spring/summer 2006, no. 7



Re-reading the Signposts:


A Response to William Benzon’s Book Review “Signposts for a Naturalist Criticism”


by David Michelson


William Benzon recently reviewed (in this journal) two books presenting novel approaches to literary studies: Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History by Franco Moretti, and The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative, a volume of essays edited by Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson.

Of the two books, Benzon’s review explicitly favored Moretti’s use of quantitative methodologies, plot diagrams and evolutionary processes for understanding literary history. Moretti uses these diverse methods to explore three fascinating questions about cultural evolution. First, he looks at the evolution of novelistic genres in Britain. Second, he considers the role of the “clue” in readers’ preferential “selection” of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle among other contemporaneous detective writers. And third, he traces the cross-continental cultural diffusion of the narrative technique known as “free indirect style.”


Throughout his review, Benzon emphasizes what he sees to be the unique contribution of Graphs, Maps, Trees: “[w]hat is important is that Moretti is collecting data and using that data to frame interesting questions…Moretti’s work is important because it is empirical and descriptive…the work is important because it gives strong evidence of cultural processes at work. Moretti is not proposing a middle way between biology and culture as an abstract theoretical construct, as an object of intellectual desire. He is patiently mapping that territory.” 

In comparison, Benzon finds the collective voice of The Literary Animal to be talking too much talk at the expense of too little walk. The “talk” that gets under Benzon’s skin is the theme of the “middle-ground” that unites many of the essays in The Literary Animal. The “middle ground” is conceived of as a fundamentally important meeting place at which natural scientists and humanists can collectively dismantle the dichotomization of nature and culture that has historically separated the two camps. From there, the contributors to The Literary Animal explore the role that biology and culture play in the production, consumption and retention of narratives.

Benzon seems to feel that to herald a synthesis between the sciences and humanities is simply to reiterate a trite, idealistic dictum. What is worse, it seems, is that the trumpeters of this ideal are “biological through and through.” This is in contrast to Moretti, who is plumbing “deep…cultural territory.” Throughout his review, Benzon is adamantly (and rightly) attentive to the importance of culture in literary studies.  Unfortunately, what he perceives to be mere “lip service” to culture by the “Darwinians,” fuels the most incendiary, and in my opinion, misguided aspects of his critique.

In what follows I wish to address a number of Benzon's criticisms. I also wish to examine his treatment of Moretti’s work. Many of Benzon’s concerns with evolutionary literary studies have been voiced elsewhere (Jackson 2000, Richardson 2004). As such, many of my comments also speak to these earlier criticisms.

Naturalistic approaches to literature are not new; evolutionary approaches are.  The increased enthusiasm of late among humanists to integrate findings from the evolutionary sciences suggests a significant shift is underway in literary studies (for overviews of two relevant research programs see Carroll 2006 and Richardson 2004). William Benzon’s assessment of the “evolutionists” or “Darwinists” is in many respects an unfortunate caricature. Such a misrepresentation may draw attention away from what is in many ways a productive theory for producing and accumulating literary knowledge.


I will address three specific criticisms raised by Benzon:

1. The evolutionists excessive “lip” to postmodernism;
2. The evolutionists “lip service to culture” or lack of “cultural specificity”;
3. And lastly, Benzon’s claim that “[t]he literary evolutionists seek explanations, but are so concerned with biological foundations that they do not attend to cultural processes in a way that could yield explanations for Moretti’s observations.”



         Excessive Lip to Postmodernism


I wish to begin by briefly addressing the complaint that The Literary Animal is filled with “irritating attacks on postmodernist thought.”  


First, as Benzon fails to provide a single instance of an “irritating postmodern attack,” it is hard to assess just what he means. It is also unclear from his review whether he is familiar with earlier polemics against critical theory or a recent call to stop them (See Carroll 1995; Storey 1996; and then Carroll 2004: xvii). Moreover it is not clear how his frustration is different from that of the literary evolutionists. Benzon mockingly concedes that not everything is well in “postanalytic-demodernist-psychoconstructionist theoryland.”


