An Evolutionary Approach to Jane Austen: Prehistoric Preferences in Pride and Prejudice
By Stasio, Michael J Duncan, Kathryn
While not all scholars of the period agree, some have observed a paradigm shift regarding marriage and gender during the eighteenth century. Thomas Laqueur cogently argues that the two-sex model came into being during this time period, and Lawrence Stone traces the dominance of companionate marriage to the eighteenth century. Anthony Fletcher demonstrates the shift from a medically and theologically based subordination of women to a more secular ideology, while Susan Kingsley Kent claims that notions of inherent gender differences arose out of natural rights ideology. She writes that by the end of the century, women were understood to be passionless and distinct from men biologically. Certainly the most popular and perhaps most important genre of the period, the novel, brings these issues to the forefront with its tendency to focus on mate choice. This near obsession with mate selection and the above paradigm shifts indicate a culture that valued and emphasized companionate marriage both in fact and fiction. In life and print, therefore, we find mating behavior best explained by the genetically influenced method of mate selection that humans adopted in the Pleistocene era, the subject of evolutionary psychology. The rise of the novel, then, represents an expression not only of new ideologies of gender and marriage but also of universal desire explained by evolutionary psychology; nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the most canonical of domestic novels, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Unlike neuropsychology or clinical psychology, evolutionary psychology is not a specialized subfield in psychology; rather it represents the viewpoint that functional aspects of the mind such as consciousness and emotion have evolved by natural selection, that is, in a way that best insures reproductive success. Evolutionary theorists attempt to explain why such adaptations may have evolved. For example, starting with D. M. Buss in 1989, cross- cultural research consistently has shown that women value economic resources in a potential mate more than men do. The evolutionary perspective thus seeks to explain why such a gender difference in mate preferences would have evolved.
The key element in evolutionary psychology-the assertion that human sexual mechanisms exist because of evolution by natural selection-is rooted in Charles Darwin’s 1871 theory of sexual selection. Sexual selection was proposed as a type of natural selection in which traits that were genetically passed on were those that offered the organism an amount of reproductive advantage that outweighed the potential costs of having the trait. One often cited example of a trait shaped through sexual selection is a peacock’s tail. The peacock’s long tail and colorful plumage make the bird more noticeable to predators and slow him down when trying to escape threat. However, the characteristics of the tail do solve a very important ecological problem: attracting mates. Thus, while peacocks with very colorful tails will be more vulnerable to predators than birds with less colorful plumage, they will also find mates more frequently and produce more offspring, which is the goal in evolution: passing one’s genes on to the next generation. The fact that peahens are unadorned compared to peacocks supports the notion that sexual selection acts upon the sexes unequally.
What variable may explain how sexual selection acts differentially upon the sexes? R. Trivers argues that the amount of parental investment each sex devotes to an individual offspring and the potential cost of this investment to the parent and other offspring are the key variables in sexual selection in all species. Parental investment is defined as any behavior that increases the likelihood that an individual offspring will survive-and thus reproduce. In humans, as in other mammals, women and men differ in the minimum amounts of parental investment that they must provide for their offspring. Parental investment is necessarily higher for women than for men since women’s parental investment involves gestation and lactation at the very least. As the more investing sex, women are necessarily more selective in choosing a mate. While many men also invest in their offspring, their required minimum investment can be only a fraction of that for women. Therefore, women should show mate selection preferences that increase their reproductive success, such as preferences for men who are willing and able to invest economic resources (and ideally emotional commitment). Men also should show mate selection preferences that lead to reproductive success, such as preferences for access to large numbers of fertile women. Differences exist between long-term and short-term mating strategies, but since Austen is interested in the lifelong commitment of marriage, that is our emphasis as well.
A major evolutionary theory of mate selection is Sexual Strategies Theory, proposed by Buss and D. P. Schmitt in 1993 and later elaborated upon by Buss in 1998. A main tenet of this theory holds that mating is strategic, directed toward the goal of successful survival of offspring whether people are conscious of this or not, and that mate preferences exist as solutions to reproductive problems faced by our human ancestors. For example, it would have been reproductively advantageous for ancestral women and men to recognize and avoid mating with people who suffered from diseases or pathogens. Sexual Strategies Theory suggests that those ancestors with evolved preferences or desires for health cues in a mate-such as clear eyes and skin signaling the absence of disease- were more likely to find healthy mates and produce offspring who would survive. According to the sexy son hypothesis, our ancestors also adopted preferences for attractive partners in order to produce more attractive offspring who would be at a reproductive advantage when mating in the future.
