Survival of the Fittest Characters

Washington Post Book World, August 7, 2005

Denis Dutton

Madame Bovary’s Ovaries: a Darwinian Look at Literature, by David P. Barash and Nanelle R. Barash. New York: Delacourt Press, 2005, 272 pp. $24.00 paper, $32.00 cloth.

Human nature, evolved over millions of years and present in our genes, expresses itself not only in bedrooms, boardrooms, and battlefields but in creative human pursuits, including literature. This, anyway, is the premise of an amusing, if over-ambitious, book by psychologist/zoologist David P. Barash and his college-student daughter, Nanelle.

The Barashes line up exemplary works of fiction from Homer to Saul Bellow alongside the major claims of evolutionary psychology. The prehistoric origins of human conduct and desires, so the idea goes, should be able to tell us something about the conduct and values of characters in fiction. The results are mixed: Some of the Barashes’ explanations are far-fetched, but others have the power to jolt us into an altered view of familiar literary stories and characters.

Among the authors’ best insights is their description of Jane Austen’s fiction in terms of sexual selection theory. Darwinian evolution depends on natural selection: Unfit individuals die off in a hostile environment, while the survivors pass their fitness on to descendants. But for Darwin, there is also a second, parallel and quite distinct process that drives evolution: sexual selection.

The heavy, cumbersome peacock’s tail, far from helping the bird survive, is a distinct hindrance, making peacocks more prone to being eaten by predators. This remarkable tail is a product not of natural, but of sexual selection: Peahens choose to mate with peacocks sporting the most gorgeous feathers, which indicate both healthy genes and the capacity to produce offspring with more gorgeous feathers, increasing the likelihood that the mother’s gene line will survive into the future. By making discriminating mating choices over thousands of generations, it is actually peahens, and not their males, who by their choices have bred the peacock’s tail.

Likewise, discriminating human females are central to the world of Jane Austen, whom the Barashes call “the poet laureate of female choice.” Selecting a good mate is Austen’s major theme. She is particularly adept at bringing out, against the vast intricacies of a social milieu, the basic values women seek in men, and men tend to want in women (shortlist: good looks, health, money, status, IQ, courage, dependability and a pleasant personality — in many different weightings and orderings). Not being a peacock, Mr. Darcy does not have iridescent feathers, but for human females his commanding personality, solid income, intelligence, generosity, and the magnificent Pemberley estate do very nicely.

Cinderella is used to exemplify the well-known research of Martin Daly and Margo Wilson showing that children are statistically at much greater risk of murder or abuse by stepparents than by biological parents. In this connection, the Barashes also discuss Sarah Hrdy’s study of the way dominant male langur monkeys kill the infant offspring of rivals before mating with the infants’ mothers. In real life we may all know plenty of loving stepparents, but as the Barashes explain, historical statistics are sadly on the side of the European folk-tale tradition with its stereotype of the wicked stepmother.

The battles of elephant seals are brought to bear on the rivalry between Agamemnon and Achilles. The Barashes use evolutionary principles to explain the tragic outrage of Othello in a world whose double standard treats straying women much more severely than philandering men. A discussion of John Steinbeck’s portrayal of male friendship in Of Mice and Men follows a clear and pertinent analysis of reciprocity among animals. This includes a fascinating account of the process by which a vampire bat unsuccessful in a hunt can coax a well-fed fellow bat into vomiting up a meal of blood. That too is friendship, maybe, though I learned from this book more about vampire bats than about Steinbeck.

It is easy to make fun of animal analogies, but in fairness, the Barashes are mostly modest and persuasive in drawing their comparisons. Nevertheless, despite the authors’ enthusiasm for their subject, there is a curious flatness to Madame Bovary’s Ovaries.

First, the Barashes tend to pick and choose literary evidence as it suits their case, a procedure generally verboten in research psychology. They provide an adequate, if unsurprising, evolutionary explanation of Emma Bovary’s adultery (a female searching for better genes). But what about another important event in the story, Emma’s suicide? Maybe there is an evolutionary explanation for suicide as a solution for a person cornered in an intolerable social situation, but it’s not hinted at here.

At the same time, the authors also now and then claim for evolutionary psychology more than the evidence warrants. Catcher in the Rye is a tale of youthful alienation and rebellion. Parents, we’re told, push their children around, and “it makes perfect sense that adolescents in particular are prone to fight back.” Such conflict is bound to occur between “every young individual and the adult world that he or she must learn to negotiate.” Fine, but platitudes about Holden Caulfield’s rebelliousness hardly need validation by Darwin, and none is given here. The Barashes have slipped into doing the most ordinary brand of criticism without seeming to realize it.

In fact, Madame Bovary’s Ovaries is less a Darwinian look at literature than a discussion of evolutionary psychology that happens to trawl through fiction for examples. If readers don’t know The Grapes of Wrath or the Iliad firsthand, they’ll likely have seen the movies or read the Cliffs Notes, which will be good enough. The authors might as easily have clipped crime or human interest stories from last month’s newspapers, except that fiction normally supplies interior monologues or narratives that reveal motivations. This is a plus if you’re trying to explain how evolved psychology works.

But by reducing literature to a convenient collection of anecdotes and case studies, the Barashes fail to engage broader features of an expressive and communicative art. There is nothing here about literary style, tone, and the crucial interaction between authors and their audiences. From both a human and aesthetic perspective, literature does not just report on what happened but shows us how individuals make sense of what happened. It is about the beliefs, attitudes, and modes of perception that distinguish us from each other.

Literature also serves the human craving for novelty and surprise, including twists and shocks that go against our normal, evolved expectations and desires. The Barashes’ approach can explain the vicarious pleasure we might get in following the choices and indecisions of a Jane Austen character as she settles on her man. It can explain any story of a mother who fights to protect her children from danger. But it has more trouble with the likes of a Medea, who murders her children to satisfy her consuming hatred for their father. The family story of Jason and Medea is one of the most revoltingly entertaining soap operas in literature, exactly because it perverts all expectations of a mother’s normal conduct toward her children.

David and Nanelle Barash wisely insist that they are not trying to provide the decisive framework to explain literature. They give us a few of the patterns of human behavior that contemporary science can explain, showing that reproduction, survival and social reciprocity are bread and butter topics of the fiction we love. Yes, Sophocles, Shakespeare and Flaubert knew the human race at least as well as any psychologist. The science in this book comes out better than the literary criticism, but classic literature remains, as ever, the ultimate winner.

For another treatment of the relation between Darwinism and literary studies, take a look at the work of Joseph Carroll. I’ve reviewed Carroll’s latest book here. If you have access to the Johns Hopkins University Press journal Philosophy and Literature through your library, I’d also recommend an excellent article in April 2005 issue. It’s “Literature and Evolution: a Bio-Cultural Approach,” by the Nabokov scholar and literary theorist, Brian Boyd. — D.D.


Denis Dutton teaches philosophy of art at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.