Genre and Speciation

M. Gallagher's picture

Genre and Speciation


I am a biology major in Anne Dalke's Emerging Genres class. As a student trying to understand genre and its theory, I see the usefulness of equating the emergence of genres with speciation in the biologic field. However, as one interested in the biology, I have noticed that the difficulties in applying this parallel seem to cause many of the problems encountered in quite a few of the class readings and discussions. While this may, in part, stem from a relatively limited exposure to modern genre theory and elementary presentations of speciation, it seems to be a large enough dissonance to merit discussion.

First of all, one of the main discrepancies between Darwinian evolution and literary evolution is the concept of species. One of the caveats of Darwinian evolution is that organisms have descended from a common ancestor and have become further specialized until they are separate species. Though highly debated even within the field of biology, species is usually accepted to be “A group or class of animals or plants (usually constituting a subdivision of a genus) having certain common and permanent characteristics which clearly distinguish it from other groups (” This generally includes an inability to create fertile offspring: for example, horses and donkeys can mate and produce a sterile mule; though many species like dogs and cats cannot produce offspring at all, despite originating from the same universal DNA and RNA constituents. Genre does not seem to have these isolated species.

Take the genre of “letters” and that of “novels”, for illustration. If both are separate species, they should not be able to be able to be combined into the epistolary novel, which is a viable genre in itself, that still represents quite clearly the two parent genres. Likewise, anthologies can contain many genres (poetry, excerpts from novels, dramas, critical articles, and much more), but remain anthologies. Novels can also contain these diverse genres- such as Moby Dick's multiple dramatically structured chapters (chapters 37 to 40) and Father Mapple's hymn in chapter nine- yet still remain novels. It seems that all literary forms, or genres, from any time period can cross-breed, unlike biological species.

While this may seem a trivial distinction from one who should accept that analogies are not made to be perfect but instead to be general likenesses, it is not. As the Kimball biology book states, the difference between species and sub-species can be determined if two supposed allopatric (geographically isolated) species can viably mate when they become sympatric (geographic contact). If the mating can progress, then speciation has never occurred (Kimball). There is also some evidence for sympatric speciation, but this still requires reproductive isolation to define a species. This implies that since the different genres of literature can be combined, following the generally accepted theories of speciation, that they were never separate species at all; thus, a true evolution did not occur. This negates the close relationship between Darwinian evolution and literary evolution.

A major contributor to the problems of the evolutionary analogy is the inherent construction of literature. Unlike organisms, forms of writing are consciously constructed to obtain a final goal or meaning, which is sometimes to defy genre (or to combine multiple genres). This directs the creation of new genres in a different way than that of organisms, which are not cognitively directed. Organisms acquire random change, the best of which are selected for. These get to reproduce, changing the biologic diversity and inspiring evolution.

Even assuming that genre and species could be abstracted enough that they could be considered to be equal, another underlying problem would still exist. The term “genre” is a catch-all. It includes both the form and the content of the piece. Thus, the genre of Jonathan Swift's Modest Proposal could be that of satire or political commentary, an essay, or both. With this overlap in terminology, the attempts to delineate the evolution of genre in a linear fashion somewhat akin to modern evolutionary models are foiled. Instead, there is a chaotic tangling which cannot be parsed into an evolutionary view.

While genres require a reader to define them, much like Linnaean classification systems require a taxonomist to impose structure, genre is such an ambiguous word that this process becomes far more contextual and is subjected to the reader’s whims more than it would be in classical taxonomy. More importantly, there is no classification system to appeal to when one is unsure of a correct genre: it remains up to the reader’s experience (whether of other similar works or of critical essays). If we consider the role of satire, using the example of Swift’s Modest Proposal from class, the essay can be read either as a literal call to eat all of the babies in Ireland, or as satire criticizing the authority that has let the Irish people arrive at this state. While this is a widely accepted satirical piece, Moby Dick contains a vast quantity of satire which is missed by a large portion of its current readership. The first two sections- prior to the infamous “Call me Ishmael” line- are steeped in satire, from an etymology composed by a late consumptive usher to a grammar school (xvii) to a collection of random extracts alluding to whales including a quote “From 'something' Unpublished” (xxxi), which frames the novel and the whole process of reading meaning into a text in a satirical light. However, Moby Dick is rarely referred to amongst the satirical, as most readers begin it with the preconception that it is a very serious novel- which leaves the reader opposing the satirical call altogether.

