Monday, June 11, 2012

Storytelling Animals

The traditional philosophical definition of 'human' is "rational animal," and while I think this definition works, it seems to me a case could made for defining us as storytelling animals. That's what is suggested in a recent article by Maria Popova, and also in the book Popova discusses in that article, namely The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, by Jonathan Gottschall.

There may actually be a close connection between rationality and storytelling. Perhaps defining us as storytelling animals, as opposed to merely rational ones, focuses in on a certain kind of rational thinking that is especially distinctive of who and what we are.

Reason makes connections. Some of those connections are logical ones--and certainly part of what human characteristically do is recognizing logical implications. But the most important connections people make have to do with the question "Why?" And as soon as we start saying why this or that is the case--as soon as we start making causal connections, teleological ones (roughly, connections based on purposes and aims), or what I'll call energent ones (accounts of how some higher level property arises out of the interaction of simpler elements)--we've started to tell a story.

Scientists, in their way, are in the business of telling stories. They aim not just to be collectors of facts and observers of patterns. They want to make sense of those facts and those patterns, weave them together into a coherent picture. This is the essence of narrative, what distinguishes a timeline from a story: Fitting the pieces together in a way that makes sense. The theoretic level of science might be construed as a distinctive refinement of the storyteller's art.

Arguably, the most influential scientists are those who have a knack for how to tell their story well, in a way that resonates with and makes sense to others. Darwin, in The Origin of Species, famously told the story of evolution in a way that connected with the common experience of people of the day--by, among other things, invoking the metaphor of animal husbandry to explain the process of natural selection.

Philosophy, too, can be seen as involving a specialized kind of storytelling. Philosophy has both a negative/critical side and a constructive/speculative one. The constructive side attempts to fit disparate elements of our experience together into a coherent way of seeing the whole--and the critical side is really in the service of the constructive one, assessing attempts at speculative construction to evaluate their internal coherence and their fit with our lived experience and the facts available. Philosophy in this sense becomes a kind of storytelling and vetting of stories in an attempt to piece together our human experience into a compelling account of what it all means.

Even those who resist speculation beyond "what science tells us" have a hard time resisting their own version of such holistic storytelling, which is why "scientism" so often emerges among those who are doggedly committed not to believe in anything beyond what science tells us. Scientism is what happens, we might say, when those who consciously refuse to tell a holistic story end up telling one subconsciously: They weave together a narrative picture of the whole premised on the idea that there is nothing beyond what science gives to us, and hence postulating that the picture of "the whole" cannot include any postulates beyond the very delimited ones that arise in the scientist's specialized form of storytelling.

Naturalism, in contrast with scientism, might be seen as the conscious attempt to build a narrative worldview around such a postulate--and hence as the effort to tell this story in a self-reflective and thoughtful way, as opposed to merely falling into a muddled story by accident.

Note: The above distinction might convey the impression that agnosticism is paired with scientism rather than naturalism, but that is a mistake. Agnostics might be very deliberate, thoughtful storytellers who are simply hesitant to give too much credence to their own stories. Telling a story isn't the same as believing it.

But this point raises some interesting questions which I think I'll take up in my next post. For now, however, let me ask it of my readers: What, exactly, are the different ways in which storytelling can be (or generally is) related to belief?


  1. "Darwin, in The Origin of Species, famously told the story of evolution in a way that connected with the common experience of people of the day--by, among other things, invoking the metaphor of animal husbandry to explain the process of natural selection."

    Without getting on too high a horse, allow me to take exception to this in two ways. What Darwin told was first and foremost a compelling story knitting together many threads of evidence, some well-known, some not so well-known, into a system that made sense of many disparate oddities about nature as well as the central conundrum of its motive force. Much of his evidence was very far afield indeed- speciation on the Galapagos and in South America, the chances of drifting between islands on floating coconuts, etc. This was not in his reader's common experience, but nevertheless contributed logically to the whole work, as his readers could very well understand.