Second, Benzon never explicitly addresses the myriad shortcomings of the dominant paradigm in literary studies. The extreme cultura ex cultura arguments of constructivism are weak; postmodernism’s persistent epistemological cautions are important, but do not amount to a theoretical program in any productive sense. Acknowledging and critiquing these weaknesses is not gratuitous unless they are genuinely unfounded, a position that I, and I imagine William Benzon, does not hold.  In my mind the essays in The Literary Animal are quite honest. They put two ideas face to face and then provide evidence and arguments for why a bio-cultural approach deserves more attention, either theoretically or practically.


On the whole, Benzon’s claim of excessive attacks obscures how much improvement has been made in the rhetorical and argumentative posture of evolutionary literary studies as a whole. Indeed, one of my first impressions upon completing The Literary Animal was how diplomatic, restrained, and conducive to humanistic integration it was compared to earlier treatises on evolution and “Theory.” I believe those familiar with the arc of the field over the last decade will be quick to agree.




“Lip Service to Culture” and “The Middle Ground”


William Benzon feels that the literary evolutionists pay mere “lip-service” to culture and advocate a “middle ground” that is more rhetorical than substantive. In this section I would like to draw attention to what I think is substantive in the evolutionists’ conceptualization of the middle ground, both in theory and in practice.




            i. “Evolutionary Social Constructivism” and the Middle Ground


Qualifying the success of David Sloan Wilson’s diplomatic attempt to ground social constructivism [what Benzon refers to as postmodernism] within an evolutionary logic, Benzon comments that


I may be somewhat assured but, unfortunately, such assurance is itself not very useful as a guide to practical literary analysis. Everyone advocates the middle way and has done so for years.  Yet the nature-nurture controversy continues unabated despite this agreement. It is one thing to argue for a middle way on general grounds; that is easy to do. It is quite a different matter to demonstrate that middle way in practical literary analysis. I am thus afraid that Wilson’s assurances may not provide much comfort for most literary critics, who remain interested in the details of individual texts.  



First, Wilson did not write his chapter as a guide to “practical literary analysis.” To ask this of a chapter penned by the natural scientist of the two editors is baffling. Wilson designed his chapter to address and then to dispel the epistemological and ideological concerns of literary critics who believe that the evolutionary and constructivist cultural sciences have little to say to one another. Thus, it seems quite reasonable that Wilson and Gottschall include a chapter devoted to dispelling pervasive misconceptions, both about evolution and social constructivism.


Second, it is simply not true that “[e]veryone advocates the middle way and has done so for years.” This statement is wishfully over-determined. It is not disingenuous that Wilson calls upon sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists to take social constructivism seriously. Wilson enjoins his evolutionary colleagues to consider such work precisely because there are evolutionists who proceed with evolutionary research without attending to the importance of culture.


Likewise, as a measure of the work pouring out of English and cultural studies departments, there is only an occasional drip-drop of research that could reasonably be called “middle-ground.” A quick perusal of any recent “Literary Theory” textbook evidences the virtual absence of the middle-ground mentality in literary studies. More often than not, these texts treat science as an ideological arm of the capitalist juggernaut  rather than a largely positive and productive tool for understanding natural phenomena. In reality, most humanists are not even aware of why there should be a middle ground, regardless of where it might be and what they should do when they get there.


Third, although Benzon asserts that everyone advocates the middle way, he concedes that “the nature-nurture controversy continues unabated.” It is worth asking, why? One reason, I believe, is because previous attempts to talk about the dynamic interplay between genes and culture have been largely platitudinous. Wilson knows this and tries to make some progress by pinpointing and addressing the specific knee-jerk reactions of the two groups in need of reconciliation. To reach constructivists he emphasizes that behavioral flexibility to novel environments is a central principle within the evolutionary study of human behavior. This axiom of evolution  should make literary theorists wary of linking evolutionary processes and genetic determinism. On the other hand, to reach evolutionists, Wilson notes that not “everything can be written with equal ease” on the human slate. This point constrains fanciful accounts of human behavioral flexibility, and speaks to those who know that human behavior is mediated and constrained by perceptual, affective and behavioral predispositions. Additionally, in emphasizing culture as the primary means for such flexibility, Wilson challenges the impoverished role often given to cultural processes in many evolutionary explanations. 


