Category Archives: Sociobiology

Stories as Flight Simulators

Charles Chu recently reviewed Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Gottschall, a distinguished fellow in the English department at Washington & Jefferson College in Pennsylvania, analyzes literature from the perspective of Darwinian evolution.

What E. O. Wilson did for sociology, and Deena Weisberg for psychology, Jonathan Gottshall has done for literature. The resulting insights are both fascinating and useful.

Gottshall notes that every human society tells and passes down stories, and not just histories of actual events. Since imaginative tales are universal, he argues, storytelling must be essential to survival. People everywhere must deal with problems, the key concept behind what some have called Gottshall’s Grand Unified Theory of literature:

Stories the world over are almost always about people (or personified animals) with problems. The people want something badly — to survive, to win the girl or the boy, to find a lost child. But big obstacles loom between the protagonists and what they want. Just about any story — comic, tragic, romantic — is about a protagonist’s efforts to secure, usually at some cost, what he or she desires.

As Kurt Vonnegut put it, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”

But wait a minute! If fiction is an evolutionary adaptation, surely some cultures could find it advantageous to avoid wasting the tribe’s time on stories about things that never happened. Wouldn’t it be more practical to spend that time perfecting survival skills? Not so, says Gottshall:

“Like a flight simulator, fiction projects us into intense simulations of problems that run parallel to those we face in reality. And like a flight simulator, the main virtue of fiction is that we have a rich experience and don’t die at the end. We get to simulate what it would be like to confront a dangerous man or seduce someone’s spouse, for instance, and the hero of the story dies in our stead.”

The stories every human culture tells about itself are a vital part of that culture, and the most basic requirement for a successful culture is teaching the next generation how to survive. So the acid test “survive or die” is the core of not only Darwinian evolution, but of good storytelling. That’s why James Scott Bell advises writers that EVERY plot must be about death:

That’s what great fiction is about—how a character transforms when forced into conflict (I contend that to be great, the conflict must be life or death—death being physical, professional, or psychological/spiritual. This includes thrillers, romance, literary…any genre).

Conflict — critical conflict — is the heart of a good, rousing tale. It reveals character, opens our eyes to the world around us, and even manages to teach us a thing or two about ourselves.

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A Quiet Place

As my wife and I settled into our dollar-movie-theatre seats, I was pleased to recall that yet another sci-fi film had received glowing audience and critical acclaim. Minutes after it started, I realized the reviews don’t give a clue about how good, how intelligent, and how soul-stirring this movie is.

Yes, it’s entertaining, and yes, it breaks conventions. Some of the breaks worked for me. Making it a (mostly) silent movie transformed it into much more that a “scary” movie. And scary it is, with plenty of white-knuckle scenes as a rural family cowers from a blind but ruthless predator that locates and attacks its victims when they make the faintest sound. The scant dialogue revved up the power of the visual tension to nearly unbearable levels. (At one point, a lady a few seats behind me whispered to her husband that she couldn’t take any more, and scampered out of the theatre.) Some of the conventions it broke left me feeling a bit cheated and shocked. Think a tale about a loving family struggling to survive will end without any casualties? The movie breaks that one in the first scene.

So it’s a hard film to watch at times. But “A Quiet Place” is a masterpiece of cinematic storytelling. Also, it tackles some themes head on in ways I found deeply moving and agreeable. It’s a pro-natalist, pro-sociobiology adventure; both the mother and father courageously do what they must to preserve the family. Despite the danger and the sacrifice, the husband and wife decide to have another baby. (And remember – babies cry!) At one point, the mother asks her husband, “Who are we if we can’t protect our children?”

That’s the key question of our age – just as it is in any age.

Alan Alda and E.O. Wilson Talk on Creativity

E. O. Wilson is one of the most important and influential scientists of our age. His work on the deep foundations of human nature and behavior has inspired many in the arts and sciences – just to name one example, the fruitful new discipline called evolutionary psychology is impacting many areas, including marketing, politics, and education. His latest book, The Origins of Creativity, promises new insights into the creative process.

In the video linked above, Alan Alda interviews E. O. Wilson about the dynamics between the individual and society that inspire creativity:

Alan Alda: The campfire was the place that drew them. Maybe it was just the pleasure of looking at the flames, maybe it was to compete, maybe it was actually toasting marshmallows… but they told stories. That sounds to me like a tremendous engine for empathy.
E.O. Wilson: The important thing is to see what the groups really were when they gathered around the firelight as opposed to the sunlight, and to know what they were really saying, and what was talked about all around.
A.A.: During the day it was mostly workaday things: what are we going to eat, how are we going to get it.
E.O.W.: But what they were doing by the firelight—talking and singing and story-telling—was what made us human.
A.A.: Creativity is tied in with empathy. One way of looking at it is that originality is a group experience, as solitary as it might seem. How do you feel about that?
E.O.W.: The creative process tends to be an individual endeavor, but it often comes about when a very small group—often just two people or three people, are together and they’re toying with a problem. But there has to be a proper apportion of credit within the society that did this individual work.

The thrust of Wilson’s life work is that the division between the arts and sciences are neither natural nor helpful. His latest work promises new pathways between the two, a venture guaranteed to generate lively conversations and further discoveries.

How Wolves Change Rivers

Wouldn’t it be nice to get rid of wolves? With those nasty predators gone, nature would be perfect — the forests and grasslands would be serene homelands. Gentle herbivores wouldn’t have to worry about being eaten.

