Can Science Explain Why We Tell Stories?

The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik thoughtfully takes Jonathan Gottschall’s new book, The Storytelling Animal apart:

… It is one thing to think that psychology may solve problems that baffle philosophy or criticism; it well may. But to think that the invocation of empirical studies on a subject frees one from the job of finding out what the great instinctive psychologists have said about that subject before you got to it is just misguided.

Do entertaining stories make us more ethical? “The only way to find out is to do the science,” Gottschall says, reasonably enough, and then announces that “the constant firing of our neurons in response to fictional stimuli strengthens and refines the neural pathways that lead to skillful navigation of life’s problems” and that the studies show that therefore people who read a lot of novels have better social and empathetic abilities, are more skillful navigators, than those who don’t. He insists that storytelling is adaptive, on strictly Darwinian terms, but surely this would only have meaning if he could show that there were human-like groups who failed to compete because they didn’t trade tales—or even that tribes who told lots of stories did better than tribes that didn’t. Are societies, like that of Europe now, which has mostly rejected religious storytellers, less prosperous and peaceful than ones, like Europe back when, that didn’t? Would a human-like society that had lots of food and sex but no stories die out? When has this happened? (It’s true that there are those who think that the “symbolic” revolution among our sort of people doomed the Neanderthals, but this is, to put it mildly, a very speculative story, more “Star Trek” than “Mr. Wizard.”)

And if these claims seem almost too large to argue, the more central claim—that stories increase our empathy, and “make societies work better by encouraging us to behave ethically”—seems too absurd even to argue with. Surely if there were any truth in the notion that reading fiction greatly increased our capacity for empathy then college English departments, which have by far the densest concentration of fiction readers in human history, would be legendary for their absence of back-stabbing, competitive ill-will, factional rage, and egocentric self-promoters; they’d be the one place where disputes are most often quickly and amiably resolved by mutual empathetic engagement. It is rare to see a thesis actually falsified as it is being articulated.

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Still curious? See a favorable take on The Storytelling Animal.