Historians vs. Evolution: New Book Explains Why Historians Might Have a Hard Time Reaching Wide Audiences, Getting a Date

The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan GottschallJonathan Gottschall’s new headline-grabbing book, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, didn’t set out to comment on contemporary historical practice. Gottschall barely mentions history in his short, cogently argued volume. But, if he is right about the reasons for the centrality of story in human life, and the type of stories preferred, he has added another pillar to Sam Wineburg’s argument that historical thinking is an “unnatural act.”

Gottschall, while admitting that science isn’t 100 percent certain on the point, clearly believes that we became a storytelling species because of its evolutionary advantage. Stories can help the storyteller find a mate through “gaudy, peacock like displays.” Stories are social simulators, he writes, “honing the neural pathways that regulate our responses to real-life experiences.” He cites studies that suggest “heavy fiction readers [have] better social skills and empathic ability—than those who mainly read non-fiction.” Even after taking into account potentially damaging and pernicious fictions, stories are, he argues, “on the whole, good for us.” And even if they are not, it makes little difference: “We are, as a species, addicted to story.”

Historians can write stories. Sometimes they choose not to, because they’re writing for a particular audience. (Gottschall understands this, having made an effort to ‘unlearn’ his own academic writing habits.) But most historians also believe, to quote William Cronon’s recent article, that “Getting facts right generally trumps good storytelling.” For those historians, The Storytelling Animal could be a depressing book.

Here, facts have little to do with being human, when compared to all that story has accomplished. The public’s inclination toward an engaging story over and above things that historians value, like contingency and complexity, isn’t just a matter of personal choice or intellectual laziness—it’s a successful, hard-wired evolutionary adaptation that allowed societies to be built and genes to be passed on. That gulf separating the careful historian from a general reading public has deep and functional roots. Historical thinking, if Gottschall is right, is not just an “unnatural act,” it’s the kind of thinking that would have, in the wilds from which we emerged, gotten us killed (or at least kicked out of the gene pool).

Historians can tell stories too, but it’s important to note what kind of stories the human mind favors, according to Gottschall. Fictions posing as fact seem to have played a strong role in our species’ survival, from the self-aggrandizing memory to the national myth to the conspiracy theory, which sweeps away the “wildly complex swirl of abstract historical and social variables.” Novelists, filmmakers, and some nonfiction writers can take up these fictions and turn them into compelling narratives and reach wide audiences without doing harm to their profession. Historians, however, are stuck with questioning myth, memory, and conspiracy as a professional imperative, and their audiences are, quite possibly, designed by evolution to ignore them.

This may be why we have to revisit this issue again and again, and why so much of what Gottschall says is so familiar. William Cronon has posited that the historian’s passion, the love of the past, can serve as common ground for the academics, general readers, and amateurs. Perhaps that passion can counteract, to some extent, the effects of evolution. We can also listen closely to our history teachers, who are faced with the challenge of communicating to “storytelling animals” on a daily basis.

An essay in this month’s Perspectives on History by Terrie Epstein discusses how to train students to engage in the ”unnatural act” of historical thinking. Historians can (and often do) put some of these techniques into their narratives, addressing a larger audience without sacrificing historical values. For example, Epstein recommends structuring classes around open-ended questions, direct contact with primary sources, and greater participation. It’s not hard to see how any of these techniques could help kindle the amateur’s passion that William Cronon discusses in his recent essay. It’s also possible to see how a writer could do the same—for example, bringing the reader into the project by not revealing the answer too soon, letting them come to their own conclusions, and bringing the primary source more fully into the discussion rather than leaving it in the footnotes.

Gottschall insists that “fiction is, on the whole, good for us.” But, so is understanding complexity and contingency. Teachers have noted, for example, how improved historical thinking improves reading comprehension and writing. Being able to follow an analysis, not simply a narrative, doesn’t have to take us away from the “stories that make us human,” in fact it can bring us back to them with even stronger understanding.

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