Morality Tales and Narrative Consciousness
May 8, 2018 11:11 PM   Subscribe

Why humans need stories - "From fireside folk tales to Netflix dramas, narratives are essential to every society – and evolutionary theorists are now trying to figure out why." (via)
posted by kliuless (16 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
 
It’s all a form of learning isn’t it? This is what I’ve been taught anyways. They touch on this in the first article where they talk about the benefit of fiction helping children learn empathy and develop theory of mind. I just took my primate behavior final and they keep studying chimps to see if they have theory of mind or something close and... we just don’t know yet. One or two studies are hopeful- but a lot of studies say no or at least probably not. They can deceive (sorta) which points to complex thought- but it’s really hard to prove that they can understand that meta-representationally. Humans learn by teaching and example, and stories and fables are one way of teaching our young things more complicated then how to procure food- how to deal with others, how to court, how to live in close contact, how to avoid disease, how to; how to; how to. The more complicated we got as we diverged from our early hominid ancestors- the more complex our stories. So many of our stories have such deep deep roots- I wonder if any stories from the areas in which they once lived have Neanderthal roots? Like not only do some of us have their genes- maybe we have some of their memes too.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 11:31 PM on May 8, 2018 [10 favorites]


Stories are complex chains of causality: this happens, therefore this happens, therefore that happens. The reason why they're important to us is because that's how our intelligence is wired. It doesn't have to be that way - corvids are probably not storytellers, and they don't appear to model cause and effect in the same way we do, but they're nevertheless able to solve a complex series of problems.
posted by Merus at 11:49 PM on May 8, 2018 [9 favorites]


I think stories are important because they let us know what is possible.

I met a girl during a test run through the desert, she was in charge of the prototype touchscreen software, working for a Japanese multinational. She said she grew up in the same desert barefoot and naked, in a remote area where the default aspiration of most girls in her class was to finish the mandatory years of schooling, then get themselves pregnant by a random guy. They would then claim the relatively generous government welfare as a single parent and live a fairly comfortable life afterwards, having another child at some point to extend the welfare payments.

Obviously they would not want to get married to a guy because the men there were often alcoholics and beat their wives - so why be economically tied to and be reliant on them?

Maybe she heard a different story, where it was possible for a girl to travel thousands of miles away to a big city, learn computer programming and find work with a tech company. But the seed of the idea must have started somewhere.
posted by xdvesper at 12:54 AM on May 9, 2018 [8 favorites]


evolutionary theorists

why humans need just-so stories
posted by thelonius at 2:13 AM on May 9, 2018 [18 favorites]


Skin in the Game by Nassim Taleb (Book Review) - "a gem occurs early on in a discussion of the evolution of moral symmetry and why the silver rule beats the golden rule"
Taleb is at his worst when he is at his most combative. One example is his dismissal of Piketty’s work on inequality... A different model of engagement would have been to propose ergodicity as a better measure and then simply ask for evidence. That might open a door instead of slamming one shut.

Slamming doors and picking fights is part of Taleb’s style, however, and is consistent with some of the arguments in Skin in the Game and in Antifragile. A fight gains more rapid exposure for an idea, as the pushback from the other side amplifies the original message (and based on book sales and Twitter follower count that strategy clearly works). A fight also risks reputation and that’s a way of putting skin in the game. That’s likely important to Taleb because otherwise he might leave himself open to the criticism that Skin in the Game borders at times on the kind of advice that he rightly criticizes for, well, not having skin in the game.

This is a good moment to point out that we should all seek out writers with whom we disagree at least some of the time. If we only read books by authors where we agree with every one of their tweets, why bother? What are we expecting to learn? Too many times we are letting our emotional reaction to something an author has said or done stand in the way of engaging with their arguments.
Call For Adversarial Collaborations - "An adversarial collaboration is an effort by two people with opposing opinions on a topic to collaborate on a summary of the evidence. Just as we hope that a trial with both prosecutor and defense will give the jury a balanced view of the evidence for and against a suspect, so we hope an adversarial collaboration will give readers a balanced view of evidence for and against some thesis."

also btw, fwiw!
-Cognitive Bias
-All the cognitive biases :P
posted by kliuless at 6:19 AM on May 9, 2018 [1 favorite]


