The writer and literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall has a new book out called The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Like other books in the pop-science field--David Brooks' The Social Animal and Robert Wright's The Moral Animal come to mind--this work is the latest in an effort to understand some facet of the human condition that seems distinctively human, and to explain it in evolutionary terms by drawing on neuroscience and Darwin.
Gottschall has made his career thinking about these issues. In 2005, he edited a volume of essays called The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative (with a foreword by E. O. Wilson) and in 2008 he wrote The Rape of Troy: Evolution, Violence and the World of Homer.
The evolutionary origins of stories is a theme in his latest book as well. From the cave paintings at Lascaux to the horror stories of Stephen King to our table talk at dinner, telling stories is something that is an innate part of the human experience:
Flip through the sacred scriptures of any society in the history of the world, and you will be flipping through an anthology of stories. Religion is the ultimate expression of story’s dominion over our minds. The heroes of sacred fiction swarm through the real world, exerting astonishing influence over life on earth.
In the preface to his new book, Gottschall writes:
Tens of thousands of years ago, when the human mind was young and our numbers were few, we were telling one another stories. And now, tens of thousands of years later, when our species teems across the globe, most of us still hew strongly to myths about the origins of things, and we still thrill to an astonishing multitude of fictions on pages, on stages, and on screens--murder stories, sex stories, war stories, conspiracy stories, true stories and false. We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up at night, telling itself stories.
This book is about the primate Homo Fictus (fiction man), the great ape with the storytelling mind.
The question that The Storytelling Animal asks is this: Is telling stories so innate that it is literally hard-wired into our brains? Can science explain why human beings tell stories? Gottschall argues that it can.
We all have a set of left hemisphere brain circuits that force story structure onto the chaos of our lives. When these circuits run amok we get schizophrenia, wild conspiracy theories and, sometimes, immortal works of poetry and fiction.
With that question answered (though perhaps not finally settled), he moves on to another one: Do stories make us more moral? He claims that “The only way to find out is to do the science,” and concludes, predictably, that the science confirms his hypothesis (although he does acknowledge, perhaps unwittingly, that maybe, just maybe, there's more to it than that: This book, he writes, is "about the deep mysteriousness of story. Why are humans addicted to Neverland?")
But the New Yorker's Adam Gopnik is not convinced. Gopnik picks apart Gottschall's argument:
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.
I think Gopnik is missing the point. First of all, college English departments hardly read stories anymore. They read literary theory. To the extent that they do read stories--like, say, Hamlet--it's through the dark veil of theory (i.e. was Hamlet gay?). Second, stories, by definition, make us more empathetic. They have to. The dictionary defines empathy as "the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another." This is exactly what a story does: It takes us inside another person's world and help us understand how that person is feeling and why they react to certain dramatic events in the way that they do or why the take action to achieve a certain goal.
Empathy makes us more moral, then, by helping us identify and consider another person. As Gottschall writes, "Contrary to the claims of moralist and literary critics, most successful fiction—from folk tales to novels to TV dramas—is conventionally ethical. Far from degrading a culture’s moral fabric, fiction pulls us together around common values."