JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

copyright 2011, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 53, summer 2011

Darwin at the movies

by David Andrews and Christine Andrews

Darwin’s Screens: Evolutionary Aesthetics, Time and Sexual Display in the Cinema by Barbara Creed (Melbourne University Press, 2009). 232 pages. AU $49.99, US $143, Kindle $29.

We were a bit confused when we first came across Barbara Creed’s new book, Darwin’s Screens. We expected the book to redress a new and growing imbalance between literature and film in the academy. For the past twenty years, most of the humanities projects informed by evolutionary ideas have addressed literature. These projects, driven in part by the popular interest in evolutionary psychology and the ongoing exploration of the human genome, have been a welcome addition to the humanities landscape, offering a way out of a reductive species of culturalism that so frequently presents genres, texts, and authors as “social constructions” only. Unfortunately, film scholars have largely been on the sidelines of this phenomenon, a trend visible even in Evolution, Literature and Film (2010)—the new volume edited by Brian Boyd, Joseph Carroll, and Jonathan Gottschall that, despite its merits, is still dominated by literature.[1][open endnotes in new window]

But in Darwin’s Screens, Creed focuses her analysis on cinema, and a quick survey is sufficient to reveal that the book casts a very wide net, looking across genres, periods, and class distinctions in pursuing Darwin’s influence on this twentieth-century medium. So at first glance, not only did the book seem to have the potential to redress the literature-film imbalance, it also seemed to offer a far more expansive approach than that of “Darwinian literary criticism,” which often appears intent on nothing more ambitious than offering yet another form of literary theory—and yet another gristmill through which to grind up Great Books.

But first impressions can be misleading. As we quickly realized on sitting down to read the book, Darwin’s Screens does not redress the aforementioned imbalance because that was never its intention. Creed does want to extend evolutionary theory to film studies, a field that she thinks could profit from biological approaches like those applied by Gillian Beer to literature in Darwin’s Plots (1983). But Creed seems unaware of the specific literature-film imbalance that troubles us, largely because she omits significant mention of evolutionary psychology, cultural evolution, and all their progeny in the humanities, from Carroll’s Darwinian literary criticism to Denis Dutton’s “evolutionary aesthetics.” These omissions surprised us, to say the least, but they did not mean that Creed’s actual intentions were unworthy or that she hadn’t accomplished those intentions. So, with our minds still open, we decided to figure out what Creed was actually up to and whether she had accomplished her aims in a consistent and substantive way.

Creed’s main goal is that of the cultural historian: she wants to demonstrate that Darwin’s ideas, which overturned “the anthropocentric view of life,” exerted a vast influence on the cinema during its formation at the end of the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth—and that those theories continue to influence “film narrative, form and aesthetics” today (xii). The book also draws on Creed’s strengths as a psychoanalytic theorist, for Darwin’s Screens speculates about

“the kind of subject—both the figure on the screen and spectator in the auditorium—who emerged in response to Darwin’s anti-anthropocentrism, a figure best described as the ‘entangled subject.’”

The author’s most sustained argument involves narrative and the genre forms that have coalesced around it. Drawing on Beer, Creed argues that Darwinian ideas influenced “the adaptation of popular Gothic narratives,” particularly those that fall under the rubric of “the human-beast cycle,” including the King Kong movies, the Tarzan movies, various adaptations of H.G. Wells’ novels, and the like (xiii). Under the fin de siècle influence of Darwinian ideas, “the arts began to assume a strange, uncanny dimension” as reflected in stories and films in which “human and animal merged through ritual, desire and death, and where the primitive exerted a greater allure than the civilized.”

“Writers focused on themes of devolution and degeneracy, whereby superior life forms threatened to devolve into more primitive ones. As discussed, the cinema has drawn upon Darwinian ideas over the course of the twentieth century to the present day in order to explore contemporary issues and the ways in which these issues have changed over time. This is a central function of film genres, from comedy to horror and the love story.” (xviii)

Ergo, Creed draws on Freud to develop her idea of “the Darwinian uncanny,” combining this approach with a close reading of several Darwin texts (3; see 3-6). The author sees in this notion of the uncanny the key to discerning Darwin’s profound cultural influence as it relates to narrative forms and the formation of cinematic genres.

