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Narrative, Evolution and Self Preservation.

Several weeks ago I wrote a post on Jerry Coyne’s contention that James Wood thought evolutionary biologists who venture into the literary jungle ‘a pack of morons.’  William Flesch, author of a book on the evolution of co-operation [ Comeuppance, Harvard, 2007] commented that Coyne’s remarks were puzzling, given that Wood had included Comeuppance on his list of favourite books of 2008.

I have only read the first chapter of Flesch’s book, however one objection (which could well be addressed in later pages)  immediately shows itself:

Flesch tells us that "narratives tend to contain or at least to suggest the possibility of three basic figures (though there may be more or fewer than three characters who ‘instantiate’ them): an innocent, someone who exploits that innocent, and someone else who seeks to punish the exploiter…The biological origin of this propensity is part of what has come to be called the "evolution of cooperation." which provides the insights that are central to this book."

Shakespeare had as hearty a grip on human nature, I’d say, as any narrative writer in history. Plenty of innocents get expoited in his greatest plays, plenty seek to punish the exploiters…more often than not plenty of all three end up dead in pools of blood, prostrate on the stage boards. How is this co-operation?
Flip over to ‘real’ life: Hitler exploited the Jews. Used them as scapegoats, blaming them for hardships faced by the ‘German’ population. Then he exterminated millions of them. The Allies, despite knowing at least some of what was going on, were uniformly reluctant to provide safe haven for the innocent, let alone  ‘punish the exploiter.’ They acted against the exploiter only when their own safety was in jeopardy.

This is not co-operation. It’s self preservation. Let us not forget, typically there is carnage before there is co-operation. 
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2 Responses to “Narrative, Evolution and Self Preservation.”

  1. Richard Says:

    I haven’t read this book, but neither have you gotten very far in it. Has it occurred to you that Flesch explains what he means, since he says that’s what his book is about? Do you think people who talk about the evolution of cooperation are completely unfamiliar with the history of war? Or that they haven’t heard of Hitler?

  2. Nigel Beale Says:

    What do you think?

    Perhaps this co-operation theory is applicable within the context of the ‘tribe’ or race or community or some circumscribed form of ‘us.’ But I’d suggest that there’s probably an equally reasonable argument to be made for the opposite, for aggression, period. No evolution required…although technology has evolved to the point where humans can now be r-e-a-l-l-y aggressive. Guess I’ll have to read the rest of the book for an answer…or wait until N. Korea blows us all up.

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