It is an indisputable fact that humans crave fat.
Although we have no firm evidence of storytelling before the advent of writing, we can assume that narratives have been central to human life for thousands of years.
The cave paintings in sites like Chauvet and Lascaux in France from 30, years ago appear to depict dramatic scenes that were probably accompanied by oral storytelling.
View image of Credit: Some tales from the last Ice Age may even linger today see sidebar: The more people read fiction, the easier they find it to empathise with other people From an evolutionary point of view, that would be an awful lot of time and energy to expend on pure escapism, but psychologists and literary theorists have now identified many potential benefits to this fiction addiction.
One common idea is that storytelling is a form of cognitive play that hones our minds, allowing us to simulate the world around us and imagine different strategies, particularly in social situations. Paulo Sayeg Providing some evidence for this theoryUnderstanding why we age as humans scans have shown that reading or hearing stories activates various areas of the cortex that are known to be involved in social and emotional processing, and the more people read fiction, the easier they find it to empathise with other people.
Palaeolithic politics Crucially, evolutionary psychologists believe that our prehistoric preoccupations still shape the form of the stories we enjoy.
Our capacity for storytelling — and the tales we tell — may have therefore also evolved as a way of communicating the right social norms. Along these lines, various studies have identified cooperation as a core theme in popular narratives across the world.
The anthropologist Daniel Smith of University College London recently visited 18 groups of hunter-gatherers of the Philippines. Crucially, this then appeared to translate to their real-life behaviour ; the groups that appeared to invest the most in storytelling also proved to be the most cooperative during various experimental tasks — exactly as the evolutionary theory would suggest.
The Epic of Gilgamesh provides one example from ancient literature. At the start of the tale the King Gilgamesh may appear to be the perfect hero in terms of his physical strength and courage, but he is also an arrogant tyrant who abuses his power, using his droits to seigneur to sleep with any woman who takes his fancy, and it is only after he is challenged by the stranger Enkidu that he ultimately learns the value of cooperation and friendship.
The message for the audience should have been loud and clear: Daniel Kruger points out that tales such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament, contain details of a mythical flood that may tap into lingering cultural memories of real, geological events in the Middle East from the end of the last Ice Age.
Indigenous people on the isle of Flores in Indonesia, meanwhile, have long had myths of the Ebu Gogo — short, hobbit-like creatures without language, which appear to relate to archaeological remains of a human sub-species that overlapped with the Homo sapiens population before going extinct more than 10, years ago.
And that amazes me that a story like that could persist for literally tens of thousands of years. By mapping the spread of oral folktales across different cultural groups in Europe and Asia, some anthropologists have also estimated that certain folktales — such as the Faustian story of The Smith and the Devil — may have arrived with the first Indo-European settlers more than 6, years ago, who then spread out and conquered the continent, bringing their fiction with them.
When he finally arrives in the guise of a poor beggar, however, they begrudge offering him any shelter in his own home! They ultimately get their comeuppance as Odysseus removes his disguise and wreaks a bloody revenge.
You might assume that our interest in cooperation would have dwindled with the increasing individualism of the Industrial Revolution, but Kruger and Carroll have found that these themes were still prevalent in some of the most beloved British novels from the 19th and early 20th Centuries.
Once again, the idea is that a brush with these evil beings ultimately reinforces our own sense of altruism and loyalty to the group.
Getty Images The novelist Ian McEwan is one of the most celebrated literary voices to have embraced these evolutionary readings of literature, arguing that many common elements of plot can even be found in the machinations of our primate cousins.
By drawing on that deep reservoir, a story like the Epic of Gilgamesh is still as fresh if it had been written yesterday, and its timeless messages of loyal friendship remain a lesson to us all, 4, years after its author first put stylus to tablet.
David Robson is a freelance writer based in London. A poll of writers and critics, stories that shaped the world, will be announced in May.Why is there something rather than nothing?Might the world be an illusion or dream?What exists beyond the human senses?What happens after death?Does divine or supernatural agency exist?
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