The Role of Traditional Children





The Role of Traditional Children's Stories in Human Evolution


By Kathryn Coe, Craig Palmer, Nancy E. Aiken, and Chris Cassidy



Most Darwinists would agree that modern Darwinian theory can shed light on cultural behavior, including the behaviors of composing and telling stories. Where Darwinists interested in literary narrative might differ, however, is in the definition of what should be included in the category of literary narrative:, i.e., does literary narrative refer only to the fine arts or are stories told in tribal societies also examples of literary narrative? Another place where such Darwinists differ is in their view of the function of literary narrative. Those who focus on literature as fine art argue that literary narrative has a cognitive function. Carroll (2001, p. 22), as one example, argues that literary narrative satisfies a need, namely a desire for “cognitive order.”  Those who accept a broader definition, however, would propose that stories, like other forms of communication, can influence behavior (Vaughn, 1978). Michelle Scalise Sugiyama, for example, has argued that by “substituting verbal representations for potentially costly first-hand experience, narrative enables an individual to safely and efficiently acquire information pertinent to the pursuit of fitness in local habitats. If this hypothesis is true, narrative should be rich with information useful to the pursuit of fitness” (Scalise Sugiyama, 2001, p. 221). If her hypothesis is true, telling and listening to stories would be adaptive behaviors.


While Scalise Sugiyama recognizes that stories have an effect on social behavior, the focus of her studies largely has been on ecological effects. What follows is solely about stories that concern social behavior and on one aspect of stories told in traditional societies which has not been a focus of Scalise Sugiyama’s elegant studies; namely the fact that the stories are retold generation after generation and, in many cases, they are retold with little variation made in the story or the style used to tell the story. Evolutionary theory can generate many specific predictions about exactly what forms of social behavior are likely to be encouraged in traditional stories (particularly those told to children), and how this encouragement might be accomplished.




What are Traditional Stories?

We define traditional stories as only those stories in which certain elements, the core theme in particular, remain unchanged and that are transmitted, in a form of cultural inheritance, from one generation of kin to the next. We suggest that such stories don’t just reflect human evolutionary history, but that they have been a crucial and active part of that history. Traditional storytelling is a kinship strategy, following a parental model of influencing the behavior, especially the social behavior, of children and even distant descendants. This is particularly true of traditional stories designed to be told to children to influence their behavior in specific ways. As Castro and Toro (2004) emphasize, cultural transmission is not something that simply takes place among “groups” (Henrich and Boyd, 1998), it involves parents approving or disapproving of their children’s behavior. It is important to note that for a vast majority of our evolutionary history humans have lived within small kinship groups, not villages or even the abstract social groups in which we now find ourselves (Palmer et al., 1997). So, as the ethnographic literature supports (De Leguna, 1997; Calame-Griaule, 1986), the primary storyteller within a group, if he/she was not a parent, was likely to be a grandparent, an aunt or uncle, or other close kinsperson.

Traditional stories are either told in their entirety (in some societies, the entire story must be repeated precisely, particularly if that story is said to be sacred) or in such a way that the “point” of the story (i.e., the behavior it is designed to encourage) remains the same (see Hallowell, 2002). We suggest that traditional stories are repeated, consciously or unconsciously, because of their particular influence on behavior. To the extent that stories are repeated by generation after generation of close kin and have an effect on behavior, traditional stories might best be seen as ancestral strategies that encourage the behaviors that had fitness benefits—that is, traditional stories may have helped our ancestors survive and reproduce in the past. Traditional stories, like all traditional behaviors, can influence the behavior of and provide a benefit to potentially unlimited generations of the descendants of the ancestors who repeated the stories that were originated by their ancestors (Palmer and Steadman, 1997). Even individuals who share only a very distant common ancestor, and thus are only distantly related but identifiably so by such things as tribal or clan outfits (Coe, 2003), would share particular stories that they had inherited (along with the tribal and clan outfits) from that distant common ancestor. They would have heard these stories from other co-descendants, including parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.

If this is true, then the behaviors of telling and listening to stories (and even telling and listening to certain stories) may be subject to natural selection (Coe, 2003; see also Thornhill and Palmer, 2000, pp. 24-29, for a general discussion of the relationship between traditional behavior and natural selection). Further, an interesting test of this proposal would be to not only study the effect of traditional stories on behavior, but to study the stories told and perhaps shared by individuals who claim to share common ancestry.




