Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Why We Prefer Stories in the Evening

Recent research involving the Kalahari Bushmen strongly suggest that night is the time for storytelling, be those stories about one's own past, the ancestors, mythical heroes, or religious stories.While during the day about a third of the time involves talk the purpose of which is to act as social regulations, and about a third of the time is on economic issues, with the other third spread out among a variety of other topics, at night about 80% of all talk is stories. It is suggested that this pattern is not unique to the Bushmen, but is typical of all humans living in tribal bands -- which is how all humans lived the vast majority of our existence.

At night, around the fires, people tell stories. And when they are not telling stories, they are dancing and playing music and engaging in religious rituals.

If we look at what plays on network T.V. throughout the day, we see similar patterns. During the day we see judge shows (social regulation), news (gossip/social regulation), and talk shows that involve a combination of gossip (social regulation) and practical household advice (economics). And what do we see at night? Mostly stories and dance and music shows. The late night talk shows involve famous people telling stories followed by a musical guest more often than not. We see the same pattern on the 24 hour news channels. If you want to watch traditional news, you have to watch during the day, because in the evenings, you are mostly going to get various kinds of storytelling.

It is also notable that we go watch movies, plays, operas, and other artistic performances in the evening. Daytime shows are always cheaper than evening shows -- and anyone who knows anything about supply and demand knows that there is a good reason a certain time will be cheaper than another.  Nobody wants to go during the day, even with the cheaper prices. Even on the weekends. No, people much prefer evening performances, and are obviously willing to pay for them.

Also consider the fact that we read our children bedtime stories. And that most of our fiction reading takes place in the late evening. I am sure many will rationalize that evenings, after the house gets quiet, is the only time there is to read; however, when people go elsewhere (the cafe, etc.) to get some reading done during the day, what they read tends to be informative nonfiction. I would be willing to bet that readers of biographies also do such reading in the evening more often than not.

No matter the format, it seems people mostly prefer to hear/see their stories in the evening. But another thing to consider along these lines involves the habits of writers.I have typically done most of my fiction writing -- whether plays, poems, short stories, or novel attempts -- at night. And I often preferred low light. And it seems I'm not the only one. Probably most writers did their writing at night. That is, not only do we prefer to hear our stories in the evening, the storytellers themselves prefer to tell their stories in the evening. Even when the two are disconnected, as is often the case now, the preference is for evening hearings/viewings and tellings.

Evenings are also times when we get together with our friends and/or families and tell stories. We reminisce and tell stories about each other. An evening out drinking with friends will result in a round of storytelling. Perhaps not coincidentally, many an artist has created their works in the evenings while drinking. Mind-altering substances have been and continue to be a part of evening activities. They have historically been connected to religious activities, but more recently have been relegated to "recreation." Recreational drugs and recreational storytelling. But historically neither has been truly recreational. And it's in many ways a loss to our culture that they have been relegated to such marginal, frivolous status. It makes people less responsible -- with the drugs and alcohol, with storytelling and artistic production.

Indeed, our evenings have become converted into frivolity, into unseriousness. But these are the times when strong social bonds are made. The day is for social regulation and economic activities, for the creation of weak social bonds. It is an important part of our lives, but it's not the only part. When the day comes to dominate even the night, our families and friendships are weakened. And given the role of fiction in creating empathy and, thus, expanding our moral spheres, a weaker evening, an evening with less fiction reading, negatively affects our day social orders as well. When the day comes to dominate the night, the extended order comes to crush the intimate orders. Of course, we don't want the night to dominate the day, either, as when the intimate orders come to dominate the extended order, the extended order will be destroyed. More, different spontaneous orders dominate at different times -- day or night -- meaning it is important that we learn how to take good care of this delicate ecosystem.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Welcome Amanda Preston!

I would like to welcome Amanda Preston to Evolution and Literature. She is now a co-blogger. With her background in poetry and her going to graduate school in neurobiology, I am sure she will provide a strong perspective on evolution, the brain, and literature. Beyond this short introduction, I think it best I let her introduce herself.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Stories and Empathy

It is both gratifying and annoying to read something like Stories Have the Power to Save us: A Neurological Framework for the Imperative to Tell Stories, which confirms what you yourself have been thinking about. I have written about it here and here and here and here. I could continue listing, but the list of "here"s would become absurdly long.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Metaphors on the Mind

In an article discussing the recent evidence for the argument that metaphors come about from our embodiment, Michah Mattix attempts to assert a more transcendent view of metaphors. The former argues that metaphors come out of our experiences; Mattix argues they do not have to do so. One may have to suppose that those which do not come from our experiences must come from the Platonic Sphere of Forms or some such, and that is, essentially, what he argues.

Let us look at the example he gives, to see if his own example stands up to scrutiny.

Mattix argues that "Just because the part of my brain associated with the leg and foot “lights up” when the metaphor “kick the habit” is used does not mean that the idea that freedom is good (which is what that metaphor evokes) is not true in some universal, “transcendent” way." I'm not sure why these two things have to be mutually exclusive. If, when anyone hears "kick the habit," the part of their brain associated with the leg and food "lights up," how is this not universal? It may not be "transcendent," but it is certainly universal in the only way that matters: for all humans everywhere at all times. Even if you don't have legs, you've seen people kick. So you can still understand the metaphor. So it seems to me that he is setting up a bit of a straw man in complaining that those favoring the "embodied" understanding of metaphor are arguing against universality. Against transcendence, perhaps, but then "transcendence" is not synonymous with "universal."

Next, Mattix quotes Donoghue about the effect of metaphor, that "The effect of Eliot’s metaphor is to give her a new, strange life."Yet, the theory of embodiment, again, does not dispute this effect. Yes, metaphors give us a new way of seeing things. Yes, metaphors connect two unlike things to create a new relationship. But the embodiment theory of metaphor is about the source of the two aspects being compared. It is not merely linguistic in nature, but rather represented as physical by the brain.

So if we look again at the lines by Eliot used:
A woman drew her long black hair out tight
And fiddled whisper music on those strings
We can note a few things here. One, unless you have experienced a fiddle/violin, you cannot be entirely sure what this means. When you reach the word "music," you can assume that "fiddled" has something to do with music. But does the action create music? Unless you know what a fiddle/violin looks like, you cannot be sure what the action looks like. So this line is only universal among those who know what a fiddle/violin is, how you play it, and what it looks like. The experience is necessary for the universality. And of course Eliot had to have experienced women, long black hair, tightness, fiddles/violins, music, and strings to make the metaphor in the first place -- and he had to have assumed others to have had those experience to even begin to understand his metaphor.

Finally, Mattix complains that we Literary Darwinists would end up discussing the connection between music and sex -- only to then make the argument that this line, and the lines before, are about sex! Certainly love is hardly discounted by Darwinists of any kind. Indeed, we Literary Darwinists would have likely come to the same conclusion as Mattix in regards to the passage -- only we likely wouldn't stop there, but continue on to discuss the evolutionary psychological reasons for why it is the case that sex with love is far more fulfilling than recreational sex. In the end, it seems that Mattix's complaint is that we don't stick to merely superficial explanations, but instead go deeper.

If that's his complaint against us, I'll take it. There are worse things to be accused of than that one's explanations are deep and complex.

Thursday, September 4, 2014


Richard Prum on DUCK SEX, AESTHETIC EVOLUTION, AND THE ORIGIN OF BEAUTY. Beauty is an inherent part of nature. It is a feature selected for through both natural selection sexual selection. Prum argues that there is such a thing as aesthetic evolution, and that that is the origin of beauty.