Nothing But Survival: On the Origin and Function of Literature

  • Mario BarenghiEmail author


For a long time literary theorists have been concerned with the question “What is literature?”. This issue does not raise the same interest in our days. After all, what really matters is what we do with literature, whatever it is. Time has come for a comparison between literary and evolutionary studies. The question we should ask is: “Why is literature?” Where do poetic uses of language rise from? For what reason or reasons, in a remote era of our history, did our ancestors start to spend (or lavish) both time and mental energies in seemingly free and relaxed verbal activities which were unrelated to immediate needs? What are the features of human behaviour that literature tends to foster and strengthen? This article argues that, after all, the aim of literature – as in any other human activity – is nothing but survival.


Literary theory Evolutionary studies Exaptation Recycling speech 


Author’s Note

Thanks to Julia Weekes for Italian to English translation. These pages, intentionally conversational, do not aim to give an account of the evolutionary literary studies, which in recent decades have increased considerably in Anglo-Saxon countries. Jonathan Gottschall’s fresh and original book (2012) has recently been published in Italy under the title L’istinto di narrare. Come le storie ci hanno reso umani (Torino: Bollati Boringhieri), and summarizes a series of reflections on narration developed by the so-called Darwinian literary studies. In this fascinating field of multidisciplinary investigation, which is sustained by contributions from biology, neuroscience, pedagogy and aesthetics, the names of Joseph Carroll, Denis Dutton and Brian Boyd should be also be remembered with Gottschall.

I agree quite firmly that evolutionary studies represent a crucial area of research for the future development of literary theory. In any case, since the domain of the narrative is the most extensive one of literature, it is essential to bear in mind that not all literature is narrative: and that the origins and destinies of literature are always intertwined with those of language. If the analogy (made here) between the concepts of recycling and exaptation seems to me to merit investigation, it is not only for its theoretical importance, but also because it prevents the risk of flattening the role of literary experience to simple story telling. Simple, of course, so to speak. But things are always inevitably shown to be more complex than any of our theoretical simplifications.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.“Riccardo Massa” Department of Educational Human SciencesUniversity of Milano - BicoccaMilanItaly

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