The Drama of Rules: What Storytelling Can Teach Us About Human Nature

New fiction writers are often given the following advice: “Make your character want something. Then, prevent them from getting it.”

In other words, conflict is central to storytelling.

When I first heard this advice, I couldn’t understand it. Why not, I thought, tell stories about walks through Shinjuku Park or grandma’s adventures with new flavors of salad dressing?

After I read a few stories written by amateurs, I found my answer. Stories without conflict are boring. But this is a shallow answer, and it hides another, more interesting question: Why do humans find conflict so interesting?

Exploring this question reveals some interesting facets of human nature.

The Story that Never Ends

One clue to the conflict-story connection comes from a reader-recommended book: literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human.

The interesting thing about Gottschall is that he studies stories from the perspective of Darwinian evolution. Stories are a cultural universal: There isn’t a single country, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, that isn’t steeped in stories and storytelling. If something is universal, there’s a good chance it’s the product of evolution, not culture.

At first, this doesn’t make sense. If stories, says Gottschall, only provided our cave-ancestors with joy, pleasure, or cheap entertainment, then they would have exited the gene pool. Other species that didn’t waste time telling stories around the campfire (and went to collect raspberries or firewood instead) would have been the ones to survive.

Food tastes good to us today (in part) because it encouraged our ancestors to hunt for calories. From the perspective of evolution, the pleasurable taste of good food is a reward for doing things that help us survive and reproduce.

Similarly, if watching films of Superman frying bad guys with laser beams is so pleasurable, we might ask: Why do stories with conflict feel good? Why do we see them in every culture on the planet? Did stories have some evolutionary purpose?

The Evolution of Storytelling

One group evolutionary psychologists like to study is children. Children are young, and relatively unaffected by culture and socialization. This lets you, to a certain extent, separate nature from nurture.

So what kind of stories do children tell?

Surprise! They’re full of conflict and violence:

“[One] collection of 360 stories told by preschoolers features … trains running over puppies and kittens; a naughty girl being sent to jail; a baby bunny playing with fire and burning down his house; a little boy slaughtering his whole family with a bow and arrows; a different boy knocking out people’s eyes with a cannon; a hunter shooting and eating three babies; children killing a witch by driving 189 knives into her belly. These stories amply support the play scholar Brian Sutton-Smith, who writes, ‘The typical actions in orally told stories by young children include being lost, being stolen, being bitten, dying, being stepped on, being angry, calling the police, running away or falling down. In their stories they portray a world of great flux, anarchy, and disaster.’

Although stories told by boys contain more violence than those told by girls, who tend to prefer stories about the home life, the same theme of problem and conflict remains:

“ is important to stress that girl play only seems untroubled when compared to the mayhem of boy play. Risk and darkness seep into the doll corner as well. For example, [education researcher Vivian] Paley recounts how, at first glance, it may seem that the girls are sweetly playing mother and baby. But look closer. First, the baby almost gets fed poison apple juice. Then a bad guy tries to steal the baby. Then the baby “gets his bones broken off” and is almost set on fire.”

We live in a time where some people get offended when you say that girls might prefer to play with dolls, but Gottschall points out that this is likely biological—a remnant of evolution adapted to a time where males hunted and women helped raise children.

Likewise, the attraction to violence—despite the panicked worry that some parents show—probably isn’t entirely due to bad TV shows and violent video games. Violence and conflict are part of our evolutionary past.

This suggests that stories, despite all their variety, contain some common essence that transcends all times, places, nationalities and cultures:

“Beneath all of the wild surface variety in all the stories that people tell—no matter where, no matter when—there is a common structure. Think of the structure as a bony skeleton that we rarely notice beneath its padding of flesh and colorful garments. …stories can be told only in a limited number of ways. Stories the world over are almost always about people (or personified animals) with problems. The people want something badly—to survive, to win the girl or the boy, to find a lost child. But big obstacles loom between the protagonists and what they want. Just about any story—comic, tragic, romantic—is about a protagonist’s efforts to secure, usually at some cost, what he or she desires.

Story = Character + Predicament + Attempted Extrication

Notice how this is precisely what teachers of fiction tell their students to do!

So this is all very cool and interesting, but the same questions remain: “Why is conflict so crucial for storytelling? And what does that tell us about human nature?”


Stories as Flight Simulators

It turns out that evolutionary psychologists are still debating the origins of story, and we don’t have a clear, final answer to our question.

