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The importance of stories & the progress of our species


TUMBY BAY - Bear with me, this is a bit esoteric and complicated.

The Israeli historian, Yuval Noah Harari, in his 2011* book ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’, wrote that all animals only experience major behavioural shifts when their genetics change. That is, when they experience an evolutionary change.

There is an exception however. Humans.

Humans evolved into our modern form about 300,000 years ago but for a long time we were just one of many species of animal subject to the whims of nature.

Drought, flood, fire, famine and occasionally abundance ensured that our numbers were always in balance with nature.

Then, about 70,000 years ago, there was a dramatic change in our numbers and we began to multiply exponentially.

It wasn’t genetic change or climate change that caused this. It came with our ability to tell stories.

Humans are the only organism where behaviour can radically change because of the fictions they create. Fictions so great and powerful that they bind people into larger and larger groups that can accomplish greater and greater things.

Yuval Noah Harari described these as imagined realities, social constructs and myths. Humans have the special ability to unite millions of strangers around common myths. Ideas such as freedom, human rights, gods, laws, and capitalism exist in our imagination, yet they can bind us together and motivate us to cooperate on complex tasks.

They are imagined realities because they arise in people’s minds and have no scientific basis.

The French Revolution is a good example of a myth that changed human behaviour almost overnight.

In 1789 the French people rejected the myth of the divine right of kings to rule and adopted the myth of the sovereignty of the people.

The human ability to create a social construct, imagined reality and a myth and believe in them led directly to our ability to cooperate in our thousands and then in our millions.

These constructs gave us cooperation and cooperation made us the mightiest species on earth.

For any human society to survive and progress, imagined realities, myths and social constructs need to be carefully nurtured.

This is done through stories, through literature, the telling of which lead to the imagination of new realities that contribute to new and better social constructs.

Let’s simplify this a bit.

Someone thinks of a good idea, something different and something new – a new and different way of doing something.

So what do they do with this idea? How do they tell people about it?

They write it down. Maybe as a political tract, maybe as an essay, maybe as a novel or a play.

Have you read Leonard Fong Roka’s book, ‘Bougainville Manifesto’? If you have you’ll know what I mean.

People read it, think about it and if it sounds good may adopt its arguments and premises and encourage others to do the same. That’s how the French Revolution started and progressed.

It therefore seems logical that any society interested in being progressive will encourage the diffusion of ideas through writing and literature.

A progressive society will encourage its thinkers to imagine new realities and create the conditions in which people write their ideas so other people can read them and consider them.

It is only be the most repressive or stupid societies that reject change that won’t do this.

I can think of a couple of places like that. Maybe you can too.

*Originally published in Hebrew and translated into English in 2014.


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Philip Fitzpatrick

That's how Dreamtime stories work in Australia Garry. The stories (or myths) are passed on as 'songs'.

Ted Strehlow's majestic "Songs of Central Australia" is a fine example. He grew up at Hermannsburg (his father was a Lutheran missionary) and he spoke Aranda fluently.

You might also recall Bruce Chatwin's "Songlines", which popularised the concept.

Luise Hercus, who recently died, recorded the songs of the Arabana, Dieri Wonkanguru and other groups in the Lake Eyre Basin.

If you knew the songs for a particular area you could navigate the country, even if you hadn't been there before by going to the places mentioned in the songs.

I was able to do this with Yunkunytjatjara and Antakarinya people even in the mid-seventies. Sadly, most of the present generation have lost the songs.

Presumably the Aboriginal people brought this concept with them as they migrated from New Guinea so it would not be a surprise to see it still extant up there.

Garry Roche

Perhaps many of the early stories were passed in the form of a “chanted saga”. It was easier to remember a poetic chanted saga and pass it on to the next generation. In the Highlands where previously there was no written media, this is how ancestral stories were passed on until recent times. A former University of Goroka professor, Michael Mel, had studied and written about this matter.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Yes, I agree that the story telling began a long time ago Trish. It's the impact of that story telling that became apparent in population growth 70,000 or so years ago. I should have explained it better.

When the first humans arrived in Australia they must have been story tellers. Our whole continent is riven with their stories.

Interestingly Harari says the Agricultural Revolution of about 10,000 years ago was a disaster that has put the planet on the path to destruction.

Trish Nicholson

Wouldn't argue with this, Phil, except to say that stories must have begun way before 70,000 years ago (as argued in my history of storytelling).

But this is a welcome article because the importance of story-making for individuals, families and societies cannot be overstated. Finding and sharing the right story for climate change may be the only way we survive.

Paul Oates

Thanks Phil. Humans however aren't the only animals to pass on ideas. It's the ability to pass on abstract ideas that can't be practically explained that is the real difference.

Anyone who has kept animals knows how they can interact with their own species or have a symbiotic relationship with other species.

For example, some of my cattle were able to convey their quite complex thoughts by non verbal body language. No, I haven't been dreaming.

Humans however were able to develop verbal language that broke through the practical barriers and enabled imaginative ideas to be transferred between our species. Maybe that first happened through cave art or adult toys and then subsequently developed?

The BBC series 'Walking with Cave Men' explained that it took the conceptualizing of ideas to first become available before imagination could conceive of a joke.

But like the invention of controlled fire, imagination can be a useful asset or a bad enemy. Like any weapon, it depends on the user.

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