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Ancestral Footprints: An Adaptationist Approach to Vernon Jordan’s Life-Story


Civil Rights leader Vernon Jordan’s autobiography is an excellent example of African American self-writing, a genre explored by Roland Williams in African American Autobiography and the Quest for Freedom. An adaptationist approach yields fresh insights into Jordan’s work and the genre it represents.


Ancestral Footprints: An Adaptationist Approach to Vernon Jordan’s Life-Story

Vernon Jordan’s autobiography Vernon Can Read! is the life story of one of the modern Civil Rights movement’s most under-appreciated but distinguished leaders. As such, it is a major footnote to American history, but it is also much more. First, it is a classic American autobiography in the Benjamin Franklin mode—commonsensical, career-focused, self-knowledgeable but not self-preoccupied, studded with genial humor and personal philosophy, and imbued with the can-do spirit that fueled his achievements. Second, it is the kind of autobiography—including, as a matter of fact, Frederick Douglass’s—that Abraham Maslow frequently cited to flesh out his theory of the self-actualized person. Third, it is a landmark addition to the genre of African American self-writing, a component of our national literary heritage that deserves more attention than it has received, save for a handful of activist scholars.

And like all literature, it can be illuminated by adaptationist thinking. Several evolutionists have argued that literature (actually, all the arts) are adaptive. Exactly how is still warmly debated, but there is substantial agreement that the arts nourish human cognitive development and orient us to our environment in beneficial ways. One theory is that over the course of evolutionary time the arts helped bridge the gap between nature and nurture, that is, between Pleistocene hunter-gatherer cultures and the much more highly evolved and adapted agricultural communities of the Holocene epoch.1

To frame my discussion of Jordan’s memoir, I’ll devote a good deal of this paper to the genre which it exemplifies. Or, lapsing into Darwinese—and why not?— the genotype which this phenotype expresses so well.

In 1849, Unitarian minister Ephraim Peabody published, in the Boston Christian Examiner, a review of five slave narratives which by then had become weapons in the arsenal of abolitionism—Frederick Douglass’s 1845 narrative, and narratives by. Henry Watson, the brothers Milton and Lewis Clarke, William Wells Brown, and Josiah Henson. For Peabody, these books represented “a new department in the literature of civilization” far superior to the conventional fiction of the time. In fact, he saw them as an archetype of what we now call the American Dream, declaring that “one cannot find a better model for an American epic than the adventures of a fugitive slave.”2

Peabody was, of course, a visionary—that is, if we expand his field of vision to include the hundreds of postliberation narratives written during the next 150 years. And that is exactly what Temple University scholar-poet Roland Williams does in his provocatively patriotic study of the genre, African-American Autobiography and the Quest for Freedom. Williams, the great- grandson of a former slave, sees this body of writing as not only a corporate racial epic, but a truly and deeply national epic as well. In much the same way that state-sponsored oppression groomed Alexander Solzhenitsyn to write The Gulag Archipelago, Williams argues that slavery “groomed black people for the role of a priestly caste, reminding the congregation to keep the faith.” Neatly side-stepping the standard oppositional narratives such as The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, Williams concludes that “rather than a spot planted on the cultural mainstream,” African American self-writing flows well within the main channel, “sanctioning the social ethos in a manner that renders it epic in nature”. Moreover, as Williams sees it, the authors who inscribed this national epic are themselves epic heroes “who seek to be remembered by posterity for clearing barriers to the enjoyment of liberty through the employment of learning.”3

Does this sound, somehow, as comfortable as an old sweater (at least, to evolutionary-minded folk)? It should, since from the adaptationist perspective, Williams is claiming no less than the genre has had adaptive value for over 150 years in a way that leads back, as we shall see in a moment, to the origins of narrative. As for what those origins might be, Katherine Coe’s ethological research provides an important clue—an ancestral footprint. Adaptationist scholars like Coe research oral cultures for data that would link modern literature with known or suspected primordial human behaviors, and among the folktales of traditional peoples, she has discovered many such footprints—for example, among the Aborigine, where “stories are told about the ancestral heroes that lived in the Dreamtime and how they are correct models of social behavior”; or the western Apache, where such stories “promote compliance with acceptable standards of social behavior and the moral values that support them”; or the Dogon, where “every narrative is a pretext in social ethics.”4