Creed’s second major argument is that “Darwinian theory resulted in new ways of conceptualizing time” and that the cinema was unique in its ability to visualize “change and transformation” across time (xix). The early cinema responded

“directly to new and different ways of experiencing time with the development of special effects designed to stop, slow down and speed up time, to move rapidly from present to past and back again, and to leap from the past and present into the future. These included freeze-framing, slow motion, lap dissolves, flashbacks, parallel editing and time-lapse filming. By drawing from its range of new filmic techniques, it also found ways of depicting natural selection visually.” (xix)

Her argument here intersects with her emphasis on narrative and genre, for Creed is clear that particular narrative forms and particular genres such as science fiction and horror are especially suited to the creation of these visual effects. The author is most persuasive on this point in her discussion of Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (24-27, 29), a film in which the director contrives interesting technical devices that visualize the nuances of transformation and devolution.

Creed also makes a sustained argument about the influence of Darwin’s theory of sexual selection on cinema. For instance, in her fourth chapter, she argues that in “response to Darwin’s theory of aesthetics and sexual display, early films also explored new ways of representing sexual display as a form of spectacle” (xxi). Indeed, the Hollywood musical of the 1930s was “designed to explore the mating rituals of the human species” (75):

“In my view, the Hollywood musical is essentially a mating ritual in which the sexes meet and impress each other with their spectacular song and dance routines as a prelude to mating. The narrative of courtship and marriage is such an ‘obvious’ element of the musical that it has rarely if ever been analysed in terms of evolution or sexual selection. This chapter will argue that the musical is, in essence, a Darwinian mating ritual based on song and dance, in which pair bonding, family and future succession are the crucial elements.” (75-76)

A major variation on this use of sexual selection arrives in the fifth chapter, where Creed argues that film noir represents the femme fatale as a particularly strong sexual agent. The genre creates a “‘Darwinian gaze’ … in which male and female both acknowledge their mutual desire in scenarios of sexual display” (xxi). But according to Creed it is the female who selects

“the male she desires (usually the most beautiful)—although she may let him believe he is the one who has exercised sole choice. She puts herself on display in order to capture his gaze and manipulate his desires” (119).

Through these psychoanalytically inflected insights, the author fleshes out her notion of “entanglement,” which is crucial to her idea of Darwin as a kind of early poststructuralist. In his idea of life as “an entangled bank”—a phrase lifted from the final paragraph of On The Origin of Species (1859)—Creed perceives the blurring of traditional distinctions and fixed boundaries that would later become the signature of the poststructuralist ethos. According to Creed, Darwin’s metaphor of “entanglement” is central to his sense of the uncanny in nature and to his ideas of transformation, including birth, death, and future growth. She also thinks that this sense of entanglement is related to the emergence of a post-Darwinian spectator, who was attuned to the narratives of genres like noir, with its vision of characters entangled in an “urban jungle,” and horror, which offered scenes of devolution and transformation that matched the post-Darwinian sense of an indeterminate universe, lifted from its anthropocentric moorings.

There is much that is ambitious and admirable here. We like the way in which the author traverses many genres and texts without regard for high-low distinctions or for industrial boundaries. This is an apt way of discerning the pan-cinematic patterns necessary to prove the author’s sprawling thesis. We also like what Creed has to say about visual techniques as they relate to time. While the exact relation between these techniques and Darwin (and the post-Darwinian consciousness that Creed links to him) is often left quite fuzzy, the way in which the author relates distinct special effects to the goal of depicting transformation and devolution is quite distinguished.

And we should commend the author for taking this interdisciplinary approach at all. It is always difficult to grapple with a new field so as to make better sense of one’s own—but these experiments are necessary if the humanities are to achieve a defensible understanding of their underpinnings in human biology. One interesting fusion that results from Creed’s forays into biology is her idea that Darwin’s idea of common descent—which held that all other earth-bound species share a common ancestor—necessitated a modern notion of the monstrous, a need the cinema satisfied through genres like science fiction, which was replete with a new kind of monster, the alien being (39-46).

