How Does Life and the Universe Work, In Literature and Film?

Why do the characters behave the way they do, in the Top 20 RoI (Return on Investment) feature films?

Substantially, it can be seen that: the writer-hyphenates* – and all creatives involved in the films, who co-created these film stories – chose to depict the various figurative structures – the characters, the themes and ultimately the film stories (the plot events) in that way.

Here is perhaps one particularly useful way to look at it:

In the excellent Evolution and Literary Theory (Carroll 1995), Professor Joseph Carroll presents a Table of Thematic Fields and Elements:

Table of Thematic Elements ELT p266

Table of Thematic Fields and Elements – Evolution and Literary Theory (Carroll 1995, p 266)

A summary of these fields and elements (in my own words, below) – beginning from the inside concentric circle, and moving outwards:

(1) Cognitive Map – How the author’s cognitive system works. (Which includes: ontology [what is real] and epistemology [How do we know, what we know].)

(2) Psyche – the psychology of the author, (Eros, Pathos, Logos, Aisthesis, Ethos)… these include sensation, feeling, reason, and will (see also the more detailed explanation, below).

(3) Dyad – relating to the heterosexual couple (and therefore: reproduction)

(4) Genos – the Family

(5) Polis – Politics

(6) Antropos – (anthropology)  – relating to the study of Human Beings

(7) Bios – Life (biology)

(8) Cosmos – the Universe (matter, energy, waves and particles, wavicles).

Carroll further explains these categories :

`A Table of Thematic Categories –  The categories in the thematic table are arranged in descending order of arithmetical inclusiveness: cosmos, life, the specifically human, society, the family, the heterosexual couple, and the individual.

Within the individual, I identify four main psychic elements: sensation, feeling, reason, and will.

“Imagination” is a synthetic faculty that employs all these faculties to create figurative structures. Any given figurative structure – a poem, play, or story – presupposes a total conceptual order, that is, a map or model that represents the elements that comprise the world and the relations among these elements.The categories in the thematic table constitute simply a minimal set of such elements.

Each category can be analyzed into a virtually infinite number of components, and at either the cultural or individual level, these components could be defined and combined in a potentially infinite number of ways to construct radically different models of how the world works.

In any given model of the world, a potentially infinite number of specific figurative structures could be generated as particular instances of the relations among the elements of the model. The thematic table is thus intended to constitute a model of possible thematic models.

The categories in this table have been abstracted both from traditional critical and cultural theory – in discursive and fictional form – and from modern evolutionary theory.

The categories can also be correlated with the structure of modern academic disciplines that began to crystallize in the Victorian period.  (The three most important texts in the discussion that accompanied this process are Newman’s Idea of a University, Huxley’s “Science and Culture,” and Arnold’s “Literature and Science.”

The debate between Huxley and Arnold was continued in this century, at a considerably lower level both of magnanimity and of theoretical sophistication, by C. P. Snow and F. R. Leavis.)

At the level of abstraction represented by the categories in the thematic table, the organization of academic disciplines has remained largely the same up to the present time.

The outermost sphere, the cosmos, is the province of cosmology, and within this province, as subsidiary sciences, we can locate physics, chemistry, and astronomy.  (As the study of one planet within the solar system, geology is a field hierarchically subordinate to astronomy).  The phenomena that emerge from within this category include time, space, all the elements of the solar system, and those aspects of the earth that are not specifically biological. 

The second category, life, is the province of biology and includes zoology and botany.  The study of human beings, anthropology, is a sub-class of zoology. 

In the current system for the classification of academic disciplines, anthropology occupies the boundary between the “hard” or physical sciences and the “social” sciences: political science, sociology, and psychology.  Sociology and political science have colonized (if not pacified) the sphere of society, and psychology has made a rough initial survey of all the categories–family, couple, individual–in the organization of human groups smaller than that of society as a whole.’

(Carroll 1995, p. 223-224)

Carroll also further states:

`Interpretive Applications of the Categories – The categories in the thematic table serve to structure literary representations in two distinct ways.

