Narrative’s evolutionary roots

from Origins of Human Communication, Chaper Six, “The Grammatical Dimension,” by Michael Tomasello

“Why do people in all cultures tell stories in the first place? . . . Basically, such sharing is a way of expanding our common ground with others and so expanding our communicative opportunities, and, in the end, making us more like them and enhancing our chances of social acceptance (with conformity to the group playing a critical role in processes of cultural group selection). Telling narratives contributes to this process as only members of our group know our stories, and our shared evaluations of the characters and their actions as we tell these stories are an Tomaselloimportant bonding mechanism as well.”

“The phenomenon of grammaticality—that certain utterances sound ungrammatical (‘That’s not English’)—would seem to be very far removed from following social norms in order to avoid shame and guilt. But, we would argue, it is actually just another instantiation of social norms for everyday behaviors, like harvesting honey in our group-specific way and using chopsticks to eat—but reinforced by the fact that commonplace grammatical utterances are heard dozens or even hundreds of times every day so that their pattern is quite entrenched in our communicative activities . . . “

“The two major problems that narrative discourse sets are: relating events to one another in time, and keeping track of the participants in those events when they are sometimes the same and sometimes different across events . . . It is difficult to imagine any other communicative context, other than narrative discourse, that would require such arcane temporal bookkeeping in the form of different verb tenses and aspects.”

I am grateful to my brother-in-law John Wylie, a psychiatrist and evolutionary psychologist, for calling my attention to this book.

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