publisher colophon
Brian Boyd - The Origin of Stories: Horton Hears a Who - Philosophy and Literature 25:2 Philosophy and Literature 25.2 (2001) 197-214

The Origin of Stories:
Horton Hears a Who

Brian Boyd

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, 1 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 2 --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. 3 As the most intelligent and versatile of species, we humans particularly like directing our attention to what repays our curiosity. [End Page 197]

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. 4 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. 5 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, 6 and in group activity, like rhythmic dances, 7 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. 8

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; 9 infants and children across cultures punish others by withdrawing attention. 10 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, 11 which raises rates of survival and reproduction. 12 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. 13 Again, there are precursors in other species: the elaborate song of duetting songbirds, 14 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 choice and reject another to produce this or that effect, 15 in a way that ratchets the inclination toward art, toward doing or making something for the mind to attend to and enjoy, to a new level. And because we have finer manual control than any other species, and a conscious control of vocal [End Page 198] sound unique to land mammals, we have more diverse and elaborate ways than other species of articulating pattern, shape and even sound. 16

While there are precursors of art in other species, then, there are also evolutionary reasons why only in our species it has become both optional, rather than a fixed behavioral pattern, and yet species-wide, reliably-developing, compulsive. We have an intensified curiosity, a greater capacity for self-awareness and self-control, and finer and more flexible articulation. Perhaps even more important, we have a more intense sociality, a closer attunement to one another, as indexed, for instance, in the difference between monkeys, apes, and humans in mother-infant interaction, culminating in the elaborate back-and-forth of human mother and infant gaze 17 and of behavior such as rhythmic play. 18 From infancy we have a desire to command the attention of others, to shape it more finely, and to share it more fully, than in any other species.

If there are precursors of dance and music in other species, and even, especially in bowerbirds, of the visual arts, no precursor has been found for narrative. Again, the key difference seems to lie in the way human sociality has shaped human intelligence.

It has become increasingly clear that our own intelligence builds on rudimentary intuitions other species also have about number and quantity, about solidity, penetrability and impact, about natural kinds, about the behavior of individuals and the relationships between them, 19 and that in humans these intuitions reliably develop slightly further, before much cultural input, into the species-wide folk physics, folk biology, folk psychology and folk sociology that developmental psychologists now study even in prelinguistic children. 20

Of these, it is folk psychology or Theory of Mind which marks our species out most radically from others and seems to enable the high degree of cultural sharing that has allowed us to continue to elaborate and eventually improve these folk intuitions. 21 Where other animals interpret behavior, especially of conspecifics, in terms of position, orientation and motion, and perhaps even desire and intention, we seem uniquely able to understand others in terms of beliefs as well as desires and intentions.

Theory of Mind has arisen out of our social fine-tuning (increased altriciality, prolonged childhood, early infant imitation, social learning, fine articulation in facial expression, in vocalization, and in gesture), and it has in turn made still finer social tuning possible, including the [End Page 199] development of protolanguage and then full modern syntactic language. Language of course has still further refined Theory of Mind 22 and social fine-tuning in a powerful positive feedback loop.

Even before language, humans appear to have a uniquely powerful event comprehension system, forming reliably in all normally-developing individuals as a set of theories that combines intuitive physics (objects and forces), intuitive ontology (animals, plants and artifacts), and especially intuitive psychology or Theory of Mind (beliefs, desires and intentions), and an intuitive sociology (affiliation, hierarchy and exchange). As a high-level set of already high-level cognitive subsystems, the event comprehension system naturally becomes strongly influenced in the course of later individual development, once language has arisen, by local cultural explanations, which however could not grow except on this rich substratum of universal and innate theories.

When our innate event comprehension system began to be coupled with some means of re-presenting events intersubjectively, through reenactment, through images and especially though not exclusively through language, we had started along the road to narrative.

Although narrative is unique to humans, because we alone have both a rich system of event comprehension and various means of event representation, we find it compelling partly for reasons that also have evolutionary precursors. Even rats and monkeys have a natural default response to others of their kind, not just their kin, whom they see in distress, and human children "by one year of age . . . spontaneously comfort people in distress." 23 As Frans de Waal notes, "distress at the sight of another's pain is an impulse over which we exert no control: it grabs us instantaneously, like a reflex." 24 In chimpanzees, because they are so flexibly social, individuals keep close track of who does what to whom, and judge their future relations with others by assessments of their individual powers and personality and their social support. 25 Humans, because we are even more flexible and more socially interdependent, are even more eager to keep track of one another; more attentive to the complex goals of others; 26 much more capable of keeping track of others and their goals indirectly, through narrative, through gossip; more eager to share such information, since sharing it secures attention for the teller and offers information for the listener; and more likely to respond even to indirect reports with strong empathy or indignation.

