Social Evolution Forum
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The Gap between the Humanities and the Sciences

Like David, I have long campaigned for closing the divide between the humanities and the sciences. And like David, I think that evolutionary biology should be the main bridge between them. To my eye, though, the gap between the sciences and the humanities is deeper and wider than it appears in David’s account. I agree that humanists and evolutionists both will need to adjust their world views, but the evolutionists need only refine and expand on ideas that are already, in principle, congenial to them. The humanists will need to alter fundamental features in the whole conceptual structure in which they operate. It is not a task they are evidently willing to undertake. Many are not merely ignorant of the grand vista opened up by a biologically grounded understanding of literature, the arts, and culture. They are actively hostile to evolutionary study in the humanities, and determined to resist. (For salient instances of that resistance, see Richardson 2004; Menand 2005; Dawson 2006; Goodheart 2007; Peterson 2008; Deresiewicz 2009; Levine 2009;  Kramnick 2011; Fletcher 2014.)

David draws an analogy between Darwin’s relation to the naturalists of his day and the One Culture’s relation to humanist scholars in our own time. The naturalists were collectors and describers, David argues, and Darwin provided an explanatory structure identifying causal linkages among the objects of their study—beetles, bones, and birds, fungi, fireflies, and foxes. Humanists, like the naturalists, David suggests, have been busily engaged in theory-free description of local cultural objects: religions, literary texts, musical traditions, artistic forms. What David says about the naturalists is more or less correct. The parallel breaks down, though, with the humanists. Before the poststructuralist revolution of the eighties—often designated “the Theory Revolution”—many humanists were collectors and describers, but they also participated, however unconsciously, in the innate dualism that Paul Bloom and others have identified as a species-typical characteristic of the human mind. Those old humanists regarded the physical world as, well, physical, and the proper province of scientific study. Literature, religion, the arts and often history, in contrast, they regarded as spiritual, or at least as cultural; they believed, intuitively but nonetheless passionately, that the subjects of the humanities are made of some mentalistic stuff different from the stuff of the physical world—ontologically, metaphysically, and epistemologically different, qualitatively and irreducibly different. Northrop Frye was the most important systematizing literary theorist of the humanist period in the middle of the previous century. Frye said that what literary theory needed was a grand organizing theoretical idea parallel to the idea Darwin provided for evolutionary biology, and in The Anatomy of Criticism, Frye set out to provide that idea—parallel to evolution, but only parallel; two parallel lines that intersected only in the ultimate spiritual reality, a curious realm in which the sum of all literary words constituted the mind of God, and in which the spiritual forces underlying the physical world subsumed and subordinated all merely physical causes like those identified in Darwin’s theory.

The old-fashioned humanists were not naturalists. They were dualists, and if pushed hard toward monism, they flipped into the dominance of the mind, or spirit, or culture, over matter. That is for instance the opinion of Robert Scholes, a former president of the Modern Language Association of America (the umbrella organization for academic literary scholars). “Yes, we were natural for eons before we were cultural . . . but so what? We are cultural now, and culture is the domain of the humanities” (2006).  (Joe Henrich, by the way, sometimes sounds as if he is singing Scholes’s song about how we are cultural now. At other times, he sings the song of gene-culture coevolution, a very different tune, set to a different beat.)

That’s for the old humanists. The Theory People, the people who have dominated the humanities for the past forty years (and have occupied much of the territory of anthropology, also), can even less plausibly be likened to the naturalists of Darwin’s day. The Theory People have theories, lots of them: Derridean deconstruction, Freudian psychoanalysis, Marxist sociology, feminist gender theory, most prominently, and they also have One Theory to Rule Them All: Foucauldian Cultural Critique. David just touches on the issue of irrationalist relativism in the humanities. Derridean deconstruction is overtly and flamboyantly irrationalist, and it remains at the foundation of the anti-foundationalist and anti-science rhetoric that is now part of the semi-official creed of the humanities.

David seems to suggest that there are no actual, real differences between the sciences and the humanities, only ignorance and misunderstanding, failures of communication, unnecessary mistrust. I think differently. The humanities now cling passionately to a set of ideas that are incompatible with evolutionary thinking, ideas that cannot just be tweaked or supplemented to bring them in line with gene-culture coevolution or biocultural critique, ideas that are fundamentally irreconcilable with any claim to the causal primacy of evolutionary processes in the development of human motives, emotions, and forms of cognition.

Do humans have a nature, a species-typical set of characteristics that are innate, universal, that have evolved in an adaptive relationship to the environment, and that form an underlying unity for all diversity in culture and individual behavior? Are male and female gender identities in humans fundamentally constrained by genetically encoded behavioral dispositions mediated by anatomy, hormones, and physiology? Is the human life cycle, with its phases and functions, regulated by a species-wide set of genetically encoded features derived ultimately from inclusive fitness? Go to an MLA convention, with its thousands of members milling about in fine tweed among multiple convention hotels, occupy a plenary podium, and ask for a voice vote of the assembled body on questions such as these. What kind of answer do you think you will get? I’ve been there, and asked such questions. For me, the only question about the answer is whether it will be voiced in dogmatic formulas of negation, or instead, will voice itself in inarticulate howls of rage and horror.

