Do novels help our morals evolve?

Paul Raven @ 15-01-2009

Victorian era typewriter keysAre there hidden messages and subtexts in stories and novels that help reinforce and strengthen the values our society holds? A group of evolutionary psychologists researching Victorian-era fiction suggests that the classics of the time…

… 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.

[…]

The researchers believe that novels have the same effect on society as oral cautionary tales of old. “Just as hunter-gatherers talk of cheating and bullying as a way of staying keyed to the goal that bad guys must not win, novels key us to the same issues… “

The idea of culture as societal regulation valve is nothing new, I suppose, but it seems the researchers were focusing on the canonical literature of the era rather than what would have been considered popular by the man on the street. What about the Victorian precursors of the pulp magazines, for example, or their oft-unmentioned love of porn and erotica? There was a very different set of values embedded in those, I think we can assume…

That said, I think there’s probably a nugget of truth in the assertion that art contains coded value systems from the society that produced it. So what does that mean for us 21st Century types? We have somewhat different values nowadays, and we no longer have such a dominant monoculture as the Victorians. [image by k4chii]

Looking back on the science fiction novels we’re reading today, what would an anthropologist or evolutionary psychologist from a century in the future make of our values?

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