Literature: an odd human endeavour

Homo sapiens is a storytelling species. There are probably few people who do not love stories. Most of all children. Even grown-ups do. One of the most frequent pieces of advice given to business presenters is not to present facts (they tend to make us fall asleep after a while), but to tell a story. Journalists know that that is what they want: a story.

Stories are also what I wanted most as a child. I loved reading and was a bookworm. Most people even considered my addiction to books pretty strange and unhealthy — nowadays when I tell other people that my two boys are bookworms themselves, they get a lot of praise and admiration, though. It’s still somewhat strange. What turns a child into a bookworm? At age 10 I — a boy who constantly daydreamed and had too much imagination — wanted to become a writer. I soon understood, however, that it would entail a high risk of becoming a failure. So, I went on to study languages and literature to become a teacher instead. This job would at least be able to provide me with a steady income to be able to support a family. Probably a reasonable choice, but why do many people still go on and want to become writers?

We are the only storytelling species, which is not very surprising, given that we are the only species that. Stories themselves are not very surprising from an evolutionary point of view, as they do serve some important functions:

●Learning from the experience of others

●Social cohesion — spending quality time with each other

All of these functions can be beneficial for an individual’s survival and reproductive potential. However, it is somewhat mysterious from an evolutionary point of view why people become professional storytellers and even more mysterious why people become literary critics or literature professors. While being able to tell a good story is in a way “sexy”, being a writer is a highly risky reproductive strategy in terms of evolutionary psychology. Whoever, is familiar with Geoffrey Miller’s The Mating Mind (2001) knows that showing literary talent can be regarded as a display of reproductive fitness: intelligence, humour and openness to experience are all displayed in storytelling and good writers have more good qualities: strong vocabulary, clarity, passion, vision, and are good observers of human nature. Yet, few are the damsels who would find a poet sexier than a banker or professional football player, so why not go for something more attractive to females?

Well, some writers go get rich, you might object. The number of penniless writers far outstrips the number of rich writers. We will never learn most of their names, but they do include such greats as:

●Oscar Wilde (1854–1900)

●Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849)

●O. Henry (1862–1910)

●Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862)

●Herman Melville (1819–1891)

●H.P. Lovecraft (1890–1937)

●William Blake

●Franz Kafka

●Kate Chopin

●John Keats

●Emily Dickinson

●Philip K. Dick

were among them.

●James Joyce

●Tennessee Williams

●William Falkner

●Paul Verlaine

●Eugene O’Neill

●Charles Bukowski

●Stephen King

Then there is the rank of eminent writers even committed suicide (not particularly helpful either in evolutionary terms):

●Sylvia Plath (1932–1963)

●Hunter S Thompson (1937–2005)

●Gerard de Nerval (1808–1855)

●Virginia Woolf (1882–1941)

●Arthur Koestler (1905–1983)

●Vladimir Mayakovski (1893–1930)

●Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961)

If you are still not convinced that writing is a bad choice from the point of view of evolutionary psychology here is a list of writers who died as virgins.

●Henry James

●Jane Austen

●Lewis Carroll

●Hans Christian Andersen

●Queen Elizabeth I (also a poet)

While some writers like Goethe and Victor Hugo were oversexed and had more than their fair share of erotic pleasures, many others were late bloomers or even abstinent. What is it about these literary oddities that they seem to defy the laws of evolutionary logic? One thing I was delighted and surprised to find out is that the vast majority of literary writers belong to a temperament that is called “Diplomats” (David Keirsey) or “Negotiator” (Helen Fisher), or NF types in Myers-Briggs.

In fact, when I first read my Myers-Briggs result, I couldn’t but marvel at how many famous writers had the same INFP type as me, starting with many of the earliest known writers like Homer and Aesop, many classics like Shakespeare, Franz Kafka and Herman Hesse to many contemporary writers such as Neil Gaiman and R.R. Martin. Many more of my own personal favourites were INFPs: George Orwell, Albert Camus, Antoine de Saint-Exupery and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Why did so many INFPs become writers? It almost seemed as INFPs were born to be writers (after all, I wanted to become one myself in childhood). The answer lies in the origin of our temperament: we have non-competitive (F), egalitarian (N) hunter-gatherer minds and struggle to follow conventional career paths. Here are the temperaments according to our ancestral mode of subsistence:

I, for one, have always known that I couldn’t make a career in business and definitely not in a 9–5 (farmer) job either. We are bad at doing what farmer types are good at: focus on routine work and high productivity. We are driven to find alternative ways of existing, writing being one of them. We have to take the road less travelled (Robert Frost), which makes failure much more likely. In this light, it’s not surprising that writers compare human existence to the myth of Sisyphus (Albert Camus) or even absurd (Samuel Becket).

For a themed book regarding literature and the hunter-gatherer hypothesis check out this ebook:

Originally published at on November 21, 2020.