A fascinating article in The Nation by William Deresiewicz. I have some thoughts on the subject, but I'm a bit drunk (see Man Thread II) and I don't know if I can coherently string them together right now. Anyway, there are some caricatures going on for both sides in Deresiewicz's article, but he pitches the conflict quite nicely, I think. I'll only say that the current hysteria surrounding Darwin, despite the genuine significance of Origin, points to a social, historical moment rather than an objective revelation.
It is with a particular class of these that literary Darwinism--and Darwinian aesthetics in general--is concerned. Human beings expend an enormous amount of energy doing things that don't seem to have any survival value: singing, dancing, painting caves, decorating spears and, above all, telling stories. (Think how much time you spend consuming fictional narratives--novels, movies, TV shows--in one form or another.) The nascent field of Darwinian aesthetics seeks to account for the art-making impulse in evolutionary psychological terms. If art is a product of the mind, and the mind is a product of evolution, then art is a product of evolution. Again, as an intellectual project, this is perfectly valid. But there are also strong selection pressures pushing in the direction of such an approach. Evolutionary thinking is, at present, an aggressively expansive species within the academic world, a kind of emergent Homo sapiens outcompeting the old-school Neanderthals across a wide swath of intellectual territory. Having colonized the social sciences--where it has begun to displace the view, predominant throughout the twentieth century, that the mind is a highly malleable product of culture--it has now set its sights on the humanities, the last area of resistance. To subdue it would mean realizing E.O. Wilson's dream of "consilience" (Wilson is, among many other things, the godfather of evolutionary psychology), the unification of the domains of knowledge, from physics all the way up to aesthetics, on the basis of a single set of principles.
The humanities, meanwhile, are undergoing their own struggle for survival within the academic ecosystem. Budgets are shrinking, students are disappearing, faculty positions are being lost, institutional prestige has all but evaporated. As the Darwinists are quick to point out, a lot of this suffering is self-inflicted. In literary studies in particular, the last several decades have witnessed the baleful reign of "Theory," a mash-up of Derridean deconstruction, Foucauldian social theory, Lacanian psychoanalysis and other assorted abstrusiosities, the overall tendency of which has been to cut the field off from society at large and from the main currents of academic thought, not to mention the common reader and common sense. Theory, which tends toward dogmatism, hermeticism, hero worship and the suppression of doctrinal deviation--not exactly the highest of mental virtues--rejects the possibility of objective knowledge and, in its commitment to the absolute nature of cultural "difference," is dead set against the notion of human universals. Theory has led literary studies into an intellectual and institutional cul-de-sac, and now that its own energies have been exhausted (the last major developments date to the early '90s), it has left it there.
Enter the literary Darwinists, a still-small but militant insurgency dedicated to overthrowing the existing order in favor of a diametrically opposite approach. Their goal is not only to reseat literary studies on a basis of evolutionary thinking but to found a "new humanities," as the title of one book puts it, on scientific principles: empirical, quantitative, systematic, positivist, progressive. Instead of theory giving way to equally fanciful theory and interpretation succeeding equally subjective interpretation, literary studies would henceforth involve the gradual accumulation of objectively verifiable knowledge and thus a "shrinking [of] the space of possible explanation" such as has occurred in the sciences, where all research must either situate itself within the framework of existing theory or challenge it directly. And just as chemistry rests on physics and biology on chemistry, the foundation on which the humanities would rest, following the logic of consilience, would be the new biological theory of the human mind (the thing that produces the humanities in the first place): evolutionary psychology.