A Second Review of Madame Bovary’s Ovaries: A Darwinian Look at Literature

By Richard M. Magee

Madame Bovary's Ovaries: A Darwinian Look at Literature
by David P. Barash and Nanelle R. Barash
Delacorte, 262 pp., $24

Described as “a new way to read, a novel approach to novels” on the cover flap, this book by David P. Barash and Nanelle R. Barash, a father-daughter team, seeks to apply evolutionary biology to literary texts. Their thesis is simple as well as promising: by considering the evolutionary basis of human behavior, a reader can gain new insights into literature. According to the authors, some works of literature are “timeless and universal” because they tell us something about ourselves; their further contention is that our shared humanity can be described using modern evolutionary theory. Much of the book is devoted to explaining in terms clear to the layperson how certain behavioral traits developed under the pressure of natural selection and how those traits can be seen today. The other half of their mission is to explain how the biological basis for these traits can help readers understand literature; this, however, proves to be the weak point of their argument. Although the pair appear to be widely read, and cite everything from The Odyssey to Bridget Jones’s Diary, many of their readings are frustratingly simple and fail to deliver on the promise of an interesting and new field of literary inquiry. They use the metaphor of the literary critical toolbox, and propose a new “tool” to describe their new field, what they call “bio-lit-crit.” The tool turns out to be something of a left-handed monkey wrench: a tool of dubious, or at least very specialized, utility.

This is not to say that the book is totally without merit, but that its appeal to the specialist or more advanced student of literature is limited. The authors carefully outline the major concepts behind evolutionary biology, and they point out that the guiding principle of evolution is genetic persistence. The primary purpose of genetic material is to replicate itself and pass its features into the future. Whether they are single-cell organisms or human beings, all living things seek to reproduce and ensure the persistence of their genes. Human behavior, according to evolutionary biologists, can be largely understood by this dynamic; humans act the way they do because they are genetically programmed to act in ways that help pass their genes on.

The first major example that the Barashes offer to support their thesis is Othello. The play, they admit, is about many things, but, at its core, there is a “jealous guy.” Because of evolutionary pressures, human males are programmed not only to reproduce but also to guard their females (and their genetic legacy) against usurpation by other males. Thus, when Othello’s jealousy appears through Iago’s machinations, he is acting as any male would to protect his genetic interest.

The authors make similar arguments about female characters. From an evolutionary standpoint, it is in a female’s best interests to mate with the most powerful male to ensure that her offspring are protected enough to survive to adulthood; as a result, women practice “hypergamy” or marrying up. Jane Austen’s novels, then, become examples of women seeking to mate with the alpha male, the man who is “a bit smarter, stronger, richer, and better connected” (103). Emma Bovary marries up, but has her adulterous affair because her husband, though of a higher social class than she was, lacked the drive that marked him as an alpha male. In the Barashes’ formulation, he lacked “the human equivalent of a bright blue throat or fancy tail feathers [the markings of certain birds that indicate dominance]” (104).

This last point illustrates one of the strengths of the book. The authors spend a great deal of time illustrating their lectures on evolutionary biology with numerous examples from the animal kingdom. Thus we are treated to explanations of how the lavish plumage of a peacock, though biologically costly (it takes a lot of energy to grow those feathers), is an evolutionary boon in that it shows to the female that this male is successful and has the resources to produce those incredible feathers. A well-dressed human male is similarly showing to women that he has the resources to procure a costly wardrobe and, presumably, to support a wife and children. Each chapter spends several pages detailing the evolutionary basis for male sexual jealousy, adultery, kin selection, and so on. For the non-scientist, the information is enlightening and interesting.

However, for the literary scholar or careful reader, the book is frustrating, largely because the authors are careless with the literary part of their endeavor. This frustration is provoked on the first page, when the authors rattle off a list of ways of reading: “New Criticism, old criticism, new historicism, old historicism, critical theory, and sometimes crackpot theory.” First, they are being too cute with their balancing terms: there is no school of “old criticism.” More importantly, however, all of the schools of criticism fall under the general category of “critical theory.” It is as if they were naming branches of science and listed “science” as one of the disciplines.

There are many other examples of sloppy writing and sloppy editing that overshadow any pure enjoyment of the book. All too often, the authors aim for a clever, casual tone that can come across as friendly, but too often sounds breezy or forced. Some of their more forced clever lines are, moreover, repeated in different chapters, making me wonder who proofread the book. At least twice when using an ancient Greek or Latin epic they use the phrase “a classic example—in both senses of the word.” The first time it was clever but, by the second, it was grating. Likewise, their repetition of the tired cliché “shocked, shocked,” from Casablanca, is annoying, annoying.

