HSU REPLIES: I agree with Morgan’s point. Storytelling clearly encompasses more than the formal works of fiction that we consume in books and on television. Studying the personal stories told among friends and family is also important for understanding storytelling. Nonfiction and fiction can both prove compelling, as I mentioned in my article.
I emphasized fictional stories because they present perhaps the most intriguing puzzle for scholars of the mind. Why should people care at all about a prince in a land of dragons or the mythical exploits of Greek warriors and gods of thousands of years ago? The process of answering that question is bringing together researchers across the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences.
Hsu’s article is strongly oriented toward socialization and romance. As such, it neglects the “cautionary tale” as an important reason—both practical and Darwinian—for storytelling. Throughout my career in the fire service I was exposed to (and told a few of my own) stories about “how I survived to tell the tale.” These were meant, and accepted, as lessons on how to be effective at the job while living long enough to be a silverback. Similar conversations broke out every year near the start of hunting season. Old soldiers’ tales and a myriad of other survival stories may represent an important reason for storytelling, beyond socialization.
adapted from a commentat www.SciAmMind.com
The comment by “fire1fl” raises a very good point. Stories have many purposes, and these recur cross-culturally at different levels of abstraction. My work has focused on recurring narrative structures in the most enduring stories, which commonly involve thematic concerns that bear on fairly broad issues of ethics or politics (for example, the value of loyalty). Yet the more directly prudential concerns of cautionary tales (relating to, say, hunting) may be more context-bound, more limited in their target audience and, therefore, more ephemeral—less likely to be written down, anthologized or translated. As a result, they would less likely turn up in research on cross-cultural patterns. This situation results in a certain kind of bias in the data.
Perhaps surprisingly, this issue of data bias bears on another issue in the article—literary Darwinism. My problem with certain aspects of the literary Darwinist approach is that writers in this school tend (in my view) to draw biological conclusions far too quickly from what is at best scanty evidence. Consider, for example, two very plausible preliminary hypotheses. First, stories commonly have political functions. Second, dominant groups have disproportionate control over the production and preservation of widely circulated stories. Given these hypotheses, one would expect, for instance, that the representation of men and women would develop in pretty much the ways literary Darwinists report. Thus, the data alone do not decide between social constructionist and biological views of gender.
These are all reasons it is important to be bold in researching possible patterns across cultures but also to be cautious in drawing conclusions about just what those patterns mean. For instance, recurring patterns in heroic plots may tell us something about human biology. But they may also tell us something about more malleable aspects of group dynamics and the ideologies needed to maintain group stratification.
University of Connecticut
adapted from a comment at www.SciAmMind.com
Note: This story was originally published with the title, "Letters".