When I was a child, my father told me stories of his time spent working for a gold mining company in the Amazon jungle. He brought home tales of fishing for piranhas, evading giant venomous snakes, and nearly being eaten alive by a swarm of ants. Dad also traded with indigenous tribes. My curiosity was piqued by photos of those natives, so shockingly naked, and their beautifully crafted bows and arrows. Dad had one on display that he had acquired in exchange for a pair of jeans, which my brother and I used to play with until it almost broke (leading to a stern warning).
Evolution of storytelling
Most of us as children enjoyed a good bedtime story told around the campfire. The warmth of the flame combined with stories that riveted, mesmerized, or frightened us. Little did we know that what was going on was in fulfillment of an ancient tradition that would influence our evolutionary fitness.
How our early ancestors managed to forage enough food to persist may have relied upon elderly who lived to tell a good tale, according to anthropologist Michelle Scalise Sugiyama, of the University of Oregon.
In her recent essay, published in the August issue of Frontiers in Psychology, she reviews findings that adults of modern hunter-gatherer groups often use stories—fictional, nonfictional, or a mix of both—as a way to help children master skills needed for survival.
"By providing juveniles with vicarious experience, storytelling may expand episodic memory, which is believed to be integral to the generation of possible future scenarios," she writes.
Grandfather knows best
Observations on tribes such as the Ache of Paraguay and the Jicarilla Apache of New Mexico reveal that grandparents are often the key figures playing the role of storytellers. Grandparents of these tribes often recount tales of hunting in elaborate detail from which grandchildren can glean techniques on how to best make use of resources or capture prey.
"A general pattern of old-to-young transmission in an extended family setting that can be discerned," she wrote, "which is in alignment with the proposal that parents and alloparents invest knowledge as well as food and care in offspring."
Stories, especially first-hand accounts, are prized as highly valued commodities among foragers. For example, those with the information may trade it for goods or share it and expect others to give in return at a later time. Gossip is also seen as valuable for its social advantages such as managing one's reputation, or ruining someone else’s, in hopes of landing an advantageous mate.
Scalise Sugiyama wrote, "Given the adaptive value of information, parents may have been under selection pressure to invest knowledge – e.g., warnings, advice – in children: proactive provisioning of reliable information would have increased offspring survival rates and, hence, parental fitness."
A Long Childhood and Life of Stories
The uniquely human capacity for social learning and language, of course, are largely seen as products of a complex brain developed by a long childhood. However, Scalise Sugiyama suggests that the use of narrative is itself evolved as a result of selective pressures as cause or consequence of prolonged juvenility, which may complement prior hypotheses posed by anthropologists:
- One of these is the grandmother hypothesis, which has it that that the reason why we humans live so much longer than our primate cousins is because offspring were historically raised by older women well past their reproductive age—grandmas.
- Another is the embodied capital hypothesis that theorizes that an advanced brain capable of obtaining food through complex methods required a long childhood for its development, which then required heavy parenting.
- One more is the social intelligence hypothesis that suggests that an extended juvenile period is required for the building upon of social skills and cognitive capacities. Again, the result was need of a heavy investment from parents.
Despite whichever hypothesis is true, if any, findings are that language is critical for the knowledge transfer from old to young. And, among language’s chief techniques (such as public speaking or direct instruction), the narrative plays a significant role.
Personal Reflections, Myth and Legend
When I encountered Scalise Sugiyama's paper (thanks to a tweet from Melissa McEwen), I couldn’t help think that had the late Joseph Campbell been alive he’d have a few things to say about it. As a comparative mythologist, he advanced arguments originally posed by Carl Jung, who believed mythological symbolism had its roots within the human psyche.
Consider the plot outline of any hunting story that might be told in a foraging groups. Then, go watch any Hollywood blockbuster, whether be Avatar, Harry Potter, The Matrix, or The Green Lantern. In each instance you’ll find reflected Campbell’s well-known hero’s journey. The hero's journey is Campbell's description of familiar storytelling structure—the reluctant hero, the call to adventure, the wise teacher, the overcoming of obstacles, the final slaying of "the dragon," and the return home with bounty for celebration.
There should be no doubt how adapted our minds are to respond to this type of narrative. Human behavior is shaped by storytelling as well as code shapes the behavior of a computer. So my questions are: What can Scalise Sugiyama's ideas tell us about myth, legend? Could understanding of literature from a Darwinian perspective give us a better understanding of how people are influenced by religion, for example? And, can we help change the world -- as Campbell used to preach -- by choosing our own stories instead of simply being products of them?
What role storytelling had in human evolution has been a curiosity of mine since I first encountered Campbell's hero's journey as an undergraduate studying literature. It didn’t take long for me to recognize what stories most truly influenced my life -- my dad's.
Campbell J. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 2008. Available for purchase at jcf.org (here)
Sugiyama MS. The forager oral tradition and the evolution of prolonged youth. Front Psychol 2011; 2:33. Published online 2011 Aug 23. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00133