Some suggest that stories are an evolutionary accident, a side effect of other adaptations that we developed. Others suggest that we tell stories for the same reason a male peacock flashes his tail—to attract members of the opposite sex.

Gottschall, though, argues that stories may function as “flight simulators”:

“Like a flight simulator, fiction projects us into intense simulations of problems that run parallel to those we face in reality. And like a flight simulator, the main virtue of fiction is that we have a rich experience and don’t die at the end. We get to simulate what it would be like to confront a dangerous man or seduce someone’s spouse, for instance, and the hero of the story dies in our stead.”

One clue comes from dreams. It turns out that an overwhelming fraction of dreams—like the stories told by children—involve us facing problems. Very rarely do we have  “fun” dreams where we fly in the sky or have “romances” with strangers we meet on the street.

MMA fighters can become better fighters just by imagining they are fighting; If so, it’s not surprising we can get better at overcoming the problems of social life by dreaming or reading stories.

Of course, this is an explanation for how stories evolved. It’s not the only or main way we use stories today. It’s like our taste buds—they helped us find nutritious food in the past, but it’s hard to argue that my desire to eat an entire Italian, fire-grilled pizza serves some “deeper” purpose today.

There’s one more fascinating way that stories are universal, and it is to that that I turn next.

The Drama of Rules

Another universal feature of stories is that they seem to involve breaking the rules. This doesn’t just involving violating laws or commandments—it also means violating hidden, tacitly-accepted social rules that we may not be consciously aware of.



Adam Phillips, a psychoanalyst and one of the UK’s most well-known essayists writes the following in Going Sane: Maps of Happiness:

“Most of the ways we describe people, and all of the ways we judge and diagnose people, involve an account of the kind of relationship they have with the rules. Our founding myths—of Oedipus, of Narcissus, of Prometheus, of Antigone, of the Fall—like our tabloid newspapers, are all about people breaking the rules… The marriage of scandal and righteous indignation, of outrage and punishment, are the staples of all human drama. The context is always that of crime and punishment; of people wanting to be good or bad, or good an bad, and of people being punished (by gods or fate or the world), and wanting to punish and be punished. Ancient myths and biblical stories are about taboos; novels are about adultery; songs are about betrayal. As a theme the drama of rules is remarkably resilient.”

If you’ve read my series on Christopher Columbus, this may sound familiar. Stories help us orient ourselves in the world and cooperate with members of our community; They show us what happens when we break the “rules” and what happens when we follow them.

Though the stories we like often contain violence, the violence tends to be moral, says Gottschall:

“Fiction almost never gives us morally neutral presentations of violence. When the villain kills, his or her violence is condemned. When the hero kills, he or she does so righteously. Fiction drives home the message that violence is acceptable only under clearly defined circumstances—to protect the good and the weak from the bad and the strong. Yes, some video games, such as Grand Theft Auto, glorify wickedness, but those games are the notorious exceptions that prove the general rule.”

Indeed, if you look at human violence, most violent crimes aren’t committed by psychopaths. They’re committed by people driven by a strong sense of moral righteousness.

Imagine if you had to break every social convention to learn that things were wrong: You’d have to punch both of your grandmothers, sleep with your bosses’ wife, pee on the sidewalk, eat your Aunt’s pet poodle, dip your french fries in mayonnaise, and so on.

zelda potion

From codeus


Evil Aliens, Princesses, Dragons, Oh My!

Okay, enough abstract stuff. Time for some field work—let’s look at some stories from popular culture and see if we can’t spot some patterns.

Instead of looking at short stories or novels, I want to look at video games. Storytelling is central to game creation, so we should see the same two universals of conflict (flight simulators) and moral orientation (the drama of rules).

For fun, I looked at a few storylines from my favorite games growing up. All of these are on IGN’s list of the top 100 games of all time (quotes are from Wikipedia):

  • Super Mario 64 – “Mario discovers that Bowser has invaded the castle and imprisoned the princess…” (Save princess from evil King-dude.)
  • The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time – “The player controls Link in the fantasy land of Hyrule on a quest to stop Ganondorf, king of the Gerudo tribe, from obtaining the Triforce, a sacred wish-granting relic.” (Fighting an evil enemy tribe-King and also save a princess.)
  • Dark Souls – “…the player’s attempts … to either reverse or perpetuate the spread of an ‘Undead curse’ that prevents death but prompts a gradual descent into madness.” (Saving the world from darkness.)
  • Half-Life 2 – “Gordon Freeman is awakened … to find the world has been taken over by the alien Combine. …Gordon searches for a way to free humanity…” (Saving the humanity from aliens.)
  • The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – “…[Protagonist must] defeat Alduin the World-Eater, a dragon who is prophesied to destroy the world.” (Save the world from evil dragon.)

