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.


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.

A Scientist Walks into an English Blog: Language, Gender, Feminism, and the Science of Sex

I spend my day thinking about sex.

Mostly, sex between male and female fruit flies. I am curious about what happens after they finish doing the deed and sperm move through the female reproductive environment on their journey to the egg. Interested in the changes that occur within the female after sex, how her body interacts with the foreign substances contributed by the male ejaculate, and how an egg gets ready to be fertilized. Ultimately, I try to use fancy scientific techniques to figure out what happens between sex and a baby/larvae on a molecular level.

I am an evolutionary reproductive biologist. While that may not seem like it has much to do with English and the humanities, they actually intersect quite a bit. I like to think of science and culture as constantly interacting, feeding off of and into each other (in science-y jargon, they are symbiotic). For example, a lot of people, in addition to me, spend a fair amount of time thinking about sex. Usually sexier human sex as well as things related to sex such as sexuality and gender expression. These thoughts and the cultural opinions on these topics can then influence scientists.

Emily Martin, an anthropologist, exposed the problematic ways underlying cultural perceptions of sex and gender show up as gendered, sexist language in scientific texts, especially in relation to reproductive biology.[1] Sperm are often described as active and aggressive, competing and battling their way to the prize. Sperm penetrate, sperm fertilize. Eggs, on the other hand, are fertilized. They are passive and fragile, damsels in distress waiting to be rescued by the sperm. These descriptions align closely with cultural expectations of men and women’s behavior. Thus, an insidious feedback loop is formed: gender stereotypes are applied to our sex cells, which is then subconsciously picked up and perpetuated by scientists, reaffirming underlying cultural assumptions. If the gendering of sperm and eggs on its own was not problematic enough, it is also likely that preconceptions of sex cell behavior affect the science that is conducted. For example, the cultural assumption that sperm (men) do all the work may be part of the reason it took nearly a century for the active role of eggs in fertilization to receive attention.[2]

My personal pet peeve is the description of the female reproductive tract as an inhospitable environment because the acidity and mucous can be harmful to sperm.[3]  ‘Inhospitable’ makes my vagina sound like a bad bed and breakfast, not a complex reproductive organ. It is especially annoying because those same things that make the vagina a difficult place for sperm to survive also reduces infections and prevents fertilization by muliple or abnormal sperm. What from a sperm’s perspective is a dangerous environment, to me is protective. Nevertheless, it is the male viewpoint that dominates in textbooks.

Luckily, intrepid scientists are calling out the influence that preconceived ideas of gender and sex can have on science. Starting all the way back in the late 19th century, suffragettes (including one born only an hour away from Syracuse) criticized the Victorian sensibilities and male centric bias of Darwin’s theory of evolution.[4] Zoom forward to the end of the 20th century; increased representation of women in sciences and a concentration on female behavior revealed a complex, active, and often polyamourus, role of females in sexual encounters. Feminist scientists incorporated this new data and along with critiques on Darwinian theory to generate Darwinian feminism, which focuses on variation and plasticity rather than the archetypal survival of the fittest.

Feminist critiques of biology are also working in tandem with growing gender and sex fluidity theories to dismantle the dominant binary sex/gender paradigm. Scientists have drawn attention to sex difference studies that are overly biologically deterministic and do not include the effects of culture or environment. [5]  In addition, developmental biologists are reimagining gender and sexuality in terms of variable, not fixed, reproductive development and interactions between nature and nurture. Currently, scientists are even applying queer theory to critique the heternormitivity of biology.[6]

Unfortunately, feminist biology is controversial and receipt of these critiques by the scientific community at large is tepid at best. I was surprised to experience it myself when I prepared to go to a symposium on Feminist Biology. I gave a practice presentation to a group of colleagues and it was recommended that instead of calling myself a feminist, I should say I ‘apply feminist theories or methodologies’. Calling myself a feminist, they suggested, implied advocacy, biased thinking, and potentially bad science. The scientific façade of an unbiased, impartial pursuit of truth contributes to the resistance of the scientific community to critiques from the social sciences and humanities

Although I spend far too much of my time isolated, mating flies in a lab of the Life Science Center (a Syracuse approximate of the ‘ivory tower’), I would much rather take a leaf from the book of my humanities colleagues and proclaim my positionality and how it might affect my knowledge production rather than sweep it under a rug. In turn, science can then provide a different, intimate and revealing look into the nature, and sex, around us.



[1] Martin, E. 1991. The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles. Signs, 485 – 501.

[2] Schatten, G. and Schatten, H. 1983. The Energetic Egg. The Sciences, 28 – 35.


[3] Too many scientific texts and IVF websites too list, seriously, I can’t even. Google it.

[4] Fausto-Sterling, A., Gowaty, P. A., Zuk, M. 1997. Evolutionary Psychology and Darwinian Feminism. Feminist Studies, 402 – 417. http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/3178406?sid=21105762830683&uid=4&uid=3739256&uid=3739832&uid=2

[5] Fausto-Sterling, A. 2000. Sexing the Body.

[6] Ah-King, M. 2009. Queer Nature: Towards a Non-Normative View on Biological Diversity. In Body Claims eds Brromseth, J., Folkmarson, K., and Mattsson, K. 212- 232. http://uu.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:329592/FULLTEXT01.pdf

& Roughgarden, J. 2009. Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity Gender and Sexuality in Nature and People.


Figure is a mashup of artificially colored egg and sperm microscopy (David M. Phillips/Science Source) found on http://www.npr.org/blogs/health and clip art from http://www.canstockphoto.com/

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.