02 April 2010

Fiction: Insight into Evolution?

Some of you may have seen this already, but Wednesday, the New York Times Book Section had a sort of mind-boggling article; "Next Big Thing in English: Knowing They Know That You Know" dealing with fiction and the human mind. Here are some highlights:
  • It addresses questions such as Why do we read fiction?
  • Scientific studies seem to show Humans can comfortably keep track of three different mental states at a time...
  • ...fictional accounts help explain how altruism evolved despite our selfish genes...
  • Fictional heroes are ...people who right wrongs even if they personally have nothing to gain. These are "altruistic punishers".
  • We enjoy fiction because it is teeming with altruistic punishers...
  • ...fiction gives us insight into evolution.

There's a lot to think about here!

What do you think? Why do people read fiction? Does it teach us about fairness?

4 comments:

Nick Poniatowski said...

This was a very interesting article, though I think the takeaway portion might be a bit too sweeping. Sure, I enjoy reading fiction in which the protagonists are "altruistic punishers," but I also read fiction because it can provide a window into the complexities of human nature. Real life is more complicated than "right and wrong" and "just deserts." Sometimes I prefer to read fiction that's a bit more complicated -- characters who occupy moral gray areas. Being human (and not perfect!), I can identify with these characters, sometimes more than characters who fight the good fight for no reward.

Greg M. Hall said...

I'll mostly go along with these sentiments. Often I'll read fiction because the main character, in spite of his/her flaws, usually ends up doing the right thing in the end; something we real folks don't do enough.

But another huge reason I think people read fiction is that nobody gets hurt. In reality, at least. We humans have a guilty pleasure in salaciousness; in saying 'did you hear what Person A did to Person B? In reality, we feel a tinge of remorse about such pleasures. At least we should. In fiction, we can close the book and be free of such guilt.

lesleylsmith said...

Nice points, Nick and Greg. :)

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