Literature Meets Biology: An Evolutionary Approach to Literary Studies

Citation data:

Graduate Student Theses, Dissertations, & Professional Papers

Publication Year:
2011
Usage 146
Downloads 90
Abstract Views 56
Repository URL:
https://scholarworks.umt.edu/etd/628; https://scholarworks.umt.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1647&context=etd
Author(s):
Dwyer, Samantha Reneé
Publisher(s):
University of Montana
Tags:
art as adaptation; biology and literature; brain; cultural universals; Evocriticism; human nature; King Lear; Literary Darwinism; Lyn Hejinian; memory; science and literature; Shakespeare; sibling rivalry
thesis / dissertation description
The following thesis engages with the relatively young development in literary studies, called evocriticism, which uses scientific perspectives to look at literature. It first gives an overview of the current state of English departments and their decline in numbers, budgets, and cultural relevancy, mostly due to outdated modes of literary criticism and theory. It then introduces evocriticism as a new paradigm for studying literature. Literature and the arts are studied as human behaviors with possible adaptive benefits. Individual texts are interpreted through a scientific lens, using the theory of evolution to find cultural and biological human universals that can help explain characters and readers’ behaviors. The thesis then briefly outlines the areas of evolutionary theory most relevant to this discussion. Finally, it gives two critical readings to demonstrate evocriticism’s usefulness for examining literature from a broad range of genres, styles, time periods, and content. The first reading looks at the contemporary American poet Lyn Hejinian’s autobiographical prose poem My Life to compare the poem’s form with the evolved structure of the brain and memory. The second reading gives an evocritical interpretation of William Shakespeare’s tragic play King Lear using biological theories of unequal parental investment, sibling rivalry, and generational conflict to explain the motivations of the characters. This thesis enters the critical conversation started by Joseph Carroll, E.O. Wilson, Stephen Pinker, Brian Boyd, and others about the relationship between literature and science. It is based on the idea that literary criticism should negotiate between scientific evidence and literary imagination to explore what it means to be human. Astronomer and popular scientist Carl Sagan writes in The Dragons of Eden, “Curiosity and the urge to solve problems are the emotional hallmarks of our species; and the most characteristically human activities are mathematics, science, technology, music and the arts—a somewhat broader range of subjects than is usually included under the “humanities” (82).