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The Paris lecture

The Story behind any Story

"The narratives of the world are numberless"; yet, all stories may be seen as chapters of a single story.
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"The narratives of the world are numberless"; yet, all stories may be seen as chapters of a single story. Evolutionary approaches to literary and cultural phenomena (E. O. Wilson, Joseph Carroll) have led to a growing awareness that these literary and cultural phenomena are best accounted for within a consilient disciplinary framework. From this consilient standpoint, human modes of communication must be contextualized as situated historical phenomena, and history as such is to be placed within the wider context of the evolution of human societies and of life generally (what is often called "big history"). Using the notions of "narrative mapping" and "narrative anchoring", the present lecture aims to draw from the aforementioned theoretical outlook a series of conclusions relevant to narratology, in particular to the narratological conceptualization of time. Diverse cultural conceptions of big history underpin the production, the reception and the critical analysis of any specific narrative, as well as any narrativizing strategy, in the sense that these conceptions provide both a general ideational background to the experiences depicted in the narratives, and a mental framework in which to situate (e.g. historicize) the narrative genres used in the depiction. Herbert Spencer´s philosophical work will be seen through the lens of its narratological significance, as a significant contribution in the development of our own big history, in the narrativization of science, and in the development of a scientific narratology.


The Story Behind Any Story: Evolution, Historicity, and Narrative Mapping
Narratology was born with a scientific aspiration to universality. In Aristotle´s poetics, philosophy as a knowledge of universals is contrasted to history as a knowledge of individual facts. Any opposition seems to call for a synthesis or mediation, and Aristotle suggested one in his theory of poetry: poetry is more philosophical than history, because it imposes a conceptual order or pattern on the events of human experience and action. The Poetics offers a foundational model for narratology—it is the first formal narratological treatise, besides much else. But in addition to its structural analyses of plot, of discovery, of closure, or of structure, it also contains some pointers relating to the origin of drama, and of mimetic art generally, grounding it on the imitative insticts in human nature. And it can also lay claim, therefore, to taking precedence as the first treatise in cognitive poetics.
Paul Ricoeur pointed out the cognitive importance of emplotment, as first conceived by Aristotle. Emplotment, organizing events into a story, paving the road to a closure, is a prime cognitive move, equal at least in importance to the joining of subject and predicate in a proposition, or to metaphor, which—as Giambattista Vico pointed out—stands at the root of creative thought. There is of course a chapter on metaphor in the Poetics, but the main emphasis falls on the analysis of plot.
Emplotment and narrativity allow us to see, or to establish, the connection in a series of events. Most post-structuralist criticism has been suspicious of such connections, and has deconstructed narrative causality and the unities built by master plotters. As an instance of such criticism I´d like to mention Gary Saul Morson´s Narrative and Freedom, a masterful critique of several ills attending the retrospective stance of narrative, and a major contribution to the analysis of hindsight bias, although this term is not used in the book, he calls it backshadowing. Hindsight bias is the narrative fallacy par excellence, although one might go one step further and argue that narrative is the narrative fallacy par excellence—so entwined with distortions and with illusions are the truths we articulate and the stories we tell, with facts, fictions, omissions and additions being present in almost equal proportions, though not in the same way, in fictional stories and in historical or biographical records.
Unity and unity-finders have been much disparaged since the 1960s, although they no doubt tell part of the truth in the story. Nietzsche´s aphorisms and his hermeneutics of suspicion have been much been preferred to the grand philosophical systematics of Hegel, which are largely left unread, at least outside the philosophical field. But the work of unification, unfashionable like romantic fiction, goes on nonetheless, with much work being done behind the back of the deconstructors, changing the very landscape in which we live and think. The unforeseen revolution of Internet communications, unforeseen by the imagination of science-fiction even, is a particularly relevant example. The demise of the Great Narratives was one of the catchphrases of Academia precisely at the time in which the Great Narratives of globalization, electronic communications and relativistic cosmology were asserting their influence in an incontestable way.
