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The cultural evolution of love in literary history

Abstract

Since the late nineteenth century, cultural historians have noted that the importance of love increased during the Medieval and Early Modern European period (a phenomenon that was once referred to as the emergence of ‘courtly love’). However, more recent works have shown a similar increase in Chinese, Arabic, Persian, Indian and Japanese cultures. Why such a convergent evolution in very different cultures? Using qualitative and quantitative approaches, we leverage literary history and build a database of ancient literary fiction for 19 geographical areas and 77 historical periods covering 3,800 years, from the Middle Bronze Age to the Early Modern period. We first confirm that romantic elements have increased in Eurasian literary fiction over the past millennium, and that similar increases also occurred earlier, in Ancient Greece, Rome and Classical India. We then explore the ecological determinants of this increase. Consistent with hypotheses from cultural history and behavioural ecology, we show that a higher level of economic development is strongly associated with a greater incidence of love in narrative fiction (our proxy for the importance of love in a culture). To further test the causal role of economic development, we used a difference-in-difference method that exploits exogenous regional variations in economic development resulting from the adoption of the heavy plough in medieval Europe. Finally, we used probabilistic generative models to reconstruct the latent evolution of love and to assess the respective role of cultural diffusion and economic development.

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Fig. 1: Distribution of literary fiction.
Fig. 2: The cultural chain of the story of Tristan and Iseult.
Fig. 3: Average distribution of the occurrence of words referring to love in Wikipedia entries across works per century.
Fig. 4: Importance of love in Eurasian fiction as a function of density.
Fig. 5: Regression weights for GLM analyses predicting romantic content of works from different proxies of economic development at the time and in the area the work was produced.
Fig. 6: The introduction of the heavy plough in Europe as a positive income shock.
Fig. 7: Quantitative assessment of the role of economic development and transmitted culture in the evolution of love.

Data availability

The data, as well as the the Ancient Literary Fictions Values Survey and the Ancient World Values Survey (Romantic Love and Attitudes toward Children), are available on OSF (https://osf.io/ud35x).

Code availability

The code that supports the findings of this study is available on OSF (https://osf.io/ud35x). A detailed description of the model for study 4 as well as MATLAB code to fit and run such models can be found on https://github.com/ahyafil/Evoked_Transmitted_Culture.

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Acknowledgements

We thank P. Boyer, C. Chevallier, L. Cronk, H. Mercier, O. Morin and M. Singh for their comments and feedback on the draft. We thank S. Joye, M. White-Le Goff, M. Daumas, W. Reddy, K. Zakharia, E. Feuillebois-Pierunek, D. Struve and C. Svatek for their feedback on the design of the project, and S. Joye for her help in kickstarting the project. We thank T. Ansart for his help and advice in designing the figures. For their expertise in history of literature and their reading the Ancient Literary Fictions Values Survey, we thank M. Balda-Tillier, G. Barnes, B. Brosser, S. Brocquet, J.-B. Camps, N. Cattoni, M. Childs, C. Cleary, B. Cook, H. Cooper, M. Eggertsdóttir, W. Farris, E. Francis, H. Frangoulis, H. Fulton, G. Fussman, D. Goodall, I. Hassan, L. Haiyan, D. Hsieh, A. Inglis, C. Jouanno, R. Keller Kimbrough, J. D. Konstan, R. Lanselle, R. Luzi, M. Luo, R. Martin, D. Matringue, K. McMahon, G. Nagy, P. Nagy, H. Navratilova, D. Negers, P. Orsatti, F. Orsini, S. Ríkharðsdóttir, F. Schironi, S. Valeria, C. Starr, R. Torrella and S. Torres Pietro. Funding: This study was supported by the Institut d’Études Cognitives (ANR-17-EURE-0017 FrontCog and ANR-10-IDEX-0001-02 PSL) for N.B. and L.S., and by the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness (RYC-2017-2323) for A.H.

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N.B. conceived the project, supervised the creation of the Ancient Literary Fictions Database and wrote the Ancient Literary Fictions Values Survey. L.S. and A.H. designed the analyses for study 1. L.S. designed the analyses for study 2. E.H. designed the difference-in-difference for study 3. A.H. designed the latent probabilistic generative models for study 4. All authors wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Nicolas Baumard.

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Baumard, N., Huillery, E., Hyafil, A. et al. The cultural evolution of love in literary history. Nat Hum Behav 6, 506–522 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-022-01292-z

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