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Reading, and Streaming, for Pleasure: An Evolutionary View

Our entertainment glut has links to an ancient history of greed.

Much of the media we consume today is ephemeral—as much entertainment as information. Text and visual imagery have replaced the oral entertainment that featured in all subsistence societies and survived to living memory. Yet even after the invention of text, light reading was relatively rare in ancient civilizations.

The History of Graffiti

One exception, however, was graffiti. This anonymous form of public expression served a similar function as it does today—often being a vehicle for crude, sometimes graphic, sexual jokes.

In Classical Greece and Ancient Rome, public wall expression also had many other uses. These included advertisements for businesses, including prostitution, and criticisms of corrupt and inept leaders. In the classical world, then, graffiti resembled a small-scale version of Twitter.

Only a minority of people could read in that world, many of them the professional scribes tasked with keeping records for administrative purposes. Reading became common in Europe only after the invention of the mechanical printing press in the middle of the 15th century, when the Gutenberg Bible was produced (in 1450).

The Emergence of Romance Novels in England

Early Bibles were printed in Greek and Latin. It was not until 1534 that Martin Luther finished translating the complete Bible into German. Vernacular Bibles, and other religious texts, such as those recounting the lives of saints, were widely circulated. Such books pushed religious messages and morals and fell under the rubric of “improving literature.”

John Bunyan was a transitional figure who added fictional stories to embellish religious morals. He wrote a great deal about vice and sin but always in vague terms: the reader could fill in the blanks. He combined religious psychology with fiction in a way that was hard to criticize from a religious perspective. When The Pilgrim's Progress was published in 1678, few people could read on their own; most reading was done publicly, for the benefit of an audience.

Bunyan provided a permission structure for fiction by including it in the realm of "improving literature." Yet as more people learned to read for themselves, the tone of fiction changed notably.

On the surface, Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson (1740) had a familiar theme of religious rewards enjoyed by the virtuous. Richardson dangles a beautiful young woman in front of his audience and makes her the object of a determined campaign of seduction by her libertine admirer. He brought a secret sauce to the English novel that has never left it since: sex.

Richardson opened the door for romance novels that were mostly read in private, often by women. These works abandoned all pretense of morally uplifting their readers. Their purpose, instead, was to entertain, excite, and titillate, appealing to our evolved impulses.

Streaming “Trash” Literature

These objectives were further facilitated by the movie industry, which brought fiction into the realm of intensified audiovisual stimulation that replaced flat textual descriptions with live actors to recreate the text in an immediate and compelling manner. Yet powerful as such entertainment can be, audiences tend to become habituated to familiar content and crave a certain amount of novelty in their fiction diet—much of which now comes to them over the Internet.

The aim of entrepreneurs to satisfy our craving for new sensations has generated a proliferation of new streaming series and movies. They have produced such a large library of online entertainment that life is not long enough to view all that is both available and appealing.

This surplus is likely to correct itself for economic reasons. When there is already too much fiction in audiovisual form, the financial incentive to create more inevitably shrinks. Still, the excesses present in modern entertainment are part and parcel of our contemporary high-consumption lifestyles and the sense that consumption can increase without limit.

What does all this have to do with evolution? Arguably, it is the current iteration of an ancient tendency to run through natural resources.

Evolution and Excess

The tendency to consume far more than we need, or is healthy for us, is an ancient feature of our evolution. Ecologists sometimes claim that all organisms are on a mission to consume as much as possible and convert that energy intake to reproduction (1). In most cases, organisms are restricted by the activities of other species, such as prey animals being checked by predators.

Humans distinguished themselves at least 40,000 years ago by hunting their large prey animals to extinction, something not seen by any other predator (2). This excess was likely motivated as much by sensation-seeking as by hunger.

In an earlier post, I argued that a similar process is active today with excessive consumption of modern shoppers bringing our planet to the edge of destruction as a habitable ecosystem for humans. Always wanting to take more, I argue, is a symptom of our pathological way of life.


1 Rees, W. M. (2019). End game: The economy as eco-catastrophe and what needs to change. Real World Economic Review, issue 87.

2 Barber, N. (2022). The restless species: Cause and environmental consequences of human adaptive success. Portland, ME: Trudy Callaghan Publishing.…

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