The Paramount Importance of Storytelling

What is it that makes us humans different from animals?

Intelligence seems like a good answer but animals also have enough intelligence to help them survive and adapt to change. Some animals can also use tools and solve problems. They can plan a hunt and execute it better than a sports team can execute it's collective plans.

Abstract thinking is another good candidate and it's probable that most animals can't think about abstract things but it seems to me that this ability came to us much later in our evolutionary history.

Language is what helps us think abstractly, so maybe it's language that separates us. Now animals also communicate through sounds but when I say language, I mean a much more complex form of audible communication. But I think language too wasn't the primary thing that separated us from animals.

I feel what differentiated us was our ability to tell stories. I think storytelling preceded language and might have been the reason why we developed language in the first place; to tell more complicated stories.

Why would we want to tell stories at all?

We are curious animals who want to know everything. And we want to pass this knowledge through time to future generations. That's what storytelling does.

Animals too pass on knowledge from generation to generation but it's through showing. A chimpanzee uses a stick to gather ants and its children watch and learn. This can be said to be a primal form of storytelling; a kind of a theater, but what it really is, is just teaching through example. Storytelling passes on information without example. And that's what elevates us above the animals.

It would have been impossible to tell a story through example about a drought that comes once every 100 years. But humans survived such droughts and floods because we told stories that passed on this information through generations until it came in handy.

I believe that curiosity and intelligence led to stories. Stories led to the development of language and language led to abstract thinking.

Why didn't humans pass on information simply in the form of instructions? Why did they have to come up with stories?

For one, the concept of instruction comes through abstract thinking. Our tribal forefathers simply didn't have the concept of instruction. All they could do was tell stories and hope that the future generations remembered the stories.

Secondly, it's much easier to remember a story than it is to remember a set of instructions. A story can be passed through hundreds of generations with the essence remaining intact. Instructions can be forgotten. Stories are also malleable so any new information can be added to it and false information taken out of it. Instructions would have to be rewritten and that would make it even harder to pass on unchanged.

As I said, language came after stories. So how did we tell the first stories?

I believe we did it through art and music and maybe even theater. The cave paintings of deer and hunters is just a story that passes on vital information. Maybe the tribe's leader saw that the tribe was getting anxious about there being no food so he drew an inspirational story on the cave wall. Maybe it was drawn by a nomad tribe so that another tribe that came there could know what kind of prey to look for.

Bhimbetka Rock Paintings from India

Bhimbetka Rock Paintings from India

Music could have been the oldest way of telling a story. Animals make audible warning cries in case of an emergency. It is coded deep within our brains where we don't need to process the information and think about it abstractly before we know what it means. You hear a warning cry and you immediately jump to the appropriate action.

Humans used tools and they could have figured out how to make musical instruments, drums probably, to produce better warning cries than they could with their mouths. They used animal skin for clothes and they, in their curiosity, could have tried to beat a skin wound tightly over a wooden frame and realized that they could produce rhythmic low frequency sounds that traveled farther than any human cry.

That's why music is the most powerful art form. It connects with us at a primal level.

Eventually though, they developed language and began telling more complex stories.

The earliest stories must have been about simple information needed to survive.

"There was a man in the tribe long ago who decided to leave the tribe and go west. He was eaten by lions."

That's a story that tells you to not leave the tribe and not to go west.

"There was a time when the rains didn't fall and the stream dried out. A wise man took the tribe and followed the stream downhill and came to a watering hole. But when he went to drink, a monster in the water ate his son."

That's a story that tells you what to do if the stream dries out and also tells you to watch out for monsters in the watering hole, in case you were thinking of moving there even when the stream was running.

But eventually, humans began asking questions about life and the world and why we were here at all. I believe that it is inevitable that a living being who is curious and intelligent enough, will come to ask these questions.

It is also inevitable, then, that such a living being will answer these questions through stories about god. The invention of god is a given for an intelligent storytelling living form. (So aliens most probably have gods too.)

