From edition

Review of Jonathan Gottschall's Literature, Science, and a New Humanities

Book under Review:

Literature, Science, and a New Humanities, by Jonathan Gottschall. N.Y.: Palgrave Macmillian, 2008.  xvi + 217 pp.


Gottschall aims to connect two undeniable patterns in contemporary literary intellectual life: the slow decline into seeming irrelevancy of much of the humanities and the inexorable growing into cognitive dominance of the sciences, physical, biological, and social. Why? Because until recently, most  literary academics have seen themselves not as knowledge generators but as “knowledge dissolvers whose acid was perfect skepticism.” Counter-responses to corrosive skepticism include “consilient understanding” and the tool of quantitative methodology to address important questions not yet even dreamed of, much less answered.


Review of Jonathan Gottschall’s Literature, Science, and a New Humanities

Jonathan Gottschall’s recent work reports on parts of several major research projects that he developed during this last decade (cf. Gottschall, 2008; Carroll, 2004; 2008). He makes his case in two sections. In his introduction, he aims to connect two undeniable patterns in our literary intellectual life: the slow decline into seeming irrelevance of the humanities and the inexorable advance of the sciences into cognitive dominance—physical, biological, and social. Gottschall asks a simple question: “What exactly are the sciences doing so right that we [in the humanities] are doing so wrong?” Gottschall’s aim is not to make pseudo-scientists of all of us in the humanities. He is merely “pointing out that the sciences are doing many things better than we are, and that we can gain from studying their successes without degrading any of the things that make literature special” (xii).

Once he has posed his question, can “we emulate them”? Gottschall’s disputants might slip in a follow-up: “should we emulate the sciences, and if so why?” His answer “identifies deep, elementary weaknesses in the theories that guide literary investigation, in the methods used to explore and validate hypotheses, and in certain prominent attitudinal constellations” (3). So, from the start we are in what many literary people consider alien territory, where words like “hypotheses,” and “validate” have been rarely spoken, until very recently, in the polite company of criticism. Gottschall sees the change clearly, from “drawing room natter about stories and poems” to what he calls the “denaturalization” of literary study, where critics, following the disruption of the Vietnamese war and the student uprisings responding to it, transformed everything hitherto considered “natural”–“gender roles, sexual orientation, suites of attitudes, ideologies, and norms”—into the “local, contingent, and endlessly malleable outgrowths of historical and social forces” (4). Such transformative ideas about the limitations of “privileged men of Western European descent”—a “rebuke to the ivory tower fuddy-duddyism of [earlier] historical, philological, and formalist scholars”—made “objectivity “just a synonym for white male subjectivity.” Psychoanalytic and structuralism dreams “of establishing a science of the literary” were repudiated and the various schools of critical thought—“Marxist, postcolonial, post-structuralist, new historical, queer, feminist, and [of course] psychoanalytic approaches became “zones of pure and often bitter fracas—a zone of faction and fission where aggressive thinkers [vied] tireless for dominance of message” (5).

In the last decade or so, Gottschall sees that this movement in “liberatory scholarship has finally exhausted its force, but there remains a “nervous sense that the prime tenets of post-structuralism—which once seemed startlingly radical—amount to endlessly rococo embellishments of a great banality: we can’t be sure of anything” (6). With the force of the “dominant paradigm,” (aka “theory”) spent, we literary people are “urgently in need of a massive intellectual over-seeding, if not a total break with the old modes” (6). But, while the need is clearly there, those “dissatisfied with contemporary critical theory” have not yet “espoused a new vision that matches the force of their critiques or the attractions of the status quo” (6). However, critical dithering is more the norm than not and has been this way since the ancient Greeks. Gottschall thinks that “literary scholars only rarely succeed in accumulating more reliable and durable knowledge” and so in literary studies “we have only argument and counter-argument. Often these arguments settle on `permanent questions’ that have been in place, more or less, from the earliest beginnings” (7).

