Literary Meaning: An Evolutionary Perspective

Joseph Carroll, University of Missouri, Saint Louis

Four Meta-Universals of Literary Meaning

In a persuasive formulation, Meyer Abrams reduces all literary activity to four components: the author, the reader, the world to which a literary work refers, and the work itself (Abrams “Types”). Since the poststructuralist revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, much literary theory has consisted in eliminating or de-emphasizing one or another of these components—announcing the death of the author, declaring the impossibility of reference to a world outside the text, dissolving individual texts into circulating streams of cultural energies, or reducing the reader to an uncritical participant within a “community” that passively echoes this or that dominant episteme. Humanist and Darwinist critics have frequently criticized these efforts to develop a theory of literature by discarding some of its parts (Abrams, “Transformation”; Carroll, Evolution; Crews, Postmodern Pooh; Crews, Skeptical Engagements; Storey; Carroll et al., Graphing 1-8; Cain; Boyd, Carroll and Gottschall; Patai). There is no need to go over all that ground again. Instead, in this current essay, I use Abrams’s categories as a starting point for developing evolutionary ideas on universals of literary meaning.

Abrams’s four categories are literary meta-universals: conditions without which no other literary universals could exist. Authors speak to readers; literary works refer to a world shared by authors and readers; and a literary work is the medium through which authors communicate with readers. Those four propositions imply four further aspects of the universal literary situation: (1) intentional meaning (what authors intend to communicate); (2) interpretation (the activity of readers seeking to understand what authors mean); (3) meaning itself (what authors say and how readers respond to what authors say); and (4) the organization of meaning in language (linguistic and literary structure).

Abrams’s meta-universals are couched in the ordinary language of humanist common sense. Correlating these concepts with concepts from evolutionary biology situates them within an established scientific paradigm and confirms their robust validity. Authors and readers are human organisms. The world to which literary works refer is the environment in which those organisms live. Literary works are communicative signals, a form of social interaction that is displayed also by many species that do not have the capacity for articulate language. Abrams’s humanist concepts are not, then, superficial descriptors. They cut nature at its joints.

Abrams’s four categories identify appropriate units of analysis for literary research, but they do not offer causal explanation. The theory of adaptation by means of natural selection is a causal explanation that encompasses a vast network of subsidiary causal explanations. Ethology, the zoological discipline that deals most broadly with behavior, distinguishes four main categories of explanation: phylogeny, ontogeny, mechanism, and adaptive function (Tinbergen). Phylogeny concerns the evolutionary origins of any given behavior. Ontogeny concerns development within a single lifespan. Mechanism refers to the anatomical, physiological, and neurochemical structures that are the proximate causes of behavior. Adaptive function concerns the way any given mechanism has contributed to survival or reproduction, hence to the propagation of genes.

Evolutionary literary study assimilates information and explanatory hypotheses from a wide range of disciplines: primatology and comparative psychology (Chapais, “Social Universals”), cognitive and affective neuroscience (Panksepp and Biven; Decety and Cacioppo), developmental psychology (Konner), evolutionary social psychology (Carroll, “Social Theory”; Graham, Haidt and Nosek), evolutionary anthropology (Low), evolutionary psychology (Buss), and biocultural theory (Henrich; Carroll et al., “Biocultural Theory”). Evolutionary hypotheses about universals of literary meaning should integrate ideas from all these disciplines with ideas from empirically grounded disciplines more closely associated with literary study, for instance, from narrative psychology, affective narratology, the psychology of fiction, and evolutionary literary study (McAdams, “Actor”; Johnson-Laird and Oatley; Oatley, Psychology of Fiction; Tamir et al.; Oatley, Passionate Muse; Hogan, “Story“; Hogan, Authors’ Minds; Hogan, Affective Narratology; Carroll, “Minds”; Boyd; Gottschall Storytelling; Boyd, Carroll and Gottschall; Saunders; Clasen; Jacobs and Willems).

Four Levels of Organization for the Analysis of Literary Meaning

Meaning consists in mental experiences in the minds of authors and readers: perceptions, emotions, and thoughts. From an evolutionary perspective, meaning in literary texts can be analyzed at four distinct levels of organization: (1) universal, pan-human forms of experience; (2) specific cultural configurations that are prompted and constrained by pan-human forms of experience; (3) individual identities of authors, readers, and characters; and (4) structures and qualities that distinguish individual literary works from one another. Each of these levels is itself a universal feature of literary works. All works reflect pan-human forms of behavior and experience; all works are lodged within one or more particular cultural traditions; all works are produced by individual minds and interpreted by other individual minds; and all works display unique, distinctive characteristics. Each level of analysis can yield valuable information. A comprehensive evolutionary critique of meaning in any given literary text would integrate all four levels of analysis.