Wilson’s chapter can be re-read as an effective contribution to the nature/nurture misconception. Far from espousing a vacuous “middle ground” that is more show than go, Wilson’s chapter addresses very real theoretical and epistemological impediments to a naturalized criticism that can produce robust literary knowledge. Such an effort deserved a fairer contextualization and a more realistic assessment from the front lines.


ii. “Practical Literary Analysis” and “Cultural Specificity”




If it is “practical literary analysis” that Benzon wishes to see from evolutionary literary critics (not biologists), then he seems to have found it in Joseph Carroll’s chapter, “Human Nature and Literary Meaning: A Theoretical Model Illustrated with a Critique of Pride and Prejudice.” Benzon praises Carroll’s essay as “an admirable summary and synthesis of work in evolutionary psychology…[and] an elegant, lucid and sensitive reading of Austen’s novel [Pride and Prejudice].


Although Benzon claims that the evolutionists do not pay adequate attention to culture, he fails to acknowledge that Carroll’s theoretical model pays due attention to culture as a determinant of literary meaning:


“People in reality do not simply exemplify common, universal patterns of behavior. They have individuality that is distinguished by the particularities of their individual temperaments, their cultural conditioning, and their individual experiences. Cultures vary widely in the ways that they organize the common elements of the human motivational and cognitive systems, and even within any given culture many people deviate drastically both from the behavioral norms that characterize that culture” (76).


Much of Carroll’s chapter is spent fleshing out a model for doing “practical literary analysis.” This model is undeniably bio-cultural. Yet Benzon selectively jumps on Carroll’s assertion that “the primary locus of all meaning for all literary works is the mind of the author. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the author provides whatever determinant meaning resides in a work…” Benzon claims that Carroll’s “…magical belief is particularly startling in a collection of articles arguing for a reapproachment with science. It is like using flat-earth geometry to chart one’s course at sea while knowing that the earth is, in fact, round.”  


This selective criticism is quite perplexing. Carroll is talking classical literary criticism—a way to explain what and how a text means as the product of an author’s mind—not how readers understand texts. Benzon, however, distorts this novel contribution by taking Carroll’s statement out of context.


 Right after Benzon stops quoting him, Carroll writes: “…the author also negotiates among the competing points of view within the characters in the work, and negotiates further with the point of view he or she attributes to an audience.” Carroll continues, “[a]ll authors seek to dominate the meaning of the story they tell, and all the characters in the story have their own version of what happens…[t]he author has the final say among his or her own characters, but to control the interpretation of the story as it will be registered by the audience, the author can only persuade, manipulate, cajole, wheedle, intimidate, solicit, insult, flatter, bully, harangue, coax, shame, or otherwise appeal to or provoke the reader”  (90, my emphasis).


Thus, Carroll’s model accommodates the fact that readers will find meanings where authors did not intend them. It also allows for the mind of the artist and his work to be mediated by his culture’s linguistic and socio-cultural values. Benzon is correct in asserting the need for reception-based evolutionary theories of narrative. Such an argument, however, should have been brought against the chapters that actually address the social functions of narrative (see the chapters by Brian Boyd, Daniel Nettle, and Michelle Scalise Sugiyama).




Because it is a recurrent criticism in his review, I would like to highlight a few more examples that cast doubt on Benzon’s assertion that the evolutionists fail to account for “cultural specificity.” One example of “cultural specificity” that Benzon suggests as a good model for the evolutionists to follow to the “middle ground,” is Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel.


Fiedler’s project tries to account for differences in representations of sex and love in English and American novels. Benzon suggests that this difference is demonstrably cultural. Most would be quick to agree. All the same, having established that the difference at hand is cultural, Benzon then argues that the evolutionists’ insistence on biological universals cannot account for this cultural difference: “Its origin thus must be found in the culturally evolved refashioning of biological materials.” Benzon firmly believes that the evolutionists can only explain literature in terms of our “biological nature.” This misrepresentation allows him to conclude that the evolutionists “simply deal with their issues as though those issues defined the study of literature while paying lip service to culture.”