As my title suggests, I want to emphasize one such aspect of narrative, its inherent power to provide unification, to connect—in the last analysis, to connect all narratives in a cognitive step which makes sense of the whole of the world we live in. The term "third culture" has become widespread in recent years, associated to E. O. Wilson´s notion of consilience—building bridges between the sciences and the humanities, on the basis of cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, and sociobiology.  The accounts of "Big History" we can find in the books by David Christian or Fred Spier provide histories of cosmic evolution. Inspired by Jan Smuts´s concept of emergence,[1] they set in a wider context the rise of life and of civilization, and provide a scientific context which throws a much-needed light on the present problems of human societies and cultures—especially in the light of the energy crisis, overpopulation, sustainability, and the depletion of the environment. These are the inescapable contexts of both present and future cultural investigations and representations. And these Big Histories make it clear that there is a human story, and a history of the universe, which is the inescapable backdrop to all the stories of mankind, and the soil on which they grow.
There are many directions one can take to go from the many stories to the principle of all stories. One such was the road taken by structuralist critics, the founding fathers of narratology, trying to find the common structural principles of stories, a grammar of stories or a semiotic system accounting for all narratives. Both the central and east European formalists in the early decades of the 20th century and the structuralists from the 60s were retaking Aristotle´s project—all narratives answering to common structural principles. Myth criticism as best exemplified in the work of Northrop Frye undertook a similar project—and the insights provided from these perspectives can be usefully rethought from a consilient stance. Joseph Carroll´s Darwinian poetics or Brian Boyd´s book On the Origin of Stories are only the first steps in this reassessment, which sometimes takes a contentious turn, given that the sociobiological critics stress the limited flexibility of human nature, as against the claims of constructivist critics which tend to see human nature as a blank slate for culture to write on[2] . The sociobiological critics claim that human nature, for all its flexibility, is limited and circumscribed,  and tied to our age-long heritage and evolutionary history. The Big Story is especially prominent from this stance, it weighs heavily on the shoulders of the naked and the clothed ape.
Another way to synthesis, from the many to the one, and to science, was provided in the nineteenth century by the philosophy of history (Hegel) and also by evolutionary theory, which set down the conceptual frame for a scientific grounding of all natural phenomena as part of a single big history. Cultural theory, biology, and geology all became historical sciences in the eighteenth and nineteenth century; chemistry, astronomy and physics followed suit in the twentieth century—resulting in narrativization of the Universe, no less.
One of the earliest and most complex theories of evolution was formulated by Herbert Spencer one hundred and fifty years ago. The first edition of his groundbreaking First Principles is from 1862, last revised by the author in 1900. It is somewhat ironic that Spencer is usually regarded today as something of an epigone of Darwin, given that his theory of evolution not only predated the publication of the Origin of Species, in Social Statics (1850): it is also much more complex and wide-encompassing than Darwinism. It is a theory of the global evolution of the universe and its phenomena, not merely a theory of the evolution of living forms, although it certainly takes into account the evolution of living beings, for the details of which Spencer often refers readers to Darwin. He goes much farther in trying to account for the generation of many phenomena, at the physical-mathematical level, at the cosmological level, and also at the level of geology, of biology, psychology, sociology, economics and culture. Clearly Spencer´s conception of evolution is much more abstract and general than Darwin´s, as it aims to explain a multitude of phenomena which were outside the scope of Darwinian biology. Actually, Darwin does not address the origin of life, not venturing to write on the subject, being as he was too prudent both in scientific terms and in terms of the possible damage to his social life and reputation. Darwin suggests that all living beings descend from one primeval living form, but he does not speculate on the origin of that being, only telling us in pseudo-Biblical language that "life was breathed into it". Darwinism addresses evolution understood as the formation of species and diverse varieties of living beings; evolution means for Darwin (who does not much use the term himself) "descent with modification"; and his celebrated principle of natural selection and the self-organizing emergence of complexity applies only to living beings. But many complex biological phenomena, such as consciousness, are not dealt with by Darwin either, while the evolution of consciousness is central for Spencer.
Spencer´s very definition of evolution is more encompassing and ambitious than Darwin´s, too ambitious some have said:
1. "Evolution is an integration of matter and concomitant dissipation of motion; during which matter passes from an indefinite, incoherent homogeneity to a definite, coherent heterogeneity; and during which the retained motion undergoes a parallel transformation." (§145; p. 358, italics in the original)
Evolution is the process whereby greater complexity is generated, through the spontaneous integration of natural forces and phenomena. Some examples of this relative integration, at various levels, may be mentioned (2):
- The formation of a planet out of dispersed matter
- The formation of pluricellular beings out of unicellular beings
- The formation of complex societies, unifying dispersed populations
- The integration of productive and economic systems in a global economy
I pause to say that these can only be accounted for through narrative, through the kind of storytelling which integrates diverse phenomena into a coherent story of processes and development.
