Charles Darwin: Conservative Messiah? On Joseph Carroll's <b><em>Literary Darwinism</b></em>

Charles Darwin: Conservative Messiah? On Joseph Carroll's Literary Darwinism

2009-07-29
Literary Darwinism
Joseph Carroll
New York: Routledge, 2004

Bruce Clarke reviews Joseph Caroll’s Literary Darwinism and (like Laura Walls in her review of E.O. Wilson ten years earlier in ebr)
identifies the LD project not as “consilience” so much as the
colonization of the literary humanities by one branch of the
biological sciences. In Caroll, Clarke discerns a Darwinian
fundamentalism to match the Christian fundamentalism that can be observed in Clarke’s own Lubbock, TX habitat.

The legacy of Charles Darwin remains as vexed as ever. In my part of the States, a debate over Darwin is played out on the backs of cars. To signify their theological commitments, some affix plastic silhouettes of fish to their bumpers or trunks. Sometimes the point is driven home by placing the name “Jesus” inside the fish. The occasional secularist joker lampoons these logos with a parodic variation that gives the fish tiny feet and a little smile. These turn it into a lizard, presumably from the Galapagos Islands, and often the point is made explicit by inscribing “Darwin” inside the creature’s body. Not to be outdone, others then signify their opinion of “Darwin” and his supposed challenge to their construction of the Deity with a composite display in which the Darwin lizard finds itself within the jaws of an even larger Christian fish. So much for turning the other cheek: a world religion of social tolerance and a universal science of natural history are perverted into rival caricatures and reduced to tattoos on the asses of automobiles. In yet another variation, however, which has yet to appear on a bumper, Jesus and Darwin merge into a composite savior. While the salvational Darwin has yet to gel into a specific logo, it is implicitly affixed to the pages of Carroll’s Literary Darwinism.

Literary Darwinism has been championed recently in the pages of Philosophy and Literature and The Hudson Review. Additionally, although Carroll’s volume is not mentioned therein, the larger cult of which it is a part, as represented in The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative, to which Carroll is a contributor, received a prominent write-up in the New York Times Magazine. So there is some need for a skeptical consideration.

In an intellectual autobiographical sketch presented in the chapter “Organism, Environment, and Literature,” Carroll recounts his efforts, at the turn of the 1990’s, to fashion “a set of conceptually neutral categories for the comparison of worldviews, … a framework within which to compare the competing paradigms of poststructuralism and the traditional humanistic paradigm” (151). While the “conceptual neutrality” of the scheme Carroll details is a dubious proposition - indeed, this locution marks the unreflexive objectivism laced throughout Carroll’s discursive stance - nevertheless,

This was the point to which I had come … when I first sat down to read …The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. …. The effect of reading Darwin was immediate, massive, and decisive. It did not so much transform my worldview as unfold and illuminate it. Darwin’s own vision of evolutionary history had a simple grandeur and power that comprehends the whole natural world, including the human world, over all of geological time. Set beside the scope and comprehensive force of the Darwinian worldview, the sophistical verbal formulas and tortured encodings of poststructuralism appear trivial and irrelevant. (151)

I would point out that for the first 800 million years of geological time, during the “Hadean eon,” as life had not yet emerged, there were as yet no phenomena to which to apply Darwinian observation. But what’s a billion years here and there, relative to the sacral infinitude of the Darwinian sublime? In a similar vein is Carroll’s misstatement that, in Wells’s The Time Machine, in “his second voyage, the time traveler advances billions of years to witness the final decay of the sun into a red giant and the imminent extinction of all life on earth” (94; my italics), despite the fact that Wells’s text reads: “At last, more than thirty million years hence, the huge red-hot dome of the sun had come to obscure nearly a tenth-part of the darkling heavens” (85; my italics). “Thirty million years” was the rough estimate of the probable further duration of the sun put forward by Lord Kelvin in 1862, who then used his authoritative physical prediction as a cudgel to beat Darwin’s estimations of evolutionary time, and by extension, his theory of evolution altogether. Insofar as we care about rising above mere polemics to engage in properly informed debate about matters such as “Darwinism” and “poststructuralism,” it is good to remind ourselves that Victorian science, including Darwin, occasionally got things (as we now take it on contemporary scientific authority) spectacularly wrong.

