Quotes from Steven Pinker on `Art and Adaptation’ from a chapter in Evolution, Literature, Film: A Reader (2010).

Pinker on the actual (including the: perceived) value of a piece of art:

I'm suddenly hungry. Are you hungry? Ah, the power of Art...

I’m suddenly hungry. Are you hungry? Ah, the power of Art… (Warhol, `32 soup cans’, 1962)


`The value of art is largely unrelated to aesthetics: a priceless masterpiece becomes worthless if found to be a forgery; soup cans and comic strips become high art when the art world says they are, and then command conspicuously wasteful prices.’

(Pinker in Boyd, Carroll & Gottschall 2010, p. 126)


Here is a fantastically-cool (and: true/correct) observation:

Execute Order 66

Execute Order 66

I don’t mean what the squirrel above is instincting, I mean, this quote by Pinker (below), which is about that category of thing:


`The mind is a neural computer, fitted by natural selection with combinatorial algorithms for causal and probabilistic reasoning about plants, animals, objects and people.

It is driven by goal states that served biological fitness in ancestral environments such as food, sex, safety, parenthood, friendship, status and knowledge.

That toolbox, however, can be used to assemble Sunday afternoon projects of dubious adaptive value.

Some parts of the mind register attainments of increments of fitness by giving us a sensation of pleasure. Other parts use a knowledge of cause and effect to bring about goals.

Put them together and you get a mind that rises to a biologically pointless challenge: figuring out how to get at the pleasure circuits of the brain and deliver little jolts of enjoyment without the inconvenience of wringing bona fide fitness increments from the harsh world.’

(Pinker in Boyd, Carroll & Gottschall 2010, p. 128)

And here is what has become a very viral meme in culture: the idea of `strawberry cheesecake for the mind’:

Hard to find a pinker cake. See what I did there.

Hard to find a pink-er cake. (See what I did there.)


`We enjoy strawberry cheesecake, but not because we evolved a taste for it. We evolved circuits that give us trickles of enjoyment from the sweet taste of ripe fruit, the creamy mouth feel of fats and oils from nuts and meat, and the coolness of fresh water.

Cheesecake packs a sensual wallop unlike anything in the natural world because it is a brew of megadoses of agreeable stimuli which we concocted for the express purpose of pressing our pleasure buttons.

Pornography is another pleasure technology…

I will suggest that the arts are a third.’

(Pinker in Boyd, Carroll & Gottschall 2010, pp. 128-9)


The Top 20 RoI films are the ultimate in `strawberry cheesecake – for the adapted human mind’.

The Top 20 RoI Films - StoryAlity Theory (Velikovsky 2013)

The Top 20 RoI Films – StoryAlity Theory (Velikovsky 2013)

The Top 20 RoI (Return on Investment) Films

The Top 20 RoI (Return on Investment) Films

These films are the most viral in culture. (When we compare: Film Production Means to their Audience Reach)

Steven Pinker goes on to state (profoundly, in fact):


`When the illusions work, there is no mystery to the question “Why do people enjoy fiction?” it is identical to the question “Why do people enjoy life?”

When we are absorbed in a book or a movie, we get to see breathtaking landscapes, hobnob with important people, fall in love with ravishing men and women, protect loved ones, attain impossible goals, and defeat wicked enemies. Not a bad deal for seven dollars and fifty cents!

Of course, not all stories have happy endings… There have to be some stories where the murderer does catch up with the heroine in the basement, or we would never feel suspense and relief in the stories in which she escapes.

The economist Stephen Landsburg observes that happy endings predominate when no director is willing to sacrifice the popularity of his or her film for the greater good of more suspense in the movies in general.’

(Pinker in Boyd, Carroll & Gottschall 2010, pp. 130-1)

This is an incredibly-relevant point – as – it brings us to the question of the Top 20 RoI films all being `Villain Triumphant’ stories… (Warning: spoiler alerts)…

Villain Triumphant

This image somehow represents the concept: `Villain Triumphant’. Well, I guess it’s like the opening image of `Halloween’, which is a Top 20 RoI Film.

All Top 20 RoI films are “Villain Triumphant” films. Either the villain wins and escapes, or – at any rate, the Good Guys do not win.

