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Book Review: Madame Bovary’s Ovaries: A Darwinian Look At Literature by David P. Barash and Nanelle R. Barash

It’s Alive! Or not. Just because a highly intriguing, informative and amusing book — in its Darwinian take on fiction — merges science and literature, doesn’t mean that biologists analyzing belles-lettres has led to the creation of a literary Frankenstein. Neither are evolutionary biologists, sociobiologists, behavioral ecologists, Darwinian anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists — like angry villagers raising reading lights aloft and storming University English Department ivory towers — going to be demanding the replacement of Derrida texts with DNA tests in their efforts to explore the nature of human nature.

“Our intent,” notes authors David P. Barash and his daughter Nanelle R. Barash of Madame Bovary’s Ovaries: A Darwinian Look At Literature, “is not to sweep away any current literary theories in favor of science,” but to provide “a useful tool to add to each reader’s kit.” In a twofold manner, they extend the concept that people are biological creatures sharing a universal, evolved nature – and add to this premise the principle that evolutionary psychology, in discovering a wealth of information about human behavior, offers much in the way of gratifying and worthy insights into the world of fiction as well as fact.

In their accessible, conversational style and straightforward approach to a new and, as they admit, a controversial study, the Barashes’ aim is to describe some key ideas in modern Darwinian behavioral biology and explain how they apply to and thrive in literature. Furthermore, main chapter topics on such writers, titles and characters as Othello, Jane Austen, Gone With The Wind, Madame Bovary, The Godfather, Cinderella, The Three Musketeers, Catcher In The Rye, Portnoy’s Complaint, and Of Mice and Men are used as springboards to segue into similar and other relevant subjects — creating a diverse and widely-encompassing work.

In illustration of this branching-out, the examination of sexual selection, or choice of mates, starts off centering on Jane Austen, “poet laureate of female choice,” whose novels, such as Pride and Prejudice, explore “universally acknowledged” truths about single men in want of a wife and the jockeying of social and material positioning that goes on in the name of hypergamy, or “marrying up.” The Barashes maintain that the young ladies in Austen’s novels look for a husband with much the same criteria as female animals do in their seeking of a mate. “Call them,” the authors state, “the three goods: good genes, good behavior, and good stuff. In other words, looks, personality, and money, although not necessarily in that order.”

In the interest of further explaining “what women want, and why,” the Barashes, in noting Charles Darwin’s proposal that female choice is the motive force behind sexual selection, point to the naturalist’s citation of the elaborate tail feathers on the male peacock as attention-getters — chick magnets, if you will — and extend this concept of poultry-in-motion male competition to humans as they expand on the subject:

    In any event, bright colors, pendulous wattles, shiny plumage, and elaborate song repertoire, or large canines or horns or antlers have come to characterize the males of many species. Whenever fancier males are preferred by females, natural selection will automatically ramp up the fanciness of males, simply because the plainer models are more likely to go unmated, and thus their plainness dies with them.

Add to the mix of physical characteristics such other traits as intelligence, generosity, and “control of resources,” which in all-too-human terms translates into wealth and social standing. The authors not only provide details to such complexities, they also go on in the chapter to parallel hypergamy as it pervades such other similarly themed works as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love In The Time Of Cholera.

And just to top it off, Barash and Barash, while making connections with our more animalistic compatriots, also discuss female-female competition, the “bad boy” attraction, the “madonna/whore” complex, and the ever-popular high school sport of going gaga for someone once he is identified as being popular. The latter BMOC phenomenon is illustrated with “guppy gals”!

In other highlights of Madame, the subject of adultery is taken up with a look at Gustav Flaubert’s Emma Bovary herself, who, as the Barashes put it, “heard a subliminal Darwinian whisper that ticked her ovaries.” But first the Barashes look at some less-than-loyal animal behavior in the affairs of such fine feathered but unfaithful friends the blackbird, the swan, and the European cuckoo, from which we derive the word “cuckold.” The authors are led to a conclusion which asserts that a “dollop of biology” sheds light on Madame Bovary and her paramours:

    If we are correct, then Madame Bovary is a reflection not only of what goes on “out there” in the animal world but also of what exists “in here,” within our own hearts…and genes, and gonads. And what has accordingly found its way onto the printed page.

What have also found their way onto the printed page with great success are adventures of friends and family, kith and kin. And in the chapters devoted to these subjects, all creatures four-fooled and creepy-crawly take a curtain call as test-tube biology or more abstract evolutionary and genetics studies are cued. Only to tell us, however — in case we didn’t already suspect — that we often act worse than animals, especially made apparent as Barash and Barash explicate issues of reciprocity and friendship in regards to such “Buddy” stories as The Three Musketeers and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men. Fleshing out the sour-milk-of-human-kindness contention so at odds with notions of “all for one and one for all” altruism, the authors stem their findings in the notion that “Even though virtue is reputed to be its own reward, the evolutionary process has a hard time rewarding virtuous behavior unless it is directed toward genetic relatives, either offspring or other kin.”

