The Literary Darwinists: The Evolutionary Origins of Storytelling

In question is nothing less than the nature of literature from an evolutionary perspective. 

The Literary Darwinists: The Evolutionary Origins of Storytelling

The summer of 1975 was a rough time for beachgoers at Amity Island. Citizens of the Long Island getaway became terrorized when a shark devoured a young woman and two young boys in the span of a few days. Luckily, three brave men – Brody, Quint and Hooper – traveled out to sea in a small boat, killed the sea monster, returned safely and restored peace to the town.


Fortunately, the only real harm Spielberg’s Jaws inflicted was on future American moviegoers. Jaws is the prototypical thriller that opened the floodgates for big budget summer blockbusters such as Star Wars and Indiana Jones. It is also credited with inspiring Ridley Scott’s Alien and other man-eating animal thrillers. But once Hollywood realized the draw of über stimulating summertime films it was only a matter of time before Deep Impact and The Expendables 2 hit the big screen.

Jaws was a groundbreaking film in some respects, but the plot was nothing new. About 1,200 years earlier Saxons told an eerily similar story. Beowulf is set in a peaceful village that’s suddenly terrorized by the monster Grendel, who resides in a nearby lake. Luckily, the hero of the story – Beowulf – slays the monster (along with his evil mother) and restores peace to his village.

The British journalist Christopher Booker parallels these two tales in a recent book to argue that all stories are built off of seven basic plot templates. For Booker, Jaws and Beowulf fall into the “Overcoming the Monster” category along with Little Red Riding Hood and Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. From Homer’s Odyssey to the James Bond series, Booker’s widespread analysis reminds us that literature is a human universal; where there are people, there are stories.

Given the ubiquity and pleasure of stories, as well as the important role they play in human societies, it’s not surprising that literary scholars and evolutionary psychologists are beginning to critically examine literature with a Darwinian lens. In question is nothing less than the nature of literature from an evolutionary perspective.  

What’s odd about literature is that a mind immersed in fantasy appears ripe for fixing by natural selection, since it always leads to erroneous beliefs and distracts from reality. Wouldn’t a daydreaming hunter-gatherer be easy pray for a predator on the African Savannah? It turns out that our ability to invent and tell stories might be a key adaptation that significantly distinguished our species. There are at least three reasons for this.

First, stories are time-savers. For instance, we don’t have to jump off a cliff to know what will happen. We can just simulate it in our minds and imagine the deadly result. Steven Pinker puts it this way:

Intelligent systems often best reason by experiment, real or simulated: they set up a situation whose outcome they cannot predict beforehand, let it unfold according to fixed causal laws, observe the results, and file away a generalization about how what becomes of such entities in such situations. Fiction, then, would be a kind of thought experiment, in which agents are allowed to play out plausible interactions in a more-or-less lawful virtual world.

Second, stories make communication easier by embedding important information about the world and people into coherent narratives. We have a hunger for social and factual information; stories help us organize all of it so we can efficiently exchange information and make more informed decisions. This is why stories are often reduced to maxims, i.e., the early bird gets the worm or he who hesitates gets lost. The brain prefers a concrete scenario to a laundry list of information. Stories, then, serve as mnemonic devices for important tips on how to navigate the world.

Finally, stories help us understand and organize our lives. Instead of seeing life as a collection of random events, our ability to look at sequences of events and weave explanations into them serves as a key existential aid. An October 2009 StrategyOne poll found that when Americans were asked what metaphor best describes their lives, 51 percent responded with “A Journey,” 11 percent with “A Battle” and 8 percent with “A Novel.” It’s nearly impossible to not think about life as a journey where a person is a traveler, a purpose is a destination, teachers and coaches are guides and birth denotes a starting point, death an ending point. In English, for instance, we describe ourselves as being “lost”, “found” or “at a crossroads”; we encounter “twists and turns” and manage to “find our way.”

Another line of reasoning argues that storytelling is simply a delightful byproduct of human evolution. This helps explain why we like Jaws; it’s a vicarious experience in which we get a taste of what it’s like to save the day. As Pinker says:

Fiction may be, at least in part, a pleasure technology, a co-opting of language and imagery as a virtual reality device which allows a reader to enjoy pleasant hallucinations like exploring interesting territories, conquering enemies, hobnobbing with powerful people, and winning attractive mates. Fiction, moreover, can tickle people’s fancies without even having to project them into a thrilling vicarious experience.