The Pan-Human Level of Organization

An ongoing effort in evolutionary social science aims at identifying the species-typical characteristics of human nature. Donald Brown’s classic portrait of “The Universal People” in Human Universals (1991) suggests the rich complexity of concepts required to describe a fictional “tribe” that exhibits features of behavior, qualities of experience, and forms of thought that appear in every known culture. Later research has pursued many different aspects of that universal picture, for instance, language, cognition, emotions, mating psychology, parenting, kinship, social dynamics, morality, religion, and the arts. (See Brown, “HUMAN UNIVERSALS.”)

Every species has a distinct, species-typical organization of birth, growth, ways of reproduction, and (if the species is social) social life. In every species, the overarching structure of life consists in a reproductive cycle. The field of biology that analyzes species-typical reproductive cycles is known as “life history theory” (Flatt and Heyland). Research on human life history theory has produced detailed accounts of how human reproductive and social behavior has evolved in adaptive interactions with ecological factors to produce the specifically human organization of the life cycle: altricial birth, extended infant dependency, extended childhood, pair-bonded dual parenting combined with cooperative male coalitions, cooperative child care, bilateral multi-generational kin networks, post-reproductive longevity, and death (Muehlenbein and Flinn; Kaplan, Gurven and Winking; Chapais, “Monogamy”). Life history theory reveals the underlying structure and the adaptive logic behind the rich complexity of behavior exhibited by “The Universal People” (Carroll, “Imaginary  Lives”).

The Cultural Level of Organization

In the past three decades or so, evolutionary cultural theory has gradually gained a firmer purchase on the peculiarly “biocultural” character of the human species (Carroll et al., “Biocultural Theory”). The theory of “gene-culture coevolution” describes the causal interaction of biological characteristics and cultural inventions over the course of human evolutionary history. Major landmarks in gene-culture coevolution include upright walking (freeing the hands), the use of tools, the control of fire (enabling cooked food, a reduced gut, and an expanded brain), the development of cooperative foraging centered on a campsite, the organization of families, the expansion of groups into clans and tribes, the evolution of language, the advent of agriculture and pastoralism, the invention of writing, and the massing of populations in cities. Each of these events has involved reciprocal alterations in the human genome and in the transmission of heritable cultural practices (Lumsden and Wilson; Richerson and Boyd; Henrich; Cochran and Harpending).

Because humans have evolved to be highly cultural, every culture develops distinct beliefs and practices, but all beliefs and practices, no matter how diverse, are informed by universal human motives, passions, and imaginative proclivities. Hence the fact that love poems, family dramas, heroic quests, or stories of revenge are easily intelligible across diverse cultures. Hence also the existence of a recognizable body of “world literature”—a common world heritage produced by translations of works from diverse cultures.

Organization at the Level of Individual Persons

Differences in individual identity include the three categories most often invoked in the cultural theory pervasive in the academic literary establishment: gender, race, and class. Major differences less often registered include distinctions of age and family role, degrees of social connectedness, differences of vocation, differences of religious and political belief, differences in temperament such as exuberance or moodiness, aggressive anger or affectional warmth, and differences in intellectual or imaginative characteristics such as learning, humor, imaginative vigor, aesthetic sensitivity, eloquence, creativity, or talent in some particular art or science (McAdams, Personality Development).

All individual differences are platformed on common, shared features of human experience. Races and classes interbreed. Genders are interdependent. Family members form parts of interdependent social organizations. Specialized vocations are functional units in complex economic systems. Personality differences are grounded in neurophysiological characteristics essential to all normal human functioning. All normally developing people have minds and recognize mental life—beliefs, values, feelings, thoughts—in other individuals.

Meaning can only take place in individual minds, but individual minds are always in interactive relationship with other individual minds. The production of meaning in literature is itself an inherently social activity—an activity of transmission, reception, and response.

Organization at the Level of Individual Literary Works

Human nature—the species-typical organization of human life—offers a wide range of subjects for literary depiction. Authors can choose, for instance, to write about any of the phases of life, from childhood and adolescence to maturity and old age; about any motives or concerns—survival, ambition, self-realization, gender or relations between the sexes, family life, kin relations, or social interactions; or about intellectual, artistic, or spiritual aspirations. Every culture has complex traditions that organize all these features of life, and they also have forms of imaginative culture that contain mythic figures, folk tales, and religious and artistic traditions that present such themes in multifaceted ways. Each culture contains an array of poetic, narrative, dramatic, and rhetorical techniques that can be used to construct literary works. Every individual human being has a unique identity that involves some particular configuration of personality traits, mental aptitudes, networks of family and social relationships, personal experiences, and ideas, beliefs, tastes, and attitudes. When some individual author sits down to compose a literary work, he or she has a virtually unlimited range of variables from which to select, and an unlimited range of possible ways in which to organize those variables.

