I’ve been very much enjoying listening to Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen’s Science of Discworld series. The first book covers the history of the Earth in some detail, digressing into all sorts of interesting sidebars. The second, which I’m halfway through at the moment, looks at human psychology – discussing how we came to think the way we do. A key factor is our need to explain everything, to make everything into stories, which has developed for all sorts of very good reasons. For instance, if you’ve observed a pride of lions hunting zebras, you’ll have noticed they stampede the herd(?), cut off one or two, and ambush them. Hey presto, dinner for the lions. But if you make this into a story in your head, you can replay it, and add or change aspects. For instance, what if your best hunters happen to be positioned so that some of the stampeding zebras run into their line of fire? Abracadabra, dinner for the humans…
On the Discworld, there is an element which doesn’t exist on our Earth – narrativium. It embodies the law of story. There are rules in stories, and these rules are fundamental laws of the Discworld Universe. The good guys always win in the end, after surmounting almost-insurmountable obstacles. The princess always marries the prince. The eighth son of an eighth son is always a wizard, even if she happens to be a daughter. As we don’t have narrativium, just about anything can happen. The wizards find this difficult to understand when they end up on Roundworld, and it’s only brought home to them how important a distinction it is when they foil an Elvish invasion of prehistoric Earth, leading to a distinct lack of evolution in human psychology. You’d have to read the book to find out why, I don’t have time to explain it here…
So, yesterday, I was driving to work along Wollaton Vale. A number 35 bus was parked at a bus stop, showing no signs of moving on, despite there being no-one waiting to get on or off. Further down the road, at the next few bus stops, people were standing, looking in the direction of the bus. At the last bus stop before Priory Island, a lone man lifted his arm, peeled back his sleeve, and looked at the back of his wrist. I automatically made up a story in my mind to explain these observations: The bus driver was texting his girlfriend to tell her he was sorry for the argument they had before he left for work. The people waiting at the bus stop were impatient because the bus was running late. And the lone man was looking at his watch.
The first of these points is pure imagination. I really had no idea why the bus driver wasn’t moving on. The second is more plausible. Given the time of day (around 8.45am) and the town-ward direction of the bus, it’s likely that many of the people at the bus stops were on their way to work. Some of them might have been going shopping though. One or two might have been on their way home after a one-night stand. And even those on their way to work might not have been impatient. My final invention, the man looking at his watch, is the most likely. But even that is open to question. Perhaps he’d just had a tattoo done, and he was checking how it was healing.
Humans have an automatic and unavoidable need to explain everything – to turn everything into a story. The sun is pushed across the sky by a dung-beetle (well, it can’t just move like that on its own, can it?). Someone having an epileptic fit is possessed by a demon (that’s obvious, surely?). The world was created by an omnipotent being (it’s far too complicated to have simply come into existence and evolved to the state it’s in now). Everyone who looks like a Muslim is a terrorist (better safe than sorry?).
I have nothing against curiosity and imagination. If Newton and Einstein and Pasteur and every scientist that has ever lived didn’t have curiosity and imagination, we’d still be living in trees and chasing those zebras for food. I also have nothing (much) against generalisations and stereotyping, which are also elements of storytelling. It’s vital to observe, categorise and recognise patterns to inform our behaviour. We are unlikely to have perfect knowledge of every single kind of gun in the world, but if someone points something that matches the ‘gun’ pattern at us, we need to be able to react appropriately.
The problem arises with unquestioning acceptance of stories, and over-reliance on generalisations. If no-one had questioned Galen‘s medical teachings, we’d still be treating illnesses according to which humour was out of balance. And if we (Daily Mail readers, for instance) insist on seeing every single Muslim as a terrorist, or every single Catholic priest as a paedophile, or every single woman as a baby-making machine, rather than a person who is different from us but equally important and valuable, how are we ever going to reconcile the human race to itself and stop people killing and torturing each other?