And some instances of the growing heterogeneity which goes along with these unifications:
- The formation of planets with different characteristics, a plurality of worlds, in different positions of the Solar System.
- The diverse forms of pluricellular beings and of anatomical structures, as compared with the relative uniformity of single-celled organisms, or of the first hypothetical primeval organism.
- Different modes of social life, different ecological economies, exploiting a variety of natural resources and landscapes.
- The differentiation of social classes and professions in a nation.
- The global division of work, and the extreme specialization of production allowed by the development of communications.
Although Spencer was not familiar with the Internet or with GATS, the global village, the business niches of the Long Tail, etc., are only a corollary of this law of evolution, once we acknowledge the growing generation of complexity. And he did not know the European Union, either, but he announces it quite explicitly, a century in advance, in the mid-Victorian age, based on the analysis of data and of historical processes, and well before the idea had reached the thoughts of any politician.
Spencer could not deal in any detail with the origin of life and consciousness, but he does situate them within the framework of this general theory of the evolution of complexity out of more basic components. It should be said that although in a more general sense any change, including processes of disintegration and disaggregation, are part of evolution, Spencer considers the latter a contrary process: the growth of integrating and complexifying evolution in certain sections of the Universe may be followed by dissolution, or this may be taking place elsewhere at the same time; this is the result of a tendency to what others have called entropy,[3] a reduction in heterogeneity. Consciousness is, within the scope of Spencer´s theory, a phenomenon which is possible only in the context of highly complex living processes, resulting from high heterogeneity. (The materialist and evolutionary theory of consciousness developed some decades later by George Herbert Mead in The Philosophy of the Present is highly consonant with Spenser´s thought, and it is tempting to see each of these two theories of complexity in terms of one another).
This global integration of evolutionary processes (resulting from what Mead would call the sociality of physical phenomena), and this notion of consciousness, cannot but culminate in a philosophy of evolution which redefines itself, and accounts for itself, in such terms. Philosophy must needs be a process of integration, and being the highest activity of consciousness, philosophy must conceive of itself in these terms; it must develop an awareness of what it is, that is, what is the status of philosophy considered in the light of overall evolutionary processes. (And Spencer, like Hegel, must be forgiven if these reflections lead to a somewhat circular reflexivity, consciousness being essentially reflexive, or more immodestly to an aggrandizing of their own system within the scale of Being. I for one will not question the accuracy of their self-assessments).
William Whewell´s term "consilience", revived of late by E. O. Wilson in his 1998 book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, is not used by Spencer, but he is as clear-sighted and ambitious as Wilson when it comes to the formulation of this as an aim for thought.[4] Without any need to reorient the task of philosophy, Spencer finds consilience presupposed in the very notion of philosophy, which operates under "the tacit implication that Philosophy is completely unified knowledge" (First Principles 484). After a preliminary definition of the task, First Principles sets down the axiomatic bases of knowledge, "Fundamental propositions, or propositions not deducible from deeper ones" and deriving from the very nature of rationality, taking as our data "those components of our intelligence without which there cannot go on the mental processes implied by philosophizing" (484)—and from there we pass to certain basic truths, which for Spencer are "the Indestructibility of Matter" (remember that we are working here within a largely Newtonian paradigm predating Einstein and Bohr) and "The Continuity of Motion", both derived from the more basic principle of "The Persistence of Force"—a notion whose ultimate nature would have to be revised in our universe of quantum fluctuations. Be as it may, Spencer derives other basic principles of physics from these primary axioms: "The Persistence of the Relations among Forces" or the "Uniformity of Law", a necessary consequence of the fact that a Force cannot arise out of nothing nor lapse into nothing. (Present-day cosmology is still grappling with the limits set to these principles, and to our universe, by the Big Bang theory, black holes and baby universes, but of course those lay beyond the Newtonian paradigm of nineteenth-century physics).
The next step in reasoning is that forces which seem to contradict that principle and seem be lost, "are transformed into their equivalents in other forces; or, conversely, that forces which become manifest, do so by the disappearance of pre-existing equivalent forces" (484-5), a principle exemplified in astronomical physics, in common geological phenomena, and in biological processes—for instance, Spencer reminds us of the huge amount of biological or geological forces on earth which result from the transformations of incoming solar radiation.
Other laws derive from the principle of the Persistence of Force, and illustrate in their turn a multitude of physical, biological or neuropsychological phenomena. Thus, the celebrated Law of Minimal Effort, "The law that everything moves along the line of least resistance, or the line of greater traction, or their resultant" (485).[5] It is to be noted that long before Ramón y Cajal or neuroscience, Spencer lays down at this point a bridge between the psychology of the association of ideas and the modern science of neural connections.
