Mimesis and the Human Animal: On the Biogenetic Foundations of Literary Representation. By Robert Storey. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1996. Pp. xxii + 274; 4 illustrations. $19.95 ppb.
Robert Storey has made a bold and original contribution to a small, new, but rapidly growing school of literary theory and criticism--the school that affiliates itself with the biologically grounded study of human behavior and culture. In the past two decades, at first under the rubric of "sociobiology" and more recently under that of "evolutionary psychology," the new Darwinists in the social sciences have been transforming the elementary assumptions of their disciplines. They decisively reject the idea that human nature is infinitely plastic or empty and that society or culture is an autonomous causal force that supplies all content to human experience and behavior. Drawing on an increasingly dense and particular body of empirical findings in areas such as primatology, biological sex differences, infant development, personality structure, endocrinology, cognitive psychology, the neurosciences, linguistics, political science, and cultural anthropology, they argue that beneath all cultural and individual variation, human beings display an innate, evolved, species-typical structure of motives, cognitive predispositions, and behaviors. It is precisely this innate structure that is meant when one speaks of "human nature."
Defenders of the old culturalist orthodoxy still hold strong positions in fortresses of the academic left such as The New York Review of Books, but the growth industry, the field in which real advances are being made, is evolutionary study. Moreover, these advances move rapidly from the laboratory and study into the popular domain. Hardly a month passes now without some new, high-profile publication such as--to mention a few recent examples--James Q. Wilson's The Moral Sense, Robert Wright's The Moral Animal, Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct, David Buss' The Evolution of Desire, or Frans de Waal's Good Natured. The minds of the educated public are clearly primed to receive ideas that answer to their deep, intuitive apprehension of their own biological nature. It will probably not be long now--a matter of years rather than decades--before even the most determined ideologues in the social sciences find themselves faced with a stark alternative: either jettison the dogma of cultural autonomy, or slide into ossified irrelevance.
Literary scholars who wish to gain some insight into the new Darwinian revolution, particularly as it bears on literary study, could find no better place to start than Storey's Mimesis and the Human Animal. Storey has assimilated the other significant contributions to the field, and he has gone much further than most previous literary scholars in assimilating specific empirical studies in a host of related areas: sex differences, cognitive psychology, the neurosciences, the study of emotions, and evolutionary psychology, linguistics, epistemology, and anthropology. His bibliography alone could provide an invaluable resource for other scholars, and through his own example he offers direction on how to use all this new information. Along with his empirical research, Storey has mastered a large body of specifically literary theory: genre theory (particularly tragedy and comedy), narrative theory, and the theory of reading. His central accomplishment is to have integrated empirical social science and literary study, showing how each can illuminate the other.
In parallel with this positive, constructive side to his work, Storey undertakes a vigorous campaign against the glibly perverse formulas of postmodern cultural theory. To my mind, the case he makes, rejecting current notions and offering alternatives, is overwhelmingly convincing, in its broad outlines and in many of its particulars. He demonstrates that commonly held views of linguistic autonomy and the literary construction of reality will not stand up against even the most rudimentary appeal to empirical knowledge, and at the same time he shows how making this appeal to empirical knowledge opens up rich new possibilities for understanding basic literary problems.
Readers who dread the drily technical aspect of empirical study can take heart. Storey writes with wit and flair. He has a pungent sense of humor and a gift for the felicitous turn of phrase, and his polemical position gives a dramatic urgency to what he has to say. He is exasperated by the follies he counters, and like the best of the nature writers, he is animated by a real passion and enthusiasm for his subject--for getting at the heart of a matter. Both his exasperation and his enthusiasm reflect qualities of character, of intellectual honesty before all other things, and the expression of character in tone and style invests any work with literary value.
The book is in two parts. Part one, the first three chapters, is devoted to summarizing the findings of recent evolutionary study and thus generating what Storey calls a "'biogrammar' of the species" (p. xviii), that is, an outline of the evolved human architecture, with a special emphasis on those aspects of sociality, elemental motives, and mental functions that are most relevant to literature. Part two is devoted to specifically literary issues, with chapters on narrative and the reader, tragedy, and comedy. And finally, there is a chapter of practical application, a fresh and incisive critique of Iris Murdoch's A Fairly Honorable Defeat. The general method and spirit of the book can be illustrated by Storey's statement of purpose in the chapter on comedy (p. 158):
What is the audience for Storey's book? At the present time, there is a fairly substantial minority of intellectually conservative critics eager to hear denunciations of poststructuralist radicalism--the kind of scholars who make up the National Association of Scholars--but these scholars for the most part wish merely to reinstate traditional methods. They feel no need to develop any adequate theoretical rationale for these methods, and they remain comfortably indifferent to the segregation of literary study from empirical science. The number of scholars who already have an active interest in the kind of work Storey takes up probably does not rise above fifty. Does that mean that the book will not be read? Possibly. But it could also happen that Storey, and a few others like him, will create the audience they address. Any such hope must assume that both traditional and current practices have created a large pool of latent intellectual discontent.
Some of the readers who respond to Storey's appeal will be professional literary scholars, but it might be also that some reforming influence will enter the field from the outside, from the interests and concerns of the generally educated public who for a long time now have had no reason to feel that academic literary scholarship is connected to them in any way. In defining his own audience, Storey thus invokes a reader who is a rarity for academic scholarship--the common reader (p. xxi):
Department of English
University of Missouri--St. Louis
St. Louis, Mo. 63121
Maintained by Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California Los Angeles