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William Deresiewicz critiques a notion of evolutionary psychology fifteen years out of date and certainly not held by the evolutionary literary critics he focuses on.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.