The Human Nature of Stories
A Quick Hit of Bio-Lit-Crit
isn't just a story about a jealous guy. Huckleberry Finn isn't just a rebellious, headstrong kid. Madame Bovary isn't just a horny married woman. As students, we are told about various ways to understand fiction: that Othello may also teach us about deceit and loyalty (among other things), how Huck will tell us about the American national character, that Madame Bovary will help reveal the meaning of social transgression. In addition, those who get deep and sophisticated enough may be urged to examine what they read from various perspectives: those of Marx, Freud, Jung, or maybe the French literary theorists Derrida or Foucault, not to omit feminist and "queer studies," socioeconomic analyses, and the historical facts of each author's personal biography. The list is nearly endless: New Criticism, old criticism, new historicism, old historicism, critical theory, and sometimes crackpot theory.
It's all fine, up to a point. No one has a monopoly on how to read what others have written. There is much to be said for examining literature as a reflection of class struggle (Marx), unconscious drives (Freud), power relations (Foucault), social mores, sexual repression, historical forces, or even—as postmodernists often insist—of "texts" that signify nothing more than themselves. But in fact, Othello is
a story about a jealous guy. Huck Finn is
a rebellious, headstrong boy. And Madame Bovary is
a horny married woman.
The reason Othello
is still being read and performed five hundred years after Shakespeare wrote it is because this play tells us something timeless and universal ...not so much about a fellow named Othello but about ourselves. It speaks to the Othellos within everyone: our shared human nature. Othello
the play is about a jealous guy, and, as we shall see, jealousy is a particularly potent and widespread human emotion, one to which men
are especially vulnerable. That's precisely why it's okay to talk about Othello or Madame Bovary or Huckleberry Finn in the present tense: they live on, at least in part, because they have distinctly human characteristics that transcend the artistry by which they were depicted. Their tribulations, responses, loves and hates, fears and delights are in some way recognizable to all readers, to marvel at, agree or disagree with, learn from, or be shocked by.
It may be startling to some—especially those who have not kept up with recent advances in biological science—but the evidence is now undeniable that much of human life is not socially constructed. In short, even though learning and cultural traditions exert a powerful influence, there also exists an underlying human nature, universally valid and characteristic of all Homo sapiens
. People live in many different places, following many different traditions and cultural trajectories, but beneath this wonderful diversity there is something else that is equally wonderful, and maybe even more so: a common thread of recognizable humanity, woven of human DNA and shared by everyone who reads and writes (as well as those who don't). Othello's jealousy, Huck's rebelliousness, and Emma's urges are just three examples of that common thread.
In his advice to the traveling players, Hamlet suggested that the role of the artist is to hold a mirror up to nature—not, as some theorists would have it, to hold a mirror up to another mirror and thereby reflect only the infinite emptiness of mirrors. The "nature" at issue here isn't wild animals, pretty landscapes, or magnificent wilderness, but human
nature. And human nature isn't like a
unicorn or some other mythical beast. It exists. It does so because human genes exist and have produced a different kind of creature than horse genes or hyacinth genes have. "Read deeply," writes Harold Bloom in How to Read and Why
, "...not to believe, not to accept, not to contradict, but to learn to share in that one nature that writes and reads."
As Bloom intuits, connecting literature and human nature isn't really all that new. Until recently, in fact, our most enduring images of human nature have resided in literature. Where better to find it? Psychology, for instance, didn't even exist until scarcely a hundred years ago, and during most of the twentieth century, it was torn between two equally unhelpful poles: the semimystical mythologizing of Freud and the sterile behaviorism of John Watson and B. F. Skinner. Anyone wanting to get a sense of human nature in, say, the Bronze Age can do no better than to excavate among the words of Homer, or for the Elizabethan Age, Shakespeare.
Universal human nature was perceived thousands of years ago by our greatest storytellers, from the early authors of the Hindu Mahabharata
, the Babylonian tale of Gilgamesh, and Homer's Iliad
to Virgil's Aeneid
and the writings of Dante, Cervantes, and Shakespeare. It wasn't until Charles Darwin, however, that the scientific basis for human nature was identified. Actually, some of the most important breakthroughs didn't occur until a century and more after
Darwin, when the genetic basis of evolution by natural selection was discovered and its implications for human behavior were made clear.