3. "A stimulus implies a force added to, or evolved in, that part of the organism which is its seat; while a mechanical movement implies an expenditure or loss of force in that part of the organism which is its seat: implying some tension of molecular state between the two localities. Hence if, in the life of a minute animal, there are circumstances involving that a stimulation in one particular place is habitually followed by a contraction in another particular place—if there is thus a repeated motion through some line of least resistance between these places; what must be the result as respects the line? If this line—this channel—is affected by the discharge—if the obstructive action of the tissues traversed, involves any reaction upon them, deducting from their obstructive power; then a subsequent motion between these two points will meet with less resistance along this channel than the previous motion met with, and will consequently take this channel still more decidedly. Every repetition will further diminish the resistance offered; and thus will gradually be formed a permanent line of communication, differing greatly from the surrounding tissue in respect of the ease with which force traverses it. Hence in small creatures may result rudimentary nervous connexions." (§79, p. 211-12)
The same principle is applied by Spencer to the acquisition of habits, to learning, to the personal association of impressions and memories (before Proustian madeleines).
Another of the principles derived is that of the Rhythm of Movement, the creation of alternance and rhythm out of the composition of forces, repetitions, ondulations, or partial balancing of forces. As a matter of fact, if life exists at all as a form of complex order, it is because physical forces and chemical processes have come to be arranged in a complex and rhythmical way, and because there have come to exist large, complex and long-standing equilibria of forces giving rise to the appropriate ecosystems.
Knowledge of natural phenomena thus rests on a physics grounded in its turn on the principles necessary for the rational understanding of phenomena. The task of philosophy is to elucidate the way in which diverse physical and cosmical phenomena obey a common logic, a "law of cooperation" (which Mead will refer to as the basic sociality of physical phenomena, present at any level from the interaction of forces to the phenomenology of consciousness and cultural dynamics): "And hence in comprehending the Cosmos as conforming to this law of co-operation, must consist that highest unification which Philosophy seeks" (486)
The law Spencer was looking for, a law accounting for "the continuous redistribution of matter and movement" might be seen realized at least in part in Einstein´s theory of relativity, specified in the formula relating energy and matter, e=mc2. Although physicists are still looking for a comprehensive "theory of everything" which accounts for all of the basic forces of the universe under a single explanation. 
But, beyond the problem of physical reductionism, a consilient science should account for emergent phenomena; it should be able to explain all phenomena at their own level "in their passage from the imperceptible to the perceptible, and back to the imperceptible." This passage takes place in each of the phenomena of the universe, and also in the universe considered as a whole. The passage from nothing to everything and back to nothing is at once the ultimate expression of the short short story and the most comprehensive evolutionary backdrop to any narrative. It is the history of everything, the gradual and emergent development of all phenomena which is evolution as conceived by Spencer.
I find a fascinating historiographic and narratological dimension in this philosophical project, and one much akin to the contemporary concerns with the natural and ecological contextualization of the whole of human endeavours, for instance in Edward O. Wilson´s books Consilience and The Social Conquest of Earth. A philosophy of evolution is necessarily a global theory of the history of the universe, considered in its physical, astronomical, geological and biological aspects. It includes a history of human evolution, although Spencer avoids dealing with the subject in First Principles.  This evolutionary conception also provides a framework—a cognitive map, or all-encompassing script—for the narratives of human history: the development of cultures and societies, and of psychological and ideological phenomena. Recently we have had a spate of excellent documentaries popularizing this issue, notably those by Jacques Malaterre, which witness to a growing interest and consciousness on the educated audience about the need to connect cultural history and the history of civilization with an increased awareness of the origins and the ecological significance of the human phenomenon. Anthropology and cultural history find their appropriate perspective within this scope, as does the more specific disciplinary study of psychological, political, economic and ideological phenomena in the various branches of the social sciences and the humanities. Any given phenomenon is understandable, on the one hand, as a manifestation of more basic principles of which it is an emergent expression; on the other, it becomes part of a wider interactional context. Thus, the history of specific phenomena, "in their appearance and until their disappearance", is rooted on a wider history, the comprehensive framework of all effective histories. As to possible worlds or imagined histories, they are best approached initially as culturally situated fictions in the highly specific context of human communications.