To wit: In 3/20 cases, all the Good Guys are simply dead at the end. In 11/20 (55% of) cases, at least one of the good guys is dead.)

This finding of StoryAlity Theory runs contrary to the “widely-accepted screenwriting wisdom” that: “the Good Guys must win”. (This also suggests: as a screenwriter/filmmaker – do not pay any attention to that so-called “screenwriting wisdom”, if you want to create/ write / make a High-RoI Film Story.)







Paranormal Activity

The Demon

Micah is dead; Katie is possessed

The Demon wins


Mad Max

Nightrider, Toecutter

Max’s wife and child are dead

Toecutter is dead; the gangs still exist


The Blair Witch Project

The Witch

Heather, Mike and Josh are dead

The Witch wins


El Mariachi

El Moco

Mariachi lost a hand, Domino is dead

El Moco is dead but gangs still exist


Night of the Living Dead

Ghouls (ghouls)

Ben, Barbra, Helen, Harry, Tom, Judy, Karen all dead

The ghouls are all dead, but countless lives were lost



Apollo Creed

Rocky loses the fight

Apollo Creed wins



Michael Myers

Laurie traumatized, Annie dead

Michael Myers wins and escapes


American Graffiti

The Pharaohs,

the police

Curt leaves/goes to college, John dies in Vietnam

Nobody wins




Dante worked on his day off, closes up the store[1]

Nothing has changed, Dante still in an average relationship



Their partners

Guy and Girl go back to their wrong partners

Their ill-suited partners “win”


Napoleon Dynamite

Summer Wheatley,

the jocks

Napoleon is still a weirdo, Kip is now married to an unsuitable woman

Napoleon is still socially awkward


Open Water


Susan and Daniel are dead

The sharks win


Friday the 13th

Mrs Voorhees

Teens almost all dead, Alice traumatized

Jason Voorhees still at large




Adam is dead Lawrence probably dead

Jigsaw wins and evades capture



Abe and Aaron

Abe and Aaron hate each other

Greed wins


The Evil Dead

The Demons

Cheryl, Scott, Linda, and Shelley are dead, Ash possessed

The Demons win / The Necronomicon still remains a huge danger


ET: The Extra-Terrestrial


ET leaves, without giving any benefit to Earth whatsoever, making Elliot and family sad

Keys’ life is wasted, as he has spent his whole life searching for alien intelligence and ET simply leaves


The Full Monty

Al, the Club Owner

Gaz, Dave, Lomper, Horse, and Guy are still unemployed, and Gaz will not get to keep his beloved son.

If you do the sums, 400 tickets sold, at $10 = $4000.
Even if Al only keeps the bar takings, that’s $666 each for the 6 guys. Gaz therefore does not have the $700 to keep his son…


Star Wars

Darth Vader

Luke, Han, Chewie, Leia, R2-D2, C-3PO, Ben

Darth Vader escapes, only to rebuild a bigger Death Star


My Big Fat Greek Wedding

Gus, Maria

Toula and Ian are married, and living right next to their overbearing Greek family

Gus and Maria have even more leverage/control over Toula and Ian (they gave them a house) 

For more on all that – see this post: StoryAlity #60 – On Character and Story – in the Top 20 ROI Films

Pinker goes on to say:

`Once the fictitious world is set up, the protagonist is given a goal and we watch as he or she pursues it in the face of obstacles.

It is no coincidence that this standard definition of plot is identical to the definition of intelligence that I suggested in a previous chapter.

Characters in a fictitious world do exactly what our intelligence allows us to do in the real world. We watch what happens to them and mentally take notes on the outcomes of the strategies and tactics they use in pursuing their goals (Carroll Evolution; Hobbs Literature).

What are those goals? A Darwinian would say that ultimately organisms have only two: to survive and reproduce.

And those are precisely the goals that drive the human organisms in fiction.

Most of the thirty-six plots in Georges Polti’s catalog are defined by love or sex or a threat to the safety of a protagonist or his kin (for example “Mistaken Jealousy”, “Vengeance taken for kindred upon kindred” and “Discovery of the dishonour of a loved one”).

