Evolutionary Value of Fiction


Why does fiction have such an appeal to us?

We all enjoy the escape that comes from watching a movie, reading a book, or listening to a yarn, and this is common across all cultures, spanning thousands of years, but why? Why do we watch Star Wars and immerse ourselves in an entirely fictional universe instead of seeing a bunch of grown-ups running around like kids in fancy costumes, acting out what is little more than a school play? There has to be a reason we are so willing to suspend our disbelief, even for the most implausible of stories. Mad hatters and giant peaches, orcs and elves, there’s no shortage of seemingly mythical story-lines we enjoy, but why? Could it be that there is some evolutionary value in fiction? If so, what is that value?

How can something that is undeniably false, the recognized figment of someone’s imagination, possibly have any real, tangible value?

One idea is that fiction plays an important role in both entertaining and educating us in a benign, fictional environment, as this is something we see elsewhere in the animal kingdom. Bald eagles, as an example, will train younger eagles to hunt by play acting, by taking a carcass high in the air, dropping it and allowing a young eagle to swoop upon it as it falls. For a juvenile eagle, this pretend hunt has real value. This aerial game, playing with food, is both enjoyable and educational for the younger birds. In the same way, young lions play with each other to learn the skills they need for hunting. So we see in Nature a tendency to use fictitious role playing as an enjoyable means of reinforcing valuable learning. Intelligent creatures thrive on stimulation, or, to put it more plainly, we all love a bit of fun. Fiction seems to fulfil this role for humans, giving our mind an imaginary world to engage with.

The earliest example of fiction is, perhaps, the cave paintings of prehistoric man, like those in Lascaux. Far from simply being graffiti or casual doodles on a wall, these cave paintings served an important purpose that has become obscured by the mists of time, possibly in some religious sense or simply to honour the migration of animals normally hunted for food.

But that they were more than just pretty pictures seems apparent when you consider that the cave at Altamira extends 270 meters underground, with most of the images scrawled in seemingly inaccessible nooks and crannies, requiring our prehistoric forebears to clamber through a cramped, dark and somewhat intimidating tunnel for a length of almost three football fields in their pursuit of a visual story. If the role of these cave paintings was simply artistic, why would they go to such radical extremes? Clearly, these drawings fulfilled some emotional, evocative role in that society beyond simple aesthetics. Cave paintings show an historic need for expression, they capture concepts and ideas in a visual form that can be passed down to others. They tell a story.

The aboriginal dream-time serpent is an example of mythology, the forerunner of fiction. Mythology was taken seriously, and so doesn’t really qualify as fiction, but it was an interpretation of the world around us, an attempt to find answers through the expression of ideas.

The Epic of Gilgamesh and, later, the Iliad of Homer are among the oldest known, clear examples of written fiction. From here on in, literature abounds with works of the imagination, but why? It seems imagination provides a genuine survival trait, an advantage over raw instinct. Being able to imagine a threat allowed man to pre-empt and avoid danger.

Mankind has been upwardly mobile for tens of thousands of years, aspiring to new heights, led onward by works of fiction that depict what life is like over the next hill, and being warned by other works of fiction about the danger of turning back.

For all the frivolity of fiction, like the attack of the 50ft woman, fiction still has a role to play in modern life. It is both escapist and refreshing. Throughout history, life has largely been governed by routines, the dull monotonous grind of every day life. And that’s necessary, allowing us to exploit the slow accumulation of benefits needed to survive on the grassy savannah or to pay off a mortgage. But our intelligent minds long for more, and fiction provides that for us, allowing to see through the eyes of another. Fiction provides a microcosm of life. It is the experience of adventure without any associated cost. Fiction allows us to explore hardships without suffering hardship, to risk life and limb without the prospect of losing either.

Fiction has both a constructive and a cautionary role to play in life, by stimulating our thinking, allowing us to experience fear in safety, teaching us the appropriate response in dangerous situations without the risk of any adverse consequences.

The Greek philosopher Aristole spoke of fiction as being cathartic, or cleansing, noting that fiction evoked a strong, cleansing emotional reaction, releasing such sentiments as sorrow, fear, laughter and joy. In this regard, fiction can be seen as exercising the mind, training it in how to respond in life.

Fiction builds complex worlds, with social interactions that often provide education in the form of a warning. Novels like 1984 and Brave New World allow us to picture our world in ways we would never want to experience first hand, and we have learned from these novels, avoiding those scenarios. And so I suspect fiction has had a genuine evolutionary value in shaping mankind in that it entertains as it informs in a non-threatening manner.

Fiction is hypothetical, it makes learning fun, stimulating our thinking, enhancing our reasoning and intellect, challenging our emotional responses.

Fiction is fun.

PS. Is it just me, or does that cave drawing from Lascaux look like it was done by Dr. Seuss?

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