fall/winter, '06-07 , no. 8


The Nature of Literature


by Michelle Scalise Sugiyama


A review of Madame Bovary’s Ovaries by David and Nanelle Barash; Delacorte Press, 2005.







Fifteen years ago, I wrote a dissertation prospectus in which I dared to suggest that there was such a thing as human nature, that this human nature was the equivalent of evolved human psychology, that literary characters were representations of this evolved psychology, and that literary analysis should therefore be founded on an understanding of evolutionary psychology.  These ideas were seen by the literary establishment as being racist, sexist, and—worst of all—reductionistic. It took me over a year to find three people in the UC Santa Barbara English Department who were willing to serve on my dissertation committee. 


Unbeknownst to me at the time, a handful of other literary renegades had reached the same conclusion regarding literature, psychology, and human evolution: Joe Carroll in Missouri, Bob Storey in Pennsylvania, Nancy Easterlin in New Orleans, Brett Cooke in Texas, Judith Saunders in New York, John Constable in Japan, and Dennis Dutton in New Zealand. Farther along in their careers than I was, these people had jobs, but none of them had been hired as an evolutionary literary scholar. And despite the reverence for theory that oozes from the halls of literary study, there are still no positions in English departments for evolutionary literary theorists.


It is against this backdrop that David and Nanelle Barash’s Madame Bovary’s Ovaries can best be appreciated.  Here is a book that doesn’t say much that the abovementioned bunch hasn’t already said, and doesn’t really advance the field of evolutionary literary study.  And yet it is a brilliant effort, for what it does do is attempt to bypass the intellectual arteriosclerosis afflicting mainstream literary scholarship and infuse evolutionary literary theory directly into the body public.  Thus far it’s been easy for said mainstream to ignore half a dozen scholars publishing in journals with which their discipline is not conversant (e.g., Human Nature, Evolution and Human Behavior). But a popular book about evolutionary literary theory might jolt the literary establishment out of its anti-science complacency, especially if undergrads start asking, “Yo, Professor, what did you think of that book about Madame Bovary’s ovaries?”  


Thus, even though the authors claim that their “concern is not with the official, scholarly establishment of theorists and critics” (249), their book might be of use to literary scholars genuinely interested in opening the doors of perception.  A warning, however, to those long immersed in hegemonic literary discourse: do not be put off by the very accessibleeven colloquial—language of Madame Bovary’s Ovaries.  This reaction against plain, Anglo-Saxon English is now known to be caused by repeated exposure to the writings of European post-modernists.  This result of this contagion is a fallacy of epidemic proportions, whereby polysyllabic diction, serpentine sentences, and nebulous logic are equated with complexity of thought.  Happily, the remedy for this affliction is close at hand: simply pause to reflect that string theory—far more complex than Deconstruction or French Feminismcan be explained in terms that a ten-year-old can understand. It helps to remember that, by definition, analysis involves taking complex ideas or phenomena and breaking them down into simpler parts. Barash and Barash do an excellent job of simplifying the fundamentals of evolutionary psychology.


Their book is modest in scope: its aim is to show how human nature is reflected in the stories humans read and write.  The authors parse human nature into various adaptive problems (e.g., mate selection, adultery, parent-offspring conflict, kin selection), which form the basis for the chapter divisions.  Each chapter adroitly fuses biology (a description of the featured adaptive problem and associated cognitive adaptations) with literary analysis (a discussion of literary works whose main conflict centers around the featured adaptive problem).  In Chapter 5, for example, female infidelity is discussed in relation to a variety of texts, including Le Mort d’Arthur, The Scarlet Letter, Madame Bovary, The Golden Bowl, Anna Karenina, The Awakening, and Ulysses.  The book thus serves to acquaint the reader not only with the premises of evolutionary literary analysis, but with some rudiments of evolutionary psychology as well. 


In so doing, Madame Bovary’s Ovaries offers English professors suffering from occupational ennui the opportunity to get in touch with their inner scholar: the self who has heard the term Darwinian literary criticism or evolutionary psychology, and despite the post-modern pooh-poohing of senior colleagues, secretly longs to know what these things mean.  (Where did you see that article?  The New York Times Review of BooksNatureScience? If you guessed all three, you’d be right.)  The only danger is that the book might leave that self wanting more.


