MADAME BOVARY'S OVARIES: A Darwinian Look at Literature

David P. Barash, Author, Nanelle R. Barash, Author . Delacorte $24 (272p) ISBN 978-0-385-33801-1

One can only imagine the kitchen table conversations that inspired evolutionary psychologist David Barash and his daughter Nanelle (an undergraduate at Swarthmore) to collaborate on this witty and insightful book. Their explicit goal is to apply the basic principles of sociobiology (think Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene ) to the study of literature. Thus, they say, we can better understand Othello as "a story about a jealous guy" if we know that males tend to be particularly afraid that their mate might have been impregnated by another, thus suckering them into expending resources on a child who doesn't carry their genes. By the same token, we can read Jane Austen's novels as detailed depictions of the cost-benefit analysis inherent in female mate selection. This conceit actually works quite nicely—the Barashes' writing is easy and ironic, as if they themselves take it with a grain of salt, and sociobiology benefits from being cast as an interpretive lens rather than the ironclad, coldly calculated truth that leaves many of its opponents feeling nervous about being nothing more than "gene machines." From its irreverent title to the last paragraph, the result is a surprisingly lighthearted romp through both literature and the animal kingdom, aimed at a casual reader who's interested in either or both. Agent, John Michel at the Howard Morhaim Agency. (May 3)

Reviewed on: 03/28/2005
Release date: 04/01/2005
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