- The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall
Jonathan Gottschall is a professor of English who has done scholarly work on evolutionary theory and fiction; his former collaborators include the biologist E. O. Wilson and the narrative theorist Brian Boyd. In The Storytelling Animal Gottschall aims for the widest possible readership. At times I found myself most interested in the book as an example of how far it is possible to sustain an argument in contemporary trade non-fiction, for Gottschall’s primary intent seems [End Page 221] to be to keep his narrative moving, never dwelling too long on any topic or form of storytelling. I was never bored reading his book, but now that I have to say what Gottschall’s point is, I am reduced to embarrassing generalities: people naturally tell stories; our brains are wired for stories; stories rewire out brains; stories can get us into trouble; and forms of storytelling change, so no need to worry about the demise of novels, because fiction persists in video games.
Gottschall’s examples include stories from television, movies, and video games, stories that children enact as they play, stories that recollect historical events, literary fiction, fairy tales, and narratives constructed in psychology experiments that test human capacities for associating objects into stories. No one form of storytelling stands out as the focus of Gottschall’s interest. The stories parade by, none ever analyzed in any sense of analysis. Literary criticism is not on the agenda.
The only scholarship discussed in detail are psychology experiments. Gottschall clearly describes studies such as Michael Gazzaniga’s split-brain experiments and the discovery of “the tale-spinning homunculus who resides in the left brain” (103). Summarizing Gazzaniga’s research, Gottschall draws an interesting and potentially provocative conclusion: “The storytelling mind is allergic to uncertainty, randomness, and coincidence. It is addicted to meaning. If the storytelling mind cannot find meaningful patterns in the world, it will try to impose them. In short, the storytelling mind is a factory that churns out true stories when it can, but will manufacture lies when it can’t” (103). That quotation exemplifies Gottschall at his best, but it does not lead into an argument about how humans should live with this storytelling mind; how we might avoid its dangers and capitalize on its capacities. Gottschall continues to broaden the observations, eventually getting to conspiracy theories, but he never deepens his argument.
The Storytelling Animal is relentlessly visual, both in how Gottschall tells stories—he is an effective storyteller, including stories he makes up as quasi-experiments in reader response—and in the book’s numerous photographs and illustrations. The editorial rule seems to be that if a picture exists of anything mentioned in the text, include that image. Thus, the word length is considerably shorter than the number of pages suggests. Some images are important, such as drawings of Gazzaniga’s experimental set-up. Others are interesting. I never realized what an accomplished artist Hitler was until I saw one of his paintings reproduced (142). But I fail to see what a Wikipedia-style head shot of Richard Wagner contributes (143). [End Page 222]
The latter two images illustrate Gottschall’s discussion of how Wagner’s operas influenced Hitler: “Hitler ‘lived’ Wagner’s work, he believed himself to be a Wagnerian hero,” an important point (143). Gottschall, however, presents the direction of influence as exclusively one way. Later in the same chapter he writes: “Research results have been consistent and robust: fiction does mold our minds…. Research shows that story is constantly nibbling and kneading us, shaping our minds without our knowledge or consent” (148). Gottschall must recognize the complementary aspect of people shaping stories—how Hitler imposed an interpretation on Wagner—but mass-appeal non-fiction does not allow “on the other hand” argumentation. Issues are not complicated by counterexamples requiring deliberation that would slow the flow of examples and images.
People, as imagined in this book, never have to select among multiple stories. No one has...