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 . . .”
... It’s fun, in a mild way, but somewhat wearying to read at book length...
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. [More]