Book Review

 

 

Book Review: In Search of Positivism

by Pauline Uchmanowicz

 

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

Postcards from the Brain Museum: The Improbable Search for Meaning in the Matter of Famous Minds; Brian Burrell.
 New York: Broadway Books, 2004.

 

How did human life and human nature in their complexities come to exist? How does this combined humanness differ from the tendencies of other species? What are brains for? Charles Darwin famously answered these questions in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), a work in which the theory of evolution, first promulgated in On the Origin of Species (1859), was explicitly extended to the one species humans tend to find the most interesting ó their own. Though widely accepted among biologists today, Darwinian theory has been challenged since inception, most recently by the so-called theory of "intelligent design" (I. D.). As explained by Jerry Adler in "Doubting Darwin" (Newsweek, February 7, 2005), I. D. assumes "the living world reflects the design of a conscious, rational intelligence," that of a supernatural agent. (See also "Survival of the Fittest Belief," Shawn Stoneís Metroland cover story of April 7, 2005.) As far as cognitive functions and mental tasks go, they "cannot be pinned to spots on the brain like towns on a map," writes James Shreeve in Beyond the Brain," the March 2005 National Geographic cover story.

Two recent books, Literary Darwinism by Joseph Carroll and Postcards from the Brain Museum by Brian Burrell, weigh in on the enduring scientific quest to understand and articulate human origin and human consciousness. Deeply theoretical, Carrollís scholarship presents approaches to critical inquiry; more populist in style and intention, Burrellís research mainly entertains. Still, I find my reading of Literary Darwinism (the primary focus of this review) partially informed by that of Postcards from the Brain Museum.

Carroll, an English professor at University of Missouri-St. Louis and author of several scholarly books, including Evolution and Literary Theory (1995), has spent the past 15 years "working to integrate Darwinian thinking with literary study," as he writes in Literary Darwinism (147). In attempting to map out a positivist, evolutionary paradigm for analyzing and interpreting literature, Carrollís newest book gathers together fourteen of his previously published articles and reviews together with three new essays. Based upon the principle of the "adapted mind" and "grounded in Darwinian concepts of human nature" (vii), in its design this ongoing project draws from the works of like-minded literary scholars as well as social scientists (particularly evolutionary psychologists and sociobiologists). Though aimed at a specialized academic audience, Literary Darwinism remains accessible to readers (such as myself) new to cognitive and biological models of human motivation. Indeed, Carroll is a poignant, original, and brilliant thinker.

According to Carroll, "adaptationists" believe that all organisms evolve through an adaptive process of natural selection, and that the human mind and human behavior systems in particular are constituted by universal, species-typical characteristics (passim vii). Genetically constrained and "mediated through anatomical features and physiological processes," such characteristics "directly regulate perception, thought, and feeling" (vii). Carroll contends that these empirically sound principles have animated current trends in literary theory, offering the only new development (besides "ecocriticism") to arise in the field during the past decade. He further believes that fresh approaches to literary studies grounded in adaptationist ideals will eventually (in good survival-of-the-fittest fashion) replace currently depleted theories based in the "etiolated rhetoric of postmodernism" and identity politics (xi). Adaptationists meanwhile already have revitalized research methods in political science, sociology, psychology, and other areas of the humanities. Indeed, the institution where I teach is currently discussing the prospect of launching an Evolutionary Studies program.

Burrell, a mathematics professor at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, has authored two previous general-interest books. His newest, Postcards from the Brain Museum, presents a cultural history of early scientific attempts to understand the human brain, including the race to locate the source of human genius and depravity. Merging ideas from philosophy, anatomy, neuroscience, and other research fields, the author likewise focuses on positivist theories of general cognition (though to a much lesser degree than does Carroll).

Describing how brains have historically been collected, measured, dissected, and stored for posterity, the author probes into the lives of such thinkers, writers, and artists as Descartes, Byron, Gauss, Whitman, Lenin, and Einstein by way of their anatomical tissue. In tracing a line of descent in the transmission of brain science, Burrell paints a heroes-versus-villains narrative. For instance, inventor of phrenology, the now "discredited science of reading the bumps on the skull" (42), villain Franz Josef Gall makes way for Auguste Comte, "one of the unsung heroes of modern science" (54). Einstein achieves the status of "saint" and his brain that of "sacred relic" (300), what Roland Barthes calls "a mythic object" ("The Brain of Einstein." Mythologies, 1957. New York: Hill and Wang, 1983. 68.). Elsewhere in the book, criminal cerebrums share shelf space in brain collections alongside those of respected psychiatrists and surgeons.