All this has a narrative dimension, and many implications for the theory of narrative. In analyzing a story´s narrative anchoring, we show how individual narratives are not a narratologically simple phenomenon; rather, they are made up of many narrative layers and structures: processes, anecdotes, previous histories, archetypes, interpretive frames and scripts, virtual plots and sideshadows. All of these find an anchoring in the narrative in question which articulates, uses or invokes them, but they can only do so through the link provided by the general narrativity of reality—that relational character of all evolutionary phenomena, the all-encompassing frame of temporal development, which can be conceptually grasped by evolutionary and consilient "Big Histories" such as the one articulated by Spencer. The many ways such big histories or contextualizing narrative frames are invoked or negotiated in any specific encounter or discourse event should provide much matter for narratological analysis; here I can only focus on my Spencer example as an instance of emergent narrativity in the context of evolutionary philosophy.
Every time a narrative presupposes a given world view, a given theory of reality, or a practical assumption of the way things are or are not, it is anchoring itself in such a narrative understanding of reality—or if it does not do so explicitly, we must bring that anchoring to light in order to make sense of it. This is also the case every time a "grand narrative" is taken to be the background of lived or narrated experience—grand narratives such as the spread of civilization, progress, globalization, consumption, rural exodus and the development of cities, dreams of utopia—or conversely, grand narratives of crisis, impending catastrophes, ecological doom, overpopulation and global warming. Perhaps we need an updated Theory of Myths, a contemporary and historicised Anatomy of Criticism, to help us contextualize and historicize these narratives of Spring, Summer, Crisis, and Winter which are at work structuring our discourse every time we do not hold our peace.[6] Michel Butor said about narrative: "it is a phenomenon which goes significantly beyond the domain of literature; it is one of the essential constituents of our apprehension of reality."[7] And indeed our understanding of reality is a narrative one; reality is narrative in nature because it is evolutionary; the human symbolic world is made of words and of the stories we build with them, but there is a perceptual grounding both in words and in stories which ensures that our virtual world of symbols is not arbitrarily imposed on the real world.[8] One may say that reality is a narrative, literally so, from the moment we have a brain to understand it.
There is an intuitive cognitive projection of complex narrative frames in everyday experience, as well as in the production of narrative discourses and in their interpreters and critics. Elaborate intellectual articulations of this complexity, such as the one we find in Spencer´s philosophy, build on this general narrativity of our experience and communication. We perceive the world as an ongoing process of transformation and change, integrated in its complexity and diversity, made up of analogies between temporal processes and obeying to observable regularities. The analogy between the cycles of the day and of the year, the course of human life, and stories of creation and apocalypse is only one prominent example.
The Universe, universal evolution, can be conceived, as suggested by Spencer´s philosophy, as an all-encompassing narrative (or narrable) process, as a complex multitude of narrative processes rather, framed within one another, embedded or sequenced in ways familiar to narratologists; processes which are classifiable or understandable through their relation to the whole. History as usually taught, that is, the history of civilizations, is only a small chapter in this big history of mankind, the history of humanization, of the origin of language, the history of the dozen extinct species of humans and proto-humans which preceded us or were driven to extinction, as happens even today to the primitive populations, cultural isolates, still surviving in their ancestral mode of life. The Big History of mankind was for Darwin a "grand sequence of events" which should be explained by evolutionary biology. And sociobiologists like E. O. Wilson have done their best to show how our story is not just our story—it is our nature, stamped in our being. The evolutionary perspective shows just to what extent our very bodies and minds are living narratives, structured by embodied history, if only we can read them.
Darwin´s perspective was grand, but Spencer´s is grander, and much more closely argued than Nietzsche´s vision of the Eternal Return. The history of life and consciousness is only a chapter, our chapter, in the history of physical and chemical processes. And Spencer conceives the role of his evolutionary philosophy (his System of Synthetic Philosophy, as he called it) as a consilient perspective on reason and knowledge, on the natural and human sciences, a narrative explanation of all possible phenomena in nature (and culture), from their emergence (at the beginning of the story) to their disappearance, as nothing is eternal:
5. "If [Philosophy] begins its explanations with existences that already have concrete forms, then, manifestly, they had preceding histories, or will have succeding histories, or both, of which no account is given. Whence we saw it to follow that the formula sought, equally applicable to existences taken singly and in their totality, must be applicable to the whole history of each and to the whole history of all. This must be the ideal form of a Philosophy, however far short of it the reality may fall." (First Principles §186; p. 486)
