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Philosophy and Literature 25.2 (2001) 233-250

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Narrative Theory and Function: Why Evolution Matters

Michelle Scalise Sugiyama


It may seem a strange proposition that the study of human evolution is integral to the study of literature, yet that is exactly what this paper proposes. The reasons for this are twofold. Firstly, the practice of storytelling is ancient, pre-dating not only the advent of writing, but of agriculture and permanent settlement as well. Secondly, narrative is ultimately a product of the mind, which in turn is the product of a long history of evolution by natural selection. Thus, an understanding of why and how humans create and consume narrative requires an understanding of (1) features of ancestral environments and (2) features of the mind that made the emergence of this phenomenon possible.

There can be little doubt that narrative emerged in human prehistory. Language, an obvious prerequisite for storytelling, is likely to have emerged by at least 50,000 and possibly 250,000 years ago, depending upon whether one places one's trust in archaeological or anatomical evidence. 1 The most reasonable estimate is offered by Geoffrey Miller, who points out that, given its universality, the language faculty must have emerged by the time ancestral Homo sapiens began migrating out of Africa approximately 100,000 years ago. 2 Although the oldest known written narrative (The Epic of Gilgamesh) dates back only 5,000 years, the written literary traditions of many ancient cultures are known to be rooted in longstanding oral traditions. 3 The fact that many modern foraging peoples have rich and complex oral traditions further suggests that the emergence of narrative is not linked to the development of agriculture 10,000 years ago. Moreover, other forms of symbolic expression, such as the cave paintings, Venus figurines, and engraved bone [End Page 233] and antler that have been found at various sites throughout Europe, date back approximately 30,000 years, and rock paintings in Australia may date back even farther. 4 Since humans were physiologically capable of speech long before they began producing these artifacts, storytelling is likely to be at least as ancient as these other representational forms. Indeed, one scholar situates the "dawn of the oral tradition" within this period (Pfeiffer, p. 189). Given, then, that modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) have been in existence for approximately 100,000 years 5 and are the only hominid species or subspecies known for certain to exhibit storytelling behavior, we can safely say that oral narrative is a product of our hunting-and-gathering past, likely to have emerged between 30,000 and 100,000 years ago.

The universality of narrative is further testimony to its being an ancient cognitive phenomenon. Literate or not, all known cultures, past and present, practice storytelling. 6 Moreover, all normally developing humans acquire the ability to process and generate stories: studies of Western children indicate that the ability to tell stories emerges spontaneously between the ages of two-and-a-half and three, and children as young as thirty months can distinguish between narrative and non-narrative uses of language. 7 In contrast to reading, writing, and arithmetic, no special education is required for narrative competence to develop, nor is there any evidence that oral literacy is acquired through contact with other cultures; although subject matter is often exchanged between groups, the practice of storytelling itself arises independently among even the most isolated peoples. Nor does any type of culture have a monopoly on narrative sophistication: the stories of hunter-horticulturalist societies are no less observant, insightful, or artful than those of agrarian or industrial societies.

As with language, narrative takes the same basic form across cultures, which David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson define as "a chain of events in cause-effect relationship occurring in time." Given the preponderance of human agents in narrative, most narrative theorists would probably modify this barebones description to include character (usually understood to have a human psychology), goal-oriented action, and resolution. Frank Kermode, for example, defines the "proprieties" of narrative as "connexity, closure, and character," and John...


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pp. 233-250
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