The reason why the sun is a god in every religion is that the sun was probably the first god that humans invented. And if you think about it, the sun truly is god. It comes up every morning and saves us from the darkness of the night. Predators come out at night and the sun protects us. We do everything during the day. The sun is also the source of all the energy we have available. It gives energy to the plants. The animals eat the plants. We eat animals and plants. The sun drives the water cycle and provides fresh water for us. The sun helps us dry animal skins. It protects us from the cold. If someone was to put the sun out, all life on earth would die.

But the sun can be harsh too. Stay out in the desert on a summer day and the sun can kill you. It can dry out streams and kill you of thirst. So it's obvious to think of the sun as the father god.

The earth is also obviously the mother god. We live on it. It is fertile. Plants grow out of it. It protects us from the harsh sun. And when angry, it too can kill us through earthquakes and floods.

Thunder and lightening could not have been understood as anything except gods scolding us. Rain would have been a god too. Water is obviously a god.

The answer to the question, where do we come from, could not have been anything other than from gods. Gods made us and told us to live here.

And so the stories grew and got more complex.

For an intelligent living being there are two important questions that need to be answered.

  1. What is this world?
  2. How to act in this world?

Science does a good job of answering the first question. It tries to find out the objective truth about what the world is made of. And it is very important for the continuation of our evolution. But it does a very poor job of answering the second question.

Religion has been the primary authority on how to act and how to live. It also tried to answer what this world is but it does a poor job of it.

The debate between atheists and theists is all about which one answers both questions well. And that's why the debate continues, because neither answers both questions well. If we have to progress as a species, we need to accept that science and religion can only answer one question well. And luckily, together they answer both questions well. They need to stop fighting and join forces.

But maybe, religion has had it's time. Religion is not the primary thing that answers the second question well. It's stories that answer the second question well, and religion is just one form of storytelling. The power of religion is in the faith humans have in religious stories being the objective truth.

That's the problem humanity is facing right now. As Nietzsche put it, man killed god and now is struggling to find a good enough replacement for religion.

We can tell stories about how to live, through books, movies, songs, art, philosophy etc. But none of them is as powerful as religion because of the faith humans have in religion.

Most stories follow the narrative of a knower safe in his explored territory who faces his fears and ventures into the unexplored territory and slays a monster to find the gold, or save the princess. And it is the most important narrative that tells us how to live.

You are safe in your explored territory; your home, your neighborhood, your friends. You are afraid of the unexplored territory. And if you go out there, you will face challenges, no doubt. But it can also lead to great treasure and happiness.

Know this and remember this and use this story in your life whenever making a decision and you'll live well. Don't be so scared of challenges that you never grow. At the same time, don't be so rash that you rush into dangerous situations.

But reading this narrative in hundreds of books, and watching it in hundreds of movies, or reading about it in an abstract way here, isn't going to help you as much a religious story with the same narrative could help you, if you have real faith in your religion.

Maybe we need a new religion. Or maybe we need a completely new form of storytelling that we can have faith in and that can tell us stories about how to live and how to act in the world.

Without people having faith in a way to act, they get lost and we get a chaotic world as it is right now. The worst in humanity comes out when that happens. To the point that we could end up killing ourselves because we don't know how to act with integrity in a way that is good for us and good for humanity, right now, in the near future, and in the long term.

Most people don't care about humanity as much as they do about themselves. We want what's good for us, even if it's bad for humanity. And we can't even do what's good for us in the long term. We want what's good for us right now, and maybe in the near future. And that leads to a world that is full of evil and on a path of self destruction.

We already have the stories figured out about how to live. We just need a way to tell these stories which will strike with our present atheistic, agnostic, materialistic selves. If we can figure out how to do that, we might be able to survive ourselves. And that's why storytellers are of paramount importance. Most writers, directors, philosophers might not be able to articulate what they are trying to do, and some storytellers really aren't trying to do this, but as a whole, humanity is trying to figure out ways to tell a new story that will help us survive and continue evolving.