Natural Digressions

By Matthew (Hattie) Hein and C. L. Quinlan

Madame Bovary's Ovaries: A Darwinian Look at Literature

by David P. Barash and Nanelle R. Barash
Delacorte, 262 pp., $24

This new book from an evolutionary psychologist and his daughter promises “the single most important idea in biology (evolution) newly applied to human behavior.” Barash & Barash argue that Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theories have been foolishly ignored by literary critics, and offer their own Darwinian readings of folktales, books, and movies in ten chatty chapters geared toward a general audience.

The idea is enticing, even exciting. After all, if evolutionary biology can yield insights into nature, then why not into human nature as well? And if we can understand human nature through natural and sexual selection, then surely fiction also ought to benefit from being examined through Darwinian lenses. As Madame Bovary’s Ovaries has it, “Evolutionary psychology isn’t currently part of the standard approach to interpreting literature, but perhaps its time is coming.”

Should that time come, however, this book will certainly be dismissed by the new school’s standard-bearers as a well-intentioned misfiring. Barash & Barash undercut their book’s intriguing central conceit with unorganized flailing, literary critiques that could have been copied from book jackets or gleaned from Cliff’s Notes, and grade-school level explications of natural selection. Added to this tragic mix is a writing style that might be generously described as relentlessly cloying and self-satisfied. More honestly, the writing could be described as simply unreadable.

The authors’ apparent desire to mimic Entertainment Weekly’s frequent knowing asides and predilection for puns proves tragically unsuccessful, and detracts from their book’s already sketchy organization. Chapters are divided in terms of neither evolution’s aspects nor literary areas. Instead, a chapter such as “Wisdom from The Godfather: Kin Selection, or the Enduring Importance of Being Family” simply piles up examples of familial cooperation in cinema and literature. Its opening paragraph hints at the desperate stretching that makes up that chapter’s thirty pages:

“The Godfather may not have been an evolutionary geneticist, but he knew a thing or two about life. ‘How do I love you?’ Don Corleone might have written. ‘Let me count your genes.’”


This exercise in overreaching leads into a typically simpletonian statement. We are told that “It may be hard to believe, since superficially the organic world is filled with trees, flowers, birds, fish, mammals, insects, and people—not a speck of DNA to be seen. And yet the genes are there.” Yes, halfway through a book published in the 21st century, Barash & Barash feel the need to argue for the existence of genes. Perhaps this elementary level of discourse is the best that can be expected from a work that stretches itself so thin. In the same “Wisdom from The Godfather” chapter, a single page offers synopses of Antigone, The Charterhouse of Parma, and Wartime Lies. It may be this attempt to cover all available ground that leads to such typically useless insights as “The Swiss Family Robinson, of course involved a family.” How true that is.

Enjoyable prose and stimulating discourse are not, alas, the only casualties of the Barash & Barash method. By declining to focus their efforts, the authors imply that everything from Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time to Julia Roberts’s Pretty Woman is open for discussion. Therefore, when they fail to address an exception to their generalizations, we have every right to object. Evolution has held up to stringent criticism because the strength of its hypothesis has been proven through the scientific method. Strong literary theories similarly must prove their worth by avoiding logical fallacies, engaging all relevant material, and illuminating their topics. Barash & Barash seem to believe that writing for a popular audience exempts them from these challenges, and they shortchange their topics with slipshod logic and shoddy research.

For instance, when we read that the male jealousy of Proust’s “masterpiece” is, as biologically ordained, directed at women, we wonder why the novel’s cases of gay male jealousy go unaddressed. When we read that the seeming altruism of Charles Dickens’s do-gooders is generally due to biological kinship, we can’t help but wonder how Barash & Barash would explain the exceptions and contradictions to this that litter Dickens’s oeuvre. (A particularly glaring example occurs when the authors note that “Esther Summerson, the admirable young heroine of Dickens’s Bleak House, turns out to be the illegitimate daughter of the formidable Lady Dedlock,” and offer this as literary proof of kinship trumping altruism. As most of us who have read the novel are aware, Esther receives more assistance from her non-biological guardian, Mr. Jarndyce, than from her biological mother.

Similarly, a discussion of James Joyce’s Ulysses that verges on being the most detailed critique in the book—it lasts for a full two pages and includes two actual quotes—closes a chapter on “The Biology of Adultery,” yet neglects to mention Leopold Bloom’s furtive epistolary dalliance. Is this nitpicking, or does it occur with such consistency that it constitutes a wider pattern? That is to say, is Madame Bovary’s Ovaries a poorly produced book that purports to engage a popular audience in the potential of mixing evolution and literature, or is it a work by a pair of academics that discusses books which neither have seriously read?

Frankly, the answer wouldn’t matter that much if the work in question was as fun and readable as it ought to have been. As it stands, the only question this book introduces that requires answering is this: Who, exactly, is the target market for a book about Flaubert and Darwin that approaches neither topic beyond a grade-school level?



Sobriquet Magazine Vol 11, No. 7


Matthew (Hattie) Hein teaches English at Portland Community College in Portland, Oregon.

C. L. Quinlan is pursuing her PhD in mitochondrial physiology at Portland State University.