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Philosophy and Literature 27.2 (2003) 255-268

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The Tree of Knowledge and Darwinian Literary Study

Jonathan Gottscha


THE BRANCHES OF KNOWLEDGE are not strewn randomly on the ground; they are part of a coherent, interconnected tree. Physics is the most fundamental of all the sciences, so it is the trunk of the tree. The branch of chemistry emerges from physics, because the laws of chemistry depend on the laws of physics: chemical reactions occur the way they do because of the physical properties of atoms. Biology's branch splits off from chemistry's: the molecules that comprise living things are bound by the rules of chemistry. Scientists, while grasping this fundamental interconnection of the broad boughs of the natural sciences, 1 have rarely craned their necks sufficiently to glimpse the upper reaches of the tree of knowledge: the green canopy of human culture that is the traditional jurisdiction of the social sciences and humanities. In fact, scholars from all disciplines have mostly proceeded as though the greenery above was the outgrowth of a neighboring tree from a fundamentally different species.

Since the 1960s, however, a maverick band of Darwinian neck-craners have been demonstrating that the stuff of human culture, studied in the humanities and social sciences, is a contiguous part of the tree of knowledge: human culture and behavior grow out of human biology. 2 These scholars and scientists continue to define themselves by different names depending on subtleties in their particular approaches: Darwinian psychology, sociobiology, Darwinian anthropology, biosociology, human behavioral ecology, human ethology, and evolutionary psychology. 3 However, sacrificing some precision on the alter of clarity, I will refer to all of the above approaches with the umbrella term of human [End Page 255] behavioral biology, understood in its most expansive sense as the study of how millions of years of evolution shaped the human mind, and thus human behavior, and thus human culture. No matter how human behavioral biologists define their work, they all share the conviction that human behavior, psychology, and culture cannot be fully understood separate from human bio-evolutionary history.

Darwinian excavation of the foundations of human nature has inspired a revolutionary movement in the social sciences that proceeds to this day. Like most revolutions, this one has seen its share of rolling heads and intellectual bloodshed. Starting with the "sociobiology debates" of the late 1970s through mid-80s and continuing through the "science wars" of the early-mid 1990s allegations and recriminations of the most serious sort have been almost casually poured into the air: racism, sexism, Social Darwinism, biological determinism, disciplinary colonialism, disciplinary xenophobia, and "biophobia." 4 However, despite entrenched, sometimes zealous opposition, evolutionary thinking has firmly established itself in the social sciences. Thumbing through leading social science journals, it is no longer a shock to encounter articles exploring traditional topics with shiny new Darwinian tools. This stands in stark contrast to the situation in the decades immediately following World War II, where applying biology to human behavior and culture was virtually taboo. In fact, the UNESCO statement of 1952 explicitly tabooed human behavioral biology as scientifically and politically incorrect. Moreover, this phenomenon is in marked contrast to the mainstream social science of the late 1970s and early 1980s, which was in the midst of a wicked backlash against the resurgence of biological inquiry into behavior represented in sociobiology.

Currently, while human behavioral biology retains many social scientist critics, and while certain social science fields remain largely hostile or indifferent, invoking biology to explain social behavior is moving toward the mainstream. Almost thirty years after E. O. Wilson made, in Sociobiology (1975), his first call for a merger of disciplines under a new biological synthesis, biology-savvy social scientists and social-science-savvy biologists have provided startling new insights into a host of topics traditionally examined in isolation from biology: gender differences, criteria for mate choice, resource acquisition and allocation, aggression, cooperation, xenophobia, ethnocentrism, sexual politics, religious sensibilities, social hierarchy, moral codes, etc. 5

Though one must be careful not to overstate the progress, we are [End Page 256] witnessing...


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