Boyd, 1998

Brian Boyd. "Jane, Meet Charles: Literature, Evolution, and Human Nature." Philosophy and Literature 22:1 (1998) 1-30.
Boyd is proposing a critical step away from literary theory that centres the world and mind in social, cultural and linguistic constructions, and a step towards integrating an evolutionary approach to literature which accounts for the interconnectedness of culture and biology. In his analyses, he reads Jane Austen's novel Mansfield Park as one that explores the "evolution of sensibility", drawing out evolutionary parallels in her characters' search for sexual mates.  
Boyd sets up the polemical dynamics of his essay quickly: referring to literary "Theory" as "parochial Paris intellectual fashion", he goes on to explain that theory excludes the "world outside of language", and later asserts that the world cannot be transformed by "re-reading": one must engage in social change in a practical, "real" way. His proposed real way is through the "counter-evidence" produced by the interdisciplinary efforts of scientific fields involved with evolutionary biological theory or essentialism (i.e. neurophysiology, evolutionary anthropology, psychology, among others).  
A series of disclaimers are set up to flesh out Boyd's claim of evidence for a "Universal human nature". His main points are as follows: First, he asserts that he is not arguing for naive empiricism. Evolution has assembled mental modules that are complicated and indirect, though we respond to the world as though all reactions are natural and instinctive. Second, he stresses that a common human nature does not deny cultural differences; in fact, these differences are made possible by the shared architecture of the evolved mind. He also notes there are many universals across cultures. Third, origin does not necessarily predetermine a particular end. An evolutionary view of human nature does not preclude freedom and social change, it offers a reason to resist the idea propounded by cultural constructionists (read: French theorists) that the mind is a blank slate inscribed upon by culture. Finally, being an evolved species does not mean we are "genetically determined". We have agency, although we are influenced by our genetic makeup. Boyd states that we are "100% biological and 100% cultural", noting the interdependent relationship of culture and biology.  
Boyd explains the function of psychological adaptations evolved in the Pleistocene era, such as selecting mates (this appears to be the most important adaptation for Boyd, as we will see in his analysis of Austen), avoiding sex with kin, and acquiring language. His main point is that a "general purpose mechanism" would be incapable of creating solutions to the multidimensional problems and situations faced by historical hunter-gatherer societies. What is required is a complex mental architecture that is fixed. The mind is not a general problem-solving machine, but a highly specific system as demonstrated in our ability to detect cheating and deception, and our development of an innate social as well as linguistic grammar. These abilities are the product of our evolved mind; without the evolutionary mind culture would not exist, ergo, we create culture, it does not create us!  
How do we then use an evolutionary understanding to analyse literature? And how will it truly be useful? Boyd argues that an evolutionary approach will allow us to see human experience from a wider perspective, will free us from the notion that we are solely determined by culture and language, while acknowledging that the "way we see the world is one that has co-evolved with our needs". It will remove the totalizing force of culture, and restore agency to individuals. In direct relation to literature, Boyd puts forth the idea that play, and the eventual creation of language and stories, are the means through which humans practice real-life situations. An evolutionary approach will also allow us to understand the subject matter of literature in terms of evolutionary interests (such as natural selection), and how the author and the culture they come from frame these interests. Finally, Boyd asks "how do culturally specific and humanly universal combine". Authors focus on specifics that they believe will be common to most readers, common to human nature. And here we arrive at Boyd's analysis of Mansfield Park, where the specificity of Jane Austen's pastoral world meets Boyd's essentializing evolutionary sexual world.  
All of Austen's novels are love stories, and ostensibly, travails in securing the right "sexual partner". Focusing on Darwinian notions of female mate selection, Boyd elaborates a reading of the novel that demonstrates the male and female roles of sexual choice, or rather, that "males do the chasing but females do the choosing". Looking at the behaviour of the protagonist Fanny in her relations with the other characters in the novel, Boyd demonstrates that all plot devices can be reduced to their evolutionary parallels. He quite effectively shows that we can read into Austen the intricacies of human behaviour in deciding if a possible mate has the proper resources, is likely to be unfaithful, or is prime for child-bearing. In the end, Fanny, who is more perceptive than her fellow characters, sees through her potential suitor's deception and chooses the best mate. Austen's use of free indirect discourse allows for a flexible style suited to conveying the characters' thoughts and emotions, as well as dialogue.  