Sexual selection has two processes: intrasexual (same-sex) competition and mate choice. When members of the same sex compete with each other, the “victors” are said to increase their preferential access to mates and thus increase the likelihood that their genes will survive. Whatever qualities were important in securing victory in this competition would be selected by evolution; for example, athletic ability, fierce displays of aggression, social skills, or biting humor may deter a potential rival depending on the environment. Another important evolutionary point holds that the more investing sex (women) chooses more selectively while the less investing sex (men) engages in more intrasexual competition. However, if there is an absence of men (or acceptable men), then women will engage in more intrasexual competition. As Anne Campbell has explored, it is also possible that women engage in less obvious intrasexual competition since female strategies are less aggressive than male strategies.
A number of counter-arguments to any analysis involving evolutionary psychology exist, the first being the social construction of ideology. However, laws and ideologies support evolutionary psychology along with other dominant social needs so that social construction and biology work in concert, not opposition. As Brian Boyd explains, “That our minds reflect evolution’s design does not mean that all is nature and not nurture, that all is heredity and not environment. In any sophisticated biological thinking these oppositions have been thoroughly discredited” (4). Marriage, for instance, serves the dictates of evolutionary psychology, patriarchy, and the economy, to name a few ideological and biological determinants (see Buss 135). Certainly, the actions of the characters in Pride and Prejudice can be explained via social concerns and the laws of Austen’s era, but these laws and ideology partially owe their being to the inherent principles of evolutionary psychology. In fact, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides’s influential work asserts that psychology is the middle link between biology and culture. Their view is that biology has shaped our evolved psychological mechanisms and that this psychology has in turn shaped our culture given the available environmental cues. The authors propose three main assumptions about evolutionary psychology. First, universal human nature originates primarily in our evolved psychological mechanisms (e.g., desire for a healthy partner) and not in cultural expressions of behavior. Second, these psychological mechanisms are adaptations designed by natural selection. Finally, the evolved psychology of the mind reflects adaptations to life experienced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors during the Pleistocene period dating from about two million years ago (5). We mainly explore the authors’ first premise in this work. We accept the notion of evolved psychological mechanisms and propose that Austen’s era is a particularly useful time period in which to examine psychological mechanisms related to sexuality as well as their cultural expression.1
Another objection is that evolutionary psychology can appear as a kind of essentialism, boiling people-or literary characters-down to biological determinism. In fact, though, evolutionary psychology is less deterministic than Freud’s theories. Evolutionary psychology consists of preparedness; humans are prepared to make choices, though not at the conscious level, that best ensure that they will reproduce successfully. However, there is still the issue of choice; our evolved psychological dispositions are the primary shapers of culture, but individual choice is inherent in this process. Natural selection would not have designed a human cerebral cortex capable of higher cognitive functions such as thinking and decision-making unless these adaptations conferred reproductive advantages. Therefore, the process by which evolved dispositions create culture must necessarily involve choices among available environmental cues. As Tooby and Cosmides note, the observation that environmental contexts differ around the world helps to explain betweengroup variability in culture: while preferences for facial symmetry (as a cue to good health) appear to be universally consistent, other preferences thought to be universal may in fact show cultural variation. For example, most data show that men prefer women with a low waist-to-hip ratio (as a cue to reproduction), but one exception is the Hazda, an indigenous group of hunter-gatherers in Tanzania, who prefer women with higher waist-to-hip ratios (Marlow and Wetsman 219). Buss argues that since 1930, women and men have come to value physical attractiveness to a greater degree because attractive models are frequently depicted across a wide range of media (Evolutionary 148). This is consistent with our argument that evolved psychological mechanisms can shape culture and still produce between-group differences. In Evolution and Literary Theory, Joseph Carroll believes resistance to biologically based approaches to literature often originates from a politically “intellectual prejudice” (27). Carroll accuses poststructuralists of ignoring biology and “reality” out of a political desire to affect social change. In other words, the admission that differences result from biology, not social construction, lays the groundwork for continued discrimination based on such differences. Carroll sees poststructuralism and evolutionary psychology as irreconcilable, arguing in Literary Darwinism, for example, against any feminist interpretation of Austen because such a reading is colored by postmodern, radical bias.2 We disagree. Carroll is correct in saying that
[o]ften, but not always, they [authors] align themselves with some particular set of species-typical norms, under the rubric of “human nature,” and they use these norms as a means of adopting a critical perspective on the conventions of their own cultures. By appealing to elemental dispositions that answer to their own idiosyncratic psychological organization, they can adopt a critical perspective on species-typical norms, or their own cultures, or both. (131)
A close examination of Austen’s perspective shows that Austen ignores some of the inherent laws and norms of both evolutionary psychology and her culture in a way that opens a feminist reading of her work. For example, according to evolutionary psychology, the best-case scenario for a man is not only a longterm partner who will care for his children but also the opportunity for adultery, that is the spreading further of his genes. Matt Ridley argues, “we are designed for a system of monogamy plagued by adultery” (176). And while the ideology of marriage in Regency England was monogamy, many men enjoyed Ridley’s description of the evolutionary psychology ideal. In Austen, though, they do not as she creates a space that upon closer examination often empowers her female characters.