A Formal Definition of Literature

To give more substance to the concept of literary meaning, we have to have a usable working definition of literature. To produce a definition, we need not suppose that literature is a Platonic absolute and that the purpose of definition is to identify the secret essence of literature. We need only locate literature in a class of human behaviors and distinguish it from other members of that class. (That procedure is the definition of a “formal definition.”) The definition proposed here is that literature is an aesthetically modeled verbal construct that evokes or depicts the subjective quality of human experience. In evoking subjective quality, literature is like the other arts but different from science and from much humanist scholarship. In using words as its specific medium, literature differs from the plastic arts and overlaps with science, philosophy, and history. Like the other arts, and unlike these other disciplines, literature typically concerns itself with the aesthetic aspects of its medium: the formal organization of sensory properties.

This definition implies no necessary boundary between high and low art. The definition is broad enough to take in doggerel verse, stand-up comedy, impromptu dramatic enactments, lyric poems, theatrical works, and narrative fictions of every sort. The definition allows for overlaps with other media—film or opera, for instance, or graphic narratives with verbal captions. It does not stipulate fiction as a necessary or exclusive feature of literature, and it draws no sharp boundary between literary works and the more highly colored forms of rhetoric, philosophical disquisition, biography, or historical narrative. The two limiting features in the definition are the aesthetic modeling of the verbal medium and the evocation or depiction of subjective experience. Presuming that readers provisionally accept the definition here offered, we can say that these limiting features—aesthetic modeling and qualitative subjectivity—are themselves universals of literary meaning. They are integral to the kinds of meaning conveyed in literature, and to the way literature conveys those meanings.

Imaginative Virtual Worlds

Literary authors often give direct expression to their own subjective sensations. Most lyric poets are overtly expressive, and many novelists and short story writers comment explicitly on their feelings about the fictional events they depict. Characters in drama and fiction often express emotions and describe their inner states, and authors of fiction routinely describe and analyze the inmost qualities of sensation and thought in their characters.

All these forms of subjectivity are encompassed within a broader, universal category of subjective sensation in literature: the imaginative virtual world. Every literary work creates an imaginative space shared by the author and reader. The subjective sensation within that shared imaginative space is modulated by universal features of human experience, by beliefs and forms of feeling peculiar to the cultures in which it is created and in which it is read, by the personalities of the author who creates it and the reader who reads it, and by the semantic, affective, and aesthetic properties of the words that are the medium of its existence.

Every individual literary work is imbued with the whole array of attitudes, beliefs, and tastes that make up an author’s world view. Attitudes, beliefs, and tastes within a single mind can of course conflict with one another. When they do, those internal conflicts—tensions, ambiguities, confusions, the feeling of disunion—are themselves distinctive features of the author’s world view. Each individual work is a manifestation of that world view, a fragment of the whole. Each fragment is indelibly stamped by the mind of the person who creates it. In entering imaginatively into a literary work, a reader is entering also into the author’s world view.

The very act of using artistic verbal constructs to create a shared space of imaginative experience is a universal aspect of literary meaning. In entering a shared imaginative space created by intentional verbal constructs, readers implicitly enter into the common human fellowship of imaginative virtual experience. So far as we know, that kind of experience is uniquely human. Independently of any specific quality in any given literary work, that uniquely human fellowship has inherent qualities all its own. It is verbal, imaginative, creative. It points to the world outside itself but organizes itself internally through concepts, images, rhetorical constructions, and tonal patterns. It contains denotative statements but deploys forms of meaning that are fully realized only through the interactions among its conceptual, emotional, and sensory elements. It is a simulacrum but also runs parallel with the real inner world of memories, dreams, and reveries that make up much of our active mental life (Raichle; Kaufman and Gregoire; Buckner, Andrews-Hanna and Schacter; Carroll, “Minds”; Andrews‐Hanna, Smallwood and Spreng).

Authors have a primary determinative force in using words to create an imaginative virtual world. They choose and arrange the words, and they imbue their artifice with their own mental character. Even so, readers are not merely passive recipients of authorial intentions. Every reader has his or her own world view. Each is animated by basic human motives and emotions—for instance, by hunger, thirst, love, and fear. Each reader’s culture endows him or her with beliefs, values, attitudes, and forms of imagination that have descended through generations and are shared by multitudes. Despite these shared aspects of mental life, each reader has a personal identity shaped by a unique combination of genetic endowments and environmental influences.

