Thursday, August 20, 2009

Telling Stories Saves the Species?

"The evolutionary argument for Dr. Seuss" is a review by Laura Miller ( of Brian Boyd's new book "On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition and Fiction." The title of Boyd's book is a serious one befitting a five hundred and sixty page academic work whose jacket cover boldly states:

"Now a distinguished scholar offers the first comprehensive account of the evolutionary origins of art and storytelling. Brian Boyd explains why we tell stories, how our minds are shaped to understand them, and what difference an evolutionary understanding of human nature makes to stories we love."
Turns out, according to Boyd, people love stories because it gives humans an evolutionary advantage. What advantage could that be? you may ask. Well, scientists believe humans are the most social of all animals on Earth and it is this social cohesion that forms societies and civilization, enabling humans to efficiently propagate their species. How efficiently? Two thousand years ago world population was about 255 million. Today there are over six billion humans on planet Earth, with population projections reaching nine billion by 2050. That's some advantage! So how does literature play into all this? Vicariously, it turns out. Humans enjoy stories because they identify with characters who remind them of their real life counterparts and thus foster a vital human trait: Empathy. Not being a psychologist, I'm not all that sure how Empathy and Anger are able to coexist so easily in humans; but I digress... Simply put, it is this EMPATHY that enables humans to - with apologies to Mark Twain - "get some civilizin'."