[Paleopsych] Denis Dutton on Madame Bovary's Ovaries

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Denis Dutton on Madame Bovary's Ovaries

Survival of the Fittest Characters
[1]Washington Post Book World, August 7, 2005

   Denis Dutton

      [3]Madame Bovarys 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

      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

      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.

      David and Nanelle Barash have written an [4]entertaining piece for
      the Chronicle of Higher Education summarizing their views. 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 [5]here. If you have access to the Johns
      Hopkins University Press journal [6]Philosophy and Literature
      through your library, I'd also recommend an excellent article in
      the latest issue. It's "[7]Literature and Evolution: a Bio-Cultural
      Approach," by the Nabokov scholar and literary theorist, Brian
      Boyd. -- D.D.

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


    2. http://www.denisdutton.com/
    4. http://chronicle.com/temp/reprint.php?id=ma6s0ryboo4uyna4dh4g8219cnzrqk
    5. http://denisdutton.com/carroll_review.htm
    6. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/philosophy_and_literature/toc/phl29.1.html
    7. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/philosophy_and_literature/v029/29.1boyd.html
    8. mailto:constant.force at netaccess.co.nz

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