Stories as Kinship Behavior
Support for the claim that stories are told among kin and that one generation transmits them to the next is found throughout the folklore and ethnographic literature on both storytelling and mythology in a wide variety of cultures. It has even been argued that such storytelling is a human universal (Brown, 1991). Among the Tlingit, Frederica De Laguna (1997) writes that the elders generally tell the stories. When asked where they learned a story, informants generally said it was from a grandmother or grandfather, and less often from a father or mother. Alfred Hallowell (2002, p. 65) also writes that grandparents tell stories among the Ojibwa of Barens River. Geneviève Calame-Griaule (1986, p. 586) points out that among the Dogon, elders tell stories; the young cannot take the initiative in telling a story to an older person.



The Effect of Traditional Stories on Behavior
It is one thing to say that stories influence behavior and promote survival and reproductive success and another to demonstrate this influence. Kevin Krajick reports on the stories of the Bafmen of Cameroon, including one story about an exploding lake. According to this and other stories, lakes are said to harbor ancestors and spirits and, sometimes, death. These traditional Bafmen stories influenced the Bafmen to build their houses on high ground, above the danger posed by the lake (Krajick, 2003). On August 21, 1986, approximately 1800 villagers living on the lower slopes of Lake Nyos in African Cameroon died of carbon dioxide asphyxiation when the lake literally exploded it into the surrounding air. Apparently, carbon dioxide is fed into the lake from underwater springs where it is kept by the pressure of the water from forming bubbles just the same as a cap keeps soda from fizzing in a bottle. Because the lake is located along the equator, the seasonal changes in temperature are minor and, as the water is not mixed, the deepest water might remain stagnated for centuries (Krajick 2003, p. 46,52). However, on the night of August 21, something disrupted the surface of the water (perhaps a boulder rolled down the slope into the lake) and blew the cap off. A cloud of deadly gas filled the valley formed by the lake and the people, cattle, birds, and insects living on the lower slopes all died quickly. The people and animals living on high ground survived (Krajick, 2003, pp. 52-53). The people who lived on the high slopes around Lake Nyos were the Bafmen whose ancestors have lived there for hundreds of years and had repeated these stories during that time. The people who died on the lower slopes were from other clans or tribes who began moving into the area only sixty years ago.


The survival of indigenous peoples in the wake of the devastating tsunami of December 26, 2004 also attests to the power of traditional stories to influence the behavior of those to whom they were told. Survivors report that stories coming from their ancestors (and told to them by their parents and grandparents) caused them to respond to the first earth tremors by fleeing to higher ground. On the March 20, 2005 telecast of CBS’s “60 Minutes” news program, the Moken people, who were saved by getting to high land, reported that they have a legend about the wave that eats people. The Sentinelese people explained they ran to the hills because their forefathers told them that they should do so when the earth shakes; the shaking means the sea will rise up onto the land (Mukerjee, 2005). Consequently, many people who had lived in the area hit by the tsunami for generations were saved because of stories that told of such events by their ancestors.


Traditional Stories and the Encouragement of Social Behavior
If traditional stories are the ones that have been repeated more or less faithfully generation to generation because they are blueprints for behavior “instructing” the next generation about how to behave, the question becomes: What types of behavior should we expect these instructions to typically address? A general evolutionary prediction is that traditional stories should encourage behaviors that helped our ancestors survive and reproduce in the past. Although Scalise Sugiyama has demonstrated that some stories influence children, or even adults, to become more efficient foragers (2001) and others encourage behavior likely to decrease the chances of being harmed by nonhuman predators (Scalise Sugiyama, 2002), we expect the majority of traditional stories will concern the most important, unpredictable, and potentially dangerous aspect of the human ancestral environment: other humans (see Flinn et al., in press).

We propose that John Maynard Smith (1984, p. 12) was correct when he claimed that the function of myths (by which he means traditional stories) “is to give moral and evaluative guidance”; and myths are repeated, “to persuade others to behave in certain ways” (emphasis added; see also Benjamin, 1973; Malinowski, 1931; Steadman and Palmer, 1997; Hefner, 1991; Coe, 2003). This claim that traditional stories primarily instruct proper moral, or social, behavior is supported with evidence from both the realms of ethnography and literary criticism.

