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Can Darwin Save Dartmouth From Derrida?

An evolutionary biologist's ambitious plan to salvage the integrity of higher education

“Postmodernism swims, even wallows, in the fragmentary,” social theorist David Harvey observes. But of all the social and cultural institutions that have been deconstructed into fragments by the postmodern self, none seems to have been deconstructed quite so thoroughly as the American university. Like so many bees in a honeycomb, college students in this country often feel like they inhabit a world made up entirely of niches, a world defined less by any unitary sense of purpose or meaning than by the endless network of boundaries and divisions that fracture the various disciplines into a confusing maze of seemingly unrelated micro-contexts. “Universities lack confidence that they know what they are doing,” writes former Harvard dean Harry R. Lewis in Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education. “They offer students neither a coherent view of the point of a college education nor any guidance on how they might discover for themselves some larger purpose in life.”

SUNY Binghamton biology professor Dr. David Sloan Wilson has a new name for the ivory tower in this era of disintegration and specialization—the Ivory Archipelago—but he also has a new solution for uniting its many isolated academic islands under a single flag again: evolution. According to Wilson, evolutionary theory has already worked wonders in the biological sciences by integrating formerly disparate subject areas into an all-encompassing theoretical framework, and he believes that evolution can do the same thing for the rest of the university campus. “Evolutionary theory provides a common language that can erase the distinctions between the hard sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities,” he writes in his latest book Evolution for Everyone. “For the first time,” he told WIE, “we can study all things human in the same way we’ve already become accustomed to studying the rest of the natural world.”

Can Darwin Save Dartmouth From Derrida

Wilson is a major figure in evolutionary biology for his pioneering work on group selection theory (see WIE Issue 35, “The Real Evolution Debate”). The author of popular works applying evolutionary perspectives to religion (Darwin’s Cathedral, 2002) and literature (The Literary Animal, 2005), he is also the founder of an innovative cross-disciplinary program at Binghamton called Evolutionary Studies that involves more than fifty faculty members from departments as diverse as Art History and Bioengineering. In the words of one of his students, “Evolutionary Studies provides a stimulating atmosphere within which biologists, psychologists, anthropologists, philosophers, social scientists, and even those in the arts can transcend traditional academic boundaries and collaborate in addressing mutually interesting questions. It creates a think-tank atmosphere of sorts, and it’s a beautiful thing!”

With roughly half of Americans still unwilling to accept the theory of evolution at all, and with many of those who do (including many science professionals) unlikely to regard it as pertinent to their own work, Wilson’s establishment of a transdisciplinary context for applying evolutionary principles across the board—at a major state university, no less—is something of a coup. The accomplishment becomes all the more impressive when you consider that even within the progressive walls of the academy, evolution has historically been seen as irrelevant (and often menacing) in the study of human affairs, at least in part because of its association with social Darwinism and imperialist ideologies. But Wilson is unfazed by these objections. “If Darwin himself studied everything from earthworms and orchids to early childhood development and human morality using this one simple, powerful theory,” he declares, “why can’t we?”

It’s a good question. So how exactly would an evolutionist in Wilson’s mold approach the study of topics as thorny as religion, for example, or as subjective as literature? The nascent field of literary Darwinism is a case in point. In addition to Wilson’s The Literary Animal, books such as Madame Bovary’s Ovaries by David P. Barash and Nanelle R. Barash and Biopoetics by Brett Cooke and Frederick Turner, as well as a graduate seminar led by Professor Cooke at Texas A&M, have begun to define a new theory of literature that reads texts through the lens of Darwinian concerns like mate selection and competition for limited resources. “Scholars in the field employ a variety of methods,” Cooke writes, “but in general they all assume that evolution has produced a universal landscape of the human mind and that universal tendencies are reflected in the composition, reception, and interpretation of literary works.” For all those depth-starved English majors tearing their hair out at the thought of having to subject one more favorite poet or novelist to the dehumanizing mercies of postmodern literary theory, any sort of universal perspective at all may come as welcome relief. Yet it isn’t hard to imagine that scouring everyone from Tolstoy to Tennyson for evidence of kin selection or the male-male bond might come to seem equally constricting and reductive after a while.

“We’re not talking about reducing, corroding, dehumanizing,” biologist E.O. Wilson says in defense of literary Darwinism in an article in the New York Times. “We’re talking about adding deep history, deep genetic history, to art criticism.” Which is all well and good, as far as it goes, and if it helps college students connect some of the dots and make some kind of larger sense of their university years, all the better. But in the end, the verdict on literary Darwinism—as well as evolution’s chance to rescue the postmodern university from the ever-increasing fragmentation of knowledge and meaning—really comes down to how you define “evolution” in the first place.

In its broadest sense, the language of evolutionary development may well be one of the best common languages we have, not just for the liberal arts but also for how we understand the rest of life, society, history, and even God. Certainly, few ideas are proving themselves more powerfully relevant to the entire span of cosmic and human affairs, from the evolution of galaxies and microorganisms to the evolution of culture and consciousness. But David Sloan Wilson defines evolution more narrowly than that. For him, bringing evolution to art, literature, philosophy, and religion really means bringing art, literature, philosophy, and religion under the mechanistic umbrella of science—and scientific materialism. And most scholars are probably never going to be comfortable giving a strictly materialist framework too much sway over the rich subjective territory of the human disciplines, whose contours the methods and assumptions of science are ill-equipped to recognize.

–Ross Robertson


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This article is from
Our Future of Women's Liberation Issue


July–September 2007