Is "fiction" an exclusively human concept? What drives it?

An offhand Galaxy Quest quote in another thread got me to thinking about this. How universal is the drive to create fictional stories? As far as I know, every human culture on Earth has some form of fiction. (Correct me if I’m wrong.) From mythology to Hollywood movies, humans seem to be adept at making up fake situations to describe universal truths. But how universal is this drive? Do apes have any form of fiction?

And for that matter, would aliens necessarily have fiction or even be able to understand it? There have been a few examples of science fictional races which do not have fiction (the aforementioned Galaxy Quest and I think the Martians in Stranger in a Strange Land didn’t have it either). Can you conceive of an intelligent culture where they don’t make up things?

I’ve always took it for granted that fiction would be an innate part of the culture of any sentient species, but yet, when you think about the concept it just seems so strange. You go to the bookstore and half the books are about people who never lived and things that never happened. If we had perfect logic, would we still buy and read these books? What about perfect memories? There are enough true stories that are interesting that if we could remember all of them, they would spread like memes and perhaps take away the need for fiction. And if that’s true, that there are enough real stories to satisfy people but we create fiction because we can’t learn of them all, then why didn’t fiction die out with the invention of the printing press and the advent of mass communication?

So, to summarize:

  1. Why do we make fiction?
  2. Is it really as weird as I think it is?

(I actually read almost all fiction and don’t like documentaries so you don’t need to say “well, you just don’t get it” because I do get it for me, personally.)


I would say that our ability to create fiction is tied to our ability to empathize. We try to think about how others feel, and the creation of stories about how others feel is directly tied to that ability. There has even been some suggestion that empathy is at least as important as reasoning in evolving into humans.

As for other species, to my knowledge, humans are the only truely empathizing species on this planet, so it makes sense to me that, say, dolphins don’t make stories.

As for off this planet, since we are still looking for pond scum, let me know when we find another sentient species and we can see if my WAG holds. :wink:

In addition to the interesting empathy guess, I’d say it’s tied into our ability to make changes in our world. Humans are less tied to instinct than any other animal, and that’s because we can look at our world and speculate about how it could be different and then put our speculations into effect. This drive to speculate may also result in art forms such as fictional narrative.


I agree with this. Most of the time when you make a choice, you’re creating a “fiction,” a something that doesn’t happen but that you’ve considered.

“Should I go to Denver or Las Vegas for Christmas?” You weigh the pros and cons, not of the vacations as they happened in the past but of the vacations as they happen in your imagination. You pick one. The other is entirely fictional. The one you picked is largely fictional though it may end up with a lot in common with fact.

Even if we had perfected the ability to predict what would happen if we did X, any time we thought about X but didn’t do it we’d be creating a fiction.

Good point. That would be kinda like plot, maybe. (With the empathy thing kinda like character developement?)

One is an attempt to see the world through someone else’s eyes, the other is the attempt to make the world different (manafested in fiction as attempting to see how the world would be different).

But don’t we also empathize with real people who have gone through hardships or had interesting adventures? Why create fake people who have gone through this when real people have? I’m talking about realistic fiction books or movies here. Real “historical documents.”

That makes sense. So if there were another species that didn’t make choices but intuitively knew which path they were going to follow, would that species be incapable of creating fiction? There is an excellent short story by Ted Chiang called “Story of Your Life” about a species that sees all of history at once and always knows what’s going to happen. Cause and effect don’t make any sense to them. Would this species be unable to imagine of alternate paths and thus never conceive of fiction?

Heh–we’re speculating on whether a fictional species could create fiction. How meta is that? Would they understand our speculation?

It’s hard to say. I’d ugess that it would come down to whether there’s any sort of delusion in their culture. Lies would be the refuge of the lunatic in their culture, since they’d be incapable of being fooled (unless they knew only their own history, not anybody else’s in which case lies would be despised as the Perfect Crime, since nobody would ever tell a lie for which they’d be caught). If they lacked lunatics, they’d probably be baffled by our propensity to lie and tell fiction; otherwise, they’d probably consider us crazy. Of course, if any of their people ever DID come to understand us, they’d all start off by understanding us, since they’d already know what that understanding would be like :).

Prophecy makes things very difficult.

It’s worth noting that other animals are able to speculate, imagine the future, and act to create the future they want, albeit not in fashions as complicated as ours. When a dog stands by the doorway wagging her tail, she’s imagining a future that she wants–namely, a future in which she’s outside sniffing other dogs’ pee.


Since the OP brought Apes into it I’m assuming animals are to be considered.

Depending on your definition of fiction, there are lots of examples in the animal world.
Deer, for example, when drinking will lower their head as if to say “Im drinking” then quickly look up to see if a predator has started to move in. Angler fish use deception, “Here’s food!” as well.

True these might be instinct. But were they to be able to think abstractly I can see this moving into full blown fiction.

IMO, the ability to think abstractly is key for the kind of fiction you asked about.

