The Genetic Function and Nature of LIterature, p.1R. D. Hood
The Genetic Function and Nature of Literature
By Randall Hood
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Table of Contents
The Genetic Function and Nature of Literature
The Genetic Function and Nature of Literature
Many thanks for the paper, which I have read with interest. I'm amazed that you could have formulated these ideas as early as 1979. The paper is of course short, and the ideas are bare-boned, but they're valid, it seems to me, for all that. Since it is such pioneering work, I'd think, if I were you, about adding it to the list of titles on the "Darwinian Literary Studies" page on Wikipedia.
Bob Storey (August 2010) Literary Darwinist and author of [i]Mimesis and the Human Animal: On the Biogenetic Foundations of Literary Representation[i].
The fact literature is shared among so many cultures of the world implies literature fulfills a vital function among those cultures. Some people say it is irrelevant to look for a function or purpose, but I disagree. If the function is found, it could lead to a better understanding of literature and literary criticism. The primary purpose of this paper is to show the ultimate function of literature is to aid the survival of specific gene pools within the human species. This overall function can be broken down into three minor functions of educating, motivating and entertaining.
First of all, literature needs to be defined. Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language defines literature as, “All writings in prose or verse of an imaginative nature.” Works of nonfiction are not included in this definition, but the function of nonfiction may well be similar to the function of imaginative writing. It is also hard to tell what is nonfiction and what is fiction. Many people feel sacred writings, such as the Bible, are allegorical fiction, whereas others believe these writings are literally true. Most people believe the “proven” writings of science to be nonfiction, but there is the possibility they are totally or partially fiction. For this paper, literature will be generally defined as all the imaginative material in writings and in oral traditions. I feel confident in this broader definition because studies have been done that show stories, novels, television, oral folklore, magazines and movies all perform the same functions.1
After briefly explaining some of the current theories on literature’s function and explaining the genetic function, a few examples of literature will be used to illustrate how they contribute to gene pool survival.
Aristotle thought a function of poetry was to communicate a “universal event.” This event is not supposed to tell what happened or what took place, but what happens and what takes place.2 Imitation (mimesis) and catharsis are used by the poet to bring about this “universal event.” The function of imitation is to teach and to help man see reality. Through catharsis, man is able to cleanse his mind of excessive emotions and also gain a greater knowledge of the nature of gods and men.3
In ancient cultures, myths make up a large part of literature. The anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski thought these myths played an important role. He wrote:
Myth fulfills in primitive culture an indispensable function; it expresses, enhances, and codifies beliefs; it safeguards and enforces morality; it vouches for the efficiency of ritual and contains practical rules for the guidance of men. Myth is thus a vital ingredient of human civilization; it is not an idle tale, but a hard-worked active force; it is not an intellectual explanation, but a pragmatic charter of primitive faith and moral wisdom.4
Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss said myths have an “underlying structure of relationships” which are problem solving.5 Two other anthropologists, Dardel and Bergson, thought myths are a basis for religion and morality. Bergson also said myth functions in “counteracting the excesses of intelligence and in promoting a positive faith in the continuity of life.”6
Kenneth Burke, Bergson, and Aristotle seem to have been in agreement that one function of literature is to curb excesses. Burke developed the lightning rod theory. He thought catharsis in literature functions like a lightning rod to get rid of destructive forces in the individual. He also thought literature is similar to a vaccine. By being exposed to destructive forces in small amounts, the individual is prepared when a larger dose hits. The elegy, for example, “functions to develop tolerance to possibilities of great misfortune by accustoming him…to misfortune in small doses, administered stylistically.”7 Burke felt “scientism” produces an aggressive nature in man that needs to be curbed by the vision, intuition, imagination and revelation found in literature.8
Northrop Frye did not think mythology is a form of literature, but he did think it performs the same job.9 Its function is to make the objective world human and to give “us an experience that stretches us vertically to the heights and depths of what the human mind can conceive.”10 Literature helps man produce a vision of the society he wants to live in. According to Frye, mythology also helps convince people to accept the rules, laws and customs of their society. Ian Barbour elaborated further on this social function of myths:
Myths promote the integration of society. They are a cohesive force binding a community together and contributing to social solidarity, group identity and communal harmony. Myth sanctions the existing social order and justifies its status system and power structure, providing a rationale for social and political institutions.11
Marxist critics would agree that the function of literature is to provide a rationale for social and political institutions, but they limited the institutions exclusively to the socialist variety.12 Solzhenitsyn, Chekhob and Hemingway felt the function of literature is to find the truth. Saul Bellow and Joseph Conrad thought fiction should find “what is fundamental, enduring and essential.”13 Tennyson thought poetry served as a prophesy.