Carrollís dramatis personae in Literary Darwinism also consist of heroes and villains. Darwin is the central figure of the good-guys side of the equation, "his distinguished successors" including Leslie Stephen, William James, and Thorstein Veblen and culminating in the person of Carrollís contemporary Edward O. Wilson, "his expression of kindly humor and genial intelligence . . . widely published in magazine photographs" (ix; 71). The figure of Wilson, author of Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975) and Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998), serves as synecdoche for adaptationists, the heroes of the book. Stephen Jay Gould, a foil and a "bully" to Wilson, signals the bad guys, including Marxists, postmodern theorists, poststructuralists, and feminists.

Dominated by the doctrines of textualism and indeterminancy in which language or "discourse" shapes epistemological and ontological primacy, postmodernism and poststructuralism treat "all norms as arbitrary," rejecting the notion of truth or authentic meaning (16). Disciples of these ideologies believe that language shapes culture and consciousness and also defines reality. Carroll states that adherence to such doctrines has allowed literature professors to adopt critical positions without reliance on "the empirical validity of their findings" (16). He does concede to the worthiness of theories and methods devised by cognitive rhetoricians, using as his central example the work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson as proposed in Metaphors We Live By (1980). But he also points to their failure to ground concepts "within some larger concept of human experience and cognition" (104). Here Carroll ignores (as do many English Studies scholars) the past quarter-century of scholarship issuing from Rhetoric and Composition Studies, such as conducted by Linda Flowers and John Hayes, too lengthy to discuss here and largely outside the scope of this discussion. But Carroll is to be forgiven for this oversight, given the bookís overall intellectual rigor, soundly based in meticulous research.

One can take issue with other aspects of Carrollís polemic, such as his neglect to address at any length environmental factors that influence socioeconomic disparities between races. Instead, he claims "universalism" for evolutionary theories, even though white theorists and writers (no literary works by authors of color are discussed in the book) become normative in Literary Darwinism. Postcards from the Brain Museum lends support to this universalizing strategy, since according to Burrell research has shown "that there is far more variation in brain morphology within races than between them, a fact that makes it impossible, a priori, to distinguish the brain of a black man (or woman, for that matter) from that of a white man, or to diagnose atavism in a brain" (141). At the same time, some sociologists fear that emphasis on adaptationist principles will lead to relegating reasons for poverty and racism to a survival-of-the-fittest model of social reality.

Literary Darwinism also tends to treat both postmodernism and feminism as monolithic (though conceding this is not the case). And it is indeed unfortunate that Carroll does not discuss the work of resistance postmodernists, whose central tenets (despite their ardent Marxist leanings) in many ways resemble those of Carroll. Like Carroll, resistance postmodernists find much of deconstruction and poststructuralism "ludic" for emphasizing textualism over material reality. As Teresa L. Ebert writes: "For historical materialists [a near synonym for resistance postmodernists], truth is not a universal given nor a metaphysical certainty, but neither is it simply a local effect of language games. Rather truth is a historically struggled over and constructed knowledge effect. To assert the historical constructiveness of truth, however, in no way denies the existence of objective reality nor dissolves it into rhetoric or textual relativity" (Ludic Feminism and After: Postmodernism, Desire, and Labor in Late Capitalism. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996. 196.).

Readers interested in understanding evolutionary theory in the modern academy, its emergence, defining principles, discourses, and rationale, should find most useful the articles collected in part one of Carrollís book, "Mapping the Disciplinary Landscape." Extended examples of how this theory may be applied to the study and interpretation of literary texts are largely provided in part two, "Adaptationist Literary Studies: Theory and Practical Criticism." The final section of the book is devoted to reviewing recent biographies of Charles Darwin as well as explicating the shortcomings of Stephen Jay Gouldís revisionist reading of Darwinian theory. An English teacher myself, I gravitate toward part two of Literary Darwinism, my main focus for the remainder of this review.

