At some point, our ancestors developed the ability to tell stories. We know this, because we tell stories, and we’ve been telling them as far back as our stories go. This is the first post of the scientific, nerdy, weird, wobbly, wandering, magnificent story of stories. It may go on for awhile.
The curse of the storyteller is figuring out where to start. It’s the mark of the novice (or a true master) who begins their story, takes two steps, and then says, “Wait, we need to go back a little further.”
Fortunately, blogging allows me to save face, as I’ve not posted any such thing . . . but they’re there. This post is my third. “. . . back a little further,” on this topic. I think I’ve found the right place to begin telling the story of stories . . .
A World Without Stories
Stories are everywhere, even on our pants, but try to imagine, for a moment, a world without stories. Information could still exist, certainly, communication, but what if we told no stories? No television for entertainment, no funny anecdotes told over the lunch table. No jokes. No story-based games . . . And so on.
And yet the engines of industry would continue to turn. The crops in the fields would still grow and bear fruit. Guns would still fire and planes would still fly. One plus one would still equal two. So it seems as if civilization could exist without stories . . . and yet it seems that a great portion of civilization exists purely for the purpose of telling stories. We invest enormous resources into entire industries which exist to tell stories. Consider for a moment the resources expended to put a movie on the screen. Not just from the cast, or the crew, or the writers, producers, directors, but the advertisers, the builders of the theater, the men and women who generate the electricity to power it, invent, build, and maintain the technologies which make it all possible. If we were to trace everything that goes into creating a mediocre film, the resources would likely dwarf those required to build a new Pyramid of Giza, all flowing towards this center.
Since none of this is required to keep the wheels of civilization turning, it would be fair to call it, from a purely resource-based perspective, a massive waste. . . and yet stories are universal to all civilizations and cultures; they are preserved, refined, and improved with each generation.
Of course they’re here, right? They evolved with us. That’s what makes all this so wonderfully interesting and confusing, though: Nature doesn’t really allow for wasted resources. And yet here we sit, in our story-based civilization, and the labor and inventiveness of millions have gone into allowing you to read this little story, right here.
Still, we’ve expended those resources to carry stories with us, generation after generation.
If we tell stories, then we tell them for a reason. If we invest so many of our precious resources in them, there must be a payoff somewhere. Dinosaurs didn’t tell stories, and now they’re extinct. The closest dinosaurs will ever come to existing again is in the stories we tell about them.
And here we arrive at the whole mystery I want to dive into.
Why Do We Tell Stories?
This isn’t an easy question to answer, in fact, it’s not even an easy question to ask properly. In order to know why, we have to make some guesses about how we tell stories. But how we tell stories is contingent on when we started telling them.
No matter how our lives twist and turn, whatever the hills, whatever the valleys, we are, each of us, in one single place at any single moment. In this context, a beginning and ending are clear. Every life traces a single path, so label it with letters or numbers in sequence, from birth to death. This is our reality, and it is an easy story to tell. But this only true if you follow us, and only us, from birth to death. It’s a simple story told in sequence, replayed in ten thousand obituaries every day:
“John Smith, born 1932, married Jane Jones in 1952, and together they had five children . . . ”
And yet our stories do not arise from a vacuum–or, more critically, into one. We open our eye to a world of rushing, spinning, screaming life. Hungry life. Life at once tenuous and reaching back in an unbroken chain to the beginning.
Were we to follow a person backwards, from death to birth, and then the path of both parents from the moment of the child’s birth both forward and backward, and any other children they had, and their lives, until we reached their parents, and so on in the same fashion.
In this matter, you could start with a baby, your grandmother, dog, a tree, a slime mold, an eagle, a flea, or an E. coli bacterium, and eventually, via that unbroken chain, you would be tracing the path of every single living thing on this planet . . . From this perspective, all of life is one story, unfolding, and even then, the beginning is ambiguous–where do we draw the line between life and the almost-life which preceded it? After all, there was a last instant, a point in time, where there was no life on earth, and then that moment was past.
Beautiful as this thought might be, it introduces us to a problem of purely pragmatic nature: This story is simply too large to tell.
The story of stories, the one I want to tell, is similar in nature. Because, in Nature, things do not arise from nothing, and they do not persist without reason, we can at least say there is a why. In this manner, stories meet one of the core requirements of life. They arose from simpler pieces, and they persist by evolving, or they die off, replaced by stories more fit for the conditions in which they exist. There was, at one moment in time, a world without stories, and then that world was no more.
I’ll build on that concept later. What we’re talking about today is beginnings. Specifically, where to begin the story of stories, when stories are the children of so many different parents. Hugin and Munin, Thought and Memory, certainly count, but also speech, gesture, intelligence, mirror neurons, and so many other factors.
I’ve been fascinated with this subject for a long time, and I’ve been missing diving into scientific literature, so I thought I’d try to tackle this wonderful question, as well the how, and so on.
So, to answer this question, we’ll have to start tracing back through the ancestors of stories, split off in a dozen directions, so that we can find a larger understanding.
This means asking a lot of strange questions, like, “Why can’t monkeys lie?” and “Why don’t wolves get the point?” or “Was Homer a storyteller or a story, and does it matter?” and “Why do we remember The Tortoise and the Hare?” and, “Do birds speak words?”
All of this, just to help us put together a picture of how and why stories evolved. It’s going to be an exciting journey, and I’m excited to be starting it.