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Author: Dirk Vanderbeke


This paper suggests that that in the field of evolutionary criticism popular literature and culture are no less important than canonical works as investigations into popular narratives may lead to results that are in contrast with those derived from the classics and other acclaimed works of “high” literature. In consequence, this research complements the more common studies of canonical works and provides data that may prove to be useful for the exploration of human nature and also for the reconstruction of our evolutionary past. The specific topic chosen to make this point is the representation of love and marriage. Other themes and motifs, e.g. violence, cheater detection, revenge, or mobility, would, of course, also be suitable for scrutiny.

In order to present a conclusive argument, the paper includes a brief survey of the ongoing discussion on mate selection, stable pair bonding, and monogamy in our evolutionary history. I argue that that the evidence for monogamy, long-term bonding, and female mate selection in hominins is not yet conclusive and that alternative models should also be taken into consideration. The main section of this paper then analyses two of the most successful genres in popular culture, the romance novel and the adventure plot, the latter including subgenres like the Arthurian romance, the Western, detective and spy fiction, a large segment of science fiction, as well as myths, legends, and fairy tales. The results indicate a preference for figures and narrative patterns that differ from those found in research on canonical works. In romance novels, we frequently find the temporal erotic attraction of a cad or rogue which indicates that sexual interest is not simply geared towards the selection of a male who promises a stable and beneficial long-term relationship; in the adventure plot, male-male interaction is usually far more important than mate selection, and sexual relations are usually short-term and correlated to success in inter-male competition. Popular culture thus offers important insights and needs to be taken more seriously in evolutionary criticism.

In: Evolution and Popular Narrative
The contributors to this volume share the assumption that popular narrative, when viewed with an evolutionary lens, offers an incisive index into human nature. In theory, narrative art could take a near infinity of possible forms. In actual practice, however, particular motifs, plot patterns, stereotypical figures, and artistic devices persistently resurface, indicating specific predilections frequently at odds with our actual living conditions. Our studies explore various media and genres to gauge the impact of our evolutionary inheritance, in interdependence with the respective cultural environments, on our aesthetic appreciation. As they suggest, research into mass culture is not only indispensable for evolutionary criticism but may also contribute to our understanding of prehistoric selection pressures that still influence modern preferences in popular narrative.

Contributions by David Andrews, James Carney, Mathias Clasen, Brett Cooke, Tamás Dávid-Barrett, Tom Dolack, Kathryn Duncan, Isabel Behncke Izquierdo, Joe Keener, Alex C. Parrish, Todd K. Platts, Anna Rotkirch, Judith P. Saunders, Michelle Scalise Sugiyama, Dirk Vanderbeke, and Sophia Wege.
In: Evolution and Popular Narrative