There are two reasons for briefly covering these theories. First, they seem to be generally representative of many theories on the function of literature. Second, I want to show that they are compatible with and support the overall genetic function of literature. These previous theories explain minor functions of literature, and they are part of the major genetic function. Before it is shown how literature aids in the survival of specific gene pools, a few basic principles of sociobiology must be explained.
Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams,
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life.
This stanza from Tennyson’s In Memoriam may be about the death of Arthur Hallam, but it is also a good example of how sociobiology operates. The specific gene pool of any given group represents “the type.” Sociobiology maintains that “the single life” is just a “throwaway survival machine” for “the type.”14 In other words, humans or any other forms of life are just vehicles for gene pool survival. Sociobiological evolution is a modern modification of Darwinian evolution. The former holds that the gene pool represents the ultimate unit of survival, and not the Darwinian concept of the individual as the ultimate unit of survival.
The gene pool represents the collection of genes in an interbreeding group of individuals, such as in a specific society or cultural group. It must be remembered the gene pool is not consciously fighting for survival, but that gene pool survival is a passive selection process. If one group of humans had genetically acquired the ability to create literature and another group had not, and if that ability had a survival advantage to it, then the gene pool that carried that ability would be more likely to survive. The evidence for the gene pool as the survival unit and not the individual as this unit can be found in the social, altruistic and sexual behaviors of any group
If literature has a genetic function, then literature should also have a genetic base. Sociobiologists have two questions they ask themselves to see if trait of man has a genetic base. First, they want to know if the trait in question is found in many ancient and modern cultures. If it is, then they try to find out if it would have any survival advantages for that culture. If the trait has a survival advantage too, then the evidence is strong the trait has a genetic base.15
Question one is easier to answer than question two. Almost every ancient and modern culture has had some form of literature. Most cultures have different literatures, but it is remarkable how similar the basic motifs are in literatures throughout the world. Flood and creation myths can be found in practically every society. Violence, sex, love, morality, hypocrisy and religion are just a few subjects common to literatures around the world. In addition, different literatures not only use many of the same literary devices and techniques, but they also seem to progress through the same stages. First, there are oral mythologies that concern man’s relation to the gods and universe, and then, much later, written fiction develops which is usually more concerned with man’s relation to other men. It seems unlikely that cultures so diverse would have deep structures of their literature so similar if chance was the only factor involved. If these deep structures of literature were genetically based, then the similarities would be expected. That is enough speculation for right now. The first question has been answered – literature is found in many ancient and modern cultures. For the second question, it now must be shown that literature has a survival advantage.
Literature is a major part of any given culture and the purpose of culture is to aid in survival.16 Leslie A. White said, “Culture is a major biological adaptation of Homo sapiens; and certainly we possess a biologically evolved capacity for culture.”17 The reason man is dependent on culture for survival is because he is anatomically unspecialized and thus needs culture to adapt to various environments.18 Most animals are adapted to fill specific niches, and so they rely mainly on instinct to survive in almost exactly the same way generations of their species had done before them. In man, the development of reason and culture allowed him to exploit different conditions as the environment changed or as a tribe moved. So, groups that inherited the ability to acquire culture survived over groups that relied more on instinct to adapt to the environment. Not only does culture help man adapt to his environment, but it also provides for a system of social organization which allows man to form larger societies. White said:
In short, social organization is as necessary for the effective conduct of life and for survival of the human species as a technological adjustment to and control over the natural habitat. And embracing everything is a philosophy, a system of beliefs, weighted with emotion or attitude or ‘values’ which serves to relate man to both the earth and cosmos, and to organize and orient his life collectively and individually.19
As covered earlier, Frye, Malinowski and Barbour felt literature plays a large role in expressing this system of beliefs. Larger social groups have a survival advantage over smaller ones20, and as the group becomes larger and more complex the need for the system of beliefs that is expressed in literature becomes even greater.21
Culture does provide a survival advantage for humans and literature is a large part of culture, and so the second part of the question has been answered – literature does have a survival advantage. To summarize the argument again, literature is found in many ancient and modern cultures, and it does have survival advantages, and so, according to sociobiological theory, the evidence is strong that literature has a genetic base and serves the function of aiding in the survival of specific gene pools within the human species.
The argument might be used that literature is learned and not genetic. The answer to that, according to sociobiological theory, is that there are genes to develop and respond to literature. In the same manner Noam Chomsky maintains we have the ability to acquire certain deep structures of language, but not the genetic ability to be born knowing a specific language. This genetic ability to be able to develop and respond to literature and not to have a specific literature inherited is the result of man’s need to be flexible and unspecialized since he has to adapt his cultures to varied and diverse environments. A set literature would be the same thing as instinct, and that would limit the flexibility that is unique to man in survival. For example, literature expressing the glories of war might have had a survival advantage for the Vikings in the 10th century, but in today’s nuclear society, literature advocating peace probably has a larger survival advantage for all gene pools.
