Friday, April 9, 2010

And you thought the academic job market was tough

[I have a longer and hopefully fairer follow-up here. Make sure to Flesch's comment which puts his quote in context and largely invalidates my criticism.]

This New York Times article (via Cheap Talk) shows that you can get to be an English professor without ever reading the Odyssey (or even skimming the Cliff Notes):

The road between the two cultures — science and literature — can go both ways. “Fiction provides a new perspective on what happens in evolution,” said William Flesch, a professor of English at Brandeis University.

To Mr. Flesch fictional accounts help explain how altruism evolved despite our selfish genes. Fictional heroes are what he calls “altruistic punishers,” people who right wrongs even if they personally have nothing to gain. “To give us an incentive to monitor and ensure cooperation, nature endows us with a pleasing sense of outrage” at cheaters, and delight when they are punished, Mr. Flesch argues. We enjoy fiction because it is teeming with altruistic punishers: Odysseus, Don Quixote, Hamlet, Hercule Poirot.


  1. Um, I don't see why this is self-evidently damning. What might make you think I hadn't read the Odyssey? Remember Euryalus? Remember the disastrous taunting of Polyphemus which leads to all his travail? Remember the suitors? (And it won't do to say that punishing the suitors is self-interested. It is in fact disastrous, because it comes very close to igniting civil war in Ithaca.)

    Just wondering where your animus comes from.

  2. This was a bit of a cheap shot to make without supporting arguments. I'll try to have a more balanced post up tomorrow.