How novels help drive social evolution

Fictions In New Scientist, another take on fiction

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.

Literature “could continually condition society so that we fight against base impulses and work in a cooperative way”, says Jonathan Gottschall of Washington and Jefferson College, Pennsylvania.
Gottschall and co-author Joseph Carroll at the University of Missouri, St Louis, study how Darwin's theories of evolution apply to literature. Along with John Johnson, an evolutionary psychologist at Pennsylvania State University in DuBois, the researchers asked 500 people to fill in a questionnaire about 200 classic Victorian novels. The respondents were asked to define characters as protagonists or antagonists, and then to describe their personality and motives, such as whether they were conscientious or power-hungry.

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.