The Evolution of StorytellingNov 04, 2012
Humans are unique as the only creatures on this planet who tell stories. Whether it be fiction, history, mythology, gossip, daydreams, ...
Our topic this week is the evolution of storytelling, which brings to mind two different questions. One is about whether storytelling is an adaptation involved in the evolution of the human species. The other is about how storytelling is changing and evolving with human culture and technology. Obviously, these are related questions, but let’s think about the adaptive function of storytelling first.
It’s a curious fact about humans around the globe—we love to tell and consume stories. Whether it be fiction, history, mythology, gossip, daydreams, news, or autobiography, stories permeate every aspect of our lives. And telling stories seems to be a distinctively human trait. I don’t know of any other species that can do it. So, we should ask the question: does the fact that we evolved into storytelling creatures mean that telling stories gives us some evolutionary advantage?
The mere fact that we like to tell stories does not necessarily mean that it gives us any advantage. There are all sorts of things we like to do that are actually quite bad for us. Take eating sugar, for example. I’ll admit, I love sugary foods, as I’m sure many of our listeners do too. But we know sugar is like poison and eating it in the quantities we do is really bad for our health. Yet it’s still a fact that we evolved into creatures that crave sweet stuff. So, the fact that we evolved with any given trait, whether it be the tendency to tell stories or eat sugary foods, doesn’t necessarily mean it has any adaptive function. It may well have no function—it’s just an evolutionary accident—or it might even be maladaptive, like our sweet tooth!
While it’s true that these days we consume far too much refined sugars, leading to obesity and all sorts of other health problems, this example is a little tricky. That’s because there was once a time when craving sugar did give us an evolutionary advantage. Back in the Pleistocene, it was important to get as much sugar as we could. Sweet foods gave our ancestors an injection of energy when high-caloric foods were in scare supply. But since then, humans have made huge advances in how we grow crops, process food, and distribute it. Now it’s too easy to find sugary foods, and they’re usually of the wrong kind, so the sweet tooth that was once adaptive becomes maladaptive in the current environment of mass produced, refined sugar products.
The lesson here is that even if a trait is maladaptive now, it might once have had an adaptive function. It might have given our ancestors an evolutionary edge, so to speak. Which makes sense, because biological evolution is a slow process, whereas changes in human lifestyle can happen quite rapidly, as we know from the last few hundred years.
So, when we think about the human habit of telling stories, we need to ask whether it evolved because it gave our ancestors an evolutionary edge, and if so, whether it's still adapative in our modern, technological world. We also shouldn’t rule out the possibility that it’s just an evolutionary byproduct with no particular purpose at all. But let’s at least consider some possible evolutionary advantages storytelling might bring us.
Here’s one idea: From the Pleistocene to the Information Age, human life has always been full of stress and strain. These days we’re more worried about paying bills and meeting deadlines than we are about getting eaten by a tiger, so the causes of our stress may be quite different, but the fact that life can be stressful remains the same. Maybe the function of stories is to give us a way to avoid our troubles by entering imaginary worlds. Stories engage us, they distract us, and they entertain us. Getting lost in a good story is a great way to relax and escape reality.
Here’s another idea: Storytelling evolved because it gave our ancestors an advantage when it came to sexual selection. If you can tell a good story, then you can get and hold another person’s attention, and perhaps seduce them with your words. Just as birds that sing beautifully are better able to attract mates, it could be that good storytellers are also better able to attract mates. Who doesn’t love a good storyteller?
One last idea: Telling stories is a way to bind us together. When we share the same mythologies or histories, we reinforce our group identity, which improves our ability to pool resources and cooperate with one another. This group cohesion, facilitated by storytelling, may account for the evolutionary success of our ancestors.
On the surface, each of these accounts sound fairly plausible. So, what should we conclude from this? Do we say all these functions of storytelling contributed to the evolution of this peculiar human trait? Is just one responsible? If so, which one? Or is the fact that we love to tell stories just a happy accident of evolution?
These are difficult questions. Where would we even begin to find answers to them? And what would count as evidence for or against any given hypothesis?
