Biologists study how organisms evolve and adapt to their environments. In the Genre Evolution Project, we approach literature in a similar way. We study literature as a living thing, able to adapt to society’s desires and able to influence those desires. Currently, we are tracking the evolution of pulp science fiction short stories published between 1926 and 1999. Just as a biologist might ask the question, “How does a preference for mating with red-eyed males effect eye color distribution in seven generations of fruit flies?” the GEP might ask, “How does the increasing representation of women as authors of science fiction affect the treatment of medicine in the 1960s and beyond?”

More generally, the Genre Evolution Project seeks to determine what benefits may derive from treating culture and cultural production and consumption as a complex adaptive system. We view culture and its elements as one would the biosphere, that is, as a system in which organisms succeed or fail according to their fitness to their environment and, by their existence and success, modify their environment. The project presents many challenges.

  • How does one define the key characteristics of a cultural creation?
  • How does one define the key components of the cultural environment?
  • How does one test hypotheses in cultural evolution?

The Genre Evolution Project began in January, 1998. As a test case, the GEP currently focuses on science fiction short stories in America of the 20th century. Membership in the GEP team is arranged through the principal investigators, Eric Rabkin and Carl Simon. Individual team members participate either as purely voluntary researchers or through some more institutionalized mechanism such as independent study or the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program. Those considering joining the team should contact one of the faculty principal investigators or student project co-managers.

The hypothesis that cultural creations evolve in the same way as biological organisms contrasts other possible theories of genre change (for example, that new forms arise primarily as the result of individual genius [see Leavis, The Great Tradition]; that new forms arise primarily out of changed historical circumstances [see Lukács, Studies in European Realism]; that new forms arise primarily out of an inner logic of the genres themselves [see Barthes, Writing Degree Zero]). Professors Rabkin and Simon chose the American science fiction magazine short story as the first test case because its publication in dated periodicals with active letters columns and demographically clear advertisements seemed to allow good opportunity for tracking both textual (organismic) and contextual (environmental) information. In addition, the creation and demise of the numerous periodicals in this field allow examination of the mutation and extinction of the editorial policies that determined publication of individual stories.

Our first major challenge was to define a set of characteristics of a science fiction short story that seemed to capture a group understanding of what distinguished a given story from other stories generically. This challenge was addressed through a new use of database technology. We employed a reiterative process in which small teams of readers attempted to post to a web-accessible interactive database the information team members felt crucial to capturing these distinguishing traits.. Eventually we developed this into a relational database. The master file is the text database recording information about both original and reprint publication of individual stories. The context database, recording information about places of publication (such as magazines and anthologies), and the author database, recording demographic and professional information about the authors, are both indexed to relate to the master file. In weekly meetings of the whole team, we considered our experiences in the reading teams and with the database. Were the traits we were tracking adequate to our collective reading experience? Were these traits definable and shareable? On the basis of those discussions, we progressively revised the structure of the database and produced the current list of fields and values for the text database even as the number of records in the text database grew. We also normalized our readings to assure intercoder reliability. This process of reading, posting, checking, and, if it should prove necessary, revising, continues.

As part of our attempt to define the key components of the cultural environment, we have posted a preliminary listing of historical quarters that notes publicly prominent circumstances that can be tied to the context database. In the future, we aim not only to continue working with the existing databases but to produce an historical database capturing the generalities of American cultural life for each month of the 20th century. This database, created in part by the analyses of non-fiction periodical (e.g., news weeklies) will probably supplant the historical quarters table, and would then be usable not only to deepen the study of science fiction but to support the study of any other aspect of American 20th century culture.

In the course of our work to date, we have encountered a number of truisms in the field of science fiction (e.g., that the entrance of female authors into the field in increasing numbers in the 1960s led to a "softening" of the average story, that is, more emotion and less physics) and have generated a number of tentative observations of our own (e.g., that the average age of the protagonists seems to have increased between the 1920s and the 1960s). Are these generalizations valid? We are beginning to use the database in three ways: first, to test the validity of such generalizations; second, to uncover as much detail as possible about the preconditions, correlates, and consequences of any validated generalization; third, to manipulate the data to generate new and testable generalizations about this genre and its evolution. A limited sample of GEP results is available online.

Work has also been done, using methods based on the GEP, at Michigan State University, Texas A & M University, and the University of Trento.

If our current work is as fruitful as we hope, we expect to attempt one or two parallel studies focusing on other cultural creations, for example, Medieval iconography or clothing fashion. Our long range goals are to contribute to research and pedagogic methodology, to cultural studies, and to the study of the specific cultural creations we explore.

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