    Second, animal husbandry was not a metaphor for natural selection- it was selection, just artificial instead of natural. Perhaps analogous would be a better term, though the selection mechanism is really precisely the same in either case as far as the target organism is concerned, just for different target characteristics and having typically much faster effects due to our highly-focused, super-god-playing methods.

    The larger point is well-taken, however, with the caveat of .. what gives the philosopher any more remit or expertise on making speculative stories about his subjects (typically- what it all means, or where did it all come from, etc.) than any Joe on the street? Not very much would be my answer. Other than some familiarity with the long and largely fruitless history of trying to address the same questions. At least scientists have a proven method and community to address questions in one of these classes- the whole reality end of the spectrum of .. what is reality made of, and where do things come from, iterated as far back as empiricism can take us. Speculation beyond that seems seriously unmoored and prone to fantasy.

    As to your question, it behooves anyone telling a story (about reality) to take one of two paths, either make something up and be up front about it ... or do the more serious work of presenting one's view of reality and stand behind it with logic and evidence rather than mincing about making gestures, or playing with ideas, presenting airy speculations, etc.. and then calling them "reasonable" as though that were not the job of the hearer rather than the presenter. So, whatever the relation to belief, it should be laid out explicitly and defended explicitly, with special consciousness about just how far one's evidence takes the story. Darwin's evidence was, for example, overwhelming, and he knew it.

    Additionally, a third point of story-telling comes to mind, which is intersubjectivity, probably the most important of all. I could go on about its virtues and distinctions, but that doesn't seem to be the kind of storytelling you have in mind.

  2. Hi Eric

    having just watch my two year old boys come across some small scale plastic plates and forks, and then insist they should sit up together at the table while they ate their imagined meal (they chose pancakes) with some gusto (accompanied by a non-imagined reading of their current favourite book) I would certainly agree that we are first and foremost the animal that tells stories.

    The role of mirror neuron networks in this instinct for metaphor is fascinating, and potentially ties together the various quintessentially human threads (complex language, theory of mind, empathy, technology, self-consciousness).

    An interesting development, thanks to Darwin, is that we can now see ourselves as animals with these particular behavioural tendencies, and this allows us to in a sense take one further step back, not only indulging in story telling, but also critically analysing the habit, in the light of what we know about our inbuilt prejudice generators.

    For me, and inevitable consequence of this type of thinking is a breed of scepticism. If the construction of holistic stories fulfills an evolved need, then immediately I want to be very careful about leaning too heavily upon such stories. Certainly, I can appreciate the value story brings to my life, and I would be a fool not to wallow in its opportunities, but when it comes to the temptation to believe a story that fits my nature well must also fit nature well, I prefer to practise abstinence.


  3. Of course, neither rationality or storytelling are unique to humans. Plenty of animals exhibit rational behaviour, whether it's in systematically solving mazes, or exercising delayed gratification, for example. I'm reminded of a case I recently heard about a cow who gave birth to twins. As a dairy cow, she had grown used to the farmer always killing her newborns once she brought them back to the farmhouse. But this time, she had twins, which created a unique opportunity for her. She knew that if she took them both back, the farmer would kill them both. But she also reasoned that if she hid the babies and came back alone, the farmer would get suspicious and would seek the babies out. So, she made a decision to hide one of the twins, and brought back the other one - choosing to sacrifice one in order that the other may live: the farmer would assume that she just had one baby as always, and wouldn't suspect the hidden twin. How painful it must have been for her to make such a rational decision in a time when the instinct and emotion of the moment would have been overbearing! Unfortunately, her plan collapsed once the farmer, wondering why her udder was always empty, eventually went looking around and found the hidden calf. (Despite admiring her cleverness, he killed that one too because, well, dairy farmers are arseholes).

    Storytelling must also surely be present throughout the animal kingdom. I'm sure parents and elders in animal communities must tell stories about predators, dangerous areas, and fertile feeding grounds.

