Meaning and Effect in Fiction: An Evolutionary Model of Interpretation Illustrated with a Reading of "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge": A Usable Model of Human Nature

By Carroll, Joseph | Style, Fall-Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Meaning and Effect in Fiction: An Evolutionary Model of Interpretation Illustrated with a Reading of "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge": A Usable Model of Human Nature


Carroll, Joseph, Style


Over the past forty years or so, the evolutionary human sciences have gradually developed a good working model of human nature. The early sociobiological emphasis on reproductive success was modified by the evolutionary psychologists' insistence on "proximate" or mid-level motives. Evolutionary psychologists, emphasizing "modules" or hard-wired bits of cognitive machinery, left out "general intelligence," but a broader conception of human cognitive architecture has corrected that mistake. Early sociobiologists tended to limit human social interaction to kinship and the exchange of favors, but biologists and anthropologists have now developed much more complete and adequate accounts of specifically human capacities for cooperative group endeavor. Evolutionists in the humanities have been making increasingly effective arguments that forms of imaginative culture--the arts, religions, ideologies--are integral parts of the human adaptive repertory. Those arguments converge with the now rapidly developing concept of "gene-culture co-evolution"--the idea that humans are genetically disposed to produce culture, and that over evolutionary time culture alters the human genome. Early evolutionary psychology grouped its mid-level or "proximate" motives into open-ended lists. Those lists are now being replaced with "human life history theory": the idea of a systemic organization of all the components of human nature. Beneath all variation in the details of organization, the life history of every species forms a reproductive cycle. In the case of human beings, successful parental care produces children capable, when grown, of forming adult pair bonds, becoming functional members of a community, and caring for children of their own. Human life history theory thus integrates the sociobiologists' "ultimate" level of casual explanation--reproductive success--with the evolutionary psychologists' mid-level explanations focusing on immediate motives such as mating, parenting, and striving for social status. (1)

In common parlance, when people use the phrase "human nature," they usually have in mind basic human motives: survival, mating, parenting, favoring kin, and acting as members of a social group. In all affiliative social relations--lovers, friends, families, communities--there is a perpetual tension between egoistic and prosocial impulses. Since people tend to hide or mute expressions of self-interest and magnify prosocial dispositions, hypocrisy and deceit are endemic to social life--hence the prevalence of satire in literary representations of human behavior. But satire is effective because it can contrast hypocrisy and deceit with honesty and decency. Human nature includes the capacity for love, the desire for companionship, loyalty, and a sense of justice. Human nature is important in fiction because most stories are built out of basic human motives and emotions. Stories are about struggling to survive, seeking romantic love, maintaining family relationships, satisfying ambitions, making friends, forming coalitions, and striving against enemies.

The elements of human nature are the genetically transmitted dispositions that are typical of the human species as a whole. "Human universals" are behavioral dispositions common to all known cultures (Brown, Human Universals; Brown, "Human Universals"). Instances include rites and rituals signaling different phases of life; "marriage" as a publicly recognized right of exclusive sexual access; and myths and narratives describing the origins of a social group and the use of spoken language. Universals vary in form from culture to culture. All cultures have language, but not the same language. All recognize transitions from childhood to adulthood, but not at precisely the same time, in precisely the same stages, or with precisely the same rituals. All cultures have marriage, but some cultures are polygamous, some at least nominally monogamous, and a very few, under special conditions, are polyandrous (Symons, Evolution).

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