It seems to me that at the very least, a satisfactory account of the evolution of storytelling would have to be able to identify, not only the function that explains why we evolved into such creatures, but also the specific mechanism that explains how this evolution occurred, and it would need to be able to identify the origin of the adaptation. Without those, then all we have are stories about stories.
Assuming for a moment that we could give an account that explains why we evolved into storytelling creatures, another question we ought to ask is whether storytelling in the age of text messages and video games still gives us an evolutionary advantage. It’s clear that the printing press and film greatly improved our ability to mass produce stories. With cell phones and the internet, we can now share information at lightening speed. But where does all this lead us? Are we now consuming the story equivalent of refined sugars in quantities that are unhealthy? Should we be trying to wean ourselves off story? Or is there something essential we still get from weaving tales?
Photo by Daniel Schludi on Unsplash
Harold G. Neuman
Friday, November 2, 2012 -- 5:00 PMUntil this post, I have only
Until this post, I have only read those of KT and JP. So, I do not know who LM is, or how he or she fits into Philosophy Talk. The post poses a number of questions about the practice and tradition of storytelling. My sense is that you know most of the answers already---or, at least, believe you do. Here is what I think, based on what I know and have learned from others. Storytelling must date from the beginnings of human interaction, predating written expressions. Because, until societies were able to devise and codify written language, they would have had to rely upon oral histories.
At some point, before writing came about, humans must have recognized the importance of passing on knowledge to their suceeding generations. Survival for those who came after needed all the help it could get.
I could go into all manner of discussion and opinionating about this, but there is no need. Storytelling was, and still is, a crucial part of human history---not all fun and games, no---more a matter of, as I noted above, survival, and perhaps nearly as important: socialization.
Friday, November 2, 2012 -- 5:00 PMActually, Harold, you've read
Actually, Harold, you've read many of my blog posts before (I'm assuming you have, at least, because you've commented on most of them!).
Director of Research
Saturday, November 3, 2012 -- 5:00 PMI think too much can be made
I think too much can be made of story-telling being a human trait or activity. I have heard of a penguin leading a scientist to a cache of whale bones. I'm quite sure that, had the penguin been able to communicate verbally, it would have had a story to tell. And don't bees tell quite a story about their discovery of a source of nectar through a dance they perform on their return to the colony?
Another useful function of story-telling is to avert physical violence. For example, the Inuit societies had a custom (and perhaps still have) whereby potential combatants were brought together in public and were allowed to tell stories on each other in song without reservation with the purpose of achieving a catharsis without violence.
Harold G. Neuman
Saturday, November 3, 2012 -- 5:00 PMApologies, Laura. I only
Apologies, Laura. I only responded above, based on past experience---which was (I assumed), emanating from the minds of Messrs. Taylor and Perry. I'll end this comment by commending all of you for the commendable blog you have developed. Oh, I have been reading a work by Jared Diamond: Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Seems like even story telling can be negated, even corrupted, by ignorance, greed and other human weaknesses. I hope I have not annoyed you too much, but, if so, well sometimes you'll have that.
Sunday, November 4, 2012 -- 4:00 PMA True Love Story
A True Love Story
I was fortunate some years ago to be invited to my brothers time share in Maui, a wonderful place to just be. About half way through the week the four of us, my twin brother and his wife and my girl friend and I decided to take a snorkel boat trip for the day with a 150 dollar discount if my brother attended a time share sales meeting for an hour anytime that week. Well being we were staying for free at his beautiful beach front abode and being identical twins I offered my girlfriend and I to go in their place. Well it was far from a group meeting which I assumed, my girl friend and I got involved in a one on one interview with a salesmen who grilled us with questions regarded my brother and his life. I lied over and over again for about a half an hour holding to the deception that we were my brother and wife and finally said thats enough, I couldn't do the sales meeting anymore. The salesmen said if I could not finish the meeting I would have to go to the reception desk and pay the 150 dollars we had already spent. Reluctantly I couldn't lie for money anymore so we left and I paid.