Notice the recurring themes of good vs evil, dark vs light, which are often combined with family members or lovers that must be rescued.

Of course, there are exceptions. There are games like Grand Theft Auto that don’t have a strong moral component, and there are puzzle games like Tetris or Candy Crush that humans find interesting for other reasons (see Sarah Perry’s post Puzzle Theory for a deep-dive on puzzles).

The most interesting thing I found during my “field work,” though, was a demographics survey for the game Mass Effect. This game is about saving the galaxy from genocidal aliens called ‘Reapers’ that want to exterminate all sentient life forms.

Mass Effect has a morality system, and the choices you make affect your in-game personality, the reactions of game characters, and even the final outcome of the game.

With “Paragon” choices corresponding to good and “Renegade” choices correspond to evil, players made the following choices:


When given the choice, it seems most people want to play as the good guy. For some reason, I find that kind of reassuring.


The Tyranny of the Perfect Day

At age twenty-two, I spent two weeks drafting a list of all the things I wanted to accomplish before I turned thirty.

I called it my Eight-Year Plan. At the time I was lonely, socially awkward, and dissatisfied, and the list was meant to be a cure for my problems. It was a blueprint, a rubric, a recipe that contained all the necessary ingredients of the “perfect life.”

I’ve since misplaced that list. This is probably a good thing—half of it was too embarrassing to share here, and the rest was a boring collection of secondhand dreams:

  • Start a successful company
  • Develop superhuman social skills (aka be really good with women)
  • Earn a million dollars
  • Travel the world

The list, at the time, felt cool and unique. But in retrospect, I was doing what every second-rate guru and life coach recommends: (a) imagine your ideal future and (b) create a plan to get you there.

I didn’t know it then, but I was also subjecting myself to the tyranny of the perfect life.

The tyranny of the perfect day

In the tyranny of the perfect day, blogger and author Matthew Sweet writes of his attempts to make each day conform to his ideal of the perfect:

“A while ago I discovered my ‘perfect morning’. I liked to rise before the sun, meditate for a while, read whilst drinking a few cups of coffee, then write for a few hours. After that, I’d squeeze in whatever else my relationships, commitments and ambitions demanded of me. So, I thought, why not try to make every morning like that? I tried and it was surprisingly successful. But it also made me fragile. If I didn’t get up early enough then I felt the morning was lost. If my meditation session went terribly then it threw me out of rhythm. If I couldn’t focus whilst reading I felt annoyed. If I sat at the keyboard and nothing came to me, I’d wind myself up into a hybrid state of anxiety and fear. I was seeking uniformity in my mornings and Life was giving me the middle finger, thwarting my quest in mostly consistent, but sometimes unexpected, ways.

Sweet’s story contains a paradox and a lesson.

Life is always more out of our control than we would like it to be. The perfect day is like that distant relative that, once or twice a year, shows up with presents and stories of exciting overseas adventures—despite our wishes, she only visits us on occasion, at random times, and never stays for as long as we would like her to.

“Stay hungry,” some say, “and never settle.” But why spend 364 days a year failing and flailing in order to make one day a year conform to your ideal of the perfect?

Also, as the film Groundhog Day shows us, the perfect day only remains perfect as long as it only shows up once in a while. If every day was “perfect” it would quickly become just another part of our ordinary experience. Then, we would need a new fantasy to take its place.

So much for the perfect day. But what of the perfect life?

The quest for uniformity

Similar to Sweet’s pursuit of the perfect day, the pursuit of the perfect life can mean imposing an artificial, rigid, uniformity on your life that does more harm than good.

As the history of the 20th century has shown us, the pursuit of utopian dreams never takes us quite where we want to go. Plans backfire. People change. New technologies develop. Life and history stubbornly refuse to conform to our fantasies of control.

Hitler, Mao and Stalin are all obvious examples. To them, a few million deaths were nothing, a small price to pay in exchange for a perfect paradise-on-earth that would last always and forever. Only problem one: The perfect life never came.

But what are some less bloody examples?

In his book Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed the political scientist James Scott writes of various failed attempts to impose artificial, top-down structure onto the complexity of life.

