Text in the Natural World

Topics in the Evolutionary Theory of Literature

by Laurence A. Gregorio (Author)
©2017 Monographs X, 222 Pages


The study of literature has expanded to include an evolutionary perspective. Its premise is that the literary text and literature as an overarching institution came into existence as a product of the same evolutionary process that gave rise to the human species. In this view, literature is an evolutionary adaptation that functions as any other adaptation does, as a means of enhancing survivability and also promoting benefits for the individual and society. Text in the Natural World is an introduction to the theory and a survey of topics pertinent to the evolutionary view of literature. After a polemical, prefatory chapter and an overview of the pertinent aspects of evolutionary theory itself, the book examines integral building blocks of literature and literary expression as effects of evolutionary development. This includes chapters on moral sense, symbolic thought, literary aesthetics in general, literary ontology, the broad topic of form, function and device in literature, a last theoretical chapter on narrative, and a chapter on literary themes. The concluding chapter builds on the preceding one as an illustration of evolutionary thematic study in practice, in a study of the fauna in the fiction of Maupassant. This text is designed to be of interest to those who read and think about things literary, as well as to those who have interest in the extension of Darwin’s great idea across the horizon of human culture. It tries to bridge the gulf that has separated the humanities from the sciences, and would be a helpful text for courses taught in both literary theory and interdisciplinary approaches to literature and philosophy.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1. Polemical Introduction
  • Chapter 2. The Evolving Theory
  • Chapter 3. Moral Sense, Amoral World
  • Chapter 4. Symbolic Thought
  • Chapter 5. Evolutionary Aesthetics
  • Chapter 6. Ontology
  • Chapter 7. Form, Function and Device
  • Chapter 8. Narrative
  • Chapter 9. Thematics
  • Chapter 10. Thematic Study: The Fauna in Maupassant’s Fiction, or A Page from Darwin’s Book
  • Bibliography
  • Appendix
  • Series Index

← viii | ix →


I would like to express here my great gratitude to those whose help and support made this book possible. Gettysburg College’s help in the form of sabbatical leave and material aid has been indispensible, affording me the time and the means to bring this research to publication. My friends and colleagues in the Biology Department at Gettysburg, Ralph Sorensen, emeritus, and Paula Alejandra Trillo generously lent their knowledge to the technical side of my research. I offer thanks as well to the editorial and production staffs at Peter Lang Publishing, especially my editor Michael Doub, for all they have done to make this book a reality. ← ix | x →

← x | 1 →

· 1 ·


Literature is itself an evolved faculty, an adaptation in the evolutionary sense.

The concept of evolutionary literary study is somewhat new, with early work appearing only late in the last century. A comprehensive poetics based on evolutionary thought has yet to be written. This book represents only one step in that direction as a survey of topics pertinent to an ontology of some of literature’s most basic building blocks, topics that focus attention on the literary text as a product of evolutionary processes. Text as adaptation. Building blocks of literary text as by-products of evolution. Humankind grasping the pen with its apposable thumb and writing in the ink of its own evolutionary past.

An introduction to an evolutionary study of literary theory today might well be polemical. The first reason for this is that the topic of evolution has been a lightning rod for indignation from all sides since well before Darwin’s time—Darwin, of course, not standing in history as the first to suggest the notion of evolution itself, but rather as the one who proposed a viable theory to explain it. The appearance of On the Origin of Species in 1859 was greeted with immediate controversy in all quarters, scientific as well as cultural, but the notion of the transmutation and inter-relatedness of species prior to Darwin, from Buffon and Lamarck up to Darwin’s own grandfather Erasmus, ← 1 | 2 → generated good measures of consternation in and beyond science. The implications of such a notion were immediately evident, and philosophy, theology and social thought wasted no time in decrying those implications. It was not for nothing that Cuvier’s reactive response to early evolutionary thought was impassioned, for it was clear from the start that this concept was an idea fraught with danger for the fixity of the “Great Chain of Being,” the vertical moral gradient of existence which held sway from Aristotle’s scala naturae through the Enlightenment and beyond. In a sense, it would be natural both for Church and for humanists to reject evolution out of hand, for its first suggestion concerning humanity would be to drop it a few pegs to a community with the “lower” forms of life—hardly a worthy status for the conveyor of either an immortal soul or an enlightened mind. Not for the last time, by any means, do both sides of a spectrum line up in resistance to this idea of evolution whose evidence is nonetheless compelling.

Among philosophers and scientists the battle has been won, but there is still need to make the case in the broader arena of society and culture. Scholars in literature, moreover, do not appear convinced that evolutionary theory has light to shine on the bases of literary study. For one thing, past abuses certainly invite skepticism today, as evolutionary thought has (quite wrongly) been twisted to purport some assumed natural supremacy of one sex over the other, one economic ideology over the other, one ethnic group over the other. Wariness born of such misuse poses an understandable obstacle to broader acceptance in scholarship.

