The Chronicle Review

Survival of the Fittest in the English Department

Jonathan Gottschall tried to save literary studies. Instead he ruined his career.

Photograph by Gilberto Tadday

Jonathan Gottschall at the mixed-martial arts gym where he trained for his new book
May 01, 2015

For a scholar ignored or condemned by almost everyone in his discipline, a career adjunct unable to secure job interviews much less a tenure-track position, Jonathan Gottschall is unusually prominent.

A "distinguished fellow" at Washington & Jefferson College (he doesn’t teach or get paid, but he does get to use the campus library), Gottschall has had his work cited in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, The Chronicle Review, Nature, Science, Scientific American, and The New York Times, which in 2010 ran a photo of him under the headline "Next Big Thing in English: Knowing They Know That You Know."

Today he characterizes his academic career in a different way: "Dead in the water."

His new book, just out from Penguin Press, is The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch, for which he traded an adjunct’s cubicle for boxing gloves, stunt journalism, and the brutal world of mixed martial arts.

The story of how things went so wrong for a promising young scholar is one of disciplinary politics, contentious methodological debates, and the respective statures of the sciences and the humanities. Above all it is the story of how brash literary Darwinists and evolutionary theorists attempted to "save" English departments — by forcing them to adopt scientific methodology — and were, on the whole, repelled.

The campus of Washington & Jefferson, a small liberal-arts college, lies south of Pittsburgh in the sleepy city of Washington, Pa. I arrived there on a snowy Monday morning in February to meet Gottschall, who was going over some work in the library. Gottschall, 42, has a square jaw, an affable demeanor, and a solid build. At 5 feet 9 inches and 190 pounds, he still looks as if he’s not far off from bench-pressing 300 pounds, as he used to.

On a tour of the campus, Gottschall points out what he calls the "Taj Mahals." To the left, a multimillion-dollar, LEED Silver-­certified science center with a grand entrance; to the right, a stately life-sciences building that contains labs, classrooms, and a greenhouse. Sandwiched between the two, he adds, is the "hovel" of the English department. (One English professor says that the small building, which has clearly seen better days, has been home to a hornets’ nest, toxic mold, broken windows, and even indoor mushrooms.)

"If you look at these buildings," Gottschall says with a sweep of the hand, "it’s not hard to see what society values more."

While "literary Darwinists" like Gottschall were embraced by the popular press, English professors gave them a chillier reception.

Inside the English department’s building, Gottschall points to the cubicle where he once held office hours. He had spent some lean years working here. Loans, credit-card debt, saving up for a house: From 2009 to 2012 he got by on an adjunct’s income, a small book contract, and the occasional speaking gig, along with his wife’s salary as a professor of economics at the college.

Just outside the cubicle, in a room filled with back issues of Poetry and VHS tapes of Shakespeare movies, you can look out the window, directly across the street, into Mark Shrader’s Mixed Martial Arts Academy.

We decamp to the marble-pillared atrium of the science center, where Gottschall reflects on his career. He was a graduate student in English at Binghamton University in 1996, when one day he picked up a copy of Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape for 50 cents. He was at the time reading the Iliad in a seminar and found that Morris’s zoological method — studying human beings in light of their evolutionary needs and desires — broke open the poem. Suddenly characters’ violent behavior — their petty jealousies, vendettas, rapes, and homicides — made sense in light of the evolutionary impulses for social dominance, desirable mates, and material resources.

When Gottschall proposed writing on Homer from an evolutionary angle, though, his professor discouraged him. Instead, in 1990s literary-studies fashion, he wrote a Lacanian analysis. (Reflecting on the incident, he says that was to his "great shame.") It was only a temporary capitulation. He insisted on writing his dissertation on Homer, male violence, and evolution, and did so in "de facto exile" from the English department. His dissertation committee was made up of a classicist, Zola Pavlovskis-Petit; an economist, Haim Ofek; and an evolutionary biologist, David Sloan Wilson, and he received his Ph.D. in 2000.