Each category constitutes a specific field of concern or area of interest, and each category can serve as an element within a specific figurative structure.

As fields of concern, categories can have meaning for both authors and characters. In any given literary work, both the author and the represented characters can be preoccupied with particular areas of concern such as sexual romance, the family, or the larger social world.

As figurative elements, the categories in the thematic table serve as objects of representation that have meaning within the mind of the author who has fashioned the representation.

All figurative structures exemplify the relation of conceptual elements within the psyche of the author. If any given element is personified, that is, represented as a character, that personified element both has meaning as a conceptual element in the author’s mind and also has its own internal conceptual order.

The conceptual order internal to the minds of characters can of course be distinct from that of the author, but it will always be explicable within the terms of the author’s own conceptual order.’

(Carroll 1995, p 249-50)

All of the Top 20 RoI films have Themes of (1) Survival (2) Reproduction, and (3) Revenge (retributive justice).

The Top 20 Audience Reach/Budget Films of the Last 70 Years. Data Source: The-Numbers.com. Analysis: JT Velikovsky

The Top 20 Audience Reach/Budget Films of the Last 70 Years. Data Source: The-Numbers.com. Analysis: JT Velikovsky

With regard to the above 20 films, consider the themes of: (a) sexual romance, (b) the family, and (c) the larger social world.

