Evolutionary Neuroscientist Peggy La Cerra tells us why it’s time to take a deep dive into the ultimate story: Reality.
There’s an old parable about Truth and Story I’d like to revisit and rewrite.
Roaming the land in search of a home, Truth comes to a village. He enters, expecting to be given a warm welcome, but the townsfolk ignore him. Disappointed, he wanders on until he comes to another village. Determined not to be ignored again, he summons up his courage, strides to the center of the square, and proclaims his value. The people sneer at him and shout, “Fool!”
Scared and confused, Truth escapes the crowd and travels on. As night falls, he comes to a third village. Hesitant to enter, he stops to reason, “Perhaps if I wait until morning and make my appearance in the pure light of dawn, people will be able to appreciate my value.” So, the next morning he walks into town just as the sun is rising. Before he can utter a word, the people scream, “Pervert!” and pelt him with stones. He flees to the woods and collapses in tears.
As the moon rises, Truth hears cheering in the distance. Peering out from behind a tree, he sees Story entering the village, where the jubilant townsfolk are hosting a celebration in her honor. The disparity between his welcome and hers is more than Truth can bear, and he lets out a loud wail of despair. Story hears the cry and follows it out into the woods.
Finding Truth huddled there with tears streaming down his cheeks, she lowers her gaze and asks, “Friend, what has caused you so much pain?” Truth tells her how badly the villagers have treated him. “Well, of course the people shun you!” she said. “No one wants to be exposed to the naked truth!” Then Story dresses him up in some of her shimmering garments. Together they return to town where they’re welcomed as beloved guests.
The moral of this parable is “Truth wrapped in Story’s garments is easy to behold.” The irony is that Story, which once helped us, now impedes our chances of thriving, and even surviving. It’s time for us to lift the veil. Let me explain.
Our Storied Life
Humans are storytelling animals. We consume fiction in the form of books, movies, television, operas, ballets, and more. As evolutionary literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall notes, “We can walk away from our books and our screens, but we can never walk away from story.”
We experience our own lives in narrative form. We fantasize, dream, and socialize in story. We recount the events of the past and consume the daily news in narratives. And we continuously write, edit, and rewrite the story of our own life like a novel in process.
Story has the power to transform us. The most persuasive nonfiction fails to change our beliefs and values as effectively as an emotionally moving story. And while some of us do find facts about the natural and physical world interesting, few are compelled to connect the dots and view the emerging image through the objective lens of science. Fewer still are inclined to turn the lens on themselves and humankind, then watch as the seams of separation disappear into a dynamic flow of principled energetic information, a patterning with order and predictability. We’re not built for it. We’re built for living in the stories that serve ourselves and our kin in a world where almost everyone was kin. This, of course, is no longer the case.
The Ascent of Story and the Descent of Truth
Evolutionary psychologists and anthropologists believe that our species’ bias for story over objective reality evolved because telling and sharing stories increased the reproductive success of our ancestors, whereas the proclivity to seek and share information about the truth of reality did not. The scope of our problem is now coming into sharp focus.
Donald Hoffman, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, Irvine, and his graduate students, Justin Mark and Brian Marion, conducted a program of evolutionary game theory research designed to answer the question, “Does natural selection favor organisms with sensory systems that tell them truths about objective reality?” They ran hundreds of thousands of simulations in random worlds with resources and organisms who had to forage for them.
Then, as Hoffman said, they “played God.” Some of the organisms got to see the truth; they could see the full range of the relevant dimension of reality. The ones who were blind to the truth could see fitness payoffs—roughly speaking, they could see the restricted range of reality that enhanced their own survival and/or reproductive success. They found that organisms who see the truth never outcompeted organisms who only see fitness payoffs.
The striking nature of these results prompted Hoffman to collaborate with mathematician Chetan Prakash and his colleagues, and together they wrote and proved the Fitness Beats Truth theorem. This theorem “provides a quantitative measure of the extent to which a fitness-only strategy dominates a truth strategy.” The implication of this work for any organism, including humans, is absolute. In Hoffman’s words, “If you see the truth, you go extinct.”
