Britt Peterson's Chronicle of Higher Education article on the champions of "literary Darwinism" portrays these "scientific" literary scholars as threatening to overturn the currently entrenched academic approaches associated with Critical Theory and Cultural Studies. But at the level of its basic assumptions about literature--about why we study literature in the first place--there's absolutely nothing "new" about literary Darwinism, as Peterson makes clear, perhaps unwittingly, in his description of this method:
The most prominent [of the new science-based scholars] are the Literary Darwinists, whose work emphasizes the discovery of the evolutionary patterns of behavior within literary texts — the Iliad in terms of dominance and aggression, or Jane Austen in terms of mating rituals — and sets itself firmly against 30 years of what they see as anti-scientific literary theories like poststructuralism and Marxism.
To emphasize "evolutionary patterns of behavior within literary texts" is not different in kind from an emphasis on cultural patterns or historical patterns or, indeed, the kind of class-centered "patterns of behavior" emphasized by Marxism. What all of these appropriations of literature have in common is that they're really not about literature. Marxists have their political agenda for which literature seems a useful prop, cultural critics have theirs, and the literary Darwinists are now making a play at getting theirs a prominent place within the scholarship factory that academic criticism has become. Readers truly interested in the study of literature--not the study of science or sociology--have no more interest in reading Jane Austen for her representation of "mating rituals" than in reading James Joyce for his putative insights into the nature of Empire. These readers want to "study" both of these writers in order to more fully understand how their texts work, how they expand our ability to experience works of literature, to transform experience into aesthetic "patterns." Literary Darwinism will do nothing to assist such readers in the goal of engaging with literature as a singular form of art.
In this way, it isn't surprising that the Darwinists are encountering resistance from from "those you might think would be allies — other members of the loosely defined group of literary critics breaking new ground with studies that incorporate scientific theory and even, in a few cases, empirical method." The "science" being employed by the Darwinists is not quite compatible with the "science" used by those enamored of "cognitive psychology," and thus the latter consider the former to be rivals in the competition to create the latest academic fad. And it is certainly not surprising that this whole "loosely defined group" would be opposed by the theorists and the sociologists, since they are in danger of being unseated at the academic big table, just as the theorists themselves began unseating the New Critics and the traditional historical scholars thirty-five years ago.
Prominent Darwinian Joseph Carroll gives the game away when he observes that
"The stick is that [mainstream academics are] going to feel more beleaguered and provincial and left out in the cold, and the carrot is that they're going to feel that here's something new to do."
The worst thing that could happen to an ambitious academic critic is to be "left out in the cold," methodologically speaking. One wants to have tenure and as many publications in prestigious places as one can before the next group of promising scholars looking for something "new" comes along.
Carroll's Darwininian colleague Jonathan Gottschall makes it even more explicit:
"I think that ambitious young scholars, graduate students and so forth, will see something of glamour in here, something that can motivate their studies."
I don't know if Gottschall is being unusually honest or if he simply got careless in his word choice, but his invocation of "glamour" as the motivating goal of literary scholars, however dim and degraded such glamour might be--these are professors we're talking about, after all--only underscores how utterly trivial the "discpline" of academic literary study has become. It is about, and only about, itself as a "field" in the academic curriculum. All concern for literature as something that might be valued in its own right dissipated into the ivy-scented air long ago.
Peterson wonders whether literary Darwinism will "save literary criticism," but the only thing that will save literary criticism is, well, a revival of actual literary criticism. What the Darwinists are proposing is certainly not that. It's an effort to dislodge the "literary" from literary study once and for all. It seeks to subdue literature and all the remaining "subjective" responses to it and pin it to the wall of scientific scrutiny (at least to the extent that "literary Darwinisim" is actually science, which is altogether questionable). Gottschall is pretty clearly contemptuous of the established approaches to literary study, which, astonishingly enough, he seems to consider still too literary to be taken seriously. He's apparently an advocate of the notion that literary study has to be destroyed in order to be saved, although what remains as the object of scholarly study will then have no resemblance to literature whatsoever.