Today’s post is for all the writers, reporters, film makers, pundits, story tellers, news readers, public relations professionals and anybody else who deals with narratives. I began reading a book, a recent birthday gift, called “Sapiens”, by Yuval Noah Harari, subtitled “A brief history of humankind”. There was a fascinating section, in that book, about how primitive societies organised themselves, their use of language and the cognitive leap that occurred, causing our ancestors to be able to speak of and communicate with each other about imaginary events and entities. The question posed, by the book, is why this intellectual facility should have evolved.
That’s a very interesting question. Why should we, uniquely as far as we know, have evolved a communication capability that does more than warn of danger or the location of food? What was the necessity of inventing myths, legends, spells, laws, ceremonies, shaman, priests, religious tales, Gods, allegories, fables, prayers, homilies, sagas, epics, dramas and so on, or entirely fictional entities like money, corporations, contracts, empires, armies, navies, kingdoms, debt, securities, nations and their like? Other animals communicate. Some even lie, for advantage. A green monkey, for example, will issue a call to warn about eagles overhead, so that a rival will hide and leave their bananas unguarded, which the liar quickly makes their own. As far as we know, though, there is no animal equivalent to the human capacity for fiction.
In primitive societies, cohesion of the group was found to confer an evolutionary advantage. These societies, usually organised around an alpha male, or else a matriarch, developed their own hierarchies and the head of the hierarchy kept the peace, through menaces and threats, or via intervention, when violent conflicts amongst lower caste members got out of hand. The reward, for the group, is that more of the population remained healthy enough, for long enough, to breed and multiply. Our genes became more widespread. For that privilege, the heads of these hierarchies were afforded the best foods and mates. At a primitive level, there is evolutionary advantage in keeping the peace and paying a high community price for that peacemaker.
Unfortunately, the model doesn’t scale. After the group grows beyond around one hundred and fifty members, the one-to-one personal relationships that glued the primitive society together begin to strain or become nonexistent. The peacemaker cannot be everywhere and not everybody in the larger group recognises the alpha member’s exalted role. Fights between groups, of about one hundred and fifty, break out instead, often to the bitter end, where one group is completely annihilated. A mechanism had to evolve that allowed groups larger than one hundred and fifty to enjoy peaceable cohesion, in order to evolve as a species and develop beyond those little, primitive troupes.
The invention that permitted this was the fictional higher power or authority. An imaginary alpha male or matriarch, depending on your tradition and ancestry, was invented and stories about the higher authority told, so that each member of the much larger group could develop trust in, and loyalty and fealty toward the higher power, based on a shared and mutual respect for their ultimate authority. It meant that you could meet another member of the much larger group, who you may never have met before and still both trust each other to defer to the imaginary higher power. The actual higher power imagined was invented differently, many times over, but the same basic concept applied. There was an imaginary alpha member of the group, to whom the real members of the much larger group all deferred to and obeyed. We sometimes call these tribal stories our spiritual beliefs, but they have the same motivation.
So far, so good. Interesting invention. That one idea, or evolutionary adaptation, has permitted the development of much larger societies, which lived mainly in peace and thrived. We now have cities and nations. Our successive fictions, whose ideas and ideals we spread via language, have enabled humankind to become the dominant species on the planet. That’s a pretty high evolutionary return for a relatively simple invention – the ability to tell stories about imaginary entities.
Of course, it didn’t entirely quell our default method of dealing with perceived threats or other entities that we felt we could not trust. We still killed them. We still do. Complete destruction of “others” is still a feature of our human minds. Why do we do that? We’ll come to that question shortly.
So, fiction exists because it was first used to scale-up human cohesion. It was the foundation of a larger society. By telling tales that the whole, wider group could believe in and uphold, a very much larger group of humans could remain viable and continue to thrive and evolve, instead of killing each other. It prevented a single group of one hundred and fifty humans ultimately wiping all others out. If evolution has any imperative at all, it is to propagate the genes. Imagine if fiction had not been invented and the population of humans had remained at the one hundred and fifty remaining winners. Call them the one percent, just for fun. That would be a precarious number that had significant risks militating against their survival. A single natural disaster, like a volcanic eruption, or a famine, could wipe that small a group out in a short space of time. It’s no wonder that we evolved a capacity to survive, living amongst each other, in much greater numbers.
