Evolution vs. Lit Crit (Part One)

The Autumn 2006 issue of The American Scholar features a lengthy article entitled, “Getting it All Wrong: Biolculture Critiques Cultural Critique. It’s author is Brian Boyd, a professor of English at The University of Auckland in New Zealand.

The premise of the article is that English professors have rendered themselves irrelevant and even a bit silly by refusing to acknowledge the role of biology, especially evolution, in shaping human culture and knowledge. In particular that branch of study known as literary theory comes off looking foolish because it makes pronouncements completely uninformed by relevant findings in science. Since the article does not appear to be available online, I will transcribe a few of the juicy bits below the fold. Since the article is quite long, I will do this in several installments. Enjoy!

But then, curiously, [Harvard English Professor Louis Menand] insists that what humanities departments should definitely not seek is “consilience, which is a bargain with the devil.” Consilience, in biologist E. O. Wilson’s book of that name, is the idea that the sciences, the humanities, and the arts should be connected with each other, so that science (most immediately the life sciences) can inform the humanities and the arts, and vice versa. Menand claims that he wants someone to say, “You are wrong,” but he rules out anyone challenging the position in which he and his generation has entrenched themselves. For they are certain there is at least one thing that just cannot be wrong: that the sciences, especially the life sciences, have no place in the study of the human world. Well, Professor Menand, you, and those you speak for, are wrong.

The position you represent has neither the intellectual nor the moral high ground you are so sure it occupies. Until the literature departments take into account that humans are not just cultural or textual phenomena but something more complex, English and related disciplines will continue to be the laughingstock of the academic world that they have been for years because of their obscurantist dogmatism and their coddled and preening pseudo-radicalism. Until they listen to the searching criticism of their doctrine, rather than dismissing it as the language of the devil, literature will continue to lose students and to isolate themselves from the intellectual advances of our time.

Strong words. Boyd goes on to describe the two pillars of modern “Theory”:

Menand forcefully expresses his sense of the dramatic change in literary studies that began in 1966. A “greatest generation” of iconoclasts established two fundamental principles: first, anti-foundationalism, the idea that there is no secure basis for knowledge; and, second, difference, the idea that any universal claims or attempts to discuss universal features of human nature are instead merely the product of local standards, often serving the vested interests of the status quo, and should be critiqued, dismantled, overturned.

Of anti-foundationalism, Boyd agrees that it is essentially correct, but hardly earth-shattering. He writes:

If they had been less parochial, the literary scholars awed by Derrida’s assault on the whole edifice of Western thought would have known that science, the most successful branch of human knowledge, had for decades accepted anti-foundationalism, after Karl Popper’s Logik der Forschumng (The Logic of Scientific Discovery, 1934) and especially after Popper’s 1945 move to England, where he was influential among leading scientists. They should have known that a century before Derrida, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection – hardly an obscure corner of Western thought – had made anti-foundatioanalism almost an inevitable consequence. I say “parochial” because Derrida and his disciples think only in terms of humans, of language, and of a small pantheon of French philosophers and their approved forebears, especially the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. There was some excuse for Derrida in 1966, but there is none for the disciples in 2006, after decades of scientific work on infant and animal cognition.

Just where is the problem in the supposedly devastating insight that meaning or knowledge has to be referred or deferred to other terms or experiences, themselves part of an endless chain of referral or deferral? How could it be otherwise? This state is not only to be expected, but in an evolutionary perspective can be explained without apocalyptic paroxysms. In a biological view, our understanding of the world always depends on earlier and less-developed forms of understanding, on simpler modes of knowledge. Knowledge registers regularities in the environment (shape orientation, light, color, and so on), qualities, therefore, not contained within the moment of perception but repeatedly similar enough to previous circumstances to produce similar effects. Knowledge is also registered by emerging regularities in the senses and the brains that process their input, through capacities, therefore, that have been developed by minute increments over thousands of generations.

Boyd sums up this section as follows:

How could concepts or communication not be endlessly deferred or referred back, once we accept the fact of evolution, once we move beyond language to consider how human understanding slowly emerged? If we are evolved creatures, our brains are not guarantors of truth, citadels of reason, or shadows of the mind of God but simply organs of survival, built to cope with the immediate environment and perhaps to develop some capacity to recall and anticipate. Evolution has no foresight and no aims, least of all an aim like truth. It simply registers what suffices, what allows some organisms to last and reproduce better than others.

Well said! Interestingly, some critics of evolution, most notably Alvin Plantinga, have used this as an argument against evolution. If evolution is true, runs the argument, then we have no reason to believe that our senses are giving us an accurate picture of the world. Evolution only encourages immediate survival advantage, after all, not truth. In that context it is simply a foolish argument. The fact is that our senses merely provide fragments of information to the brain, which then assembles them into the best picture of reality that it can. In other words, our senses don’t provide us with an accurate picture of what is really “out there.”

But Boyd’s point is spot on. Evolution has quite a lot to tell us about how we acquire knowledge. If English professors wish to discuss that topic, then they need to be cognizant of the biological basics.

