What’s the Story: Novels and Social Evolution

23 Mar

New Scientist: Novels and Social Evolution

How novels help drive social evolution

WHY does storytelling endure across time and cultures? Perhaps the answer lies in our evolutionary roots. A study of the way that people respond to Victorian literature hints that novels act as a social glue, reinforcing the types of behaviour that benefit society…

The team found that the characters fell into groups that mirrored the egalitarian dynamics of hunter-gather society, in which individual dominance is suppressed for the greater good (Evolutionary Psychology, vol 4, p 716). Protagonists, such as Elizabeth Bennett in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, for example, scored highly on conscientiousness and nurturing, while antagonists like Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula scored highly on status-seeking and social dominance.

While few in today’s world live in hunter-gatherer societies, “the political dynamic at work in these novels, the basic opposition between communitarianism and dominance behaviour, is a universal theme”, says Carroll. Christopher Boehm, a cultural anthropologist whose work Carroll acknowledges was an important influence on the study, agrees. “Modern democracies, with their formal checks and balances, are carrying forward an egalitarian ideal.”

All those Victorian novels I should have been reading in high school have a purpose.  Social control!  Seriously though this is an excellent example of the messages we send to one another through stories, if we read between the lines.

-Joe

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