No, David, evolutionary biology is not only about the study of biological diversity. It is also about the evolutionary processes underlying all life forms. In the conclusion to the Origin of Species, Darwin makes the obvious point: “all living things have much in common, in their chemical composition, their germinal vesicles, their cellular structure, and their laws of growth and reproduction.” And no, consilience or the One Culture is not concerned solely with cultural diversity. It is concerned also with the universal aspects of human experience, with what Don Brown calls “the universal people.”

There is indeed a Grand Narrative, a true narrative, an evolutionary narrative. We have not yet completed it. Many evolutionary human scientists cordon off all of imaginative culture—religion, ideology, the arts—as something separate from basic human nature. That’s a mistake, but it is a correctable mistake. Go to a conference of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, occupy a plenary podium, and ask for a voice vote: how many of you believe that manifest human behavior is purely a product of genes, with no causal component from culture? I think you’d hear not a single timorous voice raised in support of that proposition. That’s what I mean by the greater adjustment necessary from the side of the humanities. In theory, at least, evolutionists are virtually all bioculturalists. In both theory and practice, the overwhelming majority of humanists at the present time are pure cultural constructivists. They probably will never change their minds. But eventually they will die. If a few graduate programs open up allowing students to be educated in biocultural thinking, eventually, the appeal of true knowledge, the actual scientific Grand Narrative, will come to dominate the humanities. It will probably take a long time. My own view is that the time will not be shortened by transparent efforts at papering over the reality of the irreconcilable antagonism between biocultural theory and pure cultural constructivism.

Meanwhile, what is to be done? Biocultural theorists have plenty of good work to do. Gene-culture coevolution, after languishing for two decades from its inception with Lumsden and Wilson in the early eighties, is now rapidly gaining power and momentum. Scholars and scientists like Peter Turchin, Greg Cochran, Henry Harpending, Gregory Clark, Francis Fukuyama, and Nicholas Wade have begun to make real inroads into post-agricultural political and social history. Despite adverse institutional conditions, evolutionary humanists have published a few dozen books and something like 300 articles and book chapters. Some scholars are actively working to create consilience, with interdisciplinary conferences and edited volumes, and indeed, with This View of Life.  Then, too, there is the new journal, Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture.

The new journal could and should be a means of establishing a body of common knowledge and a standard for what counts as informed commentary on imaginative culture. It can provide a habitation and a name for a subject area that most people don’t quite realize is there. Imaginative culture, as conceived in this journal, includes religion, ideology, music, painting dance, literature, film, graphic arts, and popular culture. Most people don’t tend to think of all those areas as part of one big area. The journal will provide a gathering ground for evolutionary research in all these fields; it will be a place to go for interdisciplinary evolutionary scholars who need to be informed about all the work done in specialist fields adjacent to their own. And it will carry the implicit message that imaginative culture does exist. Simply establishing that it exists ought to make it more obviously a legitimate subject of inquiry from within the empirical sciences as well as the humanities.

The journal can’t provide graduate programs or academic jobs for those younger scholars brave and resolute enough to venture out into the abyss that opens up between the fortified bastions of the two cultures. But it will at least provide a venue for publication. I sometimes look into the abyss, staring into its depths, and feel grim. But then, I remember, the Berlin Wall, which fell so suddenly and unexpectedly. There’s hope. In any case, at whatever speed institutional change might occur, those of us lucky enough to have jobs are also lucky in our historical moment. We have a true paradigm in which to work, a legitimate research program, an achieved body of knowledge on which to build, a sense of mission, a community of collective effort, and rich discoveries awaiting us.


Dawson, G. (2006). Literature and science under the microscope. Journal of Victorian Culture, 11(2), 301-315. doi:10.3366/jvc.2006.11.2.301

Deresiewicz, W. (2009, June 8). Adaptation: On literary Darwinism. Nation, 26-31.

Fletcher, A. (2014). Another literary Darwinism. Critical Inquiry, 40(2), 450-469. doi:10.1086/674126

Goodheart, E. (2007). Darwinian misadventures in the humanities. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

Kramnick, J. (2011). Against literary Darwinism. Critical Inquiry, 37(2), 315-347.

Levine, G. L. (2009). Reflections on Darwin and Darwinizing. Victorian Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Social, Political, and Cultural Studies, 51(2), 223-245.

Menand, L. (2005). Dangers within and without. In R. G. Feal (Ed.), Profession 2005 (pp. 10-17). New York: Modern Language Association of America.

Peterson, B. (2008, August 1). Darwin to the rescue. Chronicle of Higher Education, 54, B7-B9.

Richardson, A. (2004). Studies in literature and cognition: A field map. In E. Spolsky & R. C. Richardson (Eds.), The Work of Fiction: Cognition, Culture, and Complexity (pp. 1-29). Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

Scholes, R. (2006). Reply. PMLA, 121(1), 297-298.

Read Joseph Carrol’s recent interview with David Sloan Wilson, which includes details on his new book “Darwin’s Bridge: Uniting the Humanities and the Sciences“.


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