The bigger question is why threatened animal species have not evolved this capacity for fiction. Numbers of tigers and bears, in the wild, are now low enough now that extinction is a real possibility, for example. Why there is no tiger higher power or bear sky authority, ruling over these animal kingdoms remains a mystery. I don’t think we have the answer.
The key to a story that galvanises a society into stronger cohesion is its believability. Either the story has to be credible or the vast majority of those that hear it have to be credulous. Sometimes the credibility of the story teller is enough to make the story believable, or at least for the majority to suspend disbelief. Sometimes, though, the believability of the story is enforced, by threats, menaces and violence, so that those that hear the story don’t dare disbelieve it, for fear of the consequences. Indoctrination and deliberate programming are often used to form our beliefs. Our freedom of choice in choosing what to believe is very often denied to us.
The most credible stories, though, turn out to be the ones that embody an objective truth. This is double-edged, though, because a single truth can smuggle in a raft of outright lies along with it, piggy-backing on the credibility of the grain of truth. Perversely, the most believed stories are often the biggest outright lies. All too frequently, we will cling to a belief even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary. Proof of a belief’s falsehood is no guarantee that we will change our beliefs, unless the story told by the proof is a more believable one, which is more widely believed and even then, many resist, for fear of destroying the precious social cohesion that the disproven story upheld.
What we choose to believe, as a society, seems to be what we think serves our ends best, not what happens to be true. Being fictions, truth often has nothing to do with it. We buy into the story we think serve our best interests, but the definition of our best interests is, itself, a fictional story, open to manipulation and distortion. What we believe are our best interests and what actually are our best interests, from an evolutionary point of view, can often be very different.
The reward for believing in the fictions we create is that it allows wider trust networks to be built. If we both believe in the same things, then we can trust each other to think and act in predictable and similar ways. There are fewer nasty surprises. Zealots know where they stand with other zealots. Blind faith has the advantage of creating a uniform society which acts in very reliable and obedient ways. Whether or not that group behaviour is objectively dysfunctional appears not to matter (to us – it does to other species). The important thing seems to be that we can tell what’s going to happen, if we meet strangers that hold the same beliefs in the same fictions that we do. We find safety in our numbers, even if our group behaviour is, in fact, very risky.
Some fictions become more or less universal, at least for long periods of time. There are moments in history where dissent almost completely disappears or becomes dangerously impossible. There are also times when the body of ideas that are widely held is so interlocked and intricate, that disbelieving one or two of them won’t free you from the rest of them. It’s possible to see through the deception or terrible flaws of one fiction and still be taken in by all the others. Popularity, it turns out, stems from adhering to the most popular and universal fictions. Challengers need not imagine they will be popular for doing so. Their dissent is seen as an attack on social cohesion.
As a species and society, we have developed a massive infrastructure and technology for storytelling, fiction propagation and the steady reinforcement of the orthodox, prevailing imaginary ideas. The Internet, itself, could be seen to be this, just as broadcast television and printed newspapers were, a generation ago. We believe what we’re told are the right things to believe, by family, friends, people in authority and commentators in whom we place our trust. This is how social cohesion works. Fictions are viral. We don’t leave believing in the community’s preferred fictions to chance.
Stories are powerful. They exert a power over our consciousness that is strong enough to make us override our better instincts. We can fervently agree that killing is wrong, yet happily believe in a fictional justification for war. There is recent historical record of this. Regrettably, knowing the power of our stories, there are those that are quite prepared to fabricate lies for their own advantage, at the expense of the community as a whole. Fictions that do not serve our interests, but instead serve only the interests of the liar and his collaborators, are everywhere. We are constantly manipulated by messages that seek to extract, from us, our labour (via our money), while short changing us in return. The problem with “crying wolf”, in this way is that once the practice becomes widespread, it tends to demolish the bonds and networks of trust that our community fictions were supposed to build. Rather than encouraging social cohesion, these lies actually undermine it.