Now, narrative could be entirely factual, especially as gossip about the immediate social group. Indeed, this remains the dominant form of [End Page 200] casual conversation even today. 27 The obvious social advantages of factual narrative, however, cannot explain why we have fiction, why we engage so compulsively in telling and listening to stories we know are not true.

We have an innate interest in and engagement with the interests of others, providing it does not run counter to what we perceive as our own interests, and those who wish to gossip can count on this to secure attention. But there are two disadvantages of gossip: it can be misleading and it can be boring. Fiction on the other hand removes the dangers of deceit or manipulation and offers the promise of interest. Since we develop the ability to detect and resist stories, like any other forms of communication, that we see as skewed toward tellers whose interests differ from ours, 28 skilled storytellers secure our attention by appealing to our cognitive craving to comprehend the actions and intentions of others, while serving their own aims both through the attention they garner and through appealing to interests that we either share or can be made to think we share with them. Fiction therefore offers a win-win situation, a non-zero-sum game, an advantage for teller (benefit in attention and status, at a cost in imaginative effort), and for the listener (maximum cognitive interest at little cost except time).

An evolutionary model of fiction, therefore, should focus on ways storytellers, as active individual strategists, maximize the attention of their audience by appealing to features that have evolved to be of interest to all human minds, to our shared understandings of events, our shared predispositions to be interested in and engaged by what others do and our sheer readiness to share attention.

Let me contrast an evolutionary approach to fiction--to the example of Dr. Seuss's Horton Hears a Who 29 --with the approach that has become standard in Cultural Critique.

The historian Richard Minear reflects the modes and moods of the times when he critiques Dr. Seuss's 1954 tale in terms of what he sees as Theodor Seuss Geisel's typically mid-century American attitude to Japan: xenophobic hostility during World War II, and condescension afterwards in his eagerness to see democracy re-established after the American Occupation. 30

When he wrote Horton Hears a Who, Ted Geisel had indeed recently visited Japan, and wrote the story partly because he was concerned about the establishment of democracy there and wanted to stress the importance of every vote even within a vast population. 31 The Whos, crammed onto an unbelievably small space, are in one sense the [End Page 201] Japanese, densely crowded onto their island nation, who can be saved if all citizens exercise their voice together. It would therefore seem easy in retrospect to criticize Horton Hears a Who by way of the whiff of hysteria in Dr. Seuss's depiction of the Japanese in his political cartoons of World War II, and of condescension in his hopes for Japanese democracy in the early 1950s. But the historicizing approach is both too narrow (it ignores the universal appeal of the story) and too blunt (it ignores the individual problem Dr. Seuss faces and the individual way he deploys universals, evolved human interests, in order to solve it).

Let me first summarize the story. Horton the elephant, with the help of his big ears, one day overhears a cry for help from a dust-speck. He realizes there must be someone on that speck of dust, perhaps a whole family: but who? As he carefully places the speck on a clover, two kangaroos mock him for thinking that dust can talk, but as he walks away, carrying the clover to safety, he hears the mayor of Who-ville speak from the speck and thank him for shielding them all. But to the other animals around him Horton's behaving as if there were a whole community on a dust-speck seems an outrageous affront to common sense. A group of monkeys snatch the clover away, passing it on to an eagle who flies off and drops it into a clover patch a hundred miles wide. Intrepid Horton treks over the mountains to the clover plain, and on the three millionth flower, finds his Whos. He just has time to learn from them that their town has been badly damaged as it fell, although they are already starting to repair the damage, when along come the kangaroos and the monkeys to tie Horton up, cage him, and take the clover off to boil it in oil. As they haul him toward the cage, Horton exhorts the Whos to make as much noise as they can, to convince the bigger animals they exist. They banged on drums "and blasted great toots On clarinets, oom-pahs and boom-pahs and flutes," but still cannot be heard by anyone except Horton. When Horton calls for more noise, the Mayor of Who-ville rushes through the town to locate any shirkers, and at last finds a very small Who at home just bouncing a Yo-yo. He grabs the young twerp and hauls him to the top of the Eiffelberg Tower, then calls on every Who to make one last blast of noise, "For every voice counts!" The little lad he has found clears his throat and calls out "Yopp!": "And that Yopp . . . That one small, extra Yopp put it over! Finally, at last! From that speck of clover Their voices were heard! . . . And the elephant smiled. . . . 'They've proved they ARE persons, no matter how small. And their whole world was saved by the Smallest of All!'" The kangaroos now rush to protect the Whos, the little Kangaroo in its [End Page 202] mother's pouch chiming in: "ME, TOO! From sun in the summer. From rain when it's fall-ish, I'm going to protect them. No matter how smallish!"

