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Letter to the Editor, New York Times Magazine

November 7, 2005
Anne Dalke

To the Editor:

Magazine readers may be interested to know about some rather different (and perhaps more dynamic) interdisciplinary work than that reported on by D.T. Max in "The Literary Darwinists."

I am literary scholar who has been co-teaching a course with a biologist, Paul Grobstein, for the past two years. "The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories", which counts for major credit in both the departments of English and biology at Bryn Mawr College, explores the reciprocal uses that evolution and literature might have for each other. The course examines the way in which evolution functions as a story that scientists laboriously and continuously re-write out of the data they gather. It also explores the ways in which new literary stories evolve out of old ones, as writers have new experiences, make new observations, and imagine new possibilities for the human condition.

The parallels between evolution and literature may be at least as significant as any evolutionary continuity between genetics and literature. As Paul has written elsewhere, "variability is fundamental for living systems at all levels of organization." In developing this course, we have both come to understand culture and literature as levels of biological organization. More importantly, we have come to see that cultural diversity and variability can serve the same function as biological diversity and variability: promoting the exploration of new forms.

Max reports that the Literary Darwinists see evolution as promising "universal explanations" by the use of a single "explanatory tool," and "providing literary criticism with the 'foundational principles' for analysis it lacks." Our perspective is that the shared study of evolution and literature may encourage explorers in both areas to focus less on "foundational principles" and "universal explanations," and more on underlying processes of diversity generation and selection. The resulting fertility and richness fuels the unpredictable and productive evolution of both biological and literary forms.

Anne Dalke
Department of English
Bryn Mawr College

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