Story As Biology

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In Cosmopolitanism, Kwame Anthony Appiah writes “people tell and discuss stories in every culture as far back as the record goes.” Donald Brown agrees in his comprehensive cross-cultural anthropological survey, Human Universals, by including mythmaking, a kind of storytelling, in his list of practices that humans everywhere do. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio even puts a kind of “wordless storytelling” at the very root of his model of human consciousness. Any behavior that is shared by all people everywhere must have a basis in our most shared heritage, our biology. This project applies a classic biological heuristic, Tinbergen’s Four Questions, to gain a fresh perspective on storytelling and to explore story as a signature activity of mind. Two experimental paradigms are developed and preliminary data presented in an effort to answer the question posed by Salmon Rushdie’s character Haroun of Haroun and the Sea of Stories: “what good are stories if they aren’t even true?” That is, what might be the biological value of the human compulsion to engage in narrative? The data support the notion that interpreting stories together primes subjects for joint action tasks, opening a connection of narrative to evolutionary processes of group selection. Finally, by focusing on space as an intersection of cognitive science and narratology, the project examines narratives ranging from spontaneous natural language utterances to the highly developed examples of literary art found in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World to explore how our biology shapes and is reflected in our stories.





Wahlberg, James (2017). Story As Biology. Master's thesis, Duke University. Retrieved from

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