How stories made our world

In unsettled times like these, when world cultures, countries and religions are facing off in violent confrontations, we could benefit from the reminder that storytelling is common to all civilizations. Whether in the form of a sprawling epic or a pointed ballad, the story is our most ancient method of making sense out of experience and of preserving the past.  William Collins


Our species thinks in metaphors and learns through stories. Mary Catherine Bateson


Many people don’t realize the extent to which stories influence our behaviour and even shape our culture. Think about how Bible stories teach the fundamentals of religion and rules of conduct. Think of the fables and parables that moulded your values. Think of how stories about your national, cultural or family history have shaped your attitudes about yourself and others.  Lawrence Shapiro


The story was the bushman’s most sacred possession. These people knew what we do not; that without a story you have not got a nation, or culture, or civilization. Without a story of your own, you haven’t got a life of your own. Laurens Van der Post


We are constantly being bombarded with stories. Newspapers have their news stories. Cinema is based, almost exclusively, on dramatised fiction. Prime time TV is largely the same. Novels dominate the bestseller lists. Companies spend billions of dollars every year on advertising, trying to get their stories across to us, so as to influence us to purchase their products. Political leaders and states have also fostered stories about the past in order to construct a sense of community or nation. The founders of the world’s great religions understood the importance of stories, handing down our great myths and legends from generation to generation. Elaborate conspiracy theories intrigue us. Much of our conversation is taken up with anecdotes, jokes and of course gossip – all forms of story. Even when we go to bed at night, our dreams are stories produced by our sleeping brains. We are indeed storytelling apes.

            We may not feel comfortable with the idea of applying human evolution to the understanding of literature and narrative in general, but it can undoubtedly provide many valuable insights. We can say this for two reasons. Firstly, storytelling goes back a long way, pre-dating not only the invention of writing, but of agriculture and permanent settlement as well. We do not know exactly when humans developed language but a 100,000 years ago is as good a guess as any. Secondly, storytelling is ultimately a product of the human mind, which itself is the product of evolutionary pressures.

Storytelling has grown immensely in its scope and power from its origins – telling stories around the campfire. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories. Freudians have their three stages of psychosexual development, the oral, anal and phallic; in terms of narrative Walter Ong, a linguist and narratologist described the oral, print and media stages. It is a good idea to get an idea of the time scales involved. If we began using language 100,000 years ago, the print and media stages represent a mere blink of the eye.

What are the functions of storytelling? Within evolutionary science there is a debate as to whether it is an evolutionary adaptation or a by-product of the human mind I favour the latter but whoever is right stories serve an essential role in our society; they can teach morals, cultural expectations, and behavioural norms. The knowledge we acquire through storytelling vastly outweighs the firsthand knowledge we have about the world. Stories are indeed a wonderful teaching tool. It is clear that we respond far better to stories than we do to graphs and numbers. Thomas Sowell’s book Basic Economics: A Citizen’s Guide to the Economy contains no graphs or mathematical formulae. It does however contain lots of stories that really bring the dismal science to life. Mathematician John Allen Paulos tries to do similar things with mathematics. We need to be given a context and stories are wonderful at doing that.

            However, stories have their dangers. Life is not a Hollywood narrative. It does not imitate art. Many events have no meaning and are purely arbitrary occurrences but humans need to try to impose order on all this chaos- we have a need to use the word because; we are a pattern-seeking species. This is why we’re all so riveted by stories of any kind – we can’t live without explanations so we make up all kinds of theories with insufficient information and a blatant disregard for empirical evidence. This has been called narrative fallacy and we are suckers for it. In at the beginning of a Hollywood film we see someone buying a gun we know that that he will use it very soon. If someone coughs, it is because they have a terminal illness. In real life many things occur but they have no particular connection to what comes after they are merely random, meaningless events. In economics we often hear stories about how individuals are affected by a particular factory closure but we don’t see the overall effects. We hear from the most vocal groups but we won’t hear from people whose future jobs will be destroyed by protective tariffs. Anecdotes are not necessarily the best way to carry out an economic policy. Anti-semitism is an example of a terrible story that has been handed down from generation to generation culminating in the horror of the Holocaust.

            So, stories are all around us. We cannot escape from them. They do many wonderful things but we should also be aware of the dangers.  I would like to claim the wisdom to be able to see beyond them but we will probably never be able to transcend all our biases and see things in an objective way. 


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