In recent posts, I’ve knocked neuroframing, neuroweapons and neurobics. Next up: neuro-lit-crit.

New York Times culture reporter Patricia Cohen reports that for insights and inspiration literary scholars are turning, inevitably, to neuroscience and evolutionary psychology. Philosophers are doing the same, as are art theorists, religious scholars, you name it.

Edward Wilson must be thrilled. In his 1998 book Consilience, the Harvard University biologist contended that neuroscience, evolutionary psychology and other fields were yielding deep insights into the human nature and culture, the traditional provinces of the humanities. As a result, Wilson contended, “the humanities, ranging from philosophy and history to moral reasoning, comparative religion, and interpretation of the arts, will draw closer to the sciences and partly fuse with them.”

At the time, folks in the humanities squawked, with good reason, about Wilson’s arrogance and ignorance. Since then, the academic status of humanities professors has plummeted and that of scientists has surged. Literary scholars have apparently decided that if they can’t beat scientists, they should fuse with ‘em.

Lisa Zunshine of the University of Kentucky is analyzing the novels of Jane Austen in light of what cognitive scientists call “theory of mind,” our innate ability to infer others’ mental states.  William Flesch (love these novelistic names!) of Brandeis University contends that selfish-gene theory can illuminate the behavior of literary heroes like Don Quixote and Odysseus. Michael Holquist of Yale University is sticking subjects in MRI tubes to see whether their brains react to Henry James differently than to USA Today.

But are lit-crit scholars doing this research out of genuine intellectual curiosity or because they’re desperate for grants and prestige? Cohen writes: “At a time when university literature departments are confronting painful budget cuts, a moribund job market and pointed scrutiny about the purpose and value of an education in the humanities, the cross-pollination of English and psychology is providing a revitalizing lift.”

We badly need those rare souls conversant in both the arts and sciences. Novels such as The Echo Maker by Richard Powers and Saturday by Ian McEwan riff on brain science in wonderfully imaginative, witty ways. But some neuro-lit-crit practitioners act like infatuated science “groupies,” Raymond Tallis complains in the Times Literary Supplement. “Neuroaesthetics,” Tallis asserts, “overstates the understanding that comes from neuroscience and represents a grotesquely reductionist attitude to humanity.” Tallis is not a disgruntled Beowulf specialist but a professor of medicine who also writes about philosophy and the arts.

The best bridgers of the two cultures combine respect for and knowledge of science with an awareness of science’s limits. Science is never weaker, more limited, than when it turns its attention to our own minds and behavior itself. One of the great paradoxes of modern science is that scientists can speak with more confidence about supernovas, neutron stars and the first moments of cosmic creation than they can about what is going on in their own skulls.

Humanities scholars should not ignore science or reject it in kneejerk fashion, but neither should they kowtow to it. In fact, as a former English major who once considered a career in literary criticism, I’ve always believed that the highest purpose of the humanities is not to assert truths but to challenge, question and raise doubts about them. To that end, scholars in the humanities should view science with skepticism, as they would any powerful authority. To see how entertaining and informative this approach can be, check out this vivisection of psychiatry in The New Yorker by Harvard English professor Louis Menand.

Humanities scholars can best serve the humanities—and humanity--by being informed, articulate critics of science, not naïve worshippers or imitators of it.


John Horgan, a former Scientific American staff writer, directs the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology. (Photo courtesy of Skye Horgan.)

 Image: iStockphoto/alancrosthwaite

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.