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Thursday, November 10, 2005

Literary Darwinism: Hamlet was really concerned about three-eighths of his genes?

The literary Darwinists purport to explain why natural selection preprograms you to like certain literature:

For the common reader, "Pride and Prejudice" is a romantic comedy. His or her pleasure comes from the vividness of Austen's characters and how familiar they still seem: it's as if we know Elizabeth and Darcy. On a more literary level, we enjoy Austen's pointed dialogue and admire her expert way with humor. For similar reasons, critics have long called "Pride and Prejudic" a classic - their ultimate (if not well defined) expression of approval.

But for an emerging school of literary criticism known as Literary Darwinism, the novel is significant for different reasons. Just as Charles Darwin studied animals to discover the patterns behind their development, Literary Darwinists read books in search of innate patterns of human behavior: child bearing and rearing, efforts to acquire resources (money, property, influence) and competition and cooperation within families and communities. They say that it's impossible to fully appreciate and understand a literary text unless you keep in mind that humans behave in certain universal ways and do so because those behaviors are hard-wired into us. For them, the most effective and truest works of literature are those that reference or exemplify these basic facts.

Author D.T. Max writes as if he (or she) would really like to be able to take all this seriously, but then keeps backing away. That's not surprising. Taking it seriously would indeed be a tough job. Get this:

Literary Darwinists use this "deep history" to explain the power of books and poems that might otherwise confuse us, thus hoping to add satisfaction to our reading of them. Take for instance "Hamlet." Through the Literary Darwinist lens, Shakespeare's play becomes the story of a young man's dilemma choosing between his personal self-interest (taking over the kingdom by killing his uncle, his mother's new husband) and his genetic self-interest (if his mother has children with his uncle, he may get new siblings who carry three-eighths of his genes). No wonder the prince of Denmark cannot make up his mind.

Well, that clears that up, I guess. One of the few things Hamlet never seems to think much about (pehaps to Ophelia's fatal frustration) suddenly becomes his primary motivation (the passing on of genes). Incidentally, David Sloan Wilson, co-editor of scholarly anthology The Literary Animal, on literary Darwinism and son of novelist Sloan Wilson, appears in the next item.
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