Evolution and Literature

Katherine Redford's picture

Literary Evolution as a Window into Social Evolution

 Upon beginning Zadie Smith’s novel On Beauty just four days after completing Forster’s Howard’s End, I was horrified.  “We are reading the same story all over again!” I thought, “This is going to be the most horrifically boring experience of all time.”  But as I delved deeper into the novel, keeping Howard’s End in the back of my mind, I found myself not only fascinated with the picture of modern society Smith presented, but also with the important connections in themes between the two novels.  These themes were especially accessible due to such a similar plot line.  By reading Zadie Smith’s novel, Forster’s masterpiece makes more sense, enlightening the reader about social evolution within the past century and at the same time providing a critique of society and its progress. Throughout our reading of On Beauty, I began to see the correlation, by reading these two novels together; I achieved knowledge far greater than what I would have attained having read one novel or the other.  The symbiotic relationship between the two presented an image of the social evolution of many social issues, race, class, gender, and religion.

hayley reed's picture

An Odyssey of Self Awareness: Considering the Conscious & Unconscious

Hayley Reed

April 19th, 2007

An Odyssey of Self-Awareness: Considering the Conscious & Unconscious 

Tu-Anh Vu's picture

Darwinian Evolution in On Beauty

In the class Evolution and Evolution of Stories, we discuss the evolution of universes, species, and populations.  In Darwinian evolution, individuals who are better adapted to their unique environment have a better chance at survival. These biological aspects of evolution can also be used to describe literary evolution.  For example, books that are useful or generative are kept in humanity, whereas books that have no use or readers cannot connect with are rarely read thus become extinct.  Looking further into literary evolution, we can analyze the evolution of a character in a novel and see if the character changes over the course of the novel to adapt to his changing environment.  In Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, the Belsey family does not evolve.  At the start of the novel, Howard and Kiki’s marriage is strained and Howard cannot connect with his kids.  At the end of the novel, nothing has changed within the dynamics of the family.  The relationships of the family members remain unchanged. Biological evolution is seen at the population level, but delving deeper into the levels, we can also say that the unit of selection is the individual.  Although the family unit as a whole in On Beauty does not evolve, do the characters evolve in the novel (in particular Howard Belsey)?

fortunesfool's picture

Cinderella and Evolution

danYell's picture

Aspirant Evolution

Literature and science are both attempts to explain reality. The story of evolution explains the process through which species mutate, adapt, and evolve. Evolution offers an answer to the question, How did we get here? Literary stories are not as devoted to offering answers to that question, but focus more on the Why are we here?, What is our purpose? Literature is an attempt to tell stories that get it less wrong in terms of the way in which we think about people and their interactions. If we think about science as a process of discovery, we can also think about literary analysis as an attempt to discover the answers to the big questions, and we can use the loopy scientific method to offer insight into literary analysis. Not attempting to find the Truth frees the thinker up to discover other things. For me, this means less pressure and freedom to experiment with ideas rather than having to be Right.

Kristin Jenkins's picture

Lost in Translation

          Throughout the course of this semester, our class has discussed the usefulness of the story of evolution as an explanation of the way life has evolved but also as an explanation for the way other things evolve as well. We have found literature, in particular, to be one such topic that can be explained in terms of the story and mechanics of biological evolution. By reading and discussing E.M. Forster’s Howards End and Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, the idea that books can be adaptations of one another, like an adaptation in the biological sense. Literary adaptation, also like biological adaptations, can be successful or not, depending on multiple factors. Unlike biological evolution, though, these factors are mostly dictated by humans, and the environment in which the work is released. Zadie Smith’s style of adaptation, regardless of its inherent generativity, is not the only style of adaptation available to an author. Although not normally thought as a method of adaptation, the art of translation is a useful and fascinating way to adapt a piece of literature.

kgins's picture

Thoughts on Thoughtlessness

I can’t imagine being thoughtless as a way of life. The only time I ever think of myself as thoughtless, more or less, is on a tennis court, where tennis is my only thought. Even then, I’m thinking; thinking about the game, the moment, the point. I observe and respond- this is my logic. To be thoughtless, to me, would mean that I act without this logic, without any reasoning. Is it better to be ignorant and simple, or aware and complicated? Is thoughtlessness ignorance? Does being aware necessarily equal complication? I’ve grown up being taught that thinking about issues, about lessons being taught in school, is the most beneficial way to gain the most I can out of my academic life. Now, in this moment, I wonder whether I’d be happier to not have adapted this mentality. I say those dreaded words, wonder that forbidden thought, thinking that life could be much simpler if I didn’t take responsibility for what I see around me.

tbarryfigu's picture

We Refuse To Be Each Other

The individual’s search for identity in a world where society dictates the implementation of common generalizations is peculiar, as the strong hand of scientific opposition negates the importance of personality with regards to members of the human race. The population is widely accepted as the sole unit of biological evolution, and yet, humans all over the world are thought to slowly evolve as they change the manner of their ways in one distinct direction. This evolution, which in literature, is typically represented by the movement of one toward or away from “goodness,” cannot take place unless that individual obtains a persona capable of definition. This personality, immune to both duplication and recycling, is as important a possession to that person as any secular item used to help define it. With this in mind, it is no surprise that “we refuse to be each other,” as our sense of individuality justifies our actions and consequent evolution over time (Smith, 2). Questions remain, however, as we negate the significance of DNA sequencing, which both supports the idea of inimitability and disregards small-scale evolution. Is any given human persona truly capable of definition, given the limiting context of language? Can one truly be unique if general categorizations like race and class prevail as the most common methods of identification?

EB Ver Hoeve's picture

Exploring Moral Clarity via Control Theory

Have you ever heard of the Polar Bear Plunge?  Near the end of each blisteringly cold Wisconsin winter, a group of brave souls "plunge" for a few seconds into the freezing waters of Lake Mendota.  Well, last time I went to this event, my attention was drawn away from the human yelps toward a calmer spot on the lake where a flock of Canadian geese waded in shallow water.  I remember thinking, 'How do those birds have so much tolerance for the cold?'  The secret, of course, rests in thermoregulation - more specifically, geese use countercurrent heat exchange or circulatory adaptation to maintain their core body temperature as a controlled variable.  One can draw an intriguing comparison between the application of "control theory' in biological evolution and its application in literature as seen in Howard's End - through Forster's regulation and control of morality.

Christina Cunnane's picture

Literary Evolution in a Biblical Perspective

Literary Evolution in a Biblical Perspective

"Biological evolution is but part of the application of the evolutionary concept," (Calverton 520). Since Darwin's description of evolution as a process of change in biological systems, the word evolution has been applied to many subjects. V. F. Calverton describes modern thinking about history, philosophy, religion, and literature as a result of the process of evolution described by Darwin. Calverton explains in his article about literary evolution and social forces that "in almost every phase of thought, be it purely logical or experimental, man has learned to think in terms of the evolutionary concept," (Calverton 520). This is especially true in analyzing the work that embodies the culmination of literature and religion, the Bible. Evolution is commonly thought to be in competition with religion, especially that of Christianity. However, not even Christianity has been able to escape Darwin and his revolutionaries. The construction and generativity of the Bible demonstrate the ability for literature to be both a product and a source of evolution.

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