News FocusLiterary Criticism

Red in Tooth and Claw Among the Literati

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Science  06 May 2011:
Vol. 332, Issue 6030, pp. 654-656
DOI: 10.1126/science.332.6030.654

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Some literary scholars have begun incorporating neuroscience, cognitive science, anthropology, and—most prominently and controversially—evolutionary psychology into their work. Their work explores how evolution might have shaped aspects of literature, the potential adaptive benefits of storytelling for our Pleistocene ancestors, and the mystery of why humans spend so much time immersed in it. Evolution provides a framework for understanding human behavior; evolutionary psychology explores the origins of mental phenomena and can bridge evolutionary biology and the humanities. Some recent evopsychology also emphasizes the plasticity of the human mind, which helps explain how universal human behaviors (such as storytelling) can exist but can nevertheless be expressed in different ways in different cultures. Many scientists encourage this work, although applying evolutionary thought to the human mind has never been popular in the humanities. But since 2007, the number of books and articles incorporating Darwinian and other scientific thought into literary studies has more than doubled. These scholars are convinced not only that evolutionary thought can improve literary research but also that literature can teach scientists a thing or two about human evolution.