The Storytelling Ape
Regular readers have probably seen several posts on the topic of humanity as storytelling animals – stories are so much a part of human life that there’s no way to escape them. For my money, this is the distinction between clever ape and human. A clever ape can learn, but a human wraps stories around the learning.
Storytelling is ancient – beyond ancient. I suspect our distant ancestors were telling stories to each other almost as soon as they got a handle on this ‘language’ thing, and possibly drawing pictures of them before that. When you look at different cultures (particularly those that developed in isolation), you see the same general trend. The oldest myths are explanations of how things came to be the way they are, usually wrapped in a cautionary tale of some sort. These are the “just so” stories, how the leopard got his spots, why the elephant has such a long nose, why that mountain is there, and so forth. When deities are invoked, they’re usually either ancestral spirits or tribal chieftains writ large, sometimes a mix of both. Usually some form of the tribe’s history is in there as well, modified and shifted over generations until the original events are no longer recognizable as actual things that happened and have become much larger than life. In The Fifth Elephant, Pratchett describes this process as “thirty men and a dog”: a small confrontation where Vimes injures one person and kills another – and someone else kills a third – becomes a pitched battle in which Vimes kills thirty men and a dog through each person adding their own embellishments with each telling (speaking of which, I may not have remembered the details correctly).
It doesn’t take much thought to get to the answers. Part the first is that we – like I suspect all animals – are equipped with exquisitely sensitive pattern-matching brains. We see patterns in everything and we can’t help trying to match the patterns we see to other patterns we remember. Watch clouds some day and try not to see pictures in them, and you’ll get the idea. Part the second is that we string patterns together based on a cause and effect principle – even when there is no cause for the effect. This is also called superstition, and can be induced in seagulls – if they can sometimes get food by pecking at a button, they will go through all sorts of rituals before pecking the button, usually based on what they remember having done the last time the button gave them food.
The final piece of the puzzle is that we learn fast and don’t need to experience things ourselves or see something else experience them. We only need to be told a sufficiently memorable story to learn. Animals can, and do, learn from experience or observation. To the best of my knowledge, they don’t tell each other stories as teaching tools.
Here’s how I think it probably works: I do something memorable. When I get back to my group, I tell them about it – but because I don’t have a perfect memory and I’ve probably been rehearsing what happened on my way, what I tell them is a bit more dramatic than what actually happened. If I have a rival who’s been implying I’m a coward, I might have unwittingly increased the courage I needed to do what I did by making the enemy bigger, stronger, more numerous, or any combination of all three. Monsters become more monstrous, beasts more beastly, and heroes more heroic. Perhaps I’m the first person ever to do this, so the tale is retold many times, growing each time. When my children tell the tale to their children, I’m already well on the way to legendary just through the human tendency to refine and adjust things to highlight the most important parts. When my great-grandchildren tell the tale, they might confuse me with another of their ancestors, and have the one person perform two heroic deeds. Probably the person they link to the actions is the one with the more memorable name.
Fast forward multiple generations, and you have a heroic legends of your distant ancestors. If your culture works that way, you’ve got the list of begattings to trace your way back. By the time writing happens, there’s a whole collection of these tales, merged and tangled together in whichever way made them most easily remembered. Once they could get written down, they also make it possible to watch them change: looking at older versions of the stories and more recent versions you can trace changes through time, see the meaning shift (the original Cinderella story it was a fur muff, not a glass slipper, and the fur muff was *ahem* metaphorical. And attached, as it were), and use that as a way of seeing how that group of people looks at the world.
Because that’s the big thing stories do for and to us. They show us how to view the world, and in the process shape how we can view the world. It’s no coincidence that many of the big dreams of our cultures became reality after we started telling ourselves stories about them.