Telling stories: the evolution of fiction

Paul Raven @ 05-10-2010

Why do we humans have such an obsession with making up, telling and listening to stories? A chap called Brian Boyd, writing at Axess Magazine, attempts to piece together the reasons that we have evolved – and maintained – this unique form of social behaviour [via BigThink]:

Fiction takes minds that first evolved to deal with the here and now away from the here and now. Ape minds grew in order to deal with complex social relations, and human minds developed still further as we became ultrasocial. Our minds are most finely tuned for understanding agents, that is, any creatures who can act: animal, human, and by extension, monsters, gods and spirits.

In ancient environments, the agents we evolved to track were other animals as well as people, and even in modern urban environments children have a compulsive desire to learn the names of animals and to play with or make up or listen to stories about animals. Our minds want to and easily can track and differentiate agents, since other agents, human or not, offer the most complex, volatile and high-stake information we regularly encounter. We carry that motivation and capacity into pretend play and story.

[…]

As psychologist and novelist Keith Oatley remarks, fiction works as a social simulator, allowing us to stretch our scope beyond the actual to the possible or the impossible. We need not be confined to the given, but can turn actuality around within the much larger space of possibility to explain how things are or to see how they could have been or might be. By building on our sociality, pretend play and fiction extend our imaginations, taking us from the here and now along tracks we can easily follow even offline because they are the fresh tracks of agents.

So next time someone asks you why you’re wasting your time reading a book, you know what to tell ’em. 😉

At the risk of playing the “OMG EssEff is Special!” card, might science fiction be considered a further evolution (or maybe just a fork) of that basic storytelling impulse – not so much a refinement, but a specific extension of its utility suited to the changing needs of human societies? Is that, perhaps, why it only really arrived on the scene at a point in our social history when the idea of tomorrow’s world differing to today’s in radical ways was starting to become commonplace*?

[ * For the purpose of this argument, I’m pegging the dawn of sf to coincide roughly with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; many critics – not least the good Professor Adam Roberts, late of this parish and others – have argued that the attitudes and imaginative leaps that characterise sf can be found in earlier texts, but that’s a debate to be had when there’s time, beer and barstools to spare. And of course, we’ll need to thrash out a definition of sf that we can all agree on before we start… ]

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One Response to “Telling stories: the evolution of fiction”

  1. Mathias Clasen says:

    Professor of Russian at Texas A&M Brett Cooke has written about science fiction in an evolutionary perspective (e.g. “Sociobiology, Science Fiction and the Future” in Foundation 60 (1994), pp. 42-51), and David Swanger has a wonderful article in The New York Review of Science Fiction (Jan 2008, no 233. vol20/no5, pp. 1, 8-18) called “Shock and Awe: The Emotional Roots of Compound Genres” where he considers the evolved cognitive and emotional underpinnings of horror and science fiction.