Evolutionary Criticism and Epic Poetry: Brian Boyd, On the Origin of Stories, Jonathan Gottschall, The Rape of Troy, and Clinton Machann, Masculinity in Four Victorian Epics

Brian Boyd, On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), xiii+540 pp. £25.95 hb. ISBN 978-0674033573.

Jonathan Gottschall, The Rape of Troy: Evolution, Violence, and the World of Homer (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), xii+223 pp. £53 hb. ISBN 978-0521870382. £18.99 pb. ISBN 978-0521690478.

Clinton Machann, Masculinity in Four Victorian Epics: A Darwinist Reading (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010), vi+166 pp. £50 hb. ISBN 978-0754666875.

(BSLS members receive a discount on all Ashgate titles)

For fifteen years the campaign spearheaded by Joseph Carroll to ground literary criticism in an understanding of evolutionary biology has been gathering pace. Taking their inspiration from Edward O. Wilson’s vision of a consilience between the sciences and the humanities and Steven Pinker’s attacks on the ‘blank slate’ view of human nature, critics including Brian Boyd, Brett Cooke, Dennis Dutton, Nancy Easterlin, Harold Fromm, Jonathan Gottschall, Peter Graham, Marcus Nordlund, Robert Storey, Peter Swirksi and Gary Westfahl have devised different theoretical models to explain the evolution of art and tried out different approaches to interpreting literature in biological terms. They have offered up evolutionary interpretations of texts from Shakespeare’s plays to Austen’s novels, from traditional fairy tales to Pushkin’s short stories, from Dr Seuss’s illustrated books for children to the adult science fiction of Ursula LeGuin. With the exception of Frederick Turner, however – the maverick critic and poet who first sought to ground aesthetics in biology in the 1980s, but who has since been excommunicated from the literary Darwinist movement by Carroll on account of his cosmic evolutionism – none of the critics within this school has had much to say about poetry. Now, however, two of the leading figures within the movement, Boyd and Gottschall, and a third more recent recruit, Clinton Machann, have written books which engage expressly with major poems. The results are revealing both of the potential of evolutionary literary criticism and of the limitations it needs either to conquer or to accept.

The poems that Boyd, Gottschall and Machann address are all characterised as epics. In The Rape of Troy, Gottschall puts forward what he calls ‘an evolutionary anthropology of conflict in Homeric society’ (3). His primary source is the Iliad, although he makes extensive reference too to the Odyssey and occasionally draws on the fragmentary remains of the para-Homeric epic cycle. In Masculinity in Four Victorian Epics, Machann gives readings of three Victorian poems which lay claim, albeit ambivalently, to the mantle of epic – Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh and Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book – together with Arthur Hugh Clough’s Amours de Voyage, a much shorter poem which he identifies as a mock-epic. On the Origin of Stories is a more comprehensive and ambitious book than either of these specific studies (see George Levine’s review of Boyd’s book as a whole), but it includes a reading of the Odyssey which at a hundred pages is not far off the length of a short book in its own right. In discussing Homer, Boyd expressly affirms evolutionary criticism’s capability to interpret ‘ancient … adult … serious … massive’ works of literature (by contrast with Dr Seuss’s ‘modern … children’s … comic … miniscule’ Horton Hears a Who!) (210). Gottschall and Machann could be seen to be implicitly making the same claim: a critical approach that can speak authoritatively and insightfully about Homer or Tennyson – that can handle epic poetry – is a critical approach that knows no limits. On the other hand, while epic may still have an aura about it, it is also fundamentally a narrative form. One question that needs to be asked of these readings, then, is to what extent it makes a difference to the evolutionary critic that a narrative poem is a poem rather than simply a narrative.

Gottschall largely sidesteps this question by taking Homer more as a historical source than a work of literature. His primary concern is with Homeric society, referring ‘not so much to Homer’s fictional construction as to a specific scholarly reconstruction of the real world from which the epics emerged’ (3). In his first two chapters he synthesises classical and archaeological scholarship to build up a persuasive case for reading the Iliad and the Odyssey as offering a reflection, magnified up to the epic scale, of the society in which the poems were composed. Crucially, this is not the society of Mycenaean Greece itself, with its palaces and treasures signifying rich cities and kingdoms. Instead it is that of Dark Age Greece, an impoverished world of small tribes led by chiefs more like the big men of other pre-state societies than the kings of most translations of Homer. It is a world too of pervasive male violence. In his third chapter, which draws heavily on evolutionary psychology and comparative anthropology, Gottschall argues that this violence is directed above all toward the goal of reproductive dominance in a polygynous society.