And what about that kin? Well, as it pertains to parent-offspring conflict, the battle stations are all part and parcel of a wider-spread Police Action, if not an all-out familial World War, with no home front. In looking through the “evolutionary spectacles,” there’s not so much a generation gap (to use an almost quaint term) — there’s a generational gaping chasm that seems insurmountable. The authors offer the insights of evolutionary theorist Robert Trivers, and indulge in a little psychobabble of their own, as they tie this trangenerational collision course to the lack of genetic identity between parent and offspring, a clash that sees only a 50 percent probability that any gene present in a parent is also present in the child. The outdated perception of the child as an appendage to the parent makes way for the conception that he or she is a separate being with his or her own strengths and weaknesses — and plan of action (or inaction), which often doesn’t include mom and dad.

As the authors reiterate that “there is a parent-offspring genetic glass of DNA that is half empty,” they make the potentially pessimistic claim that while “shared genes result in shared interests, unshared genes result in conflicting agendas and even outright conflict.” Grim news for human relations, maybe, but a boon for literature about disaffected youth, “bad seeds” and youthful indiscretions.

The literary implications are impressive, and Madame goes on to reference and delve into the character of Holden Caulfied in The Catcher In The Rye, who, though “an absolute jerk,” feels trapped on “the other side” of life as he pictures himself a protector of children. And the titular protagonist of Philip Roth’s ribald Portnoy’s Complaint is used to illustrate the point that “the evolutionary theory of parent-offspring conflict tells us that parents seek to manipulate children in their own ways and for their own ends, whereas children can be expected to resist.” A good example of sense of independence can be found in Huck Finn, cited for his decision to “light out for the Territory” and for his heel-digging resistance to anyone’s attempt to “sivilize me.”

The casual reader of Madame Bovary’s Ovaries will find that any initial resistance to what may seem like an off-putting book quickly diminishes in the course of this entertaining and enlightening work. You need not be a trained biologist, the authors are quick to reassure — indeed, to a detriment, there is no hard scientific methodology at play and no footnotes to be had — and though some of the lively discussions seem forced, you can take comfort in the fact that in another page or two, a compelling new subject will be coming your way.

That is, if you can take comfort in, say, a discussion of siblicide and how this kind of sibling rivalry taken to an extreme is seen in embryonic sharks — who begin their predatory ways with an early flurry of devouring each other as they swim about in utero before being born.

Then again, maybe you can take relative consolation in discovering the applicable literary correlations instead. Whatever the case, you can be sure that you’ll never read East of Eden or King Lear or the biblical story of Cain and Abel in quite the same way again.

About Gordon Hauptfleisch

  • http://murasaki.blog-city.com Purple Tigress

    This depends too heavily on familiar European and American literature to be able to make any claims about biology and evolution.

    Also, it is limited to knowledge of European culture and an emphasis of Judeo-Christian traditions. If 1/5 of the world population is Chinese and another 1/5 is Muslim, and we haven’t begun to talk about the rest of Africa and Asia…how good can these claims be?

    I read this book and found the inclusion of the daughter a bit opportunistic and lacking in a real academic reason.

  • http://philobiblion.blogspot.com Natalie Bennett

    This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States. Nice work!

  • http://gohah.blogspot.com Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Thank you Natalie.

  • Bliffle

    Tigress: but can you show that “Dream Of The Red Chamber” or “Golden Lotus” would lead one to any different conclusion?

  • http://murasaki.blog-city.com Purple Tigress

    The first novel was The Tale of Genji. This would not align very well. It was written by a woman who did marry unlike Austen.

    As for the reference to Chinese literature, from what I know of the practices of that time, women did NOT choose the men and so the three goods wouldn’t work very well. Not with a concubine/slavery system unless you’d like to suggest that slaves, including those in the Confederate South, had a choice?

    Further, the madonna/whore complex is a Judeo-Christian problem. Not a Buddhist concept. Probably not a Hindu concept either from what little I know of that religion. So I’m guessing a lot of that would fail in Hindu literature. It would fail in some Persian-Arab literature as well.

    One hardly should judge the whole human race without looking at African culture, Arab culture, Muslim culture, Hindu culture, Buddhist culture and Asian culture. It is surprising that one should visit social Darwinism in this age without touching upon race. It’s as if the past was…whitewashed?

    So even within the European-American traditions, the authors have ignored people like James Baldwin and stayed with an undeniably white cast of authors to make pronouncements about Americans and Europeans.

    The topic of gender as a social construct versus gender as a biological construct is an interesting topic. There is also a field of cross-cultural studies in literature. That is why when I read this book, I knew neither were well-qualified to make such claims.

    This is popular literature and just like popular psychology, good for the masses, but of little real value