Which brings me to my chief concern with Barash and Barash’s study. What happens to the reader who, upon finishing the book, wants a deeper understanding of the foundations of evolutionary literary theory?  How will that person know to read Carroll’s Evolution and Literary Theory (1995)?  And what about the person seeking a biology-based view of narrative representation?  How will that person find Storey’s Mimesis and the Human Animal (1996)?  And what about the person who wants to know why humans tell stories in the first place?  I’ve written a thing or two on that subject, as have Pinker (1997), Miller (2000), and Tooby and Cosmides (2001), but you’d never know it from reading Barash and Barash’s book.  It is no crime that the authors do not traverse these avenues of inquiry: it is not what they set out to accomplish.  But they could have paused briefly to give the reader directions. 


At the very least they could have appended a list of further reading. Instead, they give the reader the impression that their work is unprecedented: “We believe that the current offering is new” (13) is the claim with which they conclude the introductory chapter.  They qualify this statement--in a footnote!—as follows:


Well, not entirely new. As already mentioned, some scholars—such as Brian Boyd, Joseph Carroll, Ellen Dissanayake, Nancy Easterlin, Jonathan Gottschall, and Michelle Sugiyama—have begun exploring the potential of “Darwinian literary criticism,” but thus far their work has been directed toward a technical audience, and they certainly represent a minority, even among scholars. (13)


“As already mentioned” refers to a single line, in which they observe that “there is a nascent movement among a tiny minority of humanities professors to take Darwin seriously at last” (11).  Say what?  The earliest efforts to examine the relationship between evolutionary theory and literary study began over fifteen years ago, and the field is neither nascent nor in the exploration stage.  Moreover, the fact that this group of scholars constitute a minority and that their work has been directed toward a technical audience has no bearing on whether or not Barash and Barash’s work is new. As noted above, the majority of it is not. The Cinderella motif was first discussed in relation to step-parenthood by Daly and Wilson in 1988 and again in 1998. The topics of female adultery, mate choice, and mating strategies have been addressed by several evolutionary literary scholars (Nesse 1995; Scalise Sugiyama 1996a, 1997; Whissell 1996), while male  long- and short-term mating strategies have been addressed by Jobling (2002) and Kruger et al. (2003).  Fox (1995) and Gottschall (2001) have written about male intrasexual competition in the epics, and Cooke (1999) has written about cuckoldry and male sexual jealousy in Pushkin’s work.  These are but a few examples that come to mind as I type, but there is much, much more.  Adding insult to injury, Barash and Barash drop names of evolutionary biologists and psychologists like hot potatoes in their discussions of evolutionary theory.  It is professionally irresponsible and discourteous not to do the same for evolutionary literary scholars. What would Miss Manners say?


In presenting their work as new, Barash and Barash give the impression that evolutionary literary study consists entirely of the human-nature approach they have chosen to take.  Certainly, evolutionary literary study began withand remains rooted in—the twin premises that (1) story characters are representations of the evolved human psyche, and (2) setting and action evoke real-world adaptive problems and constraints.  But coming to this realizationas my Darwinian compadres and I did in the late 80s and early 90sbegs the question, Where do we go from here?  The most obvious avenue of inquiry—for the adaptationist, anyway—is the question of narrative function, which has been examined by both evolutionary psychologists and literary scholars (e.g., Scalise Sugiyama 1996b, 2001a, 2005, 2006; Pinker 1997; Miller 2000; Tooby & Cosmides 2001; Carroll 2004; Boyd 2005).  A second avenue explores the possibility of using literature as a database for testing hypotheses regarding evolved psychological mechanisms (e.g., Gottschall 2003; Stiller et al. 2003).  Yet another quantitative approach uses statistical analysis to elucidate cross-cultural patterns in narrative themes and character types, against which hypotheses implicit in literary theory can be tested (Gottschall 2005). And a fourth avenue has led to the development of an interpretive paradigm based on the motivational structure of our evolved psychology (Carroll 2005).