The next three chapters concentrate on the epics themselves. Chapter 4 points out the crucial significance of conflicts over women in Homer: the Trojan war itself, fought over Helen; the argument between Agamemnon and Achilles over Briseis that triggers the events of the Iliad; the slaughter of Penelope’s suitors, which marks the crescendo of the Odyssey. Beyond these specific fights over specific women, Gottschall notes the pervasive references in the epic to raiding for women and the culmination of the siege of Troy in the mass rape and enslavement of the Trojan women. Chapters 5 and 6 consider the premium on status among Homeric men and the ways in which the ‘mating preferences’ of women in Homeric society reinforce the culture of male violence ‘through an active system of sexual and reputational rewards to men with powerful bodies, combative dispositions, and courageous spirits’ (117).

Chapter 7 returns to comparative anthropology to argue that the institution of slave-concubinage evident from the poems led to a high proportion of women being the sexual property of a small proportion of men, and that excess female mortality in Homeric society is likely to have skewed the sex ratio further, fuelling competitive violence among men. Finally, in the last chapter and a short conclusion, Gottschall argues that the Homeric worldview, in which violence and the suffering it causes were seen to be regrettable but inevitable, was not irrational, for all that it found expression in unscientific concepts such as fate and the misbehaviour of maniac gods. Instead, he suggests, it reflects the logic of the Prisoner’s Dilemma and the fundamental animalism of human beings recognised in Homer’s own zoomorphic similes. ‘Homer’, Gottschall concludes, ‘would not have been scandalized by The descent of man’ (160).

As an exercise in historical anthropology, The Rape of Troy is mostly cogent and plausible. Gottschall is thoroughly well-versed in ethnography, evolutionary psychology and classical scholarship, and he deploys all three with care and sophistication. His emphasis on the brutality of Homeric society is indisputable, but at the same time he is alert to the ambivalences of Homer’s own portrayal of war. Overall he has a clear sense of the Homeric worldview and his suggestion that it bears similarities to the Darwinian understanding of nature is suggestive. On the other hand, as Gottschall himself admits, even as an evolutionary ethnography The Rape of Troy is incomplete, as ‘an equally interesting evolutionary exploration could focus … on the salience of cooperative virtues in Homer’ (9-10). As a consequence, many questions go unanswered by Gottschall’s analysis. Why, if male violence is motivated by pervasive competition over women, do thousands of Greeks unite to recapture the wife of one of them? Why, if the key issue of the Trojan war is this conflict, does Homer not make Menelaus and Paris the central characters? Why is Odysseus so persistently uxorious in the face of alluring alternatives, even before he knows his wife is being courted by a hundred young braggarts?

In spite of his admission – and his warnings against confirmation bias in his exposition of Darwinian literary theory, Literature, Science, and a New Humanities (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) – Gottschall’s reading of his sources appears selective in a manner reminiscent of old-style Social Darwinism. One main reason for these oversights is that, while clearly a sensitive reader moved by Homer’s poetry, Gottschall is not a particularly subtle critic. In Literature, Science, and a New Humanities he conducts statistical surveys of fairy tales from across the world based on key words. In The Rape of Troy too he is more interested in data than in individuality, in trends rather than in details that cut against the grain. His focus is on the Homeric male as a species, rather than on Achilles or Hector or Nestor or Odysseus or Priam or either Ajax as individuals, for all that they are all highly individualised by Homer.