For anyone interested in narrativiy, this academic paper Against Narrativity might be of interest!
posted by 3zra at 6:22 AM on May 9, 2018 [2 favorites]


the more people read fiction, the easier they find it to empathise with other people
[looks at past few years]

[Liar Game voice] doubt
posted by inconstant at 6:27 AM on May 9, 2018 [2 favorites]


Reading Dave Robson's piece is like listening to a drunk guy explain his winning lottery system.
Evolutionary theory can also shed light on the staples of romantic fiction, including the heroines’ preferences for stable ‘dad’ figures (like Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice or Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility) or flighty ‘cads’ (such as the dastardly womanisers Mr Wickham or Willoughby). The ‘dads’ might be the better choice for the long-term security and protection of your children, but according to an evolutionary theory known as the ‘sexy son hypothesis’, falling for an unfaithful cad can have his own advantages since they can pass on their good looks, cunning and charm to his own children, who may then also enjoy greater sexual success. The result is a greater chance that your genes will be passed on to a greater number of grandchildren – even if your partner’s philandering brought you heartbreak along the way. It is for this reason that literature’s bad boys may still get our pulses racing, even if we know their wicked ways.
I demand that Paris Hilton's pioneering work on the "That's hot!" hypothesis be acknowledged.
“If one reads accounts of the systematic nonintrusive observations of troops of bonobo,” he wrote in a book of essays on the subject, The Literary Animal, “one sees rehearsed all the major themes of the English 19th-Century novel: alliances made and broken, individuals rising while others fall, plots hatched, revenge, gratitude, injured pride, successful and unsuccessful courtship, bereavement and mourning.”
You, small brain: observes bonobos to understand 19th century English novels —

Me, gigantic brain: reads Queenie Leavis to understand the behavorial and mating habits of bonobos —
posted by octobersurprise at 6:40 AM on May 9, 2018 [6 favorites]


For anyone interested in narrativiy, this academic paper Against Narrativity might be of interest!

My wife lectures on the psychology of personality, for which she used to use Dan McAdams' textbook. The textbook presents the benefit or harm one derives from a narrative view of one's own life depends on what specific narrative you have formed, and how you react to it. In particular, the stories you tell yourself about adversity in your life can influence your resilience to future adversity.
posted by Jpfed at 10:32 AM on May 9, 2018 [4 favorites]


I think it's odd that the article is looking at things from the lens of why stories might be beneficial to people. Sure, they might be beneficial, but that doesn't explain why we do it. People do lots of things that are harmful and don't do lots of things that would be beneficial.

I always figured people's love of stories was a side effect of being an intelligent, creative, and highly social/communicative species. Intelligence, creativity, communication, and sociality are obviously beneficial to the human race and when you put all those together no wonder you get a bunch of people who are obsessed with telling and hearing about imaginary things that happened to imaginary people in a way that causes them to feel emotion. It's like it ticks every box of stimulating the unique drives that make humanity so successful as a species.

(Now the mystery that I really want explained is why humans need music...)
posted by phoenixy at 12:49 PM on May 9, 2018 [3 favorites]


They would then claim the relatively generous government welfare as a single parent and live a fairly comfortable life afterwards, having another child at some point to extend the welfare payments.

lol
posted by biogeo at 2:59 PM on May 9, 2018 [4 favorites]


As is usual with these things, the "evolutionary theory" cited here doesn't seem to have much to do with actual evolutionary theory. The purported "explanations" are little more than vague appeals to naive group selection and hand-waving just-so stories.

Yes, story-telling is baked into human nature, and yes, there is a (neuro)biological basis for this. Understanding the evolutionary history and context of this aspect of the human experience is going to be incredibly fascinating, but it's not going to be a mechanism-free, hyperadaptationist armchair musing that cherry-picks examples and assumes (or even asserts) that human story-telling is somehow evolutionarily independent of the rest of what makes us human. Most likely, our love of stories and our creativity in constructing morality stories with valuable cultural lessons is a wonderful spandrel, not filling any direct adaptive need.
posted by biogeo at 3:09 PM on May 9, 2018 [3 favorites]


My wife lectures on the psychology of personality, for which she used to use Dan McAdams' textbook. The textbook presents the benefit or harm one derives from a narrative view of one's own life depends on what specific narrative you have formed, and how you react to it. In particular, the stories you tell yourself about adversity in your life can influence your resilience to future adversity.

