Why do humans tell stories?

Sometimes you can’t just leave a comment on someone else’s site, you have to write a post about it on your own blog. (In this case it’s a huge long post on human evolution. Skip it if you don’t want to read the rantings of an over-educated archaeologist. I won’t mind.)

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Dave Wake recently posted Story Writing From First Principle: Lesson #1 of 10 (approx). Go on over and read it, then come back here for my response. I’ll wait.

All right, I know you’re impatient. Have some quotes:

“Humans need language… [but] …Simple sentences do the trick: “stay on the path”, “don’t eat that”, and even simple calls “eagle”, “food”, “run”…

…The two driving forces of evolution are a) an arms race and b) sexual display …the cheetah gets faster forcing the antelope to run faster which forces the cheetah to run faster until cheetahs can do 80mph at a sprint.  Humans didn’t do that…

As humans competed for the best chat-up line, the brain developed, so the sophistication of smooth talking grew, so brains needed… etc, etc.”

At separate times in my youth I studied both Developmental Psychology and Human Evolution*. And a fantastic number of developments have come about in that time, not least the most recent advances in DNA sampling which enable us to identify that Neanderthals are alive and well and living on this planet:

Human family tree showing Neanderthal traces in modern humans

Dave’s right about the need to pass on cultural information, and in a non-written culture the word-of-mouth folk tale has so much more to impart, such as:

  • the need to remember where things are, e.g. “when your grampa was out digging up naked mole rats in the sandy area below that big flat hill over there, XYZ happened, and a big monster came up, and…” and you remember where the naked mole rats are.
  • the need to avoid certain foods at certain times, e.g. “when your granma was a little girl, there was a lazy old woman who couldn’t be bothered to prepare her XYZ roots properly, and a witch saw her, and…” and you remember that if you don’t prepare the roots properly you die.
  • the need to remember who is related to who, e.g. “you can’t have babies with Gerald, because he’s your granma’s sister’s husband’s boy, and that would be just wrong etc.” and without realising it you understand that the extended family has to keep its gene pool healthy.

We develop those into stories as a means of keeping people interested. The story is passed on, and so is the knowledge.

It keeps us alive.

It stops us doing stupid things again, and learning from someone else’s mistakes. (Especially useful if the mistake was a fatal one.)

In evolutionary terms, however, the brain came first: we developed a big brain as a consequence of standing upright. The bones of the skull no longer need to anchor the strong muscles required to hold your head in place, as it balances neatly on top of the spine, freeing up the throat and vocal chords into the bargain.

Compare the muscles in a human neck and shoulders with those of a dog and notice just how much stronger the dog’s are (puny humans, your planet is mine, bring me Kibbles, ahahahahahhhhh etc.)

In addition, the ability to maintain your balance in an upright stance requires a huge brain to make (and remember) all those tiny motor adjustments, otherwise we’d fall over all the time like a two-year-old.

Is it any wonder that children generally learn to walk before they talk? Once you have the balancing skills in place all that processing power is freed up to do other things, such as developing complex speech patterns, art, and weapons.

We also developed big buttock muscles because we stand upright.Venus of Lespuge, prehistoric female figurine

The strong muscles that anchor the skull of a dog onto its shoulders have been transferred to the bottom of the spine in humans. Beyonce and J-Lo don’t need to sing to send signals… and the human buttock is a signal to male and female alike, and both sexes respond.

In evolutionary terms, the brain is something that helps keep you alive just as long as it takes for you to breed more humans.

Your bum does the chatting-up.

(At this point I should mention “The Evolution Man” by Roy Lewis, a thoroughly recommended read; on page 67 of my edition, the Penguin 1963 print, our heroes go hunting for females to further their evolutionary ideals and spot a couple  of girls belonging to a less-developed group:

“Phacophaerus! You’re dead right!” exclaimed Oswald with sudden enthusiasm. “She’s got the hindquarters of a hippopotamus! Superb! Well, who’d have thought it in a dump like this?”

The story gets an extra giggle out of giving modern names to the self-aware prehistoric characters, including Uncle Vanya, Wilbur, Elsie and the Wodehouse-like Aunties Aggie, Nellie and Pam. The lead characters are obsessed with evolving from the Pleistocene into the modern era. It’s a fun story for anyone who’s ever studied prehistory.)

As for why we began to stand upright in the first place…

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* Dave was always going to get a response on this one. Okay, it was twenty-five years ago I studied this stuff, but nothing learned is ever wasted, especially when you can get a blog post out of it.

Published in: on October 10, 2011 at 11:50 pm  Comments Off on Why do humans tell stories?  
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