When literary criticism meets evolutionary biology

To the dismay of my literature professors and some of my colleagues in my university’s English department, I gravitate to New Historicism and psychological criticism when I analyze a text*. I’ve never read Derrida or Lacan. What I’ve heard of them confuses the hell out of me, to be honest. New Historicism and psychological criticism always made the most sense to me when I used them to take apart a novel and see how it ticked.

I graduated before Jonathan Gaskell—recently profiled in The Chronicle of Higher Education by David Wescott—started to publish his thoughts about how the ideas of evolutionary biology and psychology could be used to understand literature. Gaskell’s epiphany came when he read The Naked Ape while studying the IliadGaskell promoted the idea of consilience:

the principle that evidence from independent, unrelated sources can “converge” to strong conclusions. That is, when multiple sources of evidence are in agreement, the conclusion can be very strong even when none of the individual sources of evidence are very strong on their own (Wikipedia).

stabbed by penGaskell, as quoted by Wescott, wanted to foster consilience between evolutionary biology and literature because, “the alternative is to let literature study keep spinning off into a corner of irrelevance to die” (Chronicle of Higher Education). The consilience never happened. According to Wescott’s article, Gaskell was shut out by literary academia. (The latter half of the article was a summary of Gaskell’s later work about the male need for violence. That part isn’t relevant to my post here. To be honest, I find Gaskell’s aggression disturbing.)

The idea of consilience fascinates me. I’ve always resisted the idea of literature, as a discipline and as a cultural artifact, being studying in isolation. Perhaps it’s my natural inclination to comparative literature and my use of New Historicism and psychological criticism that pulls me in this direction, but because literature is created by humans, it makes sense to me to use history, culture, and psychology to make sense of it. What we say in our stories reflects who we are, what we desire, what we fear. Evolutionary biology—evolutionary psychology in particular—has some problems of it’s own, but it might be another useful addition to the literary criticism arsenal.


* I was trained out of saying book/poem/story when I was a young English major. They’re all texts.

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