Stories might also be the byproduct of our instinctual craving for gossip. Because humans are inherently social animals, information about other humans is valuable. This is why companies do background checks and why profiles on matchmaking websites are so thorough: reputations are fairly good predictors of future behavior; information is power.

Stories might feast on our social instincts by cherry picking dramatic and outlandish scenarios. As the behavior scientist Daniel Nettle argues:

Conversations are only interesting to the extent that you know about the individuals involved and your social world is bound into theirs… Given that dramatic characters are mostly strangers to us, then, the conversation will have to be unusually interesting to hold our attention. That is, the drama has to be an intensified version of the concerns of ordinary conversation.

Nettle goes on to argue that we don’t watch films about people going shopping; we watch films about people going shopping who are having an affair with an ex-lover. This helps explain why gossip tabloids surround so many checkout counters and why so many people seem to prefer watching Friends instead of being with friends: we love drama. Likewise, few would read a book about a man who goes fishing. However, Hemmingway’s Old Man and the Sea reminds us that many would enjoy a book about a man who goes fishing, ends up enduring an epic battle with a giant marlin and returns veiled in tragedy.  

Returning to the question of literature as an adaptation versus a byproduct, my hunch aligns with the literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall, who says in his recent book The Story Telling Animal that

we probably gravitate to story for a number of different evolutionary reasons. There may be elements of storytelling that bear the impression of evolutionary design… there may be other elements that are evolutionary by-product… and there may be elements of story that are highly functional now but were not sculpted by nature for that purpose, such as hands moving over the keys of a piano or a computer.  

The real mystery is not just the evolutionary origins of literature, but movements and attitudes such as modernism that insist on transcending the traditional plot lines that Booker diagnoses. If Booker is right and all stories fall into seven basic templates, then writers who strive for complete originality might be out of luck. The human mind, it appears, has its limits on literature. This is supported by several cross-cultural studies clearly demonstrating that all humans gravitate towards similar literary theme. As Hume said, “the general principles of taste are uniform in human nature… the same Homer who pleased at Athens and Rome two thousands years ago, is still admired at Paris and London.”

Of course, the fact that humans share certain literary hot buttons didn’t stop Joyce from throwing out plots altogether in Finnegan’s Wake. Nor did Virginia Woolf hesitate when crafting the free-flowing Mrs. Dalloway. For various reasons, writers in the 20th century were motivated to create stories that don’t appeal to the senses. Pinker explains that a “compelling story may simulate juicy gossip about desirable or powerful people, put us in an exciting time or place, tickle our language instincts with well-chosen words, and teach us something new about the entanglements of families, politics, or love.” Why, then, were so many authors in the 20th century obsessed with disjointed narration, bewildering characters and exhausting prose? And why did they (and do they) look down on the mainstream?

These examples test the limits of literary Darwinism. Science gives us some reasons, which I hoped to clarify above, for why we liked Jaws, why moviegoers paid to see Deep Impact and The Expendables 2, and why we have recycled, replayed and rehearsed the same plot lines for thousands of years. Why the metafiction of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and Stoppard’s The Real Thing? It’s unclear. But elite art is not off-limits to scientific investigation.

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7 most notorious and excessive Roman Emperors

These Roman Emperors were infamous for their debauchery and cruelty.

Nero's Torches. A group of early Christian martyrs about to be burned alive during the reign of emperor Nero in 64 AD.

1876. Painted by Henryk Siemiradzki.
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  • Roman Emperors were known for their excesses and violent behavior.
  • From Caligula to Elagabalus, the emperors exercised total power in the service of their often-strange desires.
  • Most of these emperors met violent ends themselves.

We rightfully complain about many of our politicians and leaders today, but historically speaking, humanity has seen much worse. Arguably no set of rulers has been as debauched, ingenious in their cruelty, and prone to excess as the Roman Emperors.