Evolution sees individuals as problem-solvers coping with their situation as they assess it. Horton Hears a Who offers a compact example of a master storyteller strategically solving his own artistic problem situation. In itself Ted Geisel's personal response to postwar Japan, his desire to promote democracy there, does not seem likely to elicit avid attention, whether in the United States or in Japan. But the initial impulse to advocate the value of even the smallest voice becomes transformed, in the need to interest children and adults, from a message of contemporary political relevance into a timeless tale that appeals to universal evolved cognitive interests, especially to the early-developing interests and skills of children, through each level of the event comprehension system, through a strong belief-desire-intention dynamic, and through a central but simplified and therefore accessible use of false belief.

Oral storytellers catch and hold attention partly through their presence, through real-time interaction with their audience, through prosody, gesture, perhaps even enactment and costume. Storytellers telling their stories in print had to discover ways of maximizing attention and minimizing inattention to compensate for their absence in person. Dr. Seuss therefore draws on these long traditions of printed storytelling, of refining economy, sequence and pace, but at the same time he returns to the origins of stories.

He engages children so well because he appeals to their pleasure in play and their early-developing capacities for shared attention. A newborn baby less than an hour old, who cannot even fully focus its eyes, can nevertheless respond to someone smiling at it or poking out his or her tongue, by smiling or poking out its own tongue in reply. 32 In humans around the world, that need to coordinate activity and attention develops into all kinds of rhythmic cross-modal interplay between elders and infants, into bouncing and clapping and babbling and singing, into peek-a-boo and pat-a-cake. 33 Children know that these games are for their pleasure, and they thrive on the attention, and on synchronicity of action and response marked out by shared rhythms or turntaking. Even when they are not actively playing games with them, older humans around the world talk to infants in a heightened, singsong voice, with exaggerated rhythms and intonations, which serve both to engage the infants' attention and to simplify their comprehension. 34 [End Page 203]

Whenever language has been used to command and consecrate shared attention, in traditional verse around the world, the need to focus and refocus attention has led to the use of rhythm and a line-length of about three seconds, in instinctive reflection of the fact that three seconds is the span of the human auditory present. 35 But Dr. Seuss returns through this adult norm to the element of childhood play behind it. He selects a four-foot dactylic rhythm that unlike the iambic stands out from natural English intonations: dit-dit-DA dit-dit-DA dit-dit-DA dit-dit-DA. He chooses couplet rhymes to demarcate the lines in often amusingly obtrusive fashion, often with the aid of nonsense words patently and absurdly for the sake of the rhyme, from the opening couplet ("On the fifteenth of May, in the Jungle of Nool, In the heat of the day, in the cool of the pool") 36 to the climax of the story ("When they got to the top, The lad cleared his throat and he shouted out, 'yopp!'"). His language, in other words, is a verbal equivalent of the play-face, the gamboling gait, the rhythmic romp.

Dr. Seuss's is a world predisposed to play, to the imaginative compact between teller and told, a shared but almost effortless effort of imagination, no matter how strange the action or actors, no matter how far they lead us from our everyday world. He can count on children's pleasure that someone has made up a story for them to respond to, as a parcel of pleasure, a gift of attention. Rather than taking the fact of storytelling for granted, or trying to pass Horton's plight off as real, he feeds children's consciousness of and delight in the fact that someone has made up a story for them, that it is just a story, that it cavorts away from the real, and that they can scamper after in imagination wherever the tale heads. He captures children's attention through a spirit of shared play, a kind of controlled communal surprise.

