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Mind, Brain, and Culture: Story Telling and Story Sharing


The Scientific Mind, the Brain, and Human Culture:
Story Telling and Story Sharing

Paul Grobstein
May 2007

(notes for a longer paper, prepared in connection with the
Second International Colloquium on Building the Scientific Mind)

There exist significant architectural similarities between scientific method, understood as a general form of inquiry, and the human brain. These in turn suggest ways to conceive of cultures that would encourage distinctive individual evolution in their members and so continual evolution of the cultures themselves. The hall marks of such cultures would be their respect for and commitment to human diversity, and their recognition that the past and present are best understood as building blocks to the construction of as yet unconceived futures, futures in which new understandings serve to alleviate or correct known problems as well as bring new challenges into existence.

Humans and their products derive from biological evolution, and so it makes sense that science has features that reflect our origins. Just as biological evolution is an open-ended generation and testing of possible forms of living organisms, so too is science an open-ended generation and testing of possible understandings of humanity’s relation to the universe. Both lacked a single intention or plan at their outset and both continue without a conceived goal or end state. Both proceed by testing what works without commitment to the existence of a final state independent of the results of the process itself. The core of both is a feedback loop consisting of the repeated generation and testing of novel possibilities in a way that reflects prior generation and testing. Science extends the potentials of biological evolution by the addition of “stories,” tentative abstractions of experiences gained that can be compared to one another in ways that create new possibilities for future exploration.

The human brain is both a product of evolution and the source of science, and so it is not surprising that it has architectural similarities to both. Sometimes thought of as a device to analyze and learn from the environment around it, the brain is in fact designed by evolution to explore, in much the way evolution and science do, by generating outputs and observing their effects. Such exploration occurs constantly, creatively, and largely unconsciously. A distinctive set of circuits in the human brain is responsible for its ability to tell stories about oneself and the world. This conscious system and its associated stories provide the mechanism by which humans are capable of conceiving and potentially bringing into existence things that have not yet existed.

Myths, both scientific and otherwise, are stories generated by the human brain that serve as common starting points for communication and the generation of human communities. In the past, these stories have served human groups primarily to stabilize existing understandings, and have additionally been put into service by those who have a stake in preserving particular forms of social and cultural order. An increasingly problematic aspect of this use of story telling in a shrinking and more rapidly changing contemporary world is the use of cultural stories to demonize other cultures as well as to disable individuals within cultures.

Stories can equally be used to validate and encourage an ongoing process of exploration and story telling itself. The key here is to recognize that all stories are indeed … stories, tentative ways of making sense of the world and subject to revision based on new observations. And to recognize further that multiple different stories that each serve to make sense of the world can be viewed not as antagonistic but rather as the valuable sources from which can emerge new stories. Story sharing as the foundation of human cultures would discourage both demonization and disabling and has the potential to engage all humans as equally valued participants in an ongoing process of creating and revising both individual stories and broader human stories in which everyone is involved and can take pride.

Bringing such cultures into existence will not be an easy task, but conceiving the story of such cultures is an essential first step. In addition, the essential wherewithal for such cultures, the ability of brains to explore and to story tell and story revise, is already in place. So too is the model of successful ongoing and creative exploration provided by biological evolution and by science. The need then is primarily one of encouraging all humans to make use of and further develop their story telling and story sharing skills. And to put in place institutional and cultural structures that support this and will themselves be capable of evolution as story revision continues.

Perhaps most importantly, we will all have to learn to resist the temptation to seek security through certainty, neither of which is achievable, and instead to become comfortable with, perhaps even enjoy, a universe and life in which we are all creative agents participating in a process of continually shaping yet to be fully conceived futures.

