wuthering_coverI truly believe the idea that literature (good literature, not reading trash novels – put that Danielle Steel away!) can make us better people. Good books present you with complicated interpersonal relationships, teach you to analyze them, present you with relationships and situations that don’t necessarily occur in your own daily life – thereby vicariously expanding your emotional and social experiences, giving you wider perspective and more tools to deal with your own relationships. They’re not instruction manuals, they’re examinations, observations, the raw data of the human soul, which we, as readers have to sift through to figure out what it all means.

So, of course my eye was caught by this article in the Guardian claiming that Victorian novels (yup, just specifically Victorian ones) made us, collectively (and I’m guessing the “us” here is actually “the British”) better, as a society.

The despicable acts of Count Dracula, the unending selflessness of Dorothea in Middlemarch and Mr Darcy’s personal transformation in Pride and Prejudice helped to uphold social order and encouraged altruistic genes to spread through Victorian society, according to an analysis by evolutionary psychologists.

Their research suggests that classic British novels from the 19th century not only reflect the values of Victorian society, they also shaped them. Archetypal novels from the period extolled the virtues of an egalitarian society and pitted cooperation and affability against individuals’ hunger for power and dominance. For example in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Dorothea Brooke turns her back on wealth to help the poor, while Bram Stoker’s nocturnal menace, Count Dracula, comes to represent the worst excesses of aristocratic dominance.

Ok, you’ve got my attention…please continue…

The team of evolutionary psychologists, led by Joseph Carroll at the University of Missouri in St Louis, applied Darwin’s theory of evolution to literature by asking 500 academics to fill in questionnaires on characters from 201 classic Victorian novels. The respondents were asked to define characters as protagonists or antagonists, rate their personality traits, and comment on their emotional response to the characters.

They found that leading characters fell into groups that mirrored the cooperative nature of a hunter-gatherer society, where individual urges for power and wealth were suppressed for the good of the community.

Ummmmm. Wha?

The effect of such moralistic literature was to uphold and instil a sense of fairness and altruism in society at large, the researchers claim in the journal Evolutionary Psychology. “By enforcing these norms, humans succeed in controlling ‘free riders’ or ‘cheaters’ and they thus make it possible for genuinely altruistic genes to survive within a social group,” they write.

Ok, there it is that’s where you lose me. I really don’t see how this presents any real scientific evidence. Victorian literature might have had a nice, moralistic influence, but a genetic influence? What? I think they’re reaching for keraaaazy headlines with this one.

From the journal article itself (pdf link above), just for a fun little snippet:

The current research therefore goes far beyond testing the simple propositions that good guys and bad guys exist and that readers like good guys more than bad guys. The research first tests, quantitatively, for the existence of protagonists, antagonists, and minor characters by measuring the degree of agreement in coding characters into the agonistic categories. If there is no such thing as agonistic structure, there would be no basis for systematically coding characters into these categories, so each coder would be using idiosyncratic and arbitrary rules for the coding task, resulting in zero agreement across coders. High levels of agreement would support the hypothesis that agonistic structure exists.
Furthermore, by assessing the ways in which protagonists and antagonists differ, the research was designed to discover why readers experience different emotional responses toward protagonists and antagonists. The prediction was that differences in emotional reaction could be explained by protagonists demonstrating higher degrees of cooperation and antagonists, social dominance.

Mmmmm… I hate to sound like a dunce, but that all kinda sounds like testing the simple propositions that good guys and bad guys exist and that readers like good guys more than bad guys. I am curious to perhaps plow through the rest of the article though and see if any of it actually convinces me of something more profound.