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Martin Willis, ‘Are we sure we want evolutionary psychologists telling us what Victorian novels mean?’

2017 February 13

Martin Willis is Professor of English Literature at Cardiff University, Chair of the British Society for Literature and Science, Editor of the Journal of Literature and Science and head of the Cardiff University ScienceHumanities research team.

 I noted with interest, and some dismay that the Journal of Victorian Culture was drawing attention, via Twitter, to the Guardian’s old article on evolutionary psychology and the Victorian novel that described, without criticism, the work of Joseph Carroll and his fellow literary Darwinists.[1] Heartened by responses that pushed back against the “likes” for this work I immediately realised that Twitter was not adequate to say why this kind of literary criticism (I hesitate even to give it this name) is both reactionary and dangerous.

Let me illustrate this with a simple example from the Guardian report. The evolutionary psychologists, we are told, understand the data from the small number of readers who responded to questions about Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights to show that Heathcliff has both good and bad traits and that this illuminates the complexity inherent in recognising and selecting altruistic genes. Might they be missing something here? Indeed, might they be missing almost everything interesting about both Heathcliff and Brontë’s readers? Heathcliff, as we know from the many valuable critical interventions on the novel from leading literary critics, is representative of the diverse social and cultural interactions of the early Victorian period. Heathcliff enables generative studies (and understandings) of slavery, of the Irish Question, of race and class in Victorian Britain, of the stigma of cultural difference, and the social constraining of sexual and gendered self-expression.[2] We also know, from the excellent work of experts in the periodical literature of the period, of the first responses to the novel in journals and newspapers. We know, for example, that G. H. Lewes was struck less by Heathcliff’s badness and more by the depiction of transgressive sexuality in his relationship with Cathy.[3] We might also acknowledge that this response was likely to have emerged from Lewes’s own experience of different forms and structures of romantic love. This excess of knowledge – so valuable in placing Wuthering Heights in its own context and considering it in our own – is reduced entirely to the selection of genes in the work of evolutionary psychologists, and more worryingly this becomes, for Joseph Carroll, symbolic of the difficulty, but necessity, of maintaining a particular kind of “social order” rather than exploring the possibilities and politics of difference.

It strikes me that seeking to validate a certain form of reactionary status quo, disguised as gene selection that aids progress (another problematic idea), is very much the opposite of what literary studies, and indeed humanities practices across our disciplines, aims to do. Further, to make assumptions about readers (both now and in the Victorian period) is equally problematic: it is simply not possible to accept that multiple readers gained the same knowledge from novels nor that they respond in predictable, and uniform, ways. Not all readers are seeking Joseph Carroll’s conservative social order.

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I am far from the first to be critical of the work of literary Darwinists as they attempt to promote their anti-critique, right-leaning scientism in the study of literature. As a Tweet from Stephanie Hershinow noted, James Kramnick has responded robustly to previous work in this area in his excellent article “Against Literary Darwinism”.[4] In my own book, Literature and Science, I noted particularly Kramnick’s assertion that literary Darwinist analysis most often, despite its apparent scientific basis, ends up with “mushier notions of moral cultivation and strikes an ethical note reminiscent of F. R. Leavis.”[5] Also striking is how poor its literary criticism actually is. As both Kramnick and George Levine have noticed, their analysis of Victorian fiction tends to be “tone deaf”.[6] Certainly, I don’t imagine any of us would be giving our undergraduate students lavish praise for suggesting only that Heathcliff was both good and bad.

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But there is a greater danger in this kind of work, and in promoting it as a valuable way for literary studies, or perhaps the humanities more widely, to engage with the sciences (something that seems always to be on the agenda in the academy, and always regarded as “a good thing”). At Cardiff University, with my colleagues Keir Waddington and James Castell, I have been leading the ScienceHumanities initiative, a project designed to draw together the different disciplines of the humanities in order to examine the sciences from our perspectives and on our territory, and to ask how it is we do that.[7] There is a real urgency to this. If, as I would argue, literature and other products of the arts that the humanities study (such as painting, music, historical texts, philosophical discourse and legal documents) produce truth filtered through aesthetics, there is no need at all to try to force them into other forms of knowledge that access their truths in different ways. The application of evolutionary psychology to Victorian fiction, as the literary Darwinists apply it, not only denies and attempts to undermine the existing truths that humanities scholars have long sought to uncover and examine but also re-positions these fictions politically in ways that we should want to resist in the strongest terms. Seeing Heathcliff as a marker of genetic characteristics that might help the Victorian woman choose a mate rather than as a child refugee growing up in rural England denudes him of the cultural power that makes him so provocative and interesting now as in 1847. Likewise it reduces our efforts to understand our selves as we exist within society rather than as scientific objects bound to our primitive biology.

It is worth thinking a little on subjects like this before we re-tweet and disseminate this kind of work. If we continue to “like” analysis of this kind we will ultimately be pressing the button on our own diminution and ultimate dissolution as a subject. Valuing the humanities, and the study of the Victorians as a vibrant part of the humanist project, should not be about promoting research that distrusts its findings and mocks its decades of careful knowledge-building. If you see this again on Twitter, use your head and avoid the heart.

[1] “Victorian novels helped us evolve into better people, say psychologists.” https://www.theguardian.com/science/2009/jan/14/victorian-novels-evolution-altruism

[2] See, for instance, the range of views on Heathcliff surveyed by Peter Miles in his Wuthering Heights: Critics Debate (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1990) and Matthew Beaumont’s JVC article “Heathcliff’s Great Hunger: The Cannibal Other in Wuthering Heights.” Journal of Victorian Culture 9.2 (2004), pp.137-63.

[3] See, for example, the range of contemporary responses collected in either of these scholarly editions of the novel: William M. Sale, Jr & Richard J. Dunn (eds), Wuthering Heights (New York: W.W. Norton, 1990); Beth Newman (ed.), Wuthering Heights (Ontario: Broadview, 2007).

[4] James Kramnick, “Against Literary Darwinism.” Critical Inquiry 37 (2011): 315-47 (pp. 345-6)

[5] Martin Willis, Literature and Science. Reader’s Guides to Essential Criticism (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), p. 72.

[6] George Levine, “Review of Brian Boyd, On the Origin of Stories.” British Society for Literature and Science Reviews. Web.

[7] Cardiff ScienceHumanities: https://cardiffsciencehumanities.org

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