As my parable of fishes may indicate, there are a number of belief systems currently “competing” to gobble down the Darwin fish. Just as not all Christian denominations are equally agitated by Darwin’s legacy, there is also no universal sectarian agreement within science itself about the proper biological and cultural constructions to draw from his work. Here, too, however, I cannot see Literary Darwinism as a reliable guide, as it parses contemporary scientific controversies over evolutionary theory into a simplistic political schism championing the bulwark of conservative Neo-Darwinist orthodoxy against the purportedly Marxist protests of Stephen Jay Gould, Niles Eldredge, and Richard Lewontin, with no mention of the most important current intra-scientific challenge to the Neo-Darwinist paradigm, Lynn Margulis’s profound work on the theories of symbiogenesis and speciation by means of acquired genomes. From this vantage, putting aside the disheartening vistas of fundamentalist obscurantism rampaging on the American social landscape, the contested legacy of Darwin has also animated the scientistic wing of the culture wars, which have combined with bona fide science studies to remind us how inextricably entangled the lines between physical, natural, social, and philosophical ideas and convictions have become, or for that matter, have always been. Here, too, religion and politics still thrash about like many-armed creatures of the deep perpetually locked in mortal struggle.

In particular, the psychosocial consequences of evolutionary biological discourse continue to be wrangled over by the “neo-Darwinist” advocates of sociobiology and its cognitive sibling, evolutionary psychology, on the one hand, and the “post-Darwinist” challengers to adaptationist evolutionary dogmas, advocating alternative and/or supplementary schemas ranging from punctuated equilibrium and genomic symbiogenesis to the structural coupling of environments to autopoietic systems, on the other. Literary Darwinism straps on its polemical armor for combat in this wide and lively arena, and wrestles with important contemporary facets of the multivalent phenomenon called “Darwin,” about which no informed student of ecological matters can hope to remain above the fray. In the end, however, my observation is that Carroll’s argument is slain by its own hand.

In Literary Darwinism, an unreflexive circularity masquerades as “objectivity,” consonant with the residual philosophical naiveté of the mainstream American bioscientific discourse that finds its ultimate avatar in “the alpha male of Literary Darwinism” (Max), E. O. Wilson. Carroll blithely elides the circumstance that the only scientific observers of “human nature” available are themselves human beings. Looking at his own kind in the (literary) mirror, Carroll does not compensate for the self-referential nature of his project. So we read:

Adaptationists … make it their concern to identify the constituent elements of an evolved human nature: a universal, species-typical array of behavioral and cognitive characteristics. … They identify human nature as a biologically constrained set of cognitive and motivational characteristics, and they contend that human nature is both the source and subject of literature. (vii)

Or, “nature” is both the origin and the end of the representation of “nature.” This characteristic of the adaptationist program reflects the logical circularity long recognized at the basis of the notion of evolutionary “fitness”: if the “fittest” are what survives, then the “survival of the fittest” is just to say “the survival of the survivors,” that is, to wrap oneself in tautology. Carroll’s exposition replicates this pattern in presenting a staple of the Neo-Darwinist synthesis, “the largest principle that regulates all of life - the principle of inclusive fitness”:

The principle of inclusive fitness, as it is currently understood by evolutionary psychologists does not require us to suppose that all individuals at all times are seeking to maximize their reproductive advantage. Instead, it requires us to suppose that all individuals at all times are operating under the constraints of an evolved psychology that is itself the product of a process of adaptation that has been regulated, throughout the history of life, by the principle of inclusive fitness. (9)

Stripped down to essentials, the statement goes in circles: “the principle of inclusive fitness … requires … the principle of inclusive fitness.”