Just as adults' play with their children combines kinetic, aural and visual cues, so Dr. Seuss adds visual cues to his verbal ones. He ensures ready apprehension through economy of color (he uses the three colors that anthropologists find are the first to be named in all human societies--black, white, red 37 --and just one more primary color, blue) and economy of outline (an analysis of Paleolithic cave drawings points out that their profile outline forms of highly distinct animals create the maximum of recognizable representation for the minimum of effort). 38

He employs an extravagantly overt anthropomorphizing that makes animal features both easy to read and distinctively and outrageously Seussian. Like other species, only more so, because we are ourselves [End Page 204] such a strikingly neotenous species, we have a particular fondness for infantile traits in creatures of our own kind or others, for heads relatively large in proportion to the body and eyes relatively large in proportion to the head, and for relatively flat facial profiles. 39 Dr. Seuss plays to all these evolved tendencies, not least in giving his kangaroos and elephant and chimpanzees human-like smiles and comically obvious, loose-limbed human feet and hands that are the hallmarks of the Seussian biome, whether in species more or less real or entirely invented, and that signal, once again, a disposition to play.

Dr. Seuss may appeal to species-wide cognitive features, but he does so in his own unmistakable way. Without individual variation, natural selection would have nothing to select from--and nor would social competition, artistic attention, or cultural selection.

For its expression, narrative usually needs a verbal and often a visual medium. But in its core elements, character, plot, perspective, it draws on aspects of life that predate verbal and visual art.

Essential to narrative is a focus on agents and goals. Long before narrative, animals have needed to be rapidly aware of other agents, other animals, as potentially urgent threats or opportunities. Agency itself therefore catches the attention, 40 but some agents catch the attention better than others. Long before narrative, animals needed to distinguish one organism from another at first sign: by smell, sound, or in the human case, especially by sight. Hence human children have an innate fascination with animal kinds and names, out of all proportion, in modern urban life, to the likelihood of their encountering aardvarks or zebras. 41

Precisely because we are primed so early, phylogenetically and ontogenetically, to attend to the stark differences between animal kinds, these differences have been an immemorial analogue for the differences in powers and personalities within the human that are so important for our social life, an analogy as natural and universal, if not quite as fundamental, as the analogy between space and time that Lakoff and Johnson demonstrate to be fundamental to language 42 and that developmental psychologists show even precedes language. 43 If some agents catch the attention more than others, that applies within as well as beyond the human. We take more notice of the larger than the smaller, of higher status or greater powers rather than lesser, of the unusually helpful or harmful, of those with features strikingly different from the normal range. Dr. Seuss harnesses children's fascination with [End Page 205] differences between animals both to attract their attention and to simplify their apprehension by providing striking and memorable distinctions between participants in his story.

But where other species "read" other animals by differences in kind and by heuristics of position and behavior, 44 humans read one another, and often even other animals, with the help of Theory of Mind, with a belief-desire-intention psychology. Because of the predictive advantages of Theory of Mind, we overread agency--it is safer to suppose a bush a bear than a bear a bush--and we humanize animal thought. And because of our fascination with the different powers and personalities of different creatures, animals and humans, young and old, little or big, animals provide us with salient examples of difference, and animals who speak and act in human ways stretch all the way from the earliest known human cultures, from Aboriginal dream-time legends, the Mahabharata or Aesop, to Herriman, Disney, and Spiegelman, Kafka, Ionesco and Cortázar, Hawkes, Pynchon and Auster. Animals are of course especially prominent in stories for children, who are just beginning to learn to discriminate differences between animal kinds and between human individuals. But no one creates critters quite so quickly catchy as Dr. Seuss, or creates differences in kind quite so extravagant. Horton, as an enormous but kindly elephant ready to help creatures microscopically small, has the child in us engrossed, not least for his paradoxical powers and predicaments: his big ears that enable him to hear little things, his trunk that can handle something as minute as a speck of dust, his generosity despite his immensity, his vulnerability despite his size, his facing punishment despite his selflessness.

We have a default concern for others, and especially for others who stand out in terms of might or merit, and a default sympathy with their pursuit of their goals. 45 Dr. Seuss makes Horton the sort of agent we would naturally want to ally ourselves with, the sort of agent who dominates stories from Beowulf to Braveheart, powerful, generous, and resourceful; and he makes Horton's goals unmistakable, admirable, and urgent: the struggle not to be cast out of his community, the survival of a whole people.