An introduction to an evolutionary theory of literature might today also be political, and hence polemical. Evolution as a matter of science remains a theory of controversy everywhere but in science. It is, to put it mildly, a hot-button issue in the arena of cultural—and therefore, political—debate today no less than in the days following the publication of Darwin’s Origin. So not only in the politics of scholarship, but also in the politics of the broader arena of culture might an argument ensue upon the very introduction of the concept of evolution into any theoretical framework—outside of science, that is. I expect that the same hostility will greet the theory of an evolutionary view of the building blocks of literature. Resistance may be motivated by the novelty of the ontological approach or by concerns over past misapplications of Darwinian thought in socio-politics and economics. Let us at least try to overcome it in a collegial spirit.

Darwin himself referred to his manifesto, the Origin, as “one long argument.” We who recognize the universality of what Daniel Dennett called ← 2 | 3 → “Darwin’s dangerous idea” for human affairs should pick up the polemic. But it is not for Darwin’s sake that we bring the concept to literary study, for it was the same Darwin who wrote in a letter at one point, “I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me.” His theory and his argumentative approach we shall sustain; his personal aesthetic inclinations we shall, I think, leave aside with not a little embarrassment. Evolutionary thought since Darwin has expanded, enabling the “dangerous idea” to shed its light on most areas of intellectual endeavor including literary aesthetics, as we shall see.

Endeavoring to craft an evolutionary understanding of literary aesthetics without engaging in political debate is, at best, naïve, and at worst, disingenuous. There is no reason to hide from the facts of life, at least those that obtain at the time of this writing. And the facts are such that an evolutionary framework of thought will generate resistance and resentment in several places only on account of the strings that have been attached to evolution outside of science. The ethical fallout and caveats from the legacy of a misguided experiment in social engineering that was “Social Darwinism,” I can accept with humility and carefulness, attentive to the fact that evolutionary thought did indeed acquire that ugly baggage in the past. The ideological debate born of the good-faith interpretation of evolutionary thought as positing sexism or classism, I engage with respect, confident that the evolutionary model can be put forward without those implications, and that they are not necessary conclusions of evolutionary thought anyway. But the purely political noise that trumpets forth like a fire siren at the mention of Darwin’s name or thought, the reactionary and thoughtless alarmism dictated by one politico-religious platform, I will not waste time or effort on: bereft as it is of intellectual integrity, it cannot by its nature yield as any argument should to an ideological force majeure—which I believe evolutionary thought to be; at the outset of a fruitless discussion, I would know that I argue in good faith while the other side would seek only to proselytize. That kind of futility is out of place in true scholarship.

The tone of the discussion about evolutionary theory is often shrill. Rhetoric can be charged, whether by adherence to a particular version of religious orthodoxy, or by displaced or projected political confrontation, or even by sensitivity to academic turf. Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, early explorer on the landscape of sociobiology, got a pitcher of water poured over his head at a conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, evidently by protesters troubled with the implications of extending evolutionary ← 3 | 4 → theory to the interpretation of human social behavior. No doubt there are those who will see in any attempt to bring evolutionary theory to the philosophy of aesthetics an effort to sneak eugenics, Social Darwinism or genetic determinism in by the back door.

I speak only for myself when I offer the reader my assurance that evolutionary theory is not organically linked to such stuff. Sir Francis Galton or Andrew Carnegie would certainly disagree, but for my part, nothing is more abhorrent than the use of scholarship either to devalue persons or to validate an exploitative socio-economic status quo. That is precisely what eugenics and Social Darwinism tried to do, regardless of either the guises in which they appeared or the good intentions with which they professed to pave their roads. My intentions in detailing an evolutionary view on the components of literature could not be further removed from moralizing or prescribing a socio-economic order. No doubt the objection will be raised that such a thing as an ontology of literature cannot be tendered without moral, political, social and economic implications. Perhaps it will even be argued that either philosophy or aesthetics must be furthering a political agenda of some sort. I say, let the ideological heirs of Galton and Carnegie write their own poetics, for they will find no sustenance in these pages. Simply put, this view of literature will not include the morally evaluative; genetic determinism may well be a thematic motif of the nineteenth-century Naturalists, but it is no more integral to a general philosophy of literature than any other literary motif, white whales and melancholy Danes notwithstanding.

So if an evolutionary take on literature proposes not to serve an economic agenda, what then does it purport to do? It is intended to situate aesthetics in general, and literature in particular, in the history of the psychic faculty of the human species. It is intended to analyze and explain what it is that literature-as-psychic-activity does, and do so in light of the evolution of the mind. Likewise it is intended to be an ontology of the literary function in the human mind, but one which is premised on the postulate that the literary function is an evolved mechanism, selected (in the Darwinian sense of the term) for its contribution to the survivability of the individual.

At the outset, let us understand the following as a definition of the term “literature” as used here: it is writing (but does not exclude oral tradition), distinguished from the non-literary uses of writing in an aesthetic sense, in that it is predominantly fictional or lyrical, text which is for the greater part, if not exclusively, imaginative.


X, 222
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (September)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2017. X, 222 pp.

Biographical notes

Laurence A. Gregorio (Author)

Laurence A. Gregorio is Professor of French Language and Literature at Gettysburg College since 1983. He has published in the areas of evolutionary theory of literature and French literature of the seventeenth century. He teaches courses in French, the history of ideas in French literature, and Darwin across the liberal arts.


Title: Text in the Natural World
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