The best books in literary Darwinism

Joseph Carroll Author Of Reading Human Nature: Literary Darwinism in Theory and Practice
By Joseph Carroll

Who am I?

I’ve spent the past thirty years leading the movement to integrate the humanities, and especially literary study, with evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience. I got my PhD in comparative literature right about the time the academic literary world was being convulsed by the poststructuralist revolution (Derrida, Foucault, et co). I felt a profound antipathy to the sterile paradoxes and attenuated abstractions of that theory. I wanted a theory that could get close to the power literature had over my own imagination. The evolutionary human sciences have provided me with a basis for building a theory that answers my own need to make sense of literature.


I wrote...

Reading Human Nature: Literary Darwinism in Theory and Practice

By Joseph Carroll,

Book cover of Reading Human Nature: Literary Darwinism in Theory and Practice

What is my book about?

By integrating the evolutionary human sciences with literary theory, I provide a more complete understanding of human nature than the evolutionary human sciences have provided, and grounds literary theory in an established scientific paradigm. This book includes theoretical essays, commentaries on cultural history, examples of empirical literary analysis, and examples of Darwinian literary criticism: close readings of Hamlet, Wuthering Heights, and The Picture of Dorian Gray. 

The books I picked & why

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The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human

By Jonathan Gottschall,

Book cover of The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human

Why this book?

This is the first book I always recommend to people wanting to see what literary Darwinism is about. Gottschall has a gift for charming readers, reaching out and speaking to them personally. The book is loaded with condensed research, but all that information is presented in a readily accessible, conversational style. The book is also loaded with fascinating anecdotes—stories. Gottschall makes a compelling case that the human mind naturally craves stories.


The Early Evolutionary Imagination: Literature and Human Nature

By Emelie Jonsson,

Book cover of The Early Evolutionary Imagination: Literature and Human Nature

Why this book?

Jonsson argues that humans are suspended between a need to see reality and an urge to mythologize. Darwin’s theory is impersonal and mechanical, but authors in the later 19th and early 20th centuries still found ways to turn evolution into morally charged dramas. Jonsson convincingly demonstrates that those same myth-making impulses shape our imaginative experience today. The literary criticism in this book is superb, and Jonsson’s own rhetoric has classic power.


Why Horror Seduces

By Mathias Clasen,

Book cover of Why Horror Seduces

Why this book?

If you love horror, or are even mildly interested in it, you will find this book a real treat. Clasen is one of the world’s leading scholars of horror. Like Gottschall, he has the knack for engaging, personable writing, with witty turns that will make you laugh, even while the hair is standing up on the back of your neck at the horror scenarios he relishes describing. Clasen is absolutely convincing about the ways in which horror taps into our inherited ancestral fears and disgusts.


American Classics: Evolutionary Perspectives

By Judith P. Saunders,

Book cover of American Classics: Evolutionary Perspectives

Why this book?

Saunders is an unusually acute and subtle literary critic. She is deeply immersed in the great works of American literature, and she brings those works vividly to life. She penetrates deep into the evolved motives that regulate even the most seemingly idiosyncratic works. She demonstrates that literature is profoundly shaped by our evolved human motives and emotions.


On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction

By Brian Boyd,

Book cover of On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction

Why this book?

Boyd combines research on human evolution with cognitive psychology. He offers crisp and lucid summaries of the relevant research. His writing is like that of the best popular science. His marshaling of ideas from evolutionary and cognitive psychology offers an alternative to critical theories that have lost touch with science, and with much of reality.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Darwinism, evolution, and cognitive psychology?

5,810 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Darwinism, evolution, and cognitive psychology.

Darwinism Explore 14 books about Darwinism
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Cognitive Psychology Explore 11 books about cognitive psychology

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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