Homo Sapiens Afigitís
It’s the shortest grammatically complete sentence in the English language and also the shortest story. It’s really the root of all stories and, by extension, the act of being human.
Biologists, archaeologists, and anthropologists like to argue about what makes humans people. How did we progress from being creatures who live only in the moment to being the type of creatures who plant crops, and build cities, go to the moon, and build smart-phones?
I put my money on storytelling.
There’s a lot of biology that underpins storytelling. There’s the evolution of the tongue and the palate. There’s the adaptation of the brain and the developing capacity for language. But humans aren’t the only creatures to communicate with sound and symbol. Bees apparently do a bit of geometry in their hive dances, and whales have dialects of calls.
Yet while we may not be the only ones with at least a rudiment of language, we do seem to be the only ones to tell stories, to communicate about things that never happened and never will, to dislocate ourselves in space and time, or to picture the world from behind another person’s eyes.
To be sure the habit of spinning yarns probably developed over an extended period of time. It required the concurrent development of unique cognitive and physiological capacities, so there was no first storyteller in the same way there was no first dog. Humans just messed around with a wolf-like creature for a few dozen generations, culling the undesirable and breeding the useful, until what had been recognizably one type of creature was now recognizably a different type without any pup in the progression being a different species than its parents.
Somewhere back in the depths of time, our ancestors gained the capacity to imagine the world beyond what they could see, beyond what they could remember. It probably started with pattern seeking and inference. It’s one thing to know that there’s a watering hole at the bottom of this creek. It’s entirely another thing to recognize that there might be a watering hole at the bottom of this new creek you just stumbled upon.
This manufacturing of reality might have expanded into speculation. Maybe there are more creeks around here with more watering holes at the end of them. At the same time, the language capacity of the brain evolved to take advantage of the cognitive capacity, allowing the group to take advantage of the insights of the individual. Sounds are becoming more like words, abstracted from the concrete world into the theoretical one, becoming separate entities from the things they describe. It’s probably at this time that our ancestors started carrying around the memories of their ancestors as passed down by word of mouth.
Yet even at this point we’re not into stories. Not quite yet.
At some point, or rather span of points, the human mind expanded into something much larger and deeper, like a fresh water river emptying into the great saline sea. The abstract space of imagination gathered unto itself the greatest share of mental resources, burning precious hard won calories, it provided us with an inner voice, a personal narrative, explaining the world and the mind’s place in it. Our ability to invent the world rises above the expectations of experience.
A number of scientists from disciplines as far apart as anthropology and neuroanatomy have speculated that this internal voice might not have been understood as the I behind the eyes, but may have been perceived as an external intrusion, the voices of spirits or gods.
Regardless of how the source was perceived, our ancestors now had storytellers inside their skulls. Experiences, emotions, and reason were translated into words, and every person became the narrator, however unreliable, of his or her own life.
When I come home at night, after a hard day’s slog, I walk into my house, sit down on my couch, and get mugged by my dogs: two small, furry, lap-seeking missiles.
If you visualized that, my story has just become part of your story.
But the analysis goes deeper than that. How do I know this is my house? Yes, there’s a record of the purchase in my filing cabinet, but I haven’t looked at it in years. Nor am I merely expressing instinctive territoriality. I didn’t go around with my trousers down marking out a boundary. I know it’s my house because of the story I tell myself about it. My friends and family know it’s my house because of the story I told them. By and large, nobody questions the story of my house. Nobody demands to see the paperwork proving my ownership.
Even if someone did demand to see the paperwork, it’s just another layer of the story. People who don’t even know me heed the story they’ve been told of a society in which houses are things that are owned by people. Indeed, if you back up far enough, it becomes clear that society itself is something we collectively imagined into existence, and we impose it on ourselves by means of a narrative of what it means to be good or bad, morally right or wrong. ethically acceptable or not. There is nothing outside of us to supply those concepts, no force compelling us to this end.
Terry Pratchett put it succinctly in Hogfather when Death says, “... take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through the finest sieve and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy. And yet—” Death waved a hand. “And yet you act as if there is some ideal order in the world, as if there is some... Some rightness in the universe by which it may be judged.”
We humans are the stories we tell ourselves. More to the point, we wouldn’t be fully human without them.