Literary Darwinism

Spotted this interesting piece on the evolutionary origins of literature, and its potential purposes via John Hagel.  Here’s a brief extract:

The real mystery is not just the evolutionary origins of literature, but movements and attitudes such as modernism that insist on transcending the traditional plot lines that Booker diagnoses. If Booker is right and all stories fall into seven basic templates, then writers who strive for complete originality might be out of luck. The human mind, it appears, has its limits on literature. This is supported by several cross-cultural studies clearly demonstrating that all humans gravitate towards similar literary theme. As Hume said, “the general principles of taste are uniform in human nature… the same Homer who pleased at Athens and Rome two thousands years ago, is still admired at Paris and London.”

Of course, the fact that humans share certain literary hot buttons didn’t stop Joyce from throwing out plots altogether in Finnegan’s Wake. Nor did Virginia Woolf hesitate when crafting the free-flowing Mrs. Dalloway. For various reasons, writers in the 20th century were motivated to create stories that don’t appeal to the senses. Pinker explains that a “compelling story may simulate juicy gossip about desirable or powerful people, put us in an exciting time or place, tickle our language instincts with well-chosen words, and teach us something new about the entanglements of families, politics, or love.” Why, then, were so many authors in the 20th century obsessed with disjointed narration, bewildering characters and exhausting prose? And why did they (and do they) look down on the mainstream?

The piece is agnostic about the Big Question here: whether narrative-making/reading is merely some sort of pleasure-seeking behavior pattern or whether it  serves a utilitarian purpose in decision-making.

Obviously, I am personally inclined to the latter view. The big mistake anti-narrative types make is in inferring from the existence of a handful of dominant narrative patterns that they cannot process information. In this post for example, the author notes that Jaws is like Beowulf and both are examples of the “defeat the monster” pattern in Booker’s taxonomy of 7 basic narrative patterns.  Booker’s is one of many taxonomies and there are others with dozens to hundreds of “types.” But this does not mean each instance of a story is identical in the role it plays in cognition.

I haven’t made up my own mind about how narratives process information, but my basic theory is that they are patterns that help us organize our understanding of boundary conditions, which obviously differ from context to context. In Beowulf, one boundary of human civilization is an unknown ocean with a dangerous monster. In Jaws, it is a known ocean, with a known beast. But in each case, we understand something about the boundary conditions within which human lives play out. This is one reason why narratives so often involve extreme or improbable or corner-case scenarios: they are not about characterizing normal, but about characterizing the limits of normal.

Read the whole post here: The Literary Darwinists: The Evolutionary Origins of Storytelling

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  1. Alexander Boland says

    I don’t see why this is an XOR question. After all, reproducing is both a pleasure-seeking behavior pattern and serves a utilitarian purpose.

    On the other hand, “utilitarian” is a funny word to use. There are a lot of somewhat random things that we keep doing because they have benefits, but “utilitarian” suggests that it’s guided by a utility function that’s at least somewhat transparent.

    That said, let me give my own quick hypothesis: our decision-making is primarily narrative, and the purpose of reading *any* narrative is primarily imitative. I actually think that what we “get” out of reading fiction and non-fiction is much more similar than people think, and that for that reason fiction is counter-intuitively more “informative”, since it concentrates on creating more elegant patterns and dealing with more emotionally relevant and universal themes.

    This seems to have something to do with tactics vs. strategy insofar that the underlying “story-ness” of literature (and non-fiction) is universal. Perhaps traversing narratives gives us universal tactics that go beyond simple metaphorical mappings.

  2. Alexander Boland–great response. Everything is a matter of observation, ultimately. Modeling, frameworks, or the subconscious measuring of example against form (i.e., archetypes) is all likely part of it. Instead of moving animals on a plain, we may love moving ideas on a page–or a screen.

  3. “After all, reproducing is both a pleasure-seeking behavior pattern and serves a utilitarian purpose.”

    I think you misunderstand evolution. Reproducing is only so pleasurable because it is directly linked to selection. Humans don’t have pheromones like other animals, so for us it has evolved as a irresistible and pleasurable activity. No pheromones and no interest in fornication = extinct.