May 24, 2009
On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction by Brian Boyd. Harvard
University Press, 540 pages, $35.
Finding Our Tongues: Mothers, Infants, and the Origins of Language by Dean Falk.
Basic Books, 240 pages, $26.95
Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard Wrangham. Basic Books,
288 pages, $26.95.
By George Scialabba
A few years ago the philosopher Daniel Dennett opined that the idea of natural selection - proposed exactly 150 years ago in Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species - was "the best idea anybody ever had." The flood of books published this year to celebrate the sesquicentennial would seem to prove Dennett right.
The "idea of natural selection" is that changes in any organism's makeup or behavior will persist or not according to whether they make it more or less likely for that organism and its descendants to survive. What kind of changes, and where do they come from? Any kind, from anywhere. Chemical accidents or cosmic radiation may alter an organism's genes, and therefore its physiology, for better (ie, more survivable) or worse. Environmental change or social interaction may make one physical or behavioral trait more advantageous than another - meaning that those who inherit or learn that trait will survive and reproduce more abundantly. This is "
And not only in the most general sense. Natural selection is increasingly being invoked to explain practices whose origins once seemed forever inaccessible, enshrouded in the mists of prehistory. Three fascinating new books offer bold hypotheses about the origins and evolutionary significance of storytelling, language, and cooking.
Brian Boyd, an English professor, asks: how did fiction, and art in general, make humans more survivable and so become part of our behavioral repertoire? Art, he replies, grew out of play. Among animals with long, secure childhoods, like mammals and birds, play is universal. It is a form of anticipatory learning, sharpening skills and sensitivities that make for rapid, flexible responses to fight-or-flight and other critical situations. As humans grew more social and cooperative over the eons, interpersonal understanding became increasingly important. As a result, representations of events that had not, or not yet, occurred - ie, fictions - became useful as teaching and learning tools, as well as for creating a communal identity. These three effects - cognitive enhancement, social learning, and community cohesion - made storytelling adaptive.
Elaborate hypotheses like this one are themselves a kind of story, and Boyd tells his on a grand scale. His central arguments are prefaced by a substantial reprise of basic evolutionary theory - very useful if you're unfamiliar with it - and followed by two case studies, of Homer's Odyssey and the tales of Dr. Seuss. It is expert, though highly idiosyncratic, literary criticism.
Two other new books applying evolutionary theory to everyday life are more compact but no less original and full of implication. Dean Falk, a primate anthropologist and observant grandmother, has pondered long and deeply the fact that human infants cry. From that clue, she has constructed a theory about the origins of language called PTBD, for "Putting the Baby Down."
No one knows exactly why hominids began walking upright around 7 million years ago and gradually refined this new skill for the next five million years. But whatever the causes, the consequences were fateful. Human anatomy was transformed: the pelvis narrowed, and so did women's birth canal. But at the same time our ancestors were learning to walk, they were learning to think. Since we think with our brains, brain size grew. But a bigger brain in a smaller birth canal posed a problem. The evolutionary solution: human babies were born less fully developed, and therefore more helpless, than those of other primates. This posed another problem: unlike other primate babies, human infants could not cling to foraging mothers, who had to put them down, which terrified them. The solution: motherese, or baby talk, which became language.
Richard Wrangham, a Harvard anthropologist, begins his five-million-year epic of human development from a different point: the difference between raw and cooked food. Leaving aside contemporary nutritional controversies, Wrangham focuses on cooking's evolutionary consequences. In brief, cooked food is more chemically efficient. The results: "smaller guts, bigger brains, bigger bodies, reduced body hair; more running, more hunting; longer lives, calmer temperaments; and a new emphasis on bonding between males and females."
"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive," Wordsworth wrote of the first, intoxicating years of the French Revolution. Reading path-breaking books like these three, one feels something similar.
George Scialabba is the author of Divided Mind and What Are Intellectuals Good For?