These breakthroughs haven't had much direct effect on the conscious creation
of literature, but we hope to show that they can be immensely useful in its interpretation
, since they help the reader to see what was always there, albeit generally unacknowledged by writers and readers alike. Roland Barthes's celebrated essay "The Death of the Author" proclaimed that the intentions of an author do not matter in interpreting his or her text. We agree, to a point. It doesn't matter, for example, whether authors are intentionally
presenting a biologically accurate view of human beings. In fact, it is even more telling if they have no such aim and yet end up doing just that; nature whispers within their work nonetheless. Just as it did among the ancients, biology continues to flourish inside the best of our modern writers.
The key concept is that human beings, like all other living things, are biological critters, products of evolution by natural selection. As a result, people are strongly inclined to behave in ways that enhance their fitness. Not physical fitness, although being strong, smart, and healthy can certainly help. Rather, fitness is the fundamental evolutionary bottom line: a measure of success in projecting genes into the future. If living things seek food when hungry, sleep when tired, have sex when horny, if they scratch when they itch, do a good job of pumping their blood, and learn to keep their heads down when predators are about, it is because those who do so have been more successful in promoting genes for eating, sleeping, mating, scratching, pumping, hiding, and so forth. Such individuals are, in short, more fit than other individuals whose ancestors were less adroit (or, to be more accurate, whose genes were). This means that whatever else they may be--artful manipulators of language and symbol, composers of symphonies, splitters of atoms no less than of logs—human beings are concatenations of genes that have evolved to do their best at copying themselves and then kicking those copies into the future.
This does not mean that everyone is desperately seeking to have as many children as possible, or even necessarily to survive. But since we have inherited the genes of men and women who did
reproduce and survive, we unconsciously behave in ways designed to enhance our success in doing so, that is, to benefit what biologists call our fitness. These behaviors are the stubborn, indelible core of human nature. To be sure, human beings have also been blessed, or cursed, with unique self-consciousness and the ability to say no (at least on occasion) to their biological inclinations. Breathing, too, is part of our human, and animal, nature. So is digesting. We cannot say no to them. By contrast, people are not absolutely obliged to have children or even to have sex, not to mention engage in the other, more arcane activities we shall shortly explore. Human beings can and sometimes do say no to many of the fitness-enhancing tendencies that make up human nature. But this doesn't mean that those tendencies aren't there. Indeed, even the occasional decision to say no, and the conscious effort it requires, is testimony to the existence of those deep, internal yearnings in the first place; otherwise, there would be nothing to rebel against. All of this means that people, whether they acknowledge it or not, are fitness-focused creatures. And that isn't all. As we shall explore in chapters ahead, an evolutionary view of human nature goes beyond simply identifying the importance of fitness itself to make specific predictions as to how human beings are likely to behave depending on whether, for example, they are men, women, children, parents, someone's friend, or someone else's enemy.
Although evolutionary biology is so new that it deserves in many ways to be called "revolutionary biology," the idea that great literature reflects certain human universals is actually as old as literary analysis itself, having been foreshadowed in the first organized attempt to make sense of fiction, Aristotle's Poetics
. "Poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history," wrote the great Greek himself, "since its statements are of the nature of universals, whereas those of history are singulars." By "poetry," Aristotle meant creative fiction, not just poetry in the narrow sense but also theater (novels were unknown in his day). His point is that the power of poetry lies in its ability to capture fundamental truths about the human condition, including, most notably, the way people act . . . which, in turn, derives from the nature of what people are. And this is where a biological perspective has much to offer.
It won't always be pretty. Indeed, throughout Madame Bovary's Ovaries,
we'll point to a number of inclinations that are regrettable, sometimes downright despicable, but always, as Nietzsche has written, "human, all too human." Men taking sexual advantage of women; women often doing the same thing, although typically in different ways. Competitiveness, whether violent or more subtle. The selfish underbelly of friendship. Nepotism (favoritism toward relatives) often combined with discrimination against strangers. Abuse and neglect of stepchildren. The catalog is intriguing but not necessarily inspiring. Please note that throughout, we offer descriptions, not prescriptions, in the hope of illuminating what people—and their literature—are like, not necessarily how they ought to be. (In fact, a case can be made that part of the burden of being human is to behave counter to some of our all too human inclinations, but that is another story.)
