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Human Nature in Nineteenth-Century British Novels: Doing the Math

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 33, Number 1, April 2009
pp. 50-72 | 10.1353/phl.0.0031

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Three broad ambitions animate this study. Building on research in evolutionary social science, we aimed (1) to construct a model of human nature—of motives, emotions, features of personality, and preferences in marital partners; (2) use that model to analyze some specific body of literary texts and the responses of readers to those texts, and (3) produce data—information that could be quantified and could serve to test specific hypotheses about those texts.

Evolutionary social science is still in the process of constructing a full and adequate model of human nature. Evolutionary social scientists know much already about how human reproductive behavior and human sociality fit into the larger pattern of human evolution. They still have much to learn, though, about the ways literature and the other arts enter into human nature. Our model of human nature draws on our knowledge of imaginative culture, integrates that knowledge with evolutionary theories of culture, and produces data that enable us to draw conclusions on an issue of broad significance for both literary study and evolutionary social science: the adaptive function of literature and the other arts.1

In order to make advances in knowledge, it is necessary to choose some particular subject. Genetics is a basic science that applies to all organisms, but geneticists first got an empirical fix on their subject by focusing minutely, with Mendel, on peas, and, with Morgan, on fruit flies. In place of peas and flies, we have taken as our subject British novels of the longer nineteenth century (Austen to Forster). As a literary topic, the subject is fairly broad, but our theoretical and methodological aims ultimately extend well beyond the specialist fields of British novels, the nineteenth century, British literature, narrative fiction, or even literary scholarship generally. This study is designed to engage the attention of literary scholars in all fields and also to engage the attention of social scientists. If it achieves its aims, this study would help persuade literary scholars that empirical methods offer rich opportunities for the advancement of knowledge about literature, and it would help persuade social scientists that the quantitative study of literature can shed important light on fundamental questions of human psychology and human social interaction. Our own research team combines these two prospective audiences. Two of us (Carroll and Gottschall) have been trained primarily as literary scholars, and two of us (Johnson and Kruger) primarily as social scientists.

The focal point for this study is "agonistic" structure: the organization of characters into protagonists, antagonists, and minor characters. The central question in the study is this: does agonistic structure reflect evolved dispositions for forming cooperative social groups? Suppressing or muting competition within a social group enhances group solidarity and organizes the group psychologically for cooperative endeavor. Our chief hypothesis was that protagonists and good minor characters would form communities of cooperative endeavor and that antagonists would exemplify dominance behavior. If this hypothesis proved correct, the ethos reflected in the agonistic structure of the novels would replicate the egalitarian ethos of hunter-gatherers, who stigmatize and suppress status-seeking in potentially dominant individuals. If suppressing dominance in hunter-gatherers fulfills an adaptive social function, and if agonistic structure in the novels engages the same social dispositions that animate hunter-gatherers, our study would lend support to the hypothesis that literature fulfills an adaptive social function.2

One of our chief working hypotheses is that when readers respond to characters in novels, they respond in much the same way, emotionally, as they respond to people in everyday life. They like or dislike them, admire them or despise them, fear them, feel sorry for them, or are amused by them. In writing fabricated accounts of human behavior, novelists select and organize their material for the purpose of generating such responses, and readers willingly cooperate with this purpose. They participate vicariously in the experiences depicted and form personal opinions about the qualities of the characters. Authors and readers thus collaborate in producing a simulated experience of emotionally responsive evaluative judgment. If agonistic structure is a main shaping feature in the organization of characters in novels, if agonistic structure engages evolved dispositions for forming cooperative social groups, and if novels provide a medium...

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