And the little son of a birch looked up and said, Daddy, tell me an understory.
Why do we love stories? I here suggest that our brains evolved that way, at least since our evolutionary lineage, Homo sapiens, became distinct from the other ape lineages.
The natural world can be a brutal, frightening place. It is full of predators, poisonous critters, diseases, droughts, storms. And, most of all, other human tribes who want to claim our hunting grounds as their own. Humans have fought over hunting grounds since prehistory, and as late as 1755, when the Cherokees fought the Creeks over the hunting ground at Taliwa, now part of Georgia. My sixth great grandmother Nanyehi was the Cherokee war hero in that battle.
To fight a battle, a tribe needs a military leader. Often, tribes have distinct war and peace leaders; traditional Cherokees had a war chief and a peace chief simultaneously. If the military leader brings about a victory, he brings the news back to the tribe and relates it in a narrative format, in which he is the hero, supported by his loyal followers, and in which victory was not due to luck but to the prowess and skill of the warriors, especially him, and to the blessings of their gods. And he (or she) might bring back physical plunder to share altruistically. This is the most visceral form of narrative.
In the ensuing time of peace, guess who gets the most resources and the most reproductive opportunities? Why, the military leader (war chief) and his top aides. That is, the leader who not only won the battle but could tell a story. All in the tribe who bought into the story stood a better chance of getting resources and reproductive opportunities. The genes for brains that not only were capable of, but craved, the narrative form spread in the population. Making sense of the world, especially in the form of religious narrative, might have been one of the major selective forces that resulted in the particular form of human intelligence that we have.
And the myth must be about an individual, not a collective. Even when the Soviets tried to champion stories about heroic collectives of peasants against the bourgeoisie, they had to create individual heroes; and Stalin was only too happy to assume the role of hero himself.
As I will explain in my forthcoming book tentatively titled Scientifically Thinking, due out in 2018 from Prometheus Books, the human brain did not evolve to reason, but to rationalize; not to see truth but to create it, so as to manipulate other people. Natural selection favored brains that were delusional. Not too delusional, but sometimes pretty close to it, as when religion causes some people to follow a leader to senseless deaths. We cannot jeer at the Jonestown cult, because their brains were not too different from ours. We evolved from the tribes that followed their leaders to the deaths of many in the tribe, but from which enough survived to enjoy the spoils of war and to reap the fitness benefits from it. This may have worked well enough in the past, but today our population and technology has grown so much that this kind of thinking threatens our survival. Having an ape brain couldn’t have come at a worse time.
The scientific method can unleash our minds. But you can see the kind of uphill battle we face.