David Eagleman reviews The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Have I ever mentioned (oh, yes, I know I have) how much I love the book section of the Gray Lady?  I start looking for the online version of the coming Sunday's edition on Thursday, even though it's most often not posted until late Friday afternoon.  I scan the headlines on my computer once the edition is posted, then take my pink-covered iPad to a safe place and tap in.

Often I return to the old Mac to shout out a favorite couple of passages.  Last week I was talking about Judith Warner's review of Madeline Levine's Teach Your Children Well.  Today I'm sharing two passages from David Eagleman's review of The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make us Human, a Jonathan Gottschall book.  We readers and writers like to talk about these things.  We like to agree or not agree.  
I rather like, here, that stories have been declared as important as genes.  I like that they aren't time wasters.  And you?
But not all stories are created equal. Gottschall points out that for a story to work, it has to possess a particular morality. To capture and influence, it can’t be plagued with moral repugnance — involving, say, a sexual love story between a mother and her son, or a good guy who becomes crippled and a bad guy who profits handsomely. If the narrative doesn’t contain the suitable kind of virtue, brains don’t absorb it. The story torpedo misses the exposed brain vent. (There are exceptions, Gottschall allows, but they only prove the rule.) 
This leads to the suggestion that story’s role is “intensely moralistic.” Stories serve the biological function of encouraging pro-social behavior. Across cultures, stories instruct a version of the following: If we are honest and play by the social rules, we reap the rewards of the protagonist; if we break the rules, we earn the punishment accorded to the bad guy. The theory is that this urge to produce and consume moralistic stories is hard-wired into us, and this helps bind society together. It’s a group-level adaptation. As such, stories are as important as genes. They’re not time wasters; they’re evolutionary innovations.


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