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Saturday, 17 November 2012

The Power Of The Story

Once upon a time, in a continent not far away, there dwelt a puny ape who had learnt to walk upright so it could see further than other men without needing to stand on the shoulders of giants.

This little ape wanted to find dinner and wanted even more not to be dinner. But, the trees it once lived in had mostly gone away because the rains which used to come very often now came less frequently, so it could no longer shin up the nearest one to avoid the lions or swing from branch to branch to escape the leopards. Instead, it had to learn new skills if it was going to leave any descendants - and if it hadn't, how would we know about it now?

One of the things it acquired was the ability to recognise patterns. How useful it was to recognise the tracks of the animals they were hunting, and to recognise the tracks of the animals who were hunting them. They were probably the only animal which could look at animal tracks and read the information in them - what made them, which direction they were going in, how long ago they were made, and how many there were. This ability may have created the environment in which a large brain could evolve because the puny little ape could now make good use of a large brain and could catch the high protein dinner needed to grow it.

With pattern recognition came the ability to recognise sequences of events and to arrange them into a story. They could tell the story of those two leopards that came down to the water hole two hours ago, and then went up near to trees. They could also tell the story of how that gazelle was walking with a limp and would be easy to catch, and they could tell the story of how they would be welcomed home if they caught it and 'invited' it home to dinner...

Maybe it'll earn the opportunity to pass those pattern-recognising genes on to more offspring - though they wouldn't have known about the genes of course. They would have known the value of a good meal and their mate would have known the value of a good provider of good meals when it comes to rearing the children, and how to reward and keep a good thing when she saw it.

And so they evolved the ability to tell stories because those with that ability contributed more genes to the gene pool. They interpreted the world they saw in terms of stories. They worked out what would happen next and they worked out what probably happened before. The leopards came from that rocky outcrop. Best not go there. The world of these creatures became a world of a past and a future with the future caused by the past and they lived in the story they wove from the patterns they saw all around them.

And we've inherited these pattern-recognition genes because they helped our East African ancestors to pass on their genes and we are the descendants of those who left most descendants. It has even been said that, rather than Homo sapiens (thinking Man) we should be called Homo narans (story-telling Man) because so much of our thinking is actually story-telling.

We develop this ability very early in life. Show a three year-old a series of pictures and ask then what is happening, and they will joint them together with a story. They will even make up a story to explain what's happening in a single picture and they will tell you what will happen next. They do this because they assume there is a story. We see stories in everything.

We looked at tall mountains and said, "Some day a man will climb to the top." and so we climbed to the top of tall mountains and fulfilled our prophesy.

We looked towards the North and South Poles and said, "Some day someone will go there!", and so we went there and fulfilled our prophesy.

We looked up at the moon... and, because we couldn't allow it to be a Russian, it had to be an American. And it was so, and the prophesy was fulfilled because the prophesy said it would be.

So Homo narans has evolved another ability - the ability to create self-fulfilling prophesies.



Once upon a time, when we were in the childhood of our species, at a time before we had discovered iron or invented the wheel, a small tribe of Homo narans wanted to justify driving some people off their land and taking it for themselves, so they invented a story of how it had been given to them by a spirit in the sky who had chosen them for special treatment. Later on a scribe wrote it down, then someone included it in a book of tales and origins myths.

After many years they in turn were driven off their land by invaders but they remembered the tale of being the 'chosen' people and being given the land by a magic spirit in the sky and joined it to another story that one day a magic king would come to 'save' them when they get their god-given land back, build a temple, cast some magic spells and sacrifice a bull. Then they can have the whole world all for themselves, just like their magic spirit in the sky promised.

Another version of this story said the magic king had already appeared but had now gone away to wait for the chosen people to build the temple, when he would come back and kill them and everyone else who doesn't believe he's already been once, so some other specially chosen people will have the world all for themselves instead.

Two thousand years later, some people who believe they are the special people (how could it be anyone else?) are still working to ensure this prophesy from the infancy of mankind is self-fulfilled. One group is ensuring that the most powerful nation the world has ever known is on side and helping to fulfil the prophesy by supporting Israel as it wages genocidal war against the people who have lived in Palestine for thousands of years, on the land the story says a magic spirit gave to its chosen people.

The Triumph of Death, Pieter Bruegel The Elder
They are doing this in the hope that the legendary magic king will come back and kill everyone so they can have the world all for themselves. It's that thing we call Armageddon, in which we all get to die!

The worry is, that many people think this would be a good thing and have a lot of influence on people who could do it tomorrow if they wished.

We do not have to fulfil this insane prophesy, people!

It's a story we made up when we were too ignorant to know any better! We can change the story.

We have to change the story, or the very ability that allowed us to conquer the world, to climb the highest mountains and go to the moon could be the very thing which ensures our extinction.

Imagine!

"We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better." - J. K. Rowling


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