The Barashes also mistake anti-theoretical snobbery and materialist absolutism for scientific rigor, which ultimately diminishes their point to a minimally interesting lowest common denominator. They point out that recent scientific developments demonstrate that most parts of human life are not socially constructed but are biologically determined. All humans and all human characters in books are united by their common biological needs and urges. While this is undoubtedly true, it is ultimately reductive. Othello, Madame Bovary, and Huck Finn all act the way they do because they are human, the Barashes insist. Yes, but I am left asking, so what? No reader would come to any of the works of literature in question and be surprised to learn that Huck is modeled on real humans. Furthermore, to insist that scientific fact somehow trumps the social construction of that fact is naïve. While there may be scientific, factual reasons for humans to act the way they do, once we start to think about it, theorize that behavior, and, especially, write about it, it becomes socially constructed.

The authors’ insistence upon looking only at the texts and the evolutionary underpinnings of the characters’ behavior leads to some seriously flawed analyses. The Barashes spend too much of their time outlining the biology of their thesis or summarizing the plots of novels to do enough of the serious critical work that would yield more insightful and penetrating observations about the literature. Too often, a typical analysis will consist of several pages of examples of evolutionary behavior (birds and primates seem to be their favorite examples), followed by a brief plot synopsis, with an all-too-facile summation along the lines of “Othello is a typical sexually jealous male.” The remaining question—what are we to make of Othello’s jealousy in light of its evolutionary origins?—is never asked, much less answered.
The quick conclusion that we are biological creatures and much of our behavior is determined by our genetic makeup is ultimately too reductive, and it causes some curious omissions. Because the authors do not wish to consider the cultural contexts of the literature in question except as those contexts have to do with human behavior, they neglect some crucial details. Their criticism of Frank Norris’s novel McTeague is the best example of this. They quote a passage from the novel where McTeague screams as he is brutally fighting his erstwhile friend Marcus: “It was something no longer human; it was rather an echo from the jungle.” The sole comment they make about this evocative phrase is that Norris “missed a crucial point.” He neglected to take into consideration that “echoes from the jungle are often profoundly human” because of our evolutionary past.

Since Norris, like his fellow Naturalist authors, was profoundly aware of Darwin’s recent discoveries and incorporated the new scientific thinking into his novels, the social and historical context of his work is crucial to understanding his attempts to come to terms with Darwin and later offshoots such as Spencer’s social Darwinism. Writers, scientists, and the public at large at the end of the nineteenth century were struggling with the idea that humans were simply animals, apes with less body hair. The Naturalists were fascinated by what they saw as the contradictions or paradoxes of being human; we are animals of the “jungle,” yet we fight to maintain the veneer of civilization. The scholar June Howard calls this contradiction the “spectator/brute” antinomy, and the tensions arising from this propel most of the action in Norris’s novel (and in many other Naturalist novels). By dismissing Norris’s formulation as a mistake, the Barashes ignore an important part of science—the difficulties of incorporating new knowledge into our daily understanding of and interaction with our world.

The quick dismissal of Norris’s human/jungle tension as a mistake is emblematic of the major weakness of the Barashes’ approach. They are primarily interested in pointing out the evolutionary basis of characters’ behavior and little else. The book begins to read like a series of quick examples of characters acting like real humans: “And here we have a character who is sexually jealous, and here we have a character who is looking for a proper mate, and here we have…” I kept asking myself a series of questions as I was reading, none of which were answered or even approached in the book. Should we look at fictional characters as real humans and diagnose them? How does this help me understand the books any better? Isn’t this just saying that the authors were good enough observers of human nature that they accurately reflected evolutionary truths even though they may not have been aware of Darwin (as in the case of Shakespeare, Austen, and many others)? Finally, all of my questions seemed to boil down to “So what?” Shakespeare understood the attraction and repulsion of the “green-eyed monster” long before evolutionary biology mapped that monster’s DNA; now that we know that jealousy is bred in the bone what do we do with this knowledge when we are reading? It is a question that the Barashes should have spent more time answering.


Sobriquet Magazine Vol 11, No. 7


Born and raised in California, Richard M. Magee received his BA in English from the Unviersity of California at Berkeley and his MA in English from California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) in San Luis Obispo, where he started his teaching career. He moved to New York to finish his graduate studies at Fordham University, where he received a PhD in 2002. Magee started teaching at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, CT in 2003. His scholarly interests are 19th century American literature, especially sentimental literature, nature writing, and Susan Fenimore Cooper. He is also interested in literature and science, sea literature, and literary naturalism.