That’s quite the just-so story you’re selling, Atlantic


Are your eyes in need of a little rolling exercise? Get ready to read The Evolutionary Case for Great Fiction. Here’s how it begins:

Picture this: It’s 45,000 years ago and a small Pleistocene clan is gathered by a campfire. The night is bone cold and black and someone—let’s call him Ernest—begins telling a story.

Lips waxy with boar grease, Ernest boasts of his morning hunt. He details the wind in the grass, the thick clouds overhead, the long plaintive wail of the boar as his spear swiftly entered its heart.

The clan is riveted.

Among them sits a moody, brilliant devotee of campfire stories. Every now and then she pipes up to praise or decimate a tale. Tonight she says, “Excellent work. Unsurpassed.” Ernest breathes a sigh of relief.

Let’s call the girl Michiko.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the ridge, there’s another tribe, where John is telling his hunting story. Except he sucks, and the story falls flat, and everyone shrugs and goes to bed.

And then, later, John’s tribe goes extinct. The end.

That’s it. No evidence, no data, no actual measurements of any survival benefit to storytelling, one invented number (is there a benefit to good storytelling? “If it increases your offspring by only 1%—yes”), and the author comes to the conclusion that good stories enhances survival and makes the talespinner sexy (well, an author would say that, wouldn’t they?)

It is literally a just-so story, and nothing more. Nothing. It’s someone sitting at a keyboard fantasizing about how important their writing skills are on an evolutionary scale, and inventing a series of rationalizations.

It’s terrible.

I guess I’m going to have to predict the imminent extinction of every member of the tribe who writes for the Atlantic, if this story were true.

By the way, after being named, Michiko doesn’t appear in the story any more. The first critic, and she doesn’t even make it to the next page.

Comments

  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    Michiko is probably a reference to the ex-New York Times literary critic Michiko Kakutani.

  2. screechymonkey says

    Also, I thought that group selection was considered to be negligible if not non-existent, and this sure sounds like a group selection hypothesis to me.

  3. weylguy says

    Damn it all, Myers, I was on the edge of my seat with the story until you spoiled it. At least I still have 1 Chronicles, the most exciting book in the Old Testament. Oh, the chills.

  4. davidnangle says

    It’s very tempting to think this way. It lets you think you can just sit there and figure out these profound truths. Watch me do it…

    Soles of our feet and palms of our hands are the only skin surface that doesn’t tan. So there’s always some color difference. Imagine a roving band of hunters, strung out on a long chase, a loose column a quarter mile long or more. The lead guys could see a danger or an opportunity, so they’d break out into a fast run, instead of the long-lasting jog of the rest.

    For the tribe with tanned feet and palms, the guys behind wouldn’t see a difference in motion for those blobs on the Savannah ahead of them. Unlike the tribe where you can see the pace of the runners as a rhythmic change in color. So opportunities and threats at the front endanger the best hunters and therefore they all die out. Except for the people whose palms and soles don’t tan.

    It’s easy! And fun! And meaningless!

  5. blf says

    The mildly deranged penguin was operating Ernest’s teleprompter.

    This didn’t actually work too well. First, big slabs of stone are difficult to move, even if you threaten them with a pea. Second, supposedly-edible peas older than perhaps 10,000 years have not been found (albeit there were wild peas, though how the peoples of 45,000 years ago could take down a wild pea is a puzzle). And third, Ernest was illiterate.

    Besides the struggle with the slabs and to find a pea to threaten the slabs with, the main thing she remembers is Ernest — well, all of them — stank. With the sort of smell that can only be safely kept inside a black hole(this led to an early practical FTL wrap drive, as the black hole hurried to escape from the smell within). She remembers the cave enlarging before her watering eyes as the stink eroded & dissolved the stone.

    She cannot recall Ernest’s tale at all — and the recording equipment dissolved in the stink — but believes it was more to do with chasing boar off a cliff due to the smell than to the spear. The P.U. is mightier than the spear.

