Saturday, November 20, 2010

Narratives are for Socialists!

I've been linking together ideas of social interactions and narratives a lot in some of my posts. For a while, I've been continuing to develop a theory that narratives are a kind of epistemology that is rooted in social interactions. Here's an evolutionary take on the idea:

Human cognition arose from having to infer increasingly complicated patterns (for those who might get the wrong idea, this is not a logical kind of inference—it's pattern recognition in the brain.) Originally, pattern recognition was developed in order to provoke the kind of response along the lines of "Holy shit, a rattlesnake!".

As primates evolved, they became more sophisticated organisms that also worked in groups. These groups involved social relationships far more complex than schools of fish or flocks of birds (which are quite nicely simulated by programs such as Boids). In order to facilitate these social interactions, members of the group needed to traverse these in an effective way, thus the individual organisms needed to become more intelligent with regards to social interactions.

Now, this kind of intelligence had much different demands than those of basic sequential reasoning, which was first the basis for being able to competently hunt down an animal and eventually for the kind of sequential logic that gave rise to civilization. If you now turn your attention to stories, it's pretty notable that the vast majority of stories are re-tellings (fictional or otherwise) of social interactions; more so when I think about the fact that the only narratives devoid of social interactions (that I can think of) are from modern times.

If this is true, then it's safe to say that stories were originally about people. Stories also have their own internal logic and form that is very different than the kind of modularized rationalist thinking that we usually associate with knowledge. My take on this is that this unique logic was crafted over time in the human mind in accordance with the nuances of social interactions. Rather than try to learn about social interactions through empiricism, which would get your slow-thinking ass killed in the jungle, the human mind developed a vast and messy network of heuristics for comprehending social interactions—in simple terms, we developed an intuition for how people work and were able to express it to one another by means of storytelling.

But why telling stories? Why not just understand social interactions in some way on our own? Two reasons. First, there's an obvious advantage to being able to communicate this knowledge to the rest of the group—to tell one's kids why they shouldn't lie to other people or why they should stay away from the other tribe. Second, being able to transmit and modify this knowledge presents another huge advantage: just as biological evolution embraces random change as a means of creative destruction, having the capacity for storytelling allowed for traditions and arguments between people that allowed stories to change in unexpected ways. Those that were keepers stuck around and those that didn't have much value could be weeded out in time.

Since then, we've been given a large and intractable network of storytelling traditions, genres, themes, allusions and so on; all of which is worth studying, by the way. At some point, I might post about how narrative evolves, since narratives are built on other narratives through two concepts talked about by Jerome Bruner known as canonicity and breach. But I'll leave that for another time.

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