I ran across a fascinating book the other day, a book that speaks directly to a question that has been driving me for a long time now: What is the purpose of Story? Why is Story so important in human life? And I am more and more convinced that it is important, extremely important. Story is a human universal; I have a theory that there is no human being who does not like Story in one form or another. But why? What is it about Story that makes it so crucial for humans?
And here, in this book, is the answer. Or one answer, or part of an answer, anyway, but a really good one. The book is called On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, by Brian Boyd (Cambridge: Harvard University, 2009). The title very consciously refers to Darwin’s Origin of Species; the whole book is on the evolution of storytelling in humans.
Let me see if I can summarise Boyd’s point (as I understand it) in a paragraph or less. Art, Boyd says, must have a purpose in human life, or else natural selection would have weeded out artistic genes a long time ago. If there was no other point to art – visual art, dance, music, and, yes, storytelling – than to give us pretty much useless pleasure, it would not confer any evolutionary advantage on humans to be able to make art, and the people who are good at it would eventually have died out. But they haven’t – very far from it. So what is the point of art? Boyd then talks about the importance of play: play is there to have us learn. Of course that’s obvious in small children, who need to learn the skills for living; the same goes for any young animal. But in humans, the ability and desire to play continues throughout life (which, incidentally, is the subject of another really great book, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, by Stuart Brown – he shows that people who stop playing age far more quickly than players). And what’s the point of play in adult humans? It’s still, and always, to learn. Playing at running, jumping or balancing (e.g. any kind of sports) teaches the body skills which might be life-saving in an emergency, such as meeting a saber tooth tiger or a thug in a back alley. And because play confers such a great advantage on humans, we are hard-wired to take pleasure in it, to insure we keep doing it over and over. (There you go – the Olympics are really just an elaborate display of saber-tooth-tiger-escape routines.) Now, art, Boyd says, is play for the mind. Art has us playing with patterns – visual, aural, physical – with recognising patterns or deviations from patterns, which, again, could be crucial for survival or even just well-being. And here is where stories come in: they have us playing with social patterns. Social connections are utterly fundamental to human survival – we are herd animals, we need other humans. In saber tooth tiger days, straying from the group might just have got you eaten; today, we still cannot live without others. So we are strongly invested in making life in a social group work, in continuously learning about and honing our skills in social patterns – and stories allow us to do that in a safe environment (guaranteed free of saber tooth tigers). We are so strongly hard-wired to take pleasure in stories because stories teach us how to live, and how to continue living.
Okay, so that’s a rather long paragraph, and it’s drastically oversimplifying Boyd’s argument and leaving out many other important points, of course. But that’s about the gist of what I got from his book. It makes heaps of sense to me. I only got it out in an ebook copy from my university library, but I think I’ll have to get me a hardcopy for keeps – among other things, I haven’t actually finished reading it all. What I’ve tried to summarise here is the first half of the book; in the second half, Boyd applies this theory to two specific stories, The Odyssey and Horton Hears a Who. I mean, a literary theory analysing Dr. Seuss by way of example, how awesome is that?
Oh, and what does any of this have to do with my studies? Only everything. The question I’m going to be asking, that I have been asking all along but will be that much more pointed now, is just what the stories I’m studying are teaching us. What do we learn from Oz, Narnia, Harry Potter, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty & Co? And what do we learn from their altered version in the films? Why did the movies make the changes they did? I don’t know that I’ll actually ever be able to answer the latter, but I can make a stab at it, an educated guess. And my guess is now that much more educated. Thank you, Dr Boyd.