Speaker series
Evolution and the Social Mind
CogWeb's Bibliography of Narrative

Narrative and the Evolution of Intelligence

A Presentation by Porter Abbott
Department of English, UCSB
April 17, 1998 at 12:30pm
Humanities and Social Sciences Building 2001A


Can we triangulate from narrative, as we currently understand it, the stage or stages of development that would have been necessary to produce the narrative capabilities of anatomically modern humans?  To give what is, to some degree, a "modular" accounting of the origins of narrative we need to cut through culturally learned embellishments of narrative (free indirect discourse, pseudodiegesis, etc.) to those component parts without which there is no narrative.  My speculative argument is that these are two and that they correspond to two stages of development.  These and two other points of reference will organize my talk.

1) Representation of events in time through mimesis or linear diegesis. One key question here is how extensive were the changes that accompanied the acquisition of language.  Did language come fully accessorized with our present narrative capability?  Or is narrative a distinctly separate capability from language as some right brain injury studies would suggest? If the latter, could a preverbal or primitively verbal mode of narrative understanding have preceded the full acquisition of language?  And if so, could a mode of linear narrative have emerged during Merlin Donald’s hypothetical transitional stage of "mimetic culture" between the "episodic" and the "mythic" cultural stages?  It may be worth noting that, as a practice, narrative in strictly linear modes persists in modern times, particularly in the theater.

2) Achronological narrative discourse used in the representation of chronological events. This depends on an intuitive understanding of the structural difference between story and narrative discourse, a difference from which so many of the terms and distinctions of current narratology have been derived.  Its prevalence in diegetic narrative modes in literature is in turn a reflection of its universality in everyday discourse.  If this capability represents a separate stage of development, again the issue arises of how it relates to the development of language.  Does, for example, the emergence of modern narrative discourse coincide with the invention of past and future tenses?  More basic is the question: Is there a deep affinity between the capability of diversity in sentence structure for the expression of the same meaning and the capability of diversity in narrative structure for the communication of the same story?

3) This "determinate indeterminacy" of story (the capacity of specific stories to remain recognizably themselves through diverse narrations) is an important issue in its own right.  It would appear to require an intuitive understanding of the difference between what have been called nuclei (noyaux, kernels) and catalyzers (catalyses, satellites).  An implication of story so conceived is that "episodic memory" (however archaic this facility may be) underlies the production of narrative and this in turn may add further weight to the presumption of a primitive stage of narrative capability.

4) Narrative variation.  Here I want to move forward in time to pursue the transition to modernity and what could be called the aggravation of narrative multiplicity.  As I do so, I want also to reconsider the battered subject of post-structuralist hermeneutics with an eye to the possible significance of its premises from an evolutionary perspective.

Porter Abbott

Porter Abbott is professor of English at UCSB.

Most of my work, including the three books I have written so far, bear on issues having to do with narrative, and specifically the interpretation of narrative.  Much of my recent work (and teaching) has been focused on autobiographical narrative, and one current book-length project is a study of conversion narratives after Darwin (Darwinian Conversions).  In that work I am concerned with the impact of the "gradualist" paradigm of evolutionary change on representations of conversion (being "born again"). I am also currently under contract with Cambridge University Press to write a book-length introduction to narrative.


Beckett Writing Beckett: The Author in the Autograph. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1996.
Diary Fiction: Writing as Action. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1984.
The Fiction of Samuel Beckett: Form and Effect. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1973.

Select Articles

CogWeb's bibliography of narrative and neuroscience


Speaker series
Evolution and the Social Mind
CogWeb's Bibliography of Narrative