In 2005, Gottschall edited a volume of essays with Wilson, The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative. The collection, to which Gottschall contributed a critique of social constructivism in feminist studies of fairy tales, was rejected by some 20 publishers before Northwestern University Press accepted it. In his foreword, E.O. Wilson, the sociobiologist and author of Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998), laid out the stakes. If "naturalistic theorists" like Gottschall are right, Wilson wrote, "and not only human nature but its outermost literary productions can be solidly connected to biological roots, it will be one of the great events of intellectual history."

Gottschall had two more books published in 2008: The Rape of Troy (Cambridge University Press), which is an evolutionary reading of Homer, and Literature, Science, and a New Humanities (Palgrave Macmillan), which is part manifesto for the adoption of scientific theories and methods in literary studies, and part case studies that perform such work. Gottschall analyzes, for example, the language of male and female attractiveness in folk tales and also attempts to determine if romantic love is a literary universal. His answer: Signs point to yes.

In the 1990s, says Joseph Carroll, a literary Darwinist who is a professor of English at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, the idea of incorporating evolutionary biology into literary studies "was a broad general program; nobody knew how to put it into practice." He regards Literature, Science, and a New Humanities, in which Gottschall tagged, coded, and quantified language, as a proof of concept. Given adequate academic resources, that kind of work could take root and advance the scientific study of literature.

The book opens as a polemic in which Gottschall diagnoses a "thick malaise" in the humanities and describes literary studies as a field beset by "moral vanity" and "contempt for reality." He calls for "upheaval," arguing that "the alternative is to let literature study keep spinning off into a corner of irrelevance to die." Those are not the words of a scholar looking to ingratiate himself into the profession.

In the atrium of the science center, Gottschall explains his combative tone: "Everyone agreed the field was deteriorating, on the verge of imploding." His mind-set at the time was, "How do we save the sinking ship?," he says, his voice echoing off the marble. Then as now, the economic situation for literature Ph.D.’s was perilous, morale low, and, Gottschall believes, intellectual progress had stalled.

Gottschall’s work started to receive attention. His books were blurbed by E.O. Wilson and Steven Pinker, the Harvard University psychologist. The New York Times Magazine’s 2005 article, titled "The Literary Darwinists," gave momentum to the emerging field. "I was like, ‘OK, well, this is going to blow it open,’" Gottschall recalls thinking. "It was a pretty giddy feeling."

That excitement never transferred to the academy. While "literary Darwinists" and apostles of consilience like Gottschall were embraced by the news media and popular press, English professors gave them a chillier reception. "First people tried to ignore us, thinking we would die off of asphyxiation," says Brian Boyd, a Nabokov scholar and professor of English at the University of Auckland. "We battled on."

Remembering the "devastating and false" ideologies of social Darwinism and eugenics, literary scholars like G. Gabrielle Starr, a professor of English at New York University, were dubious. "Evolution does not have all the answers to all the questions raised by and about works of art, and any claim to the contrary is nonsense," she wrote in an email. She adds that scholars can "engage with evolution fruitfully in studying literature and other arts without treating it as the key to all mythologies."

While most in the field ignored Gottschall and company, Jonathan Kramnick, a professor of English at Yale University, engaged them in a Critical Inquiry article in 2011 titled "Against Literary Darwinism." Its evolutionary psychology, he argued, "is both more controversial as science than they let on and less promising as a basis for criticism than they might wish."

"Literary Darwinists did not respect the modes of explanation particular to literary studies," Kramnick says, "not only the close reading and formal analysis of texts but also historical contextualization and the considered engagement with other critics and scholars." They wanted to junk all of that to concentrate on scientific themes, he says. "Literary studies has its own particular mode of explanation and disciplinary rationale. They wanted to ignore both."

Six responses — from Carroll; Boyd; Blakey Vermeule, of Stanford University; and Paul Bloom, of Yale, among them — were published in the journal in 2012, ranging from hostility to acceptance, and Kramnick responded. "I get more email about those two articles than about anything else I’ve ever written," he says, describing much of the correspondence as a version of "Thank you for doing this so I don’t have to do it myself."