  1. Paranormal Activity (2009) – (a) In the film story, Micah and Katie have sex (off-camera); (b) are engaged; and (c) Katie also has a friend over, at one point in the story, Micah also makes a mother-in-law joke.
  2. Mad Max (1980) – (a) Max and Jessie are seen behaving romantically, including while in bed (b) they have a child (`Sprog’) (c) Max is friends with his work partner Jim Goose – and both are road police, upholding the wider social order (or, at least – attempting to, given the road gangs).
  3. The Blair Witch Project (1999) – (a) cameraman Josh mentions his girlfriend; (b) Heather mentions her mother; and (c) the three protagonists are film students, which also implies a wider social order.
  4. El Mariachi (1993) – (a) the mariachi (travelling musician) falls for Domino, and the gangster El Moco also falls for Domino (or at least, clearly wants her as his romantic partner), Azul is seen in bed with 3 women; (b) `family’ is represented more by the gangs, given how badly it all goes with Domino, but Domino has a dog – which is kind of family; and (c) wider society appears throughout the film (in bars, hotels, streets – often, being shot at).
  5. Night of the Living Dead (1968) – (a) there is not much romance, but in the farmhouse cellar is a family (Harry and Helen, with their daughter, Karen); (b) Johnny and Barbra are visiting their father’s grave at the start of the film; and (c) the wider social order has almost completely broken down due to the plague of `flesh-eating ghouls’ (or, zombies).
  6. Rocky (1976) – (a) Rocky and Adrian have sex (offscreen) (b) Rocky and Adrian become a family/dyad, and Paulie is also Adrian’s brother (c) Rocky is involved in many social spheres, including the gym, the boxing scene, and the bar.
  7. Halloween (1978) – (a) there is quite a lot of `college sex’ in the film (b) there is a lot of babysitting in the film (i.e.: relating to: family) and (c) college also implies a wider social order, and Michael Myers clearly disrupts this social order.
  8. American Graffiti (1973) – (a) `cruising’ is essentially all about: guys with cars, picking up girls, and, sexual romance is usually the objective (b) the main characters’ families are referenced often, as is (c) the wider social world (graduating from college, moving away to get jobs, etc)
  9. Clerks (1994) – (a) Dante and Randall seem fairly preoccupied with sex given their conversations, (b) `family’ also recurs as a theme, and (c) the larger social world (in the form of customers) enters the convenience store, also there is the hockey match on the roof, and a funeral.
  10. Once (2006) – (a) `Guy’ and `Girl’ both fall in love, and both are also involved in dysfunctional relationships – Guy and Girl almost have sex, and notably, Guy’s ex also cheated on him (b) Girl lives with her mother and daughter, and she also asks Guy if she can bring her mother to London, Guy works for/with his father (c) the larger social world is most evident in Guy’s busking, and Girl’s flower selling.
  11. Napoleon Dynamite (2004) – (a) Kip and LeFawndah are clearly attracted to each other (b) Napoleon, Kip, their mother, and Uncle Ricoh are a family and (c) the larger social world `punishes’ Napoleon and Kip for their social differences.
  12. Open Water (2004) – (a) the couple attempt but don’t have sex (Daniel appears keen, but Susan isn’t `in the mood’); (b) the two are clearly a couple and (c) their problems (after being left out at sea) are partly due to their isolation from the wider social world (though the wider social world is clear at the start of the film story, given Susan’s phone calls about work).
  13. Friday the 13th (1980) – (a) college sex predominates in the story, even serving as a motivation for the killer (b) Jason’s mother’s motives thus `drive’ the film story (c) the wider social world is clear from the interactions of the camp counsellors, and when Steve visits the bar.
  14. Saw (2004) – (a) Dr Lawrence tries to have sex at a hotel with another hospital staff member – also, he and his wife have a child (b) but – they also clearly have marital issues/problems; and (c) Jigsaw is motivated by the attitude (apathy and ingratitude) that he finds out in the wider social world.
  15. Primer (2004) – (a) Aaron and Kara are a couple, and Rachel is clearly attractive to Abe (b) Aaron and Kara are a couple, (c) the wider social world is evident throughout.
  16. The Evil Dead (1981) – (a) college sex is prevalent in the film (b) Ash gives Linda a neckace (c) they are isolated from the wider social world in the cabin, which is also: part of the problem when the film becomes a `survival story’.
  17. ET: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) – (a) Elliot’s mother is clearly upset/hurt by her ex-husband’s current romantic relationship (b) Elliot and his family are central to the film (c) the wider social world is evident throughout the film (Elliot is seen at school, also he kisses the girl in his class, etc)
  18. The Full Monty (1997) – (a) Gaz has problems with his ex-wife Mandy, regarding access to their son, Nathan (b) see also (a); also Gerald has problems telling his wife he is unemployed; and (c) all have problems in the wider social world as a result of being unemployed steel workers in Sheffield.
  19. Star Wars (1977) – (a) Luke Skywalker and Han Solo are both attracted to Leia (b) Luke’s family is central to the plot (Ben Kenobi, Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, also – Luke’s missing father, Darth Vader) and (c) the wider social world is prevalent throughout the film (particularly in how the tyranny of the Evil Empire affects the wider social world, and the Rebellion).
  20. My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) – (a) Toula and Ian are sexually (romantically) attracted, at first sight (b) they finally get married, and – their conflicted families are central to the plot, and (c) as is the wider social world – and the implications of their cross-cultural marriage.

In Evolution and Literary Theory (Carroll 1995), Professor Carroll also presents a: Hierarchy of Regulative Principles in Human ActivityCarroll states: 

`The division between the somatic and the reproductive is essentially the same division Darwin makes in distinguishing natural and sexual selection. Sexual selection concerns “the propagation of the species” and natural selection concerns “the general purposes of life” (Descent, 2: 398). It is also the dichotomy invoked by Huxley, in “On the Physical Basis of Life,” as the basis on which he affirms the unity of all living things. “The lowest plant, or animalcule, feeds, grows, and reproduces its kind.” Feeding and growing together comprise the elementary somatic functions.

The distinct corporeal features of human beings subserve these two forms of effort–the somatic and the reproductive. Some basic activities such as eating or otherwise protecting the body, having sexual intercourse, and caring for children can be ranged directly under these two headings. In addition to these direct contributions to somatic and reproductive effort, there are two main subsidiary categories that subserve both forms of effort. These two subsidiary categories are, as Darwin suggests, social and cognitive activity.