  6. unclefrogy says

    well language is pretty important at least and story is told with language all people do it. Before you decide story is the important part what does language do?
    Think I heard some where that children learn language fast when they are taught the words for position and direction.
    I hate it when people start with the conclusion then pile on some made up BS to explain it.
    jeeeees give it rest and try thinking of ways to test if any of the crapola you can think up is real or not first.

  7. John Harshman says

    What I found most annoying about the whole thing is that they seem to have confused individual and group selection. But that’s just me.

  8. John Morales says

    Well, it is in the entertainment section.

    There is an idea around (cf. Lynne Kelly) that certain storytelling and ritual encoded knowledge mnemonically. Seems very plausible to me.

  9. Pierce R. Butler says

    Rob Grigjanis @ # 2: Michiko is probably a reference to the ex-New York Times literary critic Michiko Kakutani.

    So who then is “John”? Cheever? Gardner? Grisham? Le Carré? Steinbeck? Updike?

  10. billyjoe says

    Screechymonkey:

    Also, I thought that group selection was considered to be negligible if not non-existent, and this sure sounds like a group selection hypothesis to me

    John Harshman:

    What I found most annoying about the whole thing is that they seem to have confused individual and group selection. But that’s just me

    That makes three of us.

    A “just-so story” in support of failed “group selection” theory. Figures, seeing as there is not much to zero supportive evidence and many reasons why group selection can’t work. The genes/genome/gene-networks reign supreme. It all comes back to the genes!

  11. says

    Michiko is mentioned again, or at least her ancestors are. Because if you like the way a man tells a story, of course you’re going to want to crank out lots of babies with him (eyeroll). That kind of assumption is getting a lot of men into trouble lately.

  12. monad says

    And here I imagined that storytelling could have been important in making lessons for children memorable, thereby increasing survival rates, or to increase status within a group, or to promote cultural cohesion, or any number of other possibilities. I forget: natural selection means literally nothing except having more sex, through skilled males picking up hot females.

    (Why then do women tell stories too, you ask? It must be incidental, like men’s nipples.)

  13. Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y says

    And here I imagined that storytelling could have been important in making lessons for children memorable, thereby increasing survival rates, or to increase status within a group, or to promote cultural cohesion, or any number of other possibilities.

    Or simply a side-effect of being wired in a way that makes novel stimuli appealing (hence prone to boredom), the development of groups and language, and being diurnal which results in periods longer than the amount of time we need to sleep with not much to do.

  14. tomh says

    I think she has it backwards. It seems to me the tribe that got bored and went to bed would do better. Early to bed = more offspring, everyone knows that.

  15. lotharloo says

    @davidnangle:

    Hahaha, I like this new game. I want to figure out some profound truths too, so it’s my turn now:

    Humans like TV and since its invention, TV has spread to all corners of the world. But what is the evolutionary advantage in watching TV? Well, 45000 years ago, humans did not have TV but they had fire so there were tribes that would just sit around the camp fire and stare at the fire while other tribes would not stare at the fire and they would instead wander around in the dark aimlessly. Obviously, the tribes that wander around aimlessly in the dark, would be eaten by wolves, bears, tigers, and dinosaurs while the tribes who stare at the fire survive! Voila, an adaptive advantage for watching TV!

  16. says

    “….well, an author would say that, wouldn’t they … … The first critic, and she doesn’t even make it to the next page…”
    I think the first section thoroughly explains the second.

  17. davidnangle says

    That’s the spirit, lotharloo!

    And epilepsy is just another adaptation to keep the individual immobilized near the flashing lights! And not out getting eaten by a prestosuchus chiniquensis!

