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Our Stories Bind Us

Did storytelling evolve as a way of bringing together early human societies?
Agta children write as they attend school in Sapang Uwak, in the Philippines.

Agta children write as they attend school in Sapang Uwak, in the Philippines.

"We tell ourselves stories in order to live," Joan Didion wrote in 1979. Didion knew a thing or two about telling stories.

The impulse to use narrative to understand the world is perhaps our most irreducibly human quality. Apes rival us with their tool making, ravens with their playfulness, ants and bees with their altruism and collaboration, but no species makes meaning of experience like homo sapiens. Religion, nationhood, currency: Few of our most important cultural constructs hang together if we stop believing our own stories about them.

A recent paper in Nature Communications demonstrates just how far back the evolutionary roots of storytelling go—and how powerful a role storytellers play in society.

Daniel Smith, an anthropologist at University College London, and his colleagues made a study of the Agta, a hunter-gatherer society in the Philippines. They sought to detail the role of narrative among the Agta, as well as catalog the benefits that accrue to venerated storytellers. They concluded that storytelling's evolutionary value likely comes from its power to enable cooperation.

"Cooperation is a central problem of biology," the authors write. "This is especially true in humans" given that, from our earliest days as a species, we've had to coordinate everything from child rearing to food sharing to coalition building. Cooperation can seem like a losing evolutionary strategy—why concern myself with others when I could be thinking about myself?—and, the authors note, even in situations where everyone stands to gain, attempts at cooperation are often plagued by "free riders" and failures of coordination (see, for example, the Paris Agreement).

Critical in such situations is "meta knowledge," or a belief about how someone else is likely to act. "In other words, it is not enough to know how to act in a given situation," the authors write. "Individuals need to know that others also know how to act" (emphasis added).

Anthropologists have long theorized that humans developed "moralistic high-gods" as a way of promoting shared norms and prosocial behaviors. What is religion, after all, but a patchwork quilt of stories reminding humans how to behave—and, more importantly, how not to behave? But religion is thought to have emerged only with the advent of agriculture and large-scale, politically complex human settlements.

Hunter-gatherer tribes, such as the Agta, have plenty of fables and myths, but no avenging (or forgiving) high-gods. Thus, Smith and his colleagues propose, storytelling "may have played an essential role in the evolution of human cooperation by broadcasting social and cooperative norms to coordinate group behaviour." Oral narratives remind Agta young and old learn where to hunt, how to share food, whom to marry, and how to deal with their in-laws.

THE EVOLUTION OF STORYTELLING TECHNOLOGY: From cave art to virtual reality, a timeline of communication methods.

The notion that storytelling was a radical development in human evolutionary is, well, a nice story (writers, in particular, happen to love it). Unfortunately, the authors note, "this hypothesis remains largely untested using real-world empirical data." With that in mind, Smith and his team set out to see what hard evidence they could find.

First, the researchers asked three Agta elders to tell them the stories they normally tell to children, which the elders did over four nights. A typical story, about a dispute between the (male) sun and the (female) moon, not only explained the origin of day and night, but also highlighted the importance of sex equality. Other stories—just-so tales about the wild pig, the clever monkey, and the winged ant—similarly promoted themes of cooperation and social cohesion. (When the researchers looked beyond the Agta to other hunter-gatherer societies, cataloging 89 stories from seven distinct tribes, fully 70 percent of them took social behavior as a central theme.)

"In these stories," the authors write, "the ending reflects a reconciliation of individual interests and differences, while also exemplifying various mechanisms of social norm enforcement, such as emphasizing the benefits to cooperation over competition, examples of punishment for breaking norms, and reverse dominance hierarchies to prevent individual accumulation of power."

Next, the researchers, looked at how storytelling shaped life among the Agta at the camp (i.e, small-group) level. At 18 camps, they asked nearly 300 Agta to name the best storytellers among them. When they parsed the distribution of celebrated orators—some camps had many, others only a few—the team found that camps with the best storytellers enjoyed a higher degree of in-camp cooperation.

More remarkably, when Agta were asked to name the five people they'd most prefer to live with, "skilled storytellers were twice as likely to be nominated as less skilled individuals." Storytelling beat out hunting, fishing, tuber gathering, and medicinal knowledge as the quality Agta most wanted in a camp-mate.

Finally, the researchers investigated the "fitness benefit" (anthropologist-speak for "sex appeal") of being a storyteller. Like any skill, storytelling comes at a cost. It requires practice, which demands time and energy—energy that could otherwise be put toward hunting, cooking, or wooing mates. "Thus," the authors note, "all else being equal non-storytellers should have higher fitness, unless storytelling brings direct fitness benefits to skilled storytellers."

Digging into the data, the researchers discovered that the best Agta storytellers had, on average, 0.53 more living offspring than non-skilled storytellers. Storytellers, it seems, are well rewarded for their talents: Their peers prefer not just to live with them but also to sleep with them.

The Agta are one of the few remaining hunter-gatherer societies in the world. The Agricultural Revolution that began 12,000 years ago upended nearly every aspect of pre-modern society, bringing with it capitalism, nationalism, and moralistic religions. One of the few bits of our humanity not lost in that upheaval is the power of story.

Arguably, it's flourished. Today, our stories come not just around the campfire but from podcasts and Netflix, in the driveway and on the subway, at comedy clubs, family reunions, and story slams. Despite the medium, we know intimately the power of a spellbinding tale—we sit, rapt, waiting to hear how the story ends, hoping against hope it never does.