The ethnographic literature is filled with traditional stories for both children and adults stressing the importance of proper social, or moral, behavior. For example, Keith Basso writes that the stories of the Western Apache “promote compliance with standards for acceptable social behavior and the moral values that support them” (Basso, 1990, p. 103). Among the Dogon, Calame-Griaule writes that “every narrative is a pretext for a lesson in social ethics…It is the story’s most obvious feature” (Calame-Griaule, 1986, p. 570). She notes that stories are referred to as “advice through the wondrous stories of bygone days.” In East Africa, girls learned the “secrets of a successful marriage” — how to manage males — through stories (Barongo, 1997, p. 10). Among the Sami, stories formed the basis of the entire education system across the lifespan; by listening to stories they “learned their history, culture, values, world view, norms, rituals, and skills needed in everyday life” (Kuokkanen, 1998, p. 11).

A. P. Elkin provides a specific example of how the words of ancestors, especially in the form of stories, instruct countless generations about the rules of social behavior. During initiation rituals Australian Aboriginal stories are told about the ancestral heroes who lived in the Dreamtime, and how they are models for correct social behavior:


At the conclusion of each act [addressing an incident in the life of the hero], which usually lasts only five or ten minutes or so, the old men explain it and the decoration and symbols to any newly initiated men present or to any whose memories need refreshing. In this way, tribal history is handed down, and the patterns of life which the myths enshrine are instilled into the minds of the younger men present, for most do today what the great heroes did in the dream time. (Elkin, 1964, p. 156)

Perhaps the Lugbara of Africa encompass this point most thoroughly when they simply say the rules of social behavior “are the words of our ancestors” (Middleton, 1960, p. 27).



Literary Theories and the Effect of Children’s Stories
One of the few points of agreement found in the sometimes contentious discourse about children’s stories is the idea that stories influence the social behavior of children. Indeed, there seems to be consensus among most of those who venture into the realm of children's literary criticism that one of its most important, if not primary, purposes is to teach children the morals of their parents, religion, and/or society, and in doing so to influence their behavior. It's a bit more complex than that, of course, and there are quite a number of supplementary theories as well. Still, across theoretical boundaries the basic premise has gained acceptance.

Peter Hunt writes in the introduction of Understanding Children's Literature that children's books "are overtly important educationally and commercially  — with consequences across culture, from language to politics: most adults, and almost certainly the majority in positions of power and influence read children's books as children, and it is inconceivable that the ideologies permeating those books had no influence on their development" (Hunt, 1999, p. 1). In medieval England these included "the ballads, Corpus Christi dramas, and popularized chanson de geste (songs of deeds)" (Wooden, 1986, xi) of the fifteenth century. In China, oral literature (including rhymes, tongues twisters, and jokes) weren't written down until the twentieth century. When they were finally, "every region was found to have its own repertoire of traditional rhymes for children, the subject and the types of which are very similar to those we know in English: lullabies; ring-a-roses and hand-clapping rhymes; counting rhymes and those about parts of the body and things to eat; rhymes about animals, birds, fishes, and insects; and rhymes about holidays and festivals” (Scott, 1980, p. 4)

Among the earliest printed children's book was English printer William Caxton's edition of Fables of Aesop (1483), which "was a favorite text in medieval schools, where the Latin fables had long been used to teach language and rhetoric in combination with sound practical morality" (Wooden, 1986, p. 3). Less than one-hundred years later John Foxe's Book of Martyrs (1563) was being widely used by parents, clergy, and teachers to point "little feet down the path of righteousness" (Wooden, 1986, p. 8). In France, “the literary fairy tale was to be used as a vehicle to discuss proper breeding and behavior exemplified by models drawn from the practice in court society and bourgeois circles and the theoretical writings on manners” (Zipes, 1991, p. 31). In Germany, the Brothers Grimm stories “draw conscious attention to prescribed values and models. As children read or are read to, they follow a social path, learn role orientation, and acquire norms and values” (Zipes, 1991, p. 57). In essence, no matter the culture, “At its point of origin for children the literary fairy tale was designed both to divert as amusement and instruct ideologically as a means to mold the inner nature of young people” (Zipes, 1991, p. 18).

