Why We Write – A Darwinian Viewpoint

Of the seven billion human apes that currently proliferate on the planet, there is not one that does not, at some point in their brief lives ask themselves: what is the purpose of my life?

The answers our fellow humans extract from the mines of their souls are as diverse as the question is uniform. Some look to religion, others to career, few to their obsessions. And a handful of them are cognisant enough to realize that the purpose of their lives is, really, whatever they wish it to be. This creates a conundrum: how to choose from the infinite possibilities this world has to offer, what to specialize in? The answer has to be tortuously subjective.

Yet for artists, writers and other artistic-minded individuals, there exists a second dilemma, a second laborious quest: the elusive question, why do I write/paint/sculpt/compose?

I have been wrestling with this myself and I have searched vast savannah’s of philosophy and endless deserts of literary criticism. But I was disappointed to find a sickening amount of cultural relativism loitering among their pages. We are an ultra-social species, and, more than that, we are a homogeneous species. The thought that every single one of us – the seven billion – evolved from the same, small, adventurous band of African hominids during the primordial Pleistocene era, excites me more than any culturally isolated artistic revolution.

So to ask myself why do I write is to ask why do any of us write? And to tackle such a universal question, the modern thinker has no recourse but evolutionary biology with its roots in 19th century Darwinism. And in recent years there has been a move towards what Edward O. Wilson has called consillience, a unification of all knowledge, from science to the humanities; and already the early theories and insights have been inspirationally productive.

Storytelling is a universal human trait, much like art, lust, love and war. Thus it has had to evolve on the African plains of aeons past among that small band of ancestral hunter-gatherers. Why would they tell stories? Most likely, it is the same reason that I tell stories. And the same reason producers tell stories in television series, or directors in films, or a comedian in a stand-up gig.

The theories that have captured my rational imagination most have been Geoffrey Miller’s sexual selection theory, Brian Boyd’s ‘play’ theory and Denis Dutton’s, Ellen Dissanayake’s and Joseph Carroll’s virtual-simulation theory. Together, combined as they must have been in the games and minds of our ancestors, they can shed new light on why we write and tell stories.

Starting from the sexual selection angle, Geoffrey Miller argues that the arts were selected for display purposes. Our large brains evolved to court the opposite sex by showing off our superior fitness and genes, the same way the peacock struts its expensive, costly tail. And there is no doubt that storytelling requires a sophisticated organ and to be intelligent enough to tell good stories indicates good genes – genes worth passing on.

But then this begs a more fundamental question: why were the opposite sex so turned on by stories? What was their function? The play theory and the virtual-simulation theory give fascinating, practical insight into this. As a mammalian species we are playful by nature. As primates we are still more playful. And as hominids we are the undisputed Peter Pan species. But why is play so important, isn’t it, in nature’s harsh environment, a waste of time? Far from it. All mammals play for the same purpose: to practise skills they will need to keep them alive in their own particular niche. Tiger cubs chase each other, wrestle, bare their teeth, stalk each other, all to teach themselves how to hunt. And this is a universal feature of mammal behaviour.

And due to the fact that we humans have among the longest childhoods in the animal kingdom we have a very long time dedicated for learning, brain development and, on the flip-side: we spend a long time being fragile and unable to learn lessons first hand. If a human child were to hunt a buffalo at age ten, he would probably be killed by lions or the buffalo itself along the way. Such is his fragility. But then, what if there was a way he could hunt that buffalo, kill it, eat it, celebrate it – without him getting hurt? Evolution’s answer: stories!

If a parent could tell its child a story, fictional or otherwise, about a man hunting a buffalo, the child can learn the skill without incurring any physical risk. So by the time he’s old enough to hunt he is already vastly experienced. This is the virtual-simulation side of story’s functionality. Story is a way of enlightening a dark, hostile world, all from the safety of one’s home (be it hut, cave or apartment). And this ability to tell stories would naturally become sexy. Someone who can tell good stories is someone who is good at keep his or herself alive. And those are genes worth passing on.

Over time stories became a cohesive way of structuring society and the world around us. Almost every culture that has ever existed tells stories about its creation, about its people; and generally they are told in communal settings. Being able to tell the story of your tribe enables you to feel a stronger bond with your band-members. And establishing an entire folklore of stories about your surroundings equips you with the common sense you need to survive.

Knowing all this has helped me come closer to answering that pestering question Why do I Write? I write for the same reasons my ancestors told their stories, to illuminate our world, make it more comprehensible and to make us experience its vast, impossible diversity without having to leave our nests. This world is still full of the underprivileged. The world is grandiosely beautiful and immense, but most of us, myself included, do not have the means to see it all. Even the wealthiest among us do not live long enough to take it all in. But through my writing I want to playfully create a virtual-simulation of the diverse nuances of Life, for my fellow primates to learn from and indulge in.

We have one large advantage over our ancestors now, in that we know more about our world, and our environment has become the entire planet, not just a patch of forest or a speck of desert. So writing can help create myths and folklores about our entire world, its past, its nature, its societies, its psychology – all so we can enhance our understanding of it and the pleasure we take from it.

And I do emphasize that this is the reason why I write. I am not suggesting that this be all writer’s universal raison d’etre. But I would like to challenge my fellow writers who are still wrestling with the question, to ask themselves one thing:

If you were a Pleistocene hominid living on the harsh plains of Africa in a small band of family and loved ones: what would you write?

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