Like religion, in Pascal Boyer's evolutionary account, 46 Dr. Seuss engages children's attention both by drawing on their intuitive expectations and by transgressing them for the sake of salience, by violating their knowledge that animals do not talk or their sense that a whole city could not possibly fit on a dust-speck. Yet despite catching their attention and inviting their enjoyment of this shared fantasy, he also [End Page 206] knows he can make them still engage with the characters, with Horton's own predicament and that of the Whos themselves. 47 He engages them not by simple identification (they cannot simultaneously "identify" with the enormous and solitary Horton and the myriad minuscule Whos), 48 but by their default sympathy with a prominent agent in pursuit of commendable goals, and hence, especially, by rousing their moral emotions. 49

But there would be no story with only Horton and the Whos. Stories need obstacles, and especially the clash of goals and counter-goals. Not only do we sympathize with Horton's goals, we oppose the counter-goals of the other jungle animals, because we know they rest on a false belief: they think there is no one on Horton's speck of dust, no Whos in Whoville, whereas we not only "hear" what Horton can hear, we can even see the Whos he cannot see.

Because Theory of Mind is so essential to our fine-grained perception and prediction of the behavior of others, it is essential to storytelling. But children's Theory of Mind develops only gradually. Neither animals other than humans nor children under three seem to have a clear understanding of false belief, that others can have a different understanding of a situation than what is the case, or than what they think themselves. By four, children understand false belief, or second-order intentionality (Horton knows that the other animals think there are no Whos), by six they can handle third-order intentionality, and by adolescence they can handle fourth- or even fifth-order intentionality. The capacity to understand false belief, even in its initial stages, is crucial to the human capacity for narrative, and to narratives real and invented: Elizabeth Bennet thinks that Darcy thinks that she thinks he thinks too harshly of her family; Maria foresees that Sir Toby will eagerly anticipate that Olivia will judge Malvolio absurdly impertinent to suppose that she wishes him to regard himself as her preferred suitor.

In Horton Hears a Who Dr. Seuss makes the false belief of the other animals--that there are no Whos--central to the entire story, but he makes it utterly accessible to all but the youngest children by not passing beyond second-order intentionality and by demonstrating so graphically, through his cityscapes of Whoville, what the true belief should be. At the same time, he makes false belief epistemologically and ethically urgent: the child in us wants to cry out to the other animals: "But can't you SEE? There ARE Whos there!" Dr. Seuss has raised the stakes of the false belief to the maximum, but placed the minimum strain on the cognitive capacity of his audience. [End Page 207]

I would suggest that there are two essential forces behind the power of plot to command our continued attention to a story, and that these forces are best explained in evolutionary terms: first, our interest in whether or not agents achieve their goals, which arises from the natural sympathy creatures at a certain cognitive and social level can have for others of their kind; 50 and, second, our unique human interest, because we have Theory of Mind, in knowing the full situation that will explain the whole story. For as soon as we appreciate false belief, we realise that mistakes can be made through not understanding the true situation: in terms of the standard test of false belief, that Anne will look in the wrong place for the marble that she saw Sally put in a drawer, say, but that since Anne left the room Sally has already taken out and cached under the bed. 51 In Dr. Seuss's story, we not only want Horton to achieve his goal, to save the Whos, we also want the other animals to discover that their belief was false, that it is they and not Horton who acted on false belief.

The Standard Model of Cultural Critique presupposes the limitations of any particular historical or social outlook. To many this has seemed to offer a more independent, more sophisticated, more historically sensitive way of looking at works of art. But in fact it ignores both the largest historical context, the evolutionary one, and the fine-grained detail, the close-up on history in the making, on the moment of decision, on the artist as an individual problem-solver. In its preoccupation with the group, whether society or era, it overlooks both the species and the individual, and it remains indifferent or even hostile to the artfulness and the power of art.

An evolutionary approach by contrast can explain the appeal of art in general and of particular arts and particular works of art. It stresses the individual organism as trying to cope with its own problem situation, which for Dr. Seuss, here, is before all else to interest an audience, and only then, if he can manage it, to help the cause of electoral democracy in Japan. To stress the importance of everyone's participating in the democratic process, he comes up with the idea of the unimaginably tiny individual voice that nevertheless makes sufficient difference, indeed saves a whole people, a whole world. The fantastic, attention-catching idea of the minute Whos, in their miniature world, who cannot be heard unless every one of them shouts together, violates our expectations of the physical world, but in accord with our readiness to overattribute agency. For the sake of the attention-catching contrast, Dr. Seuss then sets against the Whos the hugest of land animals, an elephant, Horton, [End Page 208] whom his earlier Horton Hatches The Egg has already characterized as generous and protective. 52 Because of his big ears, Horton can hear the Whos when others cannot, and from this, all the rest follows.

The model assumed by Cultural Critique underplays artists as individual problem-solvers and ignores the solutions, the ingenious appeals to our attention they make through human cognitive universals, even as the most confident simultaneously intensify their own idiosyncrasies in order to catch attention by their difference from other artists. Cultural critique therefore overlooks what makes art worth attending to, and attention is the very life of art.