This tradition has continued into our century. There has even been a sense that children’s books need provide useful information, including moral information. "Very often, children's literature is seen as the last repository of the dulcis et utile philosophy: the books may be pleasant, yes, but essentially they have to be useful" (Hunt, 1999, p. 11). While children may want stories where the “petty restrictions of real life are removed” adults “are more likely to want to feed the children a set of moral examples. By all means let them have their fun, but the opportunity of providing models of ideal behaviour is not to be wasted” (Carpenter, 1985, p. 1).


In psychoanalytic criticism, while the focus is often on the way children’s literature provides an opportunity for the author, not the reader, to work out some of his or her own unresolved conflicts, there is recognition that children's literature can be used to teach and influence the social behavior of children. In classic Freudian theory the superego is not present at birth and therefore the child has no sense of the moral standards that govern his or her culture. In Guilt and Shame in Early American Children's Literature, Mark I. West writes:

Included among the forces that contribute to the formation of the superego is children's literature. The authors of this type of literature often write with the intention of perpetrating their moral values. Similarly, when adults provide a youngster with a children's book, they may hope that the child will absorb the moral dictates that it contains. Thus, as one of the media through which a community's moral standards are communicated from one generation to the next, children's literature can play an important role in the process of child rearing (1999, p. 152).

The assumption that children's literature is a means of teaching and influencing the social behavior of children is also strikingly clear in recent intentional efforts to change, or even reverse, the points of traditional children’s stories. Hence, critics stress the need to change children’s literature in order to produce the desired effects on social behavior. Marxists attempt to change children’s literature because they see traditional stories as a tool used effectively by the bourgeois to keep the working classes under their thumb. An assumption of influential feminists, such as Simone Beauvoir, is that “books designed for girls in a patriarchal society are meant to instill qualities such as patience, endurance, submission, modesty, and discretion, along with the usual womanly virtues such as industry, cleanliness, and domestic abilities” (Shojaei Kawan, 2002, p. 30). Feminists, thus, criticize traditional stories and stress the need to change stories that they see as influencing girls to accept their marginalized place in society (Paul, 1990, pp. 149-150). In his article entitled The Impossibility of Innocence: Ideology, Politics, and Children's Literature, Charles Sarland summarized these views: "In order to respond to what was seen as the bias in children's fiction, it was argued that books should be written with working-class, or female or black protagonists. In this way, working-class, anti-racist and anti-sexist values would be promoted" (1999, p. 42). The importance critics place on changing stories implies the assumption that stories have powerful influences on social behavior.


To summarize this discussion, it appears safe to say that there is widespread acceptance of the basic premise that children’s literature can be used to teach and influence the social behavior of the young. Hence, there appears to be general agreement that the purpose of most children's literature is to serve as a form of communication designed to influence children’s behavior, particularly their social behavior. We are not arguing that the influence of traditional stories is “good” in any kind of moral sense, nor even that traditional stories increase the survival or reproduction of individuals in current environments. We are only pointing out that stories are used around the world to influence the social behavior of children.



Testing How Traditional Children’s Stories Influence Social Behavior
Evolutionary theory provides a vast array of testable predictions to help establish more specifically the role of stories in the development of social behavior. Those unfamiliar with evolutionary theory, or only knowing it from the writings of its critics, might be surprised to hear that evolutionary theory has so much to say about the social and cultural influences on human behavioral development. However, as Robert Wright points out “evolutionary psychologists, contrary to common expectation, subscribe to a cardinal doctrine of twentieth-century psychology and psychiatry: the potency of early social environment in shaping the adult mind” (Wright, 1994, p. 8). The difference between the evolutionary view of children’s stories and that of many non-evolutionarily informed approaches is that the evolutionist does not assume that the human animal is a blank slate “that can become any sort of animal at all with the proper conditioning” (Wright, 1994, p. 9; see also Pinker, 2002), which could include the hearing of certain stories. Instead, evolutionists use the principle of natural selection to make explicit assumptions about the other factors (genes and all other environmental inputs that contribute to development) that stories interact with during the developmental process. These include the evolved psychological mechanisms (Tooby and Cosmides, 1992), which are themselves the product of the interaction of genes and environmental factors.

From the evolutionary perspective, stories might potentially play a number of different roles in the development of both psychological mechanisms and later behavior. One possibility is that stories may intensify or reinforce the behavioral predispositions generated by psychological mechanisms. Another possibility is that stories may offset or counteract the psychological mechanisms, thus lessening the behavioral predisposition. These alternative hypotheses about the effect of stories could be tested in regard to numerous forms of social behavior. To illustrate some of the specific methods that could be used in such tests we will examine stories related to the social behavior known as reciprocal altruism (Trivers, 1971).