Regrettably, as scientists know, experiments can also go awry. Ideally, we would say nothing but positive things of Darwin’s Screens, for we would like to encourage other film scholars to adopt similar approaches in their own work. After all, literary scholars have for some years now been interpreting literary classics such as Much Ado About Nothing (1600), Othello (1603), Wuthering Heights (1847), Madame Bovary (1857), and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) through the prism of evolutionary psychology, and they have lately pushed into subcultural areas of literature as well, e.g., into “slash fiction” and graphic novels. We hope that film scholars will follow their lead—and at some point even take that lead. But we cannot endorse this development at any cost. In Creed’s case, there are too many problems to ignore, involving everything from intellectual clarity, idea development, and frequent overstatement to defects in the scholarly framework through which the author attempts to prove her historical thesis. Perhaps the most telling problem is Creed’s inability to make basic distinctions and to absorb and deploy the rudiments of evolutionary science as handed down by Darwin—including his ideas of sexual selection, which Creed garbles to the point of unrecognizability.

Consider the problems of clarity and development that mar the writing throughout. We get a taste of what is in store for us in the introduction. In what seems like an important passage, Creed notes that we can “distinguish two major structures or influences at work in the cinema that arise from Darwin’s evolutionary theory: evolutionary narrative forms, and the formation or development of film genres” (xvi). Her point is not clear, but it bears following, for it places the development of genres within an evolutionary framework that could be fruitful. Creed then notes that genre formation depends on “Darwinian motifs of change—such as struggle, chance and process,” a fact that highlights that genres, like species, “are not static, changeless forms.” While it is correct to say that genres are not static and do depend on change, we do not believe that any clarity is added by saying that genres depend on Darwinian motifs of change—unless the author stipulates how these processes of struggle and chance are at least roughly analogous to natural selection. This would require the author to stipulate how something so obviously “cultural” as a genre relates to something so “natural” as a species—which would in turn compel the author to create distinctions between natural selection and other kinds of selection more or less directed by people (thus necessitating further explorations of artificial selection, cultural evolution and “memetics,” or even niche construction). But Creed does nothing of the kind. Instead, she sums up her point on the next page by asserting that

“Darwin’s metaphor of life as an ‘entangled bank’ applies just as well to the life of genres. Those genres that succeed do so because they draw on Darwinian principles of evolution, adaptation, change and transformation” (xvii).

Her ideas in this regard never develop, so she never says anything substantive about genre formation in relation to Darwin.

What happens in this passage recurs throughout Darwin’s Screens. Almost everything becomes “Darwinian”—a term that in Creed’s usage means everything from “sexual” to “biological” to “chaotic” to “modern” to “postmodern”—because Creed chooses to prove Darwin’s influence on cinema not through a restricted historicist framework that parses the transmission of his ideas through cultural, industrial, and authorial mechanisms but instead through speculations about an all-encompassing, post-Darwinian zeitgeist backed up by appeals to authority and close readings of texts. But while a controlled historicist approach might not have seemed as sexy as the method Creed adopts, if done well, it would have made Darwin’s Screens a more successful study. Without it, no clear picture emerges of the chain-of-influence through which Darwin became part of cinema. Instead, we must rely on Creed’s word (and that of the authorities she cites) that this influence existed and was responsible for the increasing stress on “Darwinian” themes of bestiality, transformation, devolution, and horror in cinematic genres.

But why should we believe Creed? After all, as she freely admits, these themes had all been present in literature for ages, as their appearance in pre-Darwinian texts like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) suggests. Using an imprecise and often speculative method to prove an historical point leaves Creed open to doubt—and it makes her reader wonder, as we did, whether the patterns that she discerns couldn’t have as easily been attributed to other equally diffuse cultural factors (including the burgeoning consumerism of world culture, or the post-romanticism and emerging modernism of the West, or the psychic traumas of World Wars and Cold Wars across the globe) that coincided with the development of the cinema and that cannot be usefully described as “Darwinian.” Indeed, not even Creed’s close reading of multiple movie texts can help here, for the total quantity of films that she submits to this method could never amount to more than a tiny sample of the overall output of the cinema in the periods about which she generalizes.

But what is most likely to raise skepticism in the reader is Creed’s inability to navigate and interrogate fundamental nature-culture distinctions and to relay Darwinian theory in an accurate way. For example, Creed never creates a clear distinction between two points, both of which she seems amenable to (but which must be distinguished to make sense):

  1. the idea that cinema was influenced at a purely cultural level by Darwin and
  2. the idea that a cultural product like cinema is an extended example of natural mechanisms, such as sexual selection, identified by Darwin.

