How important is the story for human beings? This simple yet deep question is a starting point for Jonathan Gottschall's 2012 book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, a well thought-out and richly documented study of the importance of stories and storytelling in our lives. Make no mistake, this book is far from being merely an account of different puzzles and questions concerning human ability to tell stories. The author draws from various disciplines like biology or evolutionary psychology and makes a convincing argument that stories help us to adapt and survive in an ever changing world.
Gottschall is one of the leading scholars of a newly emerging branch of literary criticism, Darwinian Literary Studies, which promises to bridge the gap between humanities and more empirical areas of knowledge. The interdisciplinary spectrum of Literary Darwinism enables scholars to establish a fresh perspective on human cognition. Thus, The Storytelling Animal is a part of a cutting-edge study and as such increases our understanding of basic human drives and behaviors.
The structure of the book is lucid and clear. I particularly liked how each chapter smoothly guides the reader to the following one, much like separate episodes of a story are linked to become a greater whole. On the other hand, every chapter could be read as a standalone work--this speaks volumes about Gottschall's remarkable skill as a scholar and an author. Without a doubt the writing style is a positive element of the book. Gottschall does not shy away from discussing scientific matters in detail, yet manages to do so in a lighthearted tone sprinkled with a bit of irony and a tad of anecdote. All of this combined makes the reader "feel" the presence of the author, as if we are having a friendly and engaging conversation with Gottschall. He lays down the ideas, but it is ultimately the reader's task to pick them up and contemplate on them.
Gottschall's starts his study with an amusing story. It has long been believed that an immortal ape could, when locked in a room with a typewriter and Notes Towards the Complete Works of Shakespeare, recreate Shakespeare's masterpieces. As silly as this theory sounds, "the ape story" foreshadows Gottschall's line of argument in his book. As he claims, no other animal has the capacity to create stories. No other animal can learn from stories. A human being is not only homo sapiens, the reasoning man, but is perhaps first and foremost homo fictus, the fictionalizing man.
But why people create fiction? Gottschall dedicates the remainder of his book to find the answer. In the following chapters he establishes that storytelling is a much more fundamental element of human nature than most of us think. First of all, Gottschall claims that the traditional distinction between author (the source of a story) and the reader (the passive received) in not as clear cut as it may appear. Gottschall explains that contrary to the popular belief it is the reader who, when immersed in the story, does much of the imaginative work. When reading fiction we meticulously analyze details set by the author. We create specific images of the story and interpret them at whim. We tend to feel deep connection with the protagonists. We make moral judgments. In other words, we care very much about fiction. As Gottshall explains: "[w]hen we experience a story, our brains are churning, working hard" (5). But this experience is retained also when we play or daydream. Studies on children's games or our daily fantasies confirm as much. We unfold stories in every second of our lives--storytelling is our "default state."
However, if this is so, what is the purpose of fiction? Isn't daydreaming inherently dangerous, because people are cut off from reality? Not necessarily. Our brain is an extraordinary machine, says Gottschall. Its main evolutionary function is to help us to adapt, and it can fulfill this function by creating a story--and this is Gottschall's most powerful point--storytelling can be seen as an evolutionary tool. Stories make us follow complicated plots, solve mysteries, experience varieties of emotions and mental states, refine social competence, stimulate imagination. Without them our lives would be dull. And even more importantly, from these experiences we incorporate knowledge--we gain evolutionary advantage.
This notion is corroborated by another powerful idea conveyed by Gottschall. He claims that our brains do not know the difference between simulation and reality. Indeed, "to simulate is to do." For example, if we read about a wizard fighting an evil dragon, we experience what it means to fight an evil dragon as if it was real. In this respect stories not only teach us, but as Gottshall maintains: "[t]he emotions of fiction are highly contagious, and so are ideas" (150). Thus fiction shapes our personality, influences our choices, and makes us who we are. What is more, Gottschall demonstrates that the view that humans are creatures of pure reason is fundamentally mistaken. We fictionalize everything; our reality is as much about facts as it is about our fictionalized interpretation of data.
Interestingly, now are the times when we are able not only to fictionalize reality, but create a virtual one. In the concluding chapters of The Storytelling Animal Gottschall talks about the prospects of this change. He tries to sneak-peak the future of the story, and what a marvelous future it is. The technology changed our ways of communication. Radio, TV, the Internet--each new medium was a milestone in human development. But in the future virtual reality will be more than that; it has the potential to become our home. We will not only communicate in a different way, but we will create scripts for our lives in virtual reality--a promise to fulfill everyone's wildest dreams. Everyone will write his own life story, and the only limit will be one's imagination. Will there ever be a time when each person will live in a custom-made world? It is hard to say, but undeniably the opportunity presents itself.
To sum up, in my opinion Gottschall managed to write an excellent study that introduces a fresh take on the art of storytelling. Once relegated to the margins of scholarly interest, storytelling regains its place as a core part of the study of human nature.