While evolutionary psychology is a powerful explanation of human mate selection, we do not wish to apply it as a heuristic. It is not a mere substitute for a Freudian or Lacanian reading of human behavior. Evolutionary psychology provides insight into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries because social conditions proved ripe for its ideas to dominate the culture and literature. Stone argues that scientific advances such as the creation of the smallpox vaccine made the eighteenth-century English feel active in determining their fate as they had not before; they no longer felt totally at the mercy of God’s will, which extended into how they governed their families: “This sense of control over the environment, and particularly over animal breeding, inevitably led men to choose their wives as one would choose a brood mare, with a great care for their personal genetic inheritance, and to train their children with the same patience and attention as they had long devoted to their horses, dogs or hawks” (234). As personal choice came to the fore, so did the biological basis of selection. What Stone’s argument lacks, though, is the female perspective that evolutionary psychology and Austen elucidate.
Evolutionary psychology posits universal, gender-specific traits that each sex would find attractive in the other. Certainly, some of the more general traits apply in a discussion of Austen. Attractive male prospects are capable of supporting and protecting a family. Though Austen is infamous for lack of physical descriptions, she introduces Bingley as “good looking and gentlemanlike” and Darcy as grabbing “the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien” (7), fulfilling the sexy son hypothesis. Desirable female potential mates ideally would be young, healthy, and fertile. But we need to ground our argument in the historically relevant qualities Austen and her audience would have found most appealing. David and Nanelle Barash observe that men and women universally look for “kindness and intelligence” in a mate so that “[h]ere again, Jane Austen provides a textbook case of sexual selection in action, as her protagonists reveal their intellects- while stimulating the readers’-via their verbal adroitness” (55). True, but Austen’s contemporary readers had a specific context for Austen’s witty word play and emphasis on manners. As David Monaghan states, “Being a very formal society, eighteenthcentury England placed tremendous emphasis on the moral implications of the individual’s polite performance, as is indicated by Edmund Burke’s assertion that ?Manners are of more importance than laws.?According to their quality, they aid morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them’” (2-3). So while her Pleistocene ancestors probably valued male physical strength more than politeness, Austen recognizes that manners and wit in her tamer eighteenth century are effective weapons for social dominance and evidence of moral superiority. For example, while Mr. Bennet revels in his wit, his barbs are too strongly pointed for our ultimate admiration. His bad manners serve as a warning that Mr. Bennet ultimately is a failed, weak patriarch, beholden to another man to sustain his family’s reputation, and hence a poor mate choice. Similarly, Darcy at first appears a poor mate choice to Elizabeth because of his rudeness; it is only when he demonstrates manners and a commensurate generosity that Elizabeth falls in love with and chooses to be with him.
