Posted in biology, literature

The science behind a good book

Scientists take all the thrill out of a good read!

Ok, maybe I’m being a little harsh, but “a small group of researchers have begun to mine theories in evolutionary biology and psychology in hopes of finding a connection between storytelling and the evolved human mind. Most agree that stories represent products of humanity’s highly social existence, but debate rages over whether stories themselves may have evolved as an adaptation or social byproduct.”

So which came first, the ghost story or the campfire? Or, more interestingly to these guys, why do Don Quixote or The Canterbury Tales endure (perhaps most of us were made to endure them, but you get the idea)? 

More from the LiveScience article:

“Joseph Carroll, an English professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, helped found a movement known as Literary Darwinism, which looks at how stories reveal common evolutionary behaviors shared by all humans. His work has strong championing from evolutionary biologists such as E.O. Wilson at Harvard University.

In this case, Carroll hypothesized that modern readers would gravitate toward protagonists who displayed pro-social tendencies or promoted group cooperation — similar to how ancestral human hunter-gatherers valued such behavior.”

Ok, this last paragraph is a big DUH! statement to me. I realize that often a scientist (or whoever) has to set up a very basic hypothesis and then build off of it. But to me, the idea that “humans like heroes” is so basic to the point of just being stupid.

One researcher thinks the Literary Darwinists over-simplifying the idea of antagonist and protagonist in their theory. “

Another researcher says such exceptions show that the protagonist-antagonist setup is too simple to explain how Becky Sharp changes for the better, or how Heathcliff changes for the worse.

“‘They think that characters are either protagonists or antagonists pure and simple, and they don’t see that the whole point about a Victorian novel, for example, is the extent to which characters change,’ said William Flesch, an English professor at the Brandeis University.”

Flesch instead thinks our love of reading is part of our innate need for social monitoring. But, they do agree on the idea that stories promote pro-social behavior, if for different reasons. In fact,

“Tentative evidence exists in a 2006 study by Raymond Mar and other researchers at the University of Toronto, which found higher empathy scores in bookworms.”

You don’t see the elementary school bully sitting back at lunch with a comic book, do you?



Beth Kelley is an applied & digital anthropologist with an overall interest in how people engage with and are impacted by their environments and vice versa. This has manifested itself in many ways, by looking at creativity, playful spaces, built environments, and environmental enrichment, sustainability, design research, and integrative and collaborative models of learning such as through play and hands-on learning.

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