The essence of storytelling in and of itself is an act of reproduction. When we tell a story we are reproducing details of an event or series of actions that have happened or are happening in this or parallel universes. If we come to the understanding that storytelling has this power, to reproduce, then it is not so far fetched to wonder if there could ever be a kind of evolution in the process of telling a story. The aim of this paper, with emphasis on the literary realm, is to gain a better understanding of whether or not there is an evolutionary process in storytelling and what kinds of evolution we are witness to if any.
The act of reproduction in the natural world has aided the process of evolution; selecting and passing on genes that seem to further the species survival and general well-being in its given environment. Stories can function similarly. In our daily lives we tell countless stories, to ourselves and to the people around us. We hone these stories, in a sense, to the way people react to them. A story can evolve from its original state to a state that produces a desired outcome or reaction through a process of embellishment and modification. If and when we know a story is good, that is it works well within the environment it is being told, the story-teller will tend to stick to that story with the hope that it will survive. The final story that is told, unfortunately, may be so far removed from the original, that in the process of its evolution, it may lose its meaning.
The next question we must ask, after acknowledging there is in fact an evolutionary process in story-telling, is whether or not evolution aids the survival of a story in the literary world (as it aids species in the natural world to survive). To better understand this process we may look at two novels, unique in their own rights, but intrinsically intertwined with one another. It is no mystery that Zadie Smith’s novel On Beauty borrows qualities from E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End. In her process of borrowing, Smith makes contemporary an otherwise outdated book. Most obvious here is the process of evolution between the books (from Howards End to On Beauty). Like the story of biological evolution, Smith has essentially passed on traits (genes) from Forster’s novel to hers, traits that made the original story Forster told successful in the first place. The problem however, is that the story Forster told was not ready to be modified (his story, in contemporary society, still survives and is moderately successful by all means).
Unlike the biological story of evolution, the literary one may create a sort of devolution. There is no doubt that one story evolved from the other, but all evolution does not have to be productive, though that is generally the aim. If a story is manipulated enough that it becomes so far removed from it original context, then we can easily argue that it has lost its meaning, for it is so hidden that it is not legible in the scope of the modified story. Ultimately, a story can only evolve so many times before it losses its meaning. When the story is written down multiple times by different authors its meaning becomes diluted, and inevitably we must look back to the original source of the story to fully understand it. Additionally, there may be no need for literature to follow such an evolutionary course, revising and modifying stories, because no one really wants to read the same story over and over again. In this sense, the process of literary evolution becomes devolutionary.
The devolution we are witness to in this literary instance is similar to cloning. Cloning in biology works against the grain of evolution, as man takes control of the genes passed onto the next generation. The process, which may appear to be beneficial at first, has severe consequences in its realization. Though cloning has achieved relative success since its discovery, deformation and risks of dying young run extremely high (the likelihood of survival in old age, in other words, is extremely slim). Smith’s novel is a success now, much like a clone is initially, but it is doubtful that her novel will survive as long as Forster’s. In the process of devolution, we, as readers, will always look to the original source to gain access to the story, not the clone (On Beauty being a clone in the sense that Smith’s story takes similar themes and characters, albeit disguised, and uses them in her story). In the end, if we take example of biological cloning, the clone does not, or rather cannot, survive in the world (be it literary or biological).