Thursday, January 15, 2009

How Victorian Novels Changed Human Nature

Researchers now believe that Victorian novels did a whole lot more than just reflect the social mores of the time - they actually shaped those mores and contributed to human evolution. From the U.K., the Guardian offers the story:

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.
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.
Now just how cool is that?


  1. Thanks so much for all the "hits," Scott. You are really driving my page count stats up. I appreciate it.

  2. I do think it is cool! The old chicken and the egg evolving into a kind of self-perpetuating cycle.

  3. Is Scott still bothering you. I wish he would go away.

    The idea that Victorian novels helped shape the morality and social values of the time is not new. I studied it at length in grad school back in the 90's and I remember hearing the argument advanced when I was an undergrad in the 80's. (It took me a long time to get through school.)

    Many people, lit critics, have said that Jane Austen invented the love marriage and set the standard for a good match.

    But I've not heard anyone argue this all had an effect on human evolution. I'm usually skeptical of things I read in The Guardian but I'll try to remain open. I think it will could add an interesting twist to the overall censorship debate.

  4. I knew I loved Victorian Lit for a reason.

  5. Jenclair, if the theory proves to be true, it is for sure the most fascinating thing about reading that I've ever heard.

  6. Scott is still being a pain, C.B., full of ugliness, name calling, threats, and the like. But my hit count sure is climbing because of his interest.

    This is my first exposure to the whole theory, and I can't imagine what would constitute its proof.

    I hadn't thought about the other side of the coin, censorship, before you mentioned it. Something like this could certainly give "censors" another reason to keep certain books and movies off the shelves because they can claim to fear their long term effects. Interesting and scary at the same time, that.

  7. if you needed another reason, Lisa. :-)