Gottschall, meanwhile, floundered on the job market. In roughly a decade of seeking a stable academic post, he’s had only one formal interview, around seven years ago. It didn’t go well. "Steven Pinker, E.O. Wilson, they have great power, but they don’t have hiring ability in English departments," he says. "Becoming a scholar was my boyhood dream. It was the great ambition of my life. I devoted about half my life to it, and it was almost entirely rejected. I do feel sad about that. For a while I was really quite heartbroken."

He also has regrets. "I believe the failures of our approach were as much our fault as theirs," Gottschall says. "Part of it was rhetorical — too much anger, swagger, confrontation. Part of it was, in the early years, we had an overly narrow conception of what literary studies should be. Telling everyone they have to be a literary Darwinist was not just a bad strategy, it was a bad idea." In 2013 he published an article in Scientific Study of Literature titled "Toward Consilience, Not Literary Darwinism."

Now and then his reflective, calmly apologetic, at-peace-with-everything attitude wanes. Later that day he says he thinks literary studies’ rejection of evolutionary perspectives "says something not very flattering" about the humanities. "It suggests a certain closed-mindedness, a reactionary tendency, a conservatism. Now those are fighting words."

Asked about Gottschall’s stalled academic career, David Sloan Wilson seems to regard it as unfortunate but perhaps inevitable in its larger intellectual context: "This is true of all paradigmatic changes. If you lose, you can’t get a job anywhere. If you win, you can get a job at Harvard."

The Professor in the Cage is Gottschall’s second trade book. The first, The Storytelling Animal (2012), argued that human beings are evolutionarily adapted for narrative. The response was largely positive, which Gottschall attributes in part to lay readers’ wanting to believe they are hard-wired for stories, which flatters their ideas of themselves.

There’s no chance of such warm fuzziness with The Professor in the Cage, with its confrontational analysis of gender differences and the "monkey dance": "the wild and frequently ridiculous varieties of ritualized conflict in human males."

Ritualized violence isn’t such a bad thing, he argues. Better a few men sustain brain injuries in boxing rings than everyone suffer the consequences of widespread geopolitical violence. To make his case, he draws from a mix of evolutionary psychology, primatology, neuroscience, and historical anecdotes.

Courtesy of Jonathan Gottschall

Gottschall knows how to take a punch — in academe and cage matches alike.

The book is also an account of Gottschall’s quest to become a mixed-martial-arts fighter, a 16-month process that yields one brief, disappointing fight. He started the project as a "memoir stunt" in the vein of books by George Plimpton and A.J. Jacobs, a genre he defines as "ordinary schmuck enters an exotic world; suffers humorous setbacks, agony, and shame; learns a lot along the way." But the book grew into something more, he says. "It’s about a professor who got in a cage — and about a professor who had been in a cage. The cubicle was a cage. My life in academia was a cage."

He warms to the metaphor. "I wanted to use the experience not only to write a memoir but to get at the important question: Why are men this way? Why do we fight?" He believes this might be the most important question in the world. "There’s no denying that male, competitive, violent tendencies are extremely disruptive in the history of the world, and may even end the world before it’s all over and done."

The Professor in the Cage pays disconcertingly close attention to "the great semen glut" (the biological reality that men produce many more sex cells than women do, which, the author says, explains "why men are the way they are"), the movie Jackass 3D, the parabolic punches of a West Virginia Toughman Contest, and the violence of early American football (think crotch stomps, drop kicks, even an attempt by one player in the Harvard-Yale Game of 1880 to drown an opponent in a mud puddle).

Along the way, Gottschall, in a "puppy-stomping mood," fights a chemistry professor — "I punched my friend Nobu at a faculty party on a warm spring evening, in a leafy yard in full suburban bloom," he reflects wistfully. (Nobu, a trained martial artist, had made the mistake of accepting a challenge from the somewhat intoxicated author.) Gottschall later brags about showing up at an academic conference with a black eye, thus, in his estimation, outranking all the other men present. One early review calls the book "a personal history of violence that makes Norman Mailer look nuanced by comparison." Gottschall welcomes the analogy.