That afternoon the four of us found another beautiful beach to snorkel and low and behold I found a gold ring lying amongst the coral of the Pacific Ocean, and it fit my ring finger perfectly. That night on the Way to dinner we passed a jewelry store and I walked in to find out what the gold ring was worth, they said (years ago when gold was valued much less than today) 150 dollars.
I wear the ring still today to remind me truth is worth more than money and as fortune goes the ring became much more than just a truth ring, recently it has become a loving wedding ring.
Harold G. Neuman
Sunday, November 4, 2012 -- 4:00 PMCongratulations, Michael.
Monday, November 5, 2012 -- 4:00 PMStorytelling is old, while
Storytelling is old, while stories about storytelling are ever-evolving, and in this sense, new. I am reminded of a film---and a story within that story. The film was Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. And the story within the story dealt with a tribe of feral children who maintained the myth of Captain Walker---a myth that gave them hope and reason to hang on to their small world and their otherwise dwindling humanity. Mel Gibson (as Max)was rescued by these young offcasts. It took him awhile to figure out the mythology under which they operated. But the symbology was clear and the filmmaker "got the right of it." Other commenters may say more or less on this post. I look forward to their remarks.
Tuesday, November 6, 2012 -- 4:00 PMRemember that old story about
Remember that old story about the turtle and the hare? The moral of it is that that slow and steady is better than quick and dirty, but that's not explicitly stated in the story. You have to guess at it. I think most communication in nature is like that, quite a bit of context is left out. If it's in the here-and-now, then you don't need to state who the two parties to the communication are, the message itself is what counts. Seen from this point of view, even though the turtle-and-hare story is expressed in the English language, in spirit it's more like pre-linguistic communication, it's a survival of an earlier evolutionary stage.
Tuesday, November 6, 2012 -- 4:00 PMThe ape in the monkey suit is
The ape in the monkey suit is an insult to apedom. But apes cannot fight back. Yet. Supposedly, an elephant can "talk" now. Is he/she only aping an ape, or pretending to be a human in elephant's clothing? It is confusing---isnt it? Some say I think too much. Well, cogito, ergo, sum. And so on.
Wednesday, November 7, 2012 -- 4:00 PMI have a general question
I have a general question about Philosophy Talk -- not sure this is the best place for it, but it's a philosophical question. There's a term that gets thrown around a lot on the show, and I feel like either I've missed the definition, or it's been a bit sloppy.
When KT and JP use the term "rational," what precisely do they mean? Formally, I would expect it to indicate that the conclusion in question follows from an explicit set of axioms, in combination with a set of logical rules, and that the conclusion follows from an appropriate application of those rules. Of course, we aren't generally so formal that we have to spell out that whole argument, but "rational" indicates that we could do so with relatively little effort.
Does "rational" apply, though, regardless of the content of the axioms? That is, if an argument chooses entirely different axioms (and maybe even rules of logic), but proceeds according to those rules in a self-consistent way, does it qualify as rational?
For example, suppose there is a system with the following axiom: "Zeus controls every bit of physical matter at every instant according to his purposes." From this, one can conclude that there need not be any "laws of physics" by which things must happen; after all, Zeus is doing what Zeus does. If he chooses to be consistent for a long time, that's his business. All observations we make are simply observations of what Zeus' purpose in the moment was, without any content about what "must" happen. Missing from this description of the universe is Occam's Razor and the scientific method. But it's entirely self-consistent. Is it "rational"?
If not, what does "rational" mean? If it insists on a particular set of axioms, then calling any other system "irrational" may be correct by the definition, but seems a bit ad hominem. Or maybe it means something entirely different that the formal definition above?
Wednesday, November 7, 2012 -- 4:00 PMI haven't heard so much about
I haven't heard so much about how stories are received by listeners. I think the ability to be affected by stories, instead of parsing them for facts, is noteworthy.
Saturday, November 10, 2012 -- 4:00 PMKnowing that John did a lot
Knowing that John did a lot of work on identity I'm surprised he didn't make the natural point that storytelling reinforces our sense of personal identity over time, something dear to us but whose logical foundations are shaky at best.
