Heroines and “literary Darwinism”


Helen and Paris


Ask people to name a woman in the Iliad, the story of the Trojan War, and they will name Helen, the cause of that war, who was known for her beauty.

Ask people to name a man, and they will not name Paris, also known for his beauty but otherwise considered a pansy even though Helen eloped with him. Instead, they will name Achilles (or Hector, Odysseus etc), who were heroes.

So: beauty for women; strength for men (see Hercules). Right?

I began contemplating this when Solid Gold commented under a recent post in my thread on heroes and heroism that

the real question is whether a woman can be a hero.

I think that question deserves books. But I thought I’d share a tidbit from an article about storytelling (another big thread on The Hannibal Blog) that attempts an answer. (Thanks to Jag Bhalla for the link.)

It cites research by a professor of English at Washington & Jefferson College named Jonathan Gottschall, who is apparently one of the scholars known informally as “literary Darwinists.” (The ideas of that great thinker seem to be infinitely extensible.)




As far as I can tell, these literary Darwinists have corroborated the thesis of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell that all humans in all cultures and ages tend to re-tell fundamentally the same archetypal stories. But whereas Jung and Campbell used psychological logic, the literary Darwinists are using the (Darwinian) logic of relative reproductive success.

And so Gottschall analyzed “90 folktale collections, each consisting of 50 to 100 stories,” ranging from industrial nations to hunter-gatherer tribes, and found overwhelmingly similar gender depictions:

  • strong male protagonists (aka “heroes”) and
  • beautiful female protagonists.

We couldn’t even find one culture that had more emphasis on male beauty,

Gottschall is quoted.

In all, the stories had had three times more male than female main characters and six times more references to female beauty than to male beauty.


That difference in gender stereotypes, [Gottschall] suggests, may reflect the classic Darwinian emphasis on reproductive health in women, signified by youth and beauty, and on the desirable male ability to provide for a family, signaled by physical power and success.

Let me try to make this Darwinian logic more explicit:

  1. Let’s say you have two hypothetical tribes, each reflecting its values through the stories it tells.
  2. Tribe A values male beauty and female strength whereas Tribe B values male strength and female beauty.
  3. We might assume that, over time, Tribe B not only reproduces more than Tribe A, but even that it does so at the expense of Tribe A (resources, conflict, etc).
  4. Ergo, we, who are by necessity descendants of Tribe B, live to retell its stories, the B stories.


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34 thoughts on “Heroines and “literary Darwinism”

  1. what i most enjoy about this blog is what most annoys. someone always said it first.

    first question, “is mr. manchester also the critical line”? going back to andreas link to “great thinker” (darwin) in january of 09, would explain why the critical line had problems following my reference to darwin and altruism in reference to new thread: heros and heroism, “I have to say that I do find you a little hard to follow, Dafna”. 🙂

    and yet if you go back to jan 09 (how embarrassing for me) manchester and i agree – “the watchmaker is not blind”. you see a watch and you think divine design. i just made the leap to what was already blogged about by andreas in the great thinker post…

    where is my darn post to which andreas replies, i (dafna) seem to be trying to link all the threads into one?

    • Hark.

      The “discuss” is the generic exam-essay command. (What’s the equivalent in German? I forgot).

      Which reminds me of the confusion that resulted once (in apocryphal time) when a smart-aleck philosophy professors chose to omit the command “Discuss” in the Philosophy 101 exam. He said simply:


      Most students sharpened their pens for their elaborate treatises on metaphysics and ontology, but one student simply walked out.

      When the prof looked at his exam, it said:

      “Why not?”

    • I don’t know any exam-essay commands in German. All I recall are the nicht genügend‘s at the bottom. Why do natural-born Americans always say “I forget” when they mean “I forgot”?

  2. Interesting as always. Literary Darwinism makes perfect sense. In fact it’s one of those things that the more you think about, the more you think it is another example of an academic stating the obvious with fancy terms!

