Academic Abominations (Or: Poor Papers from College) #5: The Homeric Epics and Evolutionary Psychology

Homer’s epic poems of the Iliad and the Odyssey remain seminal works in the western canon of literature, and are still being studied and adapted after over a thousand years of its composition. In Jonathan Gottschall’s The Rape of Troy and Brian Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories the Homeric epics are each reexamined within the lens of evolutionary psychology. While both authors eschew traditional forms of literary analysis, and both draw upon Empirical evolutionary evidence to examine these stories, they examine them in very different ways and draw different conclusions.

The Rape of Troy examines the Iliad (with occasional reference to the Odyssey) on the level of human behavior in the story. Gottschall wants to know why characters act the way they do in the context of the Iliad’s representation of the Homeric world. For Gottschall, the Iliad is a historic document that can help us understand Homer’s time, and we can combine it with what we know about universal human behaviors to better understand the text itself, ancient Greek history, and human nature. Gottschall’s particular focus is Homeric conflict in relation to human reproductive drives: “Others have offered that Homeric men compete primarily over one or another scarce social or material resource: subsistence goods, prestige wealth, social status, or immortal fame… I suggest that none of these sources of Homeric conflict… can be singled out as the root cause. Rather, all forms of Homeric conflict result from direct attempts, as in fights over women, or indirect attempts, as in fights over social status and wealth, to enhance Darwinian fitness in a physically and socially exacting ecological niche.”[1] Gottschall’s interpretation hinges upon the argument that warfare develops from the reproductive problems that arise from human polygyny.

According to Gottschall, male Homo sapiens have developed strong competitive impulses towards one another because of disparate costs of reproduction between the male and the female: “for mammalian males the minimal costs of reproduction are a bit of time and some sperm. For females the minimal costs include all of the calories required to sustain long periods of integral gestation and lactation, all the opportunity costs of forgone mating opportunities during that period of time and, in about 95 percent of mammalian species, all the costs of fostering young.”[2] This means that females in almost any mammalian species (including humans) must be very selective in choosing a mate. The costs of reproduction are too high for females to not be choosy. If women are discriminatory when choosing reproductive mates, then males prove themselves to potential mates, which produces competition: “What are male animals fighting over? The answer is that they are mostly fighting over females… Males fight for females or they fight for the territories, social dominance, or other resources required to attract and retain them.”[3]

In social species that form groups, or, in humanity’s case, tribes, cities and nations, this conflict can be amplified, especially given other human biological factors: “Male fertility lasts much longer than female, and older compete with the younger, often successfully, for access to the limited numbers of post-pubescent, pre-menopausal women… raising human offspring to maturity is uniquely costly… there is no question that females bear most of the burdens of childcare across human societies, further ramping up their investment in reproduction and providing more incentive for males to compete for that investment. In short: a real shortage of female reproductive capacity, relative to male demand, is endemic to the human condition.[4] Therefore, it can be no surprise that warfare (especially warfare in tribal societies) can be a purely reproductive affair. Tribal war, especially as portrayed in the Iliad, is driven by the need for women in polygynous societies where female distribution is limited. Even modern warfare, while oftentimes politically motivated on larger scales, is closely tied to reproductive desire.

Brian Boyd also examines reproductive competition’s role in Homer’s works, but his focus is on the role of cooperation in the Odyssey. Boyd is particularly interested in the Greek xenia: the cultural tradition of sheltering and feeding a stranger without question, but with the expectation that the courtesy may be returned: “When a stranger arrives at my doorstep, I am obligated to welcome and feed him … anybody from outside my social unit should be received, simply because of his mere common humanity, as a person away from home, in need of food and shelter and company… He is then obliged, should I arrive on his threshold, to become my host; to repay the hospitality.”[5] For Boyd, cultural measures such as xenia amplify cooperation between individuals to help reduce conflict in a world of overly large communities: “groups larger that a few hundred are ‘unnatural’ as far as genetic evolution is concerned … this means that culturally evolved mechanisms are absolutely required for human society to hang together above the level of face-to-face.”[6] This serves as a good reminder that Gottschall’s examination of the Iliad is not a complete view of Homer’s Greece: while it may have been a warlike culture, it was not a world of constant all-against-all.

This is not to say that Gottschall and Boyd’s examinations are incompatible. As Boyd is quick to point out, cultural methods of stimulating altruism and cooperation can only be effective if there is a means to punish those that do not follow the rules: “The essence of xenia is reciprocation, but the suitors think only of taking what they want – Odysseus’ livestock and wine, and ultimately his wife and position – and giving others only insult and injury.”[7] The Greek world is built on this reciprocation, not only in the fostering of cooperation, but also in doling out punishment: “the Greek idea of reciprocal justice was not an eye for an eye but a head for an eye.” [8] In both the Iliad and the Odyssey we can see this cultural practice of punishment intertwine with reproductive needs. In the Iliad Paris violates the honor of his host Menelaus by raiding his home and stealing Helen, in doing so Paris identifies himself as a threat. He is willing to violate cooperative social norms to enhance his own reproduction at the expense of his host. In the Odyssey the suitors are also a threat to Odysseus, but because they justify their presence in Ithaca through the necessity of Penelope to remarry it falls upon Odysseus himself, rather than a Greek army, to take revenge.

