Just-So Stories

The just-so story, as perfected by Rudyard Kipling, is a reverse-engineering narrative. You begin with a phenomenon — an animal with tough scaly skin, or with spots, or with a long prehensile trunk — and you work your way backwards in time until you hit upon a possible explanation for its origin. In the context of stories for children, of course, the explanation is not meant to be likely or even plausible but rather as imaginative and delightful as possible while still qualifying as a kind of “explanation.”

In scientific just-so stories, by contrast, it is plausibility that counts — and there have been such accounts as long as there has been inquiry into the curious phenomena of the natural world. Consider, for instance, the long-familiar astronomical phenomenon of apparent retrograde motion: the observation, made since ancient times, that planets typically move westward across the sky but then, for periods of time, drift back eastward before resuming their westerly course. (The very word “planet” derives from a Greek word meaning “wanderer”: they are the bodies that wander around in the sky rather than proceeding in a stately and regular path, like the stars.) It’s now understood that planets don’t actually move backwards — that’s an illusion of perspective — but the whole Ptolemaic theory of planetary motion, with its epicycles or loops, was conceived as a way to account for what was so consistently observed, or to “save the appearances,” as the old phrase has it. A good explanation was one that saved the appearances as simply and elegantly as possible, requiring the fewest assumptions. A good explanation of natural phenomena was therefore a kind of just-so story.

We live in a time extraordinarily prolific of just-so stories, but directed more and more toward human behavior than to animal morphology. This tendency has been produced by the convergence of two fields, cognitive science and evolutionary biology. It was the great biologist E. O. Wilson who, in his 1975 book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, first popularized the idea that most human behavior, including intellectual behavior, is determined not by environmental conditions but by genetic inheritance. And since biological evolution necessarily moves much more slowly than cultural change, Wilson’s argument suggests that the way we think and behave today may largely be a function of traits that helped our ancestors adapt to the demands of hunter-gatherer life on the African savannah tens of thousands of years ago.

Wilson’s thesis was controversial in 1975 and remains so today, but elements of it have entered deeply into scientific discourse, nowhere more than in cognitive science. As neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists investigate how the human brain responds to various kinds of stimuli, they are always aware that the basic structure of the brain is not a recent development, but one that is rooted in a world very different from the one we now occupy. But how does that work? How do ancient neurological structures affect our responses now?

These questions have been particularly difficult to answer when dealing with cultural behavior that has no obvious adaptive usefulness. It’s easy to come up with stories that link, say, competitiveness among businessmen with competitiveness among Epipaleolithic hunters in conditions of scarcity; not so easy to come up with stories that explain Shakespeare and Mozart. Some of the early efforts in these directions could be pretty silly. Consider, for instance, Stephen Pinker’s Hamlet-based explanation, in his 1998 book How the Mind Works, for why we read stories: “Fictional narratives supply us with a mental catalogue of the fatal conundrums we might face someday and the outcomes of strategies we could deploy in them. What are the options if I were to suspect that my uncle killed my father, took his position, and married my mother?” To which Jerry Fodor, a leading philosopher of mind reviewing Pinker in the London Review of Books, replied witheringly:

Good question. Or what if it turns out that, having just used the ring that I got by kidnapping a dwarf to pay off the giants who built me my new castle, I should discover that it is the very ring that I need in order to continue to be immortal and rule the world? It’s important to think out the options betimes, because a thing like that could happen to anyone and you can never have too much insurance.

Well, those were early days, and Pinker, for all his brilliance, isn’t most at home when talking about art and literature. Perhaps there has been improvement: perhaps recent evolutionary accounts of cultural practices have become more sophisticated. Recent books by Brian Boyd and Jonathan Gottschall will allow us to find out.

Each book indicates in its title that it inherits the just-so tradition of explaining that which is not obviously explicable. Boyd covers the poetic “why” — Why Lyrics Last: Evolution, Cognition, and Shakespeare’s Sonnets — and Gottschall the narrative “how” — The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. These are bold inquiries. To what extent do the arguments of Boyd and Gottschall live up to their titular promises? To what extent do they avoid the simplistic reductiveness of Pinker’s explanation of why we read Hamlet?

In The Storytelling Animal, Gottschall offers a mild critique of Pinker’s view, pointing out that it “depend[s] on our ability to store fictional scenarios in an accurate and accessible way” and then juxtapose those scenarios to situations we actually face in order to figure out what to do. That, Gottschall says, is too mechanistic an account, but he acknowledges that his own view is “related” to Pinker’s, differing from it primarily by an emphasis on what he calls “implicit memory” — which I think is very similar to what the philosopher Michael Polanyi called “tacit knowledge” — and by its working at a higher level of generality. (Stories are more likely, evolutionarily speaking, to be about “family conflict” than “murderous uncles.”) But these distinctions are quite minor. When Gottschall says that “Fiction is a powerful and ancient virtual reality technology that simulates the big dilemmas of human life” he is saying pretty much exactly what Pinker said.

