By David Allan Evans
|There is a fish in me . . . I know I came from salt-blue water-gates . . . I scurried with shoals of herring . . . I blew waterspouts with porpoises . . . before land was … before the water went down . . . before Noah . . . before the first chapter of Genesis.
|Man will become better when you show him what he is like.
–Anton Chekhov (notebook entry)
Being a champion of Darwin and Herbert Spencer, my father took evolution and the survival of the fittest for granted. One day at about the age of 14, browsing among his books, I came across Clarence Day’s This Simian World, with an epigraph by a man named Barbellion. I was so fascinated by the quote that much of it stayed with me, and when I became interested in Darwin in college, I went to the college library and found Day’s book. This is the quote:
|How I hate the man who talks about the ‘brute creation,’ with an ugly emphasis on ‘brute.’As for me, I am proud of my close kinship with other animals. I take a jealous pride in my simian ancestry. I like to think that I was once a magnificent hairy fellow swinging in the trees, and that my body has come down through geologic time via sea slugs and worms and Amphioxus, Fish, Dinosaurs and Apes. Who would exchange these for the pallid couple in the Garden of Eden?|
My college biology professor in my freshman year confirmed for me the strange and wonderful substance of Barbellion’s words, not by any direct comments but by his passion for biology. He had a saying on his office desk that read, in bold letters: “Don’t Bother Me With Facts–My Mind Is Made Up.”
The facts had to do with the evolution–over millions of years–of all living things, including human beings. Though this quiet, articulate man was teaching in a Lutheran college with a Lutheran name supported by mostly Lutheran alumni, he wasn’t about to suffer fools on the evolution question. Not only did he teach biology with passion; he was gifted with the ability to make difficult concepts simple for his students, mainly through metaphor. Once in a lab class he admonished us to be careful with the slip covers we placed over our fragile, one-celled specimens.
“How would you like it,” he asked us, “if somebody dropped a 10,000-pound plate glass window on you?”
I might have been a biologist if I had had a background in the hard sciences when I got to college. In any case, since then I’ve learned a great deal about human nature from reading works by evolutionary biologists such as Darwin, Niko Tinbergen, Konrad Lorenz, Robert Trivers, and E. O. Wilson. My strong conviction as a writer and a teacher of literature is that what I’ve learned from these scientists is mirrored elegantly in the works of Shakespeare, Whitman, Chekkov, Kafka, and so many other literary artists.
Just as I began teaching literature in college in the early 60s, a revolution in neo-Darwinian research was starting. According to the biologist/philosopher Richard Alexander, this revolution represents “the greatest intellectual advance of the century.” The new findings, Alexander says, deeply affect our understanding of human nature:
|I think that almost every concept relevant to human sociality (such as rationality, conscience, guilt, consciousness, altruism, and egoism) has its meaning changed–or made more precise, by applying the new refinements of evolutionary theory. (3)|
Unfortunately, the “greatest intellectual advance of the century,” with its huge implications for the origins of ethics, morality, and human conduct–all of which have huge implications for literature, the arts, and any discipline that professes to try to understand human nature–has had little effect on the social sciences and humanities. My impression is that most professors in these fields are essentially uninformed about biology and can see no use for it in their classrooms or in their research. Many of them, in fact, are downright anti-Darwinian and biophobic.
One reason for their negativism is the tragic legacy of Social Darwinism. The response to this legacy from those in the social sciences and the humanities, more or less throughout the present century, has been to ignore and/or denigrate genetic explanations of human behavior and to aggressively emphasize environmental and cultural explanations. Social Darwinism–the use of Darwin’s theory to justify social inequality and oppression–has nothing to do with Darwinism. Instead, it is a perversion of Darwin’s theory, a case of the naturalistic fallacy: making a leap from is to ought.
In the last couple of decades many anti-Darwinians have labeled the entire Western scientific tradition as patriarchal, elitist, and exclusionary. This criticism often mixes with so-called postmodernism, which holds that there are no objective facts, but only interpretations, and that all interpretations have moral and political implications. Matt Carthill, professor of anthropology and anatomy at Duke University, succinctly summarized this point of view: “Anybody who claims to have objective knowledge about anything is trying to control and dominate the rest of us.” (80) It’s interesting that the same criticism is not applied to other sciences such as physics, chemistry, and mathematics. Very little is said about such great thinkers as Newton, Einstein, and Bohr.
