… literary Darwinism is dead. And took a proponent down with it.
From Chronicle of Higher Education Review, we learn, Survival of the Fittest in the English Department: Jonathan Gottschall tried to save literary studies. Instead he ruined his career.
Which sounds terrible. Until we find out why:
The story of how things went so wrong for a promising young scholar is one of disciplinary politics, contentious methodological debates, and the respective statures of the sciences and the humanities. Above all it is the story of how brash literary Darwinists and evolutionary theorists attempted to “save” English departments — by forcing them to adopt scientific methodology — and were, on the whole, repelled.
There is nothing scientific whatever about evolutionary psychology, and it makes nonsense out of everything it touches.
Were it correct, it would simply mean that there has been no evolution in over a million years. But wait, that wasn’t what it was supposed to … Okay, okay, at one point,
Gottschall’s work started to receive attention. His books were blurbed by E.O. Wilson and Steven Pinker, the Harvard University psychologist. The New York Times Magazine’s 2005 article, titled “The Literary Darwinists,” gave momentum to the emerging field. “I was like, ‘OK, well, this is going to blow it open,’” Gottschall recalls thinking. “It was a pretty giddy feeling.”
It was a steaming pile of nonsense and vulgarity, against which there is no rational defense.
There is almost no statement one can make about human beings, accurate or otherwise, that cannot be a thesis in evolutionary psychology. As long as one can claim that humans did it a million years ago or half-humans did it two million years ago. Who can prove the theorist wrong? That was always the real problem.
While most in the field ignored Gottschall and company, Jonathan Kramnick, a professor of English at Yale University, engaged them in a Critical Inquiry article in 2011 titled “Against Literary Darwinism.” Its evolutionary psychology, he argued, “is both more controversial as science than they let on and less promising as a basis for criticism than they might wish.”
Actually, serious Darwinists tend to reject it because—say what you want about them—they prefer to work with real animals and real fossils, rather than “what our ancestors would have” supposedly done, to spread their selfish genes.
Gotschall thinks that the solution is E. O. Wilson’s Consilience—that is, people who have not been convinced or defeated by metaphysical naturalism should surrender anyway, presumably to be nice. Dear Pastor and all that.
Sorry, the humanities are a big enough mess as it is.
The information about Gotschall’s subsequent efforts as a mixed marital arts fighter (“the wild and frequently ridiculous varieties of ritualized conflict in human males”) is interesting:
Gottschall later brags about showing up at an academic conference with a black eye, thus, in his estimation, outranking all the other men present. One early review calls the book “a personal history of violence that makes Norman Mailer look nuanced by comparison.” Gottschall welcomes the analogy. More.
If one is amused by that sort of pretension, Gottschall appears to be a reliable source.
See also: “The evolutionary psychologist knows why you vote — and shop, and tip at restaurants”