Human Storytellers

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“Does hunting make us human?” More important than any answer we might give to that, the question itself raises interesting meditations of its own—how it is framed, is it really a question, what does it reveal about our inquiry into our own nature?

I’ve always been curious about our venture across the rubicon from braining to minding. It’s a one way function. Once crossed, the exact nature of the creature one was before the crossing can never be exactly known again, only guessed. So when we ask about what features of “animal” processes remain wholly intact and carried forward on the minding side of the fence (are “basic” to our nature) we’re caught between two equally plausible answers: “none” and “we have no way of knowing” For me, minding seems to imply storytelling, the capacity to imagine answers, create narratives and anticipate unfolding of events. 

If nothing else, storytelling is exactly what has been done (what we have done) with this question. We’ve told stories to one another. Stories about why it must be basic to our nature; or, why it is not (or hoped that it is not); why we wish something we cannot actually know is of fundamental biological importance, or more of a story telling character with options besides hunting that might be told. All this is complicated by the fact that there is a present an impending issue for us, here and now, that makes the answer we give useful in deciding what story might best hold our interest (dominate) the modern “campfire”; clearly a pressing political question. Are we at heart a hunting species or a rationalizing-about-hunting species? 

Aldous Huxley came to a split-decision on the matter, suggesting there was genotypic trait in our species that was assigned to some, but not all of us. It lead him to suggest that our society must provide for this in some way–the physicality and predatory impulses— for those that were of the “physical type”. If not, we were simply creating a pressure cooker of impulses in some of us, to explode again and again, as they always seem to do.

But Huxley’s reply can also be seen as a story in response to how we framed the question as a “basic nature” question, and presumed ‘basic nature’ required animal origins which we cannot really know. Susanne K. Langer, on the other hand framed the matter in quite a different way. She did not view human nature as sequential history, but rather as an atemporal condition, in which original possibilities were everpresent in our species as optional lines of development. She saw the fabric of expression as a continuum from act to body to feelilng (emotion) to brain (thought) to mind (process). It wasn’t something fixed as predestination, but rather a dynamic relationship between these levels of perception and interaction that was ongoing and ever subject to mediation. 

What I’m suggesting is that storytelling may be one of the fundamental mediators of our nature, the thing that differenced us from all that came before and also provisioned us to tell other stories than the ones that fixed all other creatures (as far as we know) in the static adaptive niches that evolution provided for them. Storytelling not only imagines possibilities, but it becomes an act which impinges on our biology, or emotions and our thoughts in feedback loops which enter the basic self-constructive process which minding enables. In Langer’s philosophical musings (“Mind—An Essay on Feeling”, e.g.) we are both temporal/sequential creatures designed in evolutionary kettles; and atemporal/self-modifying creatures always redesigning ourselves by operating our capacity to be mindful of ourselves as well as our surroundings. In Langer’s view, the question about “basic nature” is already loaded with an assumption about the primacy of determinant biology when it reaches in to the far side of the rubicon and asks how “animal-like” are we? But on the near side we are also indeterminate storytellers as well.

So, what we get is a pardadox, yes. And a paradox is something in which Gregory Bateson suggested, “one must choose sides—both sides.” Which is why I suggest we may have framed the question wrong—as a question, though it may appear to have many answers, has but one side. But, the story of what we “basically are” and what we might do/tell about that, may be enormously larger than our question can answer. May even render it meaningless in a very important way. What the better question, the more realistic frame might be, I haven’t a clue. Something to talk-story about sometime, I suppose. 

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