Great works of literature are great, aver the authors, in part because they accurately display human nature in all its Darwinian gore, glory and vainglory.
David P. Barash (The Mammal in the Mirror, 1999, etc.) and daughter Nanelle, a Swarthmore undergraduate, stroll through literature’s great mall and shop with ferocious good humor in all the stores whose offerings support their thesis. They find many novels and plays whose characters behave in ways that bring knowing smiles to the lips of these acolytes of Darwin. Othello and others of his jealous ilk are a lot like elk or elephant seals. Jane Austen (“the poet laureate of female choice”) writes about women who, except for their dress and the social constraints of Victorian England, are not unlike other primates—or peahens, for that matter. Men are unfaithful because, like gorillas, they all want harems; they desire young virgins because then the father can be certain that’s his baby in the womb. Female bluethroats (birds), even those who are supposedly “mated” to another, will flock eagerly around males whose blue throats have been artificially brightened. This helps explain the famously adulterous Madame Bovary and Kate Chopin’s Edna Pontellier. Evolution explains why we prefer our kin to other folks, why stepchildren (and stepparents) have a difficult time finding acceptance, why teenagers and parents will always be at one another’s black-and-blue throats, why males and females bond, making possible our bountiful supply of buddy novels and films. The authors discuss an impressive array of literary works, mostly standard pieces from the Western canon. Heavily represented are Shakespeare, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Austen and Lawrence (whose Lady Chatterley’s Lover comes in for some harsh treatment). But they also provide interesting discussions of Frank Norris, Amy Tan, Jonathan Franzen and August Wilson. One grievous misattribution: Ringo, not Paul, sang “I Get by with a Little Help from My Friends.”
An amusing, learned and literate look at the naked apes who populate the pages of our most celebrated fiction.