By contrast “science can achieve understandings” that are so theoretically and empirically so robust that all reasonable people must provisionally operate on the assumption that the explanation is correct” (8). Why is science so “correct”? Because those in the humanities have “not developed ways of putting our ideas to rigorous tests” where such tests—“ the core of scientific methodology—seek to limit the scope for various forms of bias (subjectivity, selection, confirmation, and so on) to distort human perception.” In short, Gottschall “is saying that literary study is not a scientific field” (9). Indeed, at some point in the last several decades, “literary academics began seeing themselves not as knowledge generators but as uncompromising knowledge dissolvers whose acid was perfect skepticism” (10). And while science “makes no ultimate claims,” its community can, “through a gradual process of rational thinking and falsifying tests . . . show where the preponderance of evidence lies. This is the best that humans can do and this is no small thing” (11).

Gottschall here distinguishes his proposal for a scientific study of literature from earlier suggestions (like C.P. Snow’s) by including three different elements: he will 1) “describe an approach that is based on scientific theory and grounded, ultimately, in the bedrock of evolution by natural selection”; 2) call for a much more vigorous branch of literary research based on the scientific method” (meaning statistical inferences and experiments) and actually get “literary scholars” “to do science”; 3) “propose important adjustments in governing attitudes” in order for 1) and 2) above to take hold (13). Accordingly, while Part I specifies his theories, methods, and attitudinal changes hoped for, he employs the four chapters in Part II to illustrate not merely the questions posed but their methods. Each chapter is based upon a “multiple-coder content analysis (two of which were computer-facilitated) of large and cross-culturally diverse samples of world folk tales” (13). His goal? Gottschall wants “to gather data capable of empirically testing prominent hypotheses at the nexus of literary study and evolutionary science” (13).

His theories have evolved over the last few years (cf. Literary Animal; Rape of Troy), but I will start with the issue of Style (42.2 & 42.3, Summer/Fall 2008) devoted to An Evolutionary Paradigm for Literary Study. Gottschall was a contributor (186-91) and claims, along with his sometime collaborator, Joseph Carroll (guest editor of the issue), that “the ultimate test of a literary paradigm is whether or not it succeeds in making a durable contribution to the sum of human understanding” (“What are”, 187). One of the primary exemplars of “durable” ideas is the conviction by those “who study human behavior from an evolutionary point of view” that “human minds, just like human bodies, were shaped by the process of natural selection; psychology evolved” (26). Since this part of Gottschall’s thinking has been previously discussed, both in the Style issue and in his other books (see my review of Rape of Troy, 2008), I will not repeat it here but merely note his oft-repeated argument: the “paramount advantage of anchoring literary theory in consilient understanding” is that “theory must update itself based on clear shifts in the preponderance of evidence” (41). Such a limber and self-correcting paradigm would indeed be something new under the sun—assuming that the practitioners of literary criticism were themselves accustomed to freely dancing with new ideas. The way to the dance lies, however, in a reconsideration of method.

Gottschall begins his discussion of Methods by reciting some now familiar ground to those who know his and Joe Carroll’s earlier work: dominant liberationist scholars have been enthralled with a “critical theory” that has predicted a nearly limitless capacity of the “social factor to dominate – to mold and manipulate “the biological factor” where their idea of “social conditioning” has merely “diaphanous ties to evolved biology” (18). Hence while “literary scholars are often dismissive of `right’ and `wrong,’ ‘true’ and `false,’ most of [their] theories have been thoroughly discredited” and this is a FACT (he uses Stephen Jay Gould’s idea here) because [their lack of validity] is “confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional consent” (19). And, as Joseph Carroll has argued, to the resentment of traditional scholars, scholarship “built on unsound theoretical foundations—on essentially faulty premises about human tendencies and potentials—must itself be unsound, no matter how internally self-consistent” it might seem (19). Carroll offers psychoanalysis as a salient example.

