The Stories We Tell
Our behaviors shape our tales and our tales shape our behaviors
We, the human race, are a group primate species. For something like 96% of our evolutionary history we lived in small hunter-gatherer groups practicing very limited skills we acquired by copying those around us. The biggest technical challenges we faced were all to do with memorization: where to find the fruits and vegetables as each season rolled around, how to hunt animals, and how to nap flint. The biggest cognitive challenges we faced were all to do with competing with each other: who was likely to try to cheat or harm us, who would be a useful ally, who we should placate and who could we bully without fear of retaliation.
When you look at a tribe of baboons you see human nature encapsulated, only minus the clever tools.
As we’re evolved to conform automatically to group norms whatever they happen to be, and as we’ve also evolved to avoid thinking whenever possible because thinking burns precious calories that for most of our evolutionary history were needed to power muscles instead, it’s obvious that the norms of the group will always play the largest role in all of our endeavors.
In fact, we can define civilization as a set of group norms that attempts to mitigate some of the worst effects of our cognitive limitations and atavistic impulses. Civilization is the thin fragile veneer beneath which the great mass of us can temporarily hope for something a little less awful than constant violence and endless self-harming stupidity.
Civilization exists in our minds and is created by some of the stories we tell each other. If we were rational creatures capable of performing sustained thinking, we’d create and promulgate stories that support the ideals of civilization.
Unfortunately we’re an incorrigibly stupid species and in consequence our stories are nearly all catastrophically bad for the development and sustaining of civilization. Civilization thus arises only very occasionally and generally despite rather than because of our conscious intentions.
This isn’t really surprising given that our stories emerge from our group norms and not from an abstract process of reasoning. At least since the end of the last Ice Age and the concomitant dawn of agriculture, we’ve been telling ourselves tales of magic pixies in order to attempt to explain the diversity of phenomena within which we eke out our little ape-lives. As we knew nothing about anything, the easiest explanations were always based on magic pixies that were exactly like us only bigger and more powerful. We used pathetic fallacy to explain thunder and rain, the precession of day after night, and all manner of other natural occurrences.
We assumed our dreams, which are the brain’s way of clearing away the day’s effluvia, were “really” an insight into equally real domains equivalent to that in which we spend our waking lives.
Even today, five hundred years since we began to use empiricism as a tool for understanding reality, most people on Earth still believe in magic pixies. This is because we still tell stories about these pixies and we still pretend they are real. Billions of simple-minded folk go to churches and mosques and synagogues and temples, all convinced that their particular magic pixie is real and can somehow aid them in quotidian matters.
Even though a moment’s thought reveals the paucity of such fairytales and their complete disconnect with everything we know to be true about the universe in which we live, the power of simple-minded tales ensures that most people continue to believe in these stories.
Stories have enormous power. Ideally, this power would be harnessed in support of civilization. Instead, it’s almost invariably directed towards the undermining of even the most basic humane values.
Of course, fairytales don’t have to involve only magic pixies. Since the industrial revolution we’ve seen a new breed of fairytale that pretends to the garb of science while remaining entirely fabular.
Karl Marx, who was a terrible economist but whose convoluted vision was transformed into easy-to-understand stories by Friedrich Engels, created one of the most enduring myths of the last few hundred years. Instead of an anthropomorphic magic pixie controlling destiny, Marx and Engels claimed that implacable grand economic forces control destiny. Marx, like so many intellectually indolent and ignorant commentators today, failed to understand the critical difference between markets and capitalism (hint: we’ve had markets for ten thousand years; capitalism only arose with the industrial revolution). As a consequence of this failure he posited that “classes” of people must exist and be locked forever in mortal combat. The interests of the “laboring classes” and the “capitalists” are diametrically opposed and, by means Marx never makes entirely lucid, capitalism must inevitably flounder on its internal contradictions and thus collapse, leaving the way clear for a wonderful proletariat-led future in which daisies grow and bunnies hop happily across grassy fields and all is well forever and ever, amen.
Although far fewer people believe in this dialectically-centered fairytale than in tales of magic pixies, it still holds seductive charm for a certain type of despot and a great many naïve impressionable young people whose grasp of history and human psychology is scant or non-existent.