I’m thinking of an incident with my cat. He pushed over a table breaking a vase. I looked over instantly and he was already in the center of the room licking his paw. He looked up at me as if to say, “What?” Fiction.

If you ask me, our ability to invent fiction stems not from empathy but from our innate power to match patterns.

This ability isn’t unique to humans, though we are uniquely good at it. We can see faces in jars of peanut butter, on grilled cheese sandwiches, and in the lime stains of a leaky overpass. We can hear our name spoken when there’s nothing but the noise of wind in trees. Higher complex animals, too, will startle when they perceive a predator that may not be there… at least until they learn to ignore that particular pattern.

If we couldn’t match patterns and see similarities, we couldn’t say, “This statement is like unto that statement but they are not the same,” and transform a statement from truth into a lie. We couldn’t say, “This tiger is like unto a lion in many ways, and both are dangerous, but tigers are not lions.” We couldn’t say, “Every time we eat the green leaves with the red speckles, we get sick, so stop eating those leaves.”

If we couldn’t match patterns, we might not even have the empathy to realize when someone else was in pain, or to hear a “historical document” and understand how their struggle metaphorically applies to ours.

How would you get the concept of a syllogism without it? Big creatures with claws and fangs are dangerous; this big creature has claws and fangs; therefore, this creature is dangerous. How would you deal with experimental scientific results and determine, “I have conducted the experiment 100 times and the answer is X±Y.” How could you have Thermian-level science without the ability to estimate results and create a hypothesis?

It’s hard to believe that the Thermians from Galaxy Quest had the ability to see the historical documents and even associate these upright non-scaly pink quadrupeds with the glottal babble with “life forms like unto us” or develop their life-form cloaking technology without some ability to match patterns. They would hardly be able to see, in my opinion. It makes me wonder what kind of a world they came from — how they evolved on a world without the ability to detect threats in the wild, unless every threat always presented in precisely the same way.

Also consider this about the Thermians: they copied the design of the ship and its controls immaculately, but not the appearance of the crew. They do recognize certain patterns, namely each other, and that each person is unique. They created human features that were like unto humans, but not a copy of any existing one (that we know of). Did they learn that from the shows, or did they have that ability before?

Sure, it’s entirely unlikely the Thermians would exist unless the “don’t lie” thing was imposed on them at some later date, after they had developed. Who cares? I think the movie’s a laff riot anyway.

I have often thought along these same lines, that the answer to the eternal question “What separates humans from other animals”, is that we are the animal that tells stories.

Not lies or deception, stories.

Your cat may try to hide the fact that it knocked over the vase, in a sense trying to plant an alternative reality in your head, but what distiguishes the cat from, say, a four-year-old who has knocked over a similar vase, is that the cat will not try to weave an alternative narrative to explain the broken vase apart from their involvement: “Mom, this guy came while you weren’t looking, I tried to stop him before he hit the vase, but…”

We must also remember that some of the narratives we place in each other’s heads are perfectly factual. So the ability to instill narrative scenarios in each other’s minds is not necessarily linked to the ability to deceive, but it is the ability that is wholly human, IMO.

Any one remember the Sandman story where it was claimed that the rook in the middle of a parliment of rooks is a storyteller?

Animals “lie” and manipulate all the time. Whether or not this qualifies as “fiction” ( it does try to create a false reality in other’s minds ) I’m not sure. I do think it’s at least a relative/ancestor to the concept. Examples I’ve read about :

Koko the gorilla rips a sink out the wall, and uses sign language to blame a small woman for the damage ( she is obviously not very good at lying :slight_smile: )

A mother bird pretends to have a broken wing to draw predators away from the nest.

A female orangutan dislikes a male, so she carefully moves where he and the dominant male can see her, but they can’t see each other. Then she acts ape-seductive towards the male she doesn’t like, who responds - and get hammered by the dominant male, who comes over to see who she’s ogling. Note that she attributes both an independent viewpoint and mental state to each of them.

Real fiction, I think, requires language - note that it’s Koko who comes closest. An intelligent species would almost have to be able to create and understand fiction; how else can they work with hypothetical situations ?

That’s a difference in degree rather than kind, I think. I have a cat, Albert, who attempts to convince me that another cat, Irving, persecutes him. So far as we have ever noticed, and my husband is home most of the time, Irving ignores Albert.

If we observe them without Albert knowing, he ignores Irving, too. But if Albert knows we’re watching, Irving is suddenly a Grand Inquisitor and must be whined about.

I don’t know what he’d say if he could, but I know he’s telling tales!

Well, what I was trying to get across is that fiction, as we generally experience it is a combination of deception and narrative, specifically, the use of narrative to convey a falsehood, a detailed story about people who never existed as described. We can use narrative to convey truths, so it can not be lumped in with deceptive practices seen in humans and other species.

While decpeption is very widespread across species, the ability to communicate narrative is not.

You don’t know that.

I don’t either and I’m not suggesting that animals are better at fiction than we assume they are but it’s “the ability to communicate” they don’t have - not “the ability to communicate narrative”.