[Paleopsych] John Derbyshire: The Birds and the Bees

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John Derbyshire: The Birds and the Bees
National Review, 5.6.20

Madame Bovary's Ovaries
By Daniel P. Barash and Nanelle R. Barash
Delacorte; 272 pp. $24.00

It is 41 years now since zoologist William D. Hamilton worked out the
evolutionary mathematics of kin altruism, demonstrating that even behavior
that seems to belong to the moral and educational superstructure of human
nature can be explained by natural selection. Sociobiology was on the march.

That march did not, of course, go unopposed. The political Left was outraged at 
the suggestion that our nature might have something to do with our biology, and 
therefore might not be infinitely malleable. Could there, then, be no "New 
Soviet Man"? No withering away of all behavioral sex differences? No 
elimination of all preference for one's own kin or ethny over those more 
distantly related? Perish the thought! The Left rallied under charismatic 
generals like the late Stephen Jay Gould, and battle was joined.

The current state of the conflict is a sort of wary stalemate. The Left has 
conceded that the fundamental science behind sociobiology is indisputable, so 
that unyielding all-points opposition in the style of Gould is no longer 
tenable. Accredited human-science professionals John Tooby and Leda Cosmides 
have worked up "evolutionary psychology," a low-tar version of sociobiology 
omitting all those elements that are obnoxious to the egalitarian Left, so even 
the most politically correct human scientist can now utter phrases like 
"assortative mating" and "parental investment" without blushing. In any case, 
the Left still firmly controls the Humanities, and thereby the commanding 
heights of Academia. This, they feel, gives them police power over how much may 
be said aloud about the biological roots of human behavior. It also gives them 
the right to punish those who say too much - people like the hapless Larry 

This carefully policed armistice is the context in which Madame Bovary's 
Ovaries should be read. David Barash is a professor of psychology at the 
University of Washington in Seattle; Nanelle Barash is his daughter, an 
undergraduate studying literature and biology at Swarthmore. In this 
collaborative effort, father and daughter take us through some well-known works 
of world literature to point out the basic facts of biology that underlie their 
stories. The general drift of the book is illustrated by the opening sentences 
of a paragraph in Chapter 5 ("The Biology of Adultery"): "It isn't just Emma 
Bovary who is especially likely to be unfaithful when her mate has suffered a 
decline in status. A recent study of black-capped chickadees, for instance, 
found that . . ."

So it goes. Othello? "It pays males to be sexually jealous and thus highly 
protective of their reproductive prerogatives." Jane Austen? "Resource-rich 
males of nearly every species become remarkably attractive at a level that 
often goes beyond . . . conscious awareness." The Godfather? "Not only is Don 
Vito the symbol of the family, he is . . . progenitor of (half) of its genes." 
Little Women? "The Marches are a tightly bound genetic unit." Portnoy's 
Complaint? "Conflict over weaning, or its equivalent in birds, does not exhaust 
the potential for parents and offspring to disagree."

It's fun, in a mild way, but somewhat wearying to read at book length. Do I 
really need a 30-page chapter to tell me the biological origins of the 
traditional double standard on sexual infidelity? It is simply a matter of 
resource priorities. As a biologist friend of mine likes to point out, if there 
were only a thousand men and a thousand women on the planet, you could kill off 
999 of the men, and the human race would almost certainly survive. However, if 
you were to kill off 999 of the women, the race would almost certainly not 
survive. Or, as William James put it:

Hogamus higamus,
Man is polygamous.
Higamus, hogamus,
Woman is monogamous.

I hoped for more enlightening insights from the chapter on friendship and the 
kindness of strangers, features of human social life that appear difficult to 
understand from the point of view of Hamilton's calculating genes. The authors 
dwell on these matters for much of a chapter, without really placing them in a 
truly evolutionary context. "Systems of [non-kin] reciprocity are likely to be 
inherently unstable, relying on a variety of psychological and social 
mechanisms in order to keep them going." No kidding. But where does non-kin 
altruism come from?

The authors' real problem here is that they are trespassing very close to the 
boundaries of what may be written about for the general public. Of injunctions 
like the Golden Rule, they say: "They are especially important since . . . when 
those others are truly 'other' - that is, unrelated - there is a powerful yet 
subtle pressure to behave more selfishly." But perhaps our awareness of kinship 
does not end with our actual known kin, but extends to . . . people who . . . 
look . . . like ourselves?  Eeeek! Here you see the difficulties of explaining 
a theory when parts of it have been fenced off as unsuitable for public 

The authors' argument is not helped by their unfortunate style. Aware of the 
somewhat inflammable nature of their material, they have tried to make it more 
acceptable by writing in a breezy, jokey manner. This doesn't really come off, 
and in places is positively toe-curling. See if you can identify the parties 
being referred to here: "True it is that by sacrificing Iphy, Aggy lost a 
daughter, but he gained immense prestige among his fellow Greeks and, with the 
ultimately successful war against Troy, his pick of their women." Similarly, 
there seems to be no simile too tired, no catchphrase too worn, to be admitted 
to the Barashes' party. If you agree with Milton's idealistic view of married 
love, they have a can-you-guess-what? in Brooklyn that you might want to 
purchase. Do you know what three qualities realtors prize above all others in a 
property? And so on.

I am sorry not to have been able to give a better review to Madame Bovary's 
Ovaries. Half a loaf is better than no bread, and it is a very good thing that 
popular books setting human nature in its biological, evolutionary context are 
being published, even if the only approach they may take is the upbeat, 
Tooby-Cosmidesean one that approaches Mother Nature's red teeth and claws with 
dentifrice and clippers. And I confess that the evolutionary explanation for 
Aeneas's desertion of Dido had never occurred to me until I read it here.

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