The work of liberatory “literary scholars has been hounded, above all by one enormous, methodological obstacle”—the confirmation bias. That is, the “confirmation bias is the tendency to find (or unconsciously manufacture) evidence that confirms what one already believes” (46). Gottschall is convinced that “if the community of literary scholars will make limited and judicious use of quantitative methodology, it will experience the same benefits that have accrued to other human-related fields”: discovery of “important things about literature “ previously “unknown or unsuspected” (50). A bit later in this review, I want to explore further this idea of quantitative methodology, which is, I believe, Gottschall’s major contribution to literary theory, but for the moment, I want to discuss a few of his other concepts.

Among these is literary study’s “attitude,” an “ideological homogeneity” and “intolerance for dissent” that builds in “vulnerabilities to groupthink” that possesses “none of the checks on shoddy thinking that come with rich intellectual and political diversity” (70). Gottschall considers what he calls a “bitterly contentious question”: why is “the political profile of humanists so low when its whole direction—almost its whole purpose—has been engagement with [culture’s] thorniest . . . problems” (73)? This profile is in contrast to that of the sciences, where “the scientific passion [is] the sheer desire to see things as they are” (74). His answer: because “most people (excluding many liberationist scholars) trust that science gives us the most reliable information humans are capable of producing” (74). Hence, literary scholars must find a way to do a better job of exploring” all cultural questions, especially those with “direct political implications” in a reasonably “disinterested fashion” (74). “Disinterested” is of course one of Matthew Arnold’s  key terms. Gottschall is “arguing for a massive restructuring of literary analysis and for fundamental changes in how scholars do their work” (75). Is the work of literary scholarship important? Gottschall emphatically says yes: it matters “whether we are right or wrong about in the strong claims of fact we regularly make about the nature of gender, sexuality, human competitive tendencies, ethnocentrism, language, oppression, and so on.” With “improved disciplinary foundations,” we can do a “much better job of shrinking the space of possible explanations” (79). However, before we can “change who we are, we must first understand what we are and how we got this way” (81).

Partial, and very interesting, answers to these questions are the topics of Part II. In this second section of a brief (217 pp.) book, Gottschall uses empirical tools to examine four commonly discussed topics in literary study: Chapter four examines the “Heroine with a Thousand Faces: Universal Trends in the Characterization of Female Folktale Protagonists.” Chapter five is about “Testing Feminist Fairy Tale Studies; Chapter six argues, with empirical evidence, that the “Beauty Myth” is no myth; and Chapter seven asks if “Romantic Love” is a “Literary Universal.” Gottschall’s investigations are fascinating because, to start with the “beauty myth,” there are few “systematic cross-cultural” studies of this topic, and that means, up to now, “we do not know whether or not female attractiveness receives more emphasis cross culturally” (123). Another example: Gottschall says that a “successful case for love’s universality would also seem to require solid cross cultural studies that disproved the standard social constructivist argument that romantic love is absent in a large number of cultures” (159). In both cases, to be brief, he uses cross-cultural statistical analyses, discusses both the strengths and weaknesses of his data collection methods and analytic procedures, and argues, tentatively based on his methods, that yes, in his sample, there was “a consistent pattern of preponderant emphasis on female attractiveness” (147), and interestingly, “while the components of romantic love exist across the planet, the integration of these components into a complex whole is a distinctive Western achievement” (emphasis in the original, 168).

Hence, for literary scholars to follow in Gottschall’s footsteps, they must adapt and add to their literary studies the use of empirical methods and statistical analysis. To my mind, this will be the most controversial and dramatic call to action in his book. As one who has himself struggled with graduate courses in stats after years of math no more complex than check book balancing, I can hear many members of the MLA shaking their heads at such a utopian proposal. However, in a discipline as conservative as literary study, change comes slowly and is often forced from the outside (witness any copy of PMLA prior to, say 1960, as one looks almost in vain for literary criticism about African-American, Gay, or feminist writers). So, given American culture’s decline in book sales, in jobs for literature Ph.D.s, and book cultural energy generally, the time may be ripe for dramatic changes in both the education of future literary scholars and critics, and their mentor’s scholarly investigative behaviors. We must do something or we shall likely phase out of cultural consciousness as the classics did in American universities between 1890 and 1930. One only need look at the popularity of Franco Moretti’s book, Graphs, Map, Trees to see how fascinating, empirically-based criticism can be.

