Humans are a story-telling species. Faced with a multiplicity of facts and ideas which we may only imperfectly understand, we use stories to create frameworks that help us to transmit the sense of what we understand to other people. Our culture is contained within the stories we tell. The thing which humans need more than comfort, more than possessions, more than sex or a settled home, is a good supply of stories, for it’s through stories we make sense of the world1.
The hearing and telling of stories seems to be a highly sophisticated, evolutionary adaptation that has enabled high levels of culture to be passed on to younger generations. very simply we are particularly good at learning stories when we are young, and telling them when we are older. Many a parent is amazed when, thinking their child almost asleep during the reading of the bedtime story, they miss out a few words to speed up the goodnight process, and suddenly finds the child fully alert and annoyed with the parent for not telling him the correct story. This happens in all cultures. How is it that the four or five-year-old has such perfect word-for-word recall? The answer appears to be that, for as long as humans have been talking (about a hundred and fifty thousand years) parents and older people have used the late-night-by-the-fireside opportunity to tell children the stories of their tribe, and then get the child to repeat the story. This process has probably been going on for thousands of generations… quite long enough for it to become an established evolutionary pre-disposition; we are born ‘expecting’ to hear stories, and then retell them when we become older.
Those who taught in the ancestral environment were also the workers, the hunter/gatherers of days long before the invention of the classroom, and the craft of the schoolteacher. As well as having to feed their families and equip their young with the skills needed for a lifetime, our early ancestors had to be economic of their energies2. What better way to do this than to have the child follow you around for the daily ride? The cosiness of sitting listening to fables told by the Stone Age fireside reminds us forcefully that childhood is more than the creation of Victorian moralists. Children today exhibit the same behaviours, in the same developmental sequence, as did our Stone Age ancestors. As children grow so they rapidly develop minds of their own, no more so than during the ‘terrible twos’. While our Stone Age ancestors have shaped the essential blueprint of the human brain, the human achievement – that which gives us an enormous advantage over other animals – is the way in which daily life experiences sculpts each brain into something truly individual.
Every culture that has ever been studied has a creation story formed out of the questions it asked. That our society has found a scientific explanation in Big Bang theory should not cause us to trivialize what those earlier storytellers were trying to do with the only knowledge they had, for these were the very best stories that man could craft at the time, with the knowledge then available to them.
And they’ve had great staying power. The story of Adam and Eve has probably been told for several thousand times longer than have the current explanations of Big Bang theories3. It is a story that is deeply embedded in our culture. Nowadays many people reject such a story of creation and divinity, but as the endless debates about cloning, euthanasia and genetics research testify, we are not sure just who – if anyone – is wise enough to play god. Many people are more unsure today as to ‘who’ we are or ‘why’ we are than possibly ever before. In turn, the business of what story we should live by in the twenty-first century has made the question “what should we teach?” an extremely vexed one.
Perhaps the first few sentences of a new story lie in the ideas which are expressed later in these Theses. Geneticists, neurobiologists, evolutionary psychologists, palaeontologists and anthropologists as well as archaeologists are rewriting pre history. This multi-disciplinary approach inevitably presents us with a real problem. How do we draw all these different perspectives together to see what the big picture could be? How do we make one grand narrative out of all these smaller stories?
Thesis 14: 24th August 2006