Gateway Books: The Storytelling Animal

Tell me a story.
In this century, and moment, of mania,
Tell me a story.
Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.
The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.
Tell me a story of deep delight.
-Robert Penn Warren, “Audobon: A Vision,” VII [B]
Sketch by Ted Benson for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Towards the top of the cover of The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, a new book by Jonathan Gottschall, there is a one-word blurb: “Enthralling.” The blurb comes from Jonah Lehrer, superstar author of Imagine: How Creativity Works, which recently debuted at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. That book was blurbed by Malcolm Gladwell, world-beating one-man-brand responsible for The Tipping Point (2000), Blink (2005), and Outliers (2008). These degrees of blurburation unite a particular genre of books, a tasting menu of pop-intellectual dinner-party conversation fodder peppered with anecdotes and infused with water-weak or spoiled-rotten science, which usually ought to be taken with a granary of salt. With the Pandora and Amazon algorithms in mind, it might be fair to say that if you like The New Yorker, where Gladwell is a staff writer and Lehrer is a frequent contributor, or Freakonomics, or NPR, then “you might like” The Storytelling Animal. However, as is the case with anything we put into to our bodies, we should be careful about which books we consume.

There are some important differences between The Storytelling Animal and its cousins in terms of both content and cookery. Unlike Gladwell and Lehrer, Gottschall is a working academic; he teaches at Washington and Jefferson College in Pennsylvania. Although his PhD is in English, he also completed graduate research under the distinguished biologist David Sloan Wilson. In this spirit of consilience, the unity of the sciences and the humanities proposed by another biologist Wilson (E.O.), Gottschall has emerged as a prominent voice in the new school of criticism known as “Literary Darwinism.” “Literary Darwinists,” who hold that human nature is constructed first and foremost by biology, and not by culture or discourse, interpret and analyze the arts through evolutionary theory and using scientific methodologies. For example, in his On the Origin of Stories (2009), the literary scholar Brian Boyd presents a scientifically-rooted theory of storytelling as an adaptive trait. That book, over 500 pages, contains the kind of scrupulous and exhaustive research you might expect from an excellent biographer (of Vladimir Nabokov). On the Origin of Stories is a brilliant and invaluable text, but it is not a bestseller. Writing one of these calls for a different recipe.

In The Storytelling Animal, Gottschall’s main idea is a magical one: we are Homo fictus (a term coined by the novelist E.M. Forster in his classic critical work Aspects of the Novel), fiction fiends, creatures of an imaginative realm called Neverland, “where we ramble in make believe.” If this sounds like a tale you would tell your children, it is; Gottschall refers frequently and charmingly to the play habits of his two daughters, who serve as examples of what is, according to the author, an evolutionary principle. “Fiction is a powerful and ancient virtual reality technology that simulates the big dilemmas of human life,” he writes (echoing the cognitive psychologist and novelist Keith Oatley, and others) and it “lay(s) down grooves in our brains, making our actions crisper, faster, surer.” This is metaphorical make-believe in itself (Gottschall, like all popular authors, is an excellent storyteller, which might be most of what accounts for their success). But how do stories actually aid us in our survival? Gottschall states the essential “Literary Darwinist” position: “Fiction allows our brains to practice reacting to the kinds of challenges that are, and always were, most crucial to our success as a species.” Stories teach us how to better navigate the world as individuals and, in the complicated case of religion especially, they strengthen social bonds and group identities.

These explanations, which attribute adaptive advantages to our universal behaviors, are key to any argument about evolutionary necessity. Literary Darwinists have proposed and studied hypotheses about why we need stories (such as that reading improves our capacity for empathy) in response, seemingly, to the sentiments of the scientist Steven Pinker who once dismissed the arts as evolutionary trivialities, like “cheesecake for the mind.” At that time, his famous view was that the arts are sensual confections, all sugar and fat and no nutrition. Another word for this is “spandrel” (which seems bastardly, and sounds like “scoundrel”), an architectural term for the accidental space created between a curve of an arch and the rectangular framework that surrounds it. In the biological sense is has come to mean a non-adaptive byproduct of the evolution of another characteristic. (Pinker’s position, on stories at least, has since evolved.)