Reciprocal Altruism

Reciprocal altruism is an evolutionary concept capable of explaining altruism among individuals who are not necessarily closely related. It simply states that altruistic acts could be favored by natural selection when they are likely to be reciprocated in a form that is at least as valuable to the altruist as the original act was costly. Reciprocal altruism, which involves risk-taking on the behalf of the original altruist, has probably played a major role in human social life for tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of years. The specific tactics of how to come out ahead in reciprocally altruistic interactions has been a major topic of game theorists, with the general “tit-for-tat” strategy (being altruistic to everyone in the first interaction, but only continue to be altruistic to those who reciprocated) often being seen as an evolutionarily successful behavior pattern (Ridley, 1996).

There is also considerable evidence of specific psychological mechanisms, both emotional and cognitive, designed to successfully engage in reciprocally altruistic relationships. Perhaps the best known of these is the “cheater detection” module (Tooby and Cosmides, 1992), presumably evolved to help humans avoid the risks of being cheated by a non-reciprocator. There is also ample evidence that reciprocal altruism is not left to these mechanisms alone. Parents spend a great deal of time and effort instructing their offspring on how to be a good reciprocal altruist and how to spot those who are non-reciprocators. For example, telling children to always say “thank you” is aimed at helping them form reciprocally altruistic relationships.

The importance of reciprocal altruism in human social life, and the clear encouragement of this type of behavior by parents, predicts it should be a common theme in children’s stories. The apparent existence of evolved psychological mechanisms designed to deal with reciprocal altruism raises the interesting question of whether children’s stories intensify and reinforce these mechanisms, or offset them and weaken their effects. This question is further complicated by the fact that indirect reciprocal altruism (Alexander, 1987) has also played a major role in human social life. Indirect reciprocal altruism predicts that our altruistic (or non-altruistic) acts influence future interactions with individuals merely observing our interactions as well as the actual recipients of our altruism. The advantages of creating such a “reputation” for being an altruist could explain greater degrees of altruism than would be predicted by direct reciprocal altruism alone.


Given this complex situation, it seems safe to predict that children’s stories should often concern reciprocal altruism. However, it isn’t clear exactly what message should be encouraged by stories. One possibility is that these stories reinforce existing psychological mechanisms and encourage discrimination against non-altruists (i.e., tit-for-tat cheater detection). Another possibility is that these stories focus on encouraging altruism, and essentially offset or soften the cheater detection mechanisms and emotions by encouraging indiscriminate altruism. A third possibility is that they encourage children to subtly discriminate against non-altruists, thus camouflaging their tit-for-tat cheater detection pattern of behavior.


As Martin Daly and Margo Wilson point out, when the same theme is found in stories from a multitude of cultures “those themes must have something to do with the human condition” (Daly and Wilson, 1999, p. 5). The difficult task is to identify the exact influence of the story. There are a number of methods that could shed light on the role of reciprocal altruism in children’s stories.



Method One: Analysis of existing stories on reciprocal altruism

One way to test the role of children’s stories in reciprocal altruism is to examine existing stories to see exactly what kind of behavior they encourage. Reciprocal altruism is a common theme found both cross-culturally and diachronically among stories told to children. Illustrating the desire for parents to teach their children the benefits of reciprocal altruism, classical stories about altruism have demonstrated great staying power even as newer, more culturally relevant altruism stories arise. Not only do North American and European parents continue sharing antiquated altruism stories from their own traditions, they increasingly seek traditional stories from other cultures including Japanese, African, East Indian, and Native American traditions (Hearne, 1999).


An examination of stories with the theme of reciprocal altruism finds examples of both stories that encourage discriminating tit-for-tat type altruism (where the discrimination may be either obvious or subtle) as well as stories that encourage indiscriminate altruism toward other characters regardless of their past behavior. Altruism stories can be further classified by whether or not the altruist wins or loses — that is, whether or not the altruist's good deeds are reciprocated or not.

Stories illustrating indiscriminate altruism often include young men performing heroic deeds. In Jack the Giant Killer, a classic English fairy tale retold by Joseph Jacobs, Jack risks his life to kill giants and rescue young ladies. The king rewards Jack for his altruistic behavior by allowing him to marry his daughter, and by giving him a castle and an estate (Rackham, 1974). Cesarino and the Dragon, translated and retold by G.W. Waters is a classic Italian example of a similarly heroic young man who is rewarded with the princess he saves (Rackham, 1974).