Saturday, November 10, 2012 -- 4:00 PMEverything evolves,
Everything evolves, Everything, that is, involving life and/or consciousness. Philosophers and life-scientists have been dancing with this notion for decades---without stating the obvious. Professionals are fearful of being wrong, or of advancing unproven (unprovable?) hypotheses. There is a research engineer in my town who claims to have tinkered with time. He says he has a device, the effects of which may ultimately lead to time travel. Certainly, he has detractors---and rightly so. I do not know about warped space or other anomalies of physics. This local guy, Marshall Barnes, may know something. Or, he may not. Not for me to say. I grow vegetables.
Live as well as I am able---given fixed income issues, and give no more than I can. Google Mr. Barnes, if you like. I'm sure he is on the net. I mean, why wouldn't he be, hmmmm?
The oasis is calm tonight. The camel says: hmmmmph. And why wouldn't he?
Oh, alright. I'll pose two questions about time travel. First, the past: If Barnes and many others are right about the immutability of history, why should we wish to go there? If it is broke but we can't fix it, uh----?
The future: we might change this now---if we wanted to do so; or understood NOW why it should be changed, and how. And so, time travel is an enigma and so hypothetical---or is it? Ask Marshall Barnes. he seems to know.
Tuesday, November 13, 2012 -- 4:00 PMRational is probably in the
Rational is probably in the dictionary. Zeus is also, certainly---but Zeus is a myth. Perhaps rational is also a myth? Occam's Razor? The Sword of Damocles? Myths and metaphors---most in the dictionary or other quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore. Linguists such as Steven Pinker and his colleagues banter these things around a lot. Whether Zeus or any such myths truly formed our dreams and visions seems far-removed from, uh, the rational. But there are all of these axioms---aren't there? Complexity is just another way of saying: hey, I've got to take this call, d'you mind? Yeah. I do. See you again---whenever---if I'm so unlucky...
Wednesday, November 14, 2012 -- 4:00 PMAlthough it may not be
Although it may not be entirely topical, I am intrigued by the question raised by Brian. I have often wondered why 'rational' has a positive connotation but 'rationalization' has a negative one. Perhaps rational should be considered a psychological rather than philosophical term. Then, according to the Freudian view, rational thinking includes (a) consideration of all the available facts, not just the desirable ones, and (b) sound logical reasoning.
Rationalization usually refers to a process that begins with a desired conclusion and then goes in search of facts that fit.
Rationalism as a philosophy, the belief that truth and knowledge can be attained through reason alone, has been discredited by the historical process (or, so I take it).
Perhaps, too, a degree of ambiguity is unavoidable. Otherwise we may end up like the two hapless philosophy professors of Barrows Dunham's delightful vignette, who, after an overly critical philosophical examination of the proposition "it is good to be healthy," had one forced to admit that he didn't know what he meant, while the other was forced to admit that his statements meant nothing at all but were just grunts of approval or disapproval.
Friday, November 16, 2012 -- 4:00 PMTruth
If your searching for a Way to box in Truth with axiomatic ideals, natural laws, scientific theories and proofs, religious dogmas of gods and faiths, or even philosophical rationalism's and reasonings, you've gone the wrong Way.
Truth is absolutely free.
Thursday, November 22, 2012 -- 4:00 PMThere's another important
There's another important function of storytelling that's relevant to the evolution of our ability for it. Somebody above in comments touched on it. I think story-telling is more than just reinforcing of identity. I think our ability to tell stories may be absolutely and fundamentally integral to consciousness itself. The other important social aspects of it, yes, those are important, but in a different way. Our ability to shape our experiences into some kind of creative self-image, whether it's truthful or totally coherent, is a fundamental part of identity formation. I think that perhaps story-telling then is not a result of our nature but our nature as consciousness is a result of our story-telling ability.
I write diaries each week at dailykos about classical music and have for years. The subject of how we, as listeners, are able to process all that abstract sound coming at us and get something out of it is a much more interesting one to me than the process by which the composer himself imbues it with something we imagine as its meaning. I have, before, compared it to the process by which a a human looks at a Rorschach inkblot and sees an image in it, even though we might objectively say there is no REAL image there -- only whatever subjective meaning we impose on the inkblot. Since inkblots have no composer, by making this comparison, I suggest that the two-way communication that we imagine when we listen to Beethoven isn't Beethoven to you or me, but you or me to that firehose of sounds itself. We knit together and integrate all that sound into something subjectively meaningful, then, just as we do when we interpret a Rorschach, or when we make up the story of who we are and where we came from and want to go.