Which I am guessing is the sort of thing that Strawson and others criticize. One argument is that, by their own lights, psychologists cannot have privileged access to narrativity or metanarrativity, and so the pretense to do just that when talking about the psychology of regular people is what makes it reductive and incoherent, in the way that absolute relativism is incoherent. One of Strawson's points is the observation that this is a popular view within academia. And of course what happens is, psychologists don't engage with philosophers because they rationalize it as philosophy is not empirical, or whatever.
posted by polymodus at 3:22 PM on May 9, 2018


I'm just looking at the pdf now and literally Strawson asserts:

It’s just not true that there is only one good way for human beings to experience their being in time. There are deeply non-Narrative people and there are good ways to live that are deeply non-Narrative. I think the second and third views hinder human self-understanding, close down important avenues of thought, impoverish our grasp of ethical possibilities, needlessly and wrongly distress those who do not fit their model, and are potentially destructive in psychotherapeutic contexts.

So, shots were fired.
posted by polymodus at 3:33 PM on May 9, 2018


William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, meanwhile, famously plays with our expectations of what to expect in a protagonist by placing the ruthlessly ambitious (and possibly murderous) Becky Sharp at the very centre of the novel, while her more amiable (but bland) friend Amelia is a secondary character. It was, in Thackeray’s own words, “a novel without a hero”, but in evolutionary terms Becky’s comeuppance, as she is ultimately rejected by the society around her, still signals a stark warning to people who might be tempted to put themselves before others.

That is...not, in fact, what happens at the end of Vanity Fair, in which Becky has insinuated herself back into society by performing the role of a charitable Christian (although Amelia and company know the truth): "The Baronet lives entirely at Queen's Crawley, with Lady Jane and her daughter, whilst Rebecca, Lady Crawley, chiefly hangs about Bath and Cheltenham, where a very strong party of excellent people consider her to be a most injured woman. She has her enemies. Who has not? Her life is her answer to them. She busies herself in works of piety. She goes to church, and never without a footman. Her name is in all the Charity Lists. The destitute orange-girl, the neglected washerwoman, the distressed muffin-man find in her a fast and generous friend. She is always having stalls at Fancy Fairs for the benefit of these hapless beings. Emmy, her children, and the Colonel, coming to London some time back, found themselves suddenly before her at one of these fairs. She cast down her eyes demurely and smiled as they started away from her; Emmy scurrying off on the arm of George (now grown a dashing young gentleman) and the Colonel seizing up his little Janey, of whom he is fonder than of anything in the world—fonder even than of his History of the Punjaub."

Evolutionary theory can also shed light on the staples of romantic fiction, including the heroines’ preferences for stable ‘dad’ figures (like Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice or Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility) or flighty ‘cads’ (such as the dastardly womanisers Mr Wickham or Willoughby). The ‘dads’ might be the better choice for the long-term security and protection of your children, but according to an evolutionary theory known as the ‘sexy son hypothesis’, falling for an unfaithful cad can have his own advantages since they can pass on their good looks, cunning and charm to his own children, who may then also enjoy greater sexual success.

This misrepresents the actual study in the link, which is not about "heroines' preferences," but about readers' preferences--that is, the researchers were surveying readers to find out if they would prefer Super Sexy but Pretty Much Morally Worthless Dude or Maybe Sorta Dull but In It for the Long Term Dude* for flings or marriage. In nineteenth-century fiction, having a kid with an "unfaithful cad" is consistently a recipe for disaster, whether you're married to him (Amelia in Vanity Fair) or not (Eliza in Sense and Sensibility), and most of said cads do not, in fact, enjoy what appears to be much in the way of "reproductive success," in the sense that the novelists usually don't hint at a litter of teeny-tiny cads resulting from the cad, er, cadding about. (Also, many nineteenth-century male characters who do have "reproductive success" without benefit of wedlock don't fit either category--Hugh Grandcourt in Daniel Deronda is a cad [well, actually he's a sadist, but I digress], but he sure isn't flighty--and some of them are actually "dad" figures.)


*--My technical terms.
posted by thomas j wise at 3:54 PM on May 9, 2018 [3 favorites]


Henleigh Grandcourt, I mean
posted by thomas j wise at 6:11 PM on May 9, 2018


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