What Les Mis can tell us about science and identity.

It’s January, the ground is frosty and the very last Quality Street has been eaten, so it must be time for the BBC big budget costume adaption of a classic novel. Last year it was War and Peace, this year we move from Russian Aristocracy to French poverty, and the Victor Hugo classic, Les Miserables.


First a disclaimer, whilst War and Peace is in my top 5 novels ever, I have not read Les Mis, nor seen the musical, so my thoughts here are based on the BBC adaptation alone. Apologies to those who have been shouting at their TV screens as I was when Pierre was wrong, and entire battle scenes skipped over last year.

For those unfamiliar with the story, very briefly, Les Miserables explores how various people deal with poverty and oppression in the aftermath of the French defeat at Waterloo. The hero of the story is Jean Valjean, imprisoned for stealing bread to save his starving family. His path crosses that of Fantine, a naive and slightly foolish grisette who is seduced, abandoned, and then exploited by the people who she has left to care for her daughter. Fantine turns to sex work, after she has sold her hair and teeth (as a Clerk points out quite the wrong way round) and dies, leaving Jean Valjean, who had sacked her, wracked with guilt and determined to rescue her daughter from her own exploitation. (OK. I know this is an overview its so brief its like using google maps from space, but it brings me to the character I want to discuss in a bit more depth.)

Against these individuals struggling to simply exist is Inspector Javert, a policeman who is determined to see Jean ValJean imprisoned. Javert is a rationalist, a modern man, he is scientific. As we moved away from the domination of the Church many theorists attempted to explain human behaviour as something other than sin. Sin, and redemption, placed God at the center of human choices, throughout the 19th Century people wanted to explain humanity in other ways. As I have written about before Cesare Lombroso developed the theory of criminal tendencies, as in the idea that some people were born destined to be criminal. Javert adheres to this theory, as a “modern” man he is not superstitious. The TV adaptation shows a phrenology (the science of reading bumps on peoples heads) model on his desk. Javery believes that by committing one criminal act both Fantine and Jean have shown themselves to be criminal, as an identity, and so no empathy or sympathy are needed. For Jalvert science, legality and morality are one, and there is no need to understand or appreciate the complexity of the human experience.

My first degree was in Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method. One of the things which it taught me was that the majority of people have a huge misconception about how science and morality work. Like Javert they believe that the current scientific theory reveals some unshakeable, and unchallengable truth about the world, because it is science. By the same token, what is moral is determined by the current rules, the laws, rather than examination of values and beliefs. What the study of the scientific method teaches us is that all we have is theories, which we attempt to prove, or disprove, via experiments. Experiments themselves are not divorced from the world, but as Popper demonstrated, grow from the prejudices and expectations of the experimenter.

Jalvert’s theory, that one was either a criminal, as an innate identity, or not a criminal was challenged by Jean ValJean opening a rosary factory and becoming a model citizen, and then later by his actions in the June revolution. Instead of reevaluating his theory Jalvert became obsessed with proving that Jean was in fact criminal to the core. His theory did not allow for change, challenge or redemption.

When we appeal to immutable laws, be they of science or morality so often we are doing the same as Jalvert, attempting to shore up a belief with what we claim to be incontrovertible facts. I see this a lot around LGB and particularly trans, identities. One group will cite chromosomes, another child development, a third the impact of hormones, all ignoring the fact that science is not static, that the phrenology of one day is the astrology of the next. I am not claiming here we should dismiss science, far from it, if anything we need to be more scientific, understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the scientific method.

When Jalvert was confronted with someone who did not fit his concept of the world he refused to engage with the reality of their existence. Fantine could not be wronged, Jean could not be redeemed. He did the very opposite of science, he clung to his beliefs over the evidence right in front of him. If we are able to resist being like Jalvert, to hear what the person in front of us has to say, without prejudice or a desire to cling to what we think we know, we are not only more scientific, but we are better, kinder, human beings.

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