Tuesday May 26th, 2009

The Evolution of a Bad Idea

If you haven’t seen it yet, take some time this week to read William Deresiewicz’s review for The Nation of several books about “literary Darwinism.” As he explains near the top, “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.” This reminded me of reading Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett several years ago. Terrific book, but it truly lost me (and infuriated me) when it started trying to apply Darwinism to the cultural survival of certain works of art.

Among other one-liners, Deresiewicz calls evolutionary psychology “the Malcolm Gladwell of science: facile and glib, but so persuasive and charming that no one wants to ruin the fun.” It’s a smart, lengthy piece about why we should resist replacing Theory (about which he also has strong feelings) with a Darwinian approach, why it “really would be the death of humanism, not to mention the English major,” and why “the finest books demand a criticism that attends to what makes them unique, not what makes them typical.”