James Wood: great literary critic, not-so-great evolutionary biologist

September 20, 2009 • 9:26 am

James Wood is a well known literary critic, based at Harvard, who writes for The New Yorker. A while back I went after one of his articles, which was a critique of both the “new atheists” and the faithful. I was distressed that Wood not only criticized atheists unfairly (raising the usual canard that our view of theology is unsophisticated), but also proposed a middle-of-the-road “solution” that was both smug and ineffectual. As he said:

What is needed is neither the overweening rationalist atheism of a Dawkins nor the rarefied religious belief of an Eagleton but a theologically engaged atheism that resembles disappointed belief.

Professor Wood kindly responded on this site, defending his own atheism but getting deeper into the mire by saying things like this:

As I made quite clear in the piece, I am on the side of Dawkins and Hitchens if I have to be, but I dislike their tone, their contempt for all religious belief, and their general tendency to treat all religious belief as if it were identical to Christian fundamentalism. Dawkins always sounds as if he wouldn’t mind too much if the European cathedrals were razed. For anyone, like myself, who loves literature and music, so saturated in religious belief and disbelief, one can’t simply dismiss this history it as if it were at the level of astrology or Gypsy Rose Lee.

I discussed Wood’s views with a friend in the humanities, who assured me that Wood was not only a good literary critic, but perhaps our nation’s preeminent literary critic. That intrigued me, and so I read one of Wood’s better-known books of criticism, How Fiction Works (2008; see reviews here, here, and here).

I’m a passionate reader of fiction — granted, hardly as passionate as Wood, who seems to have read everything — but not an analytical one. I am moved by novels, but often can’t articulate why. For those like me, Wood’s book is great. In this short (194-page) volume, he takes apart many of the world’s novels, making the case (I hope I’m accurate here) that the merit of fiction is not so much in conveying truth about the world as in conveying what it feels like to be on the inside of a situation. And he analyzes the various devices writers use to convey those feelings, telling us why some devices succeed more than others. It’s a fascinating read that will make you go back to the novel with renewed vigor. (Wood provides a four-page appendix of all the novels he cites, and I intend to essay many of these. He even mentions Make Way for Ducklings, by Robert McLoskey!) And it’s a fascinating look at the mind of a man who apparently lives for literature.

That said, I have one plaint, for near the end of the book Wood decides to go after evolutionary biologists.

On page 129, he mentions a “quaintly antique” notion of the municipal president of Neza, a crime-ridden area of Mexico City. In 2006, the president gave his police a reading list of great novels to expand their knowledge of the world and promote their morals. Wood notes, “One does not have to be as morally prescriptive as the Mexican police chief to feel that he has taxonomized three aspects of the experience of reading fiction: language; the world; the extension of our sympathies towards other selves.” And then Wood adds a footnote:

We don’t read in order to benefit in this way from fiction. We read fiction because it pleases us, moves us, is beautiful, and so on — because it is alive and we are alive. It is amusing to watch evolutionary biology tie itself up in circularities when trying to answer the question, ‘why do humans spend so much time reading fiction when this yields no obvious evolutionary benefits?’ The answer tend either to be utilitarian — we read in order to find out about our fellow citizens, and this has a Darwinian utility — or circular: we read because fiction pushes certain ‘pleasure buttons.’

Well, the first part is fine, but really, Professor Wood, we evolutionary biologists hardly tie ourselves up in knots about this question. Although I’m a professional in the field, I have never encountered a discussion of the adaptive significance of reading fiction, even from those evolutionary psychologists who love to masticate ideas like this. No respectable evolutionist would bother with the question, “What was the adaptive value of ‘novel-reading’ genes?” In contrast, Wood implies that this kind of story-telling is a major preoccupation of our field. Perhaps he’ll supply us with an extensive list of evolutionary studies of fiction-reading.

Reading is a recent innovation: it appeared about 5000 years ago, 0.07% of the time since we branched off from the lineage that lead to our closest living relatives. Fiction is even younger: many regard the first novel as The Tale of Genji, written about a millenium ago.

That’s not enough time for a “fiction-reading module” to evolve. (And would those who read novels really have more offspring than those who ignore the printed page in favor of seeking mates?) Further, diligent novel-reading is hardly a fixed trait in the human species. Even when novels are available, few people “spend so much time” reading them. The average American, for example, reads four books per year (not all fiction!), and one person in four reads none. With this much variation in the human species, no evolutionist save a bored evolutionary psychologist would even ask the question of adaptive significance. One gets the impression that Wood is talking about his own voracious reading, not that of our species as a whole

It seems likely that, as Wood states, reading fiction does push certain “pleasure buttons” in our evolved brains. It may, in that respect, resemble drinking alcohol, smoking, masturbating, or doing sudoku: things that we like to do (and obviously stimulate something in our brain), but need not be regarded as direct adaptations instilled by natural selection. They’re spandrels. (And, by the way, this is not a circular explanation, since in some cases we can, at least theoretically, find out which pleasure centers are being stimulated, and perhaps understand how they evolved in the first place. It is not circular to say that we masturbate because natural selection built in a system of getting extreme pleasure from copulating, and we’ve learned how to short-circuit the system.)