This problem is especially acute in her comments on musicals, where Creed is clearly trying to support both points but cannot do so with any clarity. Such a deficiency is a product of the fact that Creed has not created clear distinctions between these points—and, it seems, because she does not understand sexual selection, a Darwinian idea on which her book depends.

Darwin proposed his theory of sexual selection to account for the observation that males and females in many animal species differ in traits that seem unrelated to differences in either environmental conditions or the basic mechanics of reproduction. In particular, males often perform elaborate dances, sing exhausting songs, or display conspicuous ornamentation in apparent attempts to attract mates.[2] Sexual selection theory posits that such male traits evolve because they confer an advantage in competition for access to females, such that “baroque” males get more matings and leave more offspring than their plainer counterparts. If females actively choose males with the most exaggerated displays, then we have a case of sexual selection based on female choice. Darwin framed sexual selection as a process similar to, but separate from, natural selection, but it is usually subsumed under natural selection in more recent evolutionary thought, since it is simply a mechanism whereby traits come to dominate a population because they enhance reproductive fitness via their effects on mating success. It is thus a mechanism that depends on variation among individuals within a population or species, operates across generations, and causes changes in trait frequencies over time.

Creed offers a reasonable argument that the Hollywood musical was “designed to explore the mating rituals of the human species” in that the intricately patterned musical numbers of the genre do indeed resemble the courtship displays of many animal species and serve to punctuate and reinforce narratives about mate choice (75). Creed fails, however, to distinguish between the evolutionary mechanism of sexual selection (i.e., differential reproductive success based on traits that enhance mating success) and the process of mate choice—presumably because, in common parlance, mate choice involves selection of a mate. This conflation weakens her argument and leads her to use misleading phrases like “ritual of sexual selection” when she means “mating ritual” (e.g., 86, 93). It is true that Darwin highlighted the prevalence of such rituals and the potential for sexual selection theory to explain the development of these rituals in humans as well as in other animals. However, just as Creed’s indiscriminate use of the term “Darwinian” undercuts its power to inform her discussion of genre transformations, her imprecise application of the term “sexual selection” calls into question whether she really needs to invoke Darwin to point out that many films portray courtship and mate choice.

Creed could have done more to examine the relationship between sexual selection and Hollywood musicals, or any kind of film, by tracing how the predictions generated by the theory play out in romantic narratives, particularly in terms of different mate-choice criteria in males and females. Creed notes that people do not conform exactly to the male-display/female-choice dynamic typical of many species:

“In the mating rituals of the musical, this gender division is not at all clear-cut. Darwin’s comments reveal that in human societies it is usually the male who chooses and the female who practises the art of adornment. This is not true of the early musical, in which both male and female often wear costumes and decoration, although the costumes of female performers are usually more elaborate. Although both sexes participate in the ritual itself—dancing, singing and performing on stage—in the Busby Berkeley musical, the visual emphasis is on the female chorus line.” (79)

But instead of cataloguing examples of display in Berkeley’s musical numbers, we might gain more insight if we examine the prediction that both men and women engage in some sort of courtship display, since both sexes at least potentially have the agency to choose. Although women tend to practice the “art of adornment,” suggesting that males use physical beauty as a primary criterion in selecting a mate, the popular notion that women are choosier than men when it comes to picking a partner is actually a key prediction of sexual selection theory. A common (albeit simplistic) hypothesis is that women ought to advertise their fertility, which may be correlated with features we consider “beautiful,” and men ought to advertise the resources that they can offer a female and the offspring the couple must provision. We can think of no better cinematic representation of this dynamic than the number “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” from Howard Hawks’ musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), in which a beautiful woman played by Marilyn Monroe demands costly jewelry, not romantic love, from multiple suitors. There are countless examples of such displays in popular narratives before and after Darwin, suggesting that they reflect not so much the influence of Darwin on those narratives as the validity of Darwin’s insights into human mating behavior.

