Tom Dolack


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.