From ancient Greece to modern Boston, how stories help us survive

The events of recent days -- from the bombing of the Boston marathon to the explosion of the fertilizer plant in Texas -- should remind us of the power of stories. In a daily sense and over the course of human evolution, stories help us survive. But how?

We discussed this during our most recent writing chat. Our conversation was informed by the work of Brian Boyd, a scholar from New Zealand, and the author of an important book: "On the Origin of Stories." The title evokes Darwin and evolutionary theory. It works this way: Our brains evolved to give us language; and that language gave us the ability to tell stories, even fictional ones.

We would not have that capacity, if stories did not help the species survive in these ways:

1. Stories enrich our experience. If experience is a teacher, consider how much more we learn, from inspiring and cautionary tales, about the nature of the human condition, its triumphs and tragedies.

2. Stories point us to dangers. Think of the way that citizens were informed -- or misinformed -- by the coverage of events in Boston last week. Despite the misinformation journalists spread, the purpose of their reports was clear in most cases: there was a danger to the public safety, and that danger had to be identified and neutralized.

3. Stories teach us how to collaborate. To fight against the dark side, people of good will almost always need to find ways to work together, and stories offer examples of how that can be done.

You can replay the chat here:


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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.


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