Madame Bovary’s Ovaries

By David P. Barash and Nanelle R. Barash

Depending on how you look at it, Madame Bovary’s Ovaries is either a bit of a pop-science lark or one of the stupidest books written in a long time.

If you read it as a breezy application of current ideas in sociobiology and evolutionary science to the field of literature, it makes for an occasionally interesting primer. It analyses our selfish genes in action, using the classics as data. Exploring themes ranging from adultery to kin selection to parent-offspring conflict, it draws on the examples of Anna Karenina, Richard III, and Holden Caulfield.

But as a new species of literary theory, what the authors call Bio-Lit-Crit, it signals a reduction to the absurd. Their starting point comes from Northrop Frye, of all people, who famously declared literary criticism “badly in need of an organizing principle, a central hypothesis which, like the theory of evolution in biology, will see the phenomena it deals with as parts of a whole.” But such a principle already exists, “needing only to be recognized and developed.” And, ironically, “it is the same one that Frye gestured toward so longingly: evolution.”

This is way off base. Frye found his organizing principle by supposing literature a unified order of words. He was deeply suspicious of intellectual structures and theories imposed on literature from outside that order. But Bio-Lit-Crit is all about grounding literature in something prior to the very idea of order. Prior even to language or the ability to walk upright. A Darwinian critic digs down to the “bedrock that all human beings share with elephant seals, elk, gorillas, and much of the animal world.”

Such a grounding may be valid on one level, but it doesn’t take us very far. Applied to literature it boils down to providing some pretty bare analyses of character motivation. Aeneas forsaking Dido? While in his conscious mind it is the gods driving his actions, “it is his biological impulses that compel him to leave.” His genes made him do it. It is a Darwinian genetic imperative that compels him to cut off his “sterile dalliance with a middle-aged woman.” Othello? “The truly important thing about Othello wasn’t the color of his skin, his age, or his war record. Rather, Othello was all about sperm; Desdemona eggs.” And so it goes.

It’s hard to know just how seriously the authors want us to take all this. As you might expect, they have to keep insisting that humans aren’t just animals, and that what makes a book great is more than its biological accuracy. But if you want more insight into Othello than the fact that “the play is great because it is wonderfully written”, you will be disappointed. Literature here is just a bunch of case studies, as well as an endless source of lame jokes. Altruism is really a form of selfishness? Well that means the Three Musketeers, “for all their friendly collegiality” are, “at heart, the three must-get-theirs”! Groan. And sometimes the authors don’t even have their facts straight. The Human Comedy of Balzac is attributed to Zola at one point, leading one to wonder just how many of the books mentioned here were actually read.

Grounding literature in biology also has a terrible leveling effect. If Othello is all about sperm and Desdemona eggs, so what? If Aeneas is simply being driven by the need to breed, who cares? What does that tell us about ourselves that we didn’t already know, and haven’t moved beyond? Is this really expanding our appreciation of literature? Enriching the reading experience?

Of course basic biological truths about human nature get represented in literature. How could they not? But literature isn’t the stuff of scientific laws. It isn’t life, or nature, or reality – though it certainly shapes the way we think about these things.

In other words we can take a Darwinian look at literature, but what we might really be seeing is literature looking back.

Review first published May 14, 2005.

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