  18. says

    I agree, this is bad science… But, I’m a short, balding guy…I get a date about once a decade that doesn’t go anywhere. There are other short, balding guys who are luckier when it comes to relationships…I’ve asked myself what the difference is. They usually are more outgoing, have more charisma, and tend to get married later in life when they have more income (in at least one study I’ve seen). Can you imagine if I was sitting around some people who I didn’t know, telling them about my day and I said I was a neurosurgeon, who saved a few lives today, was made head of my department, had a good book deal, etc…do you think the women sitting around would be more likely to be into me (then whatever neutral would be). On the other hand if I was talking about how I was unemployed, and I made $5.25 standing out on the corner with a cardboard sign all day…would they be less likely to be interested in me? I’m probably somewhere in the middle (maybe closer to standing on the corner, honestly). We don’t even have to call it evolutionary psychology…it’s mostly driven by the culture we’re in, but there are some consistent behaviors across cultures. This video shows kids circling a line drawing of a short figure for words like sad, weak and yucky… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZbG05ePWRQE They learn it early. I’m not one of those guys who wants to waste to much of my time complaining about women not picking me…it’s their choice, right. I consider myself a feminist, but I want to understand why I’m lonely when I want to be in a relationship. Maybe being a better storytelling will be one little thing that will help.

  19. naturalcynic says

    Then there is the tale of the conman and bullshit artist who temporarily attracts three or so many semi-permanent mates and can sire at least five idiot spawn. And may have a few dozen more very temporary mates who are attracted to the power he has amassed by persuading a number of suckers in the tribe to do his bidding for a pittance. It’s a wonder how those who could have been so easily conned could also survive and reproduce.
    Just goes to show how bullshit spewing can be evolutionarily advantageous.

  20. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    naturalcynic,

    Sounds like my late, unlamented ex-brother-in-law. Oddly enough neither of the kids he had with my sister are anything like that. It’s almost as if genetics has little to do with it (or perhaps they just didn’t get the right genes from him).

  21. robro says

    Ah yes, the origin myth of mansplaining as explained by a man. I like it. Very meta.

  22. screechymonkey says

    Cat’s Staff @23:

    Can you imagine if I was sitting around some people who I didn’t know, telling them about my day and I said I was a neurosurgeon, who saved a few lives today, was made head of my department, had a good book deal, etc…do you think the women sitting around would be more likely to be into me (then whatever neutral would be). On the other hand if I was talking about how I was unemployed, and I made $5.25 standing out on the corner with a cardboard sign all day…would they be less likely to be interested in me? I’m probably somewhere in the middle (maybe closer to standing on the corner, honestly). We don’t even have to call it evolutionary psychology…it’s mostly driven by the culture we’re in, but there are some consistent behaviors across cultures

    Yes, it’s true. People who are ambitious, hard-working, and talk about the interesting things going on their lives tend to be more attractive than people who talk about how shitty their life is. (Note that I am not saying that unemployed people can’t be ambitious, hard-working, or interesting, just that ones who can only talk about their lack of employment aren’t very appealing.)

    Do you think that you’ve discovered some deep hidden truth about human nature that everyone else hasn’t, or that we’re all too scared to admit?

    Is there really someone out there claiming that dating partners are evenly distributed, and that “success” in dating is completely unrelated to the things you’ve mentioned?

    Are you under the impression that evolutionary psychology is the only way to explain such phenomena?

    I’m trying to figure out who you think you’re arguing with.

  23. brucegee1962 says

    Question for screechymonky @3, John Harshman @9, & especially billyjoe @12:

    I’ve been trying to study up on biological vs. cultural evolution, so I’m very interested in the concept of group selection. I can see from all the controversies with Wilson and Sober etc. that group selection has been largely discarded from biological/genetic evolution. But that isn’t what the Atlantic article was talking about — that was referring to cultural evolution among humans, where group selection goes a lot farther to explain why our cultures change so much more quickly than those of other species. We’ve come up with this little invention called warfare, that gives an enormous boost to natural selection of groups by causing groups with superior memes to wipe out or enslave groups that fall behind. Surely that’s what the Atlantic article was talking about.

    Overall, though, I’ll agree that the article seemed pretty silly. It was just a gussied-up way of saying “Good communication skills helped early humans to survive better,” to which we must say “Duh, if communication didn’t help us survive, why would we have developed it?”