Readers willingly enter into the imaginative virtual worlds created by authors, but each reader also makes something of his or her own out of what the author gives. However explicit, definite, and unequivocal an author might be, intended meanings necessarily interact with the whole structure of values, beliefs, tastes, and attitudes that make up the reader’s own world view. As Auden says in his elegy for Yeats, “The words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living.” Readers do not only assimilate. They respond and judge.

We have empirical evidence that readers respond in broadly similar ways to literary texts. They identify similar meanings in an author’s work, and even their emotional responses display broad similarities (Carroll et al., Graphing). Those similarities are grounded in common, shared aspects of human nature. Humans are broadly similar—anatomically, physiologically, neurologically—but no one person (not even an identical twin) is precisely the same as any other person. The uniqueness of individual identity is itself a human universal. In parallel, the uniqueness of individual response is a universal of literary meaning. It seems safe to say that no reader ever experiences the same work in precisely the same way as any other reader. And indeed, it seems likely that no reader ever reads the same work, or the same line, in quite the same way twice.

Universals of literary meaning include both these contrasting tendencies: broad similarity of recognition and response, and the unique subjective particularity of transient moments of literary experience.

A Framework for Analyzing Meaning in Literature: Theme, Tone, and Form

The broad similarity of humans—the kind of similarity described in Brown’s “Universal People”—makes it possible to construct a set of categories for the impersonal, objective analysis of literary meaning. A common framework of comparison is necessary both for describing the similarities of literary experience and for distinguishing experiences among cultures and individual persons. Some set of common terms is indispensable to any research program that aspires to joining a collective effort in producing cumulative, empirical knowledge (Gottschall, New Humanities; Carroll et al. Graphing).


If a work of literature is an aesthetically modeled verbal construct that evokes or depicts subjective qualities of human experience, a neutral analytic framework for analyzing literary experience would need to take in the constituents of subjective experience and the specifically aesthetic, literary characteristics that evoke or depict that experience. Subjective experience does not take place in a vacuum. In literature, it is invariably set in relation to events and circumstances. Events and circumstances might seem infinitely diverse, but the analysis of human actions can be reasonably delimited by analyzing the species-typical patterns of human life. Specifically human forms of mating, parenting, family organization, social interaction, and imaginative culture can be precisely described (Brown, Human Universals; Muehlenbein and Flinn; Chapais, “Social Universals”; Henrich). Every phase and kind of relationship identified in human life history theory displays its own characteristic motives and concerns. Those motives and concerns can be used as taxonomy of basic themes for literary analysis (Carroll, “Imaginary  Lives”; Carroll, “Minds”).

Adopting one common meaning of the term “themes,” I here designate subject areas as “themes.” (Other theorists use the term “themes” with a different signification.) Major themes include childhood and the struggles of growing up, life in a social group, intergroup conflict, mating, parenting, relations among siblings and other relatives, and the life of the mind (religion, ideology, and the arts).

Emotional Tone

Every subject bears within itself a range of affective potentialities, from joy and fulfillment to rage and despair. Characters depicted in literature experience emotions; authors have emotional responses to depicted events; and readers respond both to depicted events and to authors. This whole range of subjective sensation is traditionally characterized as “tone.”

The subjective quality of experience is best captured in the study of emotions. From an evolutionary perspective, two particular kinds of emotional study seem most useful for the purposes of generating a neutral analytic framework closely allied with evolved motives, phases of life, and species-typical kinds of social relationships: the cross-cultural study of emotional facial expressions, and affective neuroscience. On the basis of cross-cultural research on facial expressions, Paul Ekman identifies seven basic emotions: anger, fear, contempt, disgust, joy, sadness, and surprise. On the basis of neurological research, Jaak Panksepp identifies seven emotional systems that partially overlap with Ekman’s seven basic emotions: seeking, fear, rage, lust, maternal care, grief, and play. Basic emotions and emotion systems like those identified by Ekman and Panksepp are complicated and extended in self-conscious and social emotions such as embarrassment, pride, shame, guilt, remorse, and jealousy (Hogan, Affective Narratology; Oatley, Passionate Muse; Carroll et al., Graphing).


Form in fictional narrative begins with the choice of words and the combinations of words in sentences and larger structures such as stanzas, paragraphs, and scenes. Purely physical properties include sound patterns and rhetorical rhythms, but the purely physical elements of language are always intertwined with semantic content and emotional tone. Images and figures of speech are indirect forms of sensory perception and thus also part of the aesthetic quality of literature. The aesthetic medium that begins in sensory experience in literature extends in imagination up through levels of formal organization that can be “perceived” only indirectly, through decoding time schemes and analyzing perspectival interactions among characters, narrators, implied authors, and implied readers (Carroll, “Minds”).