Similar narrative examples could come from almost anywhere. Though “high” literature has been best represented by this new species of literary criticism, there is no reason that we couldn’t find fine examples of truly Darwinian themes in romance fiction, which has always shown an interest in evolutionary issues like fidelity, paternity, jealousy, and of course coupling and reproduction. And the same assumptions could rule our interest in visual culture, particularly cinema and television. Soap operas—from traditional day-time stalwarts such as CBS’s The Young and the Restless (1973-present) to untraditional night-time “zombie” soaps like AMC’s The Walking Dead (2010-present)—show many of the same interests as romance fiction, although they specialize in the tribal relations that have long sustained human survival and reproduction. Further, many movies in what Stanley Fish has lately called the “‘revenge and avenge’ tradition” (e.g., Taken, 2008) lend themselves well to Darwinian readings, given their perspectives on humanity’s evolved attitudes toward kinship, child-rearing, and filial affection.[3]

Again, we are prejudiced in favor of film scholars who experiment with evolutionary methods. They are attempting a difficult task—forging a new field, something that no one is ever trained to do—and thus they often deserve the benefit of the doubt, for they must grapple not only with their own inexperience but with the entrenched biases of scholars content with the kind of film studies that mixes a little close reading with a whole lot of culturalist speculation. The problem with that kind of film studies is that its premise is often cultural constructionism, an incoherent mix of ideas that rarely deals in an honest way with politically sensitive issues of “human nature,” the origins of art, and universals in the aesthetic dispositions of human beings. But an evolutionary approach to film can help us answer questions about origins and universals in the arts while helping us situate the cinema—and all its genres—as a particular form of art.

Writing this review has helped clarify our own preferences for the new subfield whose emergence we foresee. First, though we want to encourage film scholars to participate in this subfield, we cannot do so without demanding their rigor as well. The field of biology, including evolutionary science, is a mature discipline. Its central insights cannot be fudged, and even its emerging hypotheses must be handled at least as carefully as we would handle any cinematic “masterpiece.” We must remember that in their role as film scholars, scholars interested in evolution will not be scientists per se; they will be interpreters of the scientific findings of others, applying these findings to film and film culture. Their initial audiences in film studies may be ill-equipped to evaluate or question their interpretations of the science. Consequently, they must be as rigorous as possible to avoid misdirecting other film scholars. This is why we feel it necessary to dwell on some of the defects of Darwin’s Screens.[4]

On the other hand, biological science cannot answer every kind of question. It cannot tell us why Darwin’s ideas spread so explosively in the cinema over the past century. Only a film historian using controlled historicist methods will give us a plausible reading of that phenomenon. Nor can biology offer a comprehensive reading of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941). A biologically informed method might help us understand aspects of the novel (in terms, for instance, of “extra-pair copulation”) and aspects of the movie (in terms, say, of “male resource acquisition”), but this kind of interpretation is unlikely to be holistic and could not possibly deal with the intricacies of authorial intention, textual form, industrial production and distribution, and cultural reception. Evolutionary insight is too general to deal with the full cultural complexity of most forms. For that reason, we believe that the evolutionary perspective—which, in the hands of some literary critics threatens to become another totalizing method of interpretation—will eventually supply film critics with the same things that so many Grand Theories, such as psychonalysis, now supply them: pragmatic methods to be used locally, specifically. The evolutionary perspective provides critics with another toolbox, and a truly perceptive movie critic will have a lot of toolboxes.

For us, the main value of the evolutionary perspective is its ability to provide reasonable answers to the broadest questions: What is art for, biologically speaking? Why have art-making practices culminated in highly stratified forms of cultural distinction? Why do certain genres of film, including pornography and horror, have a broader appeal than other genres, such as avant-garde cinema? Biology cannot offer exhaustive answers to these questions, of course, for it is difficult to imagine how an evolutionary perspective could deal with the (sub)cultural values and attitudes that have accumulated around certain genres (e.g., cult film, art cinema, etc.). But such a perspective could still offer crucial insights that re-orient how we think about genres, class distinctions, gender, and many other issues of interest to culturally oriented film scholars.

For example, it seems to us that any new study of pornographic movies—i.e., those that are blatantly sexualized and are received as such—must begin with the assumption that their basic pornographic appeal comes from the way in which they target the reproductive organs of the spectator. Thus, an evolutionary approach might give us clues indicating why people have so reliably enjoyed Deep Throat (1972) in some contexts (it activates a physiological system that is crucial to the propagation of an individual’s genes), find it so funny in other contexts (it makes public what people have evolved to consider private), and fear it so much in others (it threatens parental care of the young and threatens social chaos by corroding the public-private split and potentially disrupting culturally specific practices of pair bonding).