Seeking to understand Homo sapiens
, not to condone ethically unacceptable behavior, a growing band of scientists has been busily unraveling the nature of human nature. They are known as evolutionary biologists, sociobiologists, behavioral ecologists, Darwinian anthropologists, and, increasingly, evolutionary psychologists, an expanding group in which literary critics are not (yet) included. But at last, the nature of human nature is becoming clear. One of its cardinal principles—reflected in literature—is the gravitational pull exerted by what Richard Dawkins first labeled "selfish genes," a force that influences not only what people do but also the stories they tell about themselves, including what they find interesting, boring, perplexing, and frightening.
Dostoyevsky's Ivan Karamazov worried that "without God, everything is permissible." Without human nature, too, everything is permissible. There could be worlds of the imagination in which people don't eat, sleep, communicate with each other, or reproduce. Or in which there is no sexual identity, no predisposition to care preferentially for one's children or relatives, no predictable patterns of love, anger, competition, or cooperation. The result would be a kind of science fiction or wild fantasy, yet it is noteworthy that such imaginary excursions of extreme inhumanness are rarely undertaken, almost certainly because wholesale departures from the recognizably human are not only very difficult to portray but also genuinely incomprehensible and thus unlikely to be interesting. Even the physically bizarre creatures conjured up in the Harry Potter books, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings
, or the various Star Wars
movies (especially the wonderful bar scene in the first film), for all their imaginative anatomic variety, retain demonstrably human motivations and relationships to each other, just as—centuries after their conception—Hamlet, Don Quixote, and Achilles retain their vitality because they retain their humanity.
It has been said that great writers (Shakespeare, Cervantes, Homer, Tolstoy, Dickens, Austen, James, and Chekhov, among others) peopled the world with characters that seem so real that they appear to have existed even before they were written about. Certainly, these characters remain "alive"—almost literally—long after their creators have passed away.
This leads to a key notion in nearly all approaches to fiction, but especially in an evolutionary analysis of literature: believability. "The only difference between fiction and nonfiction," observed Mark Twain, only somewhat ironically, "is that fiction should be completely believable." How, then, is this achieved? Fictional characters are believable when they reveal their human nature, which is to say, when they behave in concert with biological expectation. This is what lies behind Falstaff's expansive humor, Heathcliff's obsessive passion, Jane Eyre's spunkiness, Huck Finn's mixture of naivete and wisdom, Augie March's antic yearning for self-realization. Harold Bloom once more: "[Shakespeare's] uncanny ability to present consistent and different actual-seeming voices of imaginary beings stems in part from the most abundant sense of reality ever to invade literature."
To be sure, literary characters may sometimes behave counter to reality, and thus in defiance of expectation. After all, they are fictional! But such exceptions are notably rare, and also of particular interest; their impact comes from the drama of seeing patterns contrary to our anticipation of how a biological creature—as opposed to a crystal, say, or a robot—would likely act.
"From the crooked timber of humanity," wrote Kant, "nothing straight was ever fashioned." And from the squishy stuff of humanity, nothing nonbiological was ever fashioned. Even the loftiest products of human imagination are, first of all, emanations of that gooey, breathing, eating, sleeping, defecating, reproducing, evolving, and evolved creature known as Homo sapiens
. We aren't idealized, ethereal essences but genuine biological beings, shaped by evolution and twisted and gnarled by life itself. This is why the most damning observation that can be made about a character in a novel (or play or movie) is that he or she isn't believable, which is another way of saying that for fiction to make sense, it must accord with a kind of evolutionary reality. Too much artificial straightness won't do.
Interestingly, the exceptions—although not proving this rule—provide paradoxical confirmation. Thus for millennia readers have been fascinated by Achilles, despite his unrealistic immunity to injury; significantly, although he is physically inhuman, when it comes to his psychology Achilles is human indeed. His unbelievable invulnerability is combined with other, altogether realistic traits, such as intense competitiveness, a penchant for sulking famously when he feels unappreciated, and a tendency toward anger when deprived of a loved one. Or take the character Pilate in Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon
, who lacked a navel, thereby magically demonstrating her profound independence. Not only can such suspensions of disbelief be consistent with a biological approach to literature, but they also add to its richness insofar as they help italicize the underlying humanity of the characters in question.
Excerpted from Madame Bovary's Ovaries by David P. Barash and Nanelle R. Barash. Copyright © 2006 by David P. Barash and Nanelle Barash. Excerpted by permission of Delta, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.