  24. screechymonkey says

    brucegee,

    I don’t know how you can read the article as discussing mere “cultural evolution.” After the introductory story, the article claims:

    Charles Darwin proposed two theories of evolution: natural selection and sexual selection. To affect species-wide change, a trait essentially has to help you live or get laid.

    and then goes on to speculate on how storytelling would help with one or both of these forms of biological selection. And how do you explain this:

    If it increases your offspring by only 1%—yes. . . . to help you actually have sex and survive, it makes sense that only the the best-written and well-rendered tales would help ensure a long line of descendants.

    Note that, at this point, the author has abandoned the group selection construct of the opening anecdote (where the tribe with the good storyteller and/or the good storytelling critic — it’s not very clear which the author is asserting is important here — survives to become our antecedents, while John’s entire tribe dies out because of John’s poor storytelling). But either way, it’s clearly biological evolution being offered here, with discussion of leaving a long line of descendants, etc.

    In any event, I’m not a biologist, but your statement that “group selection goes a lot farther to explain why our cultures change so much more quickly than those of other species” seems to me to be in need of citation. Let’s assume that it’s true that human culture changes more quickly than other species (it might not be the case, it may just seem that way to us because we’re human and hip to the subtleties of human culture but not that of ants or antelopes). Why wouldn’t the answer be “because humans have big brains and complex spoken languages, which makes it easier to create, retain, and spread cultural innovation”? Conversely, why wouldn’t group selection apply equally to non-human species?

    To the extent that you attempt to explain this with your next sentence: “We’ve come up with this little invention called warfare, that gives an enormous boost to natural selection of groups by causing groups with superior memes to wipe out or enslave groups that fall behind,” I think that, too, is in need of evidence. How big a role did organized tribal warfare play in human evolution, as opposed to more mundane considerations like ability to obtain food and shelter, avoid predators, etc.? And assuming that warfare was significant, what reason is there to believe that “superior memes” (by which you mean culture) played a significant role in winning wars, as opposed to things like physical strength, intelligence and tool/weapon use, or a thousand other factors?

    You might be right about those things, but they’re not as obvious to me as they are to you. And that, to me, is the weakness of articles like the Atlantic’s — when you’re relying on “common sense” about what the Holocene Era was right, it allows us to apply all sorts of “intuitions” that are really just biases and speculation.

  25. says

    screechymonkey @ 28

    You’re right to frame it that way, and I don’t think it’s that hidden. I’m only arguing that in the example in the article with hunter telling the story about the successful hunt it’s similar to someone these days talking about their job that has more income.

  26. screechymonkey says

    Cat’s Staff,

    Well, now I’m really confused about what you’re trying to say. Of course the story in the article sounds analogous to something that might happen today, because somebody living today made that story up! That’s how you get these just-so stories. In truth, we have no idea whether or not there were Ernests bragging about the hunt around the campfire, or Michikos batting the prehistoric equivalent of doe eyes at him, or that Ernest’s storytelling behavior conveyed some evolutionary advantage, or that “storytelling” is something that is transmitted genetically at all.

    The entire thing is an exercise in someone observing a modern behavior, and then postulating that it occurs today because of some hypothetical similar behavior in the distant past that (it is speculated) gave some evolutionary advantage. But I can just as easily make up a contrary story that refutes this hypothesis. I assert that there were no Ernests and Johns telling hunting stories around the campfire, because there was no advantage in doing so. You lived in a small tribe, and everyone already knew whether or not you killed a boar on this morning’s hunt or not — either the boar was roasting on the spit or it wasn’t! The women of the tribe would not have a preference for mates who waste time and energy conveying redundant information; they would be better off with the man who was practicing for tomorrow’s hunt or going to bed early to conserve his energy rather than the one blowing hot air. Ergo, evolution selected for men of few words and against braggartly storytellers. It’s only in our larger, modern society, where it’s easier to lie about one’s accomplishments, that braggarts and liars have been able to gain advantages over our natural evolutionary tendencies.

    Ok, I don’t really believe that. But there’s just as much evidence for that version as for the Atlantic’s, and it’s not clear to me how anyone would go about proving one hypothesis over the other, let alone over the many other plausible versions.

