The Functions of Fictions

Via Gillespie at Hit n’ Run I found Dennis Dutton’s review of Joseph Carroll’s Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature.

I was most interested in Dutton’s take on Carroll’s criticism of Stephen Pinker’s account of the adaptive function of literature. In his LRB review of Pinker’s How the Mind Works, Jerry Fodor, no friend of “psychological Darwinism,” makes hay with Pinker’s view:

And here he is on why we like to read fiction: ‘Fictional narratives supply us with a mental catalogue of the fatal conundrums we might face someday and the outcomes of strategies we could deploy in them. What are the options if I were to suspect that my uncle killed my father, took his position, and married my mother?’ Good question. Or what if it turns out that, having just used the ring that I got by kidnapping a dwarf to pay off the giants who built me my new castle, I should discover that it is the very ring that I need in order to continue to be immortal and rule the world? It’s important to think out the options betimes, because a thing like that could happen to anyone and you can never have too much insurance.

Ho! That Fodor is a pill! Yeah, so Fodor thinks Pinker’s view of fiction is too absurd to require further comment. How many of us will ever be dwarves in need of an immortality ring? I mean, really! Now, Fodor has very general (weirdly motivated reasons, I think) for denying that adaptionist thinking tells us anything whatsoever, so he won’t be much impressed by Carroll’s view either, no matter how good it is. But it would be a nice thing about Carroll’s theory if it makes pretty good sense of what we get of the story of the giant and dwarf.

Dutton reports:

On the first topic, the functional uses of fiction, Carroll, Pinker, and other evolutionary aestheticians agree. There is an enormous potential survival value for a species in being able to hypothesize non-obtaining states of affairs — imagining, contrary to known facts, what it would be for the neighboring tribe to attack the camp when the men are out hunting, or what it would be to travel in an area where water is scarce.

This is the view Fodor mocks. You will never be a dwarf who has accidentally sold of his immortality ring. Of course, you might be a person who sells something you don’t know is incredibly valuable to someone much more powerful than you in order to get something less valuable that you wanted, and then discover you need to get it back. The dwarf story can help us navigate the basic schema, and so even Pinker’s theory can stand up to Fodor’s snark.

So what does Carroll add? Dutton tells us that

Carroll does not deny that literature gives us simulations that can act for models of behavior, game plans in Pinker’s sense. But art goes further: “It helps us to regulate our complex psychological organization, and it helps us cultivate our socially adaptive capacity for entering mentally into the experience of other people.” This is not quite the same thing as imaginatively encountering a dangerous elephant in a story. It is rather a matter of entering empathically into the minds of our fellows. It may come to us as entertainment, but fiction has profound effects on making us what we are.

I find this just fascinating. So the thing about the dwarf is not just that were are exploring the contours of a strategic schema, but practicing seeing and feeling things from somebody else’s perspective — and the dwarf perspective is as good as any for this purpose, because the dwarf psychology really is just human psychology with a tweak here or there. (Gimli is no more exotic than a Kazakh, psychologically.) Dutton further explains Carroll’s view in a very compelling way. He also does a nice job in splitting the difference between Pinker and Carroll’s explanations for the reason we get pleasure from fiction. I encourage you to read the review.

However, I’m left with a question, and I guess I’ll have to read Carroll to search out an answer. Doesn’t the view that fictions train our ability to enter empathically into the minds of others, and to make finer discriminations in judgment about people’s intentions, motives and so forth–and these are, I think we should agree, abilities with adaptive upshot–imply that people who are better at understanding and appreciating literature ought to (1) be better at reading people and (2) ought to therefore do better in life and reproduction? That is to say: Doesn’t Carroll’s theory imply that literature majors (or at any rate, good ought to get laid more? I mean, Nick Gillespie has a Ph.D. in literature. How’s he doing?

I don’t think Carroll’s view really does imply this. But why not? I think Dutton may point the way.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center