Jonathan Gottschall – The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human
Gottschall’s scholarly mission is to make the humanities more scientific. Specialization is important, but not at the cost of ignoring what other disciplines are doing. I wholeheartedly endorse this approach, despite specializing in economics. The humanities, other social sciences, and even actual sciences all factor into my work.
Gottschall’s native discipline is English, but this book incorporates psychology and evolutionary biology to make a compelling and plausible thesis. Why do humans tell stories? Most people will say it’s because we enjoy them. Yes, Gottschall asks, but why? He finds an evolutionary purpose—when kids play pretend or adults read a novel, they’re practicing. They learn empathy and put themselves in other people’s shoes. That improves social skills, and improves survival—and without harmful consequences when failure occurs.
Most stories also involve some kind of conflict or troubles. This also has instructional value, so we evolved to find stories without conflict or trouble boring. Dreams are the same way—they nearly always involve some kind of trouble or unease. More pleasant dreams and stories are wasted cognitive effort, with no social or evolutionary payoff. Stories make us better prepared for real life situations, so no wonder we’re wired to naturally crave them, same as we do sex or food.