Among the anti-Darwinians are those who claim that science is only one kind of tribal myth for explaining the origin of things, and that it’s no better than the view of those who, for instance, believe literally in the Garden of Eden or that the earth is carried on the back of a giant turtle.
The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins answers these critics in this way:
|Show me a cultural relativist at thirty thousand feet and I’ll show you a hypocrite. Airplanes built according to scientific principles work. They stay aloft, and they get you to a chosen destination. Airplanes built to tribal or mythological specifications, such as the dummy airplanes of the cargo cults in jungle clearings or the beeswaxed wings of Icarus, don’t. (31-32)|
Another reason for anti-Darwinism in academia is that recent findings about human nature often clash with ideas that support social change. In a long introduction to The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture, evolutionary psychologists John Tooby and Lida Cosmides contend that what they call the Standard Social Science Model–as opposed to the empiricist model–has a “strong moral appeal,” since it emphasizes “human malleability and the hope it, therefore, [gives] for social melioration or social revolution.” (35)
The recent emphasis on multiculturalism in literature and other fields is an example of this desire for social melioration. Advocates of multiculturalism often talk about racial prejudice as if it were a wholly cultural phenomenon. No doubt, prejudice is to an extent culturally learned. (Flannery O’Connor’s short story “The Artificial Nigger” is a superb dramatization of how this can happen.) But when it comes to judging others by the color of their skin or the way they dress or talk, there is something deeper going on than culture can account for. In a recent interview, anthropologist Robin Fox was asked why people have such a “gut level” response to the matter of race. His reply:
|Because of a persistent factor of human nature that our grandparents knew all about–xenophobia! We have a deeply built-in fear of the stranger. This is part of a Paleolithic spacing mechanism. Tribes were separated in space and there were some individuals that were like you and some that were not like you. Therefore, we have a similarity detection mechanism built into us. From childhood, we tend to develop a picture of an ideal form or face from the observation of the people around us. We have a special part of the brain that sorts through faces looking for familiarity. Those that are least familiar are those that are going to be the most frightening.
And even if nature doesn’t provide the cues to familiarity, like skin color, for us, we provide it for ourselves with things like costumes, tattoos, headdresses, things through the nose, or anything that distinguishes who we are from who they are. Skin color is merely one aid to this inborn xenophobia. Something deep down in that Paleolithic brain registers ‘Different, Different, Different.!’ (81)
Xenophobia is also present in language. A surprisingly large percentage of the words hunter-gatherers used to designate the people who belonged to tribes other than their own meant “enemy.”
To evolutionary psychologists, certain innate psychological rules have evolved by natural selection working over millions of years in our species. These rules have to do with all the basics: sex, status, perception, and so on. The idea that there are biological constraints on the human mind is pernicious and even threatening to those who believe that human motives, interests, and behaviors are the result of cultural conditioning. Why is it that when chimpanzees do the same things that humans do (hunt, think, plan, deceive, cooperate, use tools, communicate with vocal sounds, and create hierarchies) it’s called instinct, but when humans do those things it’s called culture?
Biologists sometimes say, half-jokingly, that we evolved with a blind spot regarding our own evolution. To believe the Barbellian story about coming out of the slime so long ago, up through “sea slugs and worms and amphioxus,” and to imagine our ancestor as “a magnificent hairy fellow swinging in the trees” is downright morally obnoxious to a lot of people. On the other hand, to believe that we are a special creation, only a notch or so below the angels, can only enhance our self-esteem and confirm our importance in the universe.
There is a discrepancy between what is going on in education and in the media. Anyone who has watched recent Nova or Nature programs, or the Discovery channel knows that much of what the evolutionary biologists and psychologists have to say about human evolution has become mainstream. A glimpse of one of these programs may make a lot of academics uncomfortable.