So, genre can be defined differently not only depending on whether one is focusing on the form or content, but also is dependent upon the reader's context. This, along with a lack of true speciation, is where the analogy between the evolution of genre and that of accepted biology seems to falter. The biological model is hierarchical and chronologically linear in its display, whereas genre is amorphous to a great extent without any real hierarchy. Croce's statement that “It is not scientifically incorrect to talk of tragedies, comedies [...] if it be only with a view to be understood, and to draw attention to certain group or works...(28)” and that the problems arise when the weight of a scientific law are applied seems accurate. The analogy between Darwinian evolution and genre is a useful one; however, it can only be taken so far. In trying to segregate individual texts into generic categories, it would seem more elegant to “trace the boundaries (55)” of what it is not instead of attempting to find the essence of what the text is. This way, the necessity for a logically organized descriptive structure would be adapted to the eccentricities of genre study instead of attempting to clumsily alter the study of genre to fit the precepts and rigidity another field.

Works Cited

Croce, Benedetto. “Criticism of the Theory of Artistic and Literary Kinds.”

Modern Genre Theory. Ed: David Duff. Longman. 28.

Freadman, Anne. “Anyone for Tennis?” Genre and the New Rhetoric. Ed: Aviva Freedman and Peter Medway. Taylor & Francis, 1994. 54.

Melville, Herman. Moby Dick or The Whale. New York: Random House, Inc., 1992.

“Speciation.” Kimball, John W. Biology. 2008. <>. 25 February 2008.

“Species.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. <>. 25 February 2008.

Swift, Jonathan. “A Modest Proposal.” Plain Label Books. <>. 25 February 2008.


Anne Dalke's picture

Looking @ the Limits of the Analogy

As you know, I’m just delighted to have several biology majors enrolled in this literature class, helping me to think through both the usefulness and the limitations of using biological concepts to understand the evolution of literature.

As Rosmarin showed us weeks ago, we are both “prone to extend classes of things beyond their rational groups, AND able to see that “the inevitability of making mistakes is not the bane of criticism but rather, its enabling condition.” So your insisting on the limits of the analogy of speciation for the discussing of genre is, for me, a very helpful observation. It’s clear that genres are not isolated in the ways biological species are, but rather able to combine and “reproduce” in new, fertile ways (Bakhtin limits this capacity to novels; you make it a more general phenomenon). Point well taken.

But for me what follows from your pointing out the limits of this analogy is not the sort of gatekeeping implied in your conclusion—that a “true evolution did not occur,” but rather an invitation to think about alternative ways of characterizing literary species. Rather than saying, “ah ha! You’ve got it wrong!” Rosmarin would urge us to say, “yes, that’s an error, and inevitably a generative one….so: what can we DO with this dissonance?”

I have a similar response to your second point—that the evolution of literature is consciously directed, not subject to random change; I’d posit that using the theory of evolution to think about literature actually enables us to highlight something we haven’t looked @ enough yet: all the ways in which randomness and contingency enter into the creative process…

The other bit that intrigues me in your paper has to do with the other side of the calibration: your characterization of modern evolutionary models as “hierarchical and chronologically linear.” I thought that Paul’s discussion with us highlighted some of the various rhetorics that can (and have been!) used in talking about evolution and made the point that there is now thought to be no general trend of gradual continuous progress in evolution (see below: the older tree explicitly embed the notion of progress; the more contemporary one does not…)

Least convincing to me was the last section of your essay, where you describe the ignorance of many readers of texts like Moby-Dick. I’m just not following you there: why would a reader’s failure to recognize certain generic conventions—such as those of satire—function as proof of the non-existence of those conventions? By my lights, this would be the reverse of what you claim, actually an argument for pursuing genre study: helping readers learn to read the conventions (as Freadman argues in "Anyone for Tennis?"): understanding genre is understanding the way a text “plays” (its tactics, strategies, ceremonial place), and so “ensuring a useful uptake.”

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