Even if we limit ourselves to transmittable meaning, Cultural Critique, with its assumption of isolated particular perspectives, ignores how art can transcend them, how it could ever speak to anyone else. In search of an appeal to all, Dr. Seuss overcomes the limitations of a particular perspective, the limitations, perhaps, of the Ted Geisel of the 1940s. In trying to engage the imaginations of children, he appeals to human ethical universals, to values of individual and community, of independence and interdependence, of support for the weak and for the strong, that are in fact common to Japan and the United States, and to human beings everywhere. In his search to engage children just coping with false belief, he encourages them to accept that there might be more to the world than we first can see, a possibility, indeed, that is built into the very nature of story and that has been crucial to the development of human culture, at first, at the level of unseen agents, such as gods and spirits, but then at the level of forces that act in unagentlike and even unobjectlike ways, such as microbes and molecules. And in his search to engage the attention of children through his own idiosyncrasy, through his jolting rhythms and jauntily invented creatures, Dr. Seuss, like all art, reminds us how we can share enough in imagination to take us to new worlds or to remake the old one on our own terms.


University of Auckland


1. After writing this I discovered that "cultural critique" was the favored term for the supposed state of the art in literary criticism, in the Preface and Introduction to the massive (2624 pp.) new Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. (Norton: New York, 2001), pp. xxxiii ("theory--or 'cultural critique,' as it is more descriptively termed"), p. 5 ("recent theory and criticism of literature have moved on to cultural critique"), p. 7 ("literature conceived as social text or discourse calls for cultural critique").

2. Die Rückseite des Spiegels: Versuch einer Naturgeschichte menschlichen Erkennens (Munich: Piper, 1973), p. 199; trans. Ronald Taylor, Behind the Mirror: A Search for a Natural History of Human Knowledge (London: Methuen, 1977), p. 148.

3. Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works (New York: Norton, 1997), 524.

4. Thierry Lenain, Monkey painting (1990; rev. ed., London: Reaktion, 1997), 24: "Lorenz [Vergleichende Verhaltunsforschung: Grundlagen der Ethologie, Vienna:1978], . . . describing the aerial arabesques delineated in flight by corvids, not only felt justified in using the word 'art,' but went as far as stressing that it had to be taken in its proper sense: 'I am using the terms "creative" and "artistic" deliberately without putting them in quotation marks, for it is most likely that the processes involved here also constitute the roots of all human artistic activity.'"

5. Ken Marten, Karim Shariff, Suchi Psarakos, and Don J. White, "Ring Bubbles of Dolphins," Scientific American, August 1996, pp. 64-69. The term "air art" comes from Robert Wright, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny (London: Little, Brown, 2000), p. 295.

6. See Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson, Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996), pp. 252-55.

7. Wolfgang Köhler, The Mentality of Apes (1925; trans. Ella Winter, Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1957), pp. 266-67.

8. See Marc Hauser, Wild Minds: What Animals Really Think (London: Allen Lane/Penguin Press, 2000); Stanislas Dehaene, The Number Sense: How the Mind Creates Mathematics (London: Penguin, 1997); John Tyler Bonner, The Evolution of Culture in Animals (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980); Frans de Waal, The Ape and the Sushi Master: Cultural Reflections of a Primatologist (New York: Basic Books, 2001).

9. See Alison Gopnik and Andrew N. Meltzoff, Words, Thoughts, and Theories (Cambridge: Bradford/MIT Press, 1997), p. 131; Henry W. Wellman, and Susan A. Gelman, "Knowledge Acquisition in Foundational Domains," Handbook of Child Psychology, vol. 2: Cognition, perception and language, ed. D. Kuhn and R. Siegler (New York: Wiley, 1998), p. 543.

10. Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, "Warfare, Man's Indoctrinability, and Group Selection," Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie 60 (1982): 177-98.

11. This is not to suggest that we consciously strive for attention or status in order to improve our prospects for survival and reproduction, any more than we enjoy sweet foods to improve our energy intake or sex to increase offspring. Evolutionary biologists and psychologists distinguish between ultimate causes (improved survival and reproduction over the long term as a consequence of a certain behavior) and proximal causes (the pleasure we anticipate the behavior will immediately produce).

