"On the Limits of Evolutionary Approaches to the Interpretation of Narrative Literature"

Porter Abbott


This paper is proposed as a positive (welcoming) effort. It is not set in opposition to a fresh interdisciplinary development, now in its infancy, but is an effort to anticipate problems in advance. In considering how evolutionary theory and literary interpretation may be brought together, here are four possible problems that may arise. First, we have the problem of the unique particularity of exceptional texts. If literary distinction is not a matter of indescribable singularity, to what extent do we have in these new approaches (deriving from evolutionary theory) the means of a full or even an interesting analysis? Scientific scrutiny almost always attends to the repeatable. Even the exception attains significance only insofar as it can reveal a new level of the repeatable. So is there, then, a final incompatibility between scientific discourse and the literary discourse of singular achievement? Secondly, we have the problem of reductive hypotheses applied to complex symbolic systems like narrative literature. It may turn out that evolutionary models can be applied to the interpretation of narrative only at an appropriate level of generality. A good example of the latter is Steven Mithin's idea of an evolved capacity for "cognitive fluidity," which he opposes to the "rigid conformity of mimetic group behavior." Among other things, this capability can be seen as itself enabling the complexity of symbolic entities like literary narratives. But there would seem to be a line, on the other side of which other kinds of analytical discourse must be employed in order to accommodate this complexity. Third, is the problem of narrative texts, and even narrative modes, that may have nothing to do with survival. Of course, at a broad level of generality the capability of producing a variety of activities that have nothing to do with survival in any present instance has nonetheless a great deal to do with evolution, since evolution depends on the continual production variation. But should the absence of any more specific demonstrable or even possible link with species survival imply a necessarily lessened interest or value in specific examples or kinds of narrative? Fourth is the problem of what could be called extinctive behavior. This is itself an application of evolutionary theory, extrapolated from the fact that extinction of species is the rule. Still, it may be worth thinking of in place of ideas of survival and adaptation. Narrative modernity often involves the awareness of non-repeatability, which goes against what is conceivably the original function of narrative as a symbolic accommodation of our awareness of death to ideas of replication and survival. Powerful elements of both romanticism and modernism made non-repeatability, in form of originality, a fetish. Why did this happen, and what is its significance with respect to evolutionary explanations of narrative? Is it possible that this is one of the instrumentalities of extinction? What interest and value does extinctive narrative behavior have?

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