In this sense Gottschall also agrees with the position that Brian Boyd takes in his 2009 book On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, in which Boyd argues that “a work of art acts like a playground for the mind”: what computer programmers call a “sandbox,” an environment in which scenarios can be tried out without fear of unpleasant consequences. All of these models draw on the usual evolutionary accounts of animal play, in which puppies bite each other as training for future intra-pack struggles for dominance, and chase each other as preparation for hunting. Any differences diminish considerably in comparison to this great commonality.

So the argument about the adaptiveness of stories, in Pinker, Gottschall, and Boyd alike, goes something like this: We are evolutionarily wired to be receptive to stories because receptiveness to stories gave our ancestors reproductive advantages. Those who could think narratively had a fund of virtual experience that they could use to anticipate problems, or to respond more constructively to them when they arrived unexpectedly. This led to longer lives and more offspring, offspring who inherited whatever cognitive equipment is associated with story-sensitivity, which over several thousand years produced our cultural environment, positively awash in every kind of narrative.

It is in light of this account that Gottschall affirms that “Story is the counterforce to social disorder, the tendency of things to fall apart. Story is the center without which the rest cannot hold.” As someone who has devoted much of his life to reading, teaching, and writing about stories, this account certainly captures my attention — but is it true? And how would we know if it is true? Presumably not all people love stories equally; some, I imagine, are quite indifferent to stories. Are those people less likely to pass along their genes than the story-lovers among us? Imagine a society made up almost wholly of story-disdainers: would such a society fail to thrive? How might we correlate love-of-story with other traits we today have inherited from our distant ancestors, for instance, selfishness, or altruism, or competitiveness?

Similarly, near the end of the book, Gottschall exhorts us to “Read fiction …. It will make you more empathic and better able to navigate life’s dilemmas.” This was certainly Matthew Arnold’s view 150 years ago, but it has taken quite a battering since then in ways that Gottschall doesn’t seem to be aware of. As Terry Eagleton once commented about this belief in the ennobling powers of literature, “When the Allied troops moved into the concentration camps … to arrest commandants who had whiled away their leisure hours with a volume of Goethe, it appeared that someone had some explaining to do.” I look in vain for Gottschall to do any of this explaining. Just as I asked whether story-lovers are reproductively superior to story-disdainers, I ask: Do people who experience more stories demonstrate moral superiority to people who experience fewer? And shouldn’t we try to find out before making such big claims for Story?

I fear that Gottschall is just arguing in circles, starting with the assumption that any trait we happen to have will exist because it has been selected for: We like stories, therefore liking stories is something that provides fitness, so let’s think of ways that liking stories might provide fitness. The so-called “spandrel” theory favored by Stephen Jay Gould — according to which some traits get passed along not because they are adaptive in themselves, but because they tend to be present along with traits that are adaptive — is never mentioned here, but surely it is possible that story-loving could be explained in some such way. Nor does Gottschall consider the fact that environments change, so that a trait that may have been adaptive ten thousand years years ago could cease to be adaptive in the future. Even if attentiveness to story was an adaptive trait for our hunter-gatherer ancestors, it may not be for us. I think of the famous peppered moth: before the Industrial Revolution such moths were commonly light in color, but as soot began to darken tree-bark, the lighter-colored moths became easily visible to prey; the previously rare melanistic moths became harder to see and eventually dominated. (Though in our post-soot age things are changing again.) Maybe the love of stories will cease to be adaptive; or maybe different kinds of stories will be needed for survival in the future.

Moreover, Gottschall too readily assumes that there is some general thing called Story, rather than considering the implications of the fact that stories are wildly variable in purpose, style, and tone. In assuring us that stories make us more empathetic, he acknowledges that stories like those embedded in the Grand Theft Auto video games are scarcely likely to do that, but merely comments that such stories are “exceptions that prove the rule” — thus misusing that common phrase in exactly the way that most people misuse it: “prove” in this sense means “test,” and it’s not at all clear that Gottschall’s Story-teaches-virtue position will survive the test of modern video games and their relations in fiction and film. There’s no reason to think, if one holds to an evolutionary account of stories, that the stories we approve of are the ones that will thrive over the long haul. Some very nasty creatures have proved to be very highly adaptive.

I must confess to considerable irritation on this score. When people tell me that “Story” does this or that for us, I always want to throw up my hands and cry, Which story? Haven’t you noticed the astonishing diversity of literary productions? Haven’t you noticed that some are brilliant and many are stupid and most are somewhere in between? That some are mean-spirited while others are generous-hearted? And that people don’t agree about which are which? How can anyone who has thought about such matters for five seconds think that you can say anything meaningful about an abstraction as vast and wooly as “Story”?