Comments

  1. #1 Jolf_Moosenhoeger
    October 11, 2006

    Plantinga has to be one of the most overrated philosophers in existence. Imbecilic arguments, couched in the most pretentious language, all delivered up with the smugness of the theist. His epistemological argument against evolution has got to be one of the most stupid I’ve ever heard.

  2. #2 dogscratcher
    October 11, 2006

    “Plantinga has to be one of the most overrated philosophers in existence. Imbecilic arguments, couched in the most pretentious language, all delivered up with the smugness of the theist. His epistemological argument against evolution has got to be one of the most stupid I’ve ever heard.”

    Hear hear!

    “If evolution is true, runs the argument, then we have no reason to believe that our senses are giving us an accurate picture of the world.”

    So what? Our senses don’t give us an “accurate picture“, but science can at least give us a consistently useful picture.

  3. #3 John Farrell
    October 11, 2006

    Well, as someone who had to wade through the morass of crap called ‘pstmodern’ back in the 1980s, I’m happy to see the selections from this article. Worth going out to the out of Town News Agency in Harvard Square to buy this issue of The Scholar.
    :)

  4. #4 John Wilkins
    October 11, 2006

    I went and downloaded the paper after reading this. It is a wonderful smackdown of Menand and the LitCrit attack on th ebiological basis of humanity. Thanks for this. I’ll be sending it around.

  5. #5 RBH
    October 11, 2006

    I’ve always been amused by Plantinga’s argument that

    If evolution is true, runs the argument, then we have no reason to believe that our senses are giving us an accurate picture of the world.

    No reason, that is, except that every single one of our direct ancestors had a good enough picture of the world to eat, avoid being eaten, and reproduce. And that’s all it takes: good enough. TRUTH? Maybe not, but veridical enough to get by. Plantinga’s thought experiments in this regard are laughable.

  6. #6 Greg
    October 12, 2006

    Thank you, RBH.

    Ad hominem ridicule heaped on Plantinga may be emotionally satisfying. However, simple accurate arguments are more effective.

  7. #7 colin
    October 12, 2006

    Worse in my opinion is psychoanalytic literary criticism. The humanities are largely responsible for keeping alive the stupidest and most coke-fevered ramblings of Freud.

    …though Woody Allen deserves some of the blame too.

  8. #8 David
    October 12, 2006

    Colin, isn’t there some Godwin equivalent that forbids gratuitous references to Woody Allen? If not, I would like to proclaim one. You are, however, spot on about the psychoanalytic babble, which also infests some areas history and sociology. Those of us who work in the social sciences and humanities need to keep real biological science (or real physics and chmeistry, for that matter) in mind as we construct our ideas about culture and human behavior. Failure to do this has given rise to numerous abominations.

  9. #9 johnc
    October 13, 2006

    While I’m no fan of post-modernism, it is by no means clear to me that biology has much of a contribution to make to literary criticism, let alone provide a solid foundation for the epistemological issues under discussion. Unfortunately, evolutionary psychology is in such a confused state that its ability to throw light on on its own core question is in serious doubt.

    There is however, a broader connection between the so-called “naive realism” of science and the “naive reading” of literary scholarship, which have both been under fire from the Derrida crowd. The notion that a theory can be “true” and a text have a “meaning” independent of the scientist or the reader are anathema to post-modernism, yet both propositions – in some form – are required to underwrite any rational discourse.

  10. #10 PhysioProf
    October 14, 2006

    “But Boyd’s point is spot on. Evolution has quite a lot to tell us about how we acquire knowledge. If English professors wish to discuss that topic, then they need to be cognizant of the biological basics.”

    This is true, and points out what is for me the essential problem with the current state literary theory and criticism. English professors should be discussing and analyzing English literature on its own merits, *not* trying to figure out “how we acquire knowledge”.

  11. #11 johnc
    October 14, 2006

    English professors should be discussing and analyzing English literature on its own merits, *not* trying to figure out “how we acquire knowledge”.

    Agreed, but everyone wants to be a philosopher, it seems, even biologists. Take an imaginary college essay question such as “Shakespeare was a greater playwright than Marlowe. Discuss.” It’s imaginary, because in most English depts it cannot even be posed, let alone answered. Yet it is in its own way as “true” in English as heliocentrism is in astronomy. And recognised as true by educated people from the 17th century through to today. But like heliocentrism, it’s damn hard to prove or demonstrate. Post-modernism attempted, and failed, to define the question out of existence, leaving a legacy of literary illiterates with degrees. Its time has passed.

  12. #12 Tyson Burghardt
    October 17, 2006

    And you know, for Christ’s sake, it wasn’t Popper made anti-foundationalism the Goldenrod Girl of science; look back to Hume in the 18th C. for a good argument on why A) there is no absolute basis for knowledge, and why B) this isn’t all that great a problem for everyday living.

    Was an English major in undergrad, learned all about post-structuralism and deconstruction, and was not impressed. Within the discipline of interpreting texts, it may lead to some cute things, but outside that scope it’s hopelessly naive.

