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Is Storytelling Adaptive?

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Evolution of stories Paper #1


Is Storytelling Adaptive?

Psychology is unique in that it exists as a need to understand not just life in general, as in biology or other sciences, but humans in particular. Our cognitive abilities are what gives us the power to ponder ourselves and ask why we think and act the way we do. It seems this area of science arose because we had a desire to understand those things which separate us from all other life. Our cognitive abilities, our personality, and our ability to have emotion are just some of the unique characteristics of the complex system of human thought. The study of psychology tries to find the essence of who we are. It reinforces the understanding that we are unique and can ponder our own thoughts. Therefore, psychology is a science that helps us to understand ourselves and to explore that which makes us human. When we learn about human emotion, tendencies, thought, cognition, personality, development of all these areas and what can go wrong with the human mind, we usually question whether certain aspects of these subtopics are adaptive or maladaptive. In terms of psychology and biology, adaptive means that what we are referring to a characteristic of the person/organism that benefits it in a productive way. It allows the individual to, in some sense, interact with the environment or others in such a way that has seemingly come about as a result of external stressors.

Psychology itself seems to be adaptive. What draws us to understand humankind is something which allows us, as highly functioning species, to explain our interactions with the rest of mankind. It seems, furthermore, that this desire is one which stems from community-oriented, socially-driven ways. If we were to look at humankind as highly social, and depending upon community to survive, the desire to understand others and ourselves in relation to those others seems a direct result. This desire may be adaptive.

When we think about Psychology as a branch of science, it can be reasoned that it is just another story, a story we create in order to consider that which makes us human - our cognitive abilities. So if thinking of psychology as adaptive and as stories in general as so, one may ask what the adaptive function of storytelling is. Let’s take a look at some other stories to answer this question. One in particular is interesting because it refers to the aforementioned tendency to tell stories for the sake of facilitating community. The Pueblo Indian Perspective is a short story written in 1979. A selection from the essay serves to show just how integral the story is to Pueblo Indian life.

“Within the clans there are stories that identify the clan.  One moves, then from the idea of one’s identity as a tribal person into clan identity, then to one’s identity as a member of an extended family… Anthropologists and ethnologists have, for a long time, differentiated the types of stories the Pueblos tell.  They tended to elevate the old, sacred, and traditional stories and to brush aside family stories, the family’s account of itself.  But in Pueblo culture, these family stories are given equal recognition.  There is no definite, present pattern for the way one will hear the stories of one’s own family, but it is a very critical part of one’s childhood, and the storytelling continues throughout one’s life.  One will hear stories of importance to the family—sometimes wonderful stories—stories about the time a maternal uncle got the biggest deer that was ever seen and brought it back from the mountains.  And so an individual’s identity will extend from the identity constructed around the family—‘I am from the family of my uncle who brought in this wonderful deer and it was a wonderful hunt.’”


The author, Leslie Marmon Silko grew up on the Laguna Pueblo Reservation. We can tell from her essay that in the Pueblo community, storytelling is an intrinsic part of existence. The culture and even the language reflect the importance of storytelling. It is part of what makes them who they are.  “Basically, the origin story constructs our identity—within this story, we know who we are.  We are the Lagunas.  This is where we come from.  We came this way.  We came by this place.  And so from the time we are very young, we hear these stories, so that when we go out into the world, when one asks who we are, or where we are from, we immediately know; we are the people who came from the north.  We are the people of these stories.” I believe this is a purpose of stories generalizable beyond just the Pueblos. The story of who we are, not just as a community, but as a species, is a fundamental theme which both science and religion serve to convey. Here’s another selection from her paper which shows that not only do the pueblo people have a story, but subgroups and families can identify themselves based upon the story they tell.

