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TRBQ Podcast #9 — E.O. Wilson on storytelling

Unraveling the truth behind why human beings tell stories requires a scientist who can explain science to non-scientists.

Enter E. O. Wilson.

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Wilson is a biologist, but he’s also a storyteller. He’s among the world’s top experts on ants, but he’s also written a raft of best-selling books on popular science, and he’s won a couple of Pulitzer Prizes.

“Storytelling is far more fundamentally human than even human beings realize,” Wilson says.

The mind works by telling stories, according to Wilson.

“The mind is a simulation of experience that’s been lived and recalled, and a simulation of events that would be possible for the future,” he says.

Wilson says people are constantly telling themselves stories. This includes planning various scenarios.

“Then we make choices on which stories we wish to follow,” he says. “And that takes us into the future. But as part of that, we relive the stories in our mind of our past experience.”

The mind, Wilson says, is basically comprised of this storytelling instinct.

“The I, ego, is the key player on center stage always,” he says.

Wilson’s conclusion: “Storytelling (is) not just important for the human mind; it is the human mind.

The human drive to tell stories has a downside, too.

“We have become so good at telling fantasy stories,” he says. “That has, of course, been the genius of the entertainment industry—to generate an endless number of stories.”

Biologist and author E.O. Wilson talks about storytelling with TRBQ host Dean Olsher. (Photo: Flora Lichtman)

Biologist and author E.O. Wilson (left) talks about storytelling with TRBQ host Dean Olsher. (Photo: Flora Lichtman)

Wilson says movies, television and computer games have taken storytelling to a new depth. And that’s had what he sees as negative consequences.

“It’s tended to pull us away from having the kinds of experiences in real life that allow the best judgment,” he says.

That lack of real-life experience is evident in one area that’s of particular interest to a biologist like Wilson.

“The loss of interest in nature, natural history and pastoral existence and the whole ensemble of our ancient activities,” he says, “all that is being abandoned increasingly by the intensely urbanized and fantastical storytelling that we can achieve.”

In Wilson’s view, Nemo and Buzz Lightyear might be more villains than heroes.

“Pixar may be the ultimate enemy of human realism,” he says. “I realize that’s an exaggeration, but I think it captures what I was just trying to say.”

Wilson says that as a scientist, he uses tools that have their foundation in storytelling. He teaches his protégés to see their work in terms of archetypes, like finding a lost world or a holy grail.

“Whether it’s a boson that we’re seeking with an accelerator, whether it is the way to connect theoretical electrodynamics with relativity theory, science is full of grails,” he says.

Storytellers have an infinite number of possibilities when they create fictional times, places and contexts. But according to Wilson, branching out from the handful of accepted archetypes is troublesome.

“The ones that want to push beyond the frontiers are having a really tough time actually doing something that appeals to people in a visceral way,” he says. “Why do people so enjoy just running through the same formulas and outcomes over and over, infinitely?”

The secret, Wilson says, may be found in monkeys.

In studies of rhesus monkeys, the animals were confined and shown various objects.

“What they most wanted to see were other monkeys,” Wilson says. “There’s something about the human nature that reflects that.”

Humans will always want to relive their built-in emotions and instincts, Wilson says. And it turns out fiction can help encourage that. Some research shows that reading fiction can increase empathy.

“That’s what a lot of fiction does,” Wilson says. “It stimulates emotions, certainly, and that’s what gives us pleasure.”

Wilson says fiction also increases our skill in personal relationships.

“Cooperative behavior and the ability to read intentions of other people are increasingly believed by social psychologists, I think, to be the essence of human nature,” he says. “And a main source of what makes us so skilled and why we have such big, funny-shaped heads with this absurdly rounded forehead.”

Wilson says stories are part of how we evolved.

“Our heads just expanded as we got better and better and more skillful in storytelling and in making societies work,” he says.

Storytelling also has value in the realm of science, as Wilson teaches with the archetype example. Wilson says scientists and poets think alike.

“That is, creative people in the humanities and the arts think alike at the beginning,” he says. “The phrase I like the best is, ‘The ideal scientist thinks like a poet, writes like a bookkeeper. But he’s still a poet inside.’”

Wilson says in the earliest stages of creative thought, even scientists engage in “poetic excursions,” or fantasy.

“You say, ‘A appears to be somehow connected with B. Let me think up even fantastical connections that might be there, and then I’ll go looking for them,’” he says. “And it’s free-ranging, it’s sloppy, it’s very human.”

After they come up with these “fantastical connections,” Wilson says, scientists take the next step and get out their notebooks.

“It has to be replicable and it has to be testable,” he says. “It has to be done with statistical evaluation of the soundness of the result.”

This is the point, Wilson says, where some potential scientists are discouraged.

“The average person who’s fully intelligent and could know a lot about science, at this point throws up their hands and says, ‘Science is not for me! It’s just too difficult,’” Wilson says.

But it isn’t, at least according to Wilson. It’s kind of like poetry.

“Scientists think like everybody else,” he says. “The best scientists think like the best poets.”


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Leave a Comment

  1. 1. I want to know what the other story archetypes are that he includes in the handful of story archetypes.

    2. In which of his books does he say the most about storytelling?
    Thank you,
    Jane Knox

  2. The use of science is to enable us to come closer to reality. That means that the more we can discover about a natural phenomenon the more we can understand about what it is and how it works. Unfortunately it is often the opposite that seems to be true and that as our knowledge grows so too doe the number of questions we have about the subject and so it seems we know less about it. When will we be absolutely certain that we know nothing?

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