Since somatic and reproductive effort can be located at the second hierarchical level–subordinate to the primary level of inclusive fitness, social and cognitive functions, which are subordinate to the second level, constitute the third level of hierarchical subordination within inclusive fitness. Analytic categories within the social and intellectual would occupy yet a fourth level.

At this fourth level, Darwin himself identifies two basic components to human social organizations: (1) hierarchy (dominance and subordination), and (2) sympathy. For cognition or intellect, he identifies no such large factors or dimensions but instead merely identifies various individual components of cognition. The following diagram illustrates the logical order of these hierarchical relations:

Hierarchy of Regulative Principles in Human Activity (Carroll 1995, p294)
Hierarchy of Regulative Principles in Human Activity (Carroll 1995, p. 294)

`Within the terms of the thematic table, somatic effort can be associated with the psyche as the principle of the individual identity, and reproductive effort can be associated with the sexual dyad and the family. The categories of the “polis” and of “logos” can be associated with the causally subordinate functions of social and cognitive activity. On the principles both of comprehensive inclusion and of causal hierarchy, all these categories are contained within “bios,” the category of life itself.

Sexual identity and family functions are obviously elements of social identity, but they are also the primary constitutive elements of human reproduction. Since within the Darwinian scheme reproductive functions take causal precedence over social functions, sexual identity and family functions take causal priority over social identity. Reproductive functions interact causally with the forms of social organization, and specific forms of social organization thus modify the expression of innate reproductive characteristics, but the characteristics are not themselves produced by the forms of social organization. Sexual characteristics constrain the social order. Short of exercising direct intervention in innate psychological structures through genetic engineering, it is not possible that any given social order could wholly eliminate sexual characteristics or even mold them in an unlimited fashion.

In other words, there are strong genetic limitations to the modifications that any given society can bring about in sexual identity and in family functions. Consequently, simple blanket statements to the effect that gender is “socially constructed” are profoundly misleading. Phenotypic expression of genotypic sex differences varies according to any number of complex ecological and cultural circumstances, but the genotypic differences are themselves real and substantial.
Starting from this basic scheme for the organization of human regulative principles, we can identify a good deal that we actually know or can pose as research problems for all the primary elements in the scheme. For example, we now know a good deal, empirically, about reproductive psychology, including both biological sex differences and family functions, and these issues, of such elemental emotional concern, are central to most literature.

We are rapidly learning more now about cognition, including the way language works, and we have the foundations, finally, for an evolutionary understanding of social and political life.

Darwin’s own simple recognition of the primacy of two irreducible elements of all social life – sympathy and hierarchy – can take us a long way in analyzing literary representations, and sociobiological analyses of the functions of deceit in the economy of reciprocal altruism can help explain why irony and satire are primary tonal functions in literature.’

(Carroll 1995, p 293-5)

So – in general terms, arguably, the way that the fictional characters behave in the top 20 RoI films are explained by the above.

Expressed another way, it can be observed that human biology and society informs culture:



This is not to imply a reductionist view of culture (for example, as depicted in film narratives), nor of human nature itself (it is in fact, expansionist). – Nor is it to imply any (necessary) determinism, as it also assumes free will (within agency and structure) on the part of human agents, in the choices and decisions they may make, in constructing a creative or literary artifact (for example, a feature film). In short, human nature exerts a constraining force on culture, while at the same time creating more culture (i.e., cultural artifacts).

As Professor Carroll states in An Evolutionary Paradigm for Literary Study in Style 42:1 (2008), pp. 103-135

`When we speak of “human nature,” it is generally to this whole suite of characteristics—some common to all animals, some exclusive to mammals, some shared with other primates, and some peculiarly human—that we refer. These characteristics are so firmly grounded in the adaptive logic of the human species that they exercise a constraining influence on every known culture. Individuals can and do deviate from species-typical characteristics, but the recognition of the species-typical nonetheless forms a common frame of reference for all people.’