Also common among stories of the indiscriminate altruist are characters who are asymmetrically rewarded for very small acts of kindness. In the Hindu tale Matsaya, young Manu saves the life of a little fish that then grows large, warns Manu of a flood for which he is to prepare for by building a large boat and filling it with all plants, seven wise men, and animals two by two. The fish then tows the boat to the Himalayas, and creates a wife for Manu. Manu and his wife become the ancestors of the Hindus (Shepherd, 1995). By saving the life of a little fish, Manu is rewarded with boundless reproductive success. Similar asymmetrical rewards are also found in J.F. Campbell’s retelling of the Scottish tale, Battle of the Birds when a young man who saves the life of a raven is rewarded with an enchanted castle (Rackham, 1974).


Altruism stories in which the reciprocated altruist is either subtly or obviously discriminating also abound and often include an open exchange between characters outlining how they will help each other out. In Lord Redesdale's translation of a classic Japanese tale, Little Peachling gives away millet dumplings to a hungry ape, pheasant, and dog in exchange for accompanying him to an ogre's island where they are to help Little Peachling capture the ogre's riches (Rackham, 1974). An obvious exchange of altruism also occurs between the characters of Aesop's fable The Lion and the Mouse. The hungry lion heeds the mouse's plea, "If you don't eat me, one day you might need my help!" In return the mouse later chews through a rope to save the lion's life (Piumini, 1989, p. 20).


Other stories don't contain any altruistic acts at all, and simply instruct children on who not to trust or be altruistic towards, and how to handle cheaters. For example, in stories like The Little Red Hen, Aesop's The Cicada and the Ants, the Japanese tale The Tongue Cut Sparrow, and the African tale The Animals Share, lazy and non-altruistic characters are openly punished or are not given a share of the resources collected (Quattrocki, 1995; Piumini, 1989; Rackham, 1974; Hamilton, 1997). The most explicative of these is The Little Red Hen, whose friends wouldn't help her plant, tend, harvest, or mill her wheat. Nor would they help bake bread with the flour. In response to her hungry friends, who had refused to help, the calculating Little Red Hen says, "All these things I did by myself. Now my chicks and I will eat this bread by ourselves!" (Quattrocki, 1995).

The potential strengths of this type of analysis as a method of testing predictions include its use of actual stories produced and repeated by human parents and, when applied across different cultures and historical periods, it could theoretically test many specific predictions. For example, the numerous versions of a story often encountered can be used to test predictions about the effect of different social environments, but only when these versions can be correlated with the specific social variables. Unfortunately, this is often not the case, leaving the examination of existing stories capable of little more than determining if a general subject is or isn’t found in children’s stories.

This is essentially the situation with existing stories concerning reciprocal altruism. There are certainly numerous stories from cultures around the world that concern how to behave in reciprocally altruistic relationships. However, more subtle distinctions about the exact messages of these stories are often not clear due to the different versions and the issue of translation accuracy.


Method Two: Preference for Alternative Versions
Another method to get at finer distinctions concerning the role of children’s stories in behavioral development would be to create different versions of a story and see which one is preferred, especially by parents. The first step of this method would be to construct a typical traditional story, say with the familiar theme found in many traditional stories where “initially the young protagonist must leave home or the family” (Zipes, 1991, p. 57). For example, in a story we will call Morty Mouse Leaves Home, the reader would be introduced to two characters (Priscilla Partridge and Bartholomew Bunny), who had been altruistic to Morty Mouse and his family in a time of need, and one character (Thomas Toad) who had not. The story would then tell how Morty Mouse later leaves home and encounters these same three characters again, and finds them all in need. Hence, Morty would need to make a decision about whether or not to act altruistically towards these characters.  In version one, Morty would be a good reciprocator and altruistically assist the two characters (Priscilla Partridge and Bartholomew Bunny) that had previously assisted him, but refuse to help Thomas Toad explicitly because he had not been altruistic in the past. In version two, Morty would be a good reciprocator and altruistically assist the two characters (Priscilla Partridge and Bartholomew Bunny) that had previously assisted him, but subtly refuse to help Thomas Toad. In version three, Morty would act altruistically toward all three characters. If children’s stories encourage a strict tit-for-tat strategy and reinforce our “cheater detection” modules, parents should prefer a version of the story where Morty explicitly or subtly refuses to help Thomas Toad because of his previous lack of altruism. On the other hand, if children’s stories (and perhaps parental influence in general) encourage altruism in a way that partially offsets the cheater detection module, and related mechanisms, perhaps to reap benefits from indirect reciprocal altruism, then parents would prefer a version in which Morty ignores what Thomas did in the past and treats him as altruistically as he does the other characters.

