In Evolving Hamlet: Seventeenth Century English Tragedy and the Ethics of Natural Selection, Angus Fletcher rightly argues against the idea, enthusiastically embraced by literary Darwinism, that evolution explains how exquisitely the individual mind and perhaps the progressive powers of the whole species are fitted to the world and therefore how exquisitely the world is fitted to the mind (in Wordsworth's famous phrase). Fletcher sees us as largely adapted (like all temporarily successful organisms) to the demands of reproductive success, but not adapted to the fact of adaptation. Literature — tragedy in particular — helps us cope, both individually and perhaps as a whole species, with the grim riddle of our estrangement from a world whose blind mechanisms we have to cope with. Some recent work in cognitive cultural studies can be taken to argue that aesthetic experiences arise out of these ways of coping: they give us incentives to cope, even as they express the fundamental psychological need felt by creatures who know their own mortality to cope with the fact that coping is ad hoc and fundamentally meaningless. We bargain wishfulness against knowledge and knowledge against wishfulness. Shared literary experience, most obviously of tragedy, allows us to make such bargains not only within ourselves but with the impresarios of the shared fiction and with other members of the audience we belong to as well (as for example when we adjudicate between Addison and Johnson on King Lear), and those bargains allow us to play off knowledge and wishfulness in ways that help us turn to interactions with others also in our condition to cope with the brute and blind fact of the natural world. Much work has been done in the distributed cognition required for complex social tasks like navigation or the production of plays. We will get to the heart of the evolutionary psychology of aesthetic experience if we see the distributed cognition that goes into the formation of an audience as well.
William Flesch; Facing Fictions: The Insights and the Limits of Evolutionary Literary Psychology. Poetics Today 1 December 2016; 37 (4): 539–571. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/03335372-3638054
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