Rarely does anyone read a work of social criticism for the plot. But in the case of Jonathan Gottschall’s The Story Paradox: How Our Love of Storytelling Builds Societies and Tears Them Down (Basic Books), we have a sort of whodunit: Who is ultimately responsible for the new world disorder? The storytellers, as it happens—although that turns out to be a very broad category of suspects.
Gottschall, a research fellow in English at Washington & Jefferson College in Pennsylvania, is also author of The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make us Human (Mariner Books, 2012), aspects of which are reprised in the new book. The basic argument runs like so:
Humans are by no means the strongest of the primates, or the most nimble or hardy, and our altogether improbable rise as a species owes almost everything to having evolved a capacity to accumulate and transfer information over time. And in that regard, storytelling may have been catalytic. Being able to transmit the message “one of the ancestors ate those berries and died” counts as a definite evolutionary advantage, one that must have developed long before the cognitive power required to formulate so complex a concept as “poison.”
An enormous portion of humanity’s mental bandwidth is devoted to producing, consuming and processing narratives of all kinds: long and short, serious and trivial, complex and simple. Whole professions and industries specialize in factual or imaginative narratives and the many shades in between. As an alternative to the self-bestowed title of Homo sapiens (“wise person”), Gottschall proposes our species might better be called Homo fictus (“story person”). The suggested change in nomenclature will likely go unheeded, but the point seems valid: humans are both the creators and the products of narrative communication.
The Story Paradox expands upon this notion by emphasizing that narrative’s tool-like aspects are not limited to its usefulness in transmitting experience. Through the skills of the teller or the power of the tale itself, narrative engrosses not just the individual listener (or reader) but groups—even whole populations—creating a sort of coordinated social attention that influences human thought and behavior. Gottschall returns to his point about the presumable long-term evolutionary advantages: “Human groups with strong fantasies that bound them together into well-functioning collectives would have outcompeted human groups that lacked them,” he writes. “And we, the grandchildren of these ancient storytellers, have inherited the earth.”
Here the full significance of the book’s title comes into view. While storytelling is an occasion for shared engrossment, the most compelling narratives—whether real or fictional—involve conflict. (Everyone knows that “they lived happily ever after” means the story is over.) “That people gravitate most naturally to tales of social conflict,” writes Gottschall, “is supported not just by the relative prevalence of these stories but also by research showing that even little children are far more attracted to stories of social conflict as opposed to other kinds.” And while tales of conflict do not automatically resolve themselves into a showdown between good and evil, the total defeat of a villain does tend to gratify audiences of all ages. There must be some blockbuster movie that ends with a reasoned compromise between people with diverging conceptions of the common good, though none springs to mind.
Fairly recently on the timeline of human development, another factor has intervened to make the situation more precarious: a number of incredibly effective systems for storytelling over long distances, with much of it available more or less on demand. Any evolutionary advantage once attached to being able to benefit from the wisdom of the tribe about potential dangers in the world has morphed into the capacity to find, absorb and share whatever stories click with our own worst fears and meanest impulses. As if that were not worrying enough, Gottschall refers to efforts to weaponize narratives and their delivery systems, with Russian social media shenanigans in the 2016 election as an example. The Story Paradox leaves the reader in the position of a character at the end of an episode of an old-fashioned serial—hanging from a cliff and afraid to look down.