Musings: Stories of the Tribe

This is something that's been brewing in my head for quite a while; I've finally got some time here to jot down my ongoing notions and see what comes of them.

I've been reading Harold Bloom (and he's a clever clog, no doubt) and considering the progress of humanity (something I do every Wednesday from 7 to 9) and one thing has occurred to me:

We (the human race, that is) have gotten better at lots of things over the record of civilizations. We run faster. We build higher building. We communicate more readily with folks around the world. We're taller (some of us). We're healthier (again, some of us). We live longer (on average, all of us). There's more of us.

Progress, ah, progress, it is a mighty thing. Enough to make you believe in destiny, in fate, in the eventual triumph of all our dreams.

But it occurs to me (and this ties into Hofstadter again) that there are also things we demonstratably HAVEN'T gotten any better at.

Telling stories.

In the 500 years since Shakespeare wrote, we haven't improved on his storytelling. Not in any consistent manner, at least. And before Shakespeare, it's pretty hard to demonstrate an ongoing and consistent line of improvement from Homer to the Bard. For all the things we do get better at year in and year out (building houses, making cars go faster, airplanes fly higher), it's striking how we are completely unable to get better at telling stories.

This isn't a rave-up for Shakespeare; substitute any names in there and the case remains. Even the most ardent post-modernist is going to have trouble showing how story-telling has gotten consistently better and better over the centuries.

How can this be? After all, we have all those centuries of experience behind us. Surely we can look back and learn lessons that Elizabethan dramatists never had the opportunity to. Surely the combined weight of all those wonderful story-tellers over the ages must combine somehow, as in science, to provide us with superior insights and tools and techniques. But no. Why not? Why is story-telling something that each generation must learn again?

In 500 years, how is it possible we haven't gotten any better at this? Heck, if you like The Iliad (which I do), we haven't noticeably improved in 3000 years.

And yet we understand human nature so much better. We understand the causes of our fears and anxieties, our obsessions and our passions to a degree far beyond what Homer or Dante or Shakespeare could possibly have done. We have reams of research on what makes people tick, on how they respond to danger or anger or frustration, that we ought to be better than they. We know so much more than they.

And yet, we don't tell stories any better than they.

We are story-telling animals. What makes us what we are is the set of stories we tell. Stories of ourselves. Of our ancestors, our tribe, our universe. By changing our stories, picking up new ones, forgetting old ones, adjusting the details, we change ourselves.

Yesterday was Remembrance Day. A day for telling stories. Stories of a nation's sacrifice. Of battles won and lost, of valour shown and young lives cut down. A nation must have its stories. Say to a Canadian: "Vimy Ridge, Flanders Fields, Dieppe, Juno" and a whole host of tales emerges, tales that define us as a nation. Without those stories and many more besides, what would link us to one another? We are Canadian because we share Canadian stories with each other.

This is how we form group identities -- through shared story-telling. With our families, our friends, classmates, co-workers -- any "tribe" exists in order to perpetuate its tales, the stories that evoke and its identity.

And yet we never get better at it. How is this possible? What does it mean?

I think that if there is such a thing as a soul, it lies right near this strange little bit of country. If there really is an irreducible part of each human being, something that is only theirs and cannot be further broken down into its constituent elements, cannot be reproduced or simulated, it is this. It is the stories we tell.

Will an artificial sentience tell stories? If it doesn't, is it sentient?

Whatever strange forms life may take in other parts of this strange universe, if it doesn't tell stories somehow, someway, I don't see how we can consider it sentient.

But if it does, and we learn to hear and share in its stories, perhaps then we will finally get better at this.