One of the ways that Carroll’s exposition deflects attention from such unreflexive circularities is by means of emphatically linear argumentative constructions, an aspect of what Carroll asserts as “the inexorable logic of the adaptationist program” (63), which I will call instances of “stampede logic.” In this rhetorical formation, chains of purported causal propositions are lined up and firehosed in a stream. Here is a concise example: “The one crucial element missing from cognitive rhetoric is an ordered system of [psychological] domains; the necessary precondition for this system is a structured concept of human nature; and the source for this concept is the study of the adapted mind - that is, the study of the evolved structure of the human psyche” (105). The concision of this sequence also allows us to observe that, despite its “inexorable” march to a foregone conclusion, it remains as circular as ever: the precondition for an “ordered” psychic “system” is an “evolved” psychic “structure.” Here the tautology is covered over by the nominal difference but virtual analytical conflation of the very real distinction between “structure” and “system,” a distinction between elemental interrelationships (systemic structure) and the emergent operational dynamics enabled by that ensemble (systemic functions). Carroll consistently mouths the rhetoric of biological systems theory without making any contact with of the particulars of that crucial line of discourse.

To my mind, stampede logic also vitiates Carroll’s critique of ecology and ecocriticism, as expressed in two chapters in particular, “Ecocriticism, Cognitive Ethology, and the Environments of Victorian Fiction,” and “Organism, Environment, and Literature.” More precisely, these are two variants of the same essay, as indicated by their replication of a long passage through which Carroll hustles his argument for the insufficiency of ecological, relative to “adaptationist,” thought as a basis for a naturalistic literary discourse. Here’s how some of the passage runs in the “Ecocriticism” essay:

…Human feeling, motivation, and thought occur only in individual minds. The individual mind is the locus of experience and meaning, and it is, consequently, on this level that we must seek the organization of meaning in literary texts.

Literature is produced by the psyche, not the ecosystem, and the psyche has been produced by natural selection. The direct causal force that creates complex cognitive structures is not an ecological principle of community, of sustainable growth, or of the stable interchange of energy within a biosphere. The direct causal force that creates complex adaptive features is natural selection….(87)

To begin with, with the locution “direct causal force” this passage hypostatizes or literalizes natural selection in a way that Darwin himself was concerned to combat as the Origin went through its later editions. (Thus the regressive nature of the decision by recent editors of the Origin, Carroll himself as well as Philip Appleman, to revert to Darwin’s first edition of 1859, and so erase the traces of his own cumulative efforts to train his readers’ rhetorical acumen, as well as the salutary feedback effects upon the Origin of the responses of its initial critics.) Recall the well-known passage from chapter 4 of the 6th edition of the Origin (which also provides evidence of Darwin’s appreciation of the interrelation between scientific observers [“ascertained by us”] and the “natural laws” observed):

Several writers have misapprehended or objected to the term Natural Selection. Some … have objected that the term selection implies conscious choice in the animals which become modified; and it has even been urged that, as plants have no volition, natural selection is not applicable to them! In the literal sense of the word, no doubt, natural selection is a false term; but who ever objected to chemists speaking of the elective affinities of the various elements? … Every one knows what is meant and is implied by such metaphorical expressions; and they are almost necessary for brevity. So again it is difficult to avoid personifying the word Nature; but I mean by Nature, only the aggregate action and product of many natural laws, and by laws the sequence of events as ascertained by us. (Darwin, 54-55; my italics)

Specifically, Carroll’s argument literalizes the metonymy by which the figurative phrase “natural selection” converts the selective effects of environmental interactions upon generations of variable offspring into a “direct causal force,” and so, stampeding towards an unscientific stance of doctrinal certainty, contradicts his own mentor’s accumulation of rhetorical as well as doctrinal caution.

Further, let us examine Carroll’s claims that “The individual mind is the locus of experience and meaning, and it is, consequently, on this level that we must seek the organization of meaning in literary texts. Literature is produced by the psyche, not the ecosystem.” Now, this passage recurs verbatim in “Organism, Environment, and Literature,” while omitting the prior version’s immediately following evolutionary-psychological remark that “the psyche has been produced by natural selection.” Rather, this time, the identical claims are made in support of the specific assertion that “Ecology is integral to evolutionary thinking, but the concepts specific to ecology cannot by themselves provide a basis for a theory of literature” (160). This omits the needed reflection that the concepts specific to evolutionary biology cannot by themselves provide a basis for a theory of the psyche, let alone for a theory of literature, in that the psyche is not precisely speaking an organic but a meta-organic system, inextricably bound up with and co-dependent upon its sociocultural contexts as well as its evolving biological foundations.