Boyd concludes by stating he purposefully neglected to touch on literary or historical contexts in his reading of Austen, as he wanted to show how much an argument can be distorted when one presents only the "social construction of desire and difference". He suggests that even an author as "aloof" from biology as Austen can be interpreted (interpolated?) in terms of evolutionary characteristics, rather than as simply a cultural by-product. Austen demonstrates that accepting the place of biology does not mean rejecting culture: it "makes culture possible".  
Our discussion of Boyd's article revealed that while many in the class were unsatisfied with Boyd's evolutionary analysis of Austen's text, we generally agreed with his opening statements and his elucidation of the development of the evolutionary mind. However, Boyd fails to fully explore the role of literature in society, and to outline the evolutionary purposes literature can and has served in the shaping of human minds and intellect.  
Particularly compelling is his problematizing of the theoretical mind put forth by French theorists like Barthes, Derrida, Lacan, et al., who conceive of a human mind completely shaped by culture, with no evolutionary imput. This culturally shaped mind does not and cannot coincide with the "evolved mind". Further, he states that these theorists are caught in a philosophical position that does not allow them to affect social change. He proposes that literary criticism that starts from an understanding of the evolved human mind will help us to better appreciate the process of literary composition, comprehension and reader response. An evolutionary approach can also help us understand the evolutionary purpose literature serves, and the behaviours from which it evolved. Unfortunately, Boyd fails to demonstrate these claims in his analysis.  
Many in the class agreed with Boyd's claims up to this point, but felt he became too essentializing or narrow in his own analysis. He not only fails to demonstrate these compelling ideas about the evolution of literature, but he fails to show us how evolutionary analysis can contribute to social change -- which was one of his main criticisms of "Theory". His close sexual-selection reading of Austen's novel Mansfield Park fails to take us in new discursive or even biological directions. In fact, it seems he has created the same kind of tautology he criticized "Theory" for enacting. For what do we really learn in his analyses? How does defining all actions and plot devices in terms of their evolutionary parallels of mate selection truly enhance our understanding of literature's evolutionary role in society, the behaviours which gave rise to literature, or affect the "real" social world in quantifiable ways? Boyd has failed to carry out the task outlined in his thesis.  
A point brought up in class was Boyd's choice to analyse a canonical Austen text, which has layered storylines dealing not only with romance, but with issues of class, colonialism, and racism, as opposed to a sub-literary text such as a Danielle Steele novel, which would arguably be better suited to an evolutionary analyses as Boyd performs it (i.e. solely sexual selection). His analysis fails to account for so much of the text, that he has in effect performed the same error he accuses French Theorists of committing.  
Boyd states that as a species we are "100% biological and 100% cultural". Many in the class took issue with this statement, as it seems contradictory and opposed to Boyd's initial argument. However, I think it can be argued that he is trying to maintain a middle ground; he acknowledges that we cannot entirely discount culture, and that there is a reciprocal relationship between culture and biology. As he later states: "the way we see the world is one that has co-evolved with our needs". For Boyd, culture does influence biology, but only insofar as culture has been determined by evolutionary processes. In fact, culture and biology are philosophically, and empirically inseparable. It is impossible to adequately make distinctions between the two in some cases. One may argue that literature falls directly in between the tension between these two views.  
The most useful solution in looking at Boyd's article can be found in Prof. Miall's Literary Response Dehabituation Theory. Miall has put forward a practical application of evolutionary analysis that is informed by the notion of the evolved mind. This approach addresses the mental modules of the evolved mind in a manner that encompasses far more than basic sexual selection, i.e. defamiliarization, gender differences, self-selection of psycho-pathology in writers, etc. In effect, we see in Miall's chart the fruition of Boyd's initial exercise, or at least the beginnings of the study that Boyd himself did not fully accomplish. Paired with Boyd's article, the class was better able to understand the possibilities available in an evolutionary approach. Miall (1998)
Miall, David S. Towards a psychology of neoformalism: Empirical studies of literary response. Paper presented at the University of California at Santa Barbara, October 20, 1998 in the Evolutionary and Behavioral Social Sciences Speaker Series.

Document created November 1st 2005