Descartes started from first principles and came up with “I think therefore I am”. (Although if, say, an intelligent computer passes the information of its thought to another computer just before it is destroyed, then the “I” that thought isn’t the “I” that is. All we can really say is that “I think therefore something was” and then derive time (defined as causality) and… but tax and rice pudding is all for another discipline. I want to derive story structure from first principles.
So: why do we have stories?
There’s a fairly obvious development path for language (and thus stories).
First there are words. The simple alarm call, ‘Danger’, is a word. Vervet Monkeys have over 10 different calls: ‘eagle’, ‘snake, ‘food’, ‘run’ and so on. These clearly give the species a survival trait. You can see the obvious advantages of knowing whether to run up a tree or down the tree, and obviously the more ‘words’ in your vocabulary, the more distinctions you can make. ‘Danger’ is not as useful as ‘eagle’ and ‘snake’. Vevet monkeys practice alarm calls with their offspring and even punish them when they use the wrong call.
Human babies babble: they are trying various combinations of sounds until they are rewarded with a reaction – “Oooh, it’s a word.” Human go further and very quickly combine words into sentences to create a meaning above and beyond the individual words themselves. It’s called synergy, greater than the sum of its parts. A friend of mine reported that his son had started to stick words together: ‘no’ and ‘more’ became ‘no more’ when he was being tickled. It’s a good example, because the words “No. More” mean the opposite of “No more”: the first wants more, the second less.
Humans need language. A baby’s learning of language is hard coded in the genes. It is literally a matter of life and death, because those babies that did not have this ability died. That’s what evolution is all about.
In a pragmatic sense, we could have stopped there. Simple sentences do the trick: “stay on the path”, “don’t eat that”, and even simple calls “eagle”, “food”, “run” do a great deal.
It’s interesting that brain size jumped despite the obvious Darwinian issues with giving birth to such large heads without a corresponding increase in technology use. We got cleverer, but we didn’t appear to do anything with it. Early small brain hominids had stone tools and pointy sticks, later large brained hominids also used stone tools and pointy sticks – it was ages later that some bright spark stuck one on the end of the other. The two driving forces of evolution are a) an arms race and b) sexual display. In the former, the cheetah gets faster forcing the antelope to run faster which forces the cheetah to run faster until cheetahs can do 80mph at a sprint. Humans didn’t do that: once they were able to walk upright their hunting strategy was devastatingly effective and they didn’t need to develop big brains to make better pointy sticks, because they didn’t.
Sexual display is the peacock tail and the moose antlers. They say, I am so virile and healthy that I can survive despite this ridiculous tail and massive antlers. One gender finds that long tails, antlers, whatever, are a sign of health and that shorthand gets over-developed. Trouble is the species is locked into this ‘arms race between the sexes’. Human big heads look awfully similar to over developed tails and antlers, but why? It’s language or more accurately the chat-up line.
As humans competed for the best chat-up line, the brain developed, so the sophistication of smooth talking grew, so brains needed… etc, etc.
Now as moose can lock antlers in combat and peacocks can flap their tails about a bit, our language required us to talk about something. (Being clever to impress the opposite sex had a strange by-product; instead of just talking about putting a flint axe on the end of a pointy stick, someone actually went and did it.)
Unlike today’s desperate distraction with tweets and blogs, stories developed a meaning. They became a mechanism to pass on cultural information, a way to tell the next generation of things that they cannot see directly. It comes from a desire to make sense of the world, to add meaning to all the random chaos that surrounds us.
Thus stories are about something, they have a theme, and if they don’t, then they are simply strings of words.
Therefore, stories must have meaning.