One example is the failed language of Esperanto. What the designers of the language failed to understand, argues Scott, is that languages are about far more than just ordinary communication:

“…language per se is not for only one or two purposes. It is a general tool that can be bent to countless ends by virtue of its adaptability and flexibility. The very history of an inherited language helps to provide the range of associations and meanings that sustain its plasticity.”

Likewise, catastrophes of urban planning, despite good intentions, were caused by a similar flaw in thinking. What sounds good on paper may ignore many sides of what makes a city or a community valuable:

“In much the same way [as one creates a language,] one could plan a city from zero. But since no individual or committee could ever completely encompass the purposes and lifeways, both present and future, that animate its residents, it would necessarily be a thin and pale version of a complex city with its own history. … Only time and the work of millions of its residents can turn these thin cities into thick cities. The grave shortcoming of a planned city is that it not only fails to respect the autonomous purposes and subjectivity of those who live in it but also fails to allow sufficiently for the contingency of the interaction between its inhabitants and what that produces.”

Looks good from far away, but a nightmare to live in.

Lifestyle design is a term I used to use a lot, but—like disastrous episodes of urban planning—my life hasn’t always responded to “design choices” in the way I expected.

A year after I wrote my Eight-Year Plan, I quit my job with the intention of traveling the world for at least a decade. I had absolutely no desire to settle down or find a stable life partner. That wasn’t what the cool kids did.

Of course, a few short years later, I did precisely the reverse: I quit traveling, settled down (in Japan, of all places), and got married.

Before I met my wife, my “ideal woman” was an intelligent, polymathic book-lover, cultured and with a PhD in math or science. Instead, my wife is a dance teacher, rarely reads, hates math, and never went to college. She’s great.

To pursue the perfect life is to assume that you have knowledge of who you are, what you want, and how you might get there. Both history, science, and personal experience have all taught me that I’m not so good at knowing myself or what I want for life.

The things I thought I wanted a few years ago are different from the things I think I want now. And, no doubt, they will be different again in ten years.

In what way, I wonder, does envisioning the perfect life assist me at all?

The year 2000 imagined in the early 20th century. The future we imagine often ends up looking like the present, with a few bits and pieces grafted on.

Pregnant nuns in Atlantis

So far, I’ve suggested several things—that pursuing the perfect life imposes an artificial rigidity; that personal projects can backfire and do great harm; and that, because our values constantly shift, the perfect life will never be quite as satisfying as we imagine.

But all of this was, actually, just a side point. My main point is to suggest that the very idea of the perfect life is incoherent.

The word utopia, in its original form, meant “no place,” and no place is, I think, the only place where the perfect life can be found.


My inspiration here comes from Isaiah Berlin, the famed 20th century philosopher and historian of ideas. Berlin was a proponent of something called value pluralism.

Humans have many needs and values. It is a hidden article of faith in Western thought—so widely believed that many of us never question it—that human needs and values can come together in perfect harmony.

There may be problems now, we say, but with the right political system, the right kind of education, the right economy, and the right technologies we can solve these problems once and forever.

But Berlin presents another possibility: What if our values and needs contradict one another, so that a gain somewhere means a loss somewhere else?

In his preface to Four Essays on Liberty, Berlin writes:

“Should democracy in a given situation be promoted at the expense of individual freedom? or equality at the expense of artistic achievement; or mercy at the expense of justice; or spontaneity at the expense of efficiency; or happiness, loyalty, innocence at the expense of knowledge and truth? The simple point I am concerned to make is that where ultimate values are irreconcilable, clear-cut solutions cannot, in principle, be found.”

You can’t be both pregnant and a nun—choosing one way of life means giving up many others.

My desire for health and long life is at odds with my desire to eat delicious, fatty foods from the local Lawson convenience store. My desire for privacy is at odds with the convenience of tools like Google and Facebook. My need for solitude is at conflict with my need for friends, belonging, and social approval.

In his book on Isaiah Berlin (an excellent introduction if you’re looking for one), the philosopher John Gray writes:

“Within any complex culture, there will typically be a diversity of forms of life, each with its associated virtues and excellences, available to many people, but it will not be possible to combine these forms of life within the compass of a single biography. This may be because the virtues of a nun, say, constitutively exclude those of a lover, or it may be because, though different virtues can be combined in a single person, they tend to crowd one another out, or to be conjointly realizable only at the cost of each being achieved at a low level. … [Certain forms of social flourishing emerge from] social structures, or entire cultural traditions, that are themselves constitutively uncombinable. … [Or they may] demand in the individual agent virtues or excellences that cannot, as a matter of moral psychology or philosophical anthropology, be realized together.”