Why do I spend so much time on a footnote? Because Wood’s readers are not likely to know a lot about evolutionary biology, and so might very well conclude that we’re all a pack of morons who waste our time trying to explain the unexplainable. With this gratuitious swipe, Wood gives a bad — and false — impression of our field. And then, of course, there are the supercilous words “amusing” and “tie itself up in circularities,” as if Wood sees himself superior to those of us who muck about in the swamps of science. Right when I was getting all amiable toward Wood, he goes and ruins it with another display of hauteur.

James Wood replies

September 2, 2009 • 8:55 am

In the August 31 issue of The New Yorker, James Wood, an eminent literary critic based at Harvard, wrote an article (“God in the Quad”) taking to task not only the “new atheists,” but also several of their critics, most notably Terry Eagleton.

Within a day I put up an analysis of Wood’s piece on this website; my main point was that he espoused a middle-of-the-roadism that would satisfy neither atheists, faitheists, nor the faithful.  As Wood concluded:

What is needed is neither the overweening rationalist atheism of a Dawkins nor the rarefied religious belief of an Eagleton but a theologically engaged atheism that resembles disappointed belief.

Now Dr. Wood has kindly written a post on this website defending his position.  It was a comment following my analysis (and several people have replied there), but I thought I’d put it above the fold for discussion.  Here’s what he has to say:

As the author of the piece under discussion, might I comment on the commentary? Anyone remotely familiar with my writing (I am the author of a novel called “The Book Against God,” for goodness sake) will know that I am an atheist, and proud to call myself one (I grew up in a household both scientific and religious — a rather Victorian combination). [Please see my favorable review of Bart Ehrman’s “God’s Problem” in “The New Yorker.”] Having written often about my atheism, I wanted to do something a little different this time – – i.e. to please neither believers nor non-believers. Clearly, I’ve succeeded! As I made quite clear in the piece, I am on the side of Dawkins and Hitchens if I have to be, but I dislike their tone, their contempt for all religious belief, and their general tendency to treat all religious belief as if it were identical to Christian fundamentalism. Dawkins always sounds as if he wouldn’t mind too much if the European cathedrals were razed. For anyone, like myself, who loves literature and music, so saturated in religious belief and disbelief, one can’t simply dismiss this history it as if it were at the level of astrology or Gypsy Rose Lee.

The remarkable claim is made that I offer no evidence of this contempt for the history of belief; I would have thought that comparing the history of religious belief to John Cleese hitting his car in “Fawlty Towers” (Dawkins’s example of HADD, and the one I cite) is a very good example of that contempt — one can hear the High Table guffaw (”those absurd religionists!”). Dawkins is an essentially 19th-century figure; he sounds amazingly like Huxley, or the Russell of “Why I am not a Christian.” This was a text that made an enormous impact on me — when I was fifteen, or so. But one returns to it and finds it grating and oddly juvenile.

On the other hand, as I made clear, I have little time for the priests, the theologians, and the theorists. Nevertheless, it does seem to me more intellectually interesting to examine the nature of religious belief than simply to go on and on about what an enormous illusion it is. I KNOW it is an illusion, and so does everyone else on this website. So, let’s find something more interesting to say about this illusion, shall we? We are not always fighting the fundamentalists (who aren’t persuadable anyway, alas).
James Wood

I’ve already had my say about Wood’s New Yorker piece, and would prefer to have the readers here have their say.  I will add just one statement as well as a response I got from someone else.  Religion is more than just an “enormous illusion.”  It is an enormous illusion that has the potential to do — and is doing — substantial harm to our world. Because of religion, women are being oppressed, people are getting stoned to death for adultery, HIV-infected people in Africa are being urged to abstain from condoms, people are killing each other over trivial differences in “sacred” works of fiction, and our own country was, in effect, a theocracy.  In America we’re still dealing with the remnants of medieval theology in questions about abortion, stem-cell research, and euthanasia.  Our world may well end in a paroxysm of religious conflict.  Many of the faithful don’t just hold their beliefs privately, but insist on inflicting them on others. This situation, and its attendant irrationality,  is what motivates the “new atheists,” and this motivation is precisely what Wood ignores. Instead, he cavils about subtle points of theology — and cathedrals.

I went to Harvard, and am not keen on Harvard-bashing.  Still, Wood’s “critique” smacks of an ivory-tower disconnect from the harsh realities of the world — and from real faith as it is lived and practiced.  Instead of dealing with these, he wants to score debating points, and to assert a smug moral superiority over both atheists and the faithful. Such is the New Yorker style.  After reading Wood’s response, a friend in the humanities, who is far more economical with prose than I, sent me this:

James Wood is a very smart literary critic.  In fact, believe it or not, there’s none smarter.  Still, there are some things he doesn’t understand.  Dawkins’s harsh view of religion isn’t warmed-over Victorianism or juvenile contempt for cathedrals.  It has to do with the effects, here and now, of literal religious belief on the conduct of nations and groups.

