A trumpet with an uncertain (but compelling) sound

In Evolutionary Psychology, Michael Austin reviews Jonathan Gottschall's Literature, Science, and a New Humanities:

My first concern with Gottschall’s approach is that it does not draw a clear distinction between using a scientific methodology to interpret a literary text and using a literary text to support a scientific theory. Both are worthy goals, but only the first falls within the job description of a literary critic. I would argue that the primary failure of some of the critical schools that Gottschall attacks in his first section is that they have neglected their responsibility to interpret literary texts and instead see literature as evidence for their larger social, cultural, and ideological claims. But this is precisely what Gottschall does in his folklore studies. None of his analysis gives us tools for interpreting the stories themselves. Rather, the tales become pieces of evidence for larger claims about human nature and the biological basis for behavior, such as the concluding claim of his second study that his findings “challenge what has been the central dogma of the dominant brand of feminist scholarship in the humanities: that chromosomal sex and socially constructed gender are, at most, distantly related” (p. 125).

There are two problems with this line of reasoning. First, it does not really produce any new knowledge. The claim that gender conventions have a biological basis is a cornerstone of modern evolutionary psychology and has been supported time and again with much more impressive data than Gottschall marshals. If the objective of a “new humanities” is simply to demonstrate how literature supports the foundational claims of evolutionary psychology, then I fear that this new field of study will soon run out of useful work; there are only so many times that these claims need to be tested and proved. To remain vital for very long, quantitative literary theory will have to develop interesting ways to interpret literature.