Story telling in our genes?

From binge watching TV dramas to parents telling their small children bedtime stories, the power of story telling has enthralled us since earliest times. But why? In evolutionary terms wouldn’t the time be better spent on securing food?

Just what is it about sharing, making up and listening to stories that has captivated humans through the ages in all cultures? Why do we spend time on stories of things that have never happened? In evolutionary terms would that time not be better spent on activates with a concrete benefit, or does story sharing also have an evolutionary benefit we have yet to define? Given how widespread story telling is, it may perform an important adaptive role in human societies.

A paper, ‘Cooperation and the evolution of hunter-gatherer storytelling’, which benefited from input under the EU supported CULTRWORLD funding to one of the authors, has just been published in the journal ‘Nature’. The authors propose that storytelling may function as a mechanism to disseminate knowledge by broadcasting social norms to coordinate social behaviour and promote cooperation. Stories may offer a way of ensuring that all members of the group know, and consequently abide by, the ‘rules of the game’ in a given society.

Story telling in communities of hunter-gatherers

Working in cooperation with Agata Aid, the researchers explored the role of story telling among the Agta people who live in Sierra Madre, the biggest remaining of native forest in the Philippines. The population have, say the researchers, a high level of social and gender egalitarianism.

The team collected four stories each of which aims to regulate social behaviour by setting out how to behave in certain social situations, for example a ''Sun and Moon'' story tells how the male sun and female moon decided to share the time between them, one shining at night the other during the day.

They also considered narratives from other hunter-gatherer societies from Southeast Asia and Africa, and discovered similar themes. Of 89 stories, around 70 % concerned social behaviour, in terms of food-sharing, marriage, hunting and interactions with in-laws or members of other groups. The stories also possessed a moral dimension, by either rewarding norm-followers or punishing norm-breakers. This is clearly evident, explain the authors, in an Andamanese story demonstrating the consequences of not sharing food.

Beyond parables

To see if storytelling could have a more subtle impact beyond the pedagogical, the team conducted an experiment to see if it promoted cooperation. As they explain in an article in The Conversation, nearly 300 Agta, from 18 separate camps, were asked to name the best storytellers. To assess cooperation, individuals were also asked to play a simple resource allocation game in which players were given a number of tokens (representing rice) and asked to distribute these between themselves and their camp mates.

Overall, levels of cooperation were higher in camps with a greater proportion of skilled storytellers, consistent with storytellers coordinating social behaviour and in turn promoting cooperation. The result suggests storytelling can have a benefit at group level. As for why individuals invest time and energy in becoming good storytellers for the benefit of the group, the team found that even in the food sharing culture of the Agta, storytellers were particularly rewarded. They were desirable social partners and had a higher, successful reproductive rate compared to non-story tellers, with an average additional 0.5 living offspring.

There is research showing fiction can boost empathy and the ability to share another person’s perspective. This paper contributes to the corpus of work being done on the impact of fiction on our world view by highlighting the strong oral storytelling traditions amongst hunter-gathers. These stories appear to coordinate group behaviour and facilitate cooperation by providing individuals with social information about the norms, rules and expectations within a particular society.

CULTRWORLD (The evolution of cultural norms in real world settings) project set out to find evidence for the patterns in cultural transmission or social learning that enable cultural group selection to act. They asked how these processes depend on properties of the community, and thus how robust are they to the demographic and societal changes that accompany modernisation.

For more information, please see:
Project website
Youtube video ‘Cooperation and the Evolution of Hunter-Gatherer Storytellers’

last modification: 2018-01-23 17:15:01

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