In “Can Science Explain Why We Tell Stories?” (New Yorker online, May 18, 2012), Adam Gopnik, reflecting on Jonathan Gottschall’s new evo psych book, The Storytelling Animal, , brings some sense to the discussion of supposed evolutionary origins of storytelling:
The interesting questions about stories, which have, as they say, excited the interests of readers for millennia, are not about what makes a taste for them “universal,” but what makes the good ones so different from the dull ones, and whether the good ones really make us better people, or just make us people who happen to have heard a good story. This is a case, as with women’s fashion, where the subtle, “surface” differences are actually the whole of the subject. Questions about those small differences seem not to have occurred to Gottschall.
There is not a single reference in Gottschall’s book to such students of the mechanics of storytelling as William Empson, Samuel Johnson, Lionel Trilling, Virginia Woolf, Edmund Wilson, or Randall Jarrell, all of whom brooded long and hard upon stories and their subjects. Wilson, for instance, who despised “college professors” and their tastes, tackled the problem of the “boring” modern story at great and lucid length, ending with the intriguing conclusion that each age has its own acceptable boredoms, with Joyce’s boredoms being no greater than Sir Walter Scott’s.
It is one thing to think that psychology may solve problems that baffle philosophy or criticism; it well may. But to think that the invocation of empirical studies on a subject frees one from the job of finding out what the great instinctive psychologists have said about that subject before you got to it is just misguided.
Do entertaining stories make us more ethical? “The only way to find out is to do the science,” Gottschall says, reasonably enough, and then announces that “the constant firing of our neurons in response to fictional stimuli strengthens and refines the neural pathways that lead to skillful navigation of life’s problems” and that the studies show that therefore people who read a lot of novels have better social and empathetic abilities, are more skillful navigators, than those who don’t. He insists that storytelling is adaptive, on strictly Darwinian terms, but surely this would only have meaning if he could show that there were human-like groups who failed to compete because they didn’t trade tales—or even that tribes who told lots of stories did better than tribes that didn’t.
Are societies, like that of Europe now, which has mostly rejected religious storytellers, less prosperous and peaceful than ones, like Europe back when, that didn’t? Would a human-like society that had lots of food and sex but no stories die out? When has this happened? (It’s true that there are those who think that the “symbolic” revolution among our sort of people doomed the Neanderthals, but this is, to put it mildly, a very speculative story, more “Star Trek” than “Mr. Wizard.”)
It is unlikely that evolutionary psychology can usefully address the questions of style, substance, and significance in literature because the answers – where English literature, for example, is concerned – will not be found in prehistoric times.