Useful Fictions: Evolution, Anxiety, and the Origins of Literature

Useful Fictions: Evolution, Anxiety, and the Origins of Literature

Useful Fictions: Evolution, Anxiety, and the Origins of Literature

Useful Fictions: Evolution, Anxiety, and the Origins of Literature


"We tell ourselves stories in order to live," Joan Didion observed in The White Album. Why is this? Michael Austin asks, in Useful Fictions. Why, in particular, are human beings, whose very survival depends on obtaining true information, so drawn to fictional narratives? After all, virtually every human culture reveres some form of storytelling. Might there be an evolutionary reason behind our species' need for stories? Drawing on evolutionary biology, anthropology, narrative theory, cognitive psychology, game theory, and evolutionary aesthetics, Austin develops the concept of a "useful fiction," a simple narrative that serves an adaptive function unrelated to its factual one. In his work we see how these useful fictions play a key role in neutralizing the overwhelming anxiety that humans can experience as their minds gather and process information. Rudimentary narratives constructed for this purpose, Austin suggests, provided a cognitive scaffold that might have become the basis for our well-documented love of fictional stories. Written in clear, jargon-free prose and employing abundant literary examples-from the Bible to One Thousand and One Arabian Nights and Don Quixote to No Exit -Austin's work offers a new way of understanding the relationship between fiction and evolutionary processes-and, perhaps, the very origins of literature.


Almost all of the phenomena that are central to the humanities are puzzling
anomalies from an evolutionary perspective. Chief among these are the
human attraction to fictional experience (in all media and genres) and other
products of the imagination.

—John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, “Does Beauty Build Adapted Minds?”

The Big Question

Here are some of the questions that this book will try to answer: Why do stories with sad endings make us cry? Why do we like scary movies but not scary situations in real life? How is it that we can think of a fictional character as a “friend” whose triumphs thrill us and whose misfortunes cause us pain? Why will we continue to watch a movie or television show that we don’t really like just to see how it turns out? Why can a single summer blockbuster movie earn more than a billion dollars in worldwide box-office receipts and licensing fees? Why, in other words, do we like stories so much—especially fictional ones? That is the big question.

On one level, of course, the big question has an easy answer: we like stories because they give us pleasure. But this doesn’t really settle the matter; it just pushes it back to another level. Pleasure is a bribe for us to engage in activities likely to enhance our chances for survival and reproduction. Most of the things that give us pleasure—food, sex, playing with our children, the feeling of satisfaction that comes with solving a difficult problem—are so clearly related to our genetic fitness that there is no need to analyze them further. Some kinds of stories, too, have a clear evolutionary value, such as the narratives that we use to communicate accurate information. As Brian Boyd explains in On the Origins of Stories, it is easy to understand the evolutionary advantage . . .

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