For the neo-Darwinians, societies are groups of individuals seeking their own interests. Robert Wright, in his popular, influential book, THE MORAL ANIMAL, writes:
|Think of it: zillions and zillions of organisms running around, each under the hypnotic spell of a single truth, all these truths identical, and all logically incompatible with one another:
‘My hereditary material is the most important material on earth; its survival justifies your frustration, pain, even death.’ (338)
And yet it’s not even the individual organism that’s in control, but rather its genes. Here is Richard Dawkins’ well-known metaphor in the preface of his book, The Selfish Gene:
|We are survival machines–robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.|
This is the kind of picture that so many sociologists and humanists can’t tolerate. E. O. Wilson says that the idea that genes control our behavior is “scandalous to some scholars,” since they fear that it may lead to a “political scenario” which supports “the status quo and continued social injustice.” He goes on to point out that, on the other hand, those same scholars “seldom entertain an equally plausible scenario, one in which complete cultural determinism leads to support for authoritarian mind control and worse injustice.”(IN SEARCH OF NATURE, 89)
I appreciate Richard Alexander’s comment:
To say we are evolved to serve the interests of our genes in no way suggests that we are obliged to serve them. . . Evolution is surely most deterministic for those still unaware of it. (40)
A lot of people object to the picture of human beings as conniving, selfish individuals who care only about their own egos. And yet recent research has shown that the picture is more complex than that. According to the economist Robert Frank, integrity and reputation are indispensable human qualities, and to retain them we sometimes will sacrifice private gain. Furthermore, when our integrity and reputation are at stake–say, when we are being questioned in a courtroom–our emotions can give us away. Frank believes that the passions (“moral sentiments,” in the words of Adam Smith) evolved along with selfish propensities and behaviors.
Like other primates, we are a quintessentially social species, for whom cooperation and sympathy are as natural as ulterior motives. According to the primatologist Frans de Waal:
|A person who lies without blushing, who never shows remorse, and who grabs every opportunity to bypass the rules just does not strike us as the most appealing friend or colleague. The uniquely human capacity to turn red in the face suggests that at some point in time our ancestors began to gain more from advertising trustworthiness than from fostering opportunism. (116)|
(Mark Twain said something similar: Man is the only animal that blushes, or needs to.)
* * *
What does all this have to do with literature? If biology matters–and it does–then it has a lot to do with it. I agree with Joseph Carroll in his monumental book EVOLUTION AND LITERARY THEORY: Literature is a form of knowledge, and since knowledge is a biological phenomenon, so is literature. Being one who assumes that literature and language are based on a tangible, actual, real world that preceded them, I teach poems, stories, plays, and other literary works as if they were ways of comprehending that real world. I tell my students that they can best relate to the experiences depicted in literary works by thinking of those experiences as universal. I constantly ask them: What do you learn about yourself in what you read? What do you learn about humans everywhere?
Let me briefly outline four basic concepts–stated in Carroll’s introduction to his book–that underlie my approach to the teaching of literature:
First, the most important concept in biology is the relationship between an organism and its environment. This concept, as Carroll says, is “the necessary presupposition for an evolutionary view of personal psychology, sexual and family relations, social organizations, cognition, and linguistic representation.” (2)
Second (and here again I’m quoting Carroll): “innate psychological structures–perceptual, rational, and affective–have evolved through an adaptive process of natural selection and. . .these structures regulate the mental and emotional life of all living organisms, including human beings.” (2) Furthermore:
|If literary authors operate within the range of constraints imposed by an evolved human psychology–as they clearly must–evolutionary study can help us to understand both the situations depicted in literature and the personal and social conditions in which literature is produced. (see article, p. 122)|
Third, the ultimate cause behind all striving is what biologists call inclusive fitness, which means that all organisms–but not necessarily all the time or directly–seek to maximize their own reproductive success. According to Carroll, this all-important concept implies that
|. . . all innate psychological structures have, in ancestral environments, evolved under the regulative power of reproductive success and that these innate structures remain fully active at the present time. Perhaps the single most important corollary of this principle, for purposes of literary analysis, is that reproductive success, in its twin aspects of sexual union and the production of successful offspring, is central to human concerns and thus to literary works. (2)|
And finally, literature is a kind of “cognitive mapping.” Carroll defines this term as “orientation to an environment that is, in the first place, spatial and physical.” (2) In this case, “cognitive” denotes “any psychological process,” including emotion and perception.
