Biology Magazine

Storytelling Gone Wild

By Cris

Humans everywhere are inveterate storytellers. Because storytelling, in the form of narrative, is found in all cultures and is structurally similar — with agents and action linked together by causation — there is excellent reason to think this ability is the result of intense selection pressure and is not simply a byproduct of other cognitive capabilities.

It was this aspect of mind that exorcised the great the philosophers David Hume and Immanuel Kant. They both knew that humans habitually think in causal terms. We cannot help it. We construct our experience of the world causally. They disagreed only on the mechanisms involved. Hume thought that our sense of cause-effect was simply the result of perceiving events following one another in time, and that much of what we perceive in causal terms is actually mere correlation. Kant disagreed and thought that causation was much more robust, in effect arguing that causal perception is a hard-wired faculty of mind. Both may have been right.

It does not take much imagination to discern the myriad ways in which the ability to ascertain cause-effect would have been adaptive in ancestral environments, even if such linkages are sometimes mistaken and the result of mere correlation. One person who has given these matters a great deal of thought, and published several compelling articles on the subject, is Michelle Scalise Sugiyama.

In “Food, Foragers, and Folklore” and “Narrative Theory and Function,” Sugiyama observes that all humans tell stories and this ability is the product of childhood development and passive learning:

[T]he ability to process and generate narrative is not limited to the exceptionally intelligent, nor is any formal instruction necessary for the acquisition of this faculty. Studies of Western children indicate that storytelling ability is reliably developing: the ability to tell stories emerges between the ages of 2.5 and 3, and children as young as 30 months can distinguish between narrative and nonnarrative uses of language. [N]arrative is a highly complex psychological process, depending for its operation upon the integration of numerous cognitive mechanisms (e.g., case-and-effect reasoning, theory of mind, language, spatial reasoning).

Because the narrative faculty develops passively in children, manifests itself cross-culturally, and is present in all adults, it is unlikely to have arisen by chance. It is not like music, math, or reading, all of which require a considerable amount of instruction and learning before they can be expressed. Like language itself, storytelling most likely developed under sustained selection pressure. If this is the case, the question then becomes: selection for what? The most likely answer is that narrative allows us to organize, store, and remember information.

As many scholars have noted, stories collected from around the world have similar structures and themes. This has led some to suggest they are archetypal or universal. These stories — which certainly are not the product of an ancient Ur-book or diffusion — usually include information about animals, plants, life, death, topography, weather, and environment. Perhaps most importantly, they nearly always address human social behaviors (sex, marriage, taboos, morals, deception and violence).

When the hypertrophied human faculty of storytelling is joined with other faculties such as theory of mind and agency detection, the nearly inevitable result will be stories that contain elements of the imaginary or supernatural. Over time, these stories became increasingly elaborate and played a critical role in the post-Neolithic development of we today call “religions.”


Scalise Sugiyama, M. (2001). Food, foragers, and folklore: the role of narrative in human subsistence Evolution and Human Behavior, 22 (4), 221-240 DOI: 10.1016/S1090-5138(01)00063-0

Sugiyama, M. (2001). Narrative Theory and Function: Why Evolution Matters Philosophy and Literature, 25 (2), 233-250 DOI: 10.1353/phl.2001.0035

Sugiyama, M. (1996). On the origins of narrative Human Nature, 7 (4), 403-425 DOI: 10.1007/BF02732901

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