The evolutionary argument for Dr. Seuss

Why do we often care more about imaginary characters than real people? A new book suggests that fiction is crucial to our survival as a species.

Published May 18, 2009 10:38AM (EDT)

Why do human beings spend so much time telling each other invented stories, untruths that everybody involved knows to be untrue? People in all societies do this, and do it a lot, from grandmothers spinning fairy tales at the hearthside to TV show runners marshaling roomfuls of overpaid Harvard grads to concoct the weekly adventures of crime fighters and castaways. The obvious answer to this question -- because it's fun -- is enough for many of us. But given the persuasive power of a good story, its ability to seduce us away from the facts of a situation or to make us care more about a fictional world like Middle-earth than we do about a real place like, oh, say, Turkmenistan, means that some ambitious thinkers will always be trying to figure out how and why stories work.

The latest and most intriguing effort to understand fiction is often called Darwinian literary criticism, although Brian Boyd, an English professor at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and the author of "On the Origin of Stories," a new book offering an overview and defense of the field, prefers the term "evocriticism." As Boyd points out, the process of natural selection is supposed to gradually weed out any traits in a species that don't contribute to its survival and its ability to pass on its genes to offspring who will do the same. The ability to use stories to communicate accurate information about the real world has some obvious usefulness in this department, but what possible need could be served by made-up yarns about impossible things like talking animals and flying carpets?

Boyd's explanation, heavily ballasted with citations from studies and treatises on neuroscience, cognitive theory and evolutionary biology, boils down to two general points. First, fiction -- like all art -- is a form of play, the enjoyable means by which we practice and hone certain abilities likely to come in handy in more serious situations. When kittens pounce on and wrestle with their litter mates, they're developing skills that will help them hunt, even though as far as they're concerned they're just larking around. Second, when we create and share stories with each other, we build and reinforce the cooperative bonds within groups of people (families, tribes, towns, nations), making those groups more cohesive and in time allowing human beings to lord it over the rest of creation.

The popular understanding of evolutionary biology can be sketchy even among (I'm tempted to say especially among) its most enthusiastic lay proponents. That's why it's important to point out that, whatever you've heard about "selfish genes," the secret to humanity's success lies less in Hobbesian competition than in individuals' capacity to cooperate, and even to act altruistically. While there are short-term benefits to individuals who behave selfishly -- say, by stealing or hoarding food -- the long-term benefits of sharing usually outweigh the quick payoff, provided that everybody else in your group also participates fairly. Human beings are what biologists call "hypersocial," more social by far than any other animal, and the major product of our deep investment in sociality is our culture: our language, tools, political institutions, clothing, medicine, sculpture, songs, religions, etc.

In short, humanity itself is an element, like the weather or seasons, that each of us needs to negotiate in order to survive. We're innately skilled at reading each other's intentions, judging a person's position in the current social hierarchy, checking the emotional temperature in a room, detecting when our companion isn't paying attention to us, and so on. Those who are especially adept at this are said to have good "social skills," but the average human being is a pretty impressive social navigator even when not conscious of what she's doing. It's only the rare exceptions -- people along the autistic spectrum, for example, whose social instincts and perceptions are impaired -- who make us aware of just how essential these abilities are when it comes to getting by in this world.

Boyd acknowledges that factual stories give us pertinent information about our world and the people in it -- that my neighbor is a serial killer, for example. However, fictional stories encourage and permit us to hypothesize, to speculate about potential situations we've yet to encounter and to anticipate how to respond appropriately. Were I to discover tomorrow that my neighbor had a wall entirely covered with photographs, newspaper clippings and charts with pushpinned strands of yarn connecting the items, I might conclude, thanks to my years of watching cop shows on TV, that my neighbor was either a serial killer or a law enforcement professional obsessed with catching a serial killer. I'd know better than to accept his offer of a nightcap because even if he were the detective rather than the killer, if I got too involved with him, sooner or later the serial killer would kidnap me and hold me captive in a deserted warehouse as part of a deadly game of cat and mouse.

Fiction also fosters a part of cognition known as the "theory of mind," one person's understanding that another person has feelings, desires, intentions and beliefs, the latter of which may or may not be correct. A child's ability to deduce that another child will mistakenly believe that a ball is still in a basket because the second child wasn't in the room when the ball was moved to a bucket develops surprisingly late, around age 5. Theory of mind is at the heart of empathy, and our brains are replete with systems for reinforcing it, such as the recently discovered mirror neurons, which fire both when you're, say, dancing and when you're watching someone else dance.