While this list is certainly not exhaustive, here are seven Roman rulers who were perhaps the worst of the worst in what was one of the largest empires that ever existed, lasting for over a thousand years.

1. Caligula

Officially known as Gaius (Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), Caligula was the third Roman Emperor, ruling from 37 to 41 AD. He acquired the nickname "Caligula" (meaning "little [soldier's] boot") from his father's soldiers during a campaign.

While recognized for some positive measures in the early days of his rule, he became famous throughout the ages as an absolutely insane emperor, who killed anyone when it pleased him, spent exorbitantly, was obsessed with perverse sex, and proclaimed himself to be a living god.

Caligula gives his horse Incitatus a drink during a banquet. Credit: An engraving by Persichini from a drawing by Pinelli, from "The History of the Roman Emperors" from Augustus to Constantine, by Jean Baptiste Louis Crevier. 1836.

Among his litany of misdeeds, according to the accounts of Caligula's contemporaries Philo of Alexandria and Seneca the Younger, he slept with whomever he wanted, brazenly taking other men's wives (even on their wedding nights) and publicly talking about it.

He also had an insatiable blood thirst, killing for mere amusement. Once, as reports historian Suetonius, when the bridge across the sea at Puteoli was being blessed, he had a number of spectators who were there to inspect it thrown off into the water. When some tried to cling to the ships' rudders, Caligula had them dislodged with hooks and oars so they would drown. On another occasion, he got so bored that he had his guards throw a whole section of the audience into the arena during the intermission so they would be eaten by wild beasts. He also allegedly executed two consuls who forgot his birthday.

Suetonius relayed further atrocities of the mad emperor's character, writing that Caligula "frequently had trials by torture held in his presence while he was eating or otherwise enjoying himself; and kept an expert headsman in readiness to decapitate the prisoners brought in from gaol." One particular form of torture associated with Caligula involved having people sawed in half.

He caused mass starvation and purposefully wasted money and resources, like making his troops stage fake battles just for theater. If that wasn't enough, he turned his palace into a brothel and was accused of incest with his sisters, Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Livilla, whom he also prostituted to other men. Perhaps most famously, he was planning to appoint his favorite horse Incitatus a consul and went as far as making the horse into a priest.

In early 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated by a conspiracy of Praetorian Guard officers, senators, and other members of the court.

2. Nero

Fully named Nero Claudius Caesar, Nero ruled from 54 to 68 AD and was arguably an even worse madman than his uncle Caligula. He had his step-brother Britannicus killed, his wife Octavia executed, and his mother Agrippina stabbed and murdered. He personally kicked to death his lover Poppeaea while she was pregnant with his child — a horrific action the Roman historian Tacitus depicted as "a casual outburst of rage."

He spent exorbitantly and built a 100-foot-tall bronze statue of himself called the Colossus Neronis.

He is also remembered for being strangely obsessed with music. He sang and played the lyre, although it's not likely he really fiddled as Rome burned in what is a popular myth about this crazed tyrant. As misplaced retribution for the fire which burned down a sizable portion of Rome in the year 64, he executed scores of early Christians, some of them outfitted in animal skins and brutalized by dogs, with others burned at the stake.

He died by suicide.

Roman Emperor Nero in the burning ruins of Rome. July 64 AD.Credit: From an original painting by S.J. Ferris. (Photo by Kean Collection / Getty Images)

3. Commodus

Like some of his counterparts, Commodus (a.k.a. Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus) thought he was a god — in his case, a reincarnation of the Greek demigod Hercules. Ruling from 176 to 192 AD, he was also known for his debauched ways and strange stunts that seemed designed to affirm his divine status. Numerous statues around the empire showed him as Hercules, a warrior who fought both men and beasts. He fought hundreds of exotic animals in an arena like a gladiator, confusing and terrifying his subjects. Once, he killed 100 lions in a single day.

Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) questions the loyalty of his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) In Dreamworks Pictures' and Universal Pictures' Oscar-winning drama "Gladiator," directed by Ridley Scott.Credit: Photo By Getty Images

The burning desire to kill living creatures as a gladiator for the New Year's Day celebrations in 193 AD brought about his demise. After Commodus shot hundreds of animals with arrows and javelins every morning as part of the Plebeian Games leading up to New Year's, his fitness coach (aptly named Narcissus), choked the emperor to death in his bath.

