We are pleased to announce that Andrew Watts's new book Darwinian Dialogues: Adaptation, Evolution, and the Nineteenth-Century Novel will be published by Legenda.
It used to be thought that Cro-Magnons followed on from Neanderthals, in what's now France, like a fresh set of lodgers picking up the keys to a vacant apartment. Then it was thought that maybe they out-fought or out-farmed their predecessors, displacing them the hard way. And then came another idea again: that perhaps these two peoples had actually co-existed, overlapped, lived and let live. And where did this idea come from? From the period which introduced cohabitation to the constitution of the Fifth Republic, when the socialist President Mitterrand held office alongside a very right-wing parliament. If Mitterand could live with Jacques Chirac, archaeologists realised, perhaps cohabitation could work in other contexts too. Perhaps the lion could lie down with the lamb. Maybe the Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals had got along fine. It was a big country, after all.
Cultural metaphors have a way of making themselves applicable to everything, and for at least a century after The Origin of Species (1859), evolution became the way everyone thought about change, or development, or adaptation. Sometimes the metaphor was thin, but sometimes it seemed more instructive. When Dawkins coined the neologism "meme" in The Selfish Gene (1976), it seemed an amusing thought-experiment: a non-biological proving ground for the ideas of evolution, but then again, maybe just a recreational debating point. The word entered geek culture and is now in dictionaries, probably because Douglas Adams was a friend of Dawkins's — "meme" became, in fact, a meme — but it also quietly advanced in a more scholarly context. It's a word anthropologists use, too.
Memes, of course, are about the spreading of ideas — somehow a meme is meant as a sort of kernel of an idea, passed from one expression of that idea to another. (Dawkins, never a nuanced theologian, liked to think of the idea of the Christian Hell as a meme.) Because people constantly recycle ideas, which therefore pass through something like generations, memes seem to fit into the framework of evolution. The more memorable ones survive to be recycled again.
Can the same thinking be applied to literature? Perhaps it can. An old-school way of approaching Great Books would have us believe they are written just once, and are immutable: if you're F. R. Leavis, there is just one incarnation of Sons and Lovers, and you need never read anything else. But novels do reproduce, in that they are adapted, translated, recycled, imitated, pirated, drawn as comics, televised, filmed, narrated, or even just reprinted with new covers and spellings. Once again the strong survive. Tom Brown's Schooldays continues to sell rather well, under its new title of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.
And so a bridge is being built between literary criticism and evolutionary biology, looking at the replication and mutation of literature from the perspective of biological adaptation. Brian Boyd's On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction gives an especially expansive vision of this: a glimpse of what a natural history of narrative might look like. Indeed, Boyd's critical arguments could even be applied to themselves, since his book was published on the 150th anniversary of Darwin's masterwork, and carried almost the same title — a reader picking his book up, the way a naturalist picks up a specimen, would have no difficulty in recognising certain inherited traits. And now Andrew Watts's forthcoming Legenda pushes decisively onward into the field of adaptation studies, where stories replicate themselves with profusion and variety — all to be forgotten, or remembered, or adapted again.