This is an argumentative juncture in Carroll’s discourse where his animus toward “poststructuralist theory” results in particularly glaring problems, because it forces Carroll to seek for a theory of the psyche (from which his theory of literature then follows) that dispenses with any viable concept of language. In pursuit of a sociobiological account of an “evolutionary psyche,” Carroll is resolute in jettisoning from his descriptions any functional traces of linguistic mediation. Out with the bathwater of linguistic structuralism goes the “constructionist” baby of psychosocial co-evolution, or in plainer terms, the key recognition that language is the indispensable medium by and in which human psychic and social systems both come into being and maintain their existence. While both are obviously constrained by the limits of biological and natural-ecological systems, they are not finally determined in their “meanings” by them. But of course, sociobiology and its progeny are defined precisely by their regressive flight away from such systematic reflections regarding the psychosocial interlocking of consciousness and communication through the medium of linguistic meaning.

Ignoring the most significant developments of media and medium theories out of those postmodern discourses - from deconstruction and discourse theory to cybernetics and systems theory - that have taken proper cognizance of the “materialities of communication” and the semiotic embodiments of psychic and social forms, Carroll issues comments such as the following from “The Deep Structure of Literary Representations”:

Writing is an extension of oral communication. Literacy is less than 10,000 years old, and it should be clear that no claim is being made here that literacy and its offshoots are themselves [evolutionary] adaptations. When I speak of the adaptive functions of literature, I mean to signify the adaptive functions of the oral antecedents of written stories, poems, and plays. The same arguments that apply to these oral forms will be understood as extending also to their counterparts in written language. (103)

In this passage, the mockery of McLuhanism embedded in the term “extension” only makes more palpable the disappearing of media matters from Carroll’s constructions. Even the word “speech” is absent, replaced by the pseudo-technical phrase “oral communication.” The word “language” barely makes an appearance, and then only as modified by the distasteful Derridean qualifier “written.”

This writing off of writing as a negligible epiphenomenal “offshoot” of spoken language strikes me as an especially astonishing and revelatory repercussion of Carroll’s larger argument. While it helpfully makes explicit the vacuous if “inexorable logic of the adaptationist program,” it also clarifies the inadequacies of that program as a basis for a “scientific” theory of literature. Ironically, the effort to think literature from the stance of Darwinian time squeezes out any historical “empiricism” from a theory complacently content to dismiss the profound cultural distinctions founded on the differentiation of orality from literacy. By discounting the millennial developments of communications technologies from writing onward and their psychic and social upheavals as so much cultural frippery, this argument about the “adapted mind” and its normative “human nature” as an evolutionary fait accompli shows its anti-modern hand, and in the same gesture, strikes itself down. As Bruno Latour summed it up at the end of We Have Never Been Modern, “Regrettably, in the antimoderns I see nothing worth saving” (134).

Works Cited

Joseph Carroll, Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature (New York: Routledge, 2004).

Bruce Clarke, “Charles Darwin: Conservative Messiah? On Joseph Carroll’s Literary Darwinism,” Green Letters 7 (Spring 2006): 36-41.

Charles Darwin, Darwin, ed. Philip Appleman, 2nd ed. (New York: Norton, 1979).

Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson, ed., The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2005).

Lord Kelvin (William Thomson), “On the Age of the Sun’s Heat,” Macmillan’s Magazine 5 (March 1862): 388-93.

Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993).

Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, Acquiring Genomes: A Theory of The Origins of Species, foreword by Ernst Mayr (New York: Basic Books, 2003).

D. T. Max, “The Literary Darwinists,” New York Times Magazine (November 4, 2005): 74-79.

H. G. Wells, The Time Machine, ed. Michael Moorcock (1895; Everyman ed.: Rutland, VT: Charles A. Tuttle, 1993).

Stefanie Boese:

A decade ago, Laura Dassow Walls already critiqued the colonization of the humanities by one marginal branch of the sciences and specifically E.O. Wilson’s tendency to reduce complex issues to evolutionary history. Her essay “Consilience Revisited” is available here.

2009-08-01