It is strange that Benzon employs Fiedler in this argument. Fiedler’s approach is strikingly similar to Marcus Nordlund’s discussion of romantic love in Shakespeare. In his essay, Nordlund discusses the biological universality and cultural conditioning of romantic love. He examines the “tug of war between evolved needs [biological materials] and cultural constraints that eventually produced an ideal [culturally evolved refashioning] that has been harmonized with a culture’s official system of belief” (111). Going further, Nordlund writes, “…it is true that something important did happen in France in the twelfth century that would have great consequences for our Western conception of love…romantic passion, understood as a spiritual phenomenon, was fused with a central aspect of Judeo-Christian religion” (110; See Fiedler, 47-61 for a very similar argument). Rather than view the Shakespearean conception of love as “a new fangled historical invention” or a “new organ,” Nordlund goes the middle way. He marshals evidence for the biological basis of romantic love and then shows how cultural ideas about this disposition evolve. He then uses the “interaction between an evolved human nature, a specific historical environment and literary genre” (107) to do a reading of courtship behavior and female choice in two plays. Hardly lip service.


Similarly, consider how Daniel Nettle views drama through a bio-cultural lens: “there may be some general features canalizing cultural evolution, deep structures, as Joseph Carroll calls them,” but drama “…is a social construction, and most of its particular evolution in the West can be understood with reference to the historical and the particular” (72-3). Nettle then spends some time discussing cultural processes at work in the social retention of dramatic forms. However, as every middle ground argument should, Nettle frames cultural processes within the larger picture of our evolved predispositions and learning biases.


Benzon does not touch on either Nordlund’s or Nettle’s chapter in his review. The reason, he asserts, is because he wished to “give more attention elsewhere.” This attention elsewhere is spent largely criticizing the evolutionists for not paying particular attention to cultural processes and cultural specificities.


In summary, it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that every chapter in the literary animal could benefit from more detailed and particular cultural knowledge—what analysis couldn’t! Nevertheless, it is something quite different to say that what attention there is, is disingenuous lip service. The four essays represented here argue for the importance of grounding explanations of cultural phenomena in an evolutionary logic.This logic is admittedly — but never exclusively — biological. Given both the theoretical and practical attention paid to cultural particularities in many chapters of The Literary Animal, I do not see how their work is not “explicitly” and in some cases “strongly” acknowledging “the culturally evolved refashioning of biological materials.”



Novelistic Genres and Evolutionary Approaches to Literary History



About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorize; and I well remember someone saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit and count the pebbles and describe the colours. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!


                               - Charles Darwin in a letter to Henry Fawcett


i. The “changing of the guard” problem


As we know, Benzon believes that the evolutionists do not attend to culture in ways sufficient to explain Moretti’s data. They see “only apes in action.” I have tried to show that this assessment is false and misleading. In what space remains, I will argue that contributors to The Literary Animal are in a unique position to provide cogent, albeit preliminary theories and methods to guide research that may one day explain Moretti’s data.


The specific data I will focus on are Moretti’s graphs of the evolution of novelistic genres in Britain (figure 9, p.19). Moretti has chronologically graphed the forty-four genres that comprise the British novelistic tradition from 1740-1900. When these genres are graphed, a curious pattern emerges. It appears that clusters of genres arrive together, and take the proverbial dive together: “Instead of changing all the time and a little at a time, then, the system stands still for decades, and is then ‘punctuated’ by brief bursts of invention: forms change once, rapidly, across the board, and then repeat themselves for two-three decades” (18). He refers to this pattern as the “changing of the guard.”