However, as Boyd and Gottschall both note, the punishments of Homeric society are so personal as to be cyclical, with both the Iliad and the Odyssey containing tragic elements that reflect the devastation that such violence brings. Gottschall and Boyd both use the Prisoner’s Dilemma and tit-for-tat social models to explain the cyclical nature of this pre-state social violence: “in many cases all sex-ratio-manipulating societies would be best served if the arms race to produce large numbers of warrior sons were ended. If all parties stood down, they would recoup the abominable waste of EFM while reaping the dividends of peace… however, the consequences of cooperating are staggering if other parties defect. So, in this viciously circular game of Prisoner’s Dilemma, the only real option, both for societies and individual families, is to defect – to continue biasing sex ratios in favor of males so as to maintain a balance of power with neighbors.”[9] However, while Gottschall applies these models as lenses with which to view the behavior of Homer’s characters, Boyd goes further and claims that they are a clear choice on Homer’s part to maintain reader attention.

For Boyd, Homer’s reflection on the costliness of war is a critical choice that produces emotional connection within the reader. War is not just the result of incomprehensible forces that push humans into conflict – it is not simply the alagon that is “thrust irresistibly onto men”[10] – but war is the consequence of human reaction. Boyd is claiming that Homer very consciously critiques the limitations of Greek punishment, and, surprisingly, it is the Odyssey not the Iliad that makes this point poignantly clear: “Homer shows that he is too aware of the cost of death – as of course he is throughout the Iliad – to make the killing of the suitors the triumph of right over wrong that we almost expect. At the close of the poem he stresses the difficulty of ensuring cooperation: the costliness of the failure to punish the suitors earlier, before their offenses warranted death; the costliness of the revenge the suitor’ families intend; and the necessity and the difficulty of reconciliation, when earlier corrective punishments have been lacking and tensions have been allowed to run too high.”[11]Perhaps Homer was aware that his culture “had reached a state of equilibrium, where their strategies – and their outcomes – could not change until the rules of the game did,”[12] but that does not mean that he justified the cycle of violence through a fatalist alagon. The Odyssey does not end with the implication of prosperity and peace, nor does it suggest that the Gods (or any other supernatural force) are the ones who will disrupt such a peace. Instead, it is the human players who share the blame in propagating the cycle of violence.

While both The Rape of Troy and On The Origins of Stories utilize evolutionary psychology in the aims of bettering our understanding of literature and human nature, there is a degree of fatalism present in their interpretations, particularly in The Rape of Troy. It may appear dangerously nihilistic to conclude that human violence is so closely tied to human reproductive desires. Such a claim can be anathema to contemporary social justice movements, and humanist ideas of progress. As Gottschall himself notes: “Books locating the fonts of human motivation in Darwinian selection often conclude with upbeat, almost conciliatory chapters, seeking to soften the bleaker implications of a Darwinian perspective on human behavior. But critics of evolutionary study of human behavior and psychology have been right about at least one thing: the evolutionary view of human potential is appreciably more rigid than the liberal philosophical paradigms that have dominated intellectual life since the Enlightenment; in place of utopian visions… evolutionary theory offers only the hope of some unspecified level of diminishment in human suffering and malfeasance.”[13] In the face of such a statement, Boyd’s own chipper conclusion that “Darwin has made it possible to understand how purpose, like life, builds from small beginnings, from the ground up. Art, including the art of storytelling, and science, including the theory of evolution, have played key roles in the recent expansion of life’s purpose”[14] (Boyd 399) may appear suspiciously saccharine, but Boyd’s examination of why we seek stories, and why the Odyssey resonates so well does reaffirm some of the human experience. Boyd and Gottschall’s interpretations are engaging in the very process of human nature that Boyd has identified, just as the Marxist, structuralist, or post-modern theorists are engaging in the same process. As we engage with art, and as we make art in return, perhaps we can also recognize the potential that so often escapes us, just as Homer, thousands of years ago, wrote as “a man alienated from his society and himself, futilely groping for a different way to live.”[15]

Human nature may be, as Gottschall states, inherently competitive given its reproductive necessities, but it is also a breeding ground for “moral emotions, because these emotions matter so much to social life.”[16] Just because both of these elements of the human condition are present in the Iliad and Odyssey does not meant that they invalidate each other; just as the duality of alagon and human responsibility are central to the Homeric narrative so too is it essential to our understanding of human evolution. It is not pleasant to suggest that war, rape, and other such atrocities are spurred on by human nature, but that does not invalidate that love, empathy, and altruism are also part of human nature. The more we understand the society we live in today, and the societies that came before us, the better we can try to engage with the positive elements of humanity and slow the wheels of the cycle of war.

[1] Jonathan Gottschall, The Rape of Troy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 3.

[2] Ibid 46.

[3] Ibid 47.

[4] Ibid 48.

[5] Brian Boyd, On the Origin of Stories (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2009), 295.

[6] Ibid 294.

[7] Ibid 304.

[8] Ibid 311.

[9] Gottschall, Rape of Troy, 154.

[10] Ibid 146.

[11] Boyd, Origin of Stories, 315.

[12] Gottschall, Rape of Troy, 159.

[13] Ibid 163-164.

[14] Boyd, Origin of Stories, 399

[15] Gottschall, Rape of Troy, 165

[16] Boyd, Origin of Stories, 288

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