Scientists have a go at literature and society: don't give up, chaps!

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dracula loves pussy
It's time for an 'other' post. That's all I have to say about that.

I was just reading an article in the Guardian's science page about Victorian literature. It seems that some scientists in the states, apparently oblivious to sociology and literary criticism, decided to study the relationship between those novels and the society of the time. Because, no one has ever done that before, obviously. They concluded that literature is not only shaped by society but it influences it too (paying attention to GCSE English could have saved some grant money there) and that ... wait for it ... the values in the novels helped 'us' develop altruistic genes.

Altruistic from

Here's the article I'm about to quote: Victorian novels helped us evolve into better people

From the article:

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.

So. I'm going to go right ahead and mark this science project: fail

How do I know this? Well, it's a combination of many factors that were nicely tied up by degree level study of this literature and society thing. There's spending time in the real world, a passing knowledge of history, having actually read the books they mention, basic research on the authors and their background ... to name a few. Obviously, there's no way to do a detailed study in a blog post so here's a taster.

Let's do Dracula 101, as the study hilariously thinks it's about the excesses of the aristocracy. Oh. That first sentence has brought something up. We better include it. You see, if you, for example, happen to think that male rule of females in society is normal and just fine and dandy, then you're not going to think it's bad are you? If those ideas are internalized completely, you might not even notice them in a piece of literature.You might even look at a whole genre of literature shot through with the values of empire, race, class, nationalism, subservience and chauvinism and call it altruistic

The meaning might even be dependent on the reader and only exist at the moment of interaction between the two. Well, we can take a fucking guess. I'm just illustrating what a tricky thing it is.

So Dracula. I like that book and have read it a bunch of times. We have the classic vampire legends woven into a narrative with characters. There are the elements: vampire, castle, wolves, gaseous form, crypts, minions (Renfield). And then we have the story and ideologies woven into it by Bram Stoker. 

Outside of the vampire elements it is a story about two young women and their passage into married life. That's not my reading of it - that's the basic events in the book. If you don't agree then I might respectfully suggest that you haven't read the original novel in full, certainly not recently.

Looking at the characters, their actions and their relationships and outcomes the central theme of the book is clearly that women should know their place. There's Lucy, carefree, flirtatious and sexual. Killed and turned, then killed again. There's Mina, polite, restrained, loyal to her man - lives. The women in the book are utterly useless victims. Again no room in a shortish blog post but read it yourself to find a gold mine of examples.

And let's not forget the obvious. The late Victorians and next generations went on to expand the brutal racist Empire to legendary proportions and kicked off two world wars, the butcher's slab of history. How altruistic was that? 

And now my suggestions for next time: the concept of scientific method is sound so the test results suggests many problems. Let's pick just one. I'll go with the involvement, at all levels of the study, of sociopaths with little concept of what altruism actually means in a practical sense. Don't give up hope, chaps. There are courses in this kind of thing you can take.

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