Book Review: Madame Bovary’s Ovaries


Noam Chomsky once said: “It is quite possible — overwhelmingly probable, one might guess — that we will always learn more about human life and human personality from novels than from scientific psychology.”  I think this insight speaks to something very important about the humanities and what they can reveal to us about the human experience.  Literary theory (and some forms of literary criticism), however, can come across as obscure, esoteric, and confusing as hell.  Fear not, the ideas from Charles Darwin can help us understand and interpret literature too using what is called Darwinian lit-crit.

We know that the forces of both natural and sexual selection have molded human behavior, both in particular and universal terms. By implication, then, they’ve also shaped the body of literature describing the tragicomedy that is human existence. Or at least so say zoologist and evolutionary psychologist David Barash and his daughter Nanelle in their intriguing book Madame Bovary’s Ovaries. The father-daughter combo has teamed up to write a fascinating work that dissects many literary classics from an evolutionary angle.  I suspect that most people are at least somewhat with most of the titles used in the book.  In a sort of CliffsNotes-esque fashion, the Barashes provide a nice succinct summary of the classics and provide quotes and analysis from those selections.

In the grand scheme of intellectual life, evolutionary psychology is still in its infancy. Accordingly, it has not been very common, at least historically, to read and interpret novels from an evolutionary perspective. As one who is interested in human behavior, this is exactly how I prefer to read my literature.  Although, as the authors wisely contend, it’s certainly not the only way to interpret literature.  As they put it: “Biology isn’t the key to understanding and appreciating literature. It is a key.”

What’s often neglected is that Darwinian evolution depends on more than just natural selection (see Geoffrey Miller’s book The Mating Mind). For Darwin, there is another process that drives evolution and it’s called sexual selection.  Sexual selection was introduced in 1871 and it famously explains the ornamental detail of the male peacocks’ tail.  Throughout the book, the Barashes brilliantly breakdown many of the literary classics using insights from the theory of sexual selection. When you think about it, it’s not surprising that the subject matter of many novels has its origins in the human mating game.  In the evolutionary marketplace, men trade love for sex and women trade sex for love.  Each sex is unconsciously on a quest to maximize their genes’ chances for immortality based on the sexual economics of the situation.

Consider Gustave Flaubert’s novel from which this book derives its name for instance.  In Madame Bovary Flaubert concocted a shocking story about a heroine who takes on a series of lovers that are younger and more sexually appealing than her husband.  The security of a comfortable marriage was appealing, but not quite appealing enough to allow Madame Bovary to overcome her unconscious longing for the evolutionary attractive genes in her lovers sperm.  Cuckolding her husband would perhaps improve her position on the ladder that is evolution all the while allowing her all the comforts and protection that come with marriage.  Yes, these stories still happen even in modern times.

When literature is at its’ best it not only describes the human condition as we observe it in others, but also as we observe it in ourselves.  This book does a great job of explaining that idea, and others, in superb detail.  Darwinian lit-crit seems relatively new, but perhaps literature has been understood in evolutionary terms by some individuals for longer than we realize.

After reading this book, I feel pretty confident in sharing this tip, which is steeped in evolutionary wisdom: if you want to annoy a novelist, explain their novel in Darwinian terms.