St. Louis

William Deresiewicz attacks literary Darwinism on two fronts [“Adaptation,” June 8]. He argues that it is dependent on evolutionary psychology (EP), which he characterizes as pseudoscience, and he rejects its tendencies toward general ideas. The argument that EP is pseudoscientific is false. EP locates its central causal principles in evolutionary biology, and it appeals to the same criteria of empirical validity used by all legitimate sciences. Deresiewicz evidently knows almost nothing about the “mainstream biology” he so casually invokes, and he knows even less about paleoanthropology, paleoarchaeology, cognitive and affective neuroscience, behavioral ecology, behavioral genetics, developmental psychology, sex research, game theory and life-history theory. All these fields feed into the central findings of “evolutionary psychology.” Findings from these fields form an interlocking body of facts used to test empirical hypotheses. If Deresiewicz had any knowledge of this subject, he would not make gaffes like his claim that findings in EP “have no support in genetics.” To take just the grossest example, sex differences are rooted in genetics, and sex differences are, of course, central to evolutionary thinking about reproductive psychology. By rejecting general ideas in favor of unique, qualitative moments, Deresiewicz appeals to a half-truth that is the foundational principle of reactionary humanism. The whole truth is that literature and our responses to it involve elemental, universal aspects of human experience and also unique experiences produced by individual differences and unique environmental conditions. Deresiewicz offers his plangent cri de coeur “Back to the Particular!” as the only possible salvation of the humanities. The only possible forms of salvation are real knowledge and good sense. We won’t get there by adopting a negative stance toward the integration of specifically literary knowledge and modern psychology.


Auckland, New Zealand

William Deresiewicz critiques a notion of evolutionary psychology fifteen years out of date and certainly not held by the evolutionary literary critics he focuses on. Old-style, narrow-school EP did make large armchair claims, many unfounded, but the most trenchant critiques of their claims and assumptions have come from others committed to an evolutionary account of human nature. Scientists like David Sloan Wilson, Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson have been able to use biological evidence and logic to critique the idea of a reified Pleistocene and a human nature static since then and to show the force of multilevel selection and gene-culture co-evolution. Revisions within EP have transformed the attitude of formerly dismissive biologists and psychologists. Since these revisions allow far more room for culture, cooperation and imagination, and have been essential to the work of the most active evolutionary literary critics, it is pointless for Deresiewicz to criticize such critics for views they reject.

Deresiewicz writes that “literary studies is not concerned with large classes of phenomena of which individual cases are merely interchangeable and aggregable examples. It is concerned, precisely, with individual cases, and very few of them at that: the rare works of value that stand out from the heap of dross produced in every age.” Literary studies may choose to deal with large-scale trends or individual cases or something in between. Evolutionary approaches do not focus only on universals. Evolutionary anthropology can explain local cultural reactions to local ecological conditions. Evolutionary personality psychology adds new tools to the study of individual differences. Behavioral genetics focuses intently on explaining individual difference. My On the Origin of Stories focuses no less intently on explaining why the Odyssey, uniquely, has been read and loved for nearly three millennia and why Dr. Seuss stands supreme among writers for young children. I also offer a model for literary explanation that stresses the need for four levels of analysis: the humanly universal, the culturally local, the individual author or reader and the unique demands of the particular work. Why does Deresiewicz ignore this to critique an evolutionary literary criticism supposedly interested only in universals?

Taking a particular example, Deresiewicz writes that “Boyd devotes a hundred pages to the Odyssey without saying anything he couldn’t have said with Anna Karenina or Middlemarch or Proust.” Has he actually read those hundred pages? Would I spend many pages on the Greek value of xenia in discussing Tolstoy, Eliot or Proust and explaining it in terms of a widely dispersed pastoral ecology and the mores of a low- trust society? Would I dwell at length on the role of inhibition in providing time for reflection, a crucial factor in the behavior of Odysseus and Penelope, and highlighted by Homer’s narrative style, if I were discussing European novelists who deploy very different psychological vocabularies and devise new techniques for representing thought? Just who, here, is insensitive to difference?


Deresiewicz Replies

Portland, Ore.

My notion of evolutionary psychology (EP) may be fifteen years out of date, but Brian Boyd should tell his fellow critical Darwinists, because it is the notion that much of their work embodies. Joseph Carroll would no doubt be surprised to learn that I have a degree in biology-psychology, but he is right that I am not qualified to judge EP’s scientific validity, which is why I consulted one of the world’s leading evolutionary biologists. His take on EP: “Lots of conjecture and just-so stories…. Don’t trust Pinker. The guys at the NY Times tend to swallow claims whole…without understanding the sand beneath…. There probably really is considerable innate content in the human mind in the form of susceptibilities and proclivities…but we are still a long way from demonstrating precisely what that content is and how malleable it is in a way that a natural scientist could accept.”

The assertion that sex differences are rooted in genetics begs the essential question: what are those differences? EP makes claims about reproductive psychology and many other things, but it has yet to find a genetic substrate for any of them.

I do not reject general ideas in favor of unique works; I argue that such works propose general ideas in a fundamentally different way than science does. I agree that the humanities need “real knowledge”; I just don’t think that the only form of real knowledge is scientific knowledge.

As for “reactionary humanism,” Carroll, like the apostles of Theory from whom he is so eager to distance himself, appears to regard the phrase as tautological: if humanistic, then reactionary. Since when does humanism not believe in universal aspects of human experience? That’s the whole basis of humanism, which is why there is no progressive politics without it. In any case, it is quite something to hear Carroll accuse anyone of being reactionary. This is a thinker, as I noted, who believes in the superiority of Western culture and the transhistorical nature of the nuclear family, and who shares Darwinian criticism’s rejection of modernism and EP’s inveterate endorsement of conservative values. Perhaps he advocates reactionary antihumanism.

As other parts of my review make clear, in speaking of individual cases I was not suggesting that literary studies should only ever deal with one work at time. The question is, what kinds of works is it going to deal with, singly or in groups, and how is it going to deal with them? The new pseudoscience in literary studies would shift our attention from works of specific, enduring significance–books that are worth reading more than once, or at all–to the kinds of things that are superficial enough to be handled statistically without loss of meaning. Such research will never be of more than peripheral value, and much of it belongs in departments of history or sociology, not literary studies.

I obviously didn’t mean that the particulars of Boyd’s argument about the Odyssey would have been the same had he been discussing another book. The point is, he educes those particulars–Homer’s narrative strategies and structures–in illustration of a larger argument (authors need to hold our attention) that all too clearly would have been the same no matter what book he had been discussing, as evidenced by the fact that he follows his hundred pages on Homer with another sixty on Dr. Seuss that make exactly the same point. It should also be said that Boyd’s reading of the Odyssey is predicated on a set of wild assertions about what Homer added to the oral tradition; marked–unsurprisingly, given his dismissal of meaning–by a general deafness to it (a critic who believes that Odysseus’ identity is suppressed in the invocation because he’s “too famous to need naming” is not likely to tell us anything useful about the poem); marred by a casual disregard for accuracy (Achilles does not embody “pure strength,” kibbutzim are not “religious groups”); and above all, crushingly banal. Is this how Darwinism plans to save the humanities?