Dr. Seuss meets Charles Darwin; Evolutionary history's rhyme and reason
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 5 May 2009)

How many parents, reading Dr. Seuss to their children, have shaken their heads in wonderment and delight over Horton Hears a Who!, that dazzling feat of storytelling? How many, when the children are bedded down, have opened the book on their own to enjoy in private the wild and genial imagination of the author? I have, certainly. Horton Hears a Who! exuberantly displays Dr. Seuss's ability to reorganize reality, in this case brazenly defying our sense of scale and proportion while persuading us to believe in a nano-civilization that exists on a speck of dust but faces extinction because only a kindly elephant named Horton believes that it exists.

At Random House five decades ago, Bennett Cerf published titans such as William Faulkner and Eugene O'Neill, but always insisted that the one genius in his stable was Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904-1991), a. k. a. Dr. Seuss. If we set aside the notion that literature matters only when it's written exclusively for adults, we can see Cerf's point. Dr. Seuss developed his own verbal and visual style, delivered serious universal themes to three-year-olds (as well as to the rest of us) and framed his unique narratives as poised, high-spirited comedy.

Still, even the most passionate admirers of Dr. Seuss might be surprised by the latest turn in his fortunes and Horton's. Together, they form a centrepiece in a new book by Brian Boyd, the world's leading authority on Vladimir Nabokov and an English professor at the University of Auckland. In a notable contribution to Darwin Year, Boyd has cleverly combined evolution with literary scholarship. This being the 150th anniversary of Darwin's On the Origin of Species, as well as the 200th anniversary of the great man's birth, Boyd has written On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction (Harvard University Press), a searching, free-wheeling book that sets forth a Darwinian view of narrative's place in human history. And Dr. Seuss's Horton fills all of 60 pages, getting equal billing with Homer's Odyssey, the other title chosen to demonstrate Boyd's theories. One section of the book is titled, "From Zeus to Seuss."

Boyd considers storytelling a human adaptation, in the Darwinian sense. It derives from play, which itself is an adaptation observed among intelligent animals, from gorillas to dolphins. More important, storytelling carries with it crucial advantages for human survival. It sharpens our skills in human interaction ("social cognition" is the term Boyd uses). It encourages cooperation. It fosters creativity. Had humanity been consciously looking for an intellectual device to encourage it on the way to evolutionary success, we couldn't have done better than invent that endlessly prolific form we call narrative. While telling us how this works, Boyd quotes Northrop Frye's remark, in 1957, that literary criticism badly needs a coordinating principle -- "a central hypothesis which, like the theory of evolution in biology, will see the phenomena it deals with as parts of a whole."

Frye was willing to go deep into history to uncover the governing myths that dominate world literature. Boyd, in what feels like an extended response to Frye, takes us further, back into the murkiest eras of prehistory. Literature's equivalent of evolution, Boyd has decided, is evolution itself. He calls what he does "evolutionary criticism," or evocriticism.

In recent decades, Darwin-ism has influenced a variety of disciplines, including anthropology, economics, religious studies and archaeology. Last year Denis Dutton, in The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution, identified the ways that evolution shaped taste and preferences in art.

Boyd and Dutton come down on the same side. Both reject the widespread academic view that different cultures are naturally isolated from each other. They believe in universally shared themes and inclinations, the result of humanity's common roots.

Boyd draws parallels between the theory of evolution and the work of artists -- Homer, Dr. Seuss, whoever. Natural selection, motiveless and unconscious as it is, nevertheless follows certain patterns. Again and again it randomly sets in motion possible solutions to problems of survival, fails, then starts again, reusing whatever elements have proven valuable. "In time, it can create richer solutions to richer problems." Put that way, evolution sounds exactly like the work of a writer.

Dr. Seuss's genius, as Boyd sees it, was the product of a brilliant artist who was also a tireless worker. Boyd contends that literary genius arises, in a perfectly naturalistic manner, through familiar Darwinian processes. A genius tests ideas, discards many, concentrates on a few. Like evolution, literary genius "does not know quite where it is going until it arrives there, usually after a long cycle of generate-test-regenerate." It builds on partial discoveries and then arrives at lasting solutions to problems no one could have formulated in advance.

In his youth Theodor Geisel found it easy to make people laugh. "He turned these into his speciality: He worked and worked and worked at play." He was a superb problem-solver, like evolution. He spoke to the world's desire for meaningful forms of play and provided (as Boyd eloquently puts it) "the pleasures of amused surprise."

Boyd describes the slow stages by which Dr. Seuss invented the micro-town of Who-ville, where the inhabitants play tennis, football and hockey, push babies around in baby carriages, and otherwise act like humans -- all on territory smaller than a square centimetre. Having invented this society, he imagined Horton, a conscientious elephant, who sees that Who-ville needs to be saved from accidental destruction.

Before readers finish the book's 60 pages we've absorbed a cluster of lessons on the responsibility of the strong to protect the weak, the necessity to speak up in defence of an endangered community and even the duty to vote.

Dr. Seuss, while re-enacting the story of evolution through his career, made literary art that contributed to progress through imagination, co-operation and creativity.

George Bernard Shaw, in his preface to Back to Methuselah, said he found that Darwinism had "a hideous fatalism about it, a ghastly and damnable reduction of beauty and intelligence, of strength and purpose, of honour and aspiration." All to the contrary, says Boyd.

Far from draining life's sense of purpose, he argues, Darwinism demonstrates the richness inherent in the human enterprise. Studying our origins makes our possibilities even grander than we could otherwise imagine and -- as this remarkable year demonstrates -- never ceases to open fresh intellectual territory.

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