The difference between fiction for children and fiction for adults is commonly summed up in two words: sex and violence. Woody Allen’s homage to Russian literature was entitled Love And Death. Pauline Kael got the title for one of her books of movie criticism from an Italian movie poster that she said contained “the briefest statement imaginable of the basic appeal of the movies”: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Fiction is especially compelling when the obstacles to the protagonist’s goals are other people in pursuit of incompatible goals.

Life is like chess, and plots are like those books of famous chess games that serious players study so they will be prepared if they ever find themselves in similar straits.’

(Pinker in Boyd, Carroll & Gottschall 2010, pp. 132-4)

Steven Pinker is a genius.

These points (above), once made, are obvious, and yet – so is the theory of Evolution, and that doesn’t make Darwin any less of a genius. Joseph Carroll integrating Darwinism into Literary Theory is also a stroke of genius. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – integrating systems theory into Creativity (and noting the evolutionary algorithm [Selection, Variation, Transmission] in both Biological and Cultural Creativity is also: genius.

DK Simonton is also a genius for applying the systems model of creativity – in depth – to Science. Keith Sawyer is also a genius for writing the first textbook on Creativity, namely Explaining Creativity (2012). Peter Bloore is also a genius for writing this book The Screenplay Business below, and thus integrating Creativity into the domain of Screenwriting. Bloore’s book is an absolute must-read for anyone who is involved in film story/script development: Writers, Producers, Directors, Script Editors, Actors, etc.)

Anyway – so – coming back to Pinker’s points about Life – and the stakes for the characters, in a film story.

(Karl Popper wrote a book called All Life Is Problem-Solving.)

Indeed – that is how Story works:

A protagonist has a goal, and then has to solve the problems involved in getting it.

(1) A character(s) has a

(2) Goal – and thus a Problem(s)

(3) The Problem(s) must be solved by the character(s) in order to

(4) Achieve (or – not achieve) that goal. (e.g. Maybe they just plain die at the end, like in a lot of the Top 20 RoI films.)

So – the more (and: more severe) problems that the writer/filmmaker throws at the protagonist, the more conflict, `drama’, intrigue and suspense… “Will the hero/s `get’ the goal? Things – currently – look pretty grim for the hero/s…”

Note how many of the story stakes in the Top 20 RoI Films below are about evolutionary themes of (1) Survival (2) Reproduction and (3) Revenge.

What are “The Story Stakes” in the Top 20 RoI Movies?






Paranormal Activity Katie and Micah’s house – and, their lives (previously, the demon that is stalking Katie burned her house down while trying to kill her)


Mad Max Max and his family (and Goose’s) health, and lives


The Blair Witch Project The 3 students’ documentary, the 16mm camera equipment, their health and their lives


El Mariachi Mariachi’s guitar, Mariachi and Domino’s lives (and health, i.e. Mariachi’s hand)


Night of the Living Dead The lives of all normal (humans) on Earth, and those of the 6 main characters


Rocky Rocky’s health (and possibly, life, if Apollo Creed punches him really hard)


Halloween The lives of anyone/everyone engaging in sexual activity in Michael’s old neighbourhood


American Graffiti Steve’s car, Curt and Steve’s future job prospects and economic lives (if they stay in Modesto, like John) – also John’s life (in the drag race)


Clerks Dante’s health (he is tired), their hockey game, Dante and Ronnie’s future romantic happiness


Once Guy and Girl’s future romantic happiness


Napoleon Dynamite Napoleon, Deb, Kip, LeFawndah and Pedro’s romantic  happiness and social popularity


Open Water Daniel and Susan’s relationship, health, lives, and the jobs of the Dive supervisors


Friday the 13th The Steve Christy and the camp counsellors’ lives


Saw Adam and Dr Lawrence’s lives, and health


Primer Abe and Aaron’s lives, sanity and physical and psychological health (also that of their doubles)


The Evil Dead The five friends lives, and, souls


ET: The Extra-Terrestrial ET’s life, and ET, Elliot and Mike’s freedom (ET may be captured and forced to share his advanced alien knowledge with the human race – and the boys may be imprisoned for obstructing an FBI Investigation with potentially-massive positive ramifications for Earth’s wellbeing), and also: the stakes include the smooth execution of the aliens’ plant-stealing program


The Full Monty Gaz’s joint custody of his son, Nathan (the $700 alimony payment to Mandy)


Star Wars The lives of the Rebel Alliance, Alderaan, a moon of Yavin.