Countless other predictions could be tested using this method by manipulating such variables as the age, sex, status, and relatedness of characters, as well as the degrees of their needs and the costs of the altruistic acts. Predictions could also be made about different preferences in sections of populations still living among kin in traditional ways and sections going through rapid loss of traditions and living in new social environments containing less kin and likely to have fewer reliable reciprocators. An example would be to tell Korean children’s stories to Koreans living a traditional vs. a non-traditional lifestyle in Korea and individuals of Korean ancestry who have lived in the U.S. for two generations or more (Chun Koh, 2003).




As a universal part of human life, the telling of stories is of obvious interest to evolutionists attempting to explain human behavior. As a means by which ancestors influence the behavior of descendants over many generations, traditional stories should be of even greater interest because the effect of the story itself will influence the frequency of the story in future generations. A traditional story that influences the behavior of those who hear and repeat it in a way that increases their fitness will tend to become more frequent in future generations, while a traditional story that has the effect of lowering fitness will tend to die out over the generations. This effect will be particularly pronounced when the stories influence behavior crucial to human survival and reproduction. The frequent focus of traditional stories on social behavior suggests that this has often been the case. Thus traditional stories have probably been an important and integral part of human survival and reproduction for thousands of years.


The study of traditional children’s stories from an evolutionary perspective would be beneficial to both the study of children’s stories and to evolutionary theorists. Children’s stories analysis would benefit from countless new predictions, as well as an ultimate level of analysis that answers the question of “why” have parents wanted to influence their children in certain ways. In addition to reciprocal altruism, predictions can be made about the effect of children’s stories on such evolutionary topics as kin selection (e.g., Do traditional stories influence altruism among siblings and cousins in ways predicted by inclusive fitness theory?), parent-offspring conflict (e.g., Do traditional stories encourage behavior that increases the parent’s fitness or the child’s fitness when these are different?), male and female reproductive strategies (e.g., Do traditional stories encourage males to follow more of a K- or an r-reproductive strategy?, Do traditional stories influence female mate selection in regards to good genes versus good resource potential?), and many other evolutionary concepts. In return, evolutionary theorists would be provided with a rich new reservoir of naturally occurring and experimental data pools with which to test their hypotheses. <






We would like to thank the anonymous anthropologists and evolutionary theorists who reviewed this paper for Entelechy: Mind & Culture and recognized its strength in introducing a new anthropological approach to literary narrative.


We would also like to thank Jennice Wright, Scott Wright, B. Eric Fredrickson, and Lyle B. Steadman for assisting us in various ways in the production of this paper.






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Kathryn Coe
Mel and Enid Zuckerman Arizona College of Public Health
Arizona Cancer Center
University of Arizona

Kathryn Coe received her PhD from Arizona State University in 1995 in cultural anthropology and evolutionary biology. She has conducted fieldwork in Mexico, Ecuador, Spain, and the Southwestern United States. She has published on art, public health, and Darwinian medicine.


Craig T. Palmer

Department of Anthropology

University of Missouri-Columbia

Craig T. Palmer received his PhD in cultural anthropology from Arizona State University in 1988. He performs fieldwork in Newfoundland, Canada, and has published on sexual aggression, religion, and ecology.


Nancy Aiken

Independent Scholar

Guysville, Ohio

Nancy E. Aiken received her PhD in interdisciplinary studies in 1992 from Ohio University. She combined the disciplines of neuroscience, psychology, aesthetics, and sociobiology to develop an explanation for one way that art evokes emotion. She has published on this subject and on the biological basis and function of art.


Chris Cassidy

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

Department of Anthropology

University of Missouri - Columbia

Chris Cassidy received her Master's in archaeology in 2003 from the University of Reading and is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Her studies have focused on evolutionary theory and the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition.





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