A Book Called Animal Telling Stories Short Summary

In his book, The Storytelling Animal, Johnathan Gottschall conveys the idea that stories have not only been beneficial for the development of humanity and civilization but also completely necessary for our continued survival. “The storytelling mind is a crucial evolutionary adaptation,” he writes. “It allows us to experience our lives as coherent, orderly, and meaningful. It is what makes life more than a blooming, buzzing confusion” (Pg. 102). There is the question as to what the role of story is and how its rhetoric affects society. Gottschall focuses on this question by explaining the evolution of rhetoric through the story. He asks, ‘How did we become the storytelling animal?’ Each chapter explains why humans can’t function without stories. Gottschall concludes that we are storytelling animals and that rhetoric and imagination have played a major role in the evolution of human society. He illustrates through psychology, neuroscience, and evolutionary thought how rhetorical fiction “shapes our behaviors and our customs, and in so doing, they transform societies and histories”.

Gottschall defines the story paradigm as follows “Story = Character + Predicament + Attempted Extrication” (Pg. 52). He writes that stories ‘saturates’ nearly every aspect of our everyday existence through the terms of imagination (Neverland), dreams, fiction, television shows, children’s play, culture, narratives, myths, and religious stories. Stories teach us about life and the job of our storytelling is to make sense of what happens to the world around us. Our mind looks for meaning and purpose in our experiences: ‘The storytelling mind is a crucial evolutionary adaptation. It allows us to experience our lives as coherent, orderly, and meaningful. It is what makes life more than a blooming, buzzing confusion’ (p. 102).

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In Escaping the paradox of scientific storytelling, Dahlstrom and Scheufele write that “Storytelling is the creation and sharing of specific narrative messages. A narrative message is a distinct communication format structured around a character that experiences events over time, often overcoming conflict on the way. Because narrative messages portray larger phenomena through an individual’s experience, narrative messages are predisposed to depict information in ways audiences can identify with both cognitively and emotionally. Strongly constructed narrative messages can therefore be highly persuasive” (Pg. 1). Compared to the rhetorical aspect of storytelling, specifying that narrative conveys information to specific individuals within an audience explains how it affects one’s actions and mentality. The ‘narrative messages’ that are told target certain expectations within a societal structure. Each story told flows through different rhetorical interpretations and outcomes. Rhetoric explaining identity within society gives it that purpose.

According to Gottschall, our minds create stories for one purpose, and that is to make society work better by defining and inculcating a sense of morality. Religious stories and myths develop within different cultures to teach people how they are supposed to act and to demonstrate the consequences that result when the rules are disobeyed. Many literary works teach subjects on morality as well. Within The Storytelling Animal, Gottschall cites newly emerging research that suggests reading fiction affects how the brain functions and how it helps shape their outlooks and attitudes; side-noting that reading nonfiction does not have the same results. One important type of human story that is mentioned within the story is the ‘life story’, which is a narrative of experiences that we tell to ourselves and to other people in order to create identity and sense of self. The purpose of the life story is to demonstrate how we have become the person we are.

In his chapter on life stories Gottschall emphasizes that we ‘construct and reconstruct our life story through the imperfect process of memory and rhetoric’. Near the end of the chapter he writes, ‘like a novel in progress, our life stories are always changing and evolving, being edited, rewritten, and embellished by an unreliable narrator’ (p. 176). While I believe that this description is technically true, the implication behind it can be reworked. It can be seen as a necessary aspect of human development. The memory may not be accurate in the same sense that a video recording of an event is accurate, but human memory reveals the way an experience affected us as individuals. This is why several people often have vastly different memories of the same event. The purpose of the life story is not to create a historical record but rather to explain the development of a unique individual.

In Creating sociology of storytelling, Ken Plummer discusses a research project on the methodological implications of narrative in social and cultural analysis. For his research project he states that “I approach this task from a symbolic interactionists perspective: that is, I see the social world in terms of a few ever-changing symbolic interactions–as human beings, we are ‘social world-makers.’ We use the symbols/languages given us. We play, love and hate, and so on, telling stories about our pasts, presents, and futures. We constantly write the story of the world around us: its times and places, purposes, peoples, and so on. We invent identities for ourselves and others: we locate ourselves and others on these imagined maps. We create communities of concern and areas of activity, for example, politics, religion, domestic life, and so on”. Connecting Plummer’s perspective with that of a rhetorical standpoint, the point made is that of the symbolic message. The messages within stories told to show the rhetorical purpose of their effect on society. Persuasion through rhetorical means shapes how we make decisions as an individual. While the rhetoric is an expression of speech, symbols provide the meaning and experience of the audience.

Some evolutionists, according to Gottschall, think storytelling began as a kind of ‘foreplay’, because storytellers who displayed skill, intelligence, and creativity were desirable in a mate. Alternatively, storytelling may have started as a form of mental rhetorical exercise, strengthening our cognitive capacities, which would be useful for our survival. Other scientists believe that storytelling serves as a form of communication that provides a way to pass on complex information to others. It may also serve as a kind of social glue, providing origin myths and other identifying stories to help society members bond with and care for one another. Rhetoric is a form of expression. Storytelling tends to bend the truth more than expressive rhetoric. Storytelling sometimes claims to be true, but forms of rhetoric generally do not make this claim. The ideas are simply put into the world. Speakers of rhetoric do not try to pass their words off as truth, but they will promote the moral ideals portrayed in their language. Storytelling is more demanding and claims to be a truth that must be followed.

We need to also remember that when we are emotionally engaged in stories, we are easy to mold and manipulate… something that people in power have long used to their advantage. Our greed for stories may have a down side—they may become addictive. But, for the most part, Gottschall sees stories as a necessary and fundamental part of who we are as human beings. He suggests we embrace our love of story by reading fiction and allowing ourselves to daydream, while being skeptical of conspiracy theories, and avoiding a tendency to look down on national or religiously originated myths—the stories created to hold cultures together.

This is just as Ken Plummer states that “We can argue that the developments just mentioned (see Figure 30.1) have much in common with recent developments in linguistic, literary, and media theory. We can see that story-telling has no simple, unitary, or fixed character (pp. 337-38). In fact, setting things out in this way desconstructs, decentres, and destabilises the story. Stories depend upon the constant flow of joint actions linking tellers, coaxers, texts, readers, and contexts in which they are told: tellers can only select, coaxers can only sift, texts can only sieve, and readers can only interpret. These processes link one to another until the connection between reality and the story becomes fragile. We can think of postmodern social theory–except that this approach does not stay at the level of textual analysis: it insists that story production and consumption is an empirical social process involving a stream of joint actions in local contexts–themselves bound into wider negotiated social world (p. 338).

Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make us Human is able to tackle a difficult subject in a simplistic way. Gottschall addresses the relevance of story and rhetoric and how it affects society through a literary and evolutionary perspective. His book uses research on biology, literature, psychology and neuroscience to ask ‘How did we become the storytelling animal?’ Gottschall claims that we cannot function without story because through storytelling, rhetoric and imagination have played a major role in the evolution of human society. While there is a focus on stories, there is now a rise in rhetoric pertaining to new forms of outlets such as video games and digital media. The points and research brought about through this analysis can always be substituted and reformed depending on the time and subject. Storytelling contributes to the messages and ideas that are conveyed through rhetoric upon society and specific individuals.

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