Jonathan Gottschall’s Fighting Words

Saturday, May 30th, 2015

Jonathan Gottschall tried to save literary studies. Instead he ruined his career:

A “distinguished fellow” at Washington & Jefferson College (he doesn’t teach or get paid, but he does get to use the campus library), Gottschall has had his work cited in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, The Chronicle Review, Nature, Science, Scientific American, and The New York Times, which in 2010 ran a photo of him under the headline “Next Big Thing in English: Knowing They Know That You Know.”

Today he characterizes his academic career in a different way: “Dead in the water.”


The story of how things went so wrong for a promising young scholar is one of disciplinary politics, contentious methodological debates, and the respective statures of the sciences and the humanities. Above all it is the story of how brash literary Darwinists and evolutionary theorists attempted to “save” English departments — by forcing them to adopt scientific methodology — and were, on the whole, repelled.


He was a graduate student in English at Binghamton University in 1996, when one day he picked up a copy of Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape for 50 cents. He was at the time reading the Iliad in a seminar and found that Morris’s zoological method — studying human beings in light of their evolutionary needs and desires — broke open the poem. Suddenly characters’ violent behavior — their petty jealousies, vendettas, rapes, and homicides — made sense in light of the evolutionary impulses for social dominance, desirable mates, and material resources.

When Gottschall proposed writing on Homer from an evolutionary angle, though, his professor discouraged him. Instead, in 1990s literary-studies fashion, he wrote a Lacanian analysis. (Reflecting on the incident, he says that was to his “great shame.”) It was only a temporary capitulation. He insisted on writing his dissertation on Homer, male violence, and evolution, and did so in “de facto exile” from the English department. His dissertation committee was made up of a classicist, Zola Pavlovskis-Petit; an economist, Haim Ofek; and an evolutionary biologist, David Sloan Wilson, and he received his Ph.D. in 2000.

In 2005, Gottschall edited a volume of essays with Wilson, The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative. The collection, to which Gottschall contributed a critique of social constructivism in feminist studies of fairy tales, was rejected by some 20 publishers before Northwestern University Press accepted it. In his foreword, E.O. Wilson, the sociobiologist and author of Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998), laid out the stakes. If “naturalistic theorists” like Gottschall are right, Wilson wrote, “and not only human nature but its outermost literary productions can be solidly connected to biological roots, it will be one of the great events of intellectual history.”

Gottschall had two more books published in 2008: The Rape of Troy (Cambridge University Press), which is an evolutionary reading of Homer, and Literature, Science, and a New Humanities (Palgrave Macmillan), which is part manifesto for the adoption of scientific theories and methods in literary studies, and part case studies that perform such work. Gottschall analyzes, for example, the language of male and female attractiveness in folk tales and also attempts to determine if romantic love is a literary universal. His answer: Signs point to yes.

In the 1990s, says Joseph Carroll, a literary Darwinist who is a professor of English at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, the idea of incorporating evolutionary biology into literary studies “was a broad general program; nobody knew how to put it into practice.” He regards Literature, Science, and a New Humanities, in which Gottschall tagged, coded, and quantified language, as a proof of concept. Given adequate academic resources, that kind of work could take root and advance the scientific study of literature.

The book opens as a polemic in which Gottschall diagnoses a “thick malaise” in the humanities and describes literary studies as a field beset by “moral vanity” and “contempt for reality.” He calls for “upheaval,” arguing that “the alternative is to let literature study keep spinning off into a corner of irrelevance to die.” Those are not the words of a scholar looking to ingratiate himself into the profession.

In the atrium of the science center, Gottschall explains his combative tone: “Everyone agreed the field was deteriorating, on the verge of imploding.” His mind-set at the time was, “How do we save the sinking ship?,” he says, his voice echoing off the marble. Then as now, the economic situation for literature Ph.D.’s was perilous, morale low, and, Gottschall believes, intellectual progress had stalled.

Gottschall’s work started to receive attention. His books were blurbed by E.O. Wilson and Steven Pinker, the Harvard University psychologist. The New York Times Magazine’s 2005 article, titled “The Literary Darwinists,” gave momentum to the emerging field. “I was like, ‘OK, well, this is going to blow it open,’” Gottschall recalls thinking. “It was a pretty giddy feeling.”

That excitement never transferred to the academy. While “literary Darwinists” and apostles of consilience like Gottschall were embraced by the news media and popular press, English professors gave them a chillier reception. “First people tried to ignore us, thinking we would die off of asphyxiation,” says Brian Boyd, a Nabokov scholar and professor of English at the University of Auckland. “We battled on.”

Remembering the “devastating and false” ideologies of social Darwinism and eugenics, literary scholars like G. Gabrielle Starr, a professor of English at New York University, were dubious. “Evolution does not have all the answers to all the questions raised by and about works of art, and any claim to the contrary is nonsense,” she wrote in an email. She adds that scholars can “engage with evolution fruitfully in studying literature and other arts without treating it as the key to all mythologies.”

While most in the field ignored Gottschall and company, Jonathan Kramnick, a professor of English at Yale University, engaged them in a Critical Inquiry article in 2011 titled “Against Literary Darwinism.” Its evolutionary psychology, he argued, “is both more controversial as science than they let on and less promising as a basis for criticism than they might wish.”

“Literary Darwinists did not respect the modes of explanation particular to literary studies,” Kramnick says, “not only the close reading and formal analysis of texts but also historical contextualization and the considered engagement with other critics and scholars.” They wanted to junk all of that to concentrate on scientific themes, he says. “Literary studies has its own particular mode of explanation and disciplinary rationale. They wanted to ignore both.”

Six responses — from Carroll; Boyd; Blakey Vermeule, of Stanford University; and Paul Bloom, of Yale, among them — were published in the journal in 2012, ranging from hostility to acceptance, and Kramnick responded. “I get more email about those two articles than about anything else I’ve ever written,” he says, describing much of the correspondence as a version of “Thank you for doing this so I don’t have to do it myself.”

Gottschall, meanwhile, floundered on the job market. In roughly a decade of seeking a stable academic post, he’s had only one formal interview, around seven years ago. It didn’t go well. “Steven Pinker, E.O. Wilson, they have great power, but they don’t have hiring ability in English departments,” he says. “Becoming a scholar was my boyhood dream. It was the great ambition of my life. I devoted about half my life to it, and it was almost entirely rejected. I do feel sad about that. For a while I was really quite heartbroken.”


  1. Grasspunk says:

    How many applicants are there for each English professor job? 100?

  2. Gwern says:

    At least. On the philosophy-job blogs and discussions, to get any notice these days, a hiring horror story has to involve at least 500 applicants for a position.

  3. Alrenous says:

    I’ve found total rejection of academia only helps me in my attempts to be a scholar.

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