The Universe is a complex process, in which Spencer distinguishes a primary process of evolution, an "integration of matter and dissipation of movement" as he puts it, and secondary processes accompanying it, a composite evolution—"The primary re-distribution of Matter and Motion is accompanied by secondary re-distributions" (§186, p. 487), re-distributions resulting in the generation of complexity, not in the integration of everything into a simple universal unity. Separate wholes divided into parts are created, and there are indirect processes of integration making these parts mutually dependent, even as they become differentiated—and so reality unfolds into complex emergent levels,[9] even as it maintains an essential unity:
6. "From this primary re-distribution we were led on to consider the secondary re-distributions, by inquiring how there came to be a formation of parts during the formation of a whole. It turned out that there is habitually a passage from homogeneity to heterogeneity, along with the passage from diffusion to concentration. While the matter composing the Solar System has been assuming a denser form, it has changed from unity to variety of distribution. Solidification of the Earth has been accompanied by a progress from comparative uniformity to extreme multiformity. In the course of its advance from a germ to a mass of relatively great bulk, every plant and animal also advances from simplicity to complexity. The increase of a society in numbers and consolidation has for its concomitant an increased heterogeneity both of its political and its industrial organization. And the like holds of all super-organic products—Language, Science, Art, and Literature." (§187; p. 488)
In any kind of phenomena, as Spencer puts it in a necessarily general formulation, we pass from a relatively diffuse, uniform and indeterminate structure to the creation of multiple, concentrated, complex and mutually integrated forms. Unless, that is, these complex forms enter a process of decay and dissolution. It is not by chance, Spencer asserts, that all disciplines of knowledge and all phenomena can be subsumed unter this all-encompassing law of evolution. It is, rather, the other way round: the disciplines we use to know and classify reality are "mere conventional groupings, made to facilitate the arrangement and acquisition of knowledge" but their ultimate object is the same, cosmic evolution—so "there are not several kinds of Evolution having certain traits in common, but one Evolution going on everywhere after the same manner" (p. 490). As a matter of fact, the labour of science is to show the common grounding of the evolution of all phenomena, once we have come to know the general principle of reality as manifested in the elementary laws of physics governing matter and energy—that is, in the primary effects of the Force which has generated the universe:
7. "Analysis reduces these several kinds of effect to one kind of effect; and these several kinds of uniformity to one kind of uniformity. And the highest achievement of Science is the interpretation of all orders of phenomena, as differently conditioned manifestations of this one kind of effect, under differently-conditioned modes of this one kind of uniformity" (§194, p. 498).
Spencer´s theory of complexification and dissolution has an interesting aspect related to observability and to information processing which might be further explored, though not at this point. Still, we may note in passing that the difference established here between Evolution and Dissolution is relative to the observing subject. As life and consciousness are in themselves complex phenomena, and the necessary basis on which theories of evolution must rest, the very phenomenological constitution of the subject matter leads per se to conceive of the subject matter directionally. Complexification is positively evaluated, it is a "rising" phase of evolution, while disintegration is negatively evaluated—although, if we imaginatively suppress the material basis of our cognitive viewpoint, it´s all the same process of evolution, and as a matter of fact both evolution and dissolution fall in Spencer´s theory under the same explanation, as effects resulting from the same causes, as a continuum in fact. We may argue that the mere fact that Spencer uses two different terms, evolution as against dissolution, is invidiously "teleological", "directionalist," "anthropic" and other nasty words fron the standpoint of late 20th-century evolutionism. Nonetheless, his theory is quite self-consciously deliberate on this point: we live in a world of objects—as a matter of fact subjects have to be objects before they are subjects—and therefore we are keenly interested in the formation of objects, and in their dissolution—in their biography we might say, because we [subjects indeed!] are subject to the same law of evolution and dissolution which governs other objects.[10] Our knowledge is narrative knowledge because it is not neutral with respect to the structure and history of the universe—the structure of our knowledge is of a piece with the evolutionary nature of the universe itself. This is perhaps the key sentence of my talk, so I will repeat it for emphasis: Our knowledge is narrative knowledge because it is not neutral with respect to the structure and history of the universe—the structure of our knowledge is of a piece with the evolutionary nature of the universe itself. Understanding of narrative is therefore an essential cognitive tool in order to understand the universe and evolution. But understanding the universe and evolution, our evolution, is an essential cognitive tool in order to understand narrative.