The shortcomings of this approach are particularly evident in Chapter 6, on the Homeric female. With the Homeric male, Gottschall has a large data set and the patterns he identifies are repeated across a wide range of otherwise distinct characters. But there are far fewer women in Homer’s poems. Of those few, fewer still are characterised in any detail and they are far from the norm. To generalise that ‘beauty was a woman’s greatest asset’ in her attempts to win ‘a high-quality mate’ in Homer’s Greece (104) on the basis of Helen and Penelope, let alone Hera and Aphrodite, is to miss the obvious point that the first two are highly exceptional women and the others are not women at all but goddesses. This is not to say that one cannot say interesting and nuanced things about the significance of beauty in Homer on the basis of these characters. But Gottschall is not interested in making literary claims of this sort. Instead, in the absence of real data he fill the gap in his ethnography with pseudo-biological platitudes, assuring his readers that ‘while Homeric men place a high premium on physical attractiveness, the ideal mate is very far from the empty-headed beauty’ (109), noting that ‘Homeric women also care about the physical appearance of potential mates’ (113), and characterising the competition to string and fire Odysseus’s bow at the end of the Odyssey as ‘a mating ritual, reminiscent of bird leks’ (114). All subtleties of characterisation, significance and perspective, let alone the linguistic subtleties of Homer’s poetry itself, are effaced by this mode of reading.

Gottschall’s The Rape of Troy is a suggestive if flawed ethnographical study of Homer’s Greece grounded in evolutionary psychology. For a suggestive literary study of Homer grounded in evolution we need to turn instead to Boyd. The account of the Odyssey in On the Origin of Stories supplies many of the ingredients missing from Gottschall’s book. The first four of Boyd’s six chapters on Homer are distinctly literary in their focus. The first two concern characterization and plot. While the first fairly predictably focuses on archetypal structures, the second is a subtle and very perceptive account of the poem’s ironies – precisely the kind of awkward details that cut across the patterns that Gottschall wants to trace. For Boyd, irony is itself a mode of patterning that catches our attention and stimulates our interest in reading and rereading literary works. The next two chapters, on mind in Homer, are subtle analyses of the way in which Homer cultivates his readers’ intelligence, both through the ways in which his characters themselves learn and through creating multiple perspectives, including deceptions and other false beliefs, within the poem. A high proportion of each epic is written as direct speech – something Boyd addresses but Gottschall again ignores. As Boyd astutely observes, ‘The Odyssey derives much of its power from the gap between the characters’ limited perspectives and our all-encompassing vision’, provocatively suggesting that Homer’s ‘comprehensive vision’ (in contrast with the ‘inscrutable’ will of God in Genesis) may have ‘advanced intelligence itself, by increasing the confidence of his heirs within Greek culture that the whole world can in principle be understood by the human mind’ (280-81). Finally, in his last two chapters on Homer, Boyd fills the other key gap in Gottschall’s book by considering co-operation in Homer, in particular the institution of xenia or reciprocal hospitality and the punishment of free-riders. Here Boyd, like Gottschall, appeals to the intractable logic of game theory to argue that the ending of the Odyssey, where only divine intervention calls an end to the violence between Odysseus’s family and those of the suitors, signals ‘Homer’s tacit admission that he can see no mortal solution to breaking the cycle of revenge’ (313).

Aside from this closing convergence, Gottschall’s and Boyd’s analyses of the same text ostensibly following closely allied critical approaches have surprisingly little in common. This is surely an encouraging sign. If a school of criticism always produces the same reading of a text it implies that it is imposing that reading on the text – or finding texts that fit its predetermined conclusions – rather than open-mindedly looking to see what it can find out. Gottschall comes to Homer with a firmer grasp of classical scholarship and ethnography than Boyd, so his reading is both more historical and more original. Boyd, on the other hand, comes to Homer with a far more developed literary sensitivity and with a more subtle grasp too of evolutionary biology, so his reading is itself more sensitive and subtle. For Gottschall, evolutionary psychology gives us a descriptive model of human nature substantiated by a good deal of anthropological evidence from pre-modern societies, and Homer corroborates that model. For Boyd, evolutionary biology tells us something about the reproductive and territorial urges of human beings but much more about the cognitive capacities that we share in spite of our differences. He tends therefore to look for the ways in which texts foster and manipulate those capacities, rather than the ways in which they may or may not concur with a supposed norm of human nature. Boyd’s understanding of human evolution thus leads him towards those features of literary texts that have always fascinated practical and humanist critics.

