A Joke, a Date, a Book: Why We Tell Stories

 

I will make a proposition and then I will ask you three questions: one will be easy, the other one will be difficult, and you will not be able to answer the third one honestly.

Here is the proposition, followed by the first question: I read an excellent book; you heard a hilarious joke; he met a lovely woman. Easy question: what do we have in common the three of us about what we want to do? (Go on, go serve yourself a glass of water while you think about it before reading on).

The answer is easily intuitive: we go tell someone. Now I ask the tough question: why? Why would we want to tell someone? I can imagine you, as I imagine myself, gesticulating and babbling like I do every time I want to explain the obvious, when I know that something is true, but I do not know why I’m so convinced about it, almost ready to complain that I am not a cask to reach in and get what they ask me to. So why do we want to tell the good news? What gland is secreting which hormones when we are pleased by being preaching individuals? Is this an evolutionary advantage?

I found what comes close to answers in an excellent book by one Yuval Noah Harari: Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind. In this unique book, historian Harari writes with the passion and elegance of the grand history, à la Jared Diamond; in this case: what have we done since we walk on two legs. And that may be worth telling an alien or a Chinese in the year 3000, as Eric Hobsbawm advised.

One of these important issues is the development of human speech some 70,000 and 30,000 years ago, a language revolution so fundamental as the subsequent agricultural and industrial revolutions. Harari says there are two theories going around to explain this revolution (and, as they do not mutually exclude, a third theory that would be a combination of both). The first theory is random evolution: accidental genetic mutations led to the interconnection of more neurons and now we can think and communicate what we think of as unlike any other animal. Darwin would give his okay.

The second theory is gossip: the most important information to share is not where there is food and where there is a wolf, something that squirrels can make, but “who in the group hates whom, who sleeps with whom, who is honest and who is a cheater.” The importance of these things is that it allows cooperation between more humans than a herd, and has allowed the emergence of villages and empires. That is, the two other revolutions.

Chats, phone calls, newspapers are almost only gossip. The more we know about how each other is and what has he done better, the better we will be at behaving, the better we will be at appearing and being what others expect from us and that may be be worth the effort, from recognition to livelihood. The theory of gossip has the fascination – and weakness – of the idea that, in the same manner that Adam Smith’s invisible hand self-regulates the market, gossip self-regulates cooperation.

Looking back, why tell someone a joke, or tell them about the date, or the book? Answer: we do not know; it is in our genes; we feel we cooperate. But there remains one last question, which we cannot answer honestly: you’ve laughed, you’ve met a person whom you could love, a good book has made you think and, even more, you’ve told everyone. Now the question is: why do you feel that something is wrong if you have shared it and no one has shared your emotion, too?

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