The Professor in the Cage also takes shots at English departments, which have been, according to Gottschall, "feminized in spirit." Male undergraduates are lectured: "Your masculine core is unacceptable to us. It needs to be cut apart, dissected, changed, fixed," he says. "It’s probably not far wrong to say that masculinity is the real villain in the average literary-theory course — the great root of all the other evils." Behind the literary-studies critique of patriarchy and capitalism, he suggests, is the perceived ill of "masculinity run amok."

"What sort of things," Gottschall asks, "would I have to say to get you to reach across the table and punch me in the face?"

After lunch at the Washington & Jefferson cafeteria, Gottschall returns to his decision to write a book in the participant-observer style. "There are things about fighting that you just will never understand if you don’t do it," he says. "If you’ve never been locked in a cage with another person and asked to fight your way out of it, you don’t understand fighting."

He also discovered how much he likes to fight. "To physically dominate another man is intoxicating," he writes. "It’s a deeply satisfying feeling."

At one point, Gottschall leans across the table. "What sort of things would I have to say to get you to reach across the table and punch me in the face?"

That night Gottschall goes to a sparring session at his gym. He’s out of practice — he’s been on a hiatus from training and fighting since finishing the book — but moves naturally through warm-up drills in a black T-shirt, white MMA-style shorts (which have slits on the sides, to allow for greater lower-­body mobility), and black wrestling shoes. The patter of the shoes and bare feet on mats fills the gym.

It’s hard to imagine a book like The Professor in the Cage altering how we understand violence. What, after all, can one scholar’s particular discovery (and embrace) of his own ferocity teach us? Yet the night before, millions of Americans had watched the last seconds of the Super Bowl tick away as a brawl broke out between the teams. Is there something therapeutic about such a spectacle? Could rituals of violence — the "monkey dance" — actually keep unconstrained aggression at bay? Or are they just excuses to fight?

If you believe Gottschall, the monkey dance dominates even in academe. Scholarly debate isn’t always won by those who have the most convincing theory or the most substantive proof, but sometimes by those with the most strength and skill in intellectual combat. It’s easy to see how that perspective might color Gottschall’s view of his own career. Are English departments keeping scientific methodologies at bay because those methodologies are wrong, or simply because English professors find them threatening?

On the phone, Steven Pinker sums up the larger project this way: "Why wouldn’t research on the nature of human nature, and its origin in our biology, add to our appreciation of literature? It’s remarkable that that itself should be a controversial proposition, but I think it shows how far ideological extremism has distorted the agenda of many humanities programs. … It doubles down in its commitment to postmodernist approaches with its intimidatingly abstruse theorizing, its dogmatic political correctness, and its hostility to the very notion of truth-falsity."

Pinker says he’s passionate about the humanities but believes that humanities departments "could go into a death spiral as they shun the influx of new ideas and new approaches." Intelligent, creative, ambitious scholars will choose to go elsewhere, he proposes. "Would the kind of brilliant young mind that we find in universities go into a career in English, as opposed to the fantastically exciting things that are happening in neuroscience, cognitive science, evolutionary biology, or genetics?"

Inside the gym, Gottschall pairs up with a tall, strong, left-handed fighter. They don gloves and wrestling-style head protection and make their way into the octagonal cage to spar. Over three short rounds, the two men circle each other, push each other against the mesh walls, and throw a lot of punches. To the untrained eye, there’s little defense taking place. They exit gasping for breath. Once he recovers from the session, the author of the book on violence admits he’s not eager to return to regular MMA training.

Gottschall’s career is in a precarious place, but the literary scholars and evolutionary theorists who have taken up arms beside him aren’t giving up — on him, or on their ideas. "The literary Darwinists are isolated in the literary world, but the literary world is isolated in the general intellectual world," says Joseph Carroll. "We’re actually in better shape than they are on that horizon."

David Sloan Wilson echoes that optimism: "I don’t know how long it’s going to take, but at the end of the day I think this is going to sweep the field."

"It’s not clear Jonathan has done anything terribly wrong," Pinker suggests. "It may just be a diagnosis of what’s wrong with university English departments." He invokes an old theatrical adage: "The play was a success, the audience was a failure."

David Wescott is a staff editor at The Chronicle Review.