But The Storytelling Animal is less an argument than an appreciation; the book is a celebration of stories. Although he has written and edited scholarly works, where he has developed his own ideas and theories, Gottschall does not bite off any more than he can chew in The Storytelling Animal. In other words, it is a light meal. The text of The Storytelling Animal is not so heavy on science (although the end notes refer to a wide range of sources, including biological journals). But when Gottschall does introduce data, he seems to do so respectfully and responsibly, which is rare. About the discovery of mirror neurons in macaque monkeys, which some believe to be hard evidence for human empathy, the author disclaims: “As with any area of emerging science, controversies rage.”  He resists the temptation to use these theoretical vapors to fuel his own fantastic conclusions. Gottschall also manages to describe the split-brain research of neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, which can be confusing because of our criss-crossed brain-to-body wiring, in a clear and attractive way. Gazzaniga and his collaborators found specialized circuits in the left hemisphere that unconsciously organize information into a meaningful account but, again, Gottschall does not over-indulge his own speculation. His eyes are not bigger than his reader’s stomach.

But there is an inherent problem with pop-intellectual book-cooking that every top-chef-author must negotiate. How do you make the science tasty, but still true? How do you make the anecdotes easily-digestible, yet still filling? Do you sacrifice painstaking gourmet challenges for simple comfort standbys? Gladwell has been dismissed by some for his empty recipes and Lehrer has been criticized for his misleading labels. Although Gottschall passes inspection, there is something that still keeps him from an ‘A’ grade. And it has to do with storytelling.

“Evolution is ruthlessly utilitarian.” This is a sentence that appears early on in The Storytelling Animal. Although simplification is the name of the game for popular writing, this reductive equivalence kicks too strongly. After all, evolution can refer to a number of intricate processes, operating on multiple levels, which can contribute to manifest change across generations. “Literary Darwinists” are concerned almost exclusively with one particular process: natural selection. But although natural selection is the basis for Darwinian evolution, it is not all there is to evolution itself, as we continue to learn. For example, one might say too that “Evolution is lazy and random,” describing genetic drift and random mutation, molecular-level evolutionary processes that may also be significant in the course of our history. This storyline should not be edited out of the evolutionary narrative which, like any great narrative, is so thoroughly nuanced. And Evolution, personified as it is, should not be rendered two-dimensional, but rather it should remain as complex and mysterious as it truly is. The Storytelling Animal is not a book about genetics, of course. But it does employ “evolution,” and the use of evolutionary ideas should always be qualified as a part of a whole. There should be a functional explanation of evolution itself, for the sake of the intellectual public that might not know about such a powerful and often, unfortunately, unpalatable topic. If nothing makes sense without the light of evolution, and more and more of our culture, like the art of storytelling, is now being heated under this light at some strength or another, then an author should include this sort of intentional statement, a “What We Talk About When We Talk About Evolution”. This is for the sake of transparency, so we know what it is we are supposed to be eating.

Gottschall could have maintained the sensational kick of his statement by writing, instead: “Natural selection is ruthlessly utilitarian.” (Natural selection is not listed in the book’s index, not even as a subset of Evolution.) This may seem like pickiness, but every popular book represents an opportunity to nourish people.  Natural selection may be the most popular evolutionary idea precisely because of its narrative seductiveness. It offers those timeless appeals to our animal appetite: sex and violence. In The Storytelling Animal, Gottschall discusses the role of these fantastical factors in various film, television, and video game conventions, but does not reflect the evolutionary narrative back onto itself.  The fact is that, despite their empirical standards, scientists tell a story of evolution—of the ape that becomes man, of relentless change and the eternal problem of survival. Literary Darwinists, inspired by this story, are telling a story of their own to try to explain the persistence of storytelling. Our lives are our stories, and Jonathan Gottschall’s book is a testament to their ubiquity and variety but, being an appetizer, there is a certain lack of depth and fullness to it.

At the end of The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall compares stories to food, because we crave both. Some are healthful, yet too much or the wrong kind can be harmful for you.  This is a good analogy, as we have seen. But consider stories, and the books that contain them, to be another form of similar stimulation: drugs. Books alter the mind, sometimes profoundly. As a drug, The Storytelling Animal is somewhere between the recreational and the hardcore, somewhere between Malcolm Gladwell and a gritty academic collection called Narrative and Consciousnessness: Literature, Psychology, and the Brain (2003).  The Storytelling Animal could be called the perfect “gateway” book, a term used to argue against the use of rather benign drugs because they might lead to more serious usage. The Storytelling Animal is light, mild, and stimulating.  One could surely follow the blurbs toward pop-intellectualism and less potency. It could be a gateway away from science. However, the book suggests another path as well, one toward real consilience, a productive and progressive relationship between the sciences and the arts, the erasure of artificial boundaries, the unity of disciplines, the future in higher education, the serious and difficult story of the quest for knowledge no matter where it might be found. This would be a wonderful addiction.

About the author

Ben Ehrlich

Ben Ehrlich's new book "The Dreams of Santiago Ramón y Cajal" will be published by Oxford University Press in 2016. Ben is a 2015 Salzburg Global Seminar fellow in Neuroscience and Art.

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