The Literary Animal

Edited by Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson

November 15th, 2008

This book presents itself as an exploration of the intersection of evolutionary psychology and narrative theory. It doesn't do this well. I slogged through this book, trying to glean something of merit from it. There were a few worthwhile ideas sprinkled through. For example, Michelle Scalise Sugiyama made a good point:

When deployed without verbal supplement, nonverbal expressive media (for example, visual art, dance, music) are actually quite inefficient narrative devices...Imagine early Homo Sapiens trying to tell the story "Little Red Riding Hood" through the medium of paint. Our artist immediately encounters difficulty in representing the thoughts, beliefs, and motives of the characters as well as the relationships between them. This in turn makes it difficult to represent any but the most rudimentary of conflicts: even the simple fitness gamble at the heart of the story -- risking one's skin to help one's kin -- cannot be communicated because pictures cannot tell us why the little girl is taking a basket of food to the old woman. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but sometimes a thousand pictures cannot match a few choice phrases.

Further in the essay, I was inspired to jot down this idea: "Stories are to culture what genes are to physiology." I'm not arguing that stories ARE culture, but rather that in the upbringing of children, stories serve to guide their development in the direction of their culture.

Otherwise, I found this book to be a lot of hot air. It was a waste of my time.