So the book’s foundations aren’t new, but they are solid—as far as they go. It is indeed the case that understanding our evolved psychology and the problems it is designed to solve better enables us to understand human nature, which in turn better enables us to understand the motives and actions of story characters.  It is also the case that a biologically informed approach to literature helps to dispel fuzzy logic passing itself off as theory, such as the notion that little boys want to kill their fathers and have sex with their mothers (Scalise Sugiyama 2001b). But evolutionary literary interpretation consists of more than finding expressions of adaptive problems or evolved psychological mechanisms in literature. As Easterlin points out, “if we assume that such unconscious mechanisms . . . provide a universal key to the interpretation of specific works, evolutionary literary criticism will become nothing more than a latter-day Freudianism, performing its ritual unveilings of psychic secrets in hunter-gatherer dress” (2001:256). Stories do not simply reflect adaptive problems and the cognitive mechanisms that have evolved to solve them.  Complex adaptations are facultative: they are sensitive to environmental variation, capable of generating different responses to different environmental inputs. Stories enact the facultative nature of our evolved psychology.  A given story takes a set of people, each with a different phenotype (i.e., different personality traits, life experiences, fitness attributes and goals), places them in a particular set of historical, cultural, and geographical conditions, then plays out one possible version of the interaction of these variables over a certain length of time (see Pinker 1997; Scalise Sugiyama 2003). This simulation is produced and mediated by the mind of yet another phenotypethe author—whose particular traits, experiences, attributes, and fitness goals add another filter to the lens through which the reader interprets the actions, beliefs and desires of the story characters (see especially Carroll 2001; Easterlin 2001).


Barash and Barash’s discussion of Huckleberry Finn in relation to parent-offspring conflict illustrates the interpretive pitfalls of thinking too generally about adaptive problems and psychological adaptations.  Their exegesis is problematic from the get-go, for Huck’s mother is dead and his father is not a big influence in his life. The authors circumvent this difficulty by arguing that Huck has many substitute parents—Jim, the Widow Douglas, Judge Thatcher, Miss Watson, Aunt Polly, and so on.  However, these parent figures are not genetic relatives, and parental investment theory is grounded in genetic relatedness: parent-offspring conflict arises because a child is 100% related to itself but only 50% related to its siblings. Therefore, from the child’s perspective, she should get twice as much parental investment as her sibling. A parent, in contrast, is equally related to all offspring, and should therefore invest in them equally.  Further complicating matters, parents must divide their investment between existing offspring and future reproductive effort, and therein lies the conflict between parent and offspring.  This is not the type of conflict Huck experiences with the “parent” figures in his lifehe would be perfectly happy if these figures did not invest in him at all. Huck’s crisis is rooted in the difficulties of group living: the adults in Huck’s world want him to play by a certain set of rules, and he must choose whether to cooperate or defect. Characterizing Huck’s resistance as parent-offspring conflict misses the particular environmental conditions (antebellum America) to which a particular phenotype (Huck’s) is responding: a society that tacitly prescribes cruelty, violence and injustice (e.g., slavery, chicanery, feuding), but proscribes minor vices such as pipe-smoking, cursing, and playing hooky.


Don’t get me wrong. If you have no idea what biology and evolution could possibly have to do with the study of literature, Barash and Barash’s book is worth reading. It presents a straightforward introduction to both a scientific and a literary revolution, and how often do you get that in 250 pages of reader-friendly prose?  But understand that, in tailoring their message for a “non-technical” audience, the authors have sacrificed some precision. Consider, for example, the authors’ claim that, “The ancient Romans evidently understood evolutionary genetics as well as the Godfather, since additional manifestations of kin selection abound throughout The Aeneid” (147). The authors are attempting levity here, but truth always trumps style, and their claim is false: the relationship between genes, heredity, and evolution was not understood until the significance of Mendel’s experiments was realized in the first half of the 20th century. The fact that ancient literature features characters who behave nepotistically is not evidence that the ancients understood evolutionary genetics; it is merely evidence that they had observed or could imagine human beings behaving nepotistically—evidence, in other words, that they understood human nature. The authors’ phrasing here presents a false picture of the relationship between cognition and behavior.  We need not understand or even be aware of evolved psychological structures to be motivated by them; no understanding of evolutionary processes is necessary for humans to respond to the world in the ways those processes have designed them to.


Admittedly, these are the complaints of an evolutionary literary scholar: fifteen years of addressing a “technical” audience makes one obsessed with getting it right. The bad news, then, from my particular phenotypic perspective, is that there are more things in evolutionary literary study than are dreamt of in this book’s philosophy. The good news is that, whereas past efforts have failed, this book might actually inspire people to go out and find them. <



Michelle Scalise Sugiyama received her PhD from UC Santa Barbara, where she combined literary study with training at the Center for Evolutionary Psychology. Her work examines narrative as behavior; she is particularly interested in why and when humans began telling and listening to stories.  To this end, her work examines the oral traditions of small-scale societies against the exigencies of hunter-gatherer life. She has published numerous articles on the origin, function, and design of narrative, in both literary (e.g., Philosophy and Literature, Interdisciplinary Literary Studies, Mosaic) and social science (Human Nature, Evolution and Human Behavior) journals. Currently affiliated with the Institute for Cognitive and Decision Sciences and the English Department at the University of Oregon, Eugene, she teaches classes on the prehistory of narrative and art behavior.