In his review, Benzon acknowledges that neither Moretti nor he can explain the “changing of the guard.” This shortcoming does not stop Benzon from showering accolades on this and other patterns derived from Moretti’s novel methods. One consequence of so many praises is an absence of critical attention to the very methods that produced the pattern in the first place. If literary history is to be a rigorously empirical discipline, then a desire to explain a novel finding should not preclude an assessment of the science that produced it.   


ii. Research methods and organization


Moretti’s data, as it relates to the “changing of the guard” problem, may need to be rethought and reorganized. This rethinking is occasioned by Moretti’s use of less than optimal research methodologies. For instance, it is difficult to explain Moretti’s data because his project sought to amass data first, and seek post hoc explanations second. This method is the opposite of the standard scientific method, which begins with a sound hypothesis derived from theory, collects data in meaningful and consistent ways, and then tests the assumptions of the hypothesis.


A second methodological problem surrounds genre categorization. Moretti’s methods amount to something of a meta-analysis of forty-four very distinctly collected, sorted, and classified sets of data. Moretti has comprised his chronology of “novelistic genres” from dozens of books, which I do not imagine share an overarching or consistent methodology for shuffling novels into forms. What accounts for much of the proliferation of genres, in my opinion, is really a scholarly insistence on nomenclature. Many of Moretti’s categories could be further subdivided, and many could be collapsed together.

Until more rigorous methods replicate Moretti’s pattern, we should be skeptical that this is what literary history looks like. Anything less and we might be chasing very provocative but ultimately illusory ghosts in the data.


For those who believe that theory, observation, and explanation should be a neat package, Moretti’s project is similar in method to the pebble-counter mentioned above in Darwin’s epigraph. I draw this comparison not to be mean, or belittle Moretti’s contributions. His all-inclusive and stunningly visual approach to literary history is important. I do believe it is worth asking, however, in its current state, what is Moretti’s project arguing for or against other than the value of an innovative method that amasses data but actually explains very little? The exploratory value here is truly marvelous. His generic pattern very well may be what literary history looks like. Only time and a replication of the project with more rigorous methods will tell. Benzon’s review fails to address any of these methodological points. In fact, Benzon considers it something of an accomplishment that Moretti is at once mapping the middle-ground but also “never mentions science.”   


Conversely, one of the most promising aspects of evolutionary literary studies is its emphasis on the scientific method, especially testable claims. If those involved in The Literary Animal are not testing their claims through empirical studies, they at minimum seek to support their critical theories with findings gleaned from the scientific method in other disciplines. They realize that this is the bread and butter of  science—the method—which because of its success in innumerable other spheres, is lauded in The Literary Animal, not as a naïve ideal, but as the best bet for understanding human stories.


iii. Reconsidering literary content

Thinking about forms and how they compete in the marketplace can advance our understanding of literary history only so far. Literary history should focus intensely on literary content and the minds that produce this content. The vast majority of literary content is representations of human behaviors and the thought processes surrounding these behaviors. This may sound truistic. However, throughout Benzon’s review of Moretti’s book, there is scant attention paid to the possibility that human behavioral and cognitive predispositions have any constraining influence on the content and form of literature.


Literary historians must reckon with the fact that while humans are very much shaped by culture, they also produce and consume culture in a biased and non-random fashion (Richardson and Boyd, 2005; Durham 1991). It is not unreasonable to suggest that in addition to satisfying culturally specific functions, certain narrative themes may appeal to our evolved needs, both as a species and as individuals with unique personalities. Such stories might include but are not limited to those that represent sex, family life, survival, friendship, and group affiliation. 


In light of Moretti’s pattern of mass extinction, it is worth asking: what happens when a form of literature that reflects a stable concern in human life history simply disappears? The “Courtship Novel” does this — has a good run and then inexplicably goes extinct. Do people simply stop reading about or caring about courtship? Certainly, this is not the case. In fact, the behavior of courtship is represented quite saliently in multiple genres that replace and succeed the “Courtship Novel.” By partitioning literary history into so many discrete forms, there is a strong likelihood that scholars are obscuring the culturally evolved refashioning of the common human motives and concerns that animate most literature.    


