The Storytelling Ape

Over the course of this paper and these portfolio entries, we have examined the nature of meaning in stories as a function and element of the human mind: that beyond the meaning of fictional narratives as a self-contained didactic or thought-provoking unit, stories also function as a way to simplify the enormous complexity of our reality (the nature of atoms, for instance) into a comprehensible ‘lie-to-children’—or lie-to-students, or lie-to-adults—and we have seen how lies-to-humans are deployed not only as a mechanism for explaining and understanding complex realities but also as society-wide tools for regulating and managing the interaction of humans and operation of human societies: the notion of ‘justice’, for instance, is the shared fantasy of a whole civilisation rather than a defined thing which “really” physically exists.

It has been suggested by biologists in the past that animal thought processes can be represented by the use of ‘=’ in response to immediate stimuli. See = investigate. Frightening = run away. Edible = consume. By contrast, they suggest, humans have the capacity to tell stories about stimuli, running potential outcomes through our subconscious in the form of narratives: I may wake up one morning and not want to get out of bed, but—subconsciously, and immensely fast—my brain tells me the story of the man who didn’t get out of bed so he missed work so he got shouted at by his manager so he lost his job so he lost his house so he died poor and lonely. Parallel to that, I can also consider the story of the man who called in sick and was believed, the man who called in sick and was laughed at, and so on. In Language in Cognition, Cedric Boeckx refers to this capacity as an “unbounded combinatorial operation” underlying all human cognitive capabilities, and suggests that rather than the almost comically noble and self-aggrandising title of Homo sapiens sapiens, “wise man” (or in fact, given the emphatic repetition of sapiens, something along the lines of “really wise man”) we should refer to the human species as Homo combinans—“combining man”.

I would argue that both of these names themselves rest on a deeply-ingrained story: the story of humanity as something totally separate to the animal kingdom. In fact, as is often repeated, humans are genetically almost identical to Pan troglodytes, the common chimpanzee and Pan paniscus, the bonobo. I submit that rather than some diffuse disconnect between animals and humans, what sets us apart from chimps and bonobos is our ability to tell stories—stories that help us explicate reality, stories that help us relate and work together, stories which, ultimately, lever us out of bed in the morning, rally starving, exhausted men in rusty armour into charging once more into the breach, and fire rockets from Cape Canaveral to the moon… and which cause otherwise perfectly ordinary people—who might well grow up to be policymakers or celebrities or doctors or drug dealers or any of a thousand other things—to strap bombs to themselves in the hopes of killing other ordinary people. Stories tell us who we are, what we are, and how we fit into the world. They are immensely powerful and immensely dangerous. Rather than the manifestly inaccurate wise man, I would suggest, we are Pan narrans—the storytelling ape.