Works Cited



Boyd, Brian.  2005.  Evolutionary theories of art.  The literary animal.  Ed. Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson, pp. 147-176.  Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP.


Carroll, Joseph.  1995.  Evolution and literary theory.  Columbia: University of Missouri Press.


---.  2001.  The ecology of Victorian fiction.  Philosophy and Literature 25(2): 295-313.


---.  2004.  Literary Darwinism: Evolution, human nature, and literature.  New York: Routledge.


---.  2005.  Human nature and literary meaning: A theoretical model illustrated with a critique of Pride and Prejudice.  The literary animal.  Ed. Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson, pp. 76-106.  Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP.


Cooke, Brett.  1999.  Sexual property in Pushkin’s ‘The Snowstorm’: A Darwinist perspective.  Biopoetics, ed. Brett Cooke and Frederick Turner, pp. 175-204.  Lexington, KY: ICUS.


Daly, Martin and Margo Wilson.  1988.  Homicide.  New York: Aldine de Gruyter.


---.  1998.  The truth about Cinderella: A Darwinian view of parental love.  New Haven: Yale UP.


Easterlin, Nancy.  2001.  Hans Christian Andersen’s fish out of water.  Philosophy and Literature 25(2): 251-277.


Gottschall, Jonathan.  2001.  Homer’s human animal: Ritual combat in the IliadPhilosophy and Literature 25(2):278-294. 


---.  2003.  Patterns of characterization in folk tales across geographic regions and levels of cultural complexity: Literature as a neglected source of quantitative data.  Human Nature 14(4):365-382.


---.  2005.  Quantitative literary study: A modest manifesto and testing the hypotheses of feminist fairy tale studies.  The literary animal.  Ed. Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson, pp. 199-224.  Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP.


Jobling, Ian.  2002.  Byron as cad.  Philosophy and Literature 26:296-311.


Kruger, D., M. Fisher, and I. Jobling.  2003.  Proper and dark heroes as dads and cads: alternative mating strategies in British and Romantic literature.  Human Nature 14:305-317.


Miller, Geoffrey.  2000.  The Mating Mind.  New York: Doubleday.


Nesse, Margaret.  1995.  Guinevere’s choice.  Human Nature 6:145-63.


Stiller, James, Daniel Nettle, and Robin I. M. Dunbar.  2003.  The small world of Shakespeare’s plays.  Human Nature 14(4):397-408.


 Pinker, Steven.  1997.  How the mind works.  New York: Norton.


Scalise Sugiyama, Michelle. 1996a.  “What’s Love Got to Do with It?  An Evolutionary Analysis of ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,’” Hemingway Review 15(2):15-32.


---.  1996b.  On the origins of narrative: Storyteller bias as a fitness-enhancing strategy.  Human Nature 7:403-25.


---.  1997.  “Feminine Nature: An Evolutionary Analysis of Hemingway’s Women Characters,” dissertation, University of California, Santa Barbara.


---.  2001a.  Food, foragers, and folklore: The role of narrative in human subsistence.  Evolution and Human Behavior 22: 221-40.


---.  2001b.  “New Science, Old Myth: An Evolutionary Critique of the Oedipal Paradigm,” Mosaic 34.1 (March 2001):121-36.


---.   2003.  Cultural variation is part of human nature: Literary universals, context-sensitivity and ‘Shakespeare in the Bush.’  Human Nature 14:383-396.


---.  2005.  Reverse-engineering narrative.  The literary animal.  Ed. Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson.  Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP.


---.  2006.  Lions and tigers and bears: Predators as a folklore universal.  Heuristiken der literaturwissenschaft: Disziplinextrene perspektiven auf literature.  Ed. Uta Klein, Katja Mellmann, and Steffanie Metzger, pp. 319-331.  Paderborn: Mentis.  


Storey, Robert.  1996.  Mimesis and the human animal: On the biogenetic foundations of literary representation.  Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP.


Tooby, John and Leda Cosmides.  2001.  Does beauty build adaptive minds?  Toward an evolutionary theory of aesthetics, fiction, and the arts.  Substance 94/95:6-27.


Whissell, Cynthia.  1996.  Mate selection in popular women’s fiction.  Human Nature 7:427-447.

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