Story as niche construction: the cultural evolution of fictional narratives
thesisposted on 28.03.2022, 21:40 by Graham Thomas
Some evolutionary psychologists – such as Tooby & Cosmides (2001) – argue that engagement with fictional narratives is adaptive, that humans have evolved genetically to be driven to, and capable of, engaging with stories because they provide a reproductive benefit. I will argue that evidence that purports to show that the human brain is hard-wired for engagement with fictional narratives is weak. In contrast, I outline a more plausible account : that the practice of fictional engagement is better explained as an exaptation. Through a process of scaffolded learning, capacities that have likely been selected for other reasons are co-opted and extended to allow an individual to engage with their culture’s stories. From here I situate fictional narratives within a ‘fiction niche’, a suite of practices and storytelling norms of form and content that are passed down from generation to generation, and which each new member is inducted into. I conclude by briefly discussing some of the functional roles such a niche might serve : in particular providing a shared cultural reference point that facilitates interactions between individuals within a community, and normalising behaviour across the population in ways that foster group identity and social cohesion.