Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Why Did Narrative Evolve? (Human) Nature and Narrative

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Why Did Narrative Evolve? (Human) Nature and Narrative

Article excerpt

The overwhelming evidence that narrative is hardwired into humans, evidence we shall review shortly, raises the question of why this is so. What function, or functions, does narrative perform that it should become part of our human inheritance? There exist a number of possible answers to this question. One viewpoint suggests that narrative serves a didactic role, with narratives serving as models for behavior (Sugiyama; Pinker Language, Blank). Geoffrey Miller argues it developed through sexual selection, a way to impress the girl, while Edward O. Wilson argues narrative gives humans the opportunity to test options for dealing with reality in a sort of mental simulator (225). Joseph Carroll adds our inner reality to the mix, stating, "We use imaginative models to make sense of the world, not just to understand it abstractly but to feel and perceive our own place in it--to see it from the inside out" (xxii). Other contenders are Jerome H. Barkow's assertion that telling tales about people, gossip if you will, is an important means of social control (628), while Robin Dunbar would call these same stories a form of social grooming at a distance to facilitate social bonding (220). It is not my purpose here to refute these and other hypotheses regarding the function of narrative in human culture, nor do I believe there is one and only one correct reply to this question. Rather, I wish to offer evidence to support what I believe to be an undeniable function of narrative in our species, namely, socio-environmental regulation. And though narrative is traditionally equated with literature, I use the term narrative here in a more inclusive manner, one which goes beyond just literature to include all forms of storytelling, be it literature, gossip, jokes, film, advertising, or any of the other symbolic systems society uses to disseminate social values, to tell its/our stories.

I believe that narrative is an adaptation that has evolved by natural selection as a means to regulate two interrelated social arrangements: the relations between individuals within a given society, the intrasocial; and the relations between society and its natural environment, the extrasocial. The first of these is the traditional fodder of literary theory, which generally treats intrasocial relations either at the individual level--the emotional relations such as love, hate, joy, alienation, and so on both between and within individuals--or at the larger societal level, so that by means of an analysis of Greek drama or the Victorian novel we come to understand how society produces and perpetuates racism, sexism, and so forth.

In this paper, I shall focus primarily on the second area, the extrasocial, although the two functions are inextricably linked, and so some mention must be made of both. The extrasocial is similar to the intrasocial in terms of its narrative mechanics, but deals with a different aspect of society's regulatory needs, namely its relations with its natural environment. Simply put, society must regulate resource usage so as not to exceed the limits imposed on it by the availability of natural resources--the carrying capacity of the environment--if it is to survive through time. Nature imposes limits, and society adapts to them through practices--be they technological, scientific, religious, or those of "everyday life"--determined by the stories we tell.

To say that narrative is an adaptation that has evolved by natural selection is a statement that, for some, might require a bit of evidence. As we progress from infants to adults in a given society or societies, we produce various narrative systems--everything from the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the music we listen to, and the cars we drive tell our stories--and this production is automatic. In the first five years of life, children spontaneously develop language and narrative, which enables them to arrive at a conscious awareness of both self and the external socio-cultural world. …

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