The arts, and especially the art of fiction, give us pleasure, of course, but does that pleasure reflect biological advantage, or do the arts simply hijack our pleasure buttons, just as drugs or candy do, without offering us real long-term benefit, or even damaging us if we have too much? Art, I argue, is a kind of high play. Play exists in probably all mammals, in most birds and even in intelligent invertebrates like octopi. Flexible behavior and learning allow animals to respond sensitively to their environment but cannot be entirely genetically programmed.
If, in times of security, animals practice the behaviors that make the greatest life-and-death difference, like flight and fight, they can then perform better in moments of high urgency. As those more inclined to practice survive more often, the desire to practice intensifies over the generations until practice becomes irresistibly self-rewarding. The sheer fun of play overcomes the deeply-rooted inclination not to expend energy if effort can be avoided.
Humans depend not just on physical skills but even more on mental power: we alone inhabit the cognitive niche. Brains cannot understand the welter of information in the world unless it falls into patterns that particular kinds of brains have been shaped to understand.
Because we humans depend so much on our cognitive advantages, we especially crave the high yield of patterned information. We chase and tussle, but we also play cognitively, with patterns of the kinds of information that matter most to us: sound music , sight the visual arts and, in our ultrasocial species, social information story. Art and fiction start here. Because intense repetition and concentrated attention can rewire brains incrementally, the compulsiveness of music, images and story reshapes human minds.
We process aural, visual and social information more rapidly, accurately and flexibly through playing in self-rewarding ways with the high-density information of art. On the Origin of Stories proposes, in other words, that evolution has shaped human minds to be partially re-shapable-not least by our predisposition to culture, to art in general, and to the art of fiction in particular. It also shows how evolution makes stories possible by configuring the features of human minds and behavior that literature deploys, represents, appeals to, engages and modifies.
Our compulsion for fiction certainly depends on prior capacities for true narrative: on capacities, shared to some extent by many species, for event comprehension ; on capacities, shared by fewer species, for event recall ; and on capacities, shared to a still more limited extent, and by still fewer species, for event representation. But only humans seem to have a unique species-wide capacity and compulsion for event invention , from pretend play onwards.
While I spend half of On the Origin of Stories explaining why we love art and especially fiction, I also want to show how an evolutionary approach can enrich our understanding of particular works of art, and above all, stories. Especially over recent decades, academic criticism of the arts has tended to erase the enjoyment, awe and achievement of art. I want to revive and deepen them.
To show that evolutionary criticism can be expansive, not reductive, I focus on two masterpieces as close as possible to the origins of stories, first in human history Homer's Odyssey , then in individual human development Dr. Seuss's Horton Hears a Who! Seuss in their different ways engage audiences over time, space and repeated rereadings by appealing to deep human preferences and capacities;.
Many feel that evolutionary explanations of the human must quash culture under biology and freedom under determinism.
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But if evolution can help explain art-human minds at their most free and creative-then it can surely help explain any feature of human nature. Many also feel that evolution by natural selection robs life of purpose. I argue the converse. Evolution evolves and extends purpose: from life, to emotions, intelligence, cooperation and then also to the creativity that emerged in art and now also feeds into science. Art at its best offers us the durability that became life's first purpose, the variety that became its second, the appeal to the intelligence and the cooperative emotions that took so much longer to evolve, and the creativity that keeps adding new possibilities, including religion and science.
The poet, whether Southey, Byron, or King David, imaged a mental life that coordinated the sum total of experience to the purposes of free human action. It is an openly pondered question—by the narrator, and by local gossips—whether he knows more than he lets on, or simply repeats without understanding the songs he learned in childhood. When he first approaches Waverley, Davie is totally engrossed in his minstrelsy, to the point that he fails to notice Waverley and almost runs into him.
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For Descartes, mind and body were two separate substances, and while he argued that the mind was immaterial, unitary, and free, he did so by painting a thoroughly mechanistic picture of both the human body and of animals which he conceived as mindless bodies. Unlike humans, animals simply acted according to the disposition of their various organs, and even their greatest abilities could be regarded as symptoms of mindlessness.
When animals outdo humans, Descartes writes:. Not even poetry, but the birdsong to which it is compared in caricatures of Romantic poetics, was too willful an activity to be considered automatic. For Locke, song breaks free from the explanatory power of material psychology. Figures like Davie Gellatley—those dexterous at keeping time, memorizing tunes, or playing with phonemic and prosodic patterns—would have challenged that equation of song with undetermined action, and would have recalled instead the time-keeping of the Cartesian clock.
At around the same time that Scott was beginning his series of Waverley novels, a new generation of materialists found in poetry evidence of the sub-rational, quasi-automatic basis of the mind. George Combe, the Edinburgh-based phrenologist, proselytized his new science with case studies that resonate strongly with Davie. Examples of such selective abilities, which Combe presents as if they would be familiar to anyone, serve as a kind of common sense evidence for a supposedly intuitive materialist account of the mind. And, tellingly, they are so predisposed because of examples like Davie Gellatley.
Yet even in this more materialist climate, the lure of poetry as a quintessentially human activity—as an act of the whole mind—does not go away quite so easily. Medicalized diagnosis was already an important part of the tradition of Burns biography, as Nigel Leask has recently demonstrated.
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Cox perhaps owed this concession to literary-critical precedent. Coleridge and Cox agree, in other words, that poetry deserving of the name is the product of the whole person.
What makes a poet is not the honing of one specialized faculty, such as a prodigious memory, but an engagement with the full domain of human experience. A great poet might need to operate as if his mind were whole and unified. There are other ways to approach literature from the sciences, however. Some seek more broadly to understand embodied experience and its relation to literary practice. There are several ways to read that impulse.
One would be to see it as an endeavor in the spirit of Coleridge, where an emerging interdisciplinary language offers critics a new purchase on humanistic concepts. Barr, Mark L. Barrett, H. Clark and Robert Kurzban. Boyd, Brian.
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Cambridge: Harvard UP, Child, Francis James. The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Mineola: Dover, Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria. James Engell and W. Jackson Bate. Princeton: Princeton UP, Shorter Works and Fragments. Jackson and J. Bollingen Series. Combe, George. Edinburgh: John Anderson Jun. Cox, Robert. Edinburgh: A Stewart, Cosmides, Leda and John Tooby.
Hirschfeld and S. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, The Philosophical Works of Descartes. Elizabeth S. Haldane and G. Edinburgh Phrenological Association. Edinburgh: James Mushet, Fodor, Jerry A. Cambridge: MIT P, Harding, Anthony John. Coleridge and the Inspired Word. Kramnick, Jonathan.