A Darwinian Revolution in the Humanities


Impressionistically delineating intellectual change from Darwin’s time to our own, I compare poststructuralism with traditional humanism and set both in contrast to an evolutionary perspective on human nature. I also offer psychological and ideological explanations for the cultural constructivist fallacies that shaped thought in the humanities and social sciences through much of the twentieth century.


A Darwinian Revolution in the Humanities

Darwin’s Descent of Man fed into a larger stream of “naturalistic” thinking in the philosophy and literature of his time. In contrast to the naturalistic visions of philosophers such as Herbert Spencer and Friedrich Nietzsche, Darwin’s vision was grounded in careful reasoning about scientific evidence. He linked us with the other animals as no one had ever done before—logically, scientifically, in a cool and methodical spirit of disinterested inquiry. Though he included passages of grand rhetoric, his vision was not at heart rhetorical. Nor was it deeply inflected with any ideological animus. Over the period of a century and a half, these differences of intellectual quality have made a decisive difference in the magnitude and character of Darwin’s influence. Nietzsche, violent, ferocious, and never quite sane, has had his day. Spencer grows dusty on the shelves of antiquarian intellectual history. In our thinking on man’s place in nature, Darwin is closer to us now than he has ever been before.

On the Origin of Species had an almost immediate impact on biological science—on the recognition that species had evolved and had not just been “created” by divine fiat. Darwin’s theory about how species had evolved–by means of natural selection, through a process of adaptation—was suspended in controversy for another half century. The Modern Synthesis, integrating genetics with the theory of natural selection, settled that controversy. Though scientific judgment on Darwin’s explanation for the mechanism of evolution remained in suspense for decades, the idea of evolution itself—the idea of “descent with modification”—has shed a continuous light on our understanding of other species. The social sciences followed a very different trajectory. For them, the Darwinian dawn was like the light of a day in the far North, when the dawn and dusk have scarcely any time between them. Around the turn of the century, three great minds, those of John Dewey, William James, and Thorstein Veblen, caught something of Darwin’s illumination. In the second decade of the twentieth century, though, founding figures in the social sciences turned resolutely away from Darwin’s naturalistic vision of man’s place in nature. This is a story that has now often been told—how Durkheim, Kroeber, Lowie and others built the cultural box outside of which no one could think.[1] Humanity produces culture, they declared, and culture produces humanity. Until the latter part of the twentieth century, this vicious conceptual circle formed the boundary for most thinking in the social sciences.

In the magnificent conclusion to The Descent of Man, Darwin evoked and affirmed the nobility of the human mind—the “god-like intellect” that has “penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system.” Darwin would perhaps have been surprised at the extent to which this god-like mind bears within itself the power to be vastly clever in supporting the flimsiest possible ideas. Why did humans, so far along the way in their descent from their “lowly origins,” descend to folly like that of the culturalist circle? How could intelligent people ever have convinced themselves that humans hold themselves up in mid-air, creating cultures out of nothing? Pride, for one thing. If we create culture, and culture creates us, then we create ourselves. Milton’s Satan would have understood something of the psychological impulse behind the culturalist theory, and all the more once he discovered, as Nietzsche would have explained to him, that God was dead. With God out of the picture, humans had no choice but to take responsibility for making their own world.

Pride and a sense of ethical responsibility are both real motives, but to make a theory plausible, one needs more than motive. A theory is plausible, on some level, because it appeals to our sense of reality, however fanciful that sense might be. One reality supporting the notion that culture makes human nature is that we do, in fact, live in the imagination. “A fictive covering / Weaves always glistening from the heart and mind.” That’s a poet talking, Wallace Stevens (342). Poets have a vested interest in the imagination, but then, in that respect, they are only human. Humans are very strange and unusual animals. Like other animals, they are driven by their passions, prompted by their instincts, goaded by their physical needs. Unlike other animals, though, they create imagined worlds and live in them. We know the world is real, and physical, and yet the real physical world for us is always mediated by images and beliefs, dreams and fantasies, ghosts and demons. We have believed in some very strange things–for instance, in the immortality of the soul, the geocentric universe, and the freedom of the will. Is it any wonder, then, that we should look to culture, the fabrications of our minds, and believe, in our simplicity, that culture contains nature?

The culturalist beliefs that ruled the social sciences through most of the twentieth century were not, in the first place, convictions founded on reason and evidence. They were part of an ideology. It is the nature of an ideology fundamentally to subordinate truth to value. Religions are in this respect ideologies, also. Marxism, with all its panoply of science and its plausible appeal to socioeconomic causality, is still an ideology. Veblen saw into the quasi-religious character of the Marxist historical vision (409-30). He saw that the Marxist vision is teleological. It is an imaginative, emotional belief in a transcendent force of progress driving toward an ultimate ideal condition, a consummation of history, the final harmonious concord. That ultimate ideal condition consists in brotherhood and cooperation, a social order based on justice and equity. The Marxist state would be a world constructed in concord with our own purposes and ideals.