Since its inception, literary theory has aimed at identifying universal structural features in literary texts. Aristotle’s beginning, middle, and end offers a classic example of a purely structural hypothesis. Efforts at creating a universal and universally accepted system of genres have so far met with limited success (Fowler), but there is wide general agreement on the characteristics of a few basic genres such as tragedy, comedy, satire, and heroic quest (Frye; Hogan, “Story”; Carroll, “Literary Meaning”). The forms of narration can be delineated with reference to relations among an implied author, a narrator, characters, and an implied reader (Booth; Carroll, “Minds”). Classifications based on the form of representation—verse, drama, and narrative—are well understood. Most literary critics, regardless of theoretical affiliations, recognize the central role of imagery, metaphor, and symbolism in literary structure (Hogan, “Imagery“).

Attributes of “The Universal People” described by Donald Brown include forms of oral, proto-literary expression: narrative, metaphor, metonomy, onomatopoeia, and poetic meter. The existence of these proto-literary forms in all known cultures points toward underlying pan-human forms of neurological development. Empirical research on the psychology of reading now has techniques and tools, including neuroimaging, that are likely to produce rapid advances, in the near future, on understanding the neurological mechanisms that regulate these processes (Jacobs). Pan-human neurological mechanisms are “natural kinds.” Classifications based on natural kinds offer good prospects for empirical development and for integration with thematic and tonal analysis focused on basic motives and emotions.

Established terms in prosody and narratology can be tested against techniques that allow empirical investigation into the psychology of reading (Jacobs). The ideal, ultimately, would be to ground all purely formal categories in cognitive science and to integrate them with an understanding of themes and emotional tone.

Living in the Imagination

Literature or its oral antecedents are human universals. People in all known cultures tell stories, act out scenes, play imaginatively with language, and use it for evocative, expressive, and aesthetic purposes. The idea of imaginative virtual worlds suggests why humans might have evolved this peculiar, uniquely human form of behavior. The imagination seems to be part of the universal repertory of human adaptive capacities (Abraham; Carroll, “Adaptive Function”; Kaufman and Gregoire; Mithen). Compared to humans, animals of other species are more tightly locked into the sensory present, reacting to stimuli from the environment and deploying a relatively narrow range of species-typical behaviors. All normally developing human beings connect the present with the past and with anticipations of the future, entertain cosmological ideas, evaluate behavior through reference to abstract moral codes, construct autobiographical narratives, and interpret events by comparing them, consciously or not, with stories, myths, and images drawn from their culture. In this sense, all human beings live in the imagination. They occupy a virtual imaginative world. Words are crucially important in constructing those worlds. When the words are organized in aesthetically modeled ways to evoke or depict subjective human experience, we call that literature.

Future Research

The evolutionary social sciences have been gradually moving toward the formation of a true paradigm: a model of the human mind that is comprehensive in scope, grounded in empirically validated causal explanations, and capable of cumulative empirical and theoretical development. Biocultural theory has become widely accepted in principle (Carroll et al., “Survey”), but in much evolutionary thinking, theories of “culture” still focus chiefly on technology, social customs, and markers of tribal identity. From the perspective adopted in this essay, understanding that humans live in the imagination is the last major component needed to construct an adequate basic model of the adapted mind. Several streams of research are now converging on that last major component: neuroimaging research on the brain’s default mode network (also known as “the imagination network”; Kaufman and Gregoire), narrative psychology (McAdams, Personality Development), the psychology of fiction (Oatley, Psychology of Fiction), cognitive and affective literary theory (Boyd; Hogan, Affective Narratology), and evolutionary literary theory (Boyd, Carroll and Gottschall).

The sciences characteristically seek explanations that reduce complex phenomena to basic causal principles, preferably principles that can be quantified. Literary critics characteristically seek to evoke complex imaginative structures in literary works. From the perspective adopted in this essay, a comprehensive research program in literary meaning would extend across a methodological spectrum that is occupied, at one pole, by empirical, quantitative research, and at the other pole, by imaginatively responsive interpretive work. Empirical research on the psychology and neurology of literary experience would be constrained by the need to approximate to the complex imaginative structures evoked in interpretive criticism. Interpretive criticism would be constrained by established scientific knowledge, an ethos of respect for empirical validity, and the logic of causal explanatory reduction. Research at both poles would be lodged within a comprehensive, unified conception of the human mind. That conception would synthesize convergent findings from the whole range of disciplines that take Homo sapiens as their subject matter.


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