The Birds and the Bees
Madame Bovary's Ovaries
By Daniel P. Barash and Nanelle R. Barash
Delacorte; 272 pp. $24.00
It is 41 years now since zoologist William D. Hamilton worked out the evolutionary mathematics of kin altruism, demonstrating that even behavior that seems to belong to the moral and educational superstructure of human nature can be explained by natural selection. Sociobiology was on the march.
That march did not, of course, go unopposed. The political Left was outraged at the suggestion that our nature might have something to do with our biology, and therefore might not be infinitely malleable. Could there, then, be no "New Soviet Man"? No withering away of all behavioral sex differences? No elimination of all preference for one's own kin or ethny over those more distantly related? Perish the thought! The Left rallied under charismatic generals like the late Stephen Jay Gould, and battle was joined.
The current state of the conflict is a sort of wary stalemate. The Left has conceded that the fundamental science behind sociobiology is indisputable, so that unyielding all-points opposition in the style of Gould is no longer tenable. Accredited human-science professionals John Tooby and Leda Cosmides have worked up "evolutionary psychology," a low-tar version of sociobiology omitting all those elements that are obnoxious to the egalitarian Left, so even the most politically correct human scientist can now utter phrases like "assortative mating" and "parental investment" without blushing. In any case, the Left still firmly controls the Humanities, and thereby the commanding heights of Academia. This, they feel, gives them police power over how much may be said aloud about the biological roots of human behavior. It also gives them the right to punish those who say too much — people like the hapless Larry Summers.
This carefully policed armistice is the context in which Madame Bovary's Ovaries should be read. David Barash is a professor of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle; Nanelle Barash is his daughter, an undergraduate studying literature and biology at Swarthmore. In this collaborative effort, father and daughter take us through some well-known works of world literature to point out the basic facts of biology that underlie their stories. The general drift of the book is illustrated by the opening sentences of a paragraph in Chapter 5 ("The Biology of Adultery"):
It isn't just Emma Bovary who is especially likely to be unfaithful when her mate has suffered a decline in status. A recent study of black-capped chickadees, for instance, found that …
So it goes. Othello? "It pays males to be sexually jealous and thus highly protective of their reproductive prerogatives." Jane Austen? "Resource-rich males of nearly every species become remarkably attractive at a level that often goes beyond … conscious awareness." The Godfather? "Not only is Don Vito the symbol of the family, he is … progenitor of (half) of its genes." Little Women? "The Marches are a tightly bound genetic unit." Portnoy's Complaint? "Conflict over weaning, or its equivalent in birds, does not exhaust the potential for parents and offspring to disagree."
It's fun, in a mild way, but somewhat wearying to read at book length. Do I really need a 30-page chapter to tell me the biological origins of the traditional double standard on sexual infidelity? It is simply a matter of resource priorities. As a biologist friend of mine likes to point out, if there were only a thousand men and a thousand women on the planet, you could kill off 999 of the men, and the human race would almost certainly survive. However, if you were to kill off 999 of the women, the race would almost certainly not survive. Or, as William James put it:
Man is polygamous.
Woman is monogamous.
I hoped for more enlightening insights from the chapter on friendship and the kindness of strangers, features of human social life that appear difficult to understand from the point of view of Hamilton's calculating genes. The authors dwell on these matters for much of a chapter, without really placing them in a truly evolutionary context. "Systems of [non-kin] reciprocity are likely to be inherently unstable, relying on a variety of psychological and social mechanisms in order to keep them going." No kidding. But where does non-kin altruism come from?
The authors' real problem here is that they are trespassing very close to the boundaries of what may be written about for the general public. Of injunctions like the Golden Rule, they say: "They are especially important since … when those others are truly 'other' — that is, unrelated — there is a powerful yet subtle pressure to behave more selfishly." But perhaps our awareness of kinship does not end with our actual known kin, but extends to … people who … look … like ourselves? Eeeek! Here you see the difficulties of explaining a theory when parts of it have been fenced off as unsuitable for public display.
The authors' argument is not helped by their unfortunate style. Aware of the somewhat inflammable nature of their material, they have tried to make it more acceptable by writing in a breezy, jokey manner. This doesn't really come off, and in places is positively toe-curling. See if you can identify the parties being referred to here: "True it is that by sacrificing Iphy, Aggy lost a daughter, but he gained immense prestige among his fellow Greeks and, with the ultimately successful war against Troy, his pick of their women." Similarly, there seems to be no simile too tired, no catchphrase too worn, to be admitted to the Barashes' party. If you agree with Milton's idealistic view of married love, they have a can-you-guess-what? in Brooklyn that you might want to purchase. Do you know what three qualities realtors prize above all others in a property? And so on.
I am sorry not to have been able to give a better review to Madame Bovary's Ovaries. Half a loaf is better than no bread, and it is a very good thing that popular books setting human nature in its biological, evolutionary context are being published, even if the only approach they may take is the upbeat, Tooby-Cosmidesean one that approaches Mother Nature's red teeth and claws with dentifrice and clippers. And I confess that the evolutionary explanation for Aeneas's desertion of Dido had never occurred to me until I read it here.