Some nights when I’m putting my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter to bed, she asks me to tell her the ‘owl story’. It’s a very short story about a time when I was driving late at night and accidentally bumped into a snowy owl with my car. The owl had been standing the the middle of the road, and jumped up in the air as I sped around a corner. I was able to slow down before it hit my windshield, so it had been a relatively light bump. When I stopped my car to get out and look for the giant white bird, it was gone. I tell my daughter that the owl probably flew back into the forest to be with its friends. My daughter loves the ‘owl story’ and asks for it again and again.
One night when she asked for this story, I tried an experiment, and subtracted much of its usual narrative structure. I talked about driving in a more general sense, about the concept of a speed limit, and about how cars that are going too fast will sometimes hit animals. I told her about the habits of nocturnal species like owls, and about snowy owl migration patterns. As I had predicted, she quickly lost interest, and eventually interrupted me. She wanted the story, not a list of facts.
Why does my toddler already prefer stories to non-stories? Some would say that, because she’s human, this preference is built into her DNA. Have humans evolved as a storytelling species? If so, why? Why would storytelling have helped us survive and reproduce in our ancestral environment?Read more