Humans are unique as the only creatures on this planet who tell stories.
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?