A religion can bring those together who tell a particular story of creation, but it has been suggested there is some sort of biologically-based adaptivity for spirituality. Does this encourage us to form communities of members practicing a particular belief? An example in support of the adaptation argument can be found in a recent article in Time Magazine. There is actually a new book out called The God Gene: How Faith Is Hardwired into Our Genes. The author, Dean Hamer, claims he has located a gene responsible for spirituality. "We think that all human beings have an innate capacity for spirituality and that that desire to reach out beyond oneself, which is at the heart of spirituality, is part of the human makeup… The research suggests some people have a bit more of that capacity than others, but it's present to some degree in everybody." What a fascinating concept to think that spirituality and the desire to have religion in one's life actually have a genetic basis. Although controversial, this particular story can give some explanation as to why we are driven to seek meaning through stories.

Darwin’s story has a great deal of meaning, for sure. In it, he wrote with sentiment and the words he used oftentimes alluded to great significance.  Darwin speaks of beauty and perfection, war and death. In reading his book, I felt as though he was passionate about his work. I could relate to his desire to understand. Darwin was not merely reporting observations but trying to piece them together and come a little bit closer to the truth. Isn’t this, after all, what both science and religion have in common? I think there are many differences and similarities, making a full comparison of the two quite arduous. But for the sake of adaptivity, this small comparison should certainly be noted. At the heart of storytelling, questions about life and the human story seem central and we ask these questions accepting that an ultimate truth may never be reached.

Darwin speaks of the struggle for existence in chapter III. “Owing to this struggle for life, any variation, however slight… if it be in any degree profitable… [it] will tend to the preservation of that individual, and will generally be inherited by its offspring. The offspring, also, will thus have a better chance of surviving, for, of the many individuals of any species which are periodically born, but a small number can survive.” It is interesting to make a connection between the story of evolution and the practice of storytelling. In the latter, the passage of stories from one generation to the next keeps the identity it serves to create alive. From one era to the next, stories develop to fit the environment of the people telling them. Evolution comprises of many adaptations which arise to complement the surroundings of the organism. This is the interplay I think is so intriguing to notice. Whether or not the relation between storytelling and evolution is direct, I can see at least some sort of connection. Genetic information that determines our tendency to tell stories might have previously seemed a stretch of the imagination at best. Yet, from Darwin to the Human Genome Project, we have continued to expand upon the story we tell and give further meaning to our existence.

I am not necessarily trying to make the direct connection between evolution and science or evolution and religion. What I am trying to reason is that our tendency to tell stories to explain our observations comes from a need for understanding of others and of ourselves. This is what might be adaptive.  Nor is it rational to say that creationism is just a story meant purely to give us comfort in the meaningfulness of our existence. I do not believe that this would be a prudent argument to make because there would certainly be no way of providing support for it. However, as previously mentioned, it does seem plausible to make the claim that storytelling in general - whether it is in the practice of science or the belief in a higher power - brings us together as a community, whether that community is scientific or religious. These communities may differ in many ways, but are similar in that no matter what knowledge they're trying to obtain or what their definition of truth is, they are asking questions for the same reason - to understand our place in the world and in the universe.




Anne Dalke's picture


What I see you doing here is shifting our focus from the discipline of biology to that of psychology, describing its attention to understanding human behavior, in particular our “adaptive” (=productive interaction w/ the environment) behavior, and then asking what adaptive functions our storytelling (both scientific and religious) might fulfill. Your hypothesis is that the general function is one of facilitating community, and your data is drawn from Silko’s essay on how storytelling operates for the Pueblo Indians (as did ctuckerman).

I think I got all that. Here are my questions:

I don’t understand what “The God Gene” has to do w/ any of this (and I don’t understand the god gene, more generally: don’t genes code for proteins, not behaviors???)

And I’m very curious to know how you see this argument in relation to the one that’s been presented in this class: a form of storytelling that doesn’t build community, but rather intends to provoke the gathering of new (ofttimes disturbing-to-the-status-quo) data. Is your essay a challenge to that sort of “loopy” storytelling, or an expanded version of it?