Though in Northanger Abbey Henry Tilney tells Catherine that “man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal” (95), in Pride and Prejudice, Austen explores female choice in mate selection.3 Obviously, Austen values choice as our heroine rejects two proposals and chooses a mate that no one else would have chosen for her. Karen Newman writes:
In Pride and Prejudice, everything about Elizabeth-her poverty, her inferior social position, the behaviour of her family, her initial preferences for Wickham, and her refusal of Darcy’s first offer of marriage-all these things ideologically should lead if not to death, at best to genteel poverty and spinsterhood. Instead, Austen had her marry despite her violations of these accepted norms of female behaviour. (205)
Austen rewards Elizabeth and, to a lesser extent, Charlotte for their active attempts to choose mates. At the same time, Austen recognizes her social context. Elizabeth cannot choose Colonel Fitzwilliam, nor he her, because of their financial situations. She also must wait for Darcy to reintroduce his marriage proposal. And the ever patient Jane, who embodies the contemporary female ideal of passivity in the novel, must pine endlessly for Bingley’s return. Note, though, that much as we may wish Jane well in the novel, she is not our heroine, nor is she Austen’s ideal. More importantly, evolutionary psychology contends that women in all cultures show more discrimination in mate choice, which is true for all of the mature female characters in the novel. (Lydia and Georgianna are the obvious exceptions, but they are both adolescents duped by Wickham.) Mr. Collins, in a typical pattern of male mating behavior, is willing to marry any of the attractive Bennet daughters, which sadly excludes Mary, but none of the attractive daughters is willing to marry him.
This gendered discretion in choice appears in spite of the number of single women in the novel and the commensurate intrasexual competition: Caroline Bingley rightfully sees Elizabeth as a rival and lies to Jane by claiming that Georgiana is proposed as a match for Bingley, and, of course, Lady Catherine argues that her daughter is betrothed to Darcy (see Gilbert and Gubar 126). One intrasexual competitive tactic specified by evolutionary theory and used by women in Pride and Prejudice is derogation of competitors, notably used by Caroline Bingley when she first derogates Jane for her lack of social connections and her incomplete knowledge of London streets. Caroline also derogates Elizabeth a number of times, most pointedly when “in the imprudence of anger, [she] took the first opportunity of saying, with sneering civility, ?Pray, Miss Eliza, are not the-shire militia removed from Meryton? They must be a great loss to your family’” (174). Lady Catherine behaves much the same as a kind of substitute competitor for her daughter, telling Elizabeth, “But your arts and allurements may, in a moment of infatuation, have made him [Darcy] forget what he owes to himself and to all his family” (231). And like Caroline, she points to Elizabeth’s poor social connections, asking, “Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?” (233), in reference to Lydia and Wickham’s hastily arranged marriage. But in spite of the competition for few desirable mates, even Charlotte Lucas who claims, “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance” (16) carefully considers her mate choice. Charlotte, of course, marries Mr. Collins purely out of mercenary selfinterest, denying any romantic feelings at all. The narrator is blunt: Charlotte accepts Mr. Collins “solely from the pure and disinterested desire of an establishment,” labeling marriage the “pleasantest preservative from want” (83). Cultural exigencies and evolutionary psychology work together to explain Charlotte’s pragmatic choice, with the shortage of men (and Charlotte’s age) forcing her into making a less than perfect but in some ways desirable choice. David Geary would call Charlotte’s strategy an example of bounded rationality, a rational choice that best serves her evolutionarily within a given ecological context. Rational does not mean optimal but weighing “cost-benefit trade- offs” and accepting “good enough” as a way to increase her chances at reproduction (13). Austen makes clear that Charlotte’s is not the worst fate for women in the novel. She has the comfort of a home and the adaptability necessary to live with a fool for a husband. As Elizabeth observes when seeing their home, “When Mr. Collins could be forgotten, there was really a great air of comfort throughout, and by Charlotte’s evident enjoyment of it, Elizabeth supposed he must be often forgotten” (105). Austen commented in a letter that “single Women have a dreadful propensity for being poor-which is one very strong argument in favor of Matrimony” (qtd. in Sulloway 17). Given the negative attitude toward spinsterhood in the period and Austen’s own comments, marriage, even to Mr. Collins, appears preferable to being single (see Sulloway 23). And one need only think of Fanny Price’s family in Mansfield Park to see that Austen by no means punishes Charlotte for her choice of mate. Choosing security over love is preferable to a life of love and poverty.