    A lot of disciplines are getting in line on this. Some psychologists did an experiment where men and women had to rate the attractiveness of a person sitting in a car. Men rated the same woman and women rated man sitting in different cars. The cars used were a Bentley and a Ford. The men rated the women equally attractive regardless of which car they were in but the women consistently rated the guy in the Bentley as more attractive. The conclusion being that evidence of his greater hunter gatherer skills (big income and fancy car in today’s terms) made him more appealing to the women. See Dunn, M., & Searle, R. (2010) Effect of manipulated prestige-car ownership on both sex attractiveness ratings. British Journal of Psychology, 101(1), 69-80. DOI: 10.1348/000712609X417319.

    Further, and more pertinent, not only do our narratives celebrate male strength and female beauty, they also punish male beauty. Narcissus and Dorian Gray are the two examples I can think of. Can anyone think of others?

    • Very good observation, Thomas.

      From Adonis to Dan Quayle, it has been an insult to call a man a “pretty boy,” when “pretty girl” is far from insulting for a woman.

      The car study reminds me of a study I saw in Britain: they showed women pictures of THE SAME MAN, but in different dress and situations. Sometimes flipping burgers, sometimes in a suit in a board room. The women showed a clear preference for “one man over the other”.

  3. So, if words, grammar, stories, and myths are all — like weapons — tools that may enhance survivability, then they may undergo concurrent selection with the underlying genome responsible for them?

    • Well, Jim, this is the part of the logic that I admit is iffy, and that I am hoping you guys parse.

      Chicken and egg, if you will.

      The Scientific American article does suggest that stories are tools for social cohesion and the like — that they prime us for certain activities. So telling stories about male strength and female beauty (ie, fertility) could encourage men to become stronger, women to try harder to be beautiful.

      Or perhaps the stories reflect what the tribe is already like. So they tell stories about strong men because their men are strong. In THAT case, you’d have concurrent selection with the phenotypes (strong men, sexy women) represented by certain genotypes.

      This gets into “group selection”, which apparently was a very controversial aspect of Darwinism that is currently making a comeback.

    • With regard to stories as tools for social cohesion, I suppose that one of the most common myths that groups (and subgroups all the way down to the individual) subscribe to is the myth of self-importance. We exaggerate the importance of our group and ourselves relative to others, an exaggeration which — however unjustified — is necessary to our survival. And this myth of self-importance is needed not just for social cohesion: think, kill or be killed.

      But there is also a “John Donne Effect”: We are not islands unto ourselves, but depend for our genetic survival upon a larger community whose survival affects our own. So any altruism towards that community, even if it lessens the individual’s chances of survival relative to others in the community, may nevertheless benefit that individual’s genes in absolute terms through its beneficial effect on the community as a whole; that is to say, the individual’s altruistic genes may through natural selection become a slightly smaller fraction of a much larger community, so that in absolute terms the number of altruistic genes may actually increase (which means the principle of the “selfish” gene would not be violated). Whether the above example meets some definition of “group selection” I do not know.

    • Good explanation of the logic for group selection.

      And yes, the self-importance myth is all over the old stories. Every people (the Jews, the Greeks, the Romans, the Brits, the Yanks…) seems to have been a “chosen people” at one point or another.

  4. “the real question is whether a woman can be a hero” – is that rhetorical?

    is the question actually “can only beautiful women be heros”?

    “i loathe… i loathe” how “survival of the fittest” has come to be interpreted as survival of the strongest. when the intent was “better adapted for immediate local environment”. a way of explaining diversity in nature.

    as far as the meme or paradigm that exists in support of beautiful women and strong men being better adapted to reproduce, i must steal a quote (or two) because i can not find my own words tonight; “describing how things are does not imply that things ought to be that way”.

    this may be the one size fits all simplistic answer; for the human species to survive we must embrace diversity, the weak and the strong the ugly and the beautiful. imagine how easy it would be to eradicate a homogenous species.

    furthermore, strong women can pass on their strength without reproducing, and beautiful men are sought after for their genetics.

