Is storytelling both our best and our worst tool?
Why do stories wield such power over the human psyche, influencing us more than facts and data? What role have stories played in human history and prehistory? And what are the societal effects today, now that the spread of stories has accelerated in the internet age, no longer relying on word of mouth or printed books? When we see wild and divisive conspiracy theories like Pizzagate and QAnon inspire real-world violence, is it actually our own storytelling ability that is backfiring? Does evolutionary psychology have anything to say about all this?
These are some of the questions Jonathan Gottschall, a literature scholar and professor of English at Washington & Jefferson College, attempts to address in his latest book, The paradox of history: how our love of storytelling builds societies and tears them down (Basic Books, 2021).
Literary Darwinism is essentially the application of evolutionary psychology to literary analysis.
Gottschall works in the field of “literary Darwinism” (AKA Darwinian literary analysis), which is essentially the application of evolutionary psychology to literary analysis. The estate got its start in the 1990s with Ellen Dissanayake’s book Homo Estheticus (1992) and Joseph Carroll Evolution and literary theory (1995), and was partly a reaction against the anti-empirical position of poststructuralist theorists, such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, who dominated literary analysis at the time.
These scholars saw parallels between the stages of the human life cycle (birth, maturation, mating, child rearing, aging, death) and common literary patterns like the “hero’s journey” cataloged by Joseph Campbell in the myths of the whole world. Carroll has become one of literary Darwinism’s most outspoken evangelists, seeing it as part of the project biologist E. O. Wilson described in his book Consilience: the unity of knowledge (1998), linking biology and anthropology to the study of language and literature carried out in humanities departments.
Literary Darwinism was a natural choice for Gottschall, since he worked under the renowned biologist David Sloan Wilson while completing his graduate studies in English at SUNY Binghamton. The two collaborated on Gottschall’s first book, The literary animal: evolution and nature of the story (2005), which brought together various researchers who had begun to analyze texts with concepts drawn from evolutionary psychology. Gottschall collaborated with Carroll on two of his early books before going on his own with The animal storyteller (2012) and The teacher in the cage (2015). In writing this latest book, Gottschall trained in mixed martial arts to come into intimate contact with the psychology of male violence, almost like a gonzo journalist.
In The paradox of history, readers will learn how primatologist Robin Dunbar theorized that language evolved to tell stories, specifically to gossip about one’s tribesmen and better reinforce reciprocal altruism. We hear about some of Gottschall’s research in his 2012 book Graphic representation of Jane Austen, who found that the agonistic structure of Victorian novels is similar to that of stories around the world, reflecting the morality of our hunter-gatherer ancestors that valued sacrifice for the benefit of the community. Researchers have identified a “universal grammar” of stories that, unlike Noam Chomsky’s “universal grammar” of language, seems to hold empirically across cultures.
On the beneficial uses of storytelling, The paradox of history tells us about historian Lynn Hunt’s theory that the human rights revolution of the Enlightenment was driven by the rise of a new form of storytelling, the novel, which caused audiences to identify the fate of the less fortunate. Gottschall talks about the research that points to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom‘the cabin changed Americans’ views on the abolition of slavery in the 1850s, and he compares this to research that suggests the TV show will and grace caused a significant positive change in Americans’ views on gay people and same-sex marriage in the 2000s.
The last chapters of The paradox of history Explore the destructive effects of “us versus them” stories that can pit members of a society against one another. Curiously, the “out-group enmity” engendered by these stories is often just the flip side of our “in-group friendship.” The idea that our very ability to feel compassion for others is also tied to our tendency to hate strangers will likely be an uncomfortable revelation for many, but for anyone who has read about the dark side of the concept of “social capital” from Robert Putnam. or who has heard some of the talks the psychologist Paul Bloom gave after his book against empathy (2016) is out, it will all sound sadly familiar.
A problem with The paradox of history is that Gottschall perhaps practices a little too much what he preaches. The introduction warns of the seductive power of storytelling to mislead us, while Gottschall also acknowledges that humans are much more receptive to stories than to simple but dry statistics. He mentions a study which showed that students paid to take part in a psychology study were more likely to donate some of that money to charity after hearing a moving story about a parent who lost their child to cancer only after hearing statistics on cancer deaths.
Gottschall then presents the latest research on the psychological power of storytelling through a series of anecdotes reminiscent of a book by Gladwell, rather than trying to explain the science in more detail and cite specific studies. I was constantly thinking, “Okay, that sounds like a good idea, but how good is the evidence for that?” Gottschall repeatedly mentions Plato’s warnings about the dangers of artists and poets, but I was looking for other quotes that weren’t 2400 years old. To be fair, Gottschall gets to the most recent search results later, but that takes a while.
Occasionally The paradox of history seems to be carried away by the rush to be “relevant” in responding to concerns in recent years about “fake news” promulgated by Russian hackers, Donald Trump spreading misinformation and “alternative facts”, and the growth of crazy conspiracy theories and various vaccine anti-beliefs that have spread during the COVID pandemic. I agree that this stuff is important, but these topics have been beaten to death by journalists and pundits over the past few years. The flippant way in which Gottschall’s stories handle these things made me wonder if he was really bringing in some major new insights, or if he was just rehashing old news.
Another minor issue is that Gottschall’s strange habit of speaking in a self-deprecating manner shows through in his writings at various times in The paradox of history, as in the introduction, which begins: “Not so long ago I went to a bar in what I suspected was a futile effort to just think. I felt depressed about the state of the world and confused about this book. Points for honesty, but damn. You should probably get excited about your own book if you don’t want its readers to get bored.
Sometimes “The Story Paradox” is carried away in the rush to be relevant.
The paradox of history can work as an average introductory text for people who are unfamiliar with literary Darwinism. It’s a bit light on the theory of evolution, but its lack of technical jargon also makes it more accessible. If you’re intrigued by the idea of combining evo-pysch with literary analysis but are hesitant to buy this book, I highly recommend listening to Jonathan Gottschall’s recent interview with Michael Shermer.
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