Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, May 10 2018 01:00PM

If only “literary Darwinism” had existed when I was in school, I might have liked science a whole lot more. Yes, according to a story on the BBC’s website last week, a new branch of scholarship is “asking what exactly makes a good story, and the evolutionary reasons that certain narratives – from Homer’s Odyssey to Harry Potter – have such popular appeal.”


The gist of the explanation is that stories give us practice at social strategizing, allowing us to imaginatively navigate complex situations that may arise in our real lives and figure out which responses work, and which don’t. Stories that highlight the importance of cooperation and the social costs of selfishness are especially enduring, the thinking goes, because they help communicate and reinforce norms that smooth the waters of communal life.


Needless to say, Jane Austen gets recruited to support this theory. Apparently, Pride and Prejudice is an example of a classic story trope wherein the baddies are those who abuse their power or seek “social dominance at the expense of others” (think Caroline Bingley) whereas the heroic figures are less interested in individual achievement and social climbing (think Elizabeth Bennet).


P&P also shows Austen to be an “intuitive evolutionary psychologist” because she understands that, while women ultimately prefer “stable ‘dad’ figures (like Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice or Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility),” they are also drawn to the Wickhams and Willoughbys. “The ‘dads’ might be the better choice for the long-term security and protection of your children, but according to an evolutionary theory known as the ‘sexy son hypothesis’, falling for an unfaithful cad can have [its] own advantages since [he] can pass on [his] good looks, cunning and charm to his own children, who may then also enjoy greater sexual success,” the article notes.*


“I think that’s part of the key for these stories’ longevity,” argues University of Michigan scholar Daniel Kruger. “[It’s why] Jane Austen wrote these novels two hundred years ago and there are still movies being made today.”


I’m of two minds here. On the one hand, it would be futile to argue that a human activity as primary and enduring as storytelling has no evolutionary roots. On the other hand, though, it seems mindlessly reductive to suggest that evolution explains “why Jane Austen wrote these novels” and why they still appeal to us today.


We all like stories, but only a minority of us write them, so there must be more to Jane Austen’s motivation than some primal human drive. Surely the powerful need for self-expression is at least as compelling a force as social utility when it comes to a life choice like Jane Austen’s.


As for the appeal of Austen’s stories, even in her own time, she was hardly alone in noticing the potent appeal of bad boys and the countervailing pull of stable, honorable men. But nobody’s lining up to buy tickets to Samuel Richardson adaptations. And while the tropes she helped develop may feature in a boatload of contemporary romance novels, few of those books have achieved Austen-level acclaim or popularity.


Why is that? Because while the success of a work of art may owe something to its ability to tap into deep-seated, even hard-wired, human social needs, ultimately it takes more than that for a story to endure. Call it genius or artistry, an eye for a powerful image or an ear for snappy dialogue: whatever you call it, your explanatory framework has to account, somehow, for quality. By and large, it’s the good stuff that lasts.



* I feel I should point out to all you evolutionary psychologists that publicizing the fact that your field has produced something known as the “sexy son hypothesis” could serve as an excellent recruiting tool for a certain kind of student.


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