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The Story of Evolution, Spring 2005
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The Relationship between Storytellers and Language

Becky Hahn

The concepts of active inanimate, model-builder, and storyteller are useful for understanding the evolution of life. However, the divisions between them, especially between model builder and storyteller, are not completely clear. I would like to suggest that the concept of language provides the division between these two problematic categories. Although it still can't be pinpointed exactly when or how language developed, the idea helps to clarify the difference between the capabilities of storytellers and model builders. This may seem obvious since language is the typical way of conveying stories, but the two concepts are not always completely compatible. Language is complexly tied to storytelling, but they are not the same thing.

In its broadest definition, language is a system of symbolic representation, or in other words modeling. Life forms come up with specific symbols (mental, verbal, gesture and/or written) to stand for aspects of their environments, experiences, and thoughts. The definition can be further narrowed to expression of abstract information. So is language only possessed by humans, or do other animals use a language of sorts? Most research on non-human "language," often referred to a "call systems" points to the idea that language as we know it does not exist for animals. We are the only species who can transmit information or "design" through culture (Dennett 371). Research indicates that protolanguage began for humans about 4 million years ago, stimulated by communal hunting and eating, which required cooperation and coordination. True language may have developed about 100,000 years ago (Bates 16). However, the important issue is that there appears to be a starting point for language within only the human species. There is a division between humans, who use language, and all other species, who cannot.

The development of life from abstract inanimate to model builder to storyteller, as Professor Grobstein explained it, is fairly straightforward in its parts. However, the divisions are nebulous when examined. The important aspects in this context are the identities of model-builders and storytellers, and the division between them. Model builders are organisms that have built in "models" for how to live—how to acquire food, reproduce, defend themselves, etc. They have no consciousness of their own life or possible alternative ways of living. They don't have a choice to try something different. Storytellers, however, are conscious of their own existence and models, and have the ability to recognize and even invent other models to choose from. They can take aspects of unrelated things or ideas and put them together. To put it simply, storytellers have more than needed to exist—they have internal experience. Professor Grobstein suggested that some non-human mammals are also storytellers, but this proves to be problematic.

The idea of language is complexly bound up with the idea of being a storyteller. The definition of language frequently parallels the explanation of a storyteller. Bates explains that for animal calls "elements of one call cannot be combined with elements of another to create a new message," but "with language, people can and continually do create entirely new messages" (Bates 14). Animal calls parallel the internal model of model-builders, and language parallels the internal experience (or infinite models that can be created) of humans. Bates adds that our language is "stimulus-free...we can discuss things that are not present... even things that are not real" (Bates 15). From these explanations, it would seem that use of language is equivalent to status as a storyteller, but the relationship is more complex.

So what is the relationship between the language and status as a storyteller? Language is an important tool for storytellers, quite possible the ultimate tool. Words are mind tools that help to express our inner environments. Words shape and enhance preexisting structures (Dennett 378-379), but does language create these structures that define us as storytellers? Dennett states that "only human brains have been armed with habits and methods, mind-tools and information, drawn from millions of other brains which are not ancestral to our own brains" (Dennett 381). If all of these abilities beyond simple survival are not due to genetics, they must come from language--the stories that we pass though our cultures.

Did language develop first and storytellers evolve from the use of it? Or did language evolve as a way to express the internal experiences of storytellers? Examples can be found to support both sides. One very common use for language is to communicate surprise about experiences or things that deviate from known models (Dessalles). The fact that we recognize certain models as different from typical ones induces our use of language. The ability of storytellers to make their own models is really much the same as the ability to use language. The ability to express oneself through language can therefore be viewed as an indication that there is internal experience, and the fact of having internal experience seems to necessitate the use of some type of language to express it. This would help account for the idea that language skills are "innate" in humans (as argued by Chomsky) because of the fact that we're storytellers would require that we use language to express our "stories". Perhaps the question of which came first is irrelevant since they're so intimately linked.

However, problems still exist in equating language with storyteller status and vice versa. The grouping of storytellers was described as broader than humans (including other mammals as well) while language has been described as belonging solely to humans. Therefore there is a group of non-human mammals who are left up in the air. There are two potential options—these mammals could have also have language, or they could in fact be model-builders. The first solution would require that all storyteller mammals have some type of language that is adequate enough for them to be able to make sense of their internal experience and perhaps share ideas. However, it would not necessitate that their language is as developed as human language. If the second solution is upheld, all non-human mammals must have no internal experience. Of course neither of these solutions is perfect, and the gap may serve to show a flaw one of the definitions or in the argument as a whole.

Hurford argues that there can be internal experience in the absence of language. He states that animals and babies have complex conceptual representations that are simply not categorized because communication lags behind mental representation (Hurford). But this is difficult to prove. It can't be denied that language adds greatly to internal concepts, through symbols to represent them and for categorization purposes. I believe that overall the concept of language correlates well with the group of storytellers. Although the boundary between model-builders and storytellers is not completely cleared up, it is helpful to study this transition as related to the development of language.


Bates, Daniel G. Human Adaptive Strategies: Ecology, Culture, and Politics. Boston: Hunter College, 2005.
Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.
Dessalles, Jean-Louis. "Language as an isolated niche" abstract, 5th Conference on the Evolution of Language, Leipzig, 2004.
Hurford, James R. "Origins of the Meaning of Human Language" abstract, University of Edinburgh, 5th Conference on the Evolution of Language, Leipzig, 2004.
Perfors, Amy. "Simulated Evolution of Language: a Review of the Field" Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, vol. 5, no. 2 (2002).

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