The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human (Gottschall)

In this age when the humanities are most definitely under attack and many seem convinced that education should revolve around STEM because that will allow our economy to compete (and thereby neglecting to defend their premise – I mean you, Thomas Friedman – that the purpose of education is to prepare students for careers), it is refreshing and welcome to read Gottschall’s argument that not only are we, by nature, attracted to stories, but we (as individuals, as a society) also need them. “Nature,” Gottschall asserts, “designed us to enjoy stories so we get the benefit of practice” (59). Practice for what? Real life. Because, he argues, “[w]hen we experience fiction, our minds are firing and wiring, honing the neural pathways that regulate our responses to real-life experiences” (65). Gottschall continues (136):

[F]iction, by constantly marinating our brains in the theme of poetic justice, may be partly responsible for the overly optimistic sense that the world is, on the whole, a just place. And yet the fact that we take this lesson to heart may be an important part of what makes societies work.

Stories (and the process of storytelling) still bind us together. The Internet has not, in Gottschall’s view, destroyed that feature. Instead, he says, “We are still having a communal experience; it’s just spread out over space and time” (137).

Stories shape us, both on a large and small scale. Hitler was influenced by Wagner. There is a connection between the violence a child consumes and the likelihood of him becoming violent.

I accept Gottschall’s argument about the inherent and probably deliberate flaws in memory. I am less convinced by his argument about the future. Gottschall supports an argument put forth by Edward Castronova that “we have begun the greatest mass migration in the history of  humanity. People are moving en masse from the real to the virtual world. Bodies will be marooned here on earth, but human attention is gradually ‘draining’ into the virtual world” (194-195). Our lives have become so empty, he contends, that we will soon turn to making ourselves protagonists of stories of our own making in an electronic world that others have constructed. That seems to me a description of a sad and lonely world. And I am referring to both the real world that would send so many to these virtual stories, and these virtual worlds that are meant as a kind of replacement.

Are we too immersed in stories? Do we have “the story equivalent of deep-friend Twinkies” (197)? I worry about this at times, but I’ve become less elitist over the years. I am willing to consider digital literacy, both for myself and in the classroom. I just need the right guide. Preferably a real one, sitting right next to me.

Gottschall’s writing is clear and fluid. He makes what seems to be called ‘evolutionary psychology’ go down easy. His habit of using a cryptic chapter opening as a hook gets tiresome. (The one about Hitler is downright annoying. Is there anyone who doesn’t know the story about art school? What’s the need for the big ‘reveal’ there?) Still, this is a thoughtful book about an important topic.

And now back to The Map and the Territory; a novel (made out of paper) beckons.


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