How Mr. Darcy taught us right from wrong

Pax Arcana

When I was a young schoolboy romping through the fields of Herbertshire-upon-Crump with a gay song in my heart and nary a tuppence in my pocket, my schoolmarm Ms. Eyre was quick to teach us that the world before the Victorian era was replete with ne’er-do-wells and rapscallions of all manner of impropriety.

mrdarcy‘Twas only the writings of Jane Austen that saved the civilized world from the degradations of yore, Ms. Eyre always said.

And now Ms. Eyre is vindicated by science. Well, social science, but I think the point is the same:

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.

This is exactly right. I know because I can’t think of a single work of pre-Victorian literature that showcased selflessness and eschewed cruelty and inequity — with the possible exceptions of Beowulf, The Epic of Gilgamesh, the collected works of Aesop, the collected works of Shakespeare, everything by Aristotle, the Tao Te Ching, The Aenid, The I Ching, The Illiad, the Upanishads, the Koran, the Torah, The Divine Comedy, The Prince, Don Quixote, Leviathan, Candide, Vindication of the Rights of Women, Summa Theologie, and the Bible.

Anyway, go on:

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.

I once took a questionnaire in Cosmo about whether he was right for me, and the results were scary accurate. He’s more of a cat person and I like dogs. He’s kind of a night owl and I like to stay in and watch movies. Also, I’m not gay.

Victorian novels helped us evolve into better people, say psychologists [Guardian UK]


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