In the face of any looming apocalypse, imagined or not, prophets abound. For the literary academy, which has been imagining its own demise for almost as long as it has been around, prophets seem always to look to science, with its soothing specificity and concreteness. As the modern discipline of literary criticism was forming in the early 20th century, scholars concentrated their efforts on philology, a study that was thought to be more systematic than pure literary analysis. When the New Critics made their debut in the 1920s and 30s, their goal was to give a quasi-scientific rigor to literary theory: to lay out in detail the formal attributes of a “good poem” and provide guidance as to how exactly one discovered them. Later the Canadian critic Northrop Frye, in his 1957 Anatomy of Criticism, famously queried: “What if criticism is a science as well as an art?” And some of the poststructuralist thought that began to filter into America from France in the 1960s took as its bedrock linguistic and psychoanalytic theory.

But very few pro-science activists suggested that literary scholars should actually work the way scientists do, using such methods as accumulating data and forming and testing hypotheses. Even Frye argued that, while the critic should understand the natural sciences, “he need waste no time in emulating their methods. I understand there is a Ph.D. thesis somewhere which displays a list of Hardy’s novels in the order of the percentages of gloom they contain, but one does not feel that that sort of procedure should be encouraged.”

Over the last decade or so, however, a cadre of literary scholars has begun to encourage exactly that sort of procedure, and recently they have become very loud about it. The most prominent (at least in the nonacademic media) are the Literary Darwinists, whose work emphasizes the discovery of the evolutionary patterns of behavior within literary texts — the Iliad in terms of dominance and aggression, or Jane Austen in terms of mating rituals — and sets itself firmly against 30 years of what they see as anti-scientific literary theories like poststructuralism and Marxism. In the past few years, such critics have had the honor of a long, if quizzical, New York Times Magazine profile and, in May, a place on the Boston Globe’s Ideas page, where Jonathan A. Gottschall, a leading proponent of Literary Darwinism and an adjunct English professor at Washington and Jefferson College, explained why the approach is for him, as he says, “the way and the light.”

His comments have been receiving widespread attention in the blogosphere, perhaps because they touch a nerve: The idea that traditional literary studies are in decline, or already dead, is bandied about almost casually now. The symptoms are legion, from the discussion of books as an old technology to the tight job market and the increasing reliance on adjunct labor in the humanities. And, like Gottschall, many academics see literary theory as an alienating force that has driven students away from their disciplines, and splintered the disciplines to the point, sometimes, of outright war.

Nonetheless, many literary scholars are skeptical of the idea that Literary Darwinism will save their sector of the academy. And some of the strongest criticism comes from those you might think would be allies — other members of the loosely defined group of literary critics breaking new ground with studies that incorporate scientific theory and even, in a few cases, empirical method. Literary Darwinists are “a very small group of people that position themselves as martyrs for the cause … because they expect to be berated by everyone else in the field,” says Lisa Zunshine, an English professor at the University of Kentucky, who works with cognitive approaches to understanding literature. “But, in spite of the publicity that they’re getting, I don’t see that they’re actually attracting so many people.”

Britt Peterson
The Chronicle of Higher Education