At a somewhat higher level of generalization, virtually the same utilitarian motives would explain the origins and purposes of Gilgamesh, the Torah, Sundiata, the Odyssey, the Ramayana, or the corporate epic of Black America. In fact, for adaptationists, precisely such motives would account for a great deal of literature, and they account especially well for Jordan’s life-story. Of course, like all autobiographies, it expresses the author’s emotional need to be remembered, and therefore might be regarded as a literary analogue of the “selfish gene” which seeks merely to copy and perpetuate itself.5 Like many of the best, it combines the literary pleasures of the picaresque novel and the Bildungsroman. But like the storytellers of conservative traditional cultures, Jordan’s main purpose, is, as Coe would say, “unabashedly didactic.” The introduction makes this very clear, and with simple, modest, dignity: “I hope what follows will be instructive to readers today, and to anyone in the future who wants to know what those times were like.”6 As a personal record of the Civil Rights movement, his life-story is as deeply embedded in social ethics as a Dogon folktale. And one of the ancestral heroes of that great movement, which is already fading into the American Dream Time, he wants to preserve his achievements, and those of the other civil rights leaders who people the book, as “correct models of social behavior” and “the moral values that support them,” especially for the young African Americans who might be called his most privileged readers.

Even better, his Epilogue concludes with an envoi that not only embraces Roland Williams’s thesis, but the ancestral purpose that, according to Michelle Scalise Sugiyama, explains the origins of narrative: to preserve and transmit valuable survival information, both for the sake of present needs and for the benefit of posterity: 7

“What I most wanted to say out loud, though, is that we are a great people. Black people have done great things for this country; saved its soul, in fact, and we have been an example to the world in this process. That should never be forgotten, even as we press ahead, in our many and varied ways, toward our future. If we did so much when we had so little, think of what we can do now that we have so much more. That was the message I most wanted to convey.”8

That’s a powerful message, and not just because it states a political truth that should never be forgotten. Given the Social Darwinist prediction that the Negro race in America would be extinct well before he was born, Jordan’s statement could not be more ironically fitting. In fact, it brings to mind what an evolutionary psychologist would call those highly evolved and adapted, species-typical behavioral motives and dispositions that have, through the average effects of differential gene-transmission throughout eons of prehistoric time, promoted the evolutionary success, or “fitness” of our species. However, since folk psychology is the vernacular equivalent of Evolutionary Psychology, let’s simply call them, as would any warm-blooded human being, those qualities of mind and heart that have animated and informed the human race since its emergence as a distinct, fully-formed species.

Some of their most important psychological correlates are traits such as courage, sympathy, ambition, conscientiousness, and openness to experience, which are well-represented in universal criteria for selecting mates.9 A recent study by Joseph Carroll and Jonathan Gottschall indicates that such traits largely define the typical reader’s expectations of a fictional protagonist. 10 Although he would have been appalled by the comparison, Peabody was thinking like an evolutionary psychologist (as well as a warm-blooded human being) when he proclaimed that “Beside those who have sufficient force or mind and heart to struggle up from hopeless bondage, the ordinary characters of fiction seem dull and tame.”11

A century later, Jordan’s upward struggle from segregation would still require the same force of mind and heart, and if his life-story compels our admiration, it’s because, as David and Nanelle Barash might say, our genes are whispering to us.12 Such whisperings, amplified by cognition into coherent inner voices and then cohesive ideas, provide the Darwinian rationale for the ultimate value of the book, as well as genre it represents. In other words, by providing a cognitive map of highly adaptive behavioral dispositions and their fitness-enhancing outputs, it enhances (through the powerful magic of vicarious experience) our sense of fitness for the challenges that lurk within our own adaptive landscapes. Stephen Pinker has acknowledged the value of such cognitive maps, but as Joseph Carroll has argued, Pinker has failed to go the distance.13 Evolutionary psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby have understood this fundamental, commonsense principle much better, and certainly much better than the current crop of “literary theorists,” for whom literature has lost most, if not all, of its magic: “By unleashing our reactions to potential lives and realities [in this case, substitute actual lives and realities in narrative form] fiction enables us to feel more richly and adaptively about what we have not actually experienced. This allows us not only to understand others’ choices and inner lives better, but to feel our way more foresightfully to adaptively better choices ourselves.”14 (See? It’s not that difficult, really. Dulce et utile for the 21st century. Horace would have loved it).

