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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Why Do We Tell, Or Care About, Stories?

That is the Question On the Origin of Stories Tries to Answer

The book is by Brian Boyd, a professor at the University of Aukland — here’s some information about him and the book and here is an interview with Dr. Boyd about the book, From the title on, it is clear that the professor is applying evolution to art, indeed he says he wrote it as a 150th birthday echo of Darwin. I’ve only read reviews, not the book itself, but it seems that the first really interesting step he takes is simply to pose the question I used as the title of this blog.
     Saying that story matters to people is such a truism that you can hear it stated everywhere from preschool to graduate school. But when we say that, and people all nod their heads in sage agreement, we don’t ask why? Stories don’t get us food, protect us, secure a mate — sure you can put a story to any of those uses, but making things up, inventing stuff that feels convincing to listeners even though is not a report of things the speaker experienced, but rather a product of his or her imagination — is unusual. Bees dance to tell each other where the good flowers are — so they narrate. But the point of the dance is precisely its absolute fidelity to reality — go where I show you to go — the bee is saying to the hive — and you will find flowers. The story teller says — imagine yourself going where this story I am inventing takes you, and what — you will enjoy it? learn about yourself? laugh? experience a catharsis through pity and terror? 
     Boyd, who analyzes the Odyssey as well as Horton Hears a Who, believes story served two evolutionary fucntions — storytellers had to compete to get their listener’s attention — just like male birds competing over a female by having more elaborate plumage. The bard who kept people sitting around the circle got fed. For the audience, for the community, story allowed people to feel smart — to know more than the Wolf in the Three Little Pigs, to identify with clever Odysseus. I am summarizing very quickly, and clearly need to read the book — but, here and for now, it is just interesting to ask the question — why did human beings start to tell stories, what function did it serve? And perhaps as we think about that we can see how that answer applies to history — the story we tell of our part, how we came to be who we are.


  1. Linda Zajac says:

    Several years ago, at a cultural event at the school, an African gentleman mentioned that in Africa they use stories to teach young children. What better way to captivate the audience. It sure beats reading a dry textbook. I’ve noticed a lot of those college and hospital brochures are using stories to attract readers. I was captivated reading the story of a fireman on 9/11 who received a homeland security degree from Uconn. It appears to be working.

  2. bluerabbit says:

    I agree with Linda. There are many kinds of social “information” that can be passed on through stories, including the importance of empathy, deferred gratification, and the personal consequences of ego excesses. For me, one of the most important uses of story is to help human beings feel less lonely. In stories, people confide and act upon feelings that everybody has, but nobody wants to admit.

  3. I believe the aim of the Boyd book is to examine how stories provide these social goods — he wants to examine them as tools that human beings developed, like fire or pottery, to see where they fit in our evolutionary development. And captivating and audience, or providing a means for public empathy, both fit that framework. Although I suspect the specific stories about our past we now call history developed more to connect a group to some sense of glory, mission, purpose than to confide break down barriers of personal isolation. And it is that public role of history that it is hard to recover in a time where we know the flaws of all our past heroes.