    • Well, later in this thread on heroes — and presumably later in Solid Gold’s thread on “women who carried the day” — I’m sure we’ll turn the “heroine = sex bomb” thesis upside down. There are lots of heroines, and for reasons other than beauty. Mother Teresa, helen keller, etc etc.

      But, you know, gotta start the exploration somewhere, one post at a time. Starting with biology is usually a good bet.

  5. Mmm, seems like I may be obliged to comment here.

    1. Bit beside the point now, but when I asked the question I was thinking something a bit broader. I was thinking of “woman as hero” in two realms: (a) what happens, and (b) what we tell ourselves about what happens (ie, the realm of stories). Regular readers of my blog will know I recently wrote about my friend, Donna, who is definitely a hero in realm (a). And because I wrote about her as such, she’s also now a hero in realm (b).

    2. Which brings up the wider point … is this post merely restating the old saw, “history is written by the victors”?

    3. Beauty is not the issue; it’s the agency, the sovreignty, the full personhood of women that’s the issue.

    4. Have a look again at the discussion following your post about the temples. Somewhere along the line the notion that women could be discussed as if they were another temple, another object, entered the discussion. Where did womens’ full personhood go?

    5. I’ve discussed on my blog a few times my bewilderment at the application of the evolutionary paradigm to all aspects of life. All I can see is complete totalitarianism of thought. That everything of the world — experience, thought, emotion, love, history, family, art, philosophy — should be viewed through this one prism is unbearably reductive and deeply depressing. And everything in me rebels against it.

    6. Can someone explain to me why the evolutionary paradigm needs to be invoked in this case? Because there is a far simpler “explanation” that is already at hand. Men get to be heroes (in realm a + b, if you like) because men dominate our society NOW. Why is the regress to a mythical past of hunters/gatherers necessary or sufficient in argumentation? I don’t get it.

    • great post SGx.

      we cross posted. does mine help to make more sense. you are a writer, so you say it so much more beautifully.

    • I sympathize in that I’ve always found evolutionary biology simultaneously fascinating and depressing. Believe me, it gets a LOT more depressing than this. never has there been a greater clash between “is” and “ought”.

      With respect to the “heroine thread,” remember that this is just a way of kicking this off. Gottschall has done research on this, so I think it’s worth contemplating it.

      Our task (in future posts) is to go beyond it. You and I are already cooking up a list of heroines.

      However, I can’t agree with the cliche that men “dominate our society”. I think that is a myth (there’s even a book called “The Myth of Male Power”) that is propagated because it is often convenient to the women propagating it. Anybody who thinks one gender dominates (which men, by the way? The garbage man, the infantry grunt, the prison inmate?) hasn’t thought this through properly. There is plenty of dominating going on, but not based on XY or XX per se.

    • @Solid Gold

      “………..I’ve discussed on my blog a few times my bewilderment at the application of the evolutionary paradigm to all aspects of life. All I can see is complete totalitarianism of thought……….”

      Evolutionary psychology is the Official Truth, the Official Received Wisdom. You must believe it if you know what’s good for you.

      Any deviations will be noticed…………..

    • @Solid Gold

      To add to what I said earlier. Evolutionary Psychology and the Gospel of Freud, which go together, are mainly believed by men.

      The followers of CG Jung, on the other hand, are mainly women.

      We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that Jung, in our contemporary society, takes a back seat to Freud and Evolutionary Psychology.

      Accept this and swallow……………

  6. There are some things that just get down to nature. And numbers. And definitions.

    Tribe A is from San Francisco, where there is a much different ratio of pretty men and strong women than in a normal human sampling. They will have fewer children to pass on their stories about who is a hero and who is not. But they will have stories.

    • The comments by Cheri and Solid Gold indicate that the idea of literary Darwinism might be a little simplistic, as least for us Marxists. The mode of production (which is basically the patriarchy) controls which narratives are disseminated and celebrated and that would have the same effect as literary Darwinism, and also explain why San Fran narratives are generally not mainstream.

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