Elizabeth, of course, is faced with the same choice of mate in Mr. Collins and chooses differently, turning down his proposal in spite of no alternative offers. Evolutionary psychology-as well as good taste and the ideology of companionate marriage-offers an explanation. In choosing a mate who will offer social and financial support, women, as the more investing sex, must consider a man’s long-term stability-both as a husband and as a father. Austen’s novels almost obsessively discuss the need for marriage between those who are likeminded, and they demonstrate the problems that result with the incompatible and impecunious mate. The Bennets are the obvious example in Pride and Prejudice, with Mr. Bennet’s rude treatment of his wife and lax parenting resulting in near disaster for the family. Upon Lydia’s elopement, Elizabeth “had never felt so strongly as now, the disadvantages which must attend the children of so unsuitable a marriage” as that of her parents (155). She even warns her father before Lydia embarks for Brighton saying, “Our importance, our respectability in the world, must be affected by the wild volatility, the assurance and disdain of all restraint which mark Lydia’s character” (151). Mr. Bennet’s neglect of his daughters, Austen makes clear, results from his lack of respect and love for Mrs. Bennet, whom he married for her “youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour, which youth and beauty generally give,” temporary qualities that led to “an end to all real affection for her.” In a different situation from that created by Austen, this basis of attraction would work well for a male, who would simply move on to another attractive young partner. With the Bennets, we most clearly see Austen’s refusal to give her male characters any leeway for their poor mate selection. Mr. Bennet is allowed no possibility of escape, no solace in a mistress, which Austen obliquely mentions: “Mr. Bennet was not of a disposition to seek comfort for the disappointment which his own imprudence had brought on, in any of those pleasures which too often console the unfortunate for their folly or their vice” (155). His only refuge lies in cutting remarks that his wife rarely comprehends-since “the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character” (4)-and his library, “not the sort of happiness which a man would in general wish to owe to his wife” (155). After watching Mr. Bennet’s disdain for his wife and the consequent emotional and patriarchal neglect of his daughters, Elizabeth wisely rejects Darcy’s first proposal since it expresses a similar vein of disdain. She recognizes she would be placing herself in the same position as her mother, thereby creating a similarly uncomfortable position for her future children. As the more investing sex, Elizabeth will not do this (see Stone 457).
The men of Austen’s culture could choose more freely than the women, but, in line with evolutionary psychology, the men in the novel perform for the women, engaging in competition to draw female attention to themselves, like peacocks with their tail feathers. Here, instead of male cardinals, we have redcoats using their manners and wit to impress. Austen pointedly notes Wickham’s efforts to appear “agreeable” and “amiable” so that when he enters the gathering at Mrs. Philips’s, he “was the happy man towards whom almost every female eye was turned?.With such rivals for the notice of the fair, as Mr. Wickham and the officers, Mr. Collins seemed likely to sink into insignificance; to the young ladies he certainly was nothing” (52). Unlike Bingley and Darcy, however, Wickham has no property and must, like the female characters, rely solely upon his person and social skills to impress. This is true also of Colonel Fitzwilliam as a younger son whom Austen, with language reminiscent of how she initially presents Wickham, describes as pleasant and agreeable, “in person and address most truly a gentleman” (113). In fact, Wickham and other men in the novel who have no property, in line with evolutionary psychology, are not chosen by women as appropriate long-term mates. Wickham, like Charlotte Lucas, attempts to marry for money and security only to find himself rejected. Fitzwilliam makes clear that he may not choose a mate based upon personal preference but must pay attention to financial security through marriage. In an attempt to let Elizabeth know he finds her attractive but unsuitable as a mate because of her lack of fortune, Colonel Fitzwilliam reminds her, “Younger sons cannot marry where they like?.Our habits of expence make us too dependant [sic], and there are not many in my rank of life who can afford to marry without some attention to money” (121; also, see Gilbert and Gubar 167). Elizabeth, therefore, never views Colonel Fitzwilliam as a potential mate and is quick to control her feelings for Wickham upon Mrs. Gardiner’s warning “not [to] involve yourself, or endeavour to involve him in an affection which the want of fortune would make so very imprudent” (96).
Of course, this is not true of the other men in the novel who use their property to draw the attention of women. While Mr. Collins fails to gain notice in the intrasexual competition of the drawing room, he is able to attract a wife since he does have material qualities that are desirable in a mate. He eagerly displays this to Elizabeth upon her visit, “as if wishing to make her feel what she had lost in refusing him” (104). When Lady Catherine soon extends an invitation to dine, Mr. Collins feels the thrill of “letting them see her civility towards himself and his wife,” which “was exactly what he had wished for” (106). However, Mr. Collins-property, wife, and all-begins and ends the novel as the butt of many jokes because of his poor manners. Austen makes clear his inferiority to Darcy when he ignores Elizabeth’s advice that he would be committing an “impertinent freedom” (66) by approaching Darcy at the Netherfield ball. Darcy, of course, responds with “distant civility” and dismisses Mr. Collins with “a slight bow,” emphasizing, as Elizabeth acknowledges, Mr. Darcy as being “superior in consequence” (67). Additionally, Mr. Collins’s social and financial dependence upon a woman (Lady Catherine DeBourgh) makes him much less attractive as a potential mate to women in the novel. Data from evolutionary psychology support this claim: women consistently place higher value on independence and social dominance in a prospective mate than do men.