So in many areas, the wolf was hunted down almost to extinction. But over time, subtle, unhealthy changes took place in the wilderness no one could understand. The above video tells the story of what happened when wolves were reintroduced into the northern Rocky Mountains. Turns out the big, bad wolf is an essential part of the greater ecosystem. By killing off diseased elk, wolves forced the overall elk population to adapt, making the elk faster, stronger, and healthier. And without the elk fearlessly eating their way through valleys and gorges, plants that help maintain riverbank integrity flourished once again. This in turn enabled greater biodiversity as other animals returned.

What appears frightening and brutal can be the source of beauty and wonder. That’s the mystery nature continues to teach us. Growing up on a farm, I read Jack London and Robert E. Howard, whose severe yet captivating visions of nature made perfect sense to me. In college, I discovered Robert Ardrey, Konrad Lorenz, and E. O. Wilson, who popularized the science that examined the role aggression plays in shaping animal behavior and ensuring the survival of the strong and beautiful. Without the yin and the yang, there is no viable whole. Each needs the other.

“Siberian Khatru,” a classic Yes song by Jon Anderson, Rick Wakeman, and Steve Howe, could be the wolf’s theme song:

Sing, bird of prey;
Beauty begins at the foot of you. Do you believe the manner?

Where the Past Haunts the Present

roman-gladiator

At REH: Two-Gun Raconteur, Charles Gramlich argues that heroic fantasy, far from being merely “juvenile” entertainment, is literature that deserves our respect and attention. It continues to fascinate and entertain because it illuminates human nature:

Heroic fantasy is, and always has been, a literature of myth making and myth exploration. As such, it may well be the most important type of literature ever attempted. The tales in this genre are not about telling things the way they are, or even how they were. They’re about telling, or at least hinting at, the deepest mysteries and truths of human existence. …

But whether we speak of 200,000 year old sapiens or 50,000 year old ones, the fact remains that our mind is their mind, with a lot of culture and a little bit of rational science as icing on the cake. Both the roots and the trunks of our myths, and our realities, arise from the ways that early Homo sapiens tried to understand their mysterious and dangerous world.

Gramlich is right. Despite our veneer of civilization, we have scarcely changed since the Ice Age. Life remains a battle for survival, as well as a battle to uphold one’s code of honor. That’s why we can’t help but be fascinated by tales of a hero who bravely faces seemingly overwhelming odds and must dig down deep to tap hidden strength. The genre Robert E. Howard perfected has continued in new and surprising forms, such as Westerns and detective fiction.

Indeed, some of our greatest literature strips away our illusions about ourselves and confronts us with our true nature, which has not changed since mankind’s dawning. Some such works, even those set in the present day, uncover ancient ways we imagine we’ve outgrown. In African Genesis, screenwriter Robert Ardrey reflected on one such piece that may surprise you:

West Side Story is a supreme work of art for many reasons not the least of which is truthfulness. The authors treat the romantic fallacy is if it did not exist. On a stage laid bare, and in young hearts laid naked, we watch our animal legacy unfold its awful power. There is the timeless struggle over territory, as lunatic in the New York streets as it is logical in our animal heritage. There is the gang, our ancestral troupe. There is the rigid system of dominance among males within the gang, indistinguishable from that among baboons. There is the ceaseless individual defence of status… And there is the hunting primate contribution, a dedication to the switchblade knife as unswerving as to the antelope bone. p. 337

From the tension between the individual and his tribe arise self-realization and belonging, as well as individual competition and group cooperation. E. O. Wilson’s insights in Sociobiology tell us that loyalty and altruism are evolutionary adaptations that not only preserve the group, but give our lives meaning and purpose. The “mysterious and dangerous world” Gramlich talks about in his post has birthed a number of successful species, and we are among that number. That’s the hopeful message heroic fantasy makes real for us. In Robert Ardrey’s famous observation, we humans are “bad-weather animals, designed for storm and change.” We are fighters. We are survivors.

Beauty and the Ideal Man

MidsummerDream

Far from making him appear “sissy,” an appreciation of beauty is essential to channeling a man’s natural inclinations into supporting vital social goals and making him a better man, says Jared Silvey:

This stronger inclination to fighting is not, in itself, automatically directed to either good or evil. It has the potential to go either way. It can be directed to good, as in the case of fighting to defend one’s country against unjust aggression, or to evil, as in the cases of murder, rape, and other acts of unjust violence.

Beauty here enters the picture by helping to direct this male inclination to aggression and fighting to a worthy end. This is because real beauty is always found wherever there is truth and goodness, and it strengthens the attraction these other two values exert on the human person. It moves a man to defend whatever is good and true. The beautiful maiden is a potent spell which carries the knight into the field of battle. It can be said that there is no one the enemy should fear more than a man who enters into battle with his lady in his heart. Beauty makes men fighters because it first makes them lovers.

Silvey observes that even the caveman found time to make cave paintings, whereas “today’s tech-savvy, fast-food fed, materialistic West places more emphasis on money, things, efficiency, and instant gratification.” Modern consumerism transforms everything into a commodity, even sex. To salvage the humanity within us, we need to slow down, stop envying what we’re told we’re supposed to have, and rediscover the joy of simple, direct living.

Jon Barrett, the hero of my novella Aztec Midnight, feels a mystical connection to the beauty of ancient weapons when he enters the vault at the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia in Cuernavaca:

I stepped into a long, darkened room full of rows of tables. The only illumination came from ultraviolet lamps. It took a few moments for my eyes to adjust to the relic-friendly lighting. I slowly recognized piles of Aztec, Mayan, Toltec, and Spanish colonial artifacts on each table. As I gazed at the long rows of deadly and finely crafted weapons from four heroic cultures, my heart beat just a bit faster than normal. It felt like Christmas morning.

I think Jon Barrett would agree with Dostoevsky’s observation that “Beauty will save the world.” Appreciating beauty, like striving for a sound mind in a healthy body, is a vital part of being a whole man.