These cognitive features explain why tears pour down your face when you see a performance of "Romeo and Juliet," even though you know the characters aren't real people and the actors are just pretending. Furthermore, the brain turns out to be more like a muscle than scientists once thought, and the more you exercise the thinking and feeling parts of it vicariously, through stories and other kinds of play, the more active and developed those parts of the brain become.

Most of us, of course, don't realize any of these processes are going on; we just think that consuming fiction feels good. But, as with sex, Boyd notes, pleasure and other enjoyable emotions are a kind of bait, coaxing us to do things that will help propagate our genes. The affection we feel toward fictional characters like Dorothy Gale or Tom Sawyer is akin to the warm belonging we seek among friends and family, drawing us into the kind of group affiliation that can spell the difference between life and death. The late novelist David Foster Wallace once told me that reading fiction made him "feel unalone -- intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. I feel human and unalone and that I'm in a deep, significant conversation with another consciousness." That profound sense of comfort he described is, as he correctly perceived, quintessentially human, an incentive to keep connecting with each other despite our inevitable conflicts and tensions.

Stories in their most rudimentary forms -- parables, fables, myths -- usually champion what Boyd calls "prosocial values," such as sharing, kindness, honesty and so on; in short, morals. The moral of the story of the boy who cried "wolf" is that if you violate people's trust by faking distress, they will eventually stop believing you entirely and fail to come to your aid when you really need them. Other stories, like "Cinderella," insist that liars like Cinderella's stepmother and stepsisters will ultimately be thwarted and punished, while the virtuous will receive their just rewards. This sort of narrative fosters our taste for "social monitoring," the policing of group members to make sure that nobody tries to cheat the system, that everyone pulls his own weight and takes no more than his share of the group's resources.

Lastly, stories command attention, which is a valuable commodity among all social animals. Lower-status primates pay more attention to higher-status primates than vice versa. Good storytellers earn attention and admiration, and they also provide their audience with the pleasure of a communal experience that strengthens the bonds within a group. They set forth the group's shared beliefs, myths, symbols and history (real or legendary), creating a greater identity, a culture, that can expand beyond the boundary of small, local communities where everyone knows each other personally. That's one reason we have national epics like the story of Gilgamesh, the Hebrew Bible and the poems of Homer.

In the second half of "On the Origin of Stories," Boyd attempts to apply his idea of "evocriticism" to two exemplary works: the "Odyssey" and Dr. Seuss' "Horton Hears a Who." Up to this point, the book is informative, if poorly written, a mass of clotted and repetitive prose that nevertheless offers some sound insights if you're willing to really work for them. But evocriticism doesn't scale down (or is it up?) very effectively. Boyd exhaustively details Homer's narrative techniques, such as focusing on a larger-than-life yet sympathetic protagonist with a distinct goal, erecting obstacles in the protagonist's path to that goal, breaking the long narrative into discrete, digestible blocks with their own internal conflicts and resolutions, ending on a satisfying note of fulfillment when Odysseus is finally reunited with his wife, Penelope, and so on. All of this he presents, with the flourish of revelation, as brilliant strategizing on the part of Homer, an author who understands that he must seize and hold his audience's attention.

But come on, who doesn't know that? Even the rabble that masses on Amazon's review pages grasps that the storyteller's prime directive is to retain his audience's interest; "I couldn't get into it" is the complaint of first and last resort for the minimally literate customer. As for the narrative devices that Boyd lauds -- a likable hero, stumbling blocks in the way of the ultimately happy ending, etc. -- that's the stuff of remedial "Write a Novel!" guides and screenwriters' seminars. (Oh, and by the way, in case you hadn't noticed while spending your childhood amid star-bellied sneetches and loraxes who speak for the trees, Dr. Seuss has a penchant for strong liberal messages.)

To be fair, Boyd feels compelled to insist on the obvious. That's because "On the Origin of Stories" is at least partly written to refute Theory, the dominant trend in late-20th-century academic literary criticism. Theory is deeply invested in the idea that human identities are entirely "constructed" by the cultures people grow up in, that we are born blank slates with no innate traits. A disciple of such evolutionary psychology evangelists as Steven Pinker and Denis Dutton, Boyd has the enthusiasm of a convert, and he shares his gurus' propensity for overstating their case as well as exaggerating the strength and recalcitrance of the other side. A hardcore constructionist camp does still persist in academia, but it's such a tiny and marginal element in the culture at large, that evolutionary psychologists come across as disingenuous when they insist on portraying themselves as an outnumbered, ragtag band of embattled crusaders.

