Brian Greene: Telling Stories as Part of Evolution

Brian Greene’s latest book Until the End of Time searches for meaning in our universe by connecting prevalent theories on everything from atoms and astronomy to art and angst. Most interesting of all is his analysis of why we tell stories.

What evolutionary utility could arise from following the exploits of imaginary characters facing make-believe challenges in non-existent worlds? (274) Through borrowed eyes protected by the tempered glass of story, we intimately observe an abundance of exotic worlds. And it is through these simulated episodes that our intuition expands and refines, rendering it sharper and more flexible. Through story we internalize a more nuanced sense of how to respond and why, and that intrinsic knowledge guides our future behavior. (279)

Storytelling is our most powerful means of inhabiting other minds. And as a deeply social species, the ability to momentarily move into the mind of another may have been essential in our survival and our dominance. (283) The stories provide a means for experiencing the universe from a perspective that is otherwise unattainable. (284) Through narrative we explore the range of human behavior, from societal expectations to heinous transgressions. We witness the breadth of human motivation, from lofty ambition to reprehensible brutality. (285)

None of which explains my dream of my cat Popo (who died in 1999) as an evil red-eyed monster driving an open-bed truck, wreaking death and destruction while Allen (a friend who I haven’t seen since 1987) careened off in an outboard boat, almost killing sunbathers and then vanished in pile of gravel as my father (who dies in 1989) accused me of plotting to kill my mother (who died this year) because I had a number of pictures of her on my wall when I was only trying to sleep.

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