Social Evolution Forum
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David Sloan Wilson and Joseph Carroll on Science and the Humanities


Let me begin with what I find commendable in David Sloan Wilson’s “The One Culture”: its irenic spirit.  He wants science and the humanities to cooperate in the study of human culture.  An advocate of science, in particular evolutionary theory, he acknowledges misuses of evolutionary theory and credits what traditional humanists have to say about culture, for instance, the work humanists “have done…on symbolic thought.”  I wish he had specified the misuses of evolutionary theory.  He is right to criticize contemporary practitioners of the humanities who dismiss the possibility of objective knowledge.  “Relativism becomes self-contradictory and useless when it denies the possibility of objective knowledge.”  I am a humanist, and not alone, in my belief in objective knowledge as necessary to the practice of both the sciences and humanities.

I’m not sure I understand Wilson’s advocacy of The One Culture.  It is a response to C.P Snow’s “Two Cultures.”  Snow’s target was literary culture, which he faulted for being ignorant of science and backward looking, a dubious generalization.  He was not, however, advocating The One Culture, whatever that means.  Does Wilson mean that humanists and scientists in their cooperative enterprises occupy a single culture and that there are no cultural differences between disciplines?  Or is he referring to the human culture being studied?  If so, why is the object of that study, as he claims, cultural diversity?  Wilson speaks of culture in the anthropological sense, certainly a long-standing, legitimate subject of scientific study without objection from humanists.  He cites the study of religion: “Religious beliefs and practices might be just as irrational and wasteful as they seem and persist as by products of psychological and social processes that are useful in non religious contexts.”  As he notes, this insight into the communal function of religion goes back to Emile Durkheim, who “posited” that “most enduring religions are useful in non religious contexts.”  Wilson reasonably views human development as the product of a dual inheritance, genetic and cultural.  Here he would be at odds with anthropologists (cultural constructivists) who insist on culture as the exclusive or primary cause.

Absent from Wilson’s discussion is Literary Darwinism, a discipline of evolutionary psychology that has as an object of study high literary culture. Here is where literary humanists put up resistance, but not necessarily because of hostility to scientific approaches to literature and the arts.  There are humanists who are hostile to science just as there are scientists who are hostile to the humanities.  I believe, however, that most humanists, and I count myself among them, who despite their limited knowledge of the sciences value science and the extraordinary accomplishments of scientists.  Where would we be without physics, chemistry and biology?  What I and fellow humanists resist is the imperial ambition of certain evolutionary psychologists and their followers, mostly in literary studies, to subsume the disciplines of the humanities under their conception of evolutionary theory.  We don’t foreclose the possibility of scientific contributions to an understanding of literature and the arts, but are repelled by the unearned judgment displayed, for example, in Joseph Carroll’s response to Wilson’s essay.  Where Wilson is respectful of the humanities in his attempt to bring science and the humanities together in joint enterprises, Carroll is contemptuous in his characterization of the semi-official creed of the humanities as irrationalist, anti-foundationalist, in effect reducing the richness and complexity of the humanist tradition to its perversion.  (As I have made clear elsewhere in my work, I am no admirer of the theoretical and ideological obsessions that occupy much of literary study these days.)   Unlike Wilson, Carroll doesn’t seem to envisage coexistence between disciplines.  Carroll goes on to say that “humanists will need to alter the fundamental features in the whole conceptual structure in which they operate,” assuming that there is a single structure and without specifying the single structure he has in mind.  There is no acknowledgment of the accomplishments of distinguished critics and scholars, past and present, who in different ways have illuminated individual works, genres and traditions: A.C. Bradley on Shakespeare, T. Eliot and formalist critics on the metaphysical poets, cultural critics such as Lionel Trilling and Raymond Williams on English social criticism of the nineteenth-century, Joseph Frank on Dostoevsky and Frank Kermode on a wide range of subjects.  These are examples of a much longer list. What evolutionary theory at the present time offers in the way of an understanding of literature and the arts is paltry by comparison.

In my book, Darwinian Misadventures in the Humanities (2007), I made the case against what passes for Literary Darwinism.  I cited vulgar versions, such as Steven Pinker’s characterization of the pleasures of literature as “mental cheesecake” and the even more egregious example of David and Nanelle Barash’s Madame Bovary’s Ovaries, in which the deep truth of Emma Bovary’s character is that she is a “horny woman.”  Carroll, to be sure, repudiates such commentary.  He has shown himself to be a competent critic in work on Matthew Arnold and Wallace Stevens.  Here is what I say of his discussion of Pride and Prejudice.  “He has sensible, though not particularly original things to say, which, one should note, do not depend on an application of evolutionary theory.  ‘Austen mocks false status—rank and wealth unsupported by education, wit, manner and character—but she ultimately affirms the authority of legitimate social status as that represented by the normative couple, Elizabeth and Darcy.’  Nor do we need evolutionary theory when he tells us that ‘irony is a fundamental and pervasive literary device designed for the purpose of detecting and exposing hypocrisy and deceit.’ It needs to be said that very little of the vitality and wit of Pride and Prejudice gets into Carroll’s account of the novel.  [His} complaint about traditional criticism, ‘which operates at the level of Austen’s own lexicon…is that it seeks no systematic reduction to simple principles that have large general validity.’ This hardly seems a deficiency.  The alternative that Carroll and his fellow Darwinists are proposing is the dissolution of the individuality of the work (the very reason we enjoy and value it) into a large generalization that removes all of its distinctive feature and vitality.” Without an understanding and appreciation of a writer’s lexicon, the experience of literature is lost. To which I would add: so-called traditional criticism does not eschew generalizations about genre, traditions and narrative.  At its best, what it tries to do is to make those generalizations illuminate the diversity of literary and artistic expression.  I would welcome large generalizations from evolutionary theory that would complement and illuminate literature and the arts, not simply serve the interests of the theory.

