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The Origin of Stories: Horton Hears a Who

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 25, Number 2, October 2001
pp. 197-214 | 10.1353/phl.2001.0022

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Philosophy and Literature 25.2 (2001) 197-214

Works of art die without attention, and we should expect that any critical theory that cannot explain why we attend to art ought itself to be moribund. Yet the currently dominant approach to criticism, which I will dub Cultural Critique, explains art in terms of the limited and suspect perspectives of the culture (society, group, era) that produced it, or as the site of contestation or locus of imbrication of the ideological discourses of its time. Why anyone would want to attend to art, defined thus, becomes a mystery, unless audiences always do indeed crave ideological nourishment or indigestion. Surely we can do better.

I would like to offer the outline of an alternative: an evolutionary explanation first for art, then for narrative, then for fiction. Then, since ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, or at least sometimes helps us retrieve it, and since we have no printouts of Pleistocene potboilers, I will color in the outline by way of Dr. Seuss's children's classic, Horton Hears a Who, contrasting a sample evolutionary analysis of a single work of fiction with the kind of response typical of Cultural Critique.

In art we do or make things simply in order to engage our attention, for the sake of attention, and we are not the only species to do so. Intelligence began to evolve because the world is full of potential information that can suggest advantageous courses of behavior. Curiosity evolved on top of intelligence -- especially in the species that Konrad Lorenz liked to call "specialists in non-specialization," such as rats among rodents, corvids among songbirds, and humans among primates --because it extends the range of information creatures can attend to and act on. As a result rats can prefer cognitive stimulation to food and sex. As the most intelligent and versatile of species, we humans particularly like directing our attention to what repays our curiosity.

And like other particularly intelligent species, we like to do things that provide cognitive stimulation, whether they have any immediate survival value or not. Corvids (together with psittacines, the most intelligent of birds) enjoy a kind of aerial acrobatics that Lorenz unashamedly labels art. Dolphins in a Hawaiian marine park have developed, without any human prompting, what has been called "air art," a kind of rhythmic gymnastics in which they deploy air bubbles from their blowholes like gymnasts' ribbons or hoops, or, to stress the affinity to art, a kind of aquatic analogue of light sculpture. Chimpanzees appear to engage both in solitary imaginative play, like Kakama with the stick he famously and repeatedly handled as if it were a toy baby, and in group activity, like rhythmic dances, for the sheer pleasure they produce. In art as in so much else we had thought uniquely human, like tool-using or tool-making, like counting or culture, we are finding there are precursors elsewhere in nature.

Because we are such a highly social species, we crave the attention of others. Human infants are distressed at adults who do not respond to them; infants and children across cultures punish others by withdrawing attention. At any age we like to command attention in ways we choose, for the ability to compete successfully for attention is closely correlated with status, which raises rates of survival and reproduction. And we can recognize something artistic in such forms of competitive animal attention-getting as the dances of lekking birds, the songs of songbirds or whales, or the extravagant architecture of bowerbirds. Not only do we like to command attention, we also enjoy simply sharing it with others, because this cements our place in a social group whose support we need. Again, there are precursors in other species: the elaborate song of duetting songbirds, or the communal dances of chimpanzees.

Curiosity directed at what we can do that gives us cognitive pleasure, whether by engaging our own attention or commanding or sharing that of others, has deep roots in the evolution of intelligence and sociality. But in humans the prodigious development of the frontal lobes, associated with metarepresentation, and with the conditional and the inhibitory, allow us to monitor our own reactions, to select one...

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