I thought I would take a break from the everyday blogworld, to reflect on a subject very close to my heart and, I assume close to the heart of bloggers in general: story-telling (I touched on this topic in an earlier blog).

In The Symbolic Species, Terrence Deacon makes a strong case for the fundamental importance of language as a factor distinguishing humans from other animal species. He presents the hypothesis that language and the human brain have co-evolved to make us what we are, dealing a strong blow to both sides of the culture-nurture debate.

It may turn out that other species on Earth are capable of developing or using language, but there is no evidence that any species other than Homo Sapiens tells stories. The subject matter has varied greatly, from tales of giants, to tales of gods, onto romance, crime and adventure, down to the tales, homilies and diatribes pouring out of the many branches into which knowledge has been split by modern science.

The scientists might not be aware that they are engaged in story telling and might even deny it, fearing it might taint their work with the brush of subjectivity or, worse, with the whiff of fiction. However, it is obvious from a quick perusal of any book by Darwin or Stephen J Gould or Paul Davies or Stephen Weinberg that good science is the telling of a connected series of happenings.

Good science writing rises above the realm of data and information to give us access to learning and, sometimes, wisdom.

Stories come from within us and also shape us, as individuals, as communities, as nations and as a species. Stories carry the memes that make us who we are, generally in cooperation, but sometimes in conflict with our genes.

In the beginning, stories were painted on cave walls or told kinaesthetically, with and through objects and rituals. Then, the spoken word took over. Skilled and highly respected individuals with seemingly prodigious memories roamed the world connecting people and communities through their story telling.

More recently, as alphabets were invented and the scribes assumed pre-eminence, stories were written on whatever material technology could supply. The bards were confined to the stage and then to the cinema and TV.The ability to write became commonplace and to be well read became the hallmark of an educated, nay a civilised person.

Despite the seeming prevalence of visual media, the printed word remains dominant. We consume almost twenty thousand times as much reading material as people did at the beginning of the printed book, in the Middle Ages. Ten billion books are produced each year... how many blogs, I wonder?

Despite the appearance of great change, not much has changed, really, between the time of the scribe and the time of the printing press or of the e-book. Technology has made the written word cheaper to produce and cheaper to consume, but the creative process has remained largely unchanged.

This may not be so for much longer. It may be that the very nature of the creative process if being reshaped. A process that has been with us since our time in the caves is perhaps about to evolve into something new. There are straws blowing in the wind that presage that the times are changing, as a late 20th century bard used to tell us.

Where that wind is taking me is well-said by a another great story-teller.

"Where, for instance, is the identity of myself? There's a special quality that makes me different from everything else and also from all other selves. And I want that identity, my own self, to continue. So where does that identity dwell?"

"Where indeed?" asked the Buddha. "That self to which you cling is in constant change. Years ago you were a baby, then a youth, and now a man. Which is your true self—that of yesterday, that of today, or that of tomorrow which you so long to preserve?"

"I see I have misunderstood things," replied Kutadanta slowly, "and although I find it hard to endure the light, the truth now dawns on me that there is no separate and enduring self. I will take my refuge in your teaching and find that which is continuing and everlasting in the truth."

Majjhima Nikaya, from Buddha Speaks, edited by Anne Bancroft, 2000.

(Cross posted at Temporanea)

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