Monday, October 14, 2002

Evolutionary Criticism - An article on bringing evolutionary psychology to bear on works of literature, specifically, The Aeneid. The authors on occasion step too far, such as when they suggest that evolution is (or could be) an organizing principle for all of literary criticism, but they have some good points. If you're interested in this sort of thing, I recommend Ellen Dissanayake's What is Art For? and other books, which deal with art not as objects but as a set of behaviors, behaviors which she argues increase our 'fitness' in the Darwinian sense of the word. Where, then, does that leave literary criticism? Well, I for one think that it's interesting to look at stories in terms of their behavioral effects, which allows us to examine why given stories are, or are not, adaptive for certain cultures at certain times.

Piers Plowman bores the daylights out of most of us, but so many copies of it exist that we know it must have been popular in its day. Why? Why was this story so resonant with the people of its time? I don't know enough about the era to even hazard a guess, honestly. But I believe in stories as an active force, so I believe that it was because the story was somehow useful to them.

When I think about publishing my thoughts on this, my mind always jumps to the opportunists in Congress that blame Hollywood whenever there's some sort of violent tragedy. It's the movies' fault, or music, or video games. But life is more complicated than that. Violent entertainment is cathartic, it purges violent emotion even as it evokes it. If we try and guess what stories will or will not be adaptive, we'll more than likely guess wrong. If there's one constant about human beings as a race, it's that we always seem to think we know more than we actually do.

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