For Carroll, “the primary purpose of literature is to represent the subjective quality of experience.” (3)
A poem by Emily Dickinson, “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass,” about encountering a snake, is a good example of a literary work whose images and emotions can be viewed in an evolutionary way. When I read and discuss this poem with my students, I often mention E. O. Wilson’s apt phrase, “the serpentine gestalt,” which captures so well our natural affiliation with and fear of snakes. Then I read to them the following excerpts from Wilson’s book Biophilia:
|Science and the humanities, biology and culture, are bridged in a dramatic manner by the phenomenon of the serpent. (BIOPHILIA, 83)
The mind is primed to react emotionally to the sight of snakes, not just to fear them but to be aroused and absorbed in their details, to weave stories [and poems] about them. (BIOPHILIA, 86)
It pays in elementary survival to be interested in snakes and to respond emotionally to their generalized image, to go beyond ordinary caution and fear. The rule built into the brain in the form of a learning bias is: become
When we discuss the poem, I ask questions about structure, meter, perception, figurative language: What do you see? What do you hear? What do you feel? What about the “spotted shaft,” the “Whiplash,” the placement of the word “sudden” in “His notice sudden is,” the verb “wrinkled,” and the image of the comb? We consider the poem’s closure. I ask about the words “tighter breathing/And Zero at the Bone–”–what does this mean to a person who has seen a snake close up, who has startled one in the grass, who has felt the sudden quick fear rising in the throat, the sense of real danger that has, in the first place, nothing to do with language, but which the poet finds words for nevertheless–out of perhaps her own personal experience? In short, I ask my students to make connections between the biology and the poetry.
Reading the poem only from the perspective of culture, history, or linguistics, which is useful and necessary, is to limit one’s response to the poem. There is much more to it than that, and an evolutionary perspective can, I believe, get us closer to what Henry James called the “felt life” of the poem. I ask similar questions about D. H. Lawrence’s “Snake,” Stanley Kunitz’ “The Well-Fleet Whale,” or Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Moose” and “Sandpiper.” (Incidentally, Barbellion’s feeling of pride because of his “close kinship with other animals” melds perfectly with Wilson’s concept of biophilia, the idea that all life forms have an innate propensity to associate with other life forms.)
Another poem that can work well within a neo-Darwinian perspective is Frost’s “Mending Wall.” In this poem, two New England farmers, one of whom is the poem’s narrator, meet in the spring to mend the wall of rocks between their two farms. In this poem there are two points of view in conflict: one farmer is cautious and conservative, and “will not go behind his father’s saying,” that “good fences make good neighbors.” The other farmer (the narrator), seems more cooperative and friendly, and, even though he is the one who initiated the spring mending in the first place, he questions the need for walls:
|There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines. . .
In this blank verse poem, Frost, who read Darwin and thought a lot about his theory, is very much aware of the competition underlying evolution. Yet even though we see competition between two persons here, there is also a sense of cooperation and understanding, which seems to mitigate against the stubbornness of the more conservative farmer. In fact, the cooperation/empathy side comes out in just as “natural” a way as the competitive side. The poem’s well-known opening dramatizes this powerfully:
|Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen groundswell under it
And spills the upper boulders in the sun
And makes gaps two can pass abreast. . .
It’s the something (one of Frost’s favorite words) that is always working behind the scenes–that mysterious force in nature that doesn’t just divide us but also brings us together, in work, in ritual, in play.
One of the quotes I bring into class is by Frans de Waal, the primatologist who specializes in chimpanzee behavior. de Waal believes that “human life is fundamentally dualistic”:
|We soar somewhere between heaven and earth on a ‘good’
wing–an acquired sense of ethics and justice–and a ‘bad’
wing–a deeply rooted egoism.
(“The world is half the devil’s and my own,” wrote Dylan Thomas in a poem.)
de Waal’s words apply to what the conservative farmer says at the end the poem:
|Good fences make good neighbors.|
Both de Waal and Frost–scientist and poet–dramatize the same truth in a paradox: human aggression and cooperation have the same source. The wall in the poem is dualistic: on the one hand it separates the two men, and on the other hand it brings them together in a ritual of cooperation that reaches back millions of years to the earliest hominids and even before.
Another image in the poem also shows Frost’s interest in the evolutionary struggle: darkness. Near the end of the poem the conventional farmer/neighbor is described as carrying stones to the wall, “like an old stone savage armed”:
|He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
not of wood only and the shade of trees.
Light/dark is not merely a cultural symbol or motif. This is what Carrol says about it:
|The basic affective qualities of light and dark seem to
derive from our experience in ancestral environments.