A Darwinian rationale for the study of this book seems well-justified, but there is more to be done. Adaptationist literary scholars look for the specific ways in which literature inscribes themes linking modern human behaviors with their presumed ancestral origins and with analogous lower-species behaviors—themes such as mating and kinship, resource acquisition, predator avoidance, competition and cooperation, status hierarchies, and detection of cheaters. That such themes ought to animate Jordan’s deeply introspective narrative is, from the adaptationist viewpoint, all but inevitable. And why? Because, as Joseph Carroll has observed, “Beneath and apart from their structure of conscious beliefs, authors, like people in general, are instinctively attuned to evolutionary psychology. It is the psychology by which they actually operate.”15

For evidence that such themes are the cornerstones of Jordan’s memoirs, one need go no further than several of the chapter titles—My Mother’s Son, At Home in the World, Building Blocks, Building Bridges, Family Matters, Endurance, At the Helm, and A World Opened Wide— where the survival and reproductive themes have bubbled up to the surface. To explore each chapter in detail would be tiresome; however, as an example of how such an exploration would proceed, and because the first two chapters (“My Mother’s Son” and “At Home in the World”) lay the groundwork for all that follows, I’ll address their adaptationist implications from the standpoint of Attachment Theory.

Attachment Theory, based on the landmark research of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, draws many of its insights from Darwinism as well as human and animal ethology, and in turn, informs Evolutionary Psychology with its insights into human personality development.16 And like a good deal of Evolutionary Psychology, Attachment Theory begins and ends with a deeply intuitional premise: we humans need a secure emotional base to explore our environment with increasing confidence, a base provided by our parents— especially our mothers. As field observation of animal behavior has abundantly demonstrated— who, for example, can forget “The March of the Penguins”?— this need is broadly homologous with most avian and mammalian species, and as Mary Ainsworth’s research also demonstrated, is just as common in rural Uganda as in Baltimore, Maryland.17

By the logic of “reverse engineering” common to adaptationist thinking, this kind of universality can only have arisen from both natural selection and sexual selection for desirable traits. In his magisterial meditation on morality, The Moral Sense, James Q. Wilson observes that “what nature was selecting for was not simply skill at reproduction, but skill at parenting,” and thus over evolutionary time, the mutual attachment needs of mothers and children morphed from an adaptation geared to the child’s basic survival into the foundation of the child’s psychosocial development. It is thus that Kathryn Coe can claim, with only the merest whiff of feminist advocacy, that “dedicated mothers were the driving force behind the evolution of modern humans and their culture.” 18 For Wilson, virtually the same hypothesis explains of the origins of those prosocial dispositions and behaviors which we call “morality, ” and without which there would be no culture:

“It is the argument of this book that people have a natural moral sense, a sense that is formed out of the interaction of their innate dispositions with their earliest familial experiences . . . The affection that a parent, especially a mother [emphasis added] bears for its child and the desire to please that a child brings to this encounter are fundamental human dispositions. Our moral senses are forged in the crucible of this loving relationship and expanded by the enlarged relationships of families and peers.” 19

I strongly suspect that Vernon Jordan couldn’t agree more.20 Moreover, Wilson’s main argument- -that the mutualism learned in the loving encounter between mother and child has driven cultural evolution as well, through widening circles of reciprocity from the endogamous marriages and kinship alliances of our ancestors to the exogamous marriages and coalitions of the modern world—might even provide a clue to Jordan’s career as a builder of interracial alliances and thus go even further to explain his mother’s recurrent appearances throughout the book as confidante, mentor, source of emotional support and voice of conscience. However, the way Attachment Theory explains her formative influence is quite enough:

