Biocurious is a weblog about biology, quantified.

Literary Darwinism Redux

by PhilipJ on 11 April 2006

I’ve just noticed, from the February/March issue of Seed, this interview with Jonathan Gottschall, a literary darwinist we’ve come across before.

For those who want to embrace the scientific method in their analysis of literary works, it wasn’t good to see the article start with this made up statistic:

“Almost 99.999% of literary hypotheses aren’t tested in that way [using the scientific method],” says Gottschall, and as a result “there is no progress of knowledge because nothing can be wrong.”

I guess I also still don’t know what kind of progress the literary darwinists are looking for, because as long as there are new works to analyze, and old pieces to analyze in a new light (for example, through darwinian eyes), what else is there? I’ve already argued against consensus-reached definitions of what a piece is “truly about”. Individuality in art is important to me.

So while I didn’t love the interview, there is one particularly interesting question posed:

Is human nature somehow made more fit—or biologically resilient—by way of storytelling?

This is one of the really big questions right now. Although yet to be tested scientifically, there are two camps of thinking on this. One, the human capacity to tell fictional narrative was designed into us for a specific reason; it enhanced our fitness and helped us leave behind more offspring. The second is that storytelling has no function whatsoever; it’s just a side effect of human intelligence, an evolutionary byproduct. The human capacity for narrative is universal among human cultures, however, so most people think it has to have a function. But the jury is still out.

Are humans somehow better adapted to their environment having the ability to tell stories? I can think of lots of reasons why storytelling is a useful tool: we teach morals and ethics through stories. Whether this makes us better adapted to our environment, well, I’ll have to agree—the jury is still out.



  1. RPM    4036 days ago    #

    Why one and not the other? Couldn’t it be that we gained a primitive form of our story telling ability due to an increase in intelligence (the second hypothesis), which was then improved by selection to our current story telling ability (the first hypothesis).


  2. luke q    4035 days ago    #

    I still disagree with his basic premise that there is the right way to view literature.

    But that said, the more I think about it, and from what he said in this interview, it seems more closer to something that has already been tried before. I’m thinking especially of Northrop Frye, a Canadian, who tried to classify stories into certain genres based on themes… I think he used the ‘seasons’ as a metaphor for the different types of stories- a Winter story might be more low key and solemn, etc.

    This sounds to me, somewhat like Gottschall- based on the very little info presented.


  3. PhilipJ    4035 days ago    #

    RPM – I agree, there’s no clear reason to me why there are two divided camps either, but then there seems to be a lot I don’t understand from these literary darwinists. :)

    luke – It is a curiously short interview, isn’t it? If there is any group of people (besides, perhaps, philosophers) who like talking more than literature types I would be hard pressed to guess who they were, so it is strange that this interview is as brief as it is.


  4. luke Quinton    4031 days ago    #

    yeah, the interview is almost unbelievably short- is it just a stub from the print article? a teaser? if not, ordinarily, you would figure they would add more material online, not less!


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