Here is the problem for Bingley. One could argue that it is Jane who is temporarily punished for her inability to attract a mate properly. After all, Charlotte Lucas in reference to Jane proclaims, “In nine cases out of ten, a woman had better shew more affection than she feels. Bingley likes your sister undoubtedly; but he may never do more than like her, if she does not help him on” (15). Darcy excuses his interference in Bingley’s relationship with Jane by arguing that “the serenity of your sister’s countenance and air was such, as might have given even the most acute observer, a conviction that, however amiable her temper, her heart was not likely to be touched” (130). However, the real problem here is not Jane but Bingley. After all, Elizabeth is rewarded with the best marriage of the novel in spite of telling Darcy that he is the last man on earth she would marry, clearly a stronger statement than merely appearing calm as Jane does. No, it is Bingley who fails to reach the eventual heroic status of Darcy due to his timidity. Bingley’s willingness to be persuaded so easily to give up Jane puts him in some ways on the same plane with Mr. Collins, lacking independence, of will in this case, and social dominance; for though Mr. Bingley’s manners are the most agreeable at parties, it is Darcy who commands the most attention. But even with the competitive advantages of wealth and influence, Darcy must learn to perform- improve his manners-in spite of his protestations to Elizabeth that “[w]e neither of us perform to strangers” (117); and he does perform better when Elizabeth arrives at Pemberley. Elizabeth recognizes, “Never, even in the company of his dear friends at Netherfield, or his dignified relations at Rosings, had she seen him so desirous to please, so free from selfconsequence, or unbending reserve as now” (170-171). As Sir Walter Scott joked, it is upon seeing Pemberley that Elizabeth falls in love with Darcy; perhaps, though, the joke is correct and explained by evolutionary psychology: not only does Elizabeth see Darcy’s estate, but Darcy recognizes that he must work to attract her as a mate.4 Much of this “work” involves generosity in welcoming Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle to share the estate during their visit. Clearly, Darcy is sending the signal to Elizabeth that he is willing to share his possessions with her as well as exhibit proper manners by treating them all graciously.
Elizabeth first rejects Darcy because of the issue of generosity. Buss’s influential 1989 cross-cultural study clearly showed that women value generosity in a mate more than do men. Men must not only be able to invest in a partner but must also be willing to invest. In Pride and Prejudice, it is not enough for Darcy to be wealthy; he also must be willing (or perceived as willing) to share some of these resources with a mate. At first, Darcy is not generous with either money or, perhaps more importantly, his public praise of Elizabeth. On one of their first meetings, Darcy says out loud of Elizabeth, “she is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me” (9). As the novel progresses, Darcy is more generous to Elizabeth in terms of both public praise for her “fine” eyes and eventually in the payment of Wickham’s debt as part of the deal for his marriage to Lydia. Later, when Elizabeth thanks him for his actions on behalf of her family, Darcy replies, “I thought only of you” (239). Since Darcy shows no indication that he is willing to be generous to Elizabeth prior to his first proposal, he is at first less attractive as a mate to Elizabeth. However, as Darcy’s generosity increases towards Elizabeth, her attraction to him increases-in line with evolutionary predictions.
In fact, it is Darcy’s letter in which he describes his actions to protect Georgianna, then Elizabeth’s observations of his protective kindness toward his sister, that first convey Darcy’s generous nature to Elizabeth and begin to warm her toward accepting his second offer. And, obviously, Darcy acts as protective patriarch toward Lydia in ways that Mr. Bennet could not. Elizabeth recognizes that Darcy’s love for her is essential to long-term mating, and his actions toward his sister-and her own sister-convince her that Darcy will protect not only her but also their future children.
