The best books in literary Darwinism

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. 

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The books I picked & why

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

Joseph Carroll Why did I love 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.

By Jonathan Gottschall,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Storytelling Animal as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Humans live in landscapes of make-believe. We spin fantasies. We devour novels, films, and plays. Even sporting events and criminal trials unfold as narratives. Yet the world of story has long remained an undiscovered and unmapped country. It’s easy to say that humans are “wired” for story, but why?

In this delightful and original book, Jonathan Gottschall offers the first unified theory of storytelling. He argues that stories help us navigate life’s complex social problems—just as flight simulators prepare pilots for difficult situations. Storytelling has evolved, like other behaviors, to ensure our survival.

Drawing on the latest research in neuroscience,…


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

Joseph Carroll Why did I love 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.

By Emelie Jonsson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Early Evolutionary Imagination as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Darwinian evolution is an imaginative problem that has been passed down to us unsolved. It is our most powerful explanation of humanity's place in nature, but it is also more cognitively demanding and less emotionally satisfying than any myth. From the publication of the Origin of Species in 1859, evolution has pushed our capacity for storytelling into overdrive, sparking fairy tales, adventure stories, political allegories, utopias, dystopias, social realist novels, and existential meditations. Though this influence on literature has been widely studied, it has not been explained psychologically. This book argues for the adaptive function of storytelling, integrates traditional humanist…


Book cover of Why Horror Seduces

Joseph Carroll Why did I love 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.

By Mathias Clasen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Why Horror Seduces as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From vampire apocalypses, shark attacks, witches, and ghosts, to murderous dolls bent on revenge, horror has been part of the American cinematic imagination for almost as long as pictures have moved on screens. But why do they captive us so? What is the drive to be frightened, and why is it so perennially popular? Why Horror Seduces addresses these questions through evolutionary social sciences.

Explaining the functional seduction of horror entertainment, this book draws on cutting-edge findings in the evolutionary social sciences, showing how the horror genre is a product of human nature. Integrating the study of horror with the…


Book cover of American Classics: Evolutionary Perspectives

Joseph Carroll Why did I love 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.

By Judith P. Saunders,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked American Classics as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This collection of essays examines selected works in the American literary tradition from an evolutionary perspective. Using an interdisciplinary framework to pose new questions about long admired, much discussed texts, the collection as a whole provides an introduction to Darwinian literary critical methodology. Individual essays feature a variety of figures-Benjamin Franklin to Billy Collins-targeting fitness-related issues ranging from sexual strategies and parental investment to cheating and deception. Attention is paid to the physical and social environments in which fictional characters are placed, including the influence of cultural-historical conditions on resource acquisition, status-building, competition, and reciprocity. The discussion throughout the volume…


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

Joseph Carroll Why did I love 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.

By Brian Boyd,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked On the Origin of Stories as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A century and a half after the publication of Origin of Species, evolutionary thinking has expanded beyond the field of biology to include virtually all human-related subjects-anthropology, archeology, psychology, economics, religion, morality, politics, culture, and art. Now a distinguished scholar offers the first comprehensive account of the evolutionary origins of art and storytelling. Brian Boyd explains why we tell stories, how our minds are shaped to understand them, and what difference an evolutionary understanding of human nature makes to stories we love.

Art is a specifically human adaptation, Boyd argues. It offers tangible advantages for human survival, and it derives…


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The Olympus Project

By Zoe Routh,

Book cover of The Olympus Project

Zoe Routh Author Of The Olympus Project

New book alert!

Who am I?

Author Leadership futurist Adventurist Former bellydancer Historical and speculative fiction nut Marathoner

Zoe's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

The future is uncertain, and the stakes are high. Climate change has wreaked havoc on the planet, and humanity is on the brink of extinction. The only hope lies in the Olympus Project, a plan to colonise the moon and build on the Artemis Base.

Led by three of the best and brightest--Troy Bruin, Xavier Consus, and Xanthe Waters--they must battle both winner-take-all competition and their own differences in order to save humanity from destruction. But even as they search for a way to reconcile, a secret organisation is lurking in the shadows, threatening to extinguish their efforts and ensure humanity's downfall.

A gripping tale of leadership, ambition, and the indomitable human spirit.

The Olympus Project

By Zoe Routh,

What is this book about?

***WINNER: GOLD MEDAL in Fiction - Thriller - Environmental, Readers' Favorite Awards 2023***

They are the best. The brightest. The hope of humanity.

And they might destroy us all…

The future. Climate change has rendered much of the world desolate. Crops are failing. Rising seas have flooded coastal communities. The earth is dying, and humanity careens toward extinction.

Enter the Olympus Project—a plan to colonise the moon, building on the Artemis Base, led by three of humankind’s best and brightest: Troy Bruin, Xavier Consus, and Xanthe Waters.

But even the best and brightest can fall prey to humanity’s failing. Soon…


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Interested in Darwinism, evolution, and cognitive psychology?

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