Unit One: The Stories of Our Lives
In this unit, we will explore the distinctly human activity of storytelling. We will uncover theories of its purpose in evolution, its ability to transmit culture, and the use of narrative as a social process. We will analyze some world-changing narratives from the basement of recorded history as well as create some of our own.
What are the psychological, social, cultural, and biological functions telling stories?
How do stories and storytelling shape human existence?
How do stories of the past affect the present?
How do stories make human life tolerable?
Final Essay: Unit One - The Storytelling Animal
Evolutionary theorists like Charles Darwin, Sociobiologists like E. O. Wilson, and radical English teachers like Mr. Firestein claim that human beings are animals, just like all the rest. However, 20th century language philosophers and furious SOCES 9th graders claim that we are “the storytelling animal” -- that humans are special because we are the only animal that can change how we live in the world because of stories. So write an essay in which you become a Cool Storytelling Annihilator by proving to your English teacher that humans are special. Your essay should take the form of a fight: me vs. you! It should start by reviewing your enemy’s arguments, then respond with the ways stories are used to affect human life. Be sure you use examples from the texts we read in class. Finally, do you think stories make homo sapiens special?
Our Buggy 9th Grade
One of my goals for the year is to convince you that human beings are not special on this planet, and then take a look at a few foolish theories over the last couple of millennia that try to convince us otherwise. Common-sensers, especially your parents and teachers, who think there’s anything different about human life, clearly haven’t thought about the lives of other species that have been around for millions of years longer than we humans. The arguments you’ve presented in class have failed to sway me, thanks to the use of the Socratic method! Here is just a taste of what I’ve heard.
You argued that humans are special because we’re the only form of life "with a routine." Yet listen to the rooster crow; it seems they invented keeping a tight schedule. Another argument tried to convince me that we’re special because we’ve harnessed electricity by virtue of our intelligence. It’s true, our brains are amazing, but current radical anti-common-sensers in the developing fields of evolutionary determinism argue our brains are only biological structures that formed after hundreds of millions of years of evolution. This means that we just use our evolved bodies to live in this world, like a snake will use its fangs to decimate its food or a peacock will use its feathers to attract a mate. We’re not special just because we use our bodies! You’ve also told me we’re special because we communicate with other members of our species. However, termites drop pheromones from their lower abdomens that communicate a great deal of complicated information to other termites. In thinking about human life on earth, there doesn’t seem to be anything extraordinary.
But, the common-sensers say, what about those distinctly human qualities? Take, for example, altruism: sacrificing one's own comfort, resources, or even one's own life for others. That surely makes us unique. It is true, I watch my dog Emily selfishly eat all her food without offering me even a bite, but anti-common-sensers like Charles Darwin would argue that our most “human” inclinations don’t reveal anything special about human life. Even altruism isn’t unique to homo sapiens. Ants will lay down their lives by the tens of thousands to defend their mother! Would you? In fact, those ethical behaviors that fool common-sensers into thinking we’re special are nothing more than evolution guiding our species toward survival, like any other animal.
E.O. Wilson, the world’s leading socio-biologist, bug-enthusiast, and anti-common-senser argues, in his book Consilience, that such ethical and spiritual expressions that seem to make us special are just evolutionary adaptations. To show us that the preferences and behaviors we mistake for “special” are like any other form of life, Wilson gives us a “Termite Code of Ethics.” Here he asks us to imagine a “state-of-the-colony” speech that a termite leader might deliver to the masses in an attempt to reinforce the ethical behavior of all good termites:
Ever since our ancestors, the macrotermitine termites, achieved ten-kilogram weight and larger brains during their rapid evolution through the Tertiary Period, and learned to write with pheromonal script, termitic scholarship has elevated and refined ethical philosophy. It is now possible to express the imperatives of moral behavior with precision. These imperatives are self-evident and universal. They are the very essence of termitity. They include the love of darkness and of the deep…soil; the centrality of colony life amidst the richness of war and trade with other colonies; the sanctity of the physiological caste system; the evil of personal rights (The colony is ALL);…our deep love for the royal siblings allowed to reproduce; the joy of chemical song; the aesthetic pleasure and deep social satisfaction of eating feces from nest mates’ anuses after the shedding of our skins; and the ecstasy of cannibalism and surrender of our own bodies when we are sick or injured (it is still more blessed to be eaten than to eat).
In writing this code of ethics, it’s easy to see that our own preferences and beliefs could be (and probably are) different than our termite brothers and sisters, yet each, Wilson argues, are the product of biological and environmental forces, just like any other animal.
Still, we should pay attention to these common-sense arguments, and challenge their assumptions. Like Socrates, we should examine their truth-claims, then explore their inferences about the mental lives of human beings. The first common-sensers we’ll examine came out of the 20th century, but their's is a very old argument. The claim is that we are special because we tell stories; we are "the story-telling animal." In other words, we are the animal that “lives inside stories.” Humans, as the language philosophers of the last 100 years assert, are special because our mental lives are shaped by the stories we tell ourselves: “I’m a good boy,” “I’m going to bomb this test,” “I'm a helpless victim,” “I’m the best mother.” They believe that no other animals can change how they exist in the world through stories. During this unit, we will examine some important examples of this, and we will put these language philosophers’ notions of human life to the test!