We can regard the twentieth century as an empirical test for the hypothesis that we could construct a world on this plan alone–posing an ideal social order and building social structures that reflect that ideal. It was an experiment, and the experiment failed. Ideals alone are not a sufficient basis on which to construct a social order. We also have to take account of human nature. What Darwin knew, and what we have now once again begun to realize, is that human nature makes culture. We can still erect ideals and live by them. We can construct social policies that reflect our sense of justice and decency. But we can’t do it effectively unless we take account of the materials with which we have to work. Social institutions are made out of people. People are made out of human nature. Understanding human nature—really getting down to the details in neurology, anatomy, physiology, hormones, and behavioral dispositions encoded in genes—that is the only chance we have of constructing social systems that do not blow up in our faces.

Over the past thirty years or so, we have finally started to come to terms with human nature. Edward O. Wilson’s Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, published in 1975, is a historical landmark. We can trace an imaginative arc from the final paragraph of The Descent of Man to the final chapter of Sociobiology–the chapter on human nature. Both Darwin and Wilson have the larger vision of man’s place in nature. More than any other single work, the final chapter of Wilson’s book set off the sociobiological revolution in the social sciences. That revolution is now entering a mature phase. All its subsidiary disciplines and schools–behavioral ecology, human ethology, evolutionary psychology, Darwinian anthropology, behavioral genetics, cognitive neuroscience, and the rest—form part of a new paradigm that is becoming ever more firmly established. If it is true, as Dobzhansky famously said, that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution, it is equally true that nothing in human behavior makes sense except in the light of sociobiology. That is the larger vision and the larger logic. For the details, one can look readily to excellent popular accounts, now multiplying on an almost daily basis, to books by Matt Ridley, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, David Buss, David Sloan Wilson, Frans de Waal, and many others. For slower going, but more massive confirmation, one can look at handbooks like the Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, edited by David Buss, and The Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, edited by Robin Dunbar and Louise Barrett.

For the past thirty years or so, while the social sciences were going through a Darwinian revolution, the humanities have been running in an almost exactly opposite direction. While scientists concerned with human behavior have been recognizing that human culture is shaped and constrained by an evolved and adapted human nature, the humanities have been proclaiming, flamboyantly but with a virtuoso skill in sophistical equivocation, that the world is made of words–“discourse,” “rhetoric.” This too was a revolution–a breaking free from nature and reality, a last euphoric fling into the vanities of imagination. “There is no outside the text.” So Derrida told us (158). Humans did not exist either as individuals or as a species before we thought of them in that way. So Barthes and Foucault told us. Gender is purely a social construct. So a whole generation has told us. None of it was true. Such things are still often said, in a tired and routine way, but deep down, nobody has every thoroughly believed them. We all wake up at some point and feel the massive, overwhelming reality of our own biological existence in a physical world. Just step off a curb, in a moment of distraction, get brushed by two tons of metal moving at high speed, and you will have an instantaneous, spontaneous conviction that there is indeed a world outside the text.

God died a lingering death in the nineteenth century. The fundamentalists will tell us that reports of His death, like that of Mark Twain, have been greatly exaggerated. But really, there has been no exaggeration. Three or four centuries ago, the most serious thinkers could still easily envision their conceptual constructs as emanations within a divine creation. Not now. Theology is a side-show at best, and the main intellectual show goes on without any reference at all to transcendent powers. Even the Marxist sublimations of the transcendental spirit in History have now ceased to sway the minds of most serious thinkers. Looked at on an evolutionary scale, the disappearance of divinity from the world has been instantaneous. Looked at on the scale of cultural history, the transition has been more gradual, with many an eddy in intellectual backwaters. During the later parts of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, the humanities have been one such backwater. Matthew Arnold, one of the last great Victorian Men of Letters, saw clearly the fading of the divine light. For him, it was a sad change, a disenchantment. In compassion to himself and his fellows, he suggested a substitute for the romance of religion. He said that the most active parts of religion were morality and poetry, morality lit up by the enchantments of poetry. In the future, he said, poetry would be our new religion. It would be the channel of the transcendent human spirit (63). Hard to believe now. I mean, it is hard now to believe that anyone ever believed that. But Arnold’s essays on religion sold phenomenally well on both sides of the Atlantic, and the Arnoldian religion of poetry and culture were central animating forces in the humanities well into the third quarter of the twentieth century. The New Critics, as they were called in the forties and fifties and sixties, were for the most part both Christians and adherents of the Arnoldian religion of culture. The greatest theoretical mind in literary study in the middle of the twentieth century was that of Northrop Frye, author of Anatomy of Criticism, and Frye was both a Christian minister and a Romantic mystic. Most of all, he was a proponent of Culture, in the Arnoldian sense. He believed that the total order of literary words represent an embodiment of the mind of God.