[1] Jan Smuts proposed the holistic conception of cosmic evolution as an organized series of emergent systems.

[2] See some of the arguments against evolutionary criticism and neuroaesthetics in Tallis (2012).

[3] Rudolf Clausius, Ludwig Boltzmann, etc.

[4] For some narratological remarks on Whewell, Wilson and consilience, see my paper "Consiliencia y retrospección."

[5] Alfred J. Lotka and other scientists used a version of this principle in order to extend Darwin´s concept of natural selection to physics and cosmic evolution. Lotka´s maximum power principle was proposed by Howard Odum as an additional law of thermodynamics governing the ecology of ecosystems (see Odum 1994; Odum and Pinkerton 1955).

[6] Big history should provide us with tools for rethinking both the modes of repetition and of static time (habit, laws, customs, etc.) and the modes of crisis and event (transformation, conflict, epiphany), etc.—historicizing them in a new light. More generally speaking, Frye´s poetics of myth is in for an appreciative revaluation from the present standpoint of present-day evolutionary and cognitive poetics.

[7] Michel Butor, "Le roman comme recherche" in Essais sur le roman, 7.

[8] See Bergen, Louder than Words.

[9] The concept of emergence or holism are not explicitly stated by Spencer, although it can easily be seen they are ready to emerge. It is nonetheless curious that in Holism and Evolution (1926) Jan Smuts refers to Spencer only marginally.

[10] I would modify, however, the way in which Spencer formulates the relationship between evolution and dissolution, to show that the mutual involvement of processes of integration and of decay is much closer than his formulation would seem to suggest. I add the italicised words: "All things are growing and / or decaying, accumulating matter and / or wearing away, integrating and / or disintegrating" (§95, p. 251).


Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. S. H. Butcher. In Critical Theory since Plato. Ed. H. Adams. San Diego: Harcourt, 1971. 47-66.

Barthes, Roland. "An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives". In Barthes, Image-Music-Text. Ed. and trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. 79-124.

Bergen, Benjakin K. Louder than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning. Basic Books, 2012.

Boyd, Brian. On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction. Cambridge (MA) and London: Harvard UP-Belknap Press, 2009.

Butor, Michel. "Le roman comme recherche." 1960. In Butor, Essais sur le roman. Paris: Gallimard, 1992. 7-14.

Carroll, Joseph. Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature. London: Routledge, 2004.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton (NJ): Princeton UP, 1957.

García Landa, José Angel. "Consiliencia y retrospección." Ibercampus (Vanity Fea) 16 Nov. 2009.

Malaterre, Jacques, dir. La odisea de la especie. Script by Jacques Dubuisson and Michel Fessler. Music by Yvan Cassar. Scientific dir. Yves Coppens (Spanish version ed. Juan Luis Arsuaga). Prod. France 3 / RTBF, Pixcom, Transparences Productions, 17 Juin Production, Mac Guff Ligne. France, 2002. Spanish DVD: Divisa Red, 2003.

Morson, Gary Saul. Narrative and Freedom: The Shadows of Time. New Haven: Yale UP, 1994.

Odum, H. T. Ecological and General Systems: An Introduction to Systems Ecology. Rev. ed. University Press of Colorado, 1994.

Odum, H. T., and R. C. Pinkerton. "Time´s Speed Regulator: The Optimum Efficiency for Maximum Output in Physical and Biological Systems." American Scientist 43 (1955): 331–343.

Smuts, Jan Christian. Holism and Evolution. London: Macmillan,  1926. 2nd ed. 1927. Online at Internet Archive (Universal Library).

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_____. The Social Conquest of Earth. New York and London: Norton-Liveright, 2012.

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