(Carroll 2008 pp 114-5)

There is this diagram:

A model of Human Nature (Carroll in Buss 2005, p. 941)

A model of Human Nature (Carroll in Buss 2005, p. 941)

A lengthy excerpt from (Buss 2005) is reproduced below here, as the sub-concepts that make up the holon of the whole concept of this model (and, diagram) are not simple; and indeed, would we expect `human nature’ to be anything but a set of deeply-complex interrelated systems?

Explaining how his suggested model (and diagram) of human nature works, Carroll (2005) states:

`As a distinct school within Darwinian social science, evolutionary psychology, narrowly defined, has tended to discount the significance of domain-general intelligence and of individual differences. It has instead attributed predominating significance to domain-specific cognitive modules and to human universals (see Bailey 1997, 1998; Chiappe and MacDonald 2003; Cosmides & Tooby 1994; Crawford 1998; Foley 1996; Geary, 1998; Geary & Huffman 2002; Irons 1998; MacDonald 1990, 1995b, 1997, 1998a, 1998b; Mithen 1996, 2001; Potts 1998; Richerson & Boyd 2000; Segal & MacDonald 1998; Tooby & Cosmides 1990, 1992; DS Wilson 1994, 1999, in press).

An adequate basic model of human nature would integrate the concepts both of domain-general intelligence and of domain-specific cognitive modules, and it would integrate the concepts both of human universals and of individual differences. Yet further, it would assimilate the chief concepts from each of the main areas of Darwinian social science – from sociobiology, Darwinian anthropology, life history analysis, evolutionary psychology, behavioural ecology, behavioural genetics, developmental psychology, personality theory and the theory of emotions.

A model of human nature that assimilates information from all these areas has been emerging over the past decade or so [see Figure, above]… At the top of the diagram in this model of human nature, inclusive fitness is the principle that has regulated the organization of life and the evolution of complex adaptive structures… The model I delineate proposes that within the distribution of somatic and reproductive effort, human evolutionary history has produced complex structure by organizing human behavior not simply into domain-specific cognitive modules but rather into a set of behavioural systems.

The term behavioural systems is adopted from McGuire and Troisi (1998), who define it as “functionally and causally related behavior patterns and the systems responsible for them” (p. 60). Within each system, we can identify more particular goals or directives that, following MacDonald (1990), I designate evolved motive dispositions… Under survival, for instance, we can identify evolved motive dispositions for obtaining food and shelter and avoiding predators; under mating, for selecting and obtaining mates and for warding off rivals; under parenting, for nurturing, protecting, and teaching children; and under cognition, for telling stories, painting pictures, forming beliefs, and acquiring knowledge. At the base of the diagram are the seven basic emotions identified by Ekman, which indicate that all behavior is proximally activated by emotions (see Damasio 1994; Ekman 2003; Ekman & Davidson 1994; Ledoux 1996; MacDonald 1995b; Panksepp 1998)… Five of the behavioural systems delineated in the diagram – survival, mating, parenting, kin relations, and social life – correspond to the sequence of chapters in several of the textbooks on evolutionary psychology that have been produced since 1999 (see Barrett, Dunbar & Lycett, 2002; Bridgeman 2003; Buss 1999; Gaulin & McBurney 2001; Palmer & Palmer 2002; Rossano 2003). This organization of chapters tacitly supports the idea of behavioural systems as functionally and causally related behavior patterns.

Two of the designated systems, technology and cognition, do not form a regular feature in the textbooks but are necessary to an adequate basic model of human nature. Our hominid ancestors evidently had domain-specific cognitive modules for the construction of hand-axes, and one of the signal features in the “human revolution” that took place some 50,000 years ago is the emergence of complex, multipart tools. In his synthesis of paleoanthropology and cognitive psychology, Mithen (1996) has argued persuasively that technology should be recognized as a behavioural system. (Mithen uses the term cognitive domain to denote a concept roughly parallel to what I here designate a behavioural system.)’

