Norman Holland

Norman N Holland Ph.D.

This Is Your Brain on Culture

How the Literary Darwinists Got it Wrong

Literary Darwinists are barking up the wrong tree.

Posted Sep 06, 2010

At the moment, I happen to be reading a 700-page Stephen King novel, left over from time in an airport. In Duma Key, a nasty dead person under the sea bed is able to influence events on this small but spooky island in the Florida Keys. This evil spirit works through paintings. It inspires the protagonist, a renter on the island, to create paintings that amaze and astonish and fetch admiration and high prices. But these paintings do things. They cause heart attacks, remove a bullet embedded in a friend's skull, make another friend commit suicide, and the paintings make various other people die from various other causes.

Stephen King's Duma Key front cover

Stephen King's Duma Key front cover

Now this is nonsensical, isn't it? Paintings don't extract bullets or cause heart attacks. Paintings don't kill people. Duma Key's plot gimmick has nothing to do with real life in which paintings hang on walls in galleries and don't do anything. So what's the point of such a story?

To answer that question, so basic to thinking about literature, literary Darwinists start from the fact that, as far as we know, all human cultures in all times and all places have had stories. Why? We must be programmed genetically to create and enjoy literature.

These critics, working from evolutionary psychology would claim that this novel teaches me lessons for life that make me more likely to survive and reproduce. Or it lets me try out hypotheses for surviving and reproducing. Great. The next time a painting attacks me, I'll know just what to do.

Other literary Darwinists point to stories common to many cultures and eras like boy-gets-girl or hero-defeats-bad-guys or Joseph Campbell's monomyth. These stories, they say, act out our biology and that is why we find them satisfying. They confirm us in our biological destiny, and that's useful in an evolutionary sense.

Yet other literary Darwinists would claim that the ability to tell stories (presumably a male ability in this variant) prompts females to select that person to have sex with, thus propelling storytelling ahead in sexual selection. (That reminds me of the Hollywood joke: there was a starlet who was so dumb that she slept with the writer.) Still others would argue that experiencing stories with other people unites me with my fellow human beings who read the same story. No. I don't know anyone else who has read or is reading this book. And when I was reading it in the airport, I was trying as best I could to ignore my fellow human beings.

One way or another, literary Darwinists argue that literature confers benefits on us that make us more likely to survive and reproduce. Hence we have inherited a propensity for reading and in general the consumption of literature, particularly stories.

Forgive me if I don't quote specific people. These days many literary critics or theorists repeat these claims or variations on them. I think they are fact-free and faith-based.

It is true that, so far as we know, all human cultures in all times and places have had stories and other forms of literature. But does that mean that literature confers an evolutionary advantage so that we are genetically programmed to do literature?

Pretty clearly, it seems to me, literary Darwinism rests on a familiar wish by literary critics to show the world that literature is useful. The claim goes back to Aristotle who developed the idea of catharsis to counter Plato's banishing of writers. Plato banished them because they promulgate such nonsense as Duma Key, a genre Aristotle didn'taddress.

I'm not suggesting banishment, just that literature by itself exists solely for our enjoyment. It provides no evolutionary advantage. Wisely, the distinguished psychologist Steven Pinker points out that the reasoning from universality is circular. He says "that many of the arts may have no adaptive function at all.

They may be by-products of two other traits: motivational systems that give us pleasure when we experience signals that correlate with adaptive outcomes (safety, sex, esteem, information-rich environments), and the technological know-how to create purified and concentrated doses of these signals (such as landscape paintings, erotica, or hero stories) (2007, 171).

Duma Key seems to me a very modest accomplishment as literary achievements go. It provides a story that I find scary enough to block from my brain the hum of a jet or the hubbub of an airport. Yet, if I think seriously about Duma Key, I think about the idea that art or literature can influence our minds, a persistent and powerful theme in literary criticism. I think of the body connection to mental experiences. I think about the role of the dead in our lives, introjected into our minds in the mourning process. I wonder if there is a connection between phantom limbs, spirits, and artistic inspiration, all elements in this ghost story. Give him credit--Stephen King has crafted a novel that, if you think about it, yields some challenging ideas.

No doubt it is good for me to think about these things. It makes me a more thoughtful, perhaps even a wiser person. It is good for me to discuss these ideas with my students. It is good for them to discuss these ideas with one another. All this from Duma Key?

No. All this comes from discussing Duma Key, from thinking about Duma Key. That indeed might give me lessons for life to make me a more evolutionarily successful human being. It might do the same for my students, making all of us more likely to survive and reproduce. But just reading Duma Key without thinking about it gives me pleasure, nothing more.

The literary work itself does not by itself produce any discernible evolutionary advantages for us. But thinking about the literary work does. And that is what makes it adaptive. Thinking about literature is no different from thinking about any other experience. Thinking is good for us. We do it a lot. And we are evolutionarily programed to do it. But we don't get any advantage from simply reading Stephen King's Duma Key without thinking about our reading, and we are not, therefore, programmed to do it.

The literary Darwinists are suffering from a familiar confusion. They are assuming that there are various meanings, emotions, life plans, hypotheses, and other experiences "in" the text. They are not looking at how readers construct all these things from literary works, and, indeed, all our other experiences. They have ignored what reader-response critics, who are based in psychology and neuropsychology, have long shown.  That is why the literary Darwinists are barking up the wrong tree, the text instead of the person.

Items I've referred to:

King, S. (2008). Duma Key. New York: Pocket Books.

Pinker, S. (2007). Toward a consilient study of literature (review of J. Gottschall & D. Sloan Wilson, "The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative"). Philosophy and Literature, 31, 161-177.

And in the background, Holland, N. N. (2009). Literature and the Brain. Gainesville FL: PsyArt Foundation. Chs. 25 and 26.  Available at:

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