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Madame Bovary's Ovaries: A Darwinian Look at Literature Hardcover – April 26, 2005

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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)


"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."
--Publishers Weekly
"MADAME BOVARY'S OVARIES lies at the crossroads between literary studies and biology, and has much to offer students of either subject.... it provides an interesting addition to our knowledge of human culture."--Nature
Praise for The Myth of Monogamy
“Gripping from start to finish, solid in its science and literary in its flair. It’s one of the best books written about why humans covet, why commandments are broken, and why men and women get into deep conflicts over mating.”
—David M. Buss, author of The Evolution of Desire
“A highly readable, lighthearted survey of monogamy and its variations across the animal kingdom.”
“An avalanche of revelations about birds and mammals long believed to be noble paragons of monogamy… A lively look at what the latest research has revealed.”
—Los Angeles Times

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Delacorte Press (April 26, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385338015
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385338011
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 0.8 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.9 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,197,999 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

David P. Barash is an evolutionary biologist (Ph.D. zoology, Univ. of Wisconsin), a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, and the author of 30 books, dealing with various aspects of evolution, animal and human behavior, and peace studies. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and has received numerous awards. He is most proud, however, of his very personal collaboration with Judith Eve Lipton, his three children, one grandchild, and having been named by an infamous rightwing nut as one of the "101 most dangerous professors" in the United States. His dangerousness may or may not be apparent from his writing!

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

17 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on June 2, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Literature, it's said, holds up a mirror to life. If our image of life is flawed or blurry the reflection will be hardly better. We are only now beginning to understand how life, especially human life, actually works. The Barashes, drawing on literature and the new science of evolutionary psychology, demonstrate that much of literature may be explained by biology. Instead of literature depicting limited or skewed views of morality or other ephemeral concepts, it can use universals applicable to all humanity. And that means the most enduring literature, no matter unconscious the author might be of Darwin's natural selection, still rests on evolutionary foundations.

The authors, a father-daughter team, have scoured a wide range of literature, from Shakespeare through Tolstoy to Mark Twain, in demonstrating which human characteristics are best portrayed in fiction or drama. They are quick to insist that biology is not "the" tool for analysing writing, but is "a" tool. One which should be used more often and given more attention than it has. They show how Othello, a play whose characters have been adapted to endless variations, is at heart, about male jealousy. Nature teems with examples of manifestations of this basic trait, from the physical to the behavioural. Scientific publications present countless examples from insects to elephants.

The chapter "The Key to Jane Austen's Heart" is about "what women want," and why. There's far more involved than Helen Hunt's ambition to be a successful manager or Freud's lack of answering his own question. The situation rests on finding the right mate. Like male jealousy, females of the species have a strong vested interest in what kind of male they select.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on June 25, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This book muddles cart and horse: at times, evolutionary theory is explained by reference to literature; at times, literary productions are explained by reference to evolutionary theory. The book is as apt to go on an explanatory tangent featuring wasps or gorillas as on one featuring Othello or Emma. This tends to blunt the book's argument, but the defect is not fatal. I would recommend the book more for its explanations of evolutionary theory than for its insights into literature, but there is plenty of each.

Note that the subtitle, "a Darwinian look at literature," is accurate so long as "look" is understood to mean "survey" rather than "perusal." This book examines so many literary works (I counted over 150 in the index) in the light of evolutionary theory that it tends to breeziness. Still, it makes for an interesting and provocative read, if an odd one in places.

To wit, with surprising frequency, the book claims that the deeds or thoughts of a fictional character can be understood as the workings of natural selection or other Darwinian dynamics. No, fictional characters are not the products of natural selection, but rather of human beings, who are. This elision allows the authors to avoid or undertreat a number of interesting lines of inquiry: What is the adaptive value of literature? How, if at all, does it relate to the adaptive value of language generally? Given that human beings are an inveterately fiction-creating species, which aspects of our biological nature do we tend to present faithfully in literature, which do we tend to distort, and why? (And is there a Darwinian explanation for the pattern?
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Obama Surfs on May 5, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Don't let the fact that Madame Bovary's Ovaries is a fun read fool you; the ideas contained within will forever change the way that you read fiction. Barash and Barash have managed to cogently describe their clever new way to analyze literature. It makes so much sense, you'll ask yourself "why didn't I think of that". In fact, you'll wonder why generation upon generation of English Lit. professors failed to pick up where Darwin left off.

I think it's safe to say that just about any lover of literature will enjoy a fresh perspective of their old favorites after reading Madame Bovary's Ovaries.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Michelaneous by Michele on July 8, 2005
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
"Madame Bovary's Ovaries" may have forever altered my approach to reading fiction. After devouring this fascinating study of human nature as portrayed by countless characters created in popular literature--from Shakespeare to Salinger, Hawthorne to Hardy, Kerouac to Kingsolver--I believe it has helped to give new and extended meaning to nearly every story I've ever read.

There is thoughtful organization to the chapters as each introduces the sub-topic in a very clever and readable way. Through the work of Jane Austen we learn what women want and why. Through Othello, we become more sensitive to male insecurities. The authors use the Corleone family (The Godfather) to introduce the importance of genetics, shared DNA, and branch out to examine various familial relationships. By revisiting the life of Holden Caulfield the parent-child relationship is examined. Sibling relationships take center stage through Cain and Abel, Steinbeck's East of Eden and the daughters of King Lear; and step-parent/child dynamics ring true through the examples of David Copperfield and Cosette and Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. Even young Harry Potter gets a mention in this section. Each topic is packed with examples (at times too many, belaboring the point); however, it never fails to bring the reader back to basic biology: the birds and the bees.

This is a well researched and fun read. The authors show deep respect not only for the extensive list of books/authors cited but also for the readers who "consume novels and plays, seeking sustenance along with pleasure." Using classic works to advance their theories, "Madame Bovary's Ovaries," is put forth as a tool to help readers more deeply enjoy reading by understanding and relating to a shared human experience.
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