This has some implications as well, I think, in AI and artificial consciousness, an area of interest to me. Any successful artificial consciousness, I think, will have to have some process for both keeping a log of past events and of knitting them together into some kind of storyline of what it has been doing, what is happening to it now, what it wants, etc.
Saturday, December 1, 2012 -- 4:00 PMSigmund Freud was a neurotic
Sigmund Freud was a neurotic misfit. I arrived at this conclusion while reading comments on a newer Philoso?hy Talk blog post: Are Some People Better Than Others? It annoys me that Dr. Freud was ever taken seriously at all. Snake oil and hokum; surmise and personal transference. But, it teaches us something about the genetics vs. environment dichotomy: there are mitigating circumstances that enable certain folks to become better than others, whether those be risk-taking or taking a shrewish wife (same thing?). Or being neurotic misfits? Well, its a Grimm prospect, isn't it? (Heh,heh...) End of story(?)
Monday, February 23, 2015 -- 4:00 PMWell no doubt that the post
Well no doubt that the post is well written based on facts but there are also several points that i would disagree from like story telling for attracting opposite sex and your comparison of humans with birds. I guess the nature of both of these species are different, however, only in a few cases it can be accepted. Story telling in my opinion is just an art which is similar to the art of research assignment writing. Moreover, in majority of cases, storytelling was just a thing to make children happy because children are the once who listen to stories and fairytales with much interest. Anyhow, i would again appreciate your research and this is only my own personal opinion which can be proven wrong.
Gary M Washburn
Monday, February 23, 2015 -- 4:00 PM~~This morning there was a
This morning there was a news item that reported the Wisconsin vote to become a ?right to work? state, 'prohibiting unions from ?forcing? employees to pay union dues'. The wording prejudices the narrative. It could just as well have been stated as a move to ?force? unions to accept non-union employees into a union contract. This would actually be more accurate. But since contract law is itself a long narrative of excluding employees from any binding authority, it is easy to get away with the distortion. The point is, the purpose of narrative is to prejudice the mind of the listener.
If we carefully observe the spectators at a sporting event we will see many there jerking their bodies in precise imitation of the players. Studies have been done that show that this empathy actually involves the parts of the brain that control the muscles involved, and even contribute, by mere observation, the development not only of the neural support for the motion, but even the musculature itself. We learn by observing. In ways, by the way, chimps do not. Dogs, maybe, but not the other primates.
Narrative is a way of making ourselves present to each other of which mute sense is not sufficient. We actually have to say what we are doing as we do it if we wish to make ourselves understood. But think of the achievement implied! One word follows another, maybe with gestures and inflection, but one word at a time somehow assembles into an experience more complete than being there. As we read or listen to a story, are we remembering and analyzing the signification and implication, or immersing ourselves in the experience? Clearly we do not actually experience the situation, real or fictional, but nevertheless there is a completeness to it inexplicable as a series of terms. That completeness is the meaning of it. We are present in a way that mere sense experience is not sufficient to account of. This does not mean we are ethereal in some transcendent sense, only that we are more than passive observers of sense data or reflexive actors bent on survival. There is too much to explain. We are the ?Odd Squad?, in a sense. But who would believe it if we did not immerse ourselves more completely in the telling of the tale than in the experience of the event?
The great narratives of history fall into two kinds. One justifies the rule of a conqueror over a subjected people, like Gilgamesh the Iliad the Aeneid or Beowulf. These are the narratives of the powerful who rule by force and so do not require conviction, mere compliance. Others, like the Bible or the Arthur legends, are the instruments of elites without military power ruling by conviction instead. That difference, I think, is why evangelism or the notion of a universal faith or consensus insinuates itself as the essential feature of civil authority and social order.