This perspective could help us navigate the difficulties of defining “pornography”—a problem that Creed analyzes effectively in a previous book, Media Matrix (2003).[5] And it could also drain the animosity out of the porn debates, showing that all of the major reactions to pornography are in a sense “built into” human nature and are in that sense specific to our social roles and cultural stations and cannot be resolved or transcended in any direct or enduring way. It could also help us grasp why men and women have, as distinct gender groups, so often been depicted as having different aims in the production and experience of (and the cultural response to) porn. The same might be said about cultural differences owing to sexual identity rather than gender. Clearly, these generalizations would not exhaust a new study of highly sexualized movies—they would not, for example, have all that much to say about textual specifics—but they would certainly re-orient our idea of those movies, providing a new framework for discussion and a new basis for academic tolerance towards all the players in the porn debates. These insights could also lead to a re-consideration of other genres, like romance or horror — which, like porn, target an audience's physiology, albeit in different ways.

An evolutionary approach to film cannot, then, answer all questions. It will not provide an all-encompassing picture of film and film culture. And it should not be expected to provide an adequate interpretation of individual texts. There will, then, always be more than enough for traditional film scholars to do even in a discipline that expects them to know something of biology. But this emerging subfield can provide such scholars with tools that will help them create more coherent and convincing pictures of the cinema, pictures that not only make sense of cultural phenomena but fit them into a biocultural framework that connects cultural constructions, like cinema, to natural selection and human physiology through concepts of cultural evolution, niche construction, etc. To do all this, however, film scholars must take themselves back to school—and they must learn to apply what they learn there in clear and accurate ways.

Notes

1. Brian Boyd, Joseph Carroll, and Jonathan Gottschall, eds., Evolution, Literature, and Film: A Reader (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010). The contemporary focus on human evolution that has so affected cultural study emerged out of the controversies surrounding E.O. Wilson’s advocacy of the new field of sociobiology in important texts like Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000). Shortly thereafter, the study of cultural evolution, which began with Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), picked up steam and has over the past decades produced important research programs by scientists like Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd. See Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd, Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

But the single biggest impetus toward the current synthesis of culture and biology has been the growth of evolutionary psychology as explained in collections like The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), which was edited by Jerome Barkow, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby, and in popular books by highly influential scientists like How the Mind Works (1997; New York: Norton, 2009) by Steven Pinker. The growth of evolutionary psychology precipitated a variety of new approaches attractive to humanists interested in narrative and realism; here Carroll’s Evolution and Literary Theory (Columbia: University of Missouri, 1995) and Robert Storey’s Mimesis and the Human Animal: On the Biogenetic Foundations of Literary Representations (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1996) come to mind.

Scholars in a range of fields, from anthropology to the history of music, have made impressive contributions to this quintessentially interdisciplinary area of humanities research; for the current state of the field, see The Evolutionary Review, a new journal edited by Carroll and Alice Andrews, whose editorial board offers a who’s who of the field. An important addition to the field includes Dutton’s book The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009). However, film scholars have been slow to embrace these methods and approaches—though the cognitivist stance endorsed by scholars like David Bordwell, Noël Carroll, and Murray Smith approximates some of the field’s assumptions, including the idea of “human nature” as identified with “contingent universals.” For more on these and other trends, see Boyd, Carroll, and Gottschall, eds., Evolution, Literature, and Film.

2. There are, however, “sex-role-reversed” species, such as wattled jacanas and seahorses, in which the females compete for access to males and have the sorts of exaggerated traits usually associated with males.

3. See Stanley Fish, “Vengeance Is Mine,” The New York Times (December 28, 2009), p. 1. Available at <http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/
12/28/vengeance-is-mine
/>. Accessed December 6, 2010.

4. And there are many other defects that we have not mentioned, including everything from loose phrasing—e.g., the idea that Spider-Man “evolves” after Peter Parker is “bitten on the hand by a genetically engineered super-spider” (68)—to un-skeptical overstatement. One example of the latter is the way that Creed quickly follows up an assertion that has generated controversy in the literature. This assertion posited that recent genetic work reveals that “chimpanzees and the earliest hominids engaged in sexual relations and gene-swapping for at least 1.2 million years before the two species went their separate ways” [189]) and is combined with an idea—the notion “the chimpanzee shares enough DNA with us [98.4 per cent] that it would be possible for a human and ape to bear offspring.” But this notion is based on a speculative comment in a news article rather than any sort of scientific study.

5. Barbara Creed, Media Matrix: Sexing the New Reality (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2003), 58-60.


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