Monday

Why Humanity Needs Fiction

Humans evolved as a species sitting around campfires in a lethal wilderness. Unlike other animals, we had no special evolutionary tools to protect us, no armor or great speed or built-in camouflage. But we did have remarkably large and adaptable brains. It's not a great stretch, in my opinion, to speculate that at a certain point storytelling became one of our most important tools for survival. 

Imagine a big game hunt:
So there was this big mammoth, right? We were chasing it over the glacier, Argh and me, but we couldn’t seem to catch up with it. Suddenly I had this idea. “Argh,” I said, “why don’t you go around to the other side of that frozen lake with your spear, and I’ll chase the mammoth over in your direction. Then you can hit it with your spear from the front, and I’ll hit it with mine from the back.”
Telling stories about the hunt packaged important information, and allowed the hunters and their listeners to place themselves in the scene. Re-imagining it, they could adapt their behavior. They could tell the story again to refine and perfect the practice of securing food. Similar narratives could have been used to discover and disseminate methods to escape or avoid predators, to spread the word about new territories and resources, or to plan the defeat of rival tribes. Those that could tell a clear and resonant story would always be welcome around the campfire. 

Like any other special adaptation, this aspect of our brains was probably refined and elaborated over thousands of generations of natural selection. We became capable of creating stories of great scope and beauty, the evolutionary equivalent of a peacock’s tail or a meadow-lark’s song. Those who could wield this special human power (says the lecherous writer, coughing into his sleeve), could secure the most desirable, um, mates

Whether or not you subscribe to this kind of evolutionary theorizing, there can be no doubt that the ability to produce compelling narrative is ingrained in our consciousness. And what about today? Is storytelling still important? Obviously, given the focus of this blog, I think it is. 

For one thing, storytelling helps us make sense of a universe that is teeming with random information. We live in a time where more knowledge is available to us than ever before. Narrative, in effect, is the molding of information into a shape that makes sense. Connecting the dots. Identifying cause and effect. 

Economics 101: When things are plentiful, they’re cheap. When things are scarce, they command a higher price. These days, which is more scarce, information or narrative? 

I mentioned before that narrative is a basic human need. Conspiracy theories boil and fester because of our deep unmet longing for narrative. Narrative is also, again, the human way of ordering information into something powerful and useful for humans. And by useful, I don’t mean that it’s a way to make money or gain political power -- although it is frequently used that way.

Think about a political election. The winner is often (not always) the politician who’s waged the most effective campaign. And what is an effective campaign, but an effort to tell the most striking, internally consistent, emotionally appealing “story” about the candidate? Elections rarely turn on policy, for heaven's sake -- which may be one reason that we too often elect candidates who are owned by corrupt interests, and whose policies work against our own self-interests.

Words activate the imagination in a way pictures cannot. Viewing a film or a photograph is a relatively passive activity; reading is not. Reading, on a deep level, is sharing. It is communion. Stories are a way of imagining our way home. Of identifying with a greater human community. They allow us to envision new possibilities, and to create our lives the way we choose to create them. 

There's a saying I love: Books are our grandfathers. They equip us to live independent, conscious, intentional, rich lives.  And, as the great Ursula K. Leguin once wrote: 
“We need to be taught these skills; we need guides to show us how. If we don’t, our lives get made up for us by other people.” 
This is the essential importance of storytelling.