Narrative is meant to be prejudicial. And in being so it tends to enslave, by controlling the terms of discourse. If we are unable to be understood except in terms of that narrative we are enslaved by it. And only by profaning that narrative do we emancipate ourselves from it, and come to understand ourselves fully, as completely as narrative gives us the capacity for. This is why, with Rorty, we must be 'ironists' to be free.
Monday, February 23, 2015 -- 4:00 PMI have experienced
I have experienced storytelling firsthand and have witnessed storytellers? performances. In small villages, away from big cities, storytelling takes another dimension: instead of assuming the storytelling is solely for entertaining purposes, the story serves the purpose of being the vessel to carry a message down through generations. Usually the role of storyteller in these cases is played by a member of a community with higher status, age, or experience. So normally, there is one terrific storyteller giving his/her performance and then surrounding this figure there are listeners/followers or, sometimes, just a bunch of ?brainwashed? people. The story is told but at times it feels that the content is rather imposed. There is no dialogue going on in these assemblies, just the repetition of a particular vision of a topic on and on for generations to come, participants unreactive, observing without debating the stories being told, as when one sits in front of the TV absorbing all that comes his/her way from that screen. It is survival of sorts - either you belong to the group or you don?t, and this is determined by one?s acceptance or lack thereof of a story/myth/conception. So yes, sometimes by using the storytelling technique an ideology can become part of a person?s identity, but is that really who you are or is it what the storyteller wants you to be? As I see it, storytelling can be great if fulfilling an entertainment purpose, but as a shaper or contributor to one?s or a culture?s identity I am against assigning that role and I believe our society should be more skeptic about the virtues of storytelling.
Thursday, February 26, 2015 -- 4:00 PMI was listening to the
I was listening to the Gottchall guy, and he kinda poo-pooed the Native American lady's relating their cultural taboo on educational storytelling involving deceased people, and how it negatively impacted survivors of Spanish enslavement attempting to reintegrate with their natural environment but lacking the nature-survival skills. He said it doesn't sound right and didn't jibe with his ancient greek model of storytelling, saying it covered ALL Modes of Storytelling. I have also heard of Native American taboos regarding storytelling and deceased people, and my father just read an Amazonian tribal ethnographic book that documented a very funny, fiasco with the researchers because the tribal culture had a taboo regarding either deceased people or other people's relatives. They would get very angry when asked about the dead or relatives. But surprisingly they did eventually did start telling stories, only he found they were outrageous lies, mainly when he was attempting to cross-check the stories by telling each of the tribes people, they would start laughing. The tribes people mainly did it just to mess with them, and to get paid for storytelling. So the researcher would have to play mindgames, and play the people against each other. But people would still get very angry when another tribesman would tell the truth about another person's relatives, dead or alive.
Harold G. Neuman
Thursday, March 12, 2015 -- 5:00 PMStorytelling began as a stage
Storytelling began as a stage of human development, seems to me. After hominids progressed to that uniquely human state we call consciousness and, accordingly, knew that there were ideas; experiences and truths worth passing on, they developed spoken languages, telling stories as a means of archiving history. Whether or not any of this was rational probably did not cross their minds---at least for awhile, anyway. Adaptivity takes many forms, and as we generally recognize, is not a uniquely human trait.(See: Rupert Sheldrake if you are curious---his ideas about why and how some non-humans act and react the way they do appear to suggest that consciousness may not be uniquely human either. But that is another matter...)
Today, we have the internet and social networking of many stripes. We friend and unfriend until we are just sick of it. Many of my friends; family and associates think it is great sport and, arguably, the internet presents a huge forum for storytelling. I do not care to indulge. The friends with whom I consort are sufficiently numerous for the time I have to devote to them. Philosophy Talk is the sole exception to my rule. I make it only because I value the community of thinkers it encompasses and the rich exchange of ideas it regularly fosters.
Tuesday, August 18, 2015 -- 5:00 PMwomen r always conscious
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Tuesday, May 3, 2016 -- 5:00 PMStory telling is something
Story telling is something that is very interesting especially for me, as i love to whisper stories.. :D Recently when i started working at natural medical health i got soo busy that i left all of this.