Defining "literature" as "a shorthand term signifying both oral and written forms of narrative, verse, and dramatic enactment," Carroll also makes clear that literacy ("less than 10,000 years old") and literary texts do not themselves constitute adaptations (passim 103). Instead, the central topics of literary representations by and large correspond to those of Darwinian theory, including issues of human motivation and identity; natural selection, mating, reproduction, and kinship; motivation, and "emotional forces that regulate behavior" (91). Literature for Carroll in short mimics "the need to creative cognitive order" (159).

According to Carroll, critics "concerned with analyzing the imaginative structure of literary texts" must go beyond making lists of metaphoric structures and cataloguing their occurrence in specific works in the time-honored mannered of mid-20th century formalists, such as practitioners of New Criticism (106). Yet in "The Deep Structure of Literary Representation," Carroll makes use of five factors of personality (known as the "Big 5" in personality psychology): extraversion/introversion, agreeableness/antagonism, neuroticism/security, conscientiousness/carelessness, and curiosity/dullness (111); and in "Human Nature and Literary Meaning" he integrates seven ("universal") emotions recognizable to the brain (fear, joy, sadness, anger, disgust, contempt, and surprise) into a diagram of "inclusive fitness," which becomes a model for reading literary texts. Not only do these gestures recall semiotics in the manner of positing binary oppositions but also structuralism in the sense of devising linguistic models, in both instances as generative models of critical inquiry. In applying these linguistic paradigms (despite surrounding detailed discussion of adaptationist concepts), Carrollís actual readings of texts do not go much beyond cataloguing and interpreting within a metaphoric frame of reference.

The arc of 20th-century literary criticism in general has followed a chronological trajectory in which the accounting of authority and meaning-making in literary works resides in the author (and author biographies), the text (as in its stylistic conventions and elements, locating authority for meaning in the critic), and the reader (giving rise to reader-response theories). Postmodernists now generally accept the third proposition, that meaning arises out of the prior textual history that readers bring to texts, what Fredric Jameson (another Carroll villain) calls "prior narrativizations in the political unconscious" (See The Political Unconscious, 1981). In devising a totalizing, positivist theory of literary interpretation, Carroll synthesizes and reformulates the three author/text-critic/reader categories. He writes: "There are three specific components in the social interactions of a literary representation. There are always three components" (emphasis in the original 202). In order to access meaning in any literary representation, a critic needs "to assess the relations between the authorís point of view, the point of view of the characters, and the point of view in the audience that is implied or projected by the author" (202). Finally, Carroll includes ecology (essential to evolutionary thinking) as integral to literary interpretation. Let me now turn to some of his specific analyses.

In presenting a sociobiological critique of five novels, Carroll posits that depictions of normative heterosexual couples as well as setting (or "environment") remain crucial to meaning. His central project is to show how these novels in part represent the authorsí or central charactersí negotiation of motivational and behavioral impulses issuing from evolutionary psychology. In the particular case of Willa Catherís O Pioneers!, Carroll argues that her masculine women paired with feminine men are an attempt for her to resolve reproductive and behavioral issues attached to her probable latent lesbianism. He suggests that previous critics have overlooked this texture, chiefly due to a reluctance to focus on the authorís homosexuality. Meanwhile, the potential to arrive at Carrollís fairly obvious reading of O Pioneers! need not depend on an embrace of evolutionary theory.

Indeed, when I chose Catherís works (reading everything she has written) as the topic of my undergraduate honors thesis in 1980, I presented to my major advisor the thesis that the authorís androgynous characters and landscape images represented a way for her to negotiate her unfulfilled lesbianism. True, the advisor discouraged me from both mentioning Catherís contested gender and placing "androgyny" in the title of the manuscript. Still, the second and third sentences of the 100-page study read: "Devices that develop in Catherís early descriptions of characters and the landscapes they move against reflect her unconventional, masculine appearance. More importantly, these devices work to allow her writing style to hold up essential notions about placing people, particularly females, in androgynous circumstances and settings" (1). Ten pages later I assert, "that male characters of Catherís prairie novels can appear weak against the landscape" (11). Both conclusions dominate the bulk of the analysis that follows.

