Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Saturday, September 7, 2013

evolution and storytelling, one more time

Jennifer Vanderbes wants to make “The Evolutionary Case for Great Fiction” and begins by imagining two groups of early hominids. One group tells vivid stories and offers incisive critiques of those stories, and so survives; the other bumbles through its tales and so dies out. Read the whole thing for the details.

Okay, it's my turn to tell a story. Back in the Pleistocene there were two clans of hominids living in the same neighborhood. The leaders of one clan were careful observers of their environment: they paid close attention to the flora and fauna that surrounded them, and sought to understand the traits of the former and the behavior of the latter. They discovered which plants to avoid and which were healthy to eat; by trial and error they learned to be better hunters. Their curiosity about their world left them little time for song or story, except for narrowly mnemonic purposes; but they grew stronger and lived longer than others of their kind. They were, you might say, the first Empiricists.

And about those others — the neighboring clan: They were blessed, if that's the right word, by leaders who could act out vivid scenes and sing beautiful songs. They were, you might say, the first Artists. While the Empiricists were investigating every corner of their environment, the Artists entertained one another with their performances and lively responses, both positive and negative, to those performances. They grew so captivated by their arts that they neglected their environment. Eager to return to the clan to share songs and stories, they ate whatever came to hand. They never learned to hunt very efficiently. The food they chose was not especially nutritious and in some cases proved to be poisonous. Their lives grew short, their numbers declined, and eventually they died out.

My point, if you have not discerned it, is this: there is absolutely zero reason to think that Vanderbes's speculative narrative is any closer to the truth of what happened than mine. I'm not sure what she does even amounts to a just-so story; it's more like randomly guessing at what might have happened. We know nearly nothing about this stage of human history. Maybe storytelling is evolutionarily adaptive, but not as adaptive as empirical attentiveness. Maybe storytelling wasn't adaptive at all in the Pleistocene, but was not sufficiently maladaptive to be expunged from the social and mental makeup of our ancestors. Maybe our Empiricist ancestors were sufficiently successful in improving our fitness as a species that there's more room now for pointless art — it doesn't endanger anyone's survival, even if it has no adaptive value. Who knows?

Even less plausible, if that's possible, is Vanderbes's belief that aesthetically superior stories — “Great Fiction” — are evolutionarily more adaptive than predictable, conventional, and highly simplistic stories. Indeed, the reverse seems more likely. Even assuming that the telling and understanding of stories are in some sense evolutionarily adaptive – a point which has never been clearly established, as far as I know – we might reasonably conclude that the stories that are readily accessible to larger numbers of a given group would be more likely to improve the survival rates of that group. The richness, depth, and complexity of our greatest works of art might be the very things that would make them comparatively useless for adaptive purposes.

Completely unsupported evo-psych guesswork like this is just not getting us anywhere. It's past time for us to acknowledge that.

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