Wood inhabits a world of books, plus all of the cultural influences that go to make books interesting. Fine!  But meanwhile, our very existence is threatened by screwball religionists (including the Christians and Jews who want a war with Iran). To say that those of us who are alarmed about this fact don’t appreciate Chartres and Notre Dame is, to put it mildly, dilettantish.

The New Yorker takes a swipe at everyone

August 27, 2009 • 7:13 am

This week’s New Yorker has a piece by James Wood“God in the Quad” — that considers the “new atheists” and several books by their critics, most prominently Terry Eagleton. (You’ll need a New Yorker subscription to access more than the summary.)  Both sides take a drubbing here, though I have to say that Eagleton (who is quasi-religious) and the faitheists get the worst of it.

Wood goes after the atheists because:

a.  Their own beliefs are “religious”:

.  . resurgent atheism [is] marked by its own kind of Biblical literalism, hostility to faith in a personal God, a deep belief in scientific rationality and progress, and, typically, a committed liberal politics.

How this constitutes “religion” is beyond me. Certainly the “new atheists” don’t have an unquestioned certainty in their ideas, nor a belief in some supernatural force.

b.  They offer “an inadequate account of the varieties of religious experience” and address forms of faith that are not universal:

For the new atheists, as for many contemporary American Christians, faith is assumed to be blind — an irrational closing of the eyes to evidence and reason, a leap of faith into an infinite idiocy.  The new atheists do not speak to the millions of people whose form of religion is far from the embodied certainties of contemporary literalism, and who aren’t inclined to submit to the mad mullahs and the fanatical ministers.

Yes, but they do speak to the billions of people who believe in a personal god who engages with the world.

c. They are dogmatic:

What is most repellent about the new atheism is its intolerant certainty; it is always noon in Dawkins’s world, and the sun of science and liberal positivism is shining brassily, casting no shadow.

Well, what are some examples of the “intolerant certainty”? (Wood gives none.) And what, exactly, is so bad about it being noon and sunny and all? More often atheists are accused of having a bleak world view, of demolishing religion but replacing it with nothing positive.  Well, at least Wood gets our humanism right, though he apparently sees it as a failing.

Although these are serious charges, Wood fails to provide any examples of the dogmatism and intolerance of the new atheists, or of the “inadequacies” of their discussion of faith.  His arguments against us, then, are merely assertions, unsupported with evidence.

In contrast, Wood provides many quotes from theologians and believers like Eagleton, hanging them with their own words. Indeed, his critique of this side is far more trenchant.  The believers (and their running-dog faitheists) are accused of:

a. Ignoring the fact that the faith of many religious people hinges critically on the truth of religious claims. Religion isn’t just a philosophical exercise.

Of course, the truth claims of religious beliefs are precisely what the new atheists so loudly dispute.  If all Eagleton can now say to them is that their lives are the “poorer” for not responding to a moving “political and historical” allegory, he is just being finely sentimental. He might as well have written a book about Anton Chekhov or Walter Benjamin.

b. Claiming that, despite dismissing the need for evidence, they somehow know the nature of God:

[Eagleton says} God “hates burn offerings and acts of smug self-righteousness, is the enemy of idols, fetishes, and graven images of all kinds — gods, churches, ritual sacrifice, the Stars and Stripes.” Well, how convenient. Quite apart from the awkward fact that the God of the Hebrew Bible clearly enjoys the right kind of burn offerings (after the Flood, Noah’s smelled particularly agreeable to Him), one wonders how Eagleton can possibly know that his spectral and not-of-this-world God is also an unneurotic aesthete who may regret His creation, and dislikes the Stars and Stripes.

c.  Espousing a faith so rarefied that hardly anybody else shares it. (This is something I’ve been harping on for ages.)

It is no good for Eagleton to turn on [John] Rawls and say, in effect, “But I don’t mean your kind of belief in God, or even your kind of God; I mean something much more sophisticated and ethereal. There is really no such thing as what you call ‘the supremacy of the divine will,’ because God doesn’t ‘exist’ as an entity in the world.” Theologians and priests are always changing the game in this way.  They accuse atheists of wanting to murder an overliteral God, while they themselves keep alive a rarefied God whom no one, other than them, actually believes in.

YAY! Win!

But what does Wood see as the solution to a debate whose antipodes are both inadequate?  Simply this:

What is needed is neither the overweening rationalist atheism of a Dawkins nor the rarefied religious belief of an Eagleton but a theologically engaged atheism that resembles disappointed belief.

In other words, we need to express sadness that there is no God. That will make the atheists acceptable to the believers (NOT!).  In this synthesis, Wood sees the atheists being less afraid “to credit the immense allure of religious tradition,” but who among us has ever done that? On the contrary, most atheists freely admit that religions and their traditions have considerable allure.  But admitting that is not the same as saying that religious beliefs are facts.  And on that point the gulf is unbridgeable.  That is why Wood’s solution, like that of Steve Gould’s NOMA, fails miserably.