When I traveled and lived out of my backpack, freelancing a few hours a week to fund my travels, I didn’t need to depend or rely on anyone. Some people dream of this kind of life, but it’s not all sunny weather and coconuts.

Long-term travel was bitterly lonely at times. Friendships never seemed to last, and I at times found myself culturally isolated.

Now that I’m married and live in one place, the loneliness has faded (for now), and I feel like I have a place where I belong. But these wonderful things also come with accompanying shadows. Family and community also mean responsibility. My failures don’t just hurt me; they also hurt my family and the people I work with.

To re-emphasize, the key thing to realize is that the very idea of perfection is incoherent. It’s not that you haven’t found the right vocation, right life partner, right morning ritual, or right dietary supplement that will “tip the scales” towards a life of perfect harmony.

Rather, the human animal is so full of contradicting needs and desires that the idea of a perfect, problem-free life is something that can only exists in imagination—or, in my case, always somewhere five-to-eight years in the future.

What came up when I searched for “utopia.” Too crowded and too naked for me, but, uh, yea.

No Final Solution

When I was most-obsessed with my Eight-Year Plan, I was tyrannical, self-hating, and not so fun to be around. Friends and girlfriends were to be “liquidated” if not useful for personal growth. Time not spent productively was a failure of willpower or planning. I rarely took any days off and—when I did—I did it because taking time off would help me come back later and work harder.

I tried to compress all sides myself to a single, sharp and focused point. But over-focusing also means tunnel-vision, and tunnel-vision means that much of the picture gets left out.

“Why,” a girlfriend once asked me, “do you never stop and look up at the sky?”

I end with a final quote from Isaiah Berlin. In Conversations with Isaiah Berlin, Berlin comments on a talk he gave in 1988:

“My talk … was intended to argue that the pursuit of a single, final, universal solution to human problems was a mirage. There are many ideals worth pursuing, some of them are incompatible with one another, but the idea of an all-embracing solution to all human problems which, if there is too much resistance to it, might need force to secure it, only tends to lead to bloodshed and the increase of human misery. … I believe that there is nothing more destructive of human lives than fanatical conviction about the perfect life*, allied to political or military power. Our century affords terrible evidence of this truth. I believe in working for a minimally decent society.”

Though Berlin speaks in a political context, I think this applies just as well to your life or mine.

The perfect life is always just around the corner but, if you stop for long enough and breathe, you may find that the minimally-decent life is here already, just under your feet.

How the Earth Became Flat

If I brought my lips to your ears and softly whispered, “The earth is flat,” what would you think?

Well, first you would probably think, “Should I call the cops or the psych ward?” But let us pretend that I (still whispering softly) manage to convince you of my sanity. What would you think about next? What images does “the earth is flat” bring to mind?

Quite a few of us, I think, would recall the story of Christopher Columbus.

File:Possible portrait of Christopher Columbus.jpg

Though nobody pays attention in history classes (I probably spent more time drawing mustaches on the faces of American presidents than taking notes), we Americans somehow finish our education believing in the same Columbus story.

The story goes something like this. I quote from’s Christopher Columbus for Kids:

“Columbus [wanted to get to India and China] and thought that he had the answer. He felt that since the earth was round, like a ball, if he sailed to the west and sailed long enough, he could sail right around the world to China in the east. He had two big problems though. First, he did not have enough money or ships to make this trip. Second, most people in those days thought the world was flat, like a table top. They thought that if you sailed too far from land, you would sail off the edge and be killed!

Great story, but—as some of you history buffs already know—the story his mostly false.

In Christopher Columbus and the Manufacture of Identity, I looked at how the historical events of Columbus’s voyage were whitewashed and edited to create a national mythology.

In this second part of the series (surprise, it’s a series!), I’ll be looking at another side of the Columbus myth—the lie of the flat earth.

To be honest, I don’t care much for Christopher Columbus or his history. Instead, the focus here is to understand how stories, dramas, and mythologies affect and shape our understanding of the world.

The Flat Earth Lie

Contrary to what I learned in school, no educated person in 1492 believed that the earth was flat.

