It is one thing to think that psychology may solve problems that baffle philosophy or criticism; it well may. But to think that the invocation of empirical studies on a subject frees one from the job of finding out what the great instinctive psychologists have said about that subject before you got to it is just misguided.
Gotschall argues — surprise! — that storytelling is an evolutionary adaptation and that “studies show that therefore people who read a lot of novels have better social and empathetic abilities, are more skillful navigators, than those who don’t” (Gopnik’s paraphrase). I’ve argued against these types of accounts, and Gopnik likewise objects:
… surely this would only have meaning if he could show that there were human-like groups who failed to compete because they didn’t trade tales—or even that tribes who told lots of stories did better than tribes that didn’t. Are societies, like that of Europe now, which has mostly rejected religious storytellers, less prosperous and peaceful than ones, like Europe back when, that didn’t? Would a human-like society that had lots of food and sex but no stories die out? When has this happened?
And then there’s this fun bit of snark:
Surely if there were any truth in the notion that reading fiction greatly increased our capacity for empathy then college English departments, which have by far the densest concentration of fiction readers in human history, would be legendary for their absence of back-stabbing, competitive ill-will, factional rage, and egocentric self-promoters; they’d be the one place where disputes are most often quickly and amiably resolved by mutual empathetic engagement.
The idea that storytelling fosters empathy is an old and intuitively plausible one, English departments notwithstanding. But the idea that storytelling is an adaptation is entirely implausible, and it’s hard not to be astonished as the pop science lemmings walk over the same cliff together — the one constructed by their lazy and unscientific assumption that every trait you can think of must be an adaption. Actual evolutionary biologists make no such claim.
As an alternative, Gopnik recommends a book that argues that storytelling has its origins in grooming by way of gossip — a thesis that is actually interesting and has some potential explanatory value.
— Wes Alwan