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Journal Articles Nature Human Behaviour Year : 2022

The cultural evolution of love in literary history

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Since the late 19th century, cultural historians have noted that the importance of love has increased during the Medieval and Early Modern European period (a phenomenon that was once referred as the emergence of "courtly love"). However, more recent works have shown that a similar increase is also detectable 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 fictions for 19 geographical areas and 77 historical periods covering 3800 years, from the Middle Bronze age to the Early Modern period. We first confirm that romantic elements have increased in Eurasian literary fictions over the last 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 behavioral ecology, we show that a higher level of economic development is strongly associated with a greater incidence of love in narrative fictions (our proxy for the importance of love in a culture). To further test the causal role of economic development, we used a difference-indifference 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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Dates and versions

hal-03860431 , version 1 (18-11-2022)
hal-03860431 , version 2 (16-12-2022)



Nicolas Baumard, Elise Huillery, Alexandre Hyafil, Lou Safra. The cultural evolution of love in literary history. Nature Human Behaviour, 2022, 6 (4), pp.506-522. ⟨10.1038/s41562-022-01292-z⟩. ⟨hal-03860431v2⟩
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