Ted Kennedy, Victorian Hero?

Darwinian literary critics on how to tell the "bad guys" from the "good guys"


Why is it that politicians who give away other people's money are so highly esteemed by so much of the public and the press? Reading the fulsome encomiums showered on the late Sen. Ted Kennedy in recent weeks, it occurred to me that a recent study produced by a collaboration between two literary Darwinists and two evolutionary psychologists might shed some light on this puzzle. The study, "Hierarchy in the Library: Egalitarian Dynamics in Victorian Novels," delves into the recesses of human social psychology by looking at the heroes and anti-heroes in Victorian novels.

English professors Joseph Carroll of University of Missouri-St. Louis and Jonathan Gottschall of Washington & Jefferson College polled 519 literary experts who assessed the behavior of 435 characters in 201 canonical British novels of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The upshot of their analysis, published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, is that novels have an agonistic structure—that is, they pit protagonists against antagonists, good guys against bad guys.

Antagonists personify social dominance—the self-interested pursuit of wealth, prestige, and power. They are undisciplined, emotionally unstable, and intellectually dull. Protagonists, in contrast, are conscientious, emotionally stable, open to experience, and mild-mannered. They nurture kin and help non-kin. While this may seem like restating the obvious, the researchers point out that for many literary critics it is considered "too simple-minded to think that agonistic categories exist."

How do we know to side with the idealistic Nicholas Nickleby versus his miserly uncle Ralph Nickleby in Dickens' eponymous novel? "Protagonists exemplify traits that evoke admiration and liking in readers," the study found, "and antagonists exemplify traits that evoke anger, fear, contempt, and disgust." The researchers suggest that novels (or at least this set of British novels) amount to morality tales that reinforce ancient egalitarian impulses that evolved among our hunter/gatherer ancestors.

In support of this hypothesis, the researchers cite University of Southern California cultural anthropologist Christopher Boehm's theory that human nature evolved among egalitarian hunter-gatherers in which group members would band together to thwart individuals who try to dominate their fellows. Indeed, recent research disturbingly finds that players in specially devised economic games will sacrifice their own resources, with no expectation of personal gain, in order to reduce the incomes of top earners and boost the incomes of low earners. This result suggests that people may, in some sense, be natural born communists.  

So how do novels promote egalitarian norms? Carroll and his colleagues speculate that "if agonistic structure in the novels reflects the evolved dispositions for forming cooperative social groups, the novels would provide a medium of shared imaginative experience through which authors and readers affirm and reinforce cooperative dispositions on a large cultural scale." On this view, novels are a cultural technology for teaching cooperation and suppressing attempts to gain dominance.

This bit of literary speculation implies that Sen. Kennedy was cast in the role of prosocial protagonist in our national political drama. For example, in its obituary of Kennedy, The Boston Globe noted, "He became a Democratic titan of Washington who fought for the less fortunate." Newsweek declared, "Ted Kennedy became the Senate's great lion by fighting for the poor and the dispossessed." Clearly, the senator is being lauded for his perceived advocacy of egalitarian policies—classic protagonist behavior. The Massachusetts senator styled himself as the opponent of the corporate fat cats most easily slotted into the political narrative as social dominance-seeking antagonists.

According to the New York Daily News, Kennedy was responsible for the passage of more than 300 laws during his 47 years in the Senate. These include the State Children's Health Insurance Program of 1997, Title IX, increases in the federal minimum wage, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, and the Medicare prescription drug benefit for seniors. And, of course, Kennedy was famous for his long advocacy for universal government-funded health care.

These kinds of policies appeal to our natural egalitarian instincts. In fact, they are so deeply attractive that it is easy to overlook their deleterious unintended consequences, such as crowding out private health insurance for children, cutting back on sports activities for young men at colleges and universities, boosting unemployment, imposing one-size-fits-all education, and creating a fiscally unsustainable new entitlement program. These attempts to gratify primitive egalitarian impulses actually undermine the most effective system of voluntary cooperation ever stumbled upon by humanity—free market capitalism—but that doesn't reduce their basic attraction.

One crucial difference between the senator from Massachusetts and the protagonists in Victorian novels is that the latter did not generally wield political power. Our natural suspicion of would-be dominators obliges politicians to portray themselves as selfless public servants, i.e., prosocial cooperators. But the plain fact is that becoming a United States senator is a pretty good example of successful dominance seeking. And once this kind of social dominance is achieved, it is often sustained by selflessly dispensing other people's money to "deserving" individuals and groups.

The irony is that appearing to support egalitarian norms turns out to be the royal road to attaining social dominance, and thus to gaining wealth, prestige, and power. Sen. Kennedy's long political career proves that he was a master at finessing the agonistic structure of American politics.

Interestingly, the researchers also found that male protagonists in the Victorian novels "lack specifically male qualities of aggressive assertion." The self-effacing cooperativeness of male protagonists apparently makes them less dynamic and less interesting to readers than antagonists. This might explain why the press and the public sang the praises of Kennedy's good guy deeds, but remained even more deeply fascinated by his lifetime of bad guys antics.

Ronald Bailey is Reason magazine's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.