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Text in the Natural World

Topics in the Evolutionary Theory of Literature


Laurence A. Gregorio

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.

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Chapter 9. Thematics


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The area of thematics is the one which has to date attracted the most attention among literature scholars interested in the evolutionary model of study. Here in the area of what a text says, the thematic content of which a text speaks, it is easier to understand a relationship to widely understood terms or principles of evolution as they appear. Certain texts might make obvious reference either to Darwin or to clearly recognizable matters of evolution like changes in species or humanity’s common ancestry with apes, and the average reader would not hesitate to make the association with evolutionary thought (and all of the historical, social, religious, political, and even philosophical implications that evolutionary thought brings along). In any event, the goal of this chapter is to be clearly limited. It is not by any means to overreach and be understood as implying that all literary motifs are founded in evolutionary thought or thematically related to evolution. Instead it is to show how a number of motifs do make sense (or more sense) when related to evolutionary thought in light of the theory proposed in the preceding chapters.

There is no need in the present study to dwell on the matter of plot, simply because such a fine job has been done in the past in detailing Darwinian plots in literature. Gillian Beer in particular has given a fine and ← 155 | 156 → thorough analysis of the topic, both...

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