Christians have been guiltier than most of this tendency, arguing that people love stories because they are responding to the story God is telling through salvation history. Thus Brian Wicker’s 1975 book The Story-Shaped World; which sounds good until you ask which story the world is shaped like. The One Hundred Days of Sodom? The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin? Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen? It matters, you know. Now of course, a reasonable person is likely to reply that the gospel is the story Wicker is referring to, which is true. Why not, then, refer to “The Gospel-Shaped World”? Because, I submit, Story is a word to conjure with, as Wicker and Gottschall alike, in their very different ways, know. But it is time to stop conjuring.

Early in his book, Gottschall tells a curious little anecdote. He was driving along a highway one day, trying to find some music to listen to on the radio. He found himself tuned in to a country music station, where he heard a song by Chuck Wicks, “Stealing Cinderella.” To his surprise, the song made him cry, and he found himself thinking, “How odd it is … that a story can sneak up on us on a beautiful autumn day, make us laugh or cry …. How bizarre it is that when we experience a story — whether in a book, a film, or a song — we allow ourselves to be invaded by the teller.” Here again what I find interesting is the question Gottschall doesn’t ask, which is whether his response may have had more to do with the melody than the story. Had Chuck Wicks merely recited the lyrics, or told the story in cold prose, would that have brought tears to Gottschall’s eyes? I have my doubts.

It’s frankly easier to come up with evolutionary just-so stories for our love of narrative than for our love of music or non-narrative poetry. Stories seem to connect more directly and obviously with the choices we make in life, the choices that can make the difference between living and dying, between staying around long enough to pass along our genetic material and not making it to sexual maturity. Other forms of art don’t lend themselves to such straightforward accounts.

Brian Boyd knows this, which is why, after writing his book On the Origin of Stories, he wanted to turn to other forms of literary art. In his introduction to Why Lyrics Last, he comments that he wanted to call the book On the Absence of Stories, but his editor wouldn’t allow it. One can see why, but it wouldn’t have been a bad title, because his chief critical interest in Shakespeare’s sonnets is their refusal to yield a narrative payoff, or even a clear narrative shape. Boyd nicely demonstrates how the characters, if we can even call them “characters” — the poet himself, apparently aged or aging, the beautiful youth, the dangerous dark lady — keep hinting at some story, but none ever emerges into clear focus. In these poems, Shakespeare “eschews specific narrative details like settings and actions, and not only does he not spell out sequences but he thwarts attempts to infer them.” This peculiar modus operandi has made many readers dislike the sequence, especially in the century after their publication, but over the long run this richly allusive, teasing, elliptical approach, coupled with the sheer beauty of the language, has made the sequence — or the non-sequence — uniquely fascinating.

All this is insightful and well-argued, but it consorts ill with Boyd’s interests in the evolution of cognition. Those interests don’t produce much of value here; too often Boyd seems merely to be restating critical commonplaces in a quasi-scientific language. For instance, he asserts that “Competition for readers encourages poets to maximize the attention-earning power of the line. Researchers in the empirically focused Daniel Berlyne-Colin Martindale tradition of the psychology of art stress the competition for attention through novelty.” And a little later: “The competition for attention will lead poets both to invention, which can attract by novelty, and to the alternative, less costly in time and effort, the imitation of devices already known to secure attention by concentrating the patterns of the poetic line.” So poetry will demonstrate both convention and innovation. This is scarcely news.

What is more troubling here, though, is the simplistic and reductive account of human motivation that Boyd employs. His view of poetry is one that we might expect from the author of a microeconomics text: all we can see is a bunch of versifiers milling about in the attention marketplace. Such a picture cannot hope to account for the many and varied reasons that people write poems, or for poets’ wildly variable attitudes toward their readers. Boyd never mentions that Shakespeare himself wrote in very different ways for very different publics: he never published any of his plays, intending them for dramatic audiences only, some of them common and some of them (especially later in his career) aristocratic; in the early 1590s he published two long narrative poems that he clearly meant to be very popular, as indeed they were; and as for the very sonnets about which Boyd writes, Francis Meres commented in 1598 on Shakespeare’s “sugared sonnets” circulating “among his private friends.” Though he (or someone) published them in 1609, it’s not at all clear that when he wrote them he meant them for general consumption; nor do we know whether he changed his mind or, if he did, why. Boyd’s attention-marketplace model simply cannot account for these variations — variations within the career of a single poet.