Carroll bitterly complains about the inhospitality of the Modern Languages Association to his campaign for Literary Darwinism, but he finds consolation in the prospect that his humanist adversaries will die.  Evolutionary theorists and humanists agree that sooner or later, we all die, Joseph Carroll as well as Eugene Goodheart.

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  1. Bernd Ehlert says:

    Eugene Goodheart wrote:
    “What I and fellow humanists resist is the imperial ambition of certain evolutionary psychologists and their followers, mostly in literary studies, to subsume the disciplines of the humanities under their conception of evolutionary theory.” 
    “I would welcome large generalizations from evolutionary theory that would complement and illuminate literature and the arts, not simply serve the interests of the theory.”

    Is it possible to achieve these aims? Yes – under a theory of the humanities! Konrad Lorenz did this.
    First, Lorenz identified the most familiar to us at neuron level as an evolutional effectual system analog to the genetic level: that of our language, in which we are consciously thinking as well. This information system on the neuronal level is able just like the genetic information system to acquire, store, modify and apply information for (cultural) evolution – but in several orders of magnitude more quickly and more efficiently as the genetic one. The way in which this neuronal information system creates and evolves culture is nothing other than our humans mind. For example the necessary adjustment of a behavior pattern to new living conditions (which can be done both genetically and neuronal), for which the old genetic system of information acquisition and processing needed centuries or even millennia under great physical struggle, suffering and death of countless thereby selected creatures, can be accomplished with the new evolutionary information system ideally within seconds, without requiring only the selection or the death of a single organism. Because here the information of the behavioral adaption actually at issue in evolution is present only in neuronal abstraction and not in the genome of living beings, that is, only neural abstractions get selected and no living beings. This new, neural carried evolution is therefore in regard of their mode of action literally what we call “human”. Man is conditioned by this new kind of evolution.
    From this point of view Lorenz defined the relationship between the genetic and the cultural by assuming a theory of philosopher Nicolai Hartmann, that of ‘strata of existence’. Here, the neuronal information system of man forms a separate strata within the four great strata of being: the Inorganic, the Organic, the Conscious [animal] and the Spiritual [human mind and culture with its own strata!]. In his book “Behind the mirror” chapter “3.2 Hartmann’s theory of ‘strata of existence'”. Lorenz cites Hartmann: “From stratum to stratum, passing across the successive divisions, we find everywhere this principle of dependence on the stratum below, yet at the same time the autonomy of the super­imposed stratum with its own structures and its own laws.” And he also cites him in violating the rules and laws of stratified being. This is the case when the base of the entire world picture is chosen on the level of conscious existence—on the level on which man experiences his own subjective life — and from there the principle is extended “downwards” to the lower level of reality.’ So the chemist Weidel attributed the faculty of subjective experience to iron atoms and this is also the case when the trait of selfishness which belongs to our strata is attributed to a gene.
    Likewise, a distortion of the phenomenal world results from transgressing the boundaries between levels of existence in the opposite direction. Lorenz writes that it is an act of metaphysical speculation when radical mechanicists attempt to explain everything that happens in this world on the basis of the categories and laws prevailing in classical mechanics which simply do not suffice for this undertaking. This also is the case when the laws of the underlying level are applied to human being, namely the genetic laws. To apply genetic laws from the animal level to the cultural level of human leads to Social Darwinism by definition, because, for example, genetic information and the behavioral patterns and character properties based on it are unchangeable during the individuell life, while the neuronal conditional properties can be changed at any time.
    These words illustrate that human mind and culture and therefore also the humanities have their own strata with their own laws, categories and autonomy above the animals and the genetic laws. If the strata of human mind and culture is not seen then mind and culture necessarily are deduced from the lower system, the genetic laws, and this would led “us so seriously astray”, according to the words of Lorenz.
    In this way the humanities have the real and eligible “imperial ambitions”, because they have to lead due to their nature. The humanities resp. their mind which is the new evolution in itself have to complement and illuminate how the genetic evolution fits to the human mind.