Survival of the Fittest Characters

Reviewed by Denis Dutton
Sunday, August 7, 2005


A Darwinian Look at Literature

By David P. Barash and Nanelle R. Barash

Delacorte. 262 pp. $24

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.

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