12. See Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection (New York: Pantheon, 1999), pp. 81-82; 110-12.

13. Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, "The Biological Foundation of Aesthetics," in Ingo Rentschler, Barbara Herzberger and David Epstein, eds., Beauty and the Brain: Biological Aspects of Aesthetics (Basel: Birkhäuser Verlag, 1988), pp. 29-68; esp. 55-58.

14. Thomas A. Sebeok, "Prefigurements of Art," Semiotica 27 (1979): 3-73.

15. See Terrence Deacon, The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Human Brain (London: Allen Lane/Penguin Press, 1997); Elkhonon Goldberg, The Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes and the Civilized Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

16. Our voices are under conscious control, but we cannot articulate two streams of air as songbirds can, or produce as wide an acoustic range as cetaceans can. Yet unlike them we can supplement vocal sound with sounds we can produce with our hands and what we can hold or make with them, including instruments that amplify vibrations produced by our breath.

17. See Michael Tomasello and Joseph Call, Primate Cognition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 405: "In the social domain, on the other hand, we see qualitative differences between human and nonhuman primates soon after birth. Two behaviors highlight this difference. First, as outlined by Stern (1985), Trevarthen (1979) and others, from soon after birth, human infants engage in 'protoconversations' and 'affect attunement' with their caregivers. Protoconversations are social interactions in which the parent and infant each focus their attention on the other--often in a face-to-face manner involving looking, touching, and vocalizing--in ways that express and share basic emotions. Moreover, these protoconversations have a clear turn-taking structure. . . . in one form or another they seem a universal feature of adult-infant interaction in the human species (Trevarthen, 1993). Second . . . human neonates also display skills of imitation. Meltzoff and Moore (e.g. 1977, 1989) have discovered that from soon after birth, human infants reproduce some of the facial expressions and head movements of adults. . . . it is also possible that this reflects a deeper tendency of the infant to identify with conspecifics."

18. See Ellen Dissanayake, Art and Intimacy: How the Arts Began (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000).

19. See note 7. "Folk sociology" or social cognition has been less studied than the others.

20. See Wellman and Gelman 1998 for a compact summary.

21. But see, for instance, "Consider the Source: The Evolution of Adaptations for Decoupling and Metarepresentation," by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby: "Although social interactions may have played a role, we do not believe that social competition was the sole driving force behind the evolution of human intelligence (as in the Machiavellian hypothesis, Humphrey 992; Whitten [sic] & Byrne, 1997). We certainly do believe that humans have evolved sophisticated adaptations specialized for social life and social cognition . . . but what is truly distinctive about human intelligence encompasses far more than the social. For example, the causal intelligence expressed in hunter-gatherer subsistence practice appears to be as divergent from other species as human social intelligence"--in Dan Sperber, ed., Metarepresentations: A Multidisciplinary Perspective (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 55. Two points: (a) the argument above does not depend on human social intelligence as being the unique driving force behind the evolution of human intelligence, only on its being a major step beyond non-human cognition; (b) human causal intelligence seems most likely to be explained through the increased ability to coordinate attention toward and eventually, with language, to discuss causal problems.

22. See Gopnik and Meltzoff, 1997, esp. pp. 185-216.

23. de Waal, 2001, pp. 352, 357.

24. de Waal, 2001, p. 355.

25. See Frans de Waal, Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes (1982; rev. ed., Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998) and Good-Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996).

26. Gopnik and Meltzoff, 1997, p. 151: "These experiments demonstrate that at 18 months, infants can read a complex goal from failed attempts, attempts that contradict the spatio-temporal contact theory, as well as from successful ones. . . . These examples again confirm our earlier claim that infants immediately apply their theory of action to the actions of both themselves and others."

27. Robin Dunbar, Anna Marriott, and N.D.C. Duncan, "Human Conversational Behavior," Human Nature 8 (1997): 231-46.

28. See Richard Dawkins and J.R. Krebs, "Animal signals: information or manipulation?" in Behavioural Ecology, ed. Krebs and N.B. Davies (Oxford: Blackwell Scientific Publications, 1978), pp. 282-309; Dawkins and Krebs, "Arms races between and within species," Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, B 205 (1979): 489-511; Michell Scalise Sugiyama, "On the Origins of Narrative: Storyteller Bias as a Fitness-Enhancing Strategy," Human Nature 7 (1996): 403-425.

29. Dr. Seuss [Theodor Seuss Geisel], Horton Hears a Who (1954; London: Collins, 1998).

30. Richard H. Minear, Dr. Seuss Goes to War: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of Theodor Seuss Geisel (New York: New Press, 1999), pp. 260-64.