My Big Fat Greek Wedding Toula and Ian’s future romantic happiness.

 What does this mean?

In 15/20 cases, the stakes are “life and death” (Survival). In 5/20 cases, the stakes are “future romantic/family happiness” (Reproduction). In all cases revenge is involved, it is just foregrounded more in some.

Note that – these stakes actually correlate directly with the bottom 3 “rungs” on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:

Abraham Maslow's HIERARCHY OF NEEDS. [*Note: This also applies to other people, not just him] (Maslow 1970)


See also the later StoryAlity post, here – on Daniel Nettle’s (brilliant/genius) chapter in Evolution, Literature, Film (2010): The Wheel of Fire and the Mating Game – Explaining The Origins Of Tragedy And Comedy.

And the only reason my research on film story is genius, is that: I am standing on the shoulders of all those other genii. Just like Newton wanted to do with Hooke, who was a genius hunchback, and who he (Newton) hated with a passion that knows no bounds. Passion is very important in Art, Science and Creativity.

Now, go write your masterpiece – and then make that film. Design it (the story) so that it will tap into our evolved human predispositions – and will be `strawberry cheesecake for the human mind’. Go on. Do it. And stop reading all those other screenwriting manuals, they’re rubbish. They don’t use an empirical or scientific method.

The Film RoI Bell Curve

The Film RoI Bell Curve

They don’t even integrate Creativity into screenwriting and filmmaking. Sheesh! – They are relics of `the dark ages’, before Creativity was integrated into the screenwriting convention in 2013, by both Peter Bloore (with The Screenplay Business) and independently, by myself (with The StoryAlity Screenwriting Manual.)

STORYALITY™ Screenwriting Manual

STORYALITY™ Screenwriting Manual

This is a case of multiple invention/discovery… Similar to both Darwin and Wallace arriving at the idea of Evolution at the same time – and both being influenced by Malthus’ essay on population. DK Simonton explains it in his excellent book Creativity In Science: Logic, Chance, Genius, Zeitgeist (2004), as the disciplinary zeitgeist. i.e. Given hundreds of theorists working in a field, and given that there are some `key problems’ in a domain (e.g. How to split the atom, or How to solve the problem of “7 in 10 films lose money”) – sooner or later more than one of the theorists/researchers will arrive at a solution to a problem, ie – Will come up with essentially the same creative idea. It’s just: probability.

Of course – it still takes someone with at least 10 – and maybe even 20 – years’ knowledge of the domain, to work out how best to solve the problem, and then verify that it’s important, ie – Has utility. Then: everyone can test it.

What is good about studying film virality is that: it gives us tools (as creative artists) to be able to shape Cultural Evolution.

i.e.: You can consciously engineer a story (e.g.: a film story) that will spread as a `mind-virus’ (a meme) – and, change the world. Change the course of cultural evolution. This is also what EO Wilson and Jonas Salk dreamed about. And, it’s now happening. (Finally.) What an amazing time to be alive.

Right before your very eyes


And so – What do you think?

Has a movie ever changed the world-?

And – Has a novel? Has a work of visual art? (e.g. a painting, say.)

And – is there empirical evidence of that change..?

(And how do we know, that it was causal? i.e. That that film caused that change? Maybe it just reflected a change that was already happening…?)

And – for more detail on the evolutionary systems (or, complexity) view of narrative and bioculture in general, see, this book chapter:

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

And for a great consilience & creativity & evolution reading list, see:

StoryAlity #71On Consilience in the Arts / Humanities / Communication

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/



Steven Pinker, reprinted in Boyd, B., Carroll, J., & Gottschall, J. (2010). Evolution, Literature and Film: A Reader. New York: Columbia University Press.

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.


4 thoughts on “StoryAlity #84 – Pinker on `Art and Adaptation’

  1. Pingback: StoryAlity #93 – Jealousy in `Othello’ (Nordlund) | StoryAlity

  2. Pingback: StoryAlity#70E – Models of Human Nature – and Ev Psych | StoryAlity

  3. Pingback: StoryAlity #82 – Pinker on `Evolution and Explanation’ | StoryAlity

  4. Pingback: StoryAlity#137 – Culturology & the CES (Cultural Evolution Society) | StoryAlity

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