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Edited by Dirk Vanderbeke and Brett Cooke

The contributors to this volume share the assumption that popular narrative, when viewed with an evolutionary lens, offers an incisive index into human nature. In theory, narrative art could take a near infinity of possible forms. In actual practice, however, particular motifs, plot patterns, stereotypical figures, and artistic devices persistently resurface, indicating specific predilections frequently at odds with our actual living conditions. Our studies explore various media and genres to gauge the impact of our evolutionary inheritance, in interdependence with the respective cultural environments, on our aesthetic appreciation. As they suggest, research into mass culture is not only indispensable for evolutionary criticism but may also contribute to our understanding of prehistoric selection pressures that still influence modern preferences in popular narrative.

Contributions by David Andrews, James Carney, Mathias Clasen, Brett Cooke, Tamás Dávid-Barrett, Tom Dolack, Kathryn Duncan, Isabel Behncke Izquierdo, Joe Keener, Alex C. Parrish, Todd K. Platts, Anna Rotkirch, Judith P. Saunders, Michelle Scalise Sugiyama, Dirk Vanderbeke, and Sophia Wege.

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Alex C. Parrish

Abstract

Banal classicism describes a wide variety of behaviors – from sophisticated conversations among artists who reinterpret classical forms to actions as mundane as employing cartoon illustrations of Roman dictators to make one’s pizza franchise seem more genuinely Italian. What unites these varied behaviors is the attempt to borrow ethos – either directly from the classical world or from previous borrowers. The desire to benefit from the reputation or status of another is not confined to our classical past, and indeed is not even a uniquely human behavior; many examples of borrowing ethos exist in kingdom Animalia. In biological terms, banal classicism could be defined as deceptive mimicry meant to persuade receivers by adopting the ethos of another individual or group. Among primates this behavior is ubiquitous. Juvenile baboons borrow ethos to undermine the rigid hierarchies of their groups. They employ deceptive fear calls to make a parent think they are being injured, but only when the juveniles are competing for resources with an individual who is more highly ranked than them but ranked lower than the parent to whom they are calling. In these cases, the rival is quickly displaced; the parent’s status within the group persuades them to leave. These baboons present but one example of homologous animal rhetorics that can help us better understand the cognitive underpinnings of rhetorical behavior. By analyzing examples from nonhuman behavior as well as human popular literature and film (the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Dragonslayer), this chapter will demonstrate that there is a wide range of behavior among human and nonhuman animals that demonstrate borrowed ethos, the basis of banal classicism.

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Mathias Clasen and Todd K. Platts

Abstract

The slasher film, which depicts teenagers stalked by homicidal maniacs, has been experiencing waves of intense popularity since the late 1970s. In explaining the paradoxical appeal of such films, we argue that an integrative analytical framework is required. Such a framework pays attention to the evolved psychological dispositions brought into play by slasher films, to the sociocultural context that such films may reflect, and to the film-industrial factors that make such films particularly attractive from a production point of view. We discuss the entire history of modern slasher films but take John Carpenter’s famous slasher Halloween (1978) as out analytical focus. Our claim is that a multi-level analytical framework guided by biocultural theory is necessary to making sense of the slasher film.

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Brett Cooke

Abstract

The brilliant but brief popularity of opera seria poses a challenge to evolutionary criticism: how can a work of art be temporarily, but not permanently, in fashion, when the genetic underpinnings of our aesthetics adapt at a comparably glacial pace? Some of this may be explained by the immediate, rapidly shifting, environment, including contemporary competition for our attention. The art of the great castrati exploited novel expressive potentials of the voice, but that and the lurid provision of sex and violence evidently soon wore off. Nevertheless, in the course of the genre’s failure Handel discovered the eventual seeds of opera’s future lasting success in exploiting its potential to project nuances of actual human personality.

Imagining the End of the World

A Biocultural Analysis of Post-Apocalyptic Fiction

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Mathias Clasen

Abstract

Post-apocalyptic fiction taps into the deepest springs of ancient and evolved emotions, but it found in modernity a particularly hospitable cultural ecology and a particularly receptive audience. Focusing on post-apocalyptic English language science fiction and horror literature of the Cold War era, I argue that a biocultural analytical framework is indispensable to making sense of this type of fiction. Post-apocalyptic stories function as a mental testing-ground where readers can cognitively and emotionally model the experience of living through the worst, and the genre prompts readers to reflect on the meaning of an existence that is always subject to radical change.

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Brett Cooke and Dirk Vanderbeke

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Dirk Vanderbeke

Abstract

This paper suggests that that in the field of evolutionary criticism popular literature and culture are no less important than canonical works as investigations into popular narratives may lead to results that are in contrast with those derived from the classics and other acclaimed works of “high” literature. In consequence, this research complements the more common studies of canonical works and provides data that may prove to be useful for the exploration of human nature and also for the reconstruction of our evolutionary past. The specific topic chosen to make this point is the representation of love and marriage. Other themes and motifs, e.g. violence, cheater detection, revenge, or mobility, would, of course, also be suitable for scrutiny.