For the first six decades of the twentieth century, the humanities were the chief refuge of mystical fervor in the world of intellect. Then, a revolution took place. If Marx turned Hegel on his head, Derrida turned Frye on his. Frye looked to literature for a spiritual plenitude, and Derrida flipped that vision over into nihilistic vacancy. Endless “deferral” took the place of an ultimate consummation. Derrida often proclaimed the world-historical, apocalyptic character of his vision, and many literary theorists shared in this giddy delusion. Looking back now, both of these visionary phases seem outlandish and a little absurd. The mystical illuminations of Arnoldian humanism were afterglows of a lost cause, and the epochal inversions of deconstruction were baubles of a metaphysical rhetoric more suitable to the thirteenth century than to the twentieth.

For the past fifteen years or so, a counter-revolution has been taking place in the humanities, and especially in literary studies (Carroll, “Evolutionary Paradigm”). The revolutionists are the “literary Darwinists” or “evolutionary literary critics.” They took to heart the vision of The Descent of Man and Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Following Darwin, they saw that “man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin” (2: 405). Like Darwin, they recognized that stamp not only in the human body but also in the human mind. They felt the charm in the very title of the seminal volume in evolutionary psychology, The Adapted Mind, and they rallied to the cry for intellectual unification in Wilson’s Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge.

I think it fairly safe to predict that the profession of literary scholarship will eventually, necessarily, be encompassed within the wider world of naturalistic knowledge. The humanities will not be able to sustain much longer the idea of a world made out of words, either in the mystical version represented by Frye or in the nihilistic version represented by Derrida. The heyday of deconstruction was astonishingly brief—a delirium that swept through English departments, infected almost everyone, and then suddenly departed, supplanted by the political criticism of Foucault and company. Literary study has to have substance. It has to deal with human realities, with psychological impulses and social forces. Derridean word play offered too thin an atmosphere in which to breathe. Deconstruction left behind merely a spirit of subversion and a mystified belief in the transcendent reality of “discourse.” The substance of discourse was filled in by Althusserian Marxism, Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, and the brooding Foucauldian preoccupation with social “power.” For the past two or three decades, that theoretical swirl has been the medium of mainstream thought in the humanities. It cannot last. The Marxists are social theorists, and the Lacanians are psychologists. The forms of psychology and social theory now propounded in the humanities cannot compete effectively with the forms available in evolutionary social science.

In their dependence on jargonized speculative fantasies, the humanities have drifted off into an intellectual third-world. That will have to change, and is already changing. The humanities are in crisis and know it. The titles of edited volumes and special issues of journals tell the tale. People in the humanities are not unintelligent. They have simply been trapped in local currents of intellectual history. At some point in the not too distant future, the sheer embarrassment of being unable to contribute in any useful way to the serious world of adult knowledge will, I think, have a decisive effect in reorienting the discipline. At the end of Evolution and Literary Theory, I said, “whatever happens within the critical institution as a whole, the pursuit of positive knowledge is available to anyone who desires it. Within this pursuit, the opportunities for real and substantial development in our scientific understanding of culture and literature are now greater than they have ever been before.” That was in 1995. Since then, the opportunities have only grown larger.


Arnold, Matthew. The Complete Prose Works of Matthew Arnold. Ed. R. H. Super. Vol. 9, English Literature and Irish Politics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972.

Brown, Donald. Human Universals. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1991.

Buss, David M., ed. The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2005.

Carroll, Joseph. “An Evolutionary Paradigm for Literary Study.” Style 42 (2008): 103-35.

—. Evolution and Literary Theory. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1995.

Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. 1871. Ed. John Tyler Bonner and Robert M. May. 2 Vols. in 1. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1981.

Degler, Carl N. In Search of Human Nature: The Decline and Revival of Darwinism in American Social Thought. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.

Dobzhansky, Theodosius. “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.” American Biology Teacher 35 (1973): 125-29.

Dunbar, Robin, and Louise Barrett, eds. Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007.

Fox, Robin. The Search for Society: Quest for a Biosocial Science and Morality. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1989.

Freeman, Derek. The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of Her Samoan Research. Boulder, CO.: Westview, 1999.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1957.

Pinker, Steven. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Viking, 2002.

Plotkin, Henry. Evolutionary Thought in Psychology: A Brief History. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.

Stevens, Wallace. Collected Poetry and Prose. Ed. Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson. New York: Library of America, 1997.

Tooby, John, and Leda Cosmides. “The Psychological Foundations of Culture.” The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. Ed. Jerome Barkow, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby. New York: Oxford UP, 1992. 19-136.

Veblen, Thorstein. The Place of Science in Modern Civilization. 1919. Reprint, with a new introduction by Warren J. Samuels, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1990.

Wilson, Edward O. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. New York: Knopf, 1998.

—. Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2000.

[1] See Brown 1-38; Degler; Fox 53-105; Freeman 17-27; Pinker; Plotkin; and Tooby and Cosmides 28.

This entry was posted in Articles. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
  • Pages

  • Categories

  • Issues