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.