When unbelievable fictions are created and told, such as official stories that defy the laws of physics, or are at odds with observations, or which clearly obfuscate or omit important details, this sets up a chain of events that is as predictable as it is protective of the original purpose of the adaptation to tell fictions to each other. An unbelievable story is rightly seen as subverting the original purpose of fictions, which was to draw people together in peaceful co-existence, so that the species might thrive as a whole. The incredible tale spawns alternative narratives and explanations, which are more believable to those that cannot accept the standard narrative as believable, at face value. We call those alternative narratives, created in an attempt to replace an incredible story with a credible one, “conspiracy theories”. The term “conspiracy theory” is actually a pejorative term, originating in the secret services of the United States, in an attempt to discredit the alternative narratives about the honesty and reliability of President Nixon, who turned out to be dishonest and unreliable, as history has shown. The alternative narrative was right.
Instead of being used to draw people together, narratives are often used to conceal realities and to hoodwink a large population. For example, prior to Watergate, the president of the United States was thought to embody the ideals of the fiction that had been created about the office of the president. The man was thought to be noble, wise, honest and with his citizens foremost in his every decision and action. Nixon was none of these things. The population of the world had to confront the terrible, yawning chasm between the idea of the president and the actuality of the man serving as president.
Some people held that the president had to conform to the fiction, by definition, so despite his many crimes he must have actually been noble, honest and so on. Others saw this evidence as undermining the story of the office of president as a stupid, unrealistic fiction that could never be matched by any real human in the office. In any case, the result was a massive breakdown of trust, in global society and a net loss of social cohesion, the effects of which are still being felt today. Some people don’t trust a president as far as they can kick him; while others hold that everybody elected to that office is magically transformed into the ideal, or has been selected from a huge pool of candidates, thanks to his natural conformance with the ideal. In both cases, the office and persona of the president we created, as a story to ourselves, remain a fiction.
When the net amount of suffering and misery increases, for the general population and all other species, then our fictions are serving us badly. The purpose of fiction, in evolutionary terms, is to increase social cohesion in large groups. The price we pay for that turns out to be increased suffering and misery for the majority. At some point, the suffering and misery becomes intolerable and the alpha figure in our prevailing fiction is challenged and ultimately overthrown. A new fiction takes its place. Ideally, the new fiction is more benign and produces less suffering and misery for all. That outcome of revolution is seldom guaranteed, unfortunately. When the Russian people challenged and overthrew the fiction of the benevolent autocrat, embodied in their Tsar, in favour of the communal ownership and empowerment promised by socialism, what they got, instead, was a maniacal, blood-thirsty tyrant, in the form of Stalin. As ever, the man fell short of the fictional ideal that brought him to prominence.
Even still, there is a remarkable resistance to changing long-established fictions and ideas. They ossify into something we call “traditions”. People that go on believing in something, when everybody else has abandoned the story, are called Chauvinists, after Chauvin, a French soldier who continued to keep the faith in Napoleon Bonaparte, long after he was defeated, discredited and disgraced. We sometimes hold to our fictions so steadfastly that we begin to believe (and want to believe) that our imaginary inventions are real, or represent immutable laws of nature. We lose our ability to imagine alternative stories or to believe that life can go on, in the absence of our preferred fictional constructs. The world will end in chaos, if our treasured notions, such as markets, capitalism, government, taxes, laws, money, interest rates, globalism and unfettered trade come to an end, we think to ourselves. The reality is generally never quite so drastic. A new set of fictions or intellectual inventions simply replaces the old, in time.
Our talent for large-scale social cohesion, through the invention of imaginary entities that rule over us, has given us a sudden and swift rise to the top of the food chain, in relative terms. We were once in the middle of the food chain, but now that we have this cognitive apparatus, we are able to outsmart, outgun and outmanoeuvre the former top predators of our planet. Lions and bears are easily conquered and vanquished by humans. Unfortunately, due to our heritage as middle ranking food chain occupants, we have retained our more neurotic fears, driven by a once historical, but now largely absent, apprehension and anxiety of being eaten by predators above us in the food chain. There are no predators above us in the food chain, anymore. We’re still driven by fear, though. To date, we haven’t evolved our self-confidence or the majesty and nobility that the previous top predators had. We lack the wisdom and emotional stability to organise the planet, as the new top predators. We’re still afraid of what might be lurking in the dark, or behind us. We’re killers, often pointlessly, because we fear being killed.