The central experience of darkness, for our ancestors,
even more for us, is the night. Many predators hunt
at night, and humans are heavily dependent on vision
adapted to daylight. Children growing up in modern
suburbs have little reason to fear the dark, but still
do fear it.
And so, just as the snake over time has become the serpent of mythology, so too have light and darkness become symbols of daylight/truth/warmth/knowledge/understanding and fear/coldness/ignorance. “This is your house,” says the poet Conrad Aiken at the beginning of a poem, “On one side there is darkness; on one side there is light.”
I have my students read essays by well-known evolutionary thinkers, especially those who are excellent writers, such as E. O. Wilson, Tooby and Cosmides, Robert Wright, Loren Eiseley, and Stephen Jay Gould. As an advisor, I encourage English majors to take courses in the natural sciences. I readily bring examples of biophilia and facts and findings of evolutionary research into my literature classrooms. Here is a brief list:
What suits me about the evolutionary approach to teaching literature is not just the fact that it is based on the most plausible explanation yet for how and why human nature originated. I also appreciate the way (in the words of the scholar and critic Ellen Dissanayake) it “subsumes differences of sex, race, and the characteristics of individual identity.” ( 235) Carroll writes that “this commonality is, no doubt, an important contributing cause for our ability to read with appreciation and sympathy the works of authors who are from epochs, levels of civilization, cultural, ideological, and religious orientations, sexes or sexual orientations, races, and classes different from our own, and who also have vastly different personal characteristics.” (159)
I assume that we have humanities and literature courses so that students can be informed on the human condition–that somehow, reading works by philosophers, novelists, poets, and essayists is a useful practice in education. The economist Herbert A. Simon writes:
|If the humanities are to base their claims to a central place in the liberal curriculum on their special insights into the human condition, they must be able to show that their picture of that condition is biologically, sociologically, and psychologically defensible. It is not enough, for this particular purpose, that humanistic works move students. They must move them in ways that will enable them to live with due regard for reason and fact in the real world. (33-34)|
Joseph Conrad wrote that his job as an artist was, “above all, to make [us] see.” I take “see” to mean literally to see, but also to understand, to comprehend. Robert Frost surely agreed with Conrad in his famous definition of a poem as “a momentary stay against confusion.” Literature mirrors human experience.
Biologist and writer Marge Midgley says that “No excuse remains for anybody in the humanities and social sciences to evade the challenge of Darwin and treat social man as an isolated miracle.” (34)
As a Darwinian and a teacher of literature, I can only agree.
Alexander, Richard D. THE BIOLOGY OF MORAL SYSTEMS. Hawthorne, N.Y: Simon and Schuster, 1987.
Carroll, Joseph. EVOLUTION AND LITERARY THEORY. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995.
Carthill, Matt. “Oppressed by Evolution.” Discovery (March, 1998): 78-83.
Cosmides, Leda, and John Tooby. “The Psychological Foundations of Culture.” In THE ADAPTED MIND: EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY AND THE GENERATION OF CULTURE, ed. Jerome H. Barkow, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby. New York:Oxford University Press, 1992.
Chekhov, Anton. THE PORTABLE CHEKHOV. New York: The Viking Press, 1947.
Dawkins, Richard. THE SELFISH GENE. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
———–. RIVER OUT OF EDEN. New York: Basic Books, 1995.
Day, Clarence. THIS SIMIAN WORLD. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1920.
De Waal, Frans. GOOD NATURED. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.
Dissanayake, Ellen. “Darwin Meets Literary Theory.” Philosophy and Literature (April, 1996): 229-239.
Fox, Robin. “The Imperial Animals 25 Years Later.” Skeptic (Vol. 4, No. 1, 1996): 78-85.
Midgley, Mary. “Rival Fatalisms.” In SOCIOBIOLOGY EXAMINED, ed. Ashley
Montague. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.
Simon, Herbert A. REASON IN HUMAN AFFAIRS. Stanford: Stanford University Press, University Press, 1986.
Trivers, Robert. SOCIAL EVOLUTION. Menro Park: California: The Benjamin/Cummings Publishing Company, Inc., 1985.
Wilson, Edward O. IN SEARCH OF NATURE. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1996.
———. BIOPHILIA. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984.