Tuesday, May 27, 2014

What I've Been Reading

The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall. A must read book for all those "rationalists" out there.

Story, in other words, continues to fulfill its ancient function of binding society by reinforcing a set of common values and strengthening the ties of common culture. Story enculturates the youth. It defines the people. It tells us what is laudable and what is contemptible. It subtly and constantly encourages us to be decent instead of decadent. Story is the grease and glue of society: by encouraging us to behave well, story reduces social friction while uniting people around common values. Story homogenizes us; it makes us one.

And in this there is an important lesson about the molding power of story. When we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to leave us defenseless.

History of Stories:
As the linguist Noam Chomsky showed, all human languages share some basic structural similarities— a universal grammar. So too, I argue, with story. No matter how far we travel back into literary history, and no matter how deep we plunge into the jungles and badlands of world folklore, we always find the same astonishing thing: their stories are just like ours. There is a universal grammar in world fiction, a deep pattern of heroes confronting trouble and struggling to overcome.

Revisionist historians such as Howard Zinn and James Loewen have argued that American history texts have been whitewashed so thoroughly that they don’t count as history anymore. They represent determined forgetting— an erasure of what is shameful from our national memory banks so that history can function as a unifying, patriotic myth. Stories about Columbus, Squanto and the first Thanksgiving, George Washington’s inability to lie, and so on, serve as national creation myths. The men at the center of these stories are presented not as flesh-and-blood humans with flaws to match their virtues, but as the airbrushed leading men of hero stories. The purpose of these myths is not to provide an objective account of what happened. It is to tell a story that binds a community together— to take pluribus and make unum.

Neuroscience of Stories:
These are representative examples of a pattern Gazzaniga and his colleagues exposed again and again in split-brain subjects. The left brain is a classic know-it-all; when it doesn’t know the answer to a question, it can’t bear to admit it. The left brain is a relentless explainer, and it would rather fabricate a story than leave something unexplained. Even in split-brain subjects, who are working with one-half of their brains tied behind their backs, these fabrications are so cunning that they are hard to detect except under laboratory conditions.

We each have a little Sherlock Holmes in our brain. His job is to “reason backwards” from what we can observe in the present and show what orderly series of causes led to particular effects. Evolution has given us an “inner Holmes” because the world really is full of stories (intrigues, plots, alliances, relationships of cause and effect), and it pays to detect them. The storytelling mind is a crucial evolutionary adaptation. It allows us to experience our lives as coherent, orderly, and meaningful. It is what makes life more than a blooming, buzzing confusion. But the storytelling mind is imperfect. After almost five decades of studying the tale-spinning homunculus who resides in the left brain, Michael Gazzaniga has concluded that this little man— for all of his undeniable virtues— can also be a bumbler. The storytelling mind is allergic to uncertainty, randomness, and coincidence. It is addicted to meaning. If the storytelling mind cannot find meaningful patterns in the world, it will try to impose them. In short, the storytelling mind is a factory that churns out true stories when it can, but will manufacture lies when it can’t.

Religion and Stories:
According to Dawkins and Dennett, human life would be a lot better if the mental parasite of religion could simply be eradicated. I’m not so sure. I think the by-product explanation of religion captures a major part of the truth: humans conjure gods, spirits, and sprites to fill explanatory voids. (This is not to deny the possibility of gods, spirits, or sprites; it is to deny that one culture’s supernatural story can be more valid than another’s.) But does this mean that religion is, in evolutionary terms, useless or worse? A growing number of evolutionists think not. 

In his trailblazing book Darwin’s Cathedral, the biologist David Sloan Wilson proposes that religion emerged as a stable part of all human societies for a simple reason: it made them work better. Human groups that happened to possess a faith instinct so thoroughly dominated nonreligious competitors that religious tendencies became deeply entrenched in our species. Wilson argues that religion provides multiple benefits to groups. 

First, it defines a group as a group. As the sociologist Émile Durkheim wrote, “Religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices . .  . which unite into one single moral community called a Church all those who adhere to them.” Second, religion coordinates behavior within the group, setting up rules and norms, punishments and rewards. Third, religion provides a powerful incentive system that promotes group cooperation and suppresses selfishness. The science writer Nicholas Wade expresses the heart of Wilson’s idea succinctly: the evolutionary function of religion “is to bind people together and make them put the group’s interests ahead of their own.”

Future of Stories:
Stories have been a great boon to our species. But are they becoming a weakness? There’s an analogy to be made between our craving for story and our craving for food. A tendency to overeat served our ancestors well when food shortages were a predictable part of life. But now that we modern desk jockeys are awash in cheap grease and corn syrup, overeating is more likely to fatten us up and kill us young. Likewise, it could be that an intense greed for story was healthy for our ancestors but has some harmful consequences in a world where books, MP3 players, TVs, and iPhones make story omnipresent— and where we have, in romance novels and television shows such as Jersey Shore, something like the story equivalent of deep-fried Twinkies. I think the literary scholar Brian Boyd is right to wonder if overconsuming in a world awash with junk story could lead to something like a “mental diabetes epidemic.”

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