  13. #13 Timothy Scriven
    October 17, 2006

    I don’t recall Hume saying that there is no absolute basis for all our beliefs, only that there is no absolute basis for some of our beliefs ( i.e those founded on induction among other things).

  14. #14 Danny
    October 17, 2006

    “While I’m no fan of post-modernism, it is by no means clear to me that biology has much of a contribution to make to literary criticism, let alone provide a solid foundation for the epistemological issues under discussion. Unfortunately, evolutionary psychology is in such a confused state that its ability to throw light on on its own core question is in serious doubt.”

    This is a fallacious argument, because evolutionary psychology and evolutionary biology are not the same. Evolutionary psychology is in a confused state, that’s true, but evolutionary biology is fine.

    Evo-bio is more than able to make contributions to literary criticism because it is more than able to make contributions to the understanding of human nature. Witness the theory of kin selection or the theory of reciprocal altruism.

    Beyond evo-bio, there are plenty of disciplines founded on the principles of evolution that contribute to our understanding of human nature (e.g., behavioral ecology, ethology, sociobiology, etc.).

    “There is however, a broader connection between the so-called “naive realism” of science and the “naive reading” of literary scholarship, which have both been under fire from the Derrida crowd. The notion that a theory can be “true” and a text have a “meaning” independent of the scientist or the reader are anathema to post-modernism, yet both propositions – in some form – are required to underwrite any rational discourse.”

    A theory is never considered true. A theory can only be considered not yet falsified. The connection you make between science and literary scholarship is thereby lost.

  15. #15 Robert Cook
    October 17, 2006

    Okay, so from the excerpt I’m reading here, I basically agree with Boyd (and Jason, by extension). My own PhD work invovled contemporary French thought (G. Deleuze) of which I knew a great deal about, computer science, which I knew a considerable amount, and mathematics, which I knew just enough to be dangerous (my apologies, Jason). But I did make the attempt to “make a deal with the devil.”

    What I take exception to is Boyd’s lame arguments.

    First, using Menand as a representative of the study of literary criticism is a little problematic, to say the least. This is like using Deepak Chopra to represent modern medicine because he is a “doctor”, has a large following, and uses “scientific studies” to support his arguments. Perhaps others are cited in the essay (I certainly hope so).

    Then, the bit about “parochial” literary scholars not knowing about science or who championed anti-foundationalism first. I don’t know what he used for evidence about the lack of science in the humanities, but Karl Popper and Thomas Khun were required reading in my very first semester of graduate school. Later we read many more texts, including Feyerabend’s Against Method and Harre’s The Principles of Scientific Thinking. The literary theory program was hardly “uniformed” about “relevant findings in science.”

    Furthermore, anti-foundationalism has been a topic of discussion for thousands of years. Post-modernism made no earth-shattering claims about this, certainly not Derrida. It was first written down by the Pre-Scoratics in 300 B.C. (in Western history, that is– we won’t go into Asian and Indian histories where the written topic is even older). Derrida was a scholar of these texts and indeed wrote about Gorgias (a rethorician and anti-foundationalist) and Plato (a philosopher and foundationalist) at length. Boyd’s argument is absurd on this point. And really, who cares who discussed it first? The real issue is what do we do with it now.

    Finally, moving “beyond language” as Boyd states in the last paragraph and yet still discussing “human understanding” (by which I assume he means knowledge, although that is not explictly clear in the passage), begins to tread on flimsy ground. Stimulus-response survival instincts, epistimology and ontology are distinct, albeit related. Knowledge with or without language and communication of that knowledge, is what the post-modern inquiry was all about. I think most literary theory scholars are well aware of this.

    Boyd’s premise is insightful (Menand *is* silly), but the evidence he gives for his argument would never fly in the scientific world where rigorous scholarship is highly prized . . . as it is in (most) of the literary theory world ;^)

  16. #16 johnc
    October 17, 2006

    Danny,

    I do understand the difference between evolutionary psychology and evolutionary theory in general: my point was that it would be from the former that we would most expect some light to be shed on the questions at hand but that this seems unlikely given its “confused state”. I suspect there’s no (or little) disagreement here.

    On “truth”, I put it (and “meaning”) in scare quotes for a reason – namely, I did not want to debate their epistemic meanings – but to make the point (amplified in my subsequent post) against post modernism that the “realism” which underlies our understanding of scientific claims (the earth really does go around the sun) can also be applied to literary judgements (Shakespeare really is a better poet than Chapman). This of course is only an analogy, but the point of it is to assert that core aesthetic judgements should not be relativised out of existence, that the world of culture can be rationally evaluated from an “objective” standpoint, even if that standpoint is not that of an evidence-based discipline (in the sense that we normally use that term).

  17. #17 Robert Walker-Smith
    October 26, 2006

    When I read the article in question, I immediately thought of my eldest brother. When I called to tell him about it, he was pleased. Graduate school was far more of a trial for him than it needed to be, due to the necessity of mouthing the fashionable shibboleths. Being a history major, I compared it to the period in English universities when instructors had to sign the Thirty-nine Articles to qualify – he found that amusing. Now he’s teaching college English; he probably would have found it less amusing when he was slogging through his dissertation.

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