The other industrial-age fairytale that grew in strength is the idea of nation. As regions coalesced into larger areas under a single government thanks to the invention of the telegram and telegraph (which enabled governance over much larger physical areas) it was necessary to proclaim that formerly disparate groups were “really” all part of one great nation. In the late nineteenth century the formation of Germany and Italy were partly caused by, and partly accelerated, nationalist fairytales. Suddenly we could imagine ourselves to be bound to each other by a national identity.
Which, of course, is “better” than that of the other nations surrounding us. Our country, our nation, is naturally superior to those pressing in upon us and unfairly preventing us from having what we believe is our due. Each nation evolved its own myths by means of which to bind its people: the British invented the idea of colonialism as a “civilizing” force; the French proclaimed themselves to be the basis of universal values; those living in the USA saw themselves as having “manifest destiny” to rule over the continent (and later the world), and so on and so on.
We could enumerate other fairytales of a similar nature but what matters more than enumeration is perception. It’s obvious that all of these stories have one thing in common: us-versus-them.
Whether you believe your magic pixie selected your group to be “the chosen people” or if you believe your class is locked into an existential battle with capitalist exploiters, or if you think you have a divine right to slaughter indigenous people because your destiny is to expand ever-westward, you’ve signed up for an us-versus-them mythology.
In other words, all these fairytales exacerbate our worst instincts rather than do anything to mitigate them.
Supporters of fairytales attempt to pick and choose so as to claim their particular myth is less harmful than it seems; this is, however, merely intellectual cowardice and duplicity. When we look honestly at the contents of all these stories we see very clearly the simple fact that they are all predicated in one way or another on an our-group-is-the-best mentality.
Civilization, especially a globally interconnected and inter-dependent one such as we’ve experienced over the last seventy years, requires a very different mentality from that of a small hunter-gatherer group defending its territory against encroaching groups. Yet our fairytales all reinforce the atavistic us-versus-them mindset instead of helping us to expand and surmount our instinctual limitations.
This is clearly a problem. The extent of this problem has become increasingly evident over the last twenty years, and especially so commencing with the catastrophic events of 2016 in which a tsunami of mindless populism has brought to power the most incompetent and mendacious actors who have proceeded to accelerate the decline of civilization at a rate even the most cynical commentators hitherto thought impossible.
Very few people are adequately informed about the world, and very few people possess the cognitive abilities necessary to grasp even a small fraction of the complexity of our global civilization. It’s not surprising that a great many people, conditioned by a lifetime of being fed simple-minded fairytales, are easy prey for the unscrupulous blustering demagogues who realize that telling lies to stupid people is the easiest way to garner votes.
Representative democracy, which famously requires demonstration of adequate competence by neither candidate nor voter, is ideally structured to ensure that power passes to those least suitable to possess it. And how do the blustering demagogues garner these votes? By leveraging the fairytales that provide so much purchase on the minds of most people.
Whether it’s the infantile lies of Brexiteers or the equally infantile lies of a Trump, the slithering falsehoods of a Putin or a Modi, or the chest-thumping false machismo of a Duterte or an Erdogan, everything is predicated on the fact nearly everyone lives in a fantasy world of us-versus-them and so by creating pretend enemies (the “them”) the demagogue ensures huge numbers of people rush to prove themselves part of the “us.”
Because we’re a group species and we rely entirely on being part of a group for our survival.
What we really need is stories for the less intellectually adequate that foster a sense of inter-connectedness. We need tales that encourage mutual trust. We need ways to enhance people’s ability to see that everything we all depend on relies on cooperation with others, not only locally but globally.
We need stories that celebrate collaboration.
Instead we get infantile fairytales about how “we” don’t need “them.” We get the populists and the nationalists and the religionists all screaming and whining about how “they” are out to get “us” unless they are stopped.
Which is why our civilization has tipped over the edge and is now carrying us all to destruction.
Because we didn’t understand the importance of telling good stories instead of harmful ones. Because we didn’t understand the importance of stressing cooperation instead of confrontation.
We must hope that, perhaps centuries from now, as our distant descendants struggle to emerge from the chaos and ruins we bequeath to them, they not only look for better approaches to the challenges of governance but also they realize the importance of telling helpful rather than harmful stories.
Most people are never going to have the knowledge or intellectual capacity to work things out for themselves. That’s why we’ve always used stories, since we first sat around campfires at night, to influence and guide one another.
We need stories that promote civilization and civilized values.
Let’s hope, centuries from now, such tales will be told.