The truth is that evolutionary psychology has enormous popular cachet; books by Pinker and Robert Wright vastly outsell those of, say, the constructionist gender theorist Judith Butler. Furthermore, evolutionary psychology and sociobiology (and by extension "evocriticism") strive to wrap themselves in the mantle of science, but they are fundamentally speculative; more sciencey than scientific. Unlike actual science, their claims can't be falsified, given that the human behavior they purport to explain has evolved over vast periods of time and can't yet be observed in the process of continuing to evolve simply because we haven't been aware of evolution long enough to do so. (How do we know when people first told stories, for example? No physical evidence remains, and the most we can do is suggest that it co-evolved with practices like cave painting, whose true purpose we also can only guess.) That doesn't mean that some of these theories aren't plausible, or that certain observations -- like the universality of spoken language and religious beliefs among human societies -- aren't pretty persuasive.

The difficulty is that once culture became the ascendant environmental factor affecting humanity, the game changed fundamentally. It's true, as Boyd observes, that culture transforms itself in a way that resembles biological evolution; ideas and practices that catch on (such as Christianity or rap music) become more and more prevalent. But natural selection is a mindless process by which random mutations succeed or fail and the successes slowly accumulate. The evolution of culture is intentional, directed by the desires of human beings pursuing certain goals. (Nobody intends biological evolution to happen, unless you believe in God.) That's why it took 540 million years for the eye to evolve, while the detective story has become culturally ubiquitous in the mere 170 years since Edgar Allen Poe published "The Murders in the Rue Morgue."

While evolutionary psychology, when kept on a judiciously short leash, seems capable of adding a lot to our understanding of narrative, it's a pretty crude tool to apply to something as recent and culturally volatile as literature. Identifying innate traits is a matter of observing average human behavior across large populations and in diverse societies. Even when a behavior seems obviously adaptive -- like the tendency of men to be sexually attracted to women who appear fertile -- there can be significant exceptions. Although every neurologically normal human being acquires spoken language and enjoys stories and almost everyone places a high value on some kind of group membership, it is only the majority of human beings who are sexually attracted to individuals of the opposite sex and of reproductive age.

And hardly anybody is a great writer or a storyteller of genius. Such individuals could well be freaks and anomalies, strange yet wonderful products of unique confluences of genetics and culture, illustrating next to nothing about humanity as a whole. Even if storytellers on average are getting better (and how could we quantify that?), we can't say that evolution is causing the improvement, any more than we can claim that natural selection is responsible for the fact that microchips are getting smaller. If sociobiology has yet to come up with a truly persuasive evolutionary explanation for homosexuality (and it really hasn't), then it's certainly not in a position to explain Shakespeare.

Instead of trying to fit an outlier like Homer into his evocritical scheme, Boyd would be better off looking at patterns of story that occur across cultures. He notes in passing that there are "200 folk variants" of the story of how Odysseus and his men escaped from the Cyclops' den by strapping themselves to the underside of the blind giant's sheep. Rather than asking evocriticism to explain how the rarity of Homer came to occur, why not ask why this same story keeps cropping up again and again in slightly different forms? What makes it so popular?

Such a move, however, would change the category of Boyd's studies from English literature to folklore, a less prestigious discipline on the academic scene, perhaps. (Even valiant scholarly crusaders are subject to the evolutionary pressures of status-seeking, after all.) Still, if evocriticism or Darwinian literary criticism or whatever it's called hopes to contribute something significant, it will probably need to turn away from literature's great works and their authors, at least at first and for a while, and focus on popular culture, ancient and recent. At present, one of its seminal texts argues that "Pride and Prejudice" is about courtship in a society where men are valued for their wealth and social class and women for their beauty and social class, a thesis that manages to be simultaneously crushingly obvious and not really accurate while explaining exactly nothing about why Jane Austen is better than the average romance novelist. Genius is, by definition, exceptional, while evolutionary science concerns itself with the universal, or the nearly universal. Unless this new school of criticism can find a way to reconcile that conundrum, it may soon find itself extinct.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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