Call for Papers (English)

When Edward O. Wilson published his book Sociobiology (1975), followed by On Human Nature (1978) and Consilience (1998), they were rejected almost unanimously by scholars in the humanities. Since then, however, new directions have been taken. Where faculties were once happily segregated, they now strive to communicate and to solve problems together, and Wilson’s publications are counted among the fundamental works at the interface between the sciences and the humanities. Foremost among the disciplines that have gained in significance far beyond their own scope are biology and the other life sciences.

Along with some more controversial developments in the fields of genetics and brain research, evolutionary theory has captured the interest of a multitude of scholars from diverse faculties and stimulated the formation of independent theories in a large number of disciplines. Economics has developed a subdiscipline called “evolutionary management”; in Philosophy an “evolutionary epistemology” is under discussion, and within Psychology there is “evolutionary psychology”. Thus the life sciences have arguably taken on the role of a new “Leitwissenschaft” (a leading or guiding science) in our time, and their empirical and theoretical achievements are of great interest to sociology, literary studies, linguistics, media studies, and communication science. The new relationship between the humanities and sciences is also indicated in the title of the 2007 programme of the Association of German Studies in Germany: “Nature – Culture. Universality and Variety in Language, Literature and Education”.

In Graham Swift’s novel Waterland (1983) a history teacher defines man [sic] as “the story-telling animal”, and indeed, stories accompany us from our earliest childhood; they are an indispensable component of all human cultures. The question of the evolution of language and literature is thus a subject of foremost importance for various disciplines, and the number of books and collections of essays investigating it is increasing rapidly. Research on human linguistic development is also of crucial importance for literary studies, as it touches upon central questions, right up to the much discussed aspects of linguistic, reading and media competence. In Language and Myth (1925) Ernst Cassirer already suggested that language and myth were two sides of one coin, so that the source of narration was not a subsequent phenomenon, but concurrent with the development of language. Indeed, narrative elements are to be found in all discourses, allowing us to assume that besides genetically coded linguistic ability there may also be a universal predisposition to process and convey experience of reality in the form of stories.

It is thus of urgent interest, not only for biology and the neurosciences, but also for the humanities to investigate the conditions, the origin and the development of this fundamental feature which concerns such large parts of human life and takes effect not only outside academic disciplines but also within them in constructing our knowledge and in describing reality. Recent research on the connection between evolution and art assumes that art, in its broadest sense, may be considered a ‘human universal’ and that the production of art is an adaptive, or at least exaptive, feature of human nature. The ethological aspect is then compatible with views of art as a human problem-solving activity. The equally rhetorical and provocative question of a literary scholar, “Literary Darwinism may not be wrong, but is it relevant?”, may thus, presumably contrary to the intention of the author, be clearly answered with “yes”.

Finally, the ‘theory of mind’ must assume a fundamental role of universals within the human cognitive apparatus, a human mind which “contains a rich array of innate structures that have evolved through the adaptive process of natural selection” (Carroll). In this context, research on the neurocognitive foundations of aesthetics may well prove to be of use to literary studies or may open up theoretical and methodical paths which can be followed in the course of future studies.

Such considerations of evolutionary psychology by no means support notions of ‘biological determinism’, nor is the importance of interaction for social behaviour questioned. The focus is rather on a transdisciplinarity which avoids C.P. Snow’s now almost proverbial division of the two cultures and shapes innovative methods of analysing texts. In this sense, universal mechanisms are assumed behind variables of behaviour; biological and cultural coevolution is the basis from which the most diverse aesthetic and narrative forms may spring.

These fundamental considerations suggest some directions for interdisciplinary research, but papers do not have to limit themselves to the topics mentioned:

  • What role does imagination, as the invention of and temporary assent to the non-factual, play in coping with reality, and could the faculty of imagination be an advantage in natural or sexual selection?

  • The rules which structure biological interaction also provide the frame for represented actions in art in general and in fictional texts in particular. Characters, settings and events are thus basic categories of all fictional texts. Does this indicate a universal grammar of narrativity analogous to a universal grammar of language, and if so, what are its basic rules and patterns?

  • What consequences could derive from such a universal grammar of narrativity, and would it also play a role in epistemology? In this context E.M. Forster’s classic distinction between a story and a plot may be significant, as sequences of events are often perceived in the form of cause and effect relationships.

  • What conditions may be assumed for the recipients of tales, i.e. why do we not only invent stories but also, as listeners or readers, take pleasure in the imaginative inventions of others?

  • The supposition that fictional texts, and also films, are constructed in close correspondence to the basic structures of an “adapted consciousness” suggests that certain matters, motifs, settings, characters and themes will be universally preferred in both the production and the reception of literature and media.

  • Another possible point of interest explores not the evolution of literature, but evolution in literature. Richard Dawkins’s concept of the meme understands information as replicators which can reproduce themselves and develop in analogy to biological beings, also adhering to the principles of both continuity and mutation. This might allow evolutionary models to be adapted to the description of literary developments within the dialectics of tradition and innovation, yielding a kind of literary ecology.

  • On another level, cladistic models have been employed in constructing manuscript stemmata, and this approach might be applied on a larger scale, for example in studying the development of genres.

This framework and these topics also raise questions about theoretical and methodical approaches for future research at the interface of evolutionary theory and literary studies in order to attain results that not only solve problems we face today but also promise to be fruitful for further theoretical development. So far reflections have necessarily been to a certain extent speculative: one objective of the conference ought to be to reach a point from where problems can be formulated more precisely so that appropriate methodical approaches can be developed. Such a project requires an intensive interdisciplinary dialogue and the conference intends to offer a platform for just this.

Conference languages are English and German.

Please submit abstracts (~300 words) by November 15 2008 to one of the organizers.