The Evolutionary Case for Great Fiction

Might reading literature help with species survival?
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Picture this: it’s 45,000 years ago and a small Pleistocene clan is gathered by a campfire. The night is bone cold and black and someone—let’s call him Ernest—begins telling a story.

Lips waxy with boar grease, Ernest boasts of his morning hunt. He details the wind in the grass, the thick clouds overhead, the long plaintive wail of the boar as his spear swiftly entered its heart.

The clan is riveted.     

Among them sits a moody, brilliant devotee of campfire stories. Every now and then she pipes up to praise or decimate a tale. Tonight she says, “Excellent work. Unsurpassed.” Ernest breathes a sigh of relief.

Let’s call the girl Michiko.

Now, through the forest and beyond the ridge sits another clan, hovering beside another fire. At the center of this group, John relates his recent close call with a water buffalo. His recollection fuzzy, the account falls flat. Still, clan members pat him on the back (“G’night Johnny boy!”) and think nothing of his lackluster tale until the next morning John’s brother is killed by the very same water buffalo.      

But let’s leave this clan behind.  They’re of scant concern because, in the end, they were dead by the Holocene.

The first band, however, thrived. Over thousands of generations, Ernest’s descendants, with the help of Michiko’s critically astute great-great-great-great-grandchildren, evolved, to not only relate but to invent great tales.

What, you ask, does the Pleistocene have to do with storytelling? More importantly, what was the Pleistocene?

Let’s crunch some numbers:  What we generally consider “ancient” time—Jesus of Nazareth and Julius Caesar time—was only about 100 generations ago. Throughout the 1.8 million-year cycle of Ice Ages called the Pleistocene, however, an estimated 85,000 generations of our ancestors lived, loved, lost, and, well, learned to tell tales. (Fossil evidence suggests that the vocal capacity for speech dates back over a million years, and it’s assumed that Cro-Magnons, who emerged 20,000 generations ago, used language of some sort.) These people were our deerskin-wearing, spear-wielding hominid protoselves. And their actions and preferences over thousands of generations, during dramatically unstable climates (a volatility conducive to evolutionary change) helped shape us. Because a variant that produces 1% more offspring than its alternative, it has been posited, can enter 99.9% of the population in just 4000 generations. 

So the question is: Can storytelling increase offspring?

Charles Darwin proposed two theories of evolution: natural selection and sexual selection.  To affect species-wide change, a trait essentially has to help you live or get laid.

Let’s look first at survival: Among the many things that set humans apart from other animals is our capacity for counterfactual thinking. At its most basic level, this means we can hypothesize what might happen if we run out of milk; in its most elaborate form—we get War and Peace. Stories, then, are complex counterfactual explorations of possible outcomes: What would happen if I killed my landlady? What would happen if I had an affair with Count Vronsky? How do I avoid a water buffalo? According to Denis Dutton, these “low-cost, low-risk” surrogate experiences build up our knowledge stores and help us adapt to new situations. (“Mirror neuron” research indicates that our brains process lived and read experiences almost identically.)  A good “cautionary tale," for example, might help us avert disaster. Stories can also provide useful historical, scientific, cultural and geographical information. Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines illustrates this on two tiers: In armchair-travel fashion, the book acquaints readers with the Australian Outback, while simultaneously describing how Aboriginals sang stories walking at a specific pace so that geographical markers within the story would guide their journey.

In addition to travelogues, stories also offer nuanced thought maps. An imaginative foray into another person’s mind can foster both empathy and self-awareness. This heightened emotional intelligence might, in turn, prove useful when forming friendships, sniffing out duplicity, or partaking in the elaborate psychological dance of courtship ... which brings us back to the second Darwinian evolutionary imperative: Getting laid.

In terms of sexual advantages, a tale well told can undoubtedly up the storyteller’s charm factor.  Tales aren’t bland renderings of narrative events; they are, at their best, colorful, brilliant, and poetically polished.   They get gussied up.  And when storytellers use ornament and plumage to draw attention to their tales they inevitably draw eyes themselves.  (Think: author photos, author profiles, literary performances, awards – or, 45,000 years ago, the rapt gaze of the Pleistocene clan.) Literary peacockery benefits the audience as well. When we read books, we enhance our vocabulary. We glean information about particle physics or virtual reality or Australian Aborigines that make us better conversationalists. We hone our metaphors, refine our wit.  From the elaborate plumage of the story the reader, too, makes off with a few feathers.   

But if storytelling gives us an evolutionary edge, does the quality of the story matter? Is there a greater value, so to speak, in one form of storytelling over another? With visual art, the commodification is clear: Inheriting a Matisse gives you a financial leg up over someone inheriting a comic cat poster.  Setting aside the rare book business, though, books are not objects. They are experiences. 

Does having one experience have more value than another?

If it increases your offspring by only 1%—yes.

The soaring popularity of romance novels, spy thrillers, apocalyptic zombie tales, and murder mysteries reflect, in many ways, our Pleistocene narrative appetites; their subjects are sex and survival. But to help you actually have sex and survive, it makes sense that only the the best-written and well-rendered tales would help ensure a long line of descendants.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistic’s American Time Use Survey, the average American spends almost 20% of his or her waking life watching television.  Add to that movies, gaming, books and magazines (reading alone consumed less than 3% of the waking hours of those surveyed), and you can postulate that almost a quarter of our waking lives are spent in imagined worlds.

Evolutionarily, that number is off the charts.  Thanks to Gutenberg and the inventions of film and television, we immerse ourselves in more narratives than our ancestors could have imagined, which means we’re cutting back, along the way, on real-life experience. 

This means our choice of which stories to consume is more crucial than ever. They need to be as useful as lived experience, or more so, or we’re putting ourselves at a disadvantage.

Back in the Pleistocene, you might not have had an Ernest in your clan. You might have been at the mercy of whatever dull tale John would tell, or the improbable yarn your sister Kayla would spin.  Today we can pick up the books of the most dazzling, intelligent storytellers in the world.  From all time.  We can tune into the primetime masterpieces of the Golden Age of television. And if we can soak up their wisdom, and make ourselves a little bit smarter, we might just all make it to the next Ice Age. 

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Jennifer Vanderbes is the author of Easter IslandStrangers at the Feast, and the forthcoming World War II novel The Secret of Raven Point.

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