Meanwhile, as Joan Acocella makes plain in her 2000 New Yorker essay "Cather and the Academy" (cited by Carroll but not discussed), feminist readings of Catherís works have bourgeoned in the past decade and an academic industry developed around her sign, with critics confronting the psychosexual dynamics of the authorís "thwarted" homosexuality. For instance, Eve Sedgwick confronts Catherís sexual identity in the 1989 article "Across Gender, Across Sexuality: Willa Cather and Others" (South Atlantic Quarterly 88.1. 53-72); and Judith Butler presents a queer-studies reading of Catherís work in Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex" (New York and London: Routledge, 1993). More recently, Guy Reynolds published Willa Cather in Context: Progress, Race, Empire (New York: St. Martinís Press, 1996), and edited the four-volume compendium Willa Cather: Critical Assessments (Robertsbridge, East Sussex: Helm Information, 2003).

In the final analysis of his particular discussion, Carroll recalls the hero-versus-villain paradigm. He valorizes Jane Austenís Pride and Prejudice and Thomas Hardyís Tess of the díUrbervilles as enduringly valued by readers, due to "extraordinary stylistic felicity" in evocation of subject, treatment of character, and magnanimity toward human feeling (145). Catherís OíPioneers and Arnold Bennettís Anna of the Five Towns are not favored among "the common reader" (versus the "generally literate public") on account of "eccentric motivational structures" (145). Yet elsewhere, in "evaluating literary quality" in three fictional works that "depict encounters between Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons" (164) (in my view an ingenious strategy for using adaptationist theory to examine the evolving nature of the human mind), Carroll seems to contradict the role of readership in projecting longevity for specific works. He decries Jean Auelís best-selling novel The Clan of the Cave Bear (1981) for its popularity, pronouncing it stylistically and tonally "vulgar" (177). On the other hand, Carroll lauds William Goldingís The Inheritors (1955), even though "it is hard to follow, and almost all readers have to read the novel at least twice to piece it all together" (177). Whereas the eccentric motivational structures of Anna of the Five Towns and O Pioneers! lead to "obscure, latent, or confused" structures that dissatisfy readers (145), "the sorts of readers who would be willing to meet the challenges" of Goldingís novel must have more interest in the world of Neanderthals than of Victorian characters (177), implying a certain bourgeois sophistication relative to the latter group. Carrollís use of reader point of view here seems somewhat akin to Marxist-style assumptions about language as power-knowledge, and while he might rather ground these assumptions in cognitive and adaptationist principles, he does not in this specific article.

Despite my general misgivings that Joseph Carrollís literary analyses offer genuinely radical departures from New Criticism and other formalist approaches, Literary Darwinism is nonetheless a singular accomplishment. Moreover, there is good reason he makes heroes of certain players in the adaptationist landscape, particularly the eminent Wilson, whose books I plan to add to my reading list. As for Carroll himself, he has the kind of brain researchers interested in determining the anatomical causes of genius would covet for their collections. The more ordinary folks among us can take heed of the following: "Generally literate readers" who wish to comprehend the value and purpose of the evolving philosophy of adaptationist literary studies will find much value in Literary Darwinism. "Common readers" who gravitate toward best-selling works no doubt are better off skipping it, reaching instead for Brian Burrellís delightfully readable Postcards from the Brain Museum. g

 


 

Pauline Uchmanowicz is Associate Professor of English and director of Writing Across the Curriculum at SUNY New Paltz. Her poetry chapbook Sand & Traffic (Codhill Press) and her textbook Considering Cultural Difference (Longman) were published in 2004. Her poems and essays have appeared in many national publications, including Ploughshares, Crazyhorse, Ohio Review, Mudfish, The Massachusetts Review, and Z Magazine. She has published scholarly articles in College English, Writing Program Administration, Literature and Psychology, and elsewhere. In addition, Pauline is a widely published freelance writer in the Hudson Valley, and a food columnist for The Woodstock Times. She was recently awarded a SUNY-wide Chancellorís Award for Teaching Excellence.

 


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