Romantic Literature and Culture

Austen & Darwin, Love Doctors?: A Valentine’s Day/ Darwin Day Tribute

A few months ago my Google Scholar alert for mate choice turned up a paper not about insect courtship behavior or sexual selection, but Jane Austen.[1] The only time previously I had ever thought about Austen and evolution together was while I wrote lab reports and wished I could watch Pride and Prejudice instead. However, as I looked into the connection between Austen and Darwin, I found abundant similarities: both are from similar social situations in Victorian England, are younger siblings, keen observers, and skilled writers whose works and ideas have persisted in the cultural psyche.[2] There is even an overlap in subject matter: sexual selection, mate choice, and kinship dynamics in Darwinian terms or courtship, romance, and family in Austen.

Although I ardently admire and love both Austen and Darwin/evolution, I have always been a bit dubious that either is able to capture the totality of human sexual experience. Science can examine underlying explanations and evolutionary motivations; experiments have found that had women prefer the used t-shirts stench of men with diverse immunity genes[3] and that during their most fertile period women are more attracted to masculine faces.[4] Neurologists have even put people in love into MRI machines to find that amore is really just the stimulation of reward pathways in the brain.[5] Although this information is edifying and valuable, science cannot capture the emotions of a romantic zenith way Austen does. As much as I love sexual selection and reproductive biology, for me, the realm in which Elizabeth Bennett finally accepts Mr. Darcy’s hand in marriage does not need to be predicated on science. Thus, I was excited about the prospect of literary Darwinism–a theoretical approach that could marry sexual selection theory with prose that evokes the passion of romance.

The Kruger et al. article that popped up in my email is an excellent example of both the insights and detriments that can arise in the utilization of literary Darwinism. The authors evaluated the behavior of Austen’s characters and identified two different alternative female mating strategies: long term (Jane Bennett and Fanny Price) and short term (Lydia Bennett and Maria Bertram). At first, I did not think the strategies described would match the biological definition of discrete tactics in a trait with genetic and/or environmental variation. However, a search through the scientific literature of human evolution revealed I was wrong. A number of studies corroborate that the alternative strategies identified in Austen’s novels also exist in humans.[6],[7] The introduction to the analysis taught me something new about evolution, and the authors seemed to be on firm biological ground discussing the proximate and ultimate goals in human reproduction and the costs and benefits of the different strategies.

Unfortunately, Kruger et al.’s analysis of Austen’s characters strategies quickly diverged from a foundation in evolutionary theory to moralistic, tautological ‘conclusions’ on universals of human sexual behavior. The underlying hypothesis “Both men and women should also be wary of short term, opportunistic, and/or uncommitted female strategists” clearly reveals a subconscious bias for long term strategies. This assumption, that a long term ‘family’ strategy is better than a short term ‘flirtation’ strategy is never tested and has no biological foundation.

In order to comprehensively evaluate alternative female strategies, it would be necessary employ scientific methods. Evolutionary biologists measure the success of a strategy by evaluating its fitness. Fitness is the combination of the effects the strategy has on an individual’s survival, number of offspring and success of those offspring. However, with fictional characters we do not have access to any future life history information (if wishing made it so). A happy long-term strategy marriage cannot simply be assumed to be more productive than a short-term strategy. If Fanny Price does not have children with her soul-mate husband, her strategy is no more fit than Maria Bertram who ended up alone. It does not matter that Mr. and Mrs. Bennett make each other miserable, or his estate was to be entailed away; they are evolutionarily successful with five children, most of who are on their way to reproducing.

S&S

I was disappointed by my first foray into literary Darwinism. The use of the scientific terminology felt inaccurate, as if the authors were trying to force science into their analysis even though it did not quite fit. It also seemed as though the authors were not familiar with the nuances of evolutionary theory. For instance, although in an introductory biology class sexual selection is often presented as a static theory, it is actually incredibly dynamic. The sexual selection we think of today has been modified and changed from what Darwin first proposed.[8] Even now, there are multiple, sometimes conflicting hypotheses of the underlying sexual selection mechanisms, and no single consensus in the biological community. If literary scholars are going to use evolutionary theory, it is important they fully understand its intricacies and idiosyncrasies.

I was ready to be completely dismissive of all literary Darwinism as a reductive misuse of evolutionary theory. Fortunately, a more comprehensive discussion of literary Darwinsim’s potential by Joseph Carroll [9] convinced me not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. If conducted properly, literary Darwinism could use evolutionary theory to provide new insights into our understanding and interpretation of literature. In turn the descriptions of human behavior in different historical and cultural contexts from novels can inform research on human and cultural evolution.

Did I end up copiously re-watching Sense and Sensibility (Emma Thompson is a goddess) and other period dramas on Netflix? Yes, yes I did.


Figures: pulp fiction cover –comicvine.com, Jane Austen – austenblog.com, young Darwin – lookingfordarwin.com, old Darwin – es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Darwin, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy bookcoverings.com

Austen, J. 1813. Pride and Prejudice.

[1] Kruger, D.J., Fisher, M. L., Strout, S. L., Clark, S. Lewis, S. and Wehbe, M. 2014. Pride and Prejudice or Family and Flirtation? Jane Austen’s Depiction of Women’s Mating Strategies. Philosophy and Literature, 38: A114 – A128.

[2] Graham, P. W. 2008. Jane Austen & Charles Darwin: Naturalists and Novelists. Ashgate Publishing Ltd.

[3] Thornhill, R., Gangestad, S.W., Miller, R., Scheyd, G., McColough, J.K., and Franklin, M. Major Histocompatibility Compex Genes, Symmetry, and Body Scent Attractiveness in Men and Women

[4] Johnston, V.S., Hagel, R., Franklin, M., Fink, B., and Grammer, K. 2001. Male Facial Attractiveness: Evidence for Hormone-Mediated Adaptive Design. Evolution and Human Behavior

[5] Fisher, H., Aron, A., and Brown, L.L. 2005. Romantic Love: An fMRI study of a Neural Mechanism for Mate Choice. J. Comp. Neurology.

[6] Wlodarski, R., Manning, J., Dunbar, R.I.M. 2015 Stay or Stray? Evidence for Alternative Mating Strategy Phenotypes in both Men and Women Biol. Lett. 11.

[7] Jackson, J.J. and Kirkpatrick, L.A. 2007. The Structure and Measurement of Human Mating Strategies: Toward a Multidimensional Model of Sociosexuality. Evolution and Human Behavior. 6: 382 – 391

[8] Prum, R.O. 2012. Aesthetic Evolution by Mate Choice: Darwin’s Really Dangerous Idea. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B. 367: 2253 – 2265.

[9] Carroll, J. 2004. Chapter 6: Human Nature and Literary Meaning: A Theoretical Model Illustrated with a Critique of Pride and Prejudice p. 187 – 216. Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature. Routledge, NY


Caitlin McDonough is a first year biology graduate in the Center for Reproductive Evolution. When not dissecting fruit flies, she plays rugby, draws and disrupts conventional scientists by talking about feminism and queer studies. More information can be found at her website cemcdonough.com or fledgling blog ideaspermatheca.com.

Advertisements