“I know for certain that the world my parents created for me has made all the difference in my life, and the principal architect, general contractor, and bricklayer for the whole enterprise was my mother. Although my father was a constant and steady presence, there was no question who was in charge of my brothers and me. It was my mother’s plan that mattered, [and] with my mother at the helm, my direction in life was set early on.. . So, from the very beginning, I felt the tug of my mother’s hope. I moved forward, propelled by her deep ambition and love for me—two things I never had a moment’s doubt about and that moved me to accept her guidance and want to vindicate her faith in me.” 21

Such statements go straight to the heart of “secure base” doctrine, but so does the very next chapter, “At Home in the World.” Here, we see how Vernon is emboldened to set his sights on greatness guided by not only his mother’s precept and example, but his father’s loving encouragement, a succession of other attachment figures (teachers, coaches, family friends, church and civic leaders), and a number of interesting, age-appropriate part -time jobs. (Some are much more than age-appropriate too, indicating a high level of precocity). This is just the kind of optimal development from an uncommonly secure base that Attachment Theory would predict, but for the sake not only of convenience but substantive point, let’s stay with the titles, including their striking enjambment: My Mother’s Son—At Home in the World. Once again, My Mother’s Son—At Home In the World. Besides the choice of titles, their stark and unapologetic proximity suggests an absent premise that connects them in the reader’s mind. And the absent premise, which we might symbolize by a dash, or even better, a colon, is none other than the major premise of Attachment Theory.22

With his own formative experiences as a secure base, and using the folk psychology which we all use most of the time, Jordan has intuited the vital role of the mother in the child’s psychosocial development, thereby manifesting the adaptive mindset which, as Adaptationists, we ascribe to most people—that is, people whose phenotypic habits of mind are well-attuned to their species-typical behavioral dispositions. Or as our Victorian forebears liked to say, whose instincts are sound. Or as David and Nanelle Barash might say, who listen keenly for the whispering of their genes. Not the ones that incline us to bad behavior, but the ones that represent the better angels of our nature.

The ancestral footprint revealed by the first two chapters is probably the oldest and deepest, but the title reveals a bigger, more recent footprint. And this one is forensic evidence of a major evolutionary crime.

Yes, I have saved the best for the last, and no, Jordan’s success does not grow out of a victory over childhood dyslexia. No; the title (like much of the book) simply reflects the “original and philosophical sense of humor” that Abraham Maslow regarded as a hallmark of the self-actualizer. It comes from a dramatic vignette in the Introduction, where young Vernon, working as a chauffeur for Atlanta multimillionaire Robert Maddox during his summer vacation from DePauw University, is discovered by his employer in the library of the family mansion, calmly engrossed in a book selected from the shelves. In the ensuing conversation, Maddox works his way through cognitive dissonance and lèse majesté to reluctant and comically grumpy permission for him to use the library. For Jordan, ever the pragmatic optimist, Maddox is simply an idiot, and the matter seems closed. But shortly later, at one of the formal dinners where Vernon also serves as a waiter, he becomes the subject of a painfully embarrassed silence when Maddox grandly announces, with the royal unconcern so typical of the old-style Southern grandee, “Vernon can read!”

Although Jordan treats this incident as pure comedy of the absurd, there is a tragic subtext and some very deep scar-tissue here. Chapter by chapter and victory by victory, the book might even be regarded as a long-deferred retort to Maddox and his embarrassed guests, “You’re damned right he can, and he can also do a whole bunch of things you never dreamed of!” Sweet justice indeed, but in view of his mother’s deep imprint, Jordan might well have titled not just the first chapter but the entire book My Mother’s Son, with even deeper evolutionary logic than Clarence Thomas’s My Grandfather’s Son or Barack Obama’s Dreams from my Father. Or, he might have chosen from various other kinds of eye-catching titles common to autobiographies. Why then, did he choose a title that captures the in media res opening, and why did he choose that opening in the first place?