(Carroll in Buss 2005, p. 940-2 – bold emphasis mine)

Also more recently (2012), Carroll notes a more refined picture of Human Nature is emerging from Evolutionary Psychology.

Three versions of Evolutionary Psychology (Carroll 2012, p. 133)

Three versions of Evolutionary Psychology (Carroll 2012, p. 133)

A diagram explains this model, which Carroll explains is close to neurologist Paul MacLean’s model of `the triune brain’; the inner reptilian, middle mammalian, and outer neocortex (Carroll 2012, p. 135).

A disciplinary doll (Carroll, Style 2012, p. 135)

A disciplinary doll (Carroll, Style 2012, p. 135)

This thesis also finds that this same model of the brain and human behavior was explored by Arthur Koestler in The Ghost In The Machine (Koestler 1967), and also in Koestler (1964, 1978 pp. 8-11), which leads into systems theory, cybernetics, holon-partons and the laws of holarchies.

Furthermore, Carroll (2012) in a related PowerPoint presentation `The Truth about Fiction: Biological Reality and Imaginary Lives’ presents another diagram:

Human Nature; Specific Cultures; Individual Artists; Particular works of Art (Carroll 2012)

Human Nature; Specific Cultures; Individual Artists; Particular works of Art (Carroll 2012)

So, in loose terms, that is the latest, on: Human Nature, and Ev Psych.

But if you want to keep up to date on research developments in Human Nature, here are some key academic journals:

Journals of, or related to, Evolutionary Psychology include:

Human Nature, Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, Evolution and Human Behaviour, Behavioural and Brain Sciences, and Journal of Social, Evolutionary and Cultural Psychology.

And for an examination of how `the units of story’ work in a narrative, see this chapter:

StoryAlity #132The holon/parton structure of the Meme, the unit of culture – and the narreme, or unit of story – book chapter (Velikovsky 2016)

Comments, always welcome.


JT Velikovsky

High-RoI Story/Screenplay/Movie and Transmedia Researcher

The above is (mostly) an adapted excerpt, from my doctoral thesis: “Communication, Creativity and Consilience in Cinema”. It is presented here for the benefit of fellow screenwriting, filmmaking and creativity researchers. For more, see https://aftrs.academia.edu/JTVelikovsky

JT Velikovsky is also a produced feature film screenwriter and million-selling transmedia writer-director-producer. He has been a professional story analyst for major film studios, film funding organizations, and for the national writer’s guild. For more see: http://on-writering.blogspot.com/



* Re: writer-hyphenates: all the Top 20 RoI `key creatives’ who were screenwriters, were either (a) a writer-director; or (b) a writer-producer; or (c) a writer actor; and sometimes, more than one of these hyphenated roles (For example Shane Carruth was a writer-director-producer-actor-editor-music composer on Primer (2002); Nia Vardalos was a writer-actor in My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002); Sylvester Stallone was a writer-actor on Rocky (1976)).


Buss, DM 2005, The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, N.J.

Carroll, J 2012, ‘The Truth About Fiction: Biological Reality And Imaginary Lives’, Style, vol. 46, no. 2.

Carroll, J 2008, ‘”An Evolutionary Paradigm for Literary Study,” (target article to which scholars and scientists were invited to respond).’, Style, vol. 42, no. 2 & 3, pp. 103-35.

See also: http://umsl.academia.edu/JosephCarroll

Koestler, A 1967, The Ghost In The Machine, Hutchinson, London.

Velikovsky, J. T. (2016). `The Holon/Parton Theory of the Unit of Culture (or the Meme, and Narreme): In Science, Media, Entertainment and the Arts.‘ In A. Connor & S. Marks (Eds.), Creative Technologies for Multidisciplinary Applications. New York: IGI Global.

2 thoughts on “StoryAlity #74 – How Does Life and the Universe Work, In Literature and Film?

  1. Pingback: StoryAlity #75 – The 5 Key Factors of Life in the Top 20 RoI Films | StoryAlity

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