  27. John Morales says

    Sigh. Again, there’s a version where it is indeed advantageous to the group.
    A matter of perspective.
    Further to my previous:

    Lynne Kelly: ‘Magic’ is a term that Westerners have used because we don’t have the right words for what they are doing. So before a group of hunters will go out they will perform rituals, repeated acts. So if they are hunting kangaroos, for example, the dancers will demonstrate the way the ears move if they have detected movement. Something else, how they will scratch if they are relaxed. That sort of information is hugely helpful to get close enough in order to hunt a kangaroo. But also the tactics. You don’t want one hunter calling out to another guy, ‘Hey Joe, go left,’ because your kangaroo is gone by then. So they will dance the tactics, they will dance the behaviour of the animal and so on, so that they can keep in touch with each other and improve the hunt. So when they talk about hunting magic improving the success of the hunt, it really does. They will also call on supernatural actions but I can’t analyse that because I’m not Indigenous.

    ( http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/allinthemind/indigenous-memory-code/7553976#transcript )

  28. John Morales says

    [In passing: Australia was invaded in AD1788]

    Its inhabitants were an ancient and extremely adaptive set of cultures, but alas were subject to outside context problem]

    Did they have the equivalent of religious wars? Who knows? Only weak remnants of their oral and traditional history remains accessible, which itself is miraculous and a testament to their culture.

  29. vole says

    Even if there were an evolutionary case for great fiction, there would be a stronger case (presumably) for crap fiction, which sells much better.

  30. brucegee1962 says

    Screechymonkey, I’ll agree that I’m going off of hunches more than evidence when I talk about group selection, and you’re right that I need citations — I hope to retire in a few years, and when I do, I want to sit down and learn a lot more about this subject. But for now, I’m looking for scraps where I can — which is why the discussion here about group selection is of interest.

    For now, based on the understanding of cultural evolution I’ve gathered so far, it’s my working hypothesis that any behavior that has showed up again and again, in cultures widely separated by space and time, is most likely advantageous to the cultures that adopt it. It’s possible that some behaviors aren’t — they could just be neutral and spread by imitation, or by-products of other advantageous behavior. Still, I’m willing to make that assumption, while well aware of the difficulties involved in finding evidence to support it.

    Incidentally, part of the reason theories of cultural evolution are of such interest to me is that I think they could be vital to advancing a liberal agenda. I don’t think it’s an accident that so many of people who advocate evo-psych are conservatives (and likewise, why so many people in these parts are vehemently opposed to it). If our preferences and biases are hard-wired into our brain by millenia of evolution, then it’s pointless to try to change them. But If meme-plexes or cultural norms develop because they give the tribes that possess them an advantage in a particular situation, then it stands to reason that, if the situation changes, then the behavior can safely change as well. We just need to ask — do the circumstances that favored tribes which adopted religion, or patriarchies, or segregation of roles by gender still exist today? If those circumstances have indeed changed (as I believe they have), then our behavior ought to change as well.

    But you’re right — proving any of this is a bugger.

  31. billyjoe says

    John Morales,

    there’s a version where it is indeed advantageous to the group.

    It’s not group selection though and easily explained by the gene selection.

    If a trait leads to individual success through success of the group that is just gene level selection with the group as part of the environment. There are also likely to be close relatives in the group, so inclusive fitness – which is also gene level selection – would also play a role. And, if the trait did not benefit the individual but increased survival of close relatives, it would be kin selection – which is also gene level selection.

    The only way to get group selection that doesn’t reduce to gene level selection is for traits that do not benefit genes in the individual or the individual’s relatives but benefit the group. And, of course, manipulation of individuals to self-sacrifice for the group is not group selection. If self-sacrifice to benefit the group was group selection, manipulation would not be necessary.

    Try as you like, you can’t fit variation and selection for reproductive success into a group selection scenario. You would need groups that split off into daughter groups with some minor variations and competition between these groups for reproductive success. And the reproductive rate of the groups would have to exceed the reproductive rate of individuals within the groups, otherwise those traits would be selected against.

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