From Virgil to the present, in medias res can be a very powerful strategic device—a turning point which looks backward as well as forward, capturing both the narrative past and narrative future in a dynamic, pivotal moment. But here, the device cuts much deeper than conventional literary theory would suggest, because this particular moment has deep psychic roots. First, it so closely recalls the scene in Douglass’s narrative where Hugh Auld commands his wife to stop teaching young Frederick to read, it’s as if a century later, in a palatial Atlanta mansion, Auld’s worst nightmare—the slave fully empowered by literacy—has finally come true. Or, for that matter, as if Richard Wright’s semi-literate, tragic antihero Bigger Thomas has morphed into a budding intellectual.23 Second, since within our cultural ecosystem literacy and its offshoots have conferred adaptive advantages and resource benefits even greater than the paleolithic technology of stone tools, its suppression during slavery and severe curtailment in the segregated South amounted to the denial of a reproductively relevant resource. Since no one would appreciate the importance of literacy better than those to whom it was historically denied, we can easily see, and especially from the evolutionary viewpoint, why reading is foregrounded in so many African American autobiographies (a point that Roland Williams shrewdly emphasizes), and thus why it is foregrounded here.

But because it is foregrounded so dramatically, Jordan may well have dug yet deeper to expose a taproot which reaches down, through layers of prehistoric time, to the evolution of “exploitative resource acquisition strategies”—the ancient strategies of intimidation, deception, expropriation, coercion, and violence which formed the psychic bedrock of slavery—and their coevolved counter-exploitive adaptations, which for blacks, besides overt reprisals such as Nat Turner’s rebellion, included various covert strategies as well. Among these, which generally fall under the rubric of deceiving “old massa,” the acquisition of literacy was one of the most dangerous, and by far the most important. Exploratory research on the evolution and adaptive value of both exploitative and counter-exploitive strategies indicates that there is indeed such a taproot waiting to be dug up and dissected 24. And if, as I strongly suspect, Vernon Jordan has intuitively discovered it in the analogous morphology of a live nerve still throbbing painfully (even after nearly 50 years) beneath the layers of healthy, protective scar-tissue, then it’s little wonder that he chose such a bold and unconventional title. As Joseph Carroll would say, he was thinking like an evolutionary psychologist. Or (as, once again, David and Nanelle Barash might say), his genes were whispering to him.

A coda: I think our genes are also whispering to us when, as literary scholars, we decide to take up the arduous but immensely rewarding study of adaptationism.

Of course, we find the contrast with postmodernist sophistry and identity politics a refreshing change. Even more to the point, the prospect of contributing to E.O. Wilson’s program for “consilience” (i.e., the vertical integration of knowledge from the physical sciences, social sciences, and humanities) is exciting, and more than sufficient payback for our efforts.25 But beneath and apart from that, I think it’s the sense of having discovered and connected with our roots as human beings that we find so exhilarating. In fact, it recalls Jack London’s wonderful paean to Buck, the domesticated half-dog, half-wolf who must relearn the lessons of his puppyhood in order to answer “the call of the wild.” The passage is found in The Call of the Wild at the end of the third chapter:

And not only did he learn by experience, but instincts long dead became alive again. . . . They quickened the old life within him, and the old tricks which they had stamped into the heredity of the breed were his tricks. They came to him without effort or discovery, as though they had been his always. And when, on the still and cold nights, he pointed his nose at a star and howled long and wolflike, it was his ancestors, dead and dust, pointing nose at star and howling down through the centuries and through him. And his cadences were their cadences, and thus the ancient song surged through him, and he came into his own again.


1.  E. O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (New York: Vintage Books, 1998),  Ellen Dissanayake, Homo Aestheticus (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995); Joseph Carroll,  “The Human Revolution and the Adaptive Function of Literature,” Philosophy and Literature 30 (2006), 33-49;  Carroll, “Literature and Evolutionary Psychology” in The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, ed. David M. Buss (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2005), 931-52; Denis Dutton, The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009).

2. Quoted by William L. Andrews, To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986), 98.

3. Roland L. Williams Jr., African American Autobiography and the Quest for Freedom (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000), xiii, 117.

4. Kathryn Coe , “The Role of Traditional Children’s Stories in Human Evolution,” Entelechy Journal No. 6, at

5.  Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford: University Press, 1976).