Today, the Internet makes it possible for groups of humans upholding very different fictions to collide, head-on. And so they do, with violence. Anybody who has spent any time on-line will have witnessed incidences of this. Arguments ensue and things get nasty. Neither side is moved to abandon their own fiction and yet neither fiction, in truth, has any greater claim to legitimacy than the other. Both are fictions, designed to create social cohesion amongst a wider group. Consequently, both are rather arbitrary in nature. Neither has any basis in reality, or the fiction would not have to have been invented in the first place.
The biggest problem we face, today, is that our own fictions, originally evolved as an adaptation to protect and propagate our genes, on a more widespread basis, have now become a threat to the survival and propagation of those genes. Dogged adherence to our favourite fiction, profit, has meant that we have rapidly destroyed our ecosystem and our food chain. Our survival, as a species, depends intimately on the health of both. We have created fictions, originally designed to help propagate our genes, which now threaten the very propagation of our genes. In that sense, the imaginary stories we tell ourselves, once an evolutionary adaptation, have become decidedly maladaptive.
As a consequence, increasing numbers of humans can no longer believe in the prevailing stories and fictions. They no longer ring true to them. More alarmingly, the fictions no longer do what they were supposed to do. They no longer foster and encourage social cohesion. Indeed, social cohesion has begun to break down and is under active attack by the people who lead the institutional fictions we created, for the sole purpose of maintaining social cohesion. Could there be any greater betrayal of trust? We, as a larger community, paid for our social cohesion with added misery and suffering and yet the people who embody the fictions we set up to guarantee that social cohesion are reneging on the deal. We’ve become disenfranchised with politics because the story told by politicians is no longer credible. Their political vision looks and sounds like a hollow lie.
We now have a divided populace, but not divided solely along sectarian or political lines, as indeed we still are. Now, the new division is between those that uphold the old stories and see the dissenters as dangerous anarchists, bent on the destruction of orderly society and those that have seen through the old stories and believe that anybody who still upholds them is a mindless or cynical, unaware, uncaring, unfeeling, zombie, hell bent on species destruction. There are, of course, people that uphold some, but not all of the stories, who take sides depending on which fiction is being discussed.
The human beings that were once the figureheads of our dearest-held fictions have been unmasked. The truth about them and their real intentions has come out and we see that they were much less worthy than our fictions hoped they would be. They simply didn’t deliver and often betrayed our trust and faith in them. The social contract has been broken. They have failed to live up to the dearly held beliefs and fictions they were supposed to represent. We find ourselves discovering self-serving, thorough-going criminals, where we expected to find honourable men.
In situations like these, alternative narratives have a revelatory, restorative and healing power. New and better imaginary inventions of the collective consciousness, to serve our species better, spring forth from the fertile imaginations of people programmed, genetically, to continue the survival of our gene pool. Those that threaten it, through ceaseless war, environmental destruction, eugenics or mass genocide, are rejected. A battle of ideas is currently being fought, between the old, discredited ideas, which large sections of our society still cling to by default and the new ideas about how our world can be better, but which still lack widespread believability.
Today, there seems to be no idea that we can all believe in, yet. The idea that emerges, as our next protective fiction, needs to be an idea that we can all adhere to, especially those humans that we choose to be its figureheads. The next big idea for social cohesion has to preserve our species, permitting our continued survival and propagation, but in so doing, also has to protect the biosphere in all its diversity, because our survival depends upon it. These are no longer separate concerns, if they ever were. Every other idea is up for grabs. We also have to curb our fear.
What is leadership other than the ability to tell the most believable stories, which resonate with the most people? We’re still learning to use our stories wisely and that is why some of our species are challenging our existing fictions and proposing alternative narratives. We fall far short of using our stories wisely, at present. The ones we have are extending our misery, suffering and peril of extinction.
People who have exceptional storytelling skills, the artists that incorporate strong narratives in their work, need to lead us out of the mess. Our old stories are failing us. New stories are desperately needed, despite resistance to them. The time to invent new, imaginary constructs, which serve to preserve our species and all the elements of the biosphere that we depend upon, are needed right now. Above all, these new constructs need to be believable, so that we can place our collective trust in them. Kingdoms, empires, sects, markets, monetary systems, political parties, globalist trade institutions, corporations and bureaucracies be damned!