Relevant Papers:

Grobstein, P. (2005) Revisiting Science in Culture: Science as Story Telling and Story Revising. Published article available at

Dalke, A., Grobstein, P., and McCormack, E. (2006) Exploring Interdisciplinarity: The Significance of Metaphoric and Metonymic Exchange. Published article available at

Grobstein, P. (2008) From Complexity to Emergence and Beyond: Towards Empirical Non-Foundationalism as a Guide for Inquiry. Submitted. Pdf available at /reflections/Emergence07.pdf

Grobstein, P. (2008) Social Organization as Applied Neurobiology: The Value of Stories and Story Sharing. Submitted. Pdf available at /reflections/Socioneuro.pdf


Dov Henis's picture



Culture, A Ubiquitous Biological Entity

A Recapitulation

1. General comprehension of evolutionary biology is an essential pre-requisite to the study and comprehension of cultural anthropology.

2. Culture is a basic biological entity. It is the ubiquitous elaboration- extension of the sensing of and reactions to, by the genome, to the goings-on beyond the outermost membrane of its housing, the cell, and of multicelled organisms, to the totality of their outer and inner environments.

Culture has been selected for survival of the genome as means of extending its exploitation capabilities of the out-of-cell circumstances, consequent to the earlier evolution and selection of the genome's organ, its outermost cell membrane (OCM), for control of the in-cell state of the environment.

3. Every cultural element is an organism's artifact that involves biological intra-/inter-cell expression and/or process. Biological and cultural domains are not ontologically distinct. Culture inheres in biology.

4. Culture And Intelligence

The core (wordnet.princeton) definition of "intelligence" is "the ability to comprehend, to understand and profit from experience". These surviving abilities are different for the different phenotypes within a genotype, therefore each phenotype has its own meaning of "intelligence".

Intelligence is to culture approximately as essential amino acids are to proteins. Culture evolves in response to circumstances only by use of intelligence and to the extent and scope feasible by the extent and scope of intelligence.

5. In human cultures ethnocentrisms are phenotypic cases of anthropocentrism; biologically both are normal Darwinian biological survival phenomena. Ethnocultures are human phenotypic survival tools.

6. Life is a phenomenon of temporary energy constraint. It pops in out of its matrix, the energy constrained in Earth's biosphere by Earth's organisms, which are the many varieties of genomes, the communal interdependent life forms of the primal, once-independent, genes, the formers and conservers of life's energy on Earth.

7. Culture is the universal driver of genetic evolution

The major course of natural selection is not via random mutations followed by survival, but via interdependent, interactive and interenhencing selection of biased genes replication routes at their alternative-splicing-steps junctions, effected by the cultural feedback of the second stratum multicells organism or monocells community to their prime stratum genes-genome organisms.

8. Science is a human cultural artifact, a tool of human survival

During the recent several centuries in the course of human history Science has been evolving at an accelerating rate as a provider of convincing, ever closer approaching, approximate models of the real world. We understand that Science is one of the components of our Culture, the totality of our capabilities to observe the environment, react to it and exploit it for our satisfaction and survival. There is a distinct, even if still small, growing spreading tendency to accept the findings of evolving Science with ever increasing respect and appreciation, especially in the realms of all forms and types of its progenies - technology and life disciplines.

9. The crucial 21st century question facing humanity is how much further and into which additional disciplines may or should Science be welcome and adopted by society at large, with what hopes and with what expectations.

Which doctrine(s) may or should be welcome and adopted, with what plans or hopes and with what expectations?

Life is a temporary affair. It is temporary on all scales at all levels.

Life's purpose is ours to decide and ours to fulfil. The arguments about life's doctrines should ensue from our choices of life's purpose.

Dov Henis

Ron C. de Weijze's picture

Why should subjective truth ALWAYS win from objective truth?

Am I mistaken, or is that title taken from (the students of) George Herbert Mead's "Mind, brain and society"? Like Rorty, Mead is known as a pragmatist, not claiming truth (not valueing objective truth either). Perhaps it is better to call them and those referring to them phenomenologists, just dealing with the "definition of the situation" but not with the situation itself. Then what about situatedness of man as a factor òther than by his own understanding? Does objective observation not count any longer? Man supposedly is reflecting in his mind the unconscious and fabulates it consciously into stories. Then what about truth-content increase (instead of wrongness-decrease) sanctioned by nature, conditioning and evolution? Can subjective truth KEEP distorting that into myths and fairy tales? Apparently it can, but I don't buy it.

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