Caroll: Darwin, Dickens & Pinker

For that niche audience out there interested in the application of evolutionary psychology to lit crit, Joseph Caroll’s book, Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature, is out and given a lengthy positive review by Denis Dutton: “The Pleasures of Fiction” in Philosophy and Literature and, of course, on A&L.

He argues that:

This then is how Carroll’s evolutionary substructure underpins a general theory of literature. “Authors are people talking to people about people.” Behind the talk lies an evolved structure of behavioral systems, a Darwinian psychology, and the emotions that characterize it. Literary forms are analyzed and understood in terms the complex relations between authors, characters, and audiences. As I understand Carroll’s view, this makes the experience of a work of literature inescapably social, and not just about an imaginary social life. The author is always a palpable presence, which would explain why intentionalism has never died in criticism or literary theory.

Dutton discusses the tension between Pinker’s arguments and Caroll’s – both agree in many ways but in the end, Caroll’s long passion for and understanding of fine literature deepens and changes the thrust of this biological approach. As Dutton observes:

Joseph Carroll brings to his Darwinian position a sensitive aesthetic and critical sense. He writes beautifully about deep, rich works of art. This gives a wholly earned air of importance to the essays in Literary Darwinism. For the last decade, I’ve heard it said that evolutionary aesthetics is a field of great potential. Read his extended analysis of Pride and Prejudice and you can see how Carroll goes beyond the promises into the payoff. He is able to demonstrate how a knowledge of Darwinian mechanisms shines light on some of the most cherished aesthetic emotions and experiences we are capable of feeling — and he does it without impoverished reductionisms, without making the endlessly complex seem stupidly simple. His Literary Darwinism is a book to reckon with.