4. Elagabalus

Officially named Marcus Aurelius Antoninus II, Elagabalus's nickname comes from his priesthood in the cult of the Syrian god Elagabal. Ruling as emperor from 218 to 222 AD, he was so devoted to the cult, which he tried to spread in Rome, that he had himself circumcised to prove his dedication. He further offended the religious sensitivities of his compatriots by essentially replacing the main Roman god Jupiter with Elagabal as the chief deity. In another nod to his convictions, he installed on Palatine Hill a cone-like fetish made of black stone as a symbol of the Syrian sun god Sol Invictus Elagabalus.

His sexual proclivities were also not well received at the time. He was likely transgender (wearing makeup and wigs), had five marriages, and was quite open about his male lovers. According to the Roman historian (and the emperor's contemporary) Cassius Dio, Elagabalus prostituted himself in brothels and taverns and was one of the first historical figures on record to be looking for sex reassignment surgery.

He was eventually murdered in 222 in an assassination plot engineered by his own grandmother Julia Maesa.

5. Vitellius

Emperor for just eight months, from April 19th to December 20th of the year 69 AD, Vitellius made some key administrative contributions to the empire but is ultimately remembered as a cruel glutton. He was described by Suetonius as overly fond of eating and drinking, to the point where he would eat at banquets four times a day while sending out the Roman navy to get him rare foods. He also had little social grace, inviting himself over to the houses of different noblemen to eat at their banquets, too.

Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome.Credit: Georges Rochegrosse. 1883.

He was also quite vicious and reportedly either had his own mother starved to death or approved a poison with which she committed suicide.

Vitellius was ultimately murdered in brutal fashion by supporters of the rival emperor Vespasian, who dragged him through Rome's streets, then likely beheaded him and threw his body into the Tiber river. "Yet I was once your emperor," were supposedly his last words, wrote historian Cassius Dio.

6. Caracalla

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus I ruled Rome from 211 to 217 AD on his own (while previously co-ruling with his father Septimius Severus from 198). "Caracalla"' was his nickname, referencing a hooded coat from Gaul that he brought into Roman fashion.

He started off his rise to individual power by murdering his younger brother Geta, who was named co-heir by their father. Caracalla's bloodthirsty tyranny didn't stop there. He wiped out Geta's supporters and was known to execute any opponents to his or Roman rule. For instance, he slaughtered up to 20,000 citizens of Alexandria after a local theatrical satire dared to mock him.

Geta Dying in His Mother's Arms.Credit: Jacques Pajou (1766-1828)

One of the positive outcomes of his rule was the Edict of Caracalla, which gave Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire. He was also known for building gigantic baths.

Like others on this list, Caracalla met a brutal end, being assassinated by army officers, including the Praetorian prefect Opellius Macrinus, who installed himself as the next emperor.

7. Tiberius

As the second emperor, Tiberius (ruling from 42 BC to 16 AD) is known for a number of accomplishments, especially his military exploits. He was one of the Roman Empire's most successful generals, conquering Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and parts of Germania.

He was also remembered by his contemporaries as a rather sullen, perverse, and angry man. In the chapter on his life from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by the historian Suetonius, Tiberius is said to have been disliked from an early age for his personality by even his family. Suetonius wrote that his mother Antonia often called him "an abortion of a man, that had been only begun, but never finished, by nature."

"Orgy of the Times of Tiberius on Capri".Painting by Henryk Siemiradzki. 1881.

Suetonius also paints a damning picture of Tiberius after he retreated from public life to the island of Capri. His years on the island would put Jeffrey Epstein to shame. A horrendous pedophile, Tiberius had a reputation for "depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe," Suetonius wrote, describing how "in Capri's woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this 'the old goat's garden,' punning on the island's name."

There's much, much more — far too salacious and, frankly, disgusting to repeat here. For the intrepid or morbidly curious reader, here's a link for more information.

After he died, Tiberius was fittingly succeeded in emperorship by his grandnephew and adopted grandson Caligula.

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