6.  Vernon E. Jordan Jr., Vernon Can Read! A Memoir (New York: Basic Books, 2001), 120.

7.  Michelle Scalise Sugiyama, “Food, Foragers, and Folklore: The Role of Narrative in Human Subsistence,” Evolution and Human Behavior 22 (2001). Sugiyama’s argument  assumes natural selection as the underlying cause of behavioral as well as biological adaptations,  including a “narrative instinct.” Overlapping data from infant behavioral psychology, human ethology, cognitive science, and narrative theory have proved  that the mind most easily processes, stores and transmits information in narrative form. The most parsimonious explanation is that story-telling conferred major fitness benefits, and therefore probably coevolved with language.

8. Jordan, 334.

9. Jerry S. Wiggins, ed., The Five Factor Model of Personality: Theoretical Perspectives (New York: Guilford Press, 1996). . The landmark study of universal mate criteria is David M. Buss,  “Sex Differences in Human Mate Preferences: Evolutionary Hypotheses Tested in 37 Cultures,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 12 (1989), 1-49,

10.  Joseph Carroll and Jonathan Gottschall, “Human Nature and Agonistic Structure in Canonical British Novels of the 19th and Early 20th Century: A Content Analysis,” in Heuristiken der Literaturwissenschaft: Disziplinexterne Perspectiven auf Literatur, ed. Uta Klein, Katja Mellman, and Steffanie Metzger (Paderborn:  Mentis Verlag, 2006), 473-87.

11. Andrews, 99.

12.. See David P. Barash, The Whisperings Within: Evolution and the Origin of Human Nature (New York: Harper and Row, 1979), and  David P. and Nanelle R. Barash, Madam Bovary’s Ovaries: A Darwinian Look at Literature (New York: Delacorte Press, 2005; Dell mass-market paperback edition, New York: 2008).

13. Stephen Pinker, How the Mind Works (New York: Norton, 1997), 542; Joseph Carroll, “Pinker, Dickens, and the Function of Literature,” in Carroll, Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature (New York and London: Routledge, 2004), 63-68.

14.. Quoted by  Michelle Scalise Sugiyama, “Reverse-Engineering Narrative: Evidence of Special Design,” in Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson, The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative (Evanston: Northwestern UP, 2005), 187. See also Carroll, “Pinker, Dickens, and the Function of Literature,” and “The Deep Structure of Literary Representations” in Carroll, Literary Darwinism, 103-116.

15. Carroll, Literary Darwinism, 38.

16.  For a good overview of the careers of Bowlby and Ainsworth, see Inge Bretherton, “The Origins of Attachment Theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth,” Developmental Psychology 28 (1992), 759-75. For an overview of contemporary  Attachment Theory, go to

17. See Bretherton.

18.Kathryn Coe, “On the Origins of Compassion and Altruism,” paper presented at the Metanexus conference, “Works of Love: Scientific and Religious Perspectives on Altruism,” Villanova University, May 31-June 5, 2003.

19.  James Q. Wilson, The Moral Sense (New York: Free Press, 1993), 226.

20. Vernon Jordan has read this paper.  His enthusiastic response (besides an enjoyable telephone conversation) included a complementary copy of his new book Make It Plain: Standing Up and Speaking Out (New York: Public Affairs, 2008.) The inscription was this: “’May your own dreams be your own boundaries. . .’ Thanks to you for expanding my mind as to my own work.”

21.. Jordan, 13-15, 35.

22.  Everett Waters, a director of the NYU/Stony Brook Attachment Lab,  provided some very helpful clarifications of Attachment Theory, and also agreed with my hypothesis that the chapter titles (and the way they fuse together in the reader’s mind) capture the “secure base” premise of Attachment Theory.

23. Richard Wright, Native Son (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1940).

24. . David M. Buss and Joshua D. Duntley, “Adaptations for Exploitation: Group Dynamics, Theory, Research, and Practice 12 (2008): 53-62, at http//   Buss supports my application of the theory (personal email correspondence.)

25. E.O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (New York: Vintage, 1999).

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