My last two posts have dealt with change in literature over time, and whenever those two words are paired (change and time), I inevitably think of Darwin. I’ve long been a proponent of the Darwinian point of view. And while I find certain applications of evolutionary theory less tenable than others, the scope of its applicability is downright remarkable: the theory has been useful in organizing and understanding topics ranging from human psychology to economics to science itself. It’s therefore surprising to me that no one (to my knowledge, at any rate) has tried to apply it to the field of literature. After all, literary criticism is elastic enough to accommodate Marxian, Freudian, and even Eco-critical considerations—why not entertain a Darwinian view?
Unlike the infamously unfriendly archaeological fossil record, literature’s “geological record” is, in comparison, remarkably intact, and its yield is particularly rich. In fact, we can trace literary heredity as far back as The Epic of Gilgamesh, which is estimated to date from as early as the third millennium BCE, relatively shortly after the invention of writing (sometime in the latter half of the fourth millennium BCE). A record of literary history such as this provides for the literary evolutionist a vast and supportive foundation upon which to build empirically based insights into the nature of literary change (on both macro- and microevolutionary levels) over the course of the written word’s fruitful five thousand year history.
Although I’m unaware of any systematic effort to apply the logic of evolutionary theory to literature, Richard Dawkins’ concept of the “meme” represents an important movement in that general direction. In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins describes the “meme” as a “[self-] replicator… a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.” It exists in many forms, including “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, [and] ways of making pots or of building arches.” As with genes, memes succeed in self-perpetuation by virtue of self-replication as they struggle to survive in light of a Malthusian competition for resources and living space—or rather, for “radio and television time, billboard space, newspaper column-inches, and library shelf-space.”
Although Dawkins’ “memes” are reliant upon their capacity for near-perfect self-replication, “literary genes,” it seems to me, thrive mainly through a significantly more imperfect process of what is known in the traditional lexicon of literary criticism as “influence” (for Dawkins, this process apparently falls under the heading of “mimesis” -- the root of the word “meme”). The literary evolutionist views literary works as writers’ cultural offspring and as vehicles for the transmission and dissemination of authors’ “literary genes.” Influence becomes a measurable presence of these “genes” – which may take the form of anything from ideas and images, formal structures, to whole phrases or sentences – as transferred from one author to another. Thus, “families” of authors are linked and can be identified by the spread, exchange, and incorporation of common literary elements and themes as they appear in artistic generations over time (versus links derived from an artist’s geo- and socio-historical location). The notion of literary history as forward linear motion, moreover, is abandoned, and literary works are considered largely outside the boundaries of time and space. Individuals are carriers of “literary genes” that inspire the production of creative works to serve as vehicles for their further dissemination. From an evolutionary perspective, originality or innovation is either due to an intermingling of previously unmixed “genes” or is “random genetic mutation,” a virtually unexplainable process for which is there is only a biological precedent.
I find this conceptual framework utterly enticing. But it will remain a metaphor at best until someone much more qualified than I can ascertain the mechanism for literary-evolutionary success. Whereas a given genetic mutation’s environmental compatibility serves as the primary engine for evolutionary success within the biological model, the sociological framework that accounts for the long-term survival (i.e., popularity) of a particular meme remains mysterious. What is it that makes a given literary work survive through time? Perhaps it’s a positivist’s dream, but I believe that we’ll someday have something that at least resembles a comprehensive, falsifiable answer.