31. Seuss, quoted in Minear, p. 263. Horton Hears a Who was dedicated to "My Great Friend, Mitsugi Nakamura of Kyoto, Japan."

32. For a summary by the leader in the field, see Andrew N. Meltzoff, "The Human Infant as Imitative Generalist: A 20-Year Progress Report on Infant Imitation with Implications for Comparative Psychology," in Cecilia M. Heyes and Bennett G. Galef, Jr., eds., Social Learning in Animals: The Roots of Culture (San Diego: Academic Press 1996), pp. 347-70.

33. See Daniel Stern, The First Relationship: Mother and Infant (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977); see also Hrdy 1999 and Dissanayake 2000.

34. Anne Fernald, "Human Maternal Vocalizations to Infants as Biologically Relevant Signals: An Evolutionary Perspective," in The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture, ed. Jerome H. Barkow, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 391-428.

35. Frederick Turner and Ernst Pöppel, "Metered Poetry, the Brain, and Time," in Rentschler et al., 1988, pp. 71-90.

36. Note that Dr. Seuss also pays children the compliment of assuming they understand the absurdity of the date when applied to these jungle animals: a detail that evokes the devices of realism only to undermine or toy with it and affirm the power of imaginative play.

37. B. Berlin and P. Kay, Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution (Berkeley: University of Californai Press, 1969); see also Roger N. Shepard, "The Perceptual Organization of Colors: An Adaptation to Regularities of the Terrestrial World?" in Barkow et al., 1992, pp. 495-532.

38. John Halverson, "The First Pictures: Perceptual Foundations of Paleolithic Art," Perception 21 (1992): 389-404.

39. See Konrad Lorenz, "Ganzheit und Teil in der tierischen und menschlichen Gemeinschaft," Studium Generale, 1950, trans. as "Part and Parcel in Animal and Human Societies," in Lorenz, Studies in Animal and Human Behaviour, trans. Robert Martin, vol. 2 (London: Methuen, 1971); Stephen Jay Gould, "A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse," in The Panda's Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History (1980; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983).

40. See Simon Baron-Cohen, Mind-Blindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind (Cambridge: Bradford/MIT, 1995).

41. See Scott Atran, Cognitive Foundations of Natural History: Towards an Anthropology of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); Janet Wilde Astington, "Narrative and the Child's Theory of Mind," in B. Britton and A. Pellegrini, Narrative Thought and Narrative Language (Hillsdale, New Jersey: Erlbaum, 1990), pp. 151-71.

42. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (New York: Basic Books, 1999).

43. Andrew N. Meltzoff and M. Keith Moore, "Imitation, Memory and the Representation of Persons," Infant Behavior and Development 17 (1994): 83-99, and "Infants' Understanding of People and Things: From Body Imitation to Folk Psychology," in The Body and the Self, ed. José Luis Bermúdez, Anthony Marcel, and Naomi Eilan (Cambridge: Bradford/MIT Press 1995), p. 52.

44. See Philip W. Blythe, Peter M. Todd, and Geoffrey F. Miller, "How Motion Reveals Intention: Categorizing Social Interactions," in Gerd Gigerenzer, Peter Todd et al., Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 257-86.

45. Gopnik and Meltzoff, 1997, esp. pp. 150-60.

46. The Naturalness of Religious Ideas: A Cognitive Theory of Religion (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994); "Cognitive Tracks of Cultural Inheritance: How Evolved Intuitive Ontology Governs Cultural Transmission," American Anthropologist 100 (1999): 876-89.

47. Richard J. Gerrig, Experiencing Narrative Worlds: On the Psychological Activities of Reading (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), demonstrates that default responses are engaged even without belief, and even on repeated tellings.

48. Noël Carroll cogently criticizes the notion that the audience's relation to story protagonists is one of identification: see, for instance, The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart (New York: Routledge, 1990) and A Philosophy of Mass Art (Oxford: Clarendon, 1998).

49. Noël Carroll discusses the engagement of the moral emotions as a key component of narrative art in A Philosophy of Mass Art.

50. And in the human case, with understanding of even complex goals: see n. 24.

51. For an account of the traditional standard Sally-Anne test and recent extensions, see Simon Baron-Cohen, Michelle O'Riordan, Valerie Stone, Rosie Jones and Kate Plaisted, "Recognition of Faux Pas by Normally Developing Children and Children with Asperger Syndrome or High-Functioning Autism," Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 29 (1999): 407-18.

52. 1940; rept. London: Collins, 1998.

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.