A similar reductiveness may be found elsewhere in the book. Evolutionary biologists have a good deal to say about sexual competition, and look, the sonnets are concerned with sexual competition. The same biologists consider group status and hierarchy, and look, the sonnets treat that topic too. In his better moments Boyd seems nearly aware of how forced these connections seem: “To read the deep, disturbed ambivalence of [Sonnet 57] does not require an evolutionary perspective,” he admits, “but a reading informed by evolution will be more primed than others today to attend to the complexities and ambivalences of our readiness to hierarchy and our resistance to hierarchy.” Again I ask: Is this true? Have critics uninformed by evolution been neglectful of or insensitive to these themes? It seems to me that many critics of the sonnets, including some who were probably wholly ignorant of evolutionary theory, have noticed the status anxieties at play in Sonnet 57 and in a number of others. What actual critical work is evolutionary theory doing here?

One of Boyd’s main themes, in both of his books based in evolutionary theory, is what he calls “cognitive play with open-ended pattern.” (The comments I cited at the outset, about innovation and convention, are related to it.) It is certainly true that in art we like pattern with variation — everybody who thinks about such things knows that and has always known that — but it is not clear that we’ve made any explanatory progress when instead of saying “human beings enjoy pattern with variation” we say “evolution has predisposed human beings to enjoy pattern with variation.” Nor is such a claim scientifically interesting. It would only become scientifically interesting if we could study a large group of people and discover how many among them are more attached to pattern and how many prefer deviation from pattern, and, further, discover how variable human preferences are in this matter, and, further still, figure out what consequences those preferences have for people’s behavior. Even then we wouldn’t know much about adaptation unless we could follow those people’s descendants over a few hundred generations to see what effect the varying preferences had on adaptive fitness. Short of that, we just end up making the same point in a thousand slightly different ways: For any given behavioral or cognitive X, evolution has predisposed us to X.

I quoted earlier from Jerry Fodor’s review of Stephen Pinker’s book How the Mind Works, and I want to return to it here:

Pinker quotes [Noam] Chomsky’s remark that “ignorance can be divided into problems and mysteries” and continues: “I wrote this book because dozens of mysteries of the mind, from mental images to romantic love, have recently been upgraded to problems (though there are still some mysteries too!).” Well, cheerfulness sells books, but Ecclesiastes got it right: “the heart of the wise is in the house of mourning.”

The kind of “mourning,” that is, that we experience when we realize how little we know; but there is another kind of mourning well understood by many computer users: it happens when we discover that a favorite piece of software has “recently been upgraded.” Upgrades are not always what they promise to be, and while I love to see the growth of scientific knowledge, and believe that Creation is more wondrous when better understood rather than less, I nevertheless am wary of false upgrades. In these books by Gottschall and Boyd, I discern the claim that what were formerly (critical) mysteries have now become (scientific) problems; but I see little evidence for that claim.

Moreover, I find myself wondering about what seems to drive both of these books: a kind of compulsion for explanation itself. Looking at Pinker’s account of why we read Hamlet, Fodor comments, “I suppose it could turn out that one’s interest in having friends, or in reading fictions, or in Wagner’s operas, is really at heart prudential. But the claim affronts a robust, and I should think salubrious, intuition that there are lots and lots of things that we care about simply for themselves.” This is a possibility that Gottschall and Boyd seem to rule out a priori, but on what grounds? I would like to see a cognitive-evolutionary explanation of the desire for explanations. That cultural and artistic phenomena are susceptible to being causally accounted for is the one belief that seems to go unquestioned and unexplored by our evolutionarily informed critics.

And so I leave you not with an explanation, or a thesis, or even a claim, but just a small parable. In Bill Forsyth’s 1983 film Local Hero, a small seaside town in northern Scotland is holding a céilidh. The party has been going on for hours and people are drifting away into the dimness. (It does not get dark in the summer in that part of the world.) In the town hall a boy plays a haunting tune on a pennywhistle to the accompaniment of a somber drum. A young man named Oldsen walks along the beach, where he meets the woman he loves, a biologist named Marina. But as they converse he notices something above him. He looks up in curious wonder. “It’s the Northern Lights — the Aurora Borealis,” Marina tells him. High-energy protons, she continues, driven by solar wind, spilling into the atmosphere at the pole where the barriers are thin and weak. The lights faintly reflect onto Oldsen’s upturned face. “You say the darndest things, Marina,” he murmurs.

Meanwhile, an American visitor named MacIntyre stands outside the town hall with the local innkeeper, Gordon, whose accordion drapes over his neck as he leans against a railing. MacIntyre too sees the lights and cranes his neck to get a better look.

“What’s happening up there?”
“That’s the Northern Lights, Mac.”
“What the heck is that?”
“It’s kinda technical,” Gordon replies. “Nice, though, isn’t it?”


Originally published in Books and Culture