Now I will present a few examples from literature to explain and illustrate how the three minor functions contribute to the major genetic function. As said earlier, these minor functions are to educate, motivate, and entertain.
Since literature functions to aid in the survival of gene pools, it seems literary topics should deal with subjects that contribute to gene pool survival. Love, sex, violence, altruism, philosophy, religion, politics, morality, and psychology are all related to gene pool survival and they are all dealt with extensively in literature.
Some critics of sociobiology say that if behavior is genetically based, then why would there be the need for culture to teach what is already genetic. The sociobiological answer to that is that since man’s survival is so dependent upon his flexibility, he evolved what are called facultative genes. These types of genes make man more likely to act in a certain manner, but they can be influenced by the environment to change their effects.22 Hypertrophy is the “growth of habits and customs through interplay of genetics and culture.”23 Literature has a hypertrophic function of influencing facultative genes. For example, sociobiologists claim that male dominance over females might be controlled by a facultative gene. In the past, it has usually been more advantageous for mankind to have a male dominant society, and the literature of the time supported and reinforced that view. Today, women are being freed from their traditional roles, and it may prove more advantageous to gene pool survival to have a more egalitarian society. There has been a rise in feminist literature to go along with women’s new freedoms, and this literature serves the hypertrophic function of minimizing the influence the facultative genes have on making us feel men should dominate over women.
When I say a minor function of literature is to educate, it does not mean through a didactic method exclusively. Many things are learned tacitly from literature. Numerous aspects of our culture are reinforced through stories that are usually thought of as purely entertaining. This idea has been developed by Marshal McLuhan in The Medium is the Message.
Literature teaches about religion, and religion developed to enhance survival.24 This function of literature is in agreement with many of the theorists mentioned earlier who said that literature served as a basis for religion. Religion helps gene pools survive because it gives rules to live by, reassurance in difficult times, and it validates social institution. Without these, man would not have a basis on which to act.
The Bible provides a basis for Christians to live by, but it can be interpreted in many ways, and so many other works of literature were written to advance various interpretations. The poetry of Milton and Blake is one example of a large body of literature that tries to explicate issues raised by the Bible. When modern science threatened the validity of religions, a body of literature was written to reconcile the two. In Memoriam by Tennyson is one poem that deals with religious faith in an increasingly scientific world.
For some people today, who do not consider themselves religious, the naturalistic, realistic and existential literatures help codify and define their beliefs. Many of these people may not know it, but their survival is enhanced by the religion of scientific materialism which is itself a myth in the classic sense – “Its narrative form is the epic: the evolu
The idea that religion developed to enhance survival, and that religious themes play such a large role in literature is further proof that literature functions for survival, but is that function gene pool survival or individual survival? Religions emphasize performing altruistic acts over selfish acts, and that supports a gene pool survival theory. I will present more altruistic examples in literature a little later.
Another function of literature is that of social criticism. This is often accomplished with humorous and satiric methods. When war fails to help a society, anti-war literature develops. Aristophanes’ Lysistrata is an early example of this type of literature, and Catch-22 is a modern criticism of war. The survival advantage of anti-war literature is more obvious than others.
The theme of a distrust of technology and the process of industrialization can be seen in some of the literature from the romantic period. The theme could have helped gene pool survival because as industry grew, so did the abuse of life in industrial cities. Technology can help or hinder gene pool survival, and anti-technology literature serves to educate people about the useful limits of new developments.
Gulliver’s Travels and Cat’s Cradle are examples of literature that criticize the abuse of science. It seems our society has learned something from this type of literature because we are now seriously questioning the use of nuclear power, and we have reduced research on such potentially destructive things as genetic engineering and the neutron bomb.
Voltaire’s Candide helped do away with the “what is, is best” philosophy. If people feel they have control over their environment, then they are usually more likely to correct situations which detract from gene pool survival. It might be argued that the “what is, is best” philosophy developed in literature, but in certain situations (e.g., where people actually had little control over their environment or in a society where a set social order was more efficient) this philosophy might have aided gene pool survival because it justified conditions that could not be changed, and thus encouraged people to keep doing their best under adversity. The previous example also illustrates how literature may have a survival advantage in one society or period of time and not in others.
The Jungle led to social legislation which directly enhanced group survival. The literature of Richard Wright, Langston Hughes and James Baldwin probably did much to correct the social injustices which hindered the African American gene pool from advancing. Arrowsmith and Babbitt showed how narrow-minded groups of people can limit innovative thought and discoveries that might help groups survive.
