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.