Two thousand years before Columbus, Greek thinkers like Pythagoras and Aristotle had already asserted that the earth was round. And, despite what some think, this knowledge was not lost to the Dark Ages.

Indeed, the earth’s roundness was so accepted that it’s hardly worth debating. Or, as historian J. B. Russel puts it in a talk at Westmont College,

“ …with extraordinary few exceptions no educated person in the history of Western Civilization from the third century B.C. onward believed that the earth was flat.

“A round earth appears at least as early as the sixth century BC with Pythagoras, who was followed by Aristotle, Euclid, and Aristarchus, among others in observing that the earth was a sphere. … Nor did this situation change with the advent of Christianity. A few–at least two and at most five–early Christian fathers denied the sphericity of earth by mistakenly taking passages such as Ps. 104:2-3 as geographical rather than metaphorical statements. On the other side tens of thousands of Christian theologians, poets, artists, and scientists took the spherical view throughout the early, medieval, and modern church. The point is that no educated person believed otherwise.”

What’s more, this is old news.  Historians, says Russel, have known about the flat-earth lie for almost a century (if not longer):

“Historians of science have been proving this point for at least 70 years … without making notable headway against the error. Schoolchildren in the US, Europe, and Japan are for the most part being taught the same old nonsense. How and why did this nonsense emerge?”

Even if you know zero history (and I don’t know much), there’s something not quite right about the story. Columbus never sailed around the world; he sailed to the Americas and back. It was Magellan, decades later, that circumnavigated the globe.

Something interesting is going on. We have two mysteries to solve: (1) Where did the flat-earth lie come from? and (2) Why, despite nearly a century of protest from historians, do we continue to believe in it?

How to Flatten the Earth

In his book Inventing the Flat Earth, Russel points out that the flat-earth lie is a recent invention. Before the 1830s, nobody believed it.

One of the lie’s origins, says Russel, can be found in the work of novelist and essayist Washington Irving (1783 – 1859). Among ordinary folks today, Irving is known for writing stories like Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

But among professional historians, Irving is known for writing bogus history. According to one historian, his popular biography of Christopher Columbus is “pure moonshine … the whole story is misleading and mischievous nonsense.”

Irving’s biography tells the now-familiar fictional tale of Columbus as a bold, forward-thinking adventurer facing off against backward-thinking clergymen and theologians who stubbornly believed that the earth was flat.

The story fused with other bits and pieces of fiction, entered American schoolbooks, and passed down over nearly two centuries, to us here in the 21st century.

For a more detailed history, see Wikipedia’s page on “the myth of the flat earth.” For now, let’s turn to the mystery that interests me: Why, despite a century of protest from historians, does the myth refuse to go away?

History becomes myth and myth, confused with history, is captured in paintings like this one.

History as a Soap Opera

If the flat-earth lie was an ordinary historical error, it should have been corrected by now. The fact that the story survives until today suggests that there is something more at stake here than “mere history.”

In A Late Birth of a Flat Earth, evolutionary biologist and prolific essayist Stephen Jay Gould argued that the flat-earth lie persists because it sustains a useful fiction—a mythology now so prevalent in our culture that we hardly think about it.

This mythology tells of a war between good and evil, between light and darkness:

“[The early 19th century] featured the spread of an intellectual movement … [that portrayed] Western history as a perpetual struggle, if not an outright ‘war,’ between science and religion, with progress linked to the victory of science and the consequent retreat of theology. Such movements always need whipping boys and legends to advance their claims. … How could a better story for the army of science ever be concocted? Religious darkness destroys Greek knowledge and weaves us into a web of fears, based on dogma and opposed both to rationality and experience.”

History, argues Gould, has been rewritten as an ideological drama where bold, science-loving heroes (Columbus) square off against idiotic, backward-thinking lovers of religion (flat earthers).

The drama even reveals itself in the language that we use. The “light” of the Enlightenment is set against the “dark” of the Dark Ages. All of this, says Gould, helps create the following narrative:

“…the intent of Darks and Middles could not be more clear — to view Western history as possessing a Greek and Roman acme, with supposed loss as tragic, followed by the beginning of salvation in Renaissance discovery.”

What’s ironic to me, though, is that this drama takes old Christian themes of the lost paradise of Eden and salvation through Christ and replaces them with secular interpretations: The paradise is now Greek knowledge of a round earth (lost to the Dark Ages) and salvation now comes to us through the forces of science, reason, and progress.

