It’s no secret that we love stories. But why? Where do they come from? How did our brains first evolve such a predilection for narrative?
I’m far from an evolutionary determinist. But it’s still useful to understand why certain cognitive capacities may have served an evolutionary purpose at some point in our species’ collective past.
Understanding the evolution of narrative beyond the speculative, though, is difficult. Stories don’t fossilize. The work of various anthropologists, ethnographers, and linguists aside, it’s difficult to study the communicative and cognitive roots of storytelling.
But the difficulty of the endeavor hasn’t stopped us from trying. Humans are wonderful that way. And over the years, scientists have come up with a few different ideas as to how and why stories first arose.
The Adaptive Functions of Narrative
For Steven Pinker, Canada’s favorite cognitive scientist, narrative functions as a sort of collective extension of our pre-frontal cortex’s ability to project into the future.
“Fictional narratives supply us with a mental catalogue of the fatal conundrums we might face someday,” Pinker says. “And the outcomes of strategies we could deploy in them,” (Pinker, 1997).
It’s a compelling idea, certainly. My own personal experience with writers would suggest that we do tend to have overactive (and anxious) imaginations.
Anecdotal neuroticism aside, though, Pinker’s supposition is difficult to test.
Cognitive scientists haven’t yet verified that narrative can serve that purpose, period. We’re still a long way from proving that the ‘fatal conundrums’ of stories provided enough of an advantage to spur natural selection deep in our evolutionary history.
Narrative Before Language? Mimetic Storytelling and Singing Apes.
Whether narrative could predate language is a thorny question at the center of a rose bush’s worth of unknowns.
For one, the origins of language itself are unclear. Conflicting theories have gone in and out of vogue over the years.
Just to give a few examples, linguists have theorized at various points that language:
Setting those debates aside, however, there’s also the issue of whether it’s a story if it isn’t told in language.
Some narratologists reserve the term ‘narrative’ specifically for sequences of events abstracted and recounted through a fully realized, symbolic system of language.
Others, such as UC Santa Barbara’s Porter Abbott, define narrative “more broadly as the presenting or rendering of stories,” (Abbott, 2000).
With that definition, it’s possible that stories (at least very simple ones) predated representational language. Early hominids could have used so called ‘mimetic storytelling’ to convey simple narratives for the purpose of communication and collaboration.
It’s an interesting possibility, especially when considered alongside Darwin’s dreamy hypothesis of the singing ape—the ‘musical protolanguage’ that described language as emerging from the rhythmic movements and musical vocalizations of animals (Darwin, 1871).
While Darwin’s theory of language’s evolution has garnered mixed reviews from the modern scientific community, it is fun to think about. And if it has any basis, it could mean that music and narrative are even more deeply entangled in our deep history than previously thought.
Narrative sits at the intersection of language, cognition, and culture. While it’s arguably one of humanity’s most important inventions, it’s difficult to say when and how it emerged in our species history.
Complicating the difficulty of studying the earliest history of narrative is varied definitions utilized by the diverse disciplines engaging with the concept. A linguist’s definition of narrative, for example, may differ from an evolutionary biologist’s, which in turn differs from a narratologist’s.
Setting these difficulties aside, however, it’s interesting to speculate on how and when stories came about. While we might not know the answers to these questions with certainty for some time yet, exploring the evolutionary underpinnings of our more abstract capabilities remains a valuable pursuit.