    Even bees tell stories to their kin about flowers they have found (via the medium of special 'dances'). The stories communal mammals such as chimps or wolves tell each other must be far more sophisticated.

    Whales tell stories that seem even more like many of ours, in that they are less pragmatic/proscriptive and more abstract/aesthetic in nature, in the form of the songs they sing to each other (ie. it seems that they are stories for the sake of stories). These songs travel thousands of kilometres, span generations, and eventually change and evolve in 'grammar' and 'wording' as they are passed on from whale to whale...just as stories in human oral traditions do.

    So, if humans are so adamant about ascribing such attributes as being uniquely human, might I suggest that 'the pompous animal' might be a more apt label?

  4. Hi Volnaiksra

    While all such definitions involve something of a sliding scale, such that we can see in cows, or indeed computers, versions of rationality and story telling, the claim that's usually made is that there are features to human thought and language (and indeed brain structure) that warrant claims of difference without descending into the pomposity you suggest.

    The recursive structure of our language is often proposed as a strong point of difference, for example, as is the creation of technology for future use, and if I remember correctly there's the claim, based upon brain structure, that episodic memory is ours alone.

    Not sure my dairy farming relatives would agree with your assessment of them, a more careful framing might have it that they tell different stories about animals than you do.


    1. I'm sure your dairy farming relatives are lovely ...if you're a person. But if you're a cow, they're almost definitely arseholes. Sorry, but if you've chosen a profession that inherently revolves around cruelty, then you can't reasonably claim to be a nice guy. Your relatives make their living by imprisoning mothers and killing their babies, so that they can sell those babies' birthright for profit. I'm sure they consider themselves nice people, as do you (anyone can seem nice if you frame them, ahem, "carefully"). But self-appraisal or the appraisal of loved ones is meaningless here. One's values, beliefs and character are revealed primarily by one's actions.

      I made no claim that non-human animals and human animals are devoid of difference. I merely pointed out that rationality and storytelling are prominent in both. So, calling humans 'the rational animal' is simply inaccurate and misleading. As you yourself point out, the differences are merely in the details.

      Yes, our rationality and story-telling might be the most developed, and perhaps in very significant ways - but so what? Our intelligence is also the most developed, yet calling ourselves "the intelligent animal" would be a misstep and a gross distortion of reality, would it not?

  5. Hi Eric,

    There's a chapter in Gazzaniga's book Who's in Charge? I read recently called “The Interpreter”. (I didn't enjoy the whole book equally but this chapter was very interesting.)

    He identifies an “interpreter” module, located in the left hemisphere, whose role seems to be to take in inputs from various sources and make up a story that explains them. To continuously, in effect, answer the “what is going on?” and “why?” questions. It so happens that with split-brain patients (meaning the two hemispheres have been disconnected and cannot communicate with each other) the interpreter module will literally make up a story out of thin air when asked to explain what the right hemisphere is doing (for example, a movement of the left arm) – instead of recognizing it does not know at all. Mind-boggling stuff.

    Without extrapolating too much, we can certainly take this as an indication that “story-telling” is deeply embedded in our brain.

    Then, there are the stories we believe in while knowing they are not true. I do believe my son is the most important being in the whole universe (and will act on this if needed). Others believe in their country so much they will die for it. Or will derive meaning in their life from their belonging to some organization (the military for example). Of course, although they provide meaning, none of these stories is true in any real sense; they are personal things.

    Now, what about these holistic narratives? Certainly they are not at all the same thing as a scientific theory. Comparing the latter to a story is, I think, very misleading. Scientific theories (like evolution) are confirmed by mountains of evidence, can be tested, makes predictions, and so on. Without any of this, how can we say these narratives are more than “just stories”, without any claim that they represent something real?

  6. Hmmmm. Perhaps I take a slightly different tack than you are getting at here; perhaps not.

    I think stories are integral to religious belief because stories can be lived, and religion is about shaping one's way of life. Equations cannot be lived.

    -- Anne Onymous