Primal Stories

You might be wondering why we are obsessed with stories after all.

Why do we need to hear and tell tales? What good does it do us? Why do we crave it? There are loads of theories out there about moral instruction, mere escapism or creating moments of social connection, many of which are pretty valid. But I’d like to put forward my own.

A theory of storytelling

This probably isn’t a new theory, but it’s the one I like.

Human beings have existed for hundreds of thousands of years, if not millions. We emerged as a distinct species by our abilities to use tools and communicate and use tools. We hunted and gathered in small tribes, for thousands of generations. Our species evolved this way and human beings, even today, are still this creature. Of course the pace of change and technology that we have witnessed in the last two thousand years is phenomenal, but that’s not a lot of time in genetic terms to fundamentally change our instincts. We are fundamentally tribal.

Story is an instinct

Now all animals have hierarchies and social structures to help keep order. Ones that are instinctual and understood without the need for language. Dogs work in packs. Big cats hunt in prides. Birds establish pecking order. Humans function in tribes.

Being tribal means keeping constant, careful track of our status within the tribe. But also, more meaningfully for us, other people’s status and their worthiness to be in the tribe at all. Human tribes and society managed to expand to sizes that were greater than we could possibly know everybody intimately, so we learned to assess people on small pieces of evidence. As Yuval Noah Hariri puts it in Sapiens we learned to gossip.

It was this ability to make judgements about people based on small observations that let us determine whether they were worthy of being in the tribe. And it’s what we, as audiences practice when we listen to stories. What status is he? Can she be trusted? Are they with us or against us? Do they belong in our tribe? We are using a language, unspoken, deep inside us, that is fundamentally human.

The down-sides of tribalism

Look at the world today and you will see how easily we revert to that behaviour. Social media is awash with it. Nationalism, online trolling, work gossip, job interviews, these are all examples of tribalism in action. I am in a tribe with this person, and not with them. Tribes define themselves by who they are not and that is where much division in the world stems from. Being as hyper-connected to all other humans as we are nowadays the boundaries of the tribes we belong to shift as we morph between them. But entering or leaving any tribe is still as potent as it was when our very lives depended on it.

What’s more, it is this inherent, constant assessment of our position within our immediate human society that leads to the sort of need for approval, the social anxiety many of us experience. How confident we feel in our position within the tribe feeds all of our interactions with others. Ok, maybe it’s just me, but I reckon I’m not alone feeling an acute sense of awareness when I meet someone new – I am forming a judgement about our mutual status – but also why we are so thrilled by gossip. We feel we are getting a rush of insight into another person by hearing a description of their actions in a given circumstance. We feel more secure because we have evidence for our judgements. This is a thrill all audiences seek. We are horrified by watching betrayal on screen, but we secretly love the security it brings us. They are bad, not me.

Different Tribes

While we’re on tribes, it’s worth remembering that we all hail from a wide variety of tribes. Each tribe is culturally different. So what works for one tribe might not work for another. Broadly in the West we celebrate active heroes, responsible for their own destinies, and conclusions where justice prevails. But each country or cultural unit has its own moral code and definition of what is desirable and expected of that tribe. Other cultures celebrate submission to the will of God, and such tales might be open-ended, unfairness might prevail because that is the way life is. There is no doubt that the relentless spread of a particular Western story form is responsible for a shift in society attitude, and a resentment when one’s own tribe’s cultural values are eroded.

When you are writing you are telling a tale for your tribe, which is why it’s important to recognise that other tribes, other cultures see things completely differently from, and hold different values to, you. When you tell a tale you are trying to resonate with one audience: your tribe. But never forget there are many, many tribes out there. It behoves us to recognise and understand the differences that appear in other tribes’ stories.

In summary

So that is my gut feeling about why storytelling is necessary and fundamental to human beings. I like it because it reminds us that stories are more than mere escapism. It reminds us that stories are in a language far more universal than any acedemic or intellectual criticism. Stories are us exercising a fundamental human skill. One we get great pleasure from. It’s funny that arguably we enjoy discovering someone is a rat more than we enjoy learning someone is a saint. Perhaps it elevates our own status in the tribe to discover someone more deserving of being ejected than us.

I find this theory useful for two reasons. One, it reminds me that the best moments in any stories are those gossipy, “no, he never did!” moments. It reminds me that the language we speak in telling stories is not intellectual or thoughtful, it’s primal. Run from the animal. Don’t trust her! Kill him! Don’t take the money! Kiss her! All of these unspoken responses to the actions of another whose story we are watching play out tap into our fundamental tribe behaviour, the most basic unit of social cohesion. We share these stores and, for a while, we are all part of the same tribe.

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