Humans tell stories. It’s one of the most important things that we do. Stories allow us to gather together groups of memories about what might otherwise be rather arbitrary experiences, and piece them together so that they can guide our actions. In other words, stories make meaning.
Humans have been telling stories for as long as there have been humans. Indeed, perhaps the best-evolved marker of our humanity, more than bipedalism or stone carving, is storytelling.
Today, the kinds of stories we tell are vast and varied. We tell stories about romances on Middle Earth, and about the long-term viability of blockchain technology. We tell stories about gun violence in America, and about the funerary rituals of ancient Egypt. For literally every aspect of human life, real, or imagined, someone has told a story about it.
As society has complexified, so has our storytelling. But there is one special kind of story which we were telling in the past and that we are still telling today: creation myths. Some of our oldest preserved myths, from Mesopotamia to the Maya peninsula, are stories meant to help us understand how the world came to be the way it is. The content of our explanations about our creation has evolved over time, but the need to understand our origins in narrative format has persisted.
Modern science brought with it a storytelling dilemma. For the first time, our most detailed and accurate stories about how we came to be were no longer the most narratively engaging. Despite three centuries of groundbreaking scientific writing, the most emotionally motivating creation stories still tend to come from religions whose theology was developed many centuries before.
Rather than skip ahead to the part where I say that the scientific stories are “right” and the religious stories are “wrong” I want to dwell on the fact that both types are still stories. Some stories are good (as in, people enjoy them) and some stories are bad (as in, people find them boring), and whether a story is good or bad has little to do with whether or not it is “true”.
All of which is to say that I believe that we, as evolutionists, have a responsibility to start telling better stories. Evolutionary theory offers a remarkably rich and beautiful story about how we came to be, but as of yet this story has not been told compellingly enough to reach beyond the halls of academia. And while there are many fantastic examples of storytelling which does do this, (the work of David Attenborough and the Religious Naturalist Association are two of my favorites) the world needs far more. We need stories that explain the biological world around us in a way that is creative, engaging, and that gives us a sense of our place on the four-billion-year-old tree of life of which we have always been a part of.
It is with the mission of telling better evolutionary stories that we started the EvoS Seminar Series. The seminar series is a completely online class whose mission is to provide the public with clear links on the chain which connects science to story. Daily, for the next two weeks, This View of Life will be publishing articles from the EvoS Seminar Series which feature an evolutionary story presented at multiple levels of complexity. Each article is based around a lecture live streamed from the EvoS Seminar Series youtube channel. Each begins with a short explainer video covering the central ideas of the piece, (as this article did), followed by links to relevant peer-reviewed papers, as well as additional videos made by our students.
In the final paragraph of On the Origin of Species, Darwin famously wrote,
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
With that phrase ‘this view of life’ Darwin recognized that the theory his book contained was not simply an explanation, it was a way of viewing the world, a fundamental perspective on what it means to be a living being. We are offering the EvoS Seminar Series to you because we believe that this view of life is a view worth sharing.
You can subscribe to the EvoS Seminar Series on youtube for even more links in the Science to Narrative chain. We’re also on Facebook.
Image: “Emblem 14” (1617) from Atalanta Fugiens by Michael Maier | Wikipedia Commons
It’s lovely to see you on TVOL, Maximus! I’ve enjoyed reading about your creative and daring projects. I see your goal here as a valuable one, and I agree certainly that scientific narratives of the ‘story of life’ can be beautiful and inspiring. You’re right that David Attenborough is a master story teller, rivaling even Carl Sagan. Plus, Attenborough has this amazing video on leopard slug mating that is probably the most fantastic thing I’ve ever seen:
I used to show it on the first day of my Popular Science class when I was still at Binghamton.
Two points to make:
(1) There is a pretty extensive literature that you may already be aware of, which would probably challenge (to some degree) an assertion that evolutionary narrative “has not been told compellingly enough to reach beyond the halls of academia”. Such narratives (and many themes associated with Darwinian evolution) have permeated the Western imagination for nearly 200 years. Just to name a few fiction and non-fiction authors writing for general audiences: H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, George Elliot, Desmond Morris, Robert Ardrey, or Jane Auel. Evolutionary narratives are key to wildly popular movies like 2001:A Space Odyssey and Quest for Fire, Clan of the Cave Bear, and the 700 or so versions of Tarzan.
I suppose it all comes down to how we define ‘narrative’ and whether we approve of the narratives that circulate outside of academic circles. Obviously, they are not going to be scientifically rigorous (because, you know, that would be boring). But I’m also not sure they can be controlled.
Anyway, the literature on narratives in science is a worthwhile pursuit – for example, Gillian Beer (Darwin’s Plots), Misia Landau (Narratives of Human Evolution), Robert Young (Darwin’s Metaphor), Venla Oikkonen (Gender, Sexuality, and Reproduction in Evolutionary Narratives), or Martha McCaughey (The Caveman Mystique). I have most of these, just fyi, and would be happy to share : )
(2) I remember you as gender non-conforming. The TVOL profile for you uses masculine pronouns.
All my best!