The Benefits of Storytelling in Tribes
Far from extinct, our species has thrived since the first Homo sapiens appeared in Africa roughly 300,000 years ago, owing in large part to our evolved reality blindness and acute attunement to fitness payoffs. Midway through our evolutionary trajectory, undistracted by objective reality and with perceptual systems tuned to “get the goods,” humans began telling and sharing stories with their kin. Storytelling enabled our ancestors to share knowledge and cooperate, further enhancing their reproductive success.
Anthropologists presume that the human penchant for storytelling emerged roughly 150,000 years ago, not long after our ancestors acquired the ability to speak. At that time, the African continent was home to somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 humans. Our ancestors lived in small nomadic tribes of approximately 50 to 200 closely related individuals, and the primary storytellers were likely to have been respected elders with informative tales about hunting and foraging, wayfaring, child-rearing, managing relationships, and other matters that increased or decreased reproductive success. Sharing this information increased the fitness of both the storytellers and the listeners. But recent research suggests that the lion’s share of fitness advantage went to the storyteller.
In a study aimed at exploring the impact of storytelling on cooperation and fitness in a tribe of Filipino hunter-gathers called the Agta, anthropologist Daniel Smith and his colleagues found that skilled storytellers are preferred social partners and benefit from greater reproductive success than those who are less skilled. Smith and his colleagues concluded that the reproductive advantage conferred upon individual ancestral humans with this talent promoted the evolution of behaviors that benefitted the group at large: cooperation and, of course, more and better storytelling.
Billions of Storytellers, Billions of Stories, Benefitting Whom?
Fast-forward from the Stone Age to the Information Age. Homo sapiens have migrated all over the world, 8 billion people now populate the planet, and competition for resources is fierce. Storytelling has mutated from an elder sharing tales, to kinfolk sitting around a campfire, to a cacophony of 5 billion internet voices generating more than 6 billion gigabytes of information transferred in the global ether, every second of every day.
Most of this chatter emanates from the United States, where the freedom to believe whatever story one chooses to believe—veracity be damned—is enshrined in its Constitution. Since this country’s inception as the “embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom,” it has progressively morphed into what author and cultural critic Kurt Anderson aptly calls a “Fantasyland” where “digital technology empowers real-seeming fictions” and somewhere “among the one billion websites, believers in anything and everything can find thousands of fellow fantasists who share their beliefs.”
Some of this story is useful, information-rich content, but some of it is conspiracy theory, political extremism, climate crisis denial, holocaust denial, religious fanaticism, and other disturbing, low-value content. Almost all of it is embedded and bannered with click-bait from advertisers vying to sell us something. Much of it is sensational—a consequence of the storyteller’s fitness advantage conferred over 50,000 generations—but this sensation is unlikely to enhance the quality of our lives. And that’s to be expected. These so-called storytellers aren’t our elder kin, and they are not interested in our fitness, but their own. Our storytelling now has far more noise than signal, and we’re lost in the wilderness. We need a new story—one that’s true.
What to Do?
Humans are the dominant species on the planet, and our collective behavior threatens all life on Earth, including our own. We know that. We also know that we exist in a world that obeys principled physical and natural laws. What we’re just beginning to learn is that these same laws also crafted us and everything around us. Owing to the law of evolution by natural selection, we are self-serving beings, but we are also beings of reason and foresight. Through the lens of science, we can see ourselves in dynamic principled interaction with everything else in our world, with every problem to be solved, and every solution to be found. And we can see what the great spiritual sages knew: that treating others as we’d like to be treated is ultimately in our self-interest.
These are the life-sustaining gifts of seeing reality. The payoff is that we might catch a glimpse of the exquisite beauty, order, and elegant motion of the very real, if obscured, ever-unfolding story of the energetic universe. It’s the story we should be sharing around campfires, under the stars with our children and anyone else who is willing to listen. It is the one story we all need to hear.
25 Years: From the Archives
Peggy La Cerra, PhD, recounts how a descent into depression led to a breakthrough in consciousness research in “The Creation of I,” Soul/Body 2014.