Darwinian literary studies arose in part as a result of dissatisfaction with the poststructuralist and postmodernist philosophies that came to dominate literary study during the 1970s and 80s. In particular, it took issue with the argument that discourse constructs reality, and argues that evolution precedes, and to some extent explains, discourse. This position disagrees with the standard social science model that argues culture constructs human values and behaviors.
As Leda Cosmides and John Tooby indicate in their essay "The Psychological Foundations of Culture," scientific models and theories allow us to sense abstract objects and relationships just as our eyes and ears allow us to sense concrete ones. In Darwinian literary studies, as in evolutionary psychology, "[t]he tools of evolutionary functional analysis function as an organ of perception, bringing the blurry world of human psychological and behavioral phenotypes into sharp focus and allowing one to discern the formerly obscured level of our richly organized species-typical functional architecture. In other words, since the human mind is embodied in evolving organic structures such as the brain, researchers should be able to explain aspects--not only of cognitive systems such as language ability, but of cultural systems such as art and literature--in terms of the environmental factors, or selection pressure, that give rise to them. A chief goal of Darwinian literary studies is to show how the reading and writing of literature contributes to the inclusive fitness of the human organism. In this sense the discipline relates closely to adaptationism, and it shares with the adaptationist social sciences the ultimate goal of understanding human nature.
A good example of applied Darwinian criticism is Joseph Carroll's reading of Pride and Prejudice, which shows how the fundamental biological problem of mate choice informs the plot of Austen's novel. In this view, the novel narrates a social order in which males compete on the basis of socioeconomic attributes such as money and rank, whereas females compete according to 'personal' attributes such as youth and beauty. The story of Darcy and Elizabeth's courtship establishes a model for partial subversion of this social order, since the couple manage to abide by it even though the proximate causes of their mutual attraction have more to do with the conventionally undervalued attributes of dignity, honesty, kindness, and intelligence. A Darwinian critic might argue that the whole book functions as a tool for humans to perceive, order, and make sense of the conflicting impulses that characterize romantic relationships.