Indeed, what seem to change from story to story are not central human concerns. Rather, the more significant source of change is the social setting and plot — a slum, abroad, high-society — for working out new ideas and novel responses to recurrent problems faced during human beings’ life histories. If we were to quantify representations of human behavior across all of these putative genres, the massive overlap alone would make us highly skeptical of our current generic classification system.  


An emphasis on content is important for another reason. Fads and conformity are not new additions to social life, and I suspect that many genres’ short-runs in the marketplace reflect the propensity in human nature to imitate what is popular in the individual’s social environment (Boyd and Richarson, 2005). Looking at what is culturally retained in the long term and what content is repeated across genres and cultural time, is one way to rise above the unwieldy chaos of massive cultural proliferation and see what really matters to a given society’s readers. A long, careful consideration of novelistic content will likely write a story of Britain’s literary history very different from the one presented in Graphs, Maps, Trees.   


            iv. Accessing literary content 


So how might we look at the content and concerns of texts more thoroughly and rigorously?  I believe one way to account for the occurrence of life-history representations such as courtship or national identity is the method for literary analysis presented by Jonathan Gottschall in The Literary Animal: content-coding.


Jonathan Gottschall’s contribution to The Literary Animal is an empirical study, which shows that folklore from around the world represents significantly stable suites of predicted evolutionary behaviors. Gottschall is able to mine multiple-hundreds of folktales for data pertinent to his hypotheses because he uses a team of content-coders. These coders read texts for the explicit purpose of answering predetermined questions. Coders’ results are checked against other coders’ results to ensure a satisfactory level of internal consistency and to reduce coder bias. Content-coding allows for unprecedented access to generous portions of literary history. It also imports a more rigorously scientific method into a traditionally subjective discipline.


Content-coding can help us determine just what authors and readers are concerned with across cultural time. More specifically, this method should allow us to see how a behavior like courtship evolves across seemingly disparate genres. With some work, we can map spikes, dips, and durations of representations of particular behaviors, types of characters, and any thing else we care to observe. Evolutionary theory is as good a theory as any for generating questions to guide what we should expect the content of literature to be and why.


Eventually we must correlate findings from an evolutionary based content-coding with socio-historical data. This will provide us with a preliminary picture of the bio-cultural evolution of literary history in various, temporally distinct literary representations. If this research is carried out, we will have put a down payment on a nice piece of middle-ground real-estate. If we care to upkeep it and expand on it, its explanatory value will only increase in turn.

Courtship is only the tip of the iceberg. We can code such novelistic themes as family life, national identity, xenophobia, racism, homosexuality, industrialization, and see how they correlate with novelistic content and historical data that spans multiple human generations. This is a foreseeable and desirable research endeavor for evolutionary literary history. Moreover, content coding is available to any branch of critical literary theory that wants to make empirically defensible claims about different facets of literature and history.


What is important here, in the context of Benzon’s review, is that these evolutionary hypotheses are enabled by Carroll’s model of life-history, and testable with Gottschall’s content-coding method. In this way, evolutionary literary theory can provide cogent hypotheses and promising methods for testing Moretti’s important mission to understand the evolution of literary history in its totality.



v. Conclusion


Some will say that literary history should not be all about tracing the cultural evolution of biological predispositions. They would focus instead on how discrete, unique “forms” proliferate in a market and then die off in large groups. They will wish to do this largely irrespective of the evolved human minds that make and will ultimately break these forms. This is all fine but it obscures what we all know are the central human themes of 98% of all literature: relating and resolving problems that have to do with survival, social life, love, sex, family, friends, war, politics, individual and group identity, meaning, and death. These fundamental human concerns, grounded in the evolutionary history of our species, should not be so quickly dispersed when coldly objective winds carrying words like “form” “abstract” and “model” come blowing into town. Despite Benzon’s claims to the contrary, the methods and theories which animate The Literary Animal can begin to account for the “culturally evolved refashioning of biological materials.”  g





David Michelson is a graduate student in English literature and evolutionary studies at Binghamton University. His academic interests include evolutionary approaches to narrative function, the history of literary theory, and individual differences in reader-response.






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