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Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Desirability of Storytellers

Ed Young
The Atlantic
Originally posted December 5, 2017

Here are several excerpts:

Storytelling is a universal human trait. It emerges spontaneously in childhood, and exists in all cultures thus far studied. It’s also ancient: Some specific stories have roots that stretch back for around 6,000 years. As I’ve written before, these tales aren’t quite as old as time, but perhaps as old as wheels and writing. Because of its antiquity and ubiquity, some scholars have portrayed storytelling as an important human adaptation—and that’s certainly how Migliano sees it. Among the Agta, her team found evidence that stories—and the very act of storytelling—arose partly as a way of cementing social bonds, and instilling an ethic of cooperation.


In fact, the Agta seemed to value storytelling above all else. Good storytellers were twice as likely to be named as ideal living companions as more pedestrian tale spinners, and storytelling acumen mattered far more all the other skills. “It was highly valued, twice as much as being a good hunter,” says Migliano. “We were puzzled.”


Skilled Agta storytellers are more likely to receive gifts, and they’re not only more desirable as living companions—but also as mates. On average, they have 0.5 more children than their peers. That’s a crucial result. Stories might help to knit communities together, but evolution doesn’t operate for the good of the group. If storytelling is truly an adaptation, as Migliano suggests, it has to benefit individuals who are good at it—and it clearly does.

“It’s often said that telling stories, and other cultural practices such as singing and dancing, help group cooperation, but real-world tests of this idea are not common,” says Michael Chwe, a political scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies human cooperation. “The team’s attempt to do this is admirable.”

The article is here.