It is interesting to note that what I would call math anemia may be generally questioned, not only in literary study, but in other domains as well. In a recent issue of the flagship journal in psychology, the American Psychologist (64.1 Jan 2009), for example, see where Herbert Zimiles, in his piece in the journal’s Comment section, “Ramifications of Increased Training in Quantitative Methodology” (51), asks many of the same questions of psychology training programs that a literary person more curious than antagonistic would ask Gottschall. These include: 1) “What proportion of a graduate student’s energy and time should be given over to acquiring this non-substantive, ancillary body of knowledge? Zimiles claims that such study poses “novel cognitive demands” and “intense and prolonged study” that “threatens to crowd out opportunities to explore and deepen interests in more substantive areas.” 2) “How will such expanded instruction affect the nature and content of research?” In what others have called the “tyranny of the tool,” Zimiles speculates that tools “acquired at great expense” may result in novice scholars drifting “towards activities and projects that allow one to use these valued tools even when there is other work to be done.” And finally, in a question particularly relevant to literary people in the moment, 3) to “what extent does the increasing reliance on sophisticated quantitative analysis and methods serve as a gate-keeping force that backfires by selectively discouraging and excluding students who do not fit this mode of inquiry?”

The very next Comment answers or contextualizes most of these questions and so will prove illuminating for skeptics of Gottschall’s proposed changes in literary study. The three authors, Leona S. Aiken, Stephan G. West, and Roger E. Millsap, in their “Improved Training in Methodology Enriches the Science of Psychology” (51-2), report the results of an “extensive survey of quantitative training in all Ph.D. programs in North America.” They respond to Zimiles’s “three thoughtful questions” (all three authors, and Zimiles, teach and do research at Arizona State University), and report their results in the following ways: 1) “Quantitative methodology is most efficiently learned in the classroom” and should be made relevant “through selection of topics appropriate to students’ substantive interests” (52). I might add, however, that in the discipline of psychology, statistics is far more commonly studied than in literary study, and that Gottschall’s major point is to add some diversity to the researcher’s toolkit. 2) “A solid foundation in methodology leads to the simplest approach that will provide good answers to a research question.” Most importantly, what “the discipline of psychology values as important questions conditions the use of new methodologies and thus the need for quantitative training, not the converse.” Again, Gottschall’s major argument suggests that may be a substantial number of important questions (like those Moretti has investigated) which have not even been dreamed of, much less answered, because of the smallish set of tools in the average literary critic’s toolbox. Finally, 3) the authors do not deny that “methodology in psychology grows in complexity, as it does in [their] sister social, biological, and physical sciences, and in engineering. So must the mastery of methodology lest we stagnate as a science” (52).

We now complete the circle from developing research needs in literary study to an argument in psychology (which has been a statistics-based science since the days of Wilhelm Wundt), and now to Gottschall’s original claims. In literary study as in animal evolution, we creatures of the earth must adapt to changing demands in our physical and cultural environment, or we risk becoming living fossils, objects to be studied for what we once were rather than for what we could become.

Works Cited

Carroll, Joseph, Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature. Routledge, 2004.

Gottschall, Jonathan. “What are Literary Scholars For? What is Art For.” Style, (42.2 & 42.3): 186-91.

Knapp, John V., Review of The Rape of Troy: Evolution, Violence, and the World of Homer, by Jonathan Gottschall. (Cambridge UP, 2008); Style, 42.2 & 42.3: 412-18.

Moretti, Franco. Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary Theory. NY: Verso, 2005.

Style, An Evolutionary Paradigm for Literary Study. (42.1 & 42.2, Summer/Fall 2008), ed. Joseph Carroll.

The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative, eds. Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson. Evanston, Northwestern UP, 2005.

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