For all the things I love about reading, I never considered human survival to be one of them. But that’s essentially the case made in this interesting piece in The Atlantic by Jennifer Vanderbes. Did storytelling and fiction actually play a role in our evolutionary development? Well before we get into that, consider this fascinating tidbit:
What we generally consider “ancient” time—Jesus of Nazareth and Julius Caesar time—was only about 100 generations ago. Throughout the 1.8 million-year cycle of Ice Ages called the Pleistocene,however, an estimated 85,000 generations of our ancestors lived, loved, lost, and, well, learned to tell tales. (Fossil evidence suggests that the vocal capacity for speech dates back over a million years, and it’s assumed that Cro-Magnons, who emerged 20,000 generations ago, used language of some sort.) These people were our deerskin-wearing, spear-wielding hominid proto-selves. And their actions and preferences over thousands of generations, during dramatically unstable climates (a volatility conducive to evolutionary change) helped shape us. Because a variant that produces 1% more offspring than its alternative, it has been posited, can enter 99.9% of the population in just 4000 generations.
Aside from the astounding reminder that the overwhelming majority of human history predates any civilization as we know it, it’s fascinating to consider the role that narrative may have played in allowing us to get that far. How? Well…
Let’s look first at survival: Among the many things that set humans apart from other animals is our capacity for counterfactual thinking. At its most basic level, this means we can hypothesize what might happen if we run out of milk; in its most elaborate form—we get War and Peace. Stories, then, are complex counterfactual explorations of possible outcomes: What would happen if I killed my landlady? What would happen if I had an affair with Count Vronsky? How do I avoid a water buffalo? According to Denis Dutton, these “low-cost, low-risk” surrogate experiences build up our knowledge stores and help us adapt to new situations. (“Mirror neuron” research indicates that our brains process lived and read experiences almost identically.) A good “cautionary tale,” for example, might help us avert disaster. Stories can also provide useful historical, scientific, cultural and geographical information. Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines illustrates this on two tiers: In armchair-travel fashion, the book acquaints readers with the Australian Outback, while simultaneously describing how Aboriginals sang stories walking at a specific pace so that geographical markers within the story would guide their journey.
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.
It all makes sense — literature, in all its forms, is a means of communication and expression. And when we communicate something — whether a life lesson, personal experience, or fleeting emotion — we’re inherently imparting it to others. We’re teaching each other even if we don’t mean to. Reading educates us, inspires us, and connects us; these things in turn help us to solve problems, build mutually beneficial bonds, and go on to do other useful things.
With all that, comes an important issue to keep in mind:
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.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that art needs to be strictly utilitarian and useful — after all, that would defeat the purpose of it. Art thrives when it’s natural and organic. But it does say alot about the importance of free expression, in all forms, for the development of society.