One question raised by Boyd’s undoubtedly rich and perceptive reading of Homer is how far his insights depend upon (rather than merely being linked to) the aesthetic theory he expounds in the first half of his book. This question is even more pertinent to Machann’s self-proclaimed ‘Darwinist Reading’ of Victorian epic poetry. Machann opens his book with a long introductory chapter, surveying the growing body of scholarship on nineteenth-century long poems, recent analyses of masculinity in Victorian studies and the foundations and principles of literary Darwinism. His own book, he promises, will ‘make use of Carroll’s model for analyzing literary narratives’ according to a ‘hierarchical motivational structure of human nature’, working in from ‘inclusive fitness’ via ‘behavioural systems’ to cultural trends and individual dispositions (26). At the same time, he makes it clear that he does not see his own work as either ‘polemical’ or in itself ‘scientific’ (20). Instead, it draws on the scientific findings of evolutionary psychology to supplement ideas of the cultural construction of masculinity already current within literary scholarship on the period.

Darwinism leads Machann, like Gottschall, to consider the problem of male violence, in particular in The Idylls of the King and The Ring and the Book. This consideration leads him in turn to explore attitudes to and versions of chivalry in these two poems and in Aurora Leigh and Amours de Voyage. All four readings are careful and suggestive, with the essays on the Brownings particularly focused and illuminating. Yet beyond the initial focus on male violence itself there is little in them that owes anything to evolutionary theory, and what there is amounts to little more than platitudes phrased, as in Gottschall’s book, in pseudo-biological idiom. To say that the ‘behavioural systems’ emphasized in ‘The Coming of Arthur’ (unfortunately shortened to ‘Coming’) are ‘mating, kin relations, and social relations’ (53), or that ‘Merlin represents a center of cognitive activity in Arthur’s kingdom and his destruction is of course a major blow’ (54), is to state the obvious under the pretence that science alone reveals it to us. To call Romney Leigh ‘an exceptional male mating partner’ (69), to note that Claude ‘acknowledges the “normal” human desire for mating’ (107) in Amours de Voyage, to remark that Browning’s Pope sacrifices ‘his biological potential for mating and parenting (and thus his “inclusive fitness”)’ (139), is to introduce a discourse that is not only ugly and banal but also misleading, as the verb to ‘mate’ carries with it connotations alien to Victorian concepts of marriage and parenthood and excludes other connotations germane to them.

Machann invokes evolutionary psychology to legitimise the concept of ‘human nature’ that he finds addressed in his Victorian poems. It does some good work for him, helping to establish Arthur’s exceptional immunity from jealousy, for example, and Guido’s failure by traditional standards of masculinity supposedly grounded in innate dispositions. On the whole, though, and with the exception of this focus on male violence, Machann uses the concept of ‘human nature’ loosely. His performance of the role of Darwinist critic through the appropriation of the language of evolutionary psychology does not mask the fact that his concept of ‘mating’ is shaped more by ideal notions of ‘the universal, biological, and spiritual love between men and women’ celebrated in Aurora Leigh (146) than by the logic of evolutionary psychology itself. Yet the fact that Machann’s analysis in Masculinity in Four Victorian Epics: A Darwinist Reading owes little to Darwinism beyond its opening premise may be more a strength more than a weakness. If you mentally delete the lapses into the language of evolutionary psychology, which account for only a few pages of his book as a whole, then you have a revealing study of masculinity in four long Victorian poems. Precisely because his analysis is not tied down by the expectations of literary Darwinism, Machann is able to preserve the subtleties and complexities of the literary text that Gottschall tends to efface.

In Gottschall’s hands, Darwinian theories of human biology are integral to an ethnography of epic but do not lead us to a sophisticated literary reading. In Machann’s, they initiate a productive literary analysis but thereafter they tend to intrude to bring it down to a level of banality rather than advancing it. Boyd alone provides us with a sophisticated literary analysis informed by an equally sophisticated understanding of human biology. Boyd demonstrates comprehensively that evolutionary literary theory is compatible with and can inform perceptive literary criticism. But even for Boyd the Odyssey is primarily a narrative rather than a poem. The Odyssey has its ironic and non-ironic structures, its characters and perspectives, its scenarios and episodes. But it also has its rhythms, its verbal texture, its imagery. Aside from brief accounts of similes likening men to animals, neither Boyd nor Gottschall has anything much to say about any of these features. This may be partly a problem of translation: Gottschall quotes Homer as prose, and even Boyd is constrained to use one of countless verse translations. Nevertheless, three book-length studies of epic down the line, it remains unclear what, if anything, evolutionary literary criticism has to say about poetry itself.

John Holmes, University of Reading

For a full review of On the Origin of Stories by George Levine, click here.