Science Discovers What Books Are For: Evolution

Many a recalcitrant student has asked, "What's the point of reading?" Now science has an answer — but you might not like it.

A recent study reported in New Scientist showed that novels — or at least Victorian novels — might serve an evolutionary purpose by reinforcing communal values. Scientists distributed a questionnaire about 200 Victorian novels (Yes, the methodology here is a little confusing. Have you read 200 Victorian novels?) and asked respondents to describe the characters. They found that "protagonists, such as Elizabeth Bennett [that's 'Bennet,' New Scientist — do your reading!] 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." That is, good guys helped out other people, while bad guys exhibited "dominance behavior" like, say, sucking people's blood. Some characters, like Mr. Darcy, were seen as both good and bad — study author Joseph Carroll says "they reveal the pressure being exercised on maintaining the total social order." Carroll and his colleagues speculate that novels — and their precursors, the oral stories of hunter-gatherer societies — may serve an evolutionary function, teaching people to put the needs of the group above their own desires. Basically, novels might make us better citizens. For anyone who was a nerdy little kid with her nose in a book, this theory is a little disturbing. Many of us turn to reading — and other forms of art — to help us make sense of our outsider status, not to make ourselves better conformists. And some of the best art fundamentally challenges the communities from which it springs. We're willing to buy that good guys and bad guys have certain traits in common across cultures and times, but the study seems a bit simplistic. Lizzy Bennet is far more than a nurturer — and to call Dracula "status-seeking" is a bit, well, bloodless. How novels help drive social evolution [New Scientist]