Mapping the Evolution of Literature: When the Arts and Science Collide

Fagjun | Published 2017-04-07 02:26

A classicist, a biologist, and a computer scientist worked together to map the evolution of literature, specifically Latin and Greek.

That sounds like the setup to a nerdy but lousy joke, but it's actually something that happened.

Brush up on your Livy and Seneca, because researchers built the intertextuality in ancient Greek and Roman literature. These researchers found and mapped out subtle relationships between texts to trace literary evolution. They also used quantification and computation to gain a deeper understanding of these relationships.

Science and the Evolution of Literature

Literature under scrutiny
[Photo by Cathy Mu]

This is an unusual study to be published in a scientific journal. However, the researchers used scientific methods in order to come to their findings. They also relied on the use of technology and machine learning to suss out the finer points in literature. If you think that literature and science don't really mix, this research may make you think again.

It's no secret that literature wields considerable influence over cultures. Different cultures around the world pass on their morals, practices, norms, and values through written and oral works. Studying ancient literature also provides insight into cultures that existed and waned long before we were born. While literature is primarily in the domain of the humanities, science can play an important role in analyzing it.

The researchers analyzed literary profiles using word usage, punctuation and sentence structure. They also used stylometry and machine learning to sort through the complicated data sets and pinpoint small features that make one work distinguishable from another. They're looking at “unusual” literary features like style, sound, syntax, and rhythm. If the researchers had done all the work by hand, it would have taken years.

Machine learning was also instrumental in distinguishing particularities in style among different genres in English literature. The researchers used an approach similar to this to trace the evolution of Latin literature, specifically prose.

A Qualitative and Quantitative Approach

Through their analysis, the researchers were able to identify how certain writers were able to influence literature in their culture. These kinds of analysis were mostly qualitative, but this study took on a more quantitative approach. Of course, qualitative analysis still played a role.

There was thus a productive intertwining of both qualitative and quantitative approaches. This is a great example of how the humanities and science can work together. By using approaches from the two vastly different fields, researchers were able to get a sense of the evolution of literature.

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