Love and sex are of top importance to gene pool survival and that is why they are so prevalent as topics in literature. The representation of love and sex in literature functions hypertrophically to teach man the sociobiological way to love. The seduction poems of Donne, Shakespeare and Marvell are excellent illustrations of sociobiological theory. This theory holds that since men can start thousands of pregnancies and women can only start about thirty, the women are the buyers in a market of many more sellers. This means men should be more promiscuous and sexually aggressive because they have many chances at advancing their own genes, and women should be more selective with whom they mate because they have so few chances to advance their genes.26 In seduction poems, there is a man trying to convince a reluctant woman why she should have sex with him. Again, the reason this type of literature is necessary when it is already genetically determined that males and females should act this way is because facultative genes control this type of behavior. Facultative genes make men and women more likely to act in a certain manner that usually aids in gene pool survival, but in some environments (e.g., where there are many more women than men) this pattern might serve the gene pool better if reversed. Seduction poems reinforce the feeling in men that they should be the aggressive sellers and the feeling in women that they should be selective buyers.
In humans, specific gene pools are advanced more effectively when there are strong family relationships. Donne’s poetry often deals with love as something more than physical. He believed that after death lovers will be united, and that their love does not die with death, only their bodies do. Literature that deals with this type of theme functions hypertrophically to insure that parents will stay together between periods of sexual love.
Violence is another theme often seen in literature that is tied directly to gene pool survival. The portrayal of violent situations serves to teach us how to deal with or avoid enemies, accidents, and any other dangerous predicament we might get into. Violence in literature may also perform the cathartic function Aristotle and Burke believed in.
The period of childhood is a time when literature plays an important education role. Children show an intense interest in stories because they rely on learned knowledge rather than instinctual behavior to become productive members of their societies. The stories they read and listen to are usually didactic about basic morals and proper ways to act. The education function of literature is necessary for gene pool survival, but there are two more minor functions that are just about as important. The next one is to motivate.
The best effect of any book is that it excites the reader to self activity.
Merely being taught about things that need to be changed will not bring about the desired changes. Literature serves to stimulate and reinforce the motivational drives and emotions within all of us.
One of the most vital drives is the drive to live. Many forms of literature keep this drive strong by providing hope. Hope makes man achieve and the lack of hope makes him dull and listless.27 A society that is motivated by hope is more likely to survive than one that is not.
Religious literature employs hope to motivate. The Bible says there is life in heaven after death, and that provides the inspiration to keep going under adverse conditions. Mythologies can give man the illusion of power over things like weather, disease, enemies and the future.28 This illustration supplies motivation to act even though there is the possibility of failure. When man does fail, literature gives conciliation and often explains why he failed. This gives him hope to try again.
Heroic stories motivate people to action. Here’s what Werner Jaeger had to say about The Iliad:
The Iliad had a profound effect on the spectacular brilliance of Greek civilization. The Achillean thirst for glory helped promote a striving for excellence in every field, which created the stunning geniuses for the Classical Age. Essentially heroic legends are the stuff for which civilizations live and die.29
The Crow Indians have a war lyric urging warriors to die in battle for their tribe if necessary.30 Not only does this poem illustrate the motivation function of literature, but it also supports sociobiological theory. If the individual was the survival unit, then literature would not have developed urging individuals to die for their culture. “Dulce et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori” (It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country) by Horace, illustrates this same principle, but with the new methods of warfare in WWI all gene pools seemed threatened and Wilfred Owen wrote “Dulce et Decorum Est” to encourage people not to fight.
A passage from “Locksley Hall” by Tennyson, dealing with the “federation of the world” being “lapped in universal law,” is said to have inspired President Truman to give the go-ahead for the United Nations. This type of world government may eventually prevent nuclear destruction of all gene pools.
As said earlier, larger societies have a survival advantage over smaller ones and so nationalistic literature has a survival advantage. “Scots, Wha Hae” by Robert Burns is of this type, and it urged the Scottish to organize into such a group.
The third minor function of literature is to entertain. Earlier the education and motivation functions were shown to be important in gene pool survival, and the entertainment function insures literature will be read, watched, o
In conclusion, the primary function of literature, according to sociobiological theory, is to aid in the survival of specific gene pools. Not only does literature motivate and entertain, but it also teaches and operates hypertrophically to influence facultative genes. Many times literature serves as dialectic from which survival themes emerge. The deep structures of literature are inherited genetically and allow people to create varied literatures to meet the specific survival needs their environment imposes upon them. This gene pool survival function is compatible with many current theories on the function of literature, but these other theories are subordinate to the genetic function.
This theory may seem dehumanizing, but it will allow us to more fully understand the important role literature and literary criticism play in our society, and that should prove to be humanizing.
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