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Altruism in Sorrows of an American

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Altruism in Sorrows of an American

Genetics are hardly rigid determinants of behavior. Purely analyzing any text with only the scope of biological evolution is short-sighted and a gross oversimplification of the human psyche, but for the sake of my argument, I’m going to take a look at Erik Davidsen, narrator and main protagonist in The Sorrows of an American, through the lens of genetics, biological evolution, and altruism in order to understand his growth and his function in the novel.

            Erik Davidsen, psychoanalyst, starts out in the novel as a confused, lost man struggling after the loss of his father, searching for the truths behind the mystery of his father’s life. While Erik struggles to find the secrets behind his father’s life and struggles with his own depression, his family is collapsing around him. His ex-wife, Genie, has cut all ties to him and left him in his loneliness. His sister, Inga, suffers with the loss of her husband and the confusing web of clandestine activities he enacted during his life—including an adulterous affair and an illegitimate son. Sonia, the daughter of Inga and the late Max Blaustein, is plagued by post-traumatic stress disorder after witnessing the tragedy of 9/11, as well as deepening depression coming from her father’s death and the knowledge of his infidelity. Finally, we have Miranda and Eglantine Casaubon. This mother and daughter pair rent the bottom floor of his house and soon Erik falls for Miranda, a quiet Jamaican woman with a troubling past. As a doctor and as a true family man, Erik sees it as his duty to try and regain stability in his life and in the lives of those he cares for. But, as a troubled man himself, and in his convoluted search for the truth of his father’s life, Erik has trouble handling his own problems, let alone the problems of those around him.

            From a biological perspective, Erik is filling the role left to him by his father. He is now the “man of the house,” or the “alpha male,” so to speak, and it is his duty to serve and protect his family. By looking at altruistic behavior and Hamilton’s rule, a quantitative method of predicting when natural selection would favor altruistic acts among related individuals, we can see why Erik would go to such lengths to help his mother, Inga, and Sonia with their difficulties. Genetically, Erik has reason to want to help Inga and Sonia because there’s a fifty percent chance that he and Inga share some of the same genes, coming from the same two parents. (Hamilton’s rule states that the benefit for the recipient multiplied by the coefficient of relatedness must be greater than the cost to the altruist.) By making sure that Inga is psychologically and emotionally stable, he ensures that she not only lives to possibly produce more offspring (and to propagate his genes), Erik also ensures that Sonia will be raised by her mother and probably survive to adulthood and reproduce (there being a 25% chance that Sonia shares some of the same genes as Erik). And because children are shown to be healthier and grow faster when they have both their mother and their maternal grandmother, it would be most beneficial for both Erik’s sister and his mother to raise Sonia.

            Erik’s attempt to keep Miranda close and by some means gain her affection is a way of fulfilling the biological imperative, that is, the need to reproduce and produce offspring, which he did not fulfill in his previous marriage. By deterring Lane, Miranda’s previous lover and Eggy’s father, Erik is attempting to secure his ideal mate and reproduce. His frequent erotic fantasies of Miranda correspond with this biological need. His attempts to help Miranda find stability, not only to deter Lane, but to help the woman and her daughter find safety and permanence is a means of gaining favor.

            There are surely other things compelling Erik to help his friends and family, behaviors and feelings too complex to be analyzed in this short web paper (least of all by me), but we can look at The Sorrows of an American as a guide to the biological imperative and altruistic behavior among related individuals. Erik does what he does to propagate his genes, to survive to reproduce, and to continue his evolutionary branch as his parents continued theirs through him.


Paul Grobstein's picture

Sorrows of an American: Erik, genes, and ...

Where's the altruism?