists'
    conclusions can far outrun their research.

    Take, for example, the human fear of snakes. According to Edward
    Wilson, this fear had its beginning in prehistoric times, when many of
    our ancestors were killed by snake bites. Those who feared snakes
    survived in greater numbers than those who didn't. This was the period
    when the human brain was becoming hard-wired, so our fear, rooted now
    in our genetic makeup, outlived its usefulness. Even after snakes
    stopped killing us very often, we remembered how we felt when they
    did. Over time, because they had traumatized us when we were most
    impressionable, snakes took a central role in our imaginative lives,
    becoming a center of our religion and art - whence the protection of
    the kings of ancient Egypt by the cobra goddess Wadjet; Quetzalcoatl,
    the Aztec serpent god of death and resurrection; and the fascination
    D.H. Lawrence felt when an uninvited guest slithered "his yellow-brown
    slackness soft-bellied" down to his water trough.

    It is a nice story backed by some evidence. Children have a readiness
    to fear snakes that needs only an encounter or two to set it off.
    Their fear remains even after they outgrow ordinary childhood fears.
    And many primates, our nearest relatives, also have a readiness - an
    easily evoked potential - to be afraid of snakes. But we need to know
    a great deal before asserting that our snake obsession is an example
    of the sort of "gene-culture co-evolution," in Wilson's words, that
    evolutionary psychology - and literary Darwinism - depend on. For one
    thing, if there is a module in the brain that contains the
    predisposition to fear snakes, it has not yet been found. Nor do we
    really know how many snake deaths there were in prehistoric times. Nor
    whether that number was sufficient to create a phobia, which,
    moreover, for some reason would have had to remain fixed until the
    present day in the human mind instead of dropping out through further
    evolutionary selection, as you might expect a useless phobia to do.
    Today it might be people who love snakes who outreproduce the
    ophidophobes, since some snakes make good eating and their skins can
    be sold for money, yet we have no evidence of this pattern. At the
    same time, we must ask why there are equivalent or greater dangers our
    ancestors withstood that do not seem to have led to phobias - for
    instance, fire.

    When you try to evaluate the importance of snakes to myths and the
    arts, you have to make several more assumptions. First, are snakes any
    more prominent in our imaginations than, say, eagles, which have never
    preyed on us? And if they are, does it not seem as likely that our
    fascination with them comes from there being something special
    (module-activating, if you like) about the snake's motion or its shape
    - its resemblance to a stick, or pace Freud, to the penis? Or about
    the fact that it kills with poison rather than through lethal
    wounding, as most wild animals do? Why trace our fear of them only
    back to their supposed role as a prehistoric killer of our ancestors?

    S ometimes evolutionary psychological theory feels like a start toward
    a science rather than a science itself. Consider, for instance, the
    larger question of the human imagination's role in evolution. Let's
    assume the capacity for imagination is inherited. Then most
    evolutionary psychologists would assume that human imagination was
    favored by natural selection and that it helps us to survive. But
    imagination could just as well not be an adaptation to (imagined)
    survival pressures but an accidental byproduct of such an adaptation.
    Maybe evolutionary pressures favored a related mental process like,
    say, curiosity, and because the higher brain, where such mental
    activities reside, is a sort of huge pool of neurons, it also produced
    the capacity for imagination. And, as Stephen Kosslyn, a Harvard
    psychology professor, notes, "Whether any of this was itself the
    target of natural selection is anybody's guess."

    To be fair, evolutionary psychologists deserve credit for asking
    whether complex human behavior can be transmitted through a
    genetic-cultural link even if they cannot yet show that it is. Theirs
    remains an alluring approach. What they need in order to overcome
    their problems is the equivalent of the early-20th-century elaboration
    of the function of genes - or at least more and better hard science to
    support their conclusions.

    A similar focus would help Literary Darwinists. They would benefit
    from studying writers and readers in the laboratory to see what parts
    of the brain our taste for literature comes out of and what the
    implications are. Such experiments could reveal quite remarkable
    things. For instance, we know that a structure in the brain called the
    hippocampus has a key role in long-term memory formulation. Scanning
    readers using functional M.R.I.'s - M.R.I.'s set to track blood flow
    to different areas of the brain - we can also see how different works
    activate their readers' hippocampuses. Those words that light up the
    hippocampus the most are the ones people wind up remembering best. So
    functional M.R.I.'s of the hippocampus could provide the beginning of
    a biological basis for the hoary assumption that "Pride and Prejudice"
    is a classic and maybe even a justification for the rest of the
    literary canon.

    Even more interesting, brain scanning might one day help to explain
    the act of reading itself. "Reading is a funny kind of brain state,"
    says Norman Holland, a professor who teaches a course on brain science
    and literature at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "If you're
    engrossed in a story, you're no longer aware of your body; you're no
    longer aware of your environment. You feel real emotions toward the
    characters." What is going on in our heads? Are we in a dream? A
    heightened reality? A trance?

    Edward Wilson told me that he is confident neurobiology can help
    confirm many of evolutionary psychology's insights about the
    humanities, commending the work to "any ambitious young
    neurobiologist, psychologist or scholar in the humanities." They could
    be the "Columbus of neurobiology," he said, adding that if "you gave
    me a million dollars to do it, I would get immediately into brain
    imaging." In fact, you won't always need a million dollars for the
    work, as the cost of M.R.I. technology goes down. "Five years from
    now, every psychology department will have a scanner in the basement,"
    says Steven Pinker, a Harvard cognitive psychologist. With the help of
    those scanners, Wilson says that science and the study of literature
    will join in "a mutualistic symbiosis," with science providing
    literary criticism with the "foundational principles" for analysis it

    David Sloan Wilson, the co-editor of "The Literary Animal" (and the
    son of the novelist Sloan Wilson), sees the potential of that embrace
    differently. "Literature," he says, "is the natural history of our
    species," and its diversity proves us diverse. No one in "Pride and
    Prejudice" takes exception when, at the book's opening, Elizabeth
    Bennet's father's cousin comes to propose to her. In Daniel Defoe's
    "Moll Flanders," the title character can, at the same time, consider
    her incest with her brother "the most nauseous thing to me in the
    world" and say she "had not great concern about it in point of
    conscience" because she had not known they were related. Humans are
    complex, and the best books about them are too. So rather than
    narrowing literature, David Wilson says that Literary Darwinism may
    broaden evolutionary psychology.

    It may, in fact, have already done so. Think about evolutionary
    psychology. It is seductive and metaphoric, alluring and imagistic. It
    is fun to riff on. It takes bits of information and from them builds a
    worldview. It convinces us that we understand why things happen the
    way they happen. When it succeeds, evolutionary psychology impresses
    us with the elegance and economy of that vision and, when it fails,
    gives us a sense of waste and unthriftiness on the author's part. It
    may be true or it may just have some truth in it, and once you have
    encountered it, you can never see things quite the same way again: it
    works a kind of conversion in you. Isn't it, then, already a lot like

    D.T. Max, a frequent contributor to the magazine, is working on "The
    Dark Eye," a cultural and scientific history of mad cow and other
    prion diseases.

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