And what attracts Darcy to the financially strapped Elizabeth straddled with an unfortunate family? Her eyes. While poetry may call the eyes windows to the soul, evolutionary psychology, as we noted, postulates that men are attracted to women who appear healthy and able to bear and nurture children. One such sign of health is the eyes. Evolutionary theorists remind us that in early ancestral environments, cloudy or dull eyes may have been a signal of disease or bad genes. The first compliment Darcy pays to Elizabeth, though it is to Caroline Bingley, is on “the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow” (19). While Darcy questions the propriety of Elizabeth’s walk to check on Jane, he simultaneously admires “the brilliancy which exercise had given to her complexion” (23) and tells Caroline that Elizabeth’s eyes “were brightened by the exercise” (25). Elizabeth exudes health, whereas Anne DeBourgh, a more suitable match by society’s standards, does not (see Wiltshire 125). According to Fraiman, Austen is suggesting “a decline in aristocratic welfare?by the sickly Miss De Bourgh. It may well be the enfeeblement of his own class that encourages Darcy to look below him for a wife with greater stamina” (174). Mr. Collins, of course, being far less discerning than Darcy, sees the beauty of Miss De Bourgh as relying entirely on “features which marks the young woman of distinguished birth” (46). In this way, evolutionary psychology and Austen are not conservative at all, displacing the aristocratic Anne De Bourgh in favor of the middle-class healthy and seemingly fertile Elizabeth. Stone contends, “It was generally agreed that the ideal was a pale, languid, and fainting belle, and that ?an air of robustness and strength is very prejudicial to beauty’” (446), making Darcy’s choice of Elizabeth much more in line with the principles of evolutionary psychology than the fashion of the time. Though crudely put, perhaps Mrs. Bennet is on target when she proclaims to Jane, “I was sure you could not be so beautiful for nothing!” upon hearing about her daughter’s engagement (227).
On its surface, Pride and Prejudice may appear conservative, but if one believes that the overriding, non-conscious purpose in humans’ lives-both male and female-is to pass our genes forward, then the seemingly conservative marriage ending in fact liberates. Elizabeth’s chances of successfully producing and nurturing a family are excellent thanks to a secure marriage to a loyal, caring, and rich husband. Austen’s novels create the stability necessary for women to succeed in the evolutionary game, whereas she rejects the male strategy of multiple partners. Seemingly constraining monogamy becomes liberation for the heroines when we read Austen vis a vis evolutionary psychology.
UNIVERSITY OF TAMPA and SAINT LEO UNIVERSITY
1 One might logically wonder about the underlying biology that makes the relationship between psychology and culture possible: can preferences for particular mate qualities be transmitted genetically from generation to generation? The short answer seems to be no; mate preferences themselves are unlikely to be directly inherited from one’s parents. Evolutionary psychologists argue that the kind of specialized social reasoning involved in mate choice suggests that the mind acts not as a general problem-solving machine, but rather consists of domain-specific modules that facilitate the expression of cognitive adaptations. Cummins argues that what is genetically “innate” is best understood as a biological preparedness for learning evolutionary-relevant cognitive functions, such as social reasoning in mate choice, that develop through interaction with the environment. Thus, biology “puts strong constraints on what types of knowledge or skills can or will be learned, but?the environment plays a very large role in how and whether biological predispositions get expressed” (240-241). This notion is entirely compatible with our basic argument that changes in eighteenth- century culture regarding companionate marriage interacted with biologically-prepared adaptations of the mind to influence the human psychology of mate choice.
2 Critics, of course, do not agree on Austen’s status as conservative or feminist, as noted by Langland in her useful survey, “Pride and Prejudice: Jane Austen and Her Readers.” Butler and Fraiman point out the conservatism of Austen’s work, while Sulloway sees a feminist intent similar to Wollstonecraft’s (15). Duckworth suggests that Austen tends to be all things to all people: conservative, feminist, Romantic, Augustan, etc.
3 We would not go so far as Barash and Barash who claim that “[n]early always, Austen’s women are in the driver’s seat (and never more so than when they adroitly lead a man to think that he is)” (41).
4 Butler says Pemberley represents a turning point not because of its material wealth but because it shows real taste and a lack of pomposity while providing the good opinion of Darcy’s housekeeper. Burlin argues much the same, claiming that the pictures at Pemberley affect Elizabeth and that the chapter is an aesthetic argument in Darcy’s favor. See also Polhemus.
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