ReadySteadyBlog

Scientists -- don't you just love them!? This via the Guardian (thanks Robin):


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.

As my friend Robin wrote to me: "as an example of the astonishing shallowness with which 'scientists' conceive of literature, it takes some beating... but as an example of 'bad science', well, I reckon it's unbeatable."

Readers Comments

  1. Fern @ Paperback Traveler Friday 16 January 2009

    I've come to accept the fact that scientific studies either confirm something that is patently obvious to even the most dim witted among us, or that they use such obviously bad techniques to gather and analyze data that the conclusion is idiotic. The sad thing is that is appears that more and more people will not believe something unless a scientist has conducted a study about the topic.

  2. Can't see what the problem is. Looked an interesting and worthwhile study to me.

  3. Really doesn't this just show how appalling evolutionary psychology is. I always thought someone should write (and it probably has already been written) a devastating critique of it. But it wouldn't make a difference, and one's enemies should have some respect.

  4. It is indeed the case that there is a lot to criticize in evolutionary psychology - a lot!
    That said it is very interesting that instead of actually providing counter-arguments the posted comments just get off on accusing scientists as shallow or obvious. Can it really be the case that the people who make these ridiculous generalizations are not aware that for the most part they are just revealing their own insecurities about science? The long-standing problem is this: scientists can read novels but most novelists cannot read science. This asymmetry is a cause of barely admitted resentment, so at any opportunity there is a need to over-compensate by insulting science. This is especially true when science has something to say about art (in the broadest sense). It really is time to get over this phobia, while at the same time remaining constructively critical and skeptical.

  5. Fair points John. Equally, however, there in an asymmetry whereby many scientists feel that it is appropriate for them to publish their 'philosophical' musings, whereas philosophers wouldn't dream of writing science. What is most galling in all of this is the banality of the conclusions yielded by the application of scientific inquiry in such 'non-scientific' areas, &, more strikingly, the apparent failure to take cognisance of any relevant disciplinary work, in this case, works of literary criticism focusing on the Victorian novel.
    This latter point reveals why, in spite of the validity of the points you make, this is a ripe case of "bad science". First, such a failure to engage with secondary literature would immediately lead to the research being rejected, were this a 'normal' scientific project. Second, the methods employed are dismal - the survey of contemporary readers is deeply flawed in its design; but the idea that one could extrapolate from this data set any relevant conclusions about Victorian readers represents a crass methodological fallacy (the kind of fallacy that would lead to the work being laughed out of court in any journal of the natural sciences, but which is, in my experience, not uncommon in pseudo-sciences such as evolutionary psychology). Finally, the claim that the novelistic representation of certain characters, actions & behaviours, etc., "encouraged altruistic genes to spread through Victorian society", represents a travesty of anything that could be genuinely construed as evolutionary theory - suggesting the 'researchers' are as shamefully ignorant of basic theory as they are of basic research methodology.
    So demonstrably shabby is this work, John, that it simply doesn't deserve constructive criticism.
    That said - as pseudo-scientific appropriations of scientific methods carry on apace in the academic practice of social scientific disciplines - much to the detriment of these disciplines, I would suggest - I believe that the onus is on us to be even more robust in our defence of the integrity of our reading practices, & the theoretical grounds on which they are based.

  6. If true, Robin's accusations would be pretty serious. The authors, it is claimed, do not understand basic evolutionary science and use inappropriate and unscientific methodologies. Maybe in this case these accusations are true (I've not looked into it, just read the Guardian article), in which case, why not write to the journal concerned?

    Or maybe it's just the old prejudice about evolutionary psychology raising it's head again? This is quite common in literary circles because all that's been read are the popular works by Steven Rose and Gould et al. Some good reviews here for those interested in the other (and more generally accepted among evolutionary scientists) side of the story:

    http://www.human-nature.com/nibbs/02/apd.html

    http://human-nature.com/nibbs/03/curry.html

  7. Two points
    1. I was in no way trying to defend the Victorian novel theory - Robin, your concerns seem pretty convincing to me.
    2. With respect to evolutionary psychology: Stuart is right that bashing it indiscriminately is becoming more widespread. I am in the interesting position of having a brother and sister-in-law who are evolutionary biologists, and so hear about this issue a lot. They are also skeptical about evolutionary psychology. Their main problem is with the looseness of the methodology and the mismatch between claims and evidence. In this sense, the feeling Robin had about the Victorian Novel Study is very similar to what many evolutionary biologists feel about many studies in evolutionary psychology. David J. Buller's book is good on methodological and evidentiary shortcomings. Importantly, however, one should not to take these criticisms as a justification for complete dismissal of evolutionary psychology as a project because of some visceral reaction to the idea of applying evolutionary thinking to human nature.

  8. Has science ever studied the work of art from, say, a Heideggarian angle rather than treating it as evidence in a sociological study?

    The problem I've found with science's approach to art is that it ignores the work in its remove from "human nature". It suggests that science is missing what's essential. Perhaps that's why people with no feeling for art are so easily seduced by its reductionism.

  9. I've read and reread Stephen's comment and can't understand it. Perhaps people with no feeling for science are easily seduced by riddles.

  10. Try reading Heidegger and Blanchot instead then.

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