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08 August 2013

Book Review -- The Storytelling Animal

The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us HumanThe Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

You know you're behind in your reading when you can't remember when or why you put a book on your Goodreads "to-read" list.

Interesting and engaging read.  A little disjunct, particularly when Gottschall throws in actual stories in the middle of explaining stories.  And I could have done without most of the pictures; they added little to the dialog so it almost felt like the pictures you find in a high school history book, designed to capture the kids who don't really want to read the book and aren't interested in history anyway.  Those pictures always fail, too.

The basic premise is that humans are creatures of story.  So there must be some evolutionary purpose to our story-telling.  Gottschall kind of fails in proving his thesis but it was interesting to watch him try.

"Our hands are tools, but evolution did not shape them for one single thing--it is for many things.  What is true for the hand is true for many other body parts.  Eyes are mainly for seeing, but they also help us communicate our emotions.  They narrow when we sneer and when we laugh.  They water when we are very sad and, strangely enough, when we are very happy.  We have lips because we need a hole to take in food and breath.  But lips are multipurpose, too.  We use them to express affection through kisses.  We flex our lips to let people know what's going on inside our skulls: if we are happy, sad, or killing mad.  And lips, of course, are also for speaking.  What is true for lips and hands is also true for the brain, and the behaviors driven by it.  Take generosity.  While evolutionary psychologists debate where humans sit on the continuum between selflessness and selfishness, it is obvious that humans behave generously under many conditions.  What is generosity for?  It is for a lot of things: enhancing reputation, wooing mates, attracting allies, helping kinsmen, banking favors, and so on.  Generosity isn't for any one thing, and it wasn't forged by a single evolutionary force.  Likewise the human penchant for story.  Fiction might be for a lot of things."

He goes on to speculate that story might be a mating ritual.  Or it might be a form of cognitive play.  Or maybe a low-cost source of information and vicarious experience.  Maybe stories delight in order that they may instruct.  Or maybe they simply form a social glue that brings people together.  Or maybe story is for nothing at all.

And that's what the book is about.  Exploring all of these options.

Take conspiracy theories.  According to Gottschall, they are not the "province of a googly-eyed lunatic fringe."  Conspiracy theories offer meaning.  They offer an answer to that eternal "why?"  "Bad things do not happen because of a wildly complex swirl of abstract historical and social variables.  They happen because bad men live to stalk our happiness.  And you can fight, and possibly even defeat, bad men. If you can read the hidden story."

To Gottschall, the same concept applies to religion; "humans conjure gods, spirits, and sprites to fill explanatory voids."  And it's not evolutionarily useless, either.  Religion makes society stable because it encourages humans to work together. To form groups.  "Elements of religion that appear irrational and dysfunctional often make perfectly good sense when judged by the only appropriate gold standard as far as evolutionary theory is concerned--what they case people do do." (Wilson - Darwin's Cathedral)  Religion binds people together to work for a group's interest.  Religion is a weapon of Darwinian survival.

So stories exist to explain our existence.  To explain the world.  Stories are around us everyday.  Lies honestly told. Embellishments to the mundane.  Expressions of how the world works through our unique and all-too-human lens of self-importance and ego.

By this token, memoirs ought to be shelved in fiction.  Not because the authors are blatantly lying (though some are) but because memoirs are not true.  They are fashioned.  "We spend our lives crafting stories that make us the noble--if flawed--protagonists of first-person dramas.  A life story is a 'personal myth' about who we are deep down--where we come from, how we got this way, and what it all means.  Our life stories are who we are.  They are our identity.  A life story is not, however, an objective account.  A life story is a carefully shaped narrative that is replete with strategic forgetting and skillfully spun meanings."  We are, in large part, only a figment of our own imaginations.  The need to see ourselves as the striving hero in a life that is epic taints our ability to see ourselves as we really are.  The kicker?  Depressed people have lost their positive illusions.  They are able to see that they aren't actually all that special.  Positive illusions, self-delusion, keeps us away from despair.  So we lie to ourselves to keep ourselves alive. To me, that's the most telling proof that stories are of evolutionary importance.

"Story--sacred and profane--is perhaps the main cohering force in human life.  A society is composed of fractious people with different personalities, goals and agendas.  What connects us beyond our kinship ties?  Story.  As John Gardner put it, fiction 'is essentially serious and beneficial, a game played against chaos and death, against entropy.'  Story is the counterforce to social disorder, the tendency of things to fall apart.  Story is the center without which the rest cannot hold."

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