Origins of Storytelling

As mentioned in a previous blog post, Literary Darwinism was a literary theory that I encountered in my graduate English classes. Because my master’s focus was composition, most of my time was split between literature and composition and rhetoric classes. If you’re looking for an interesting approach to English classes, I highly recommend the route I took since, aside from the handful of required C&R classes, I had a lot of freedom with course selections. I mention my education background because, to the dismay of one of my C&R instructors, I found a lot of connections between many of the texts and discussions in the C&R classes and the literary darwinism interest I was pursing in the literature classes.

One of the areas of literary darwinism that’s been on my radar, even before I knew there was such a thing in literary theory, was the universality of storytelling. While Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, one of my literature classes introduced me to the academic writings of literary darwinist, Jonathan Gottschall, an English professor, who wrote in one of his key texts: “Humans are creatures of story, so story touches nearly every aspect of our lives (2).”

Around the same time, I was reading Gottschall’s words in a literature class, I was reading a text by Thomas Newkirk, a writing instructor, for one of my C&R classes. In that text, I found Newkirks’s words stating that: “We are biologically predisposed to process experience through the lens of antecedents and consequences (5).” By putting writing and story into a biological context, Newkirk, and separately the instructor of the C&R class, were reinforcing the theories I was reading for literary darwinism background.

In building a background understanding of literary darwinism, I encountered a text by Dan McAdams, an evolutionary psychologist, who observed that: “Human beings are storytellers by nature. … The story is a natural package for organizing many different kinds of information (4).” With this text and a number of cross referenced Steven Pinker texts, I began to see a deeper connection of literary darwinism as it relates to evolutionary psychology.

Between the literary darwinism source material, evolutionary psychology material, and evolutionary biology texts cross referenced to Edward O Wilson, I was prepared for another text by another literary darwinist, Brian Boyd, an English professor, who often writes and edits with Gottschall, referenced above, and Joseph Carroll, the professor I studied under at UMSL. Boyd’s text includes the statement that: “Evolution builds many specific learning tracks into the mind. … And we will interpret something as story if we can. Babies and adults alike cannot help seeing a sequence of moving dots in terms of animate causality (1).”

Another text from another C&R class, with the same dismayed C&R professor, written by George Lakoff, a linguist, and Mark Johnson, a philosophy professor, helped my refocus that cause and effect relationship of story. Lakoff and Johnson wrote: “The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another. … human thought processes are largely metaphorical (3).” For me this is especially true, and exactly what I was doing in my own studies of C&R and literature, and literary darwinism.

Once we better understand the relationship between causality and storytelling, we can see stories and storytelling in the context that Gottschall placed it in when he wrote: “The problem structure reveals an major function of storytelling. It suggests that the human mind was shaped for story, so that it could be shaped by story (2).” [emphasis in original text].

Sources:

  1. Boyd, Brian. On the Origin of Stories. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009.
  2. Gottschall, Jonathan. The Storytelling Animal. Boston: Mariner Books, 2013.
  3. Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
  4. McAdams, Dan P. The Stories We Live By. New York: The Guilford Press, 1993.
  5. Newkirk, Thomas. Minds Made for Stories. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2014.

Clipart stolen from Clipartmax.

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