In order to present a conclusive argument, the paper includes a brief survey of the ongoing discussion on mate selection, stable pair bonding, and monogamy in our evolutionary history. I argue that that the evidence for monogamy, long-term bonding, and female mate selection in hominins is not yet conclusive and that alternative models should also be taken into consideration. The main section of this paper then analyses two of the most successful genres in popular culture, the romance novel and the adventure plot, the latter including subgenres like the Arthurian romance, the Western, detective and spy fiction, a large segment of science fiction, as well as myths, legends, and fairy tales. The results indicate a preference for figures and narrative patterns that differ from those found in research on canonical works. In romance novels, we frequently find the temporal erotic attraction of a cad or rogue which indicates that sexual interest is not simply geared towards the selection of a male who promises a stable and beneficial long-term relationship; in the adventure plot, male-male interaction is usually far more important than mate selection, and sexual relations are usually short-term and correlated to success in inter-male competition. Popular culture thus offers important insights and needs to be taken more seriously in evolutionary criticism.

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Tom Dolack

Abstract

Many fields in the social sciences and humanities have recently been influenced by evolutionary theory and cognitive science. Of these, few have produced richer results than evolutionary and cognitive approaches to religion. Researchers have established many different proposals for the origins of religious behavior and imagery. Dealing with the nature of symbolic narrative, this research is applicable to literary studies as well. Of particular interest are “minimally-counterintuitive concepts” or “minimally-counterintuitive imagery” (mci), which combine elements from two or more ontological categories (such as people, animals, or inanimate objects). The predominant theory states that we make automatic assumptions about each category (people can speak while animals cannot, animals move on their own volition while plants do not, etc.) and that concepts that cross these boundaries are better remembered than other types of imagery.

Based on this work, I and a small team of undergraduates tried to test some implications of this theory empirically. For instance, there should be a difference in the prevalence of mci in religious and non-religious texts and there should also be a difference between texts that are part of an oral tradition and those that are not. As a start to this project we compared the prevalence of counterintuitive imagery in two very different texts: the Hebrew Bible and the Harry Potter novels. Our initial conclusion, admittedly based on a small sample size of two works, is that neither assumption is correct. A work being religious and a work being told orally do not seem to mean that it will have a higher proportion of counterintuitive imagery. In fact, the Harry Potter novels contain a much higher percentage of mci than the Hebrew Bible. These results are tentative as they need to be backed by a much broader examination of texts from different periods and different geographical locations, but they point to a need to reexamine the evolutionary purpose of minimally-counterintuitive concepts and perhaps of the relationship between early religion and narrative more broadly.

The Reader is Always Right

Biopoetic and Cognitive-Aesthetic Aspects of Karl May’s Adventure Novel Winnetou I

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Sophia Wege

Abstract

This chapter discusses Winnetou i, a very famous adventure novel by Karl May, who was the most popular best-selling author in Germany at the turn of the 20th century. The accounts of his fictive travels to North America continue to shape German conceptions of Native American culture; they are considered to be milestones in popular literature. Alongside with leading biopoetic scholars in German Studies, I favor the by-product hypothesis, arguing that popular literature is not categorically different from highbrow literature, in that it operates on the same evolved cognitive dispositions. My study discusses major evolutionary themes in Karl May’s work, such as survival in the wilderness, as well as biopoetic underpinnings of very specific features of May’s adventure plot, his linguistic style and narrative technique, and also the cognitive processes involved in the reception of his works.

The Relevance of Popularity

Ecological Factors at Play in Story Pervasiveness

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Michelle Scalise Sugiyama

Abstract

Under conditions where the exchange of information is largely unrestricted, one measure of a story or genre’s popularity is its pervasiveness, which may be assessed cross-culturally (e.g., how widespread the story is across societies) or intra-culturally (e.g., the percentage of group members who know the story). This definition embraces a host of motivations for telling or listening to a story (e.g., instruction, manipulation, curiosity, entertainment), many of which are subsumed by the criterion of relevance: when people have an interest in telling and/or listening to a given story, we may say that the story has relevance for them. Story relevance is likely rooted in local ecology: stories that address problems the audience may experience in real life may be expected to attract widespread interest because the information they contain is potentially useful. Conversely, stories that do not address such problems may attract less interest because they have no practical application. This essay develops the hypothesis that relevance affects story pervasiveness by examining two popular story genres from two very different socio-economic systems: the transformer tale and the bedtime story. The former is widespread across forager groups but absent in modern industrialized societies, while the latter is widespread across modern societies but glaringly absent from forager oral tradition. The principle of relevance would predict that each story addresses a problem that is specific to the ecology in which it is current. As we will see, this is the case: the problem addressed by the transformer is absent from modern industrialized societies, and the problem addressed by the bedtime story is absent from forager societies.