Every story needs a hero, and every hero needs a villain. If the hero of the flat-earth story is science, then its villain, in this case, is religion:

“The flat-earth lie was ammunition against the creationists [in service of Darwinism]. The argument was simple and powerful, if not elegant: ‘Look how stupid these Christians are. They are always getting in the way of science and progress. These people who deny evolution today are exactly the same sort of people as those idiots who for at least a thousand years denied that the earth was round. How stupid can you get?’”

History is often manipulated to give false justification to why one particular group or race is superior to another. Science, I guess, is no exception.

A Very Human Endeavor

I am more or less an atheist, and I don’t doubt the truth of Darwinism. But what interests me here is how political and historical manipulation were used to campaign for the advancement scientific theory.

Pop culture likes to portray science as “nerds on blackboards”—as something sterile, rational, objective, and pure; something free from bias or worldly worry.

But science is an activity done by humans for humans. It takes incredible emotion, imagination, and passion to do well at all. If anything, science more art than accounting.

Or, as the philosopher Mary Midgley writes in Evolution as Religion,

“Merely to pile up information indiscriminately is an idiot’s task. Good scientists do not approximate to that ideal at all. They tend to have a very strong guiding imaginative system. Their world-picture is usually a positive and distinctive one, with its own special drama. They do not scrupulously avoid conveying any sense of dark and light, of what matters and what does not, of what is to be aimed at and what avoided… Facts will never appear to us as brute and meaningless; they will always organize themselves into some sort of story, some drama. These dramas can indeed be dangerous. … The only way in which we can control this kind of distortion is, I believe, to bring the dramas themselves out into the open…”

Stories, myths, and dramas shape the questions that we ask and the worlds that we perceive. How could they not affect and direct scientific inquiry?

The danger comes, as Midgley points out, when we refuse to admit and recognize that all thought is in some way touched by mythology, madness, drama and story. For it is when we are unconscious of stories that they grip us the most.

Christopher Columbus and the Manufacture of Identity

When I first visited Japan a decade ago, I was surprised to learn that Japanese schools did not teach students about the systematic murder of several hundred thousand Chinese civilians at the 1937 “Nanking Massacre”.

Mariko Oi at the BBC says that, as a student, her textbook only had a single footnote about the event:

“There was one page on other events leading up to the Sino-Japanese war in 1937 – including one line, in a footnote, about the massacre that took place when Japanese forces invaded Nanjing – the Nanjing Massacre, or Rape of Nanjing.”

Later, I learned that this whitewashing of history happens all the time and is not at all unique to Japan. For example, the story of Christopher Columbus—a name any American student knows—has been edited, whitewashed, and re-written to the point where it is more myth than reality.

Recently, I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about how stories shape our beliefs, personalities, and well-being. In this two-part series, I’d like to use the story of Chistopher Columbus to further illuminate the function and purpose of story in our lives.

When someone treats you with kindness, enslave them and kill their families

In the US, most of us are fed the same story about Christopher Columbus. Literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall captures it well in his book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human:

“I recently asked my first-grade daughter, Abigail, to tell me what she learned in school about Christopher Columbus. Abby has an excellent memory, and she recalled a lot: the names of the three ships, the fact that Columbus discovered America by sailing the ocean blue in 1492, and that Columbus proved that the earth was round, not flat. It’s the same thing they taught me in elementary school thirty years ago, and what my parents learned before me.”

The reality of Columbus’s arrival was quite different. Upon landing at the island of San Salvador, Columbus wrote the following in his logs:

“I gave to some of them red caps and to some glass beads, which they hung on their necks, and many other things of slight value, in which they took much pleasure; they remained so much our friends that it was a marvel; and later they came swimming to the ships’ boats … and brought us parrots and cotton thread in skeins and darts and many other things … everything they had, with good will.”

So far, so good. Then, Columbus wrote:

“These people are very unskilled in arms … With fifty men they could all be subjected and made to do all that one wished.”

Within 60 years, Columbus managed to enslave or exterminate the entire local Arawak population. The historian James Loewen writes, “He probably sent more slaves – about five thousand – than any other individual… other nations rushed to emulate Columbus.”

Apparently, there’s a hot debate going on about whether or not we should revise our textbooks so that Columbus appears as less of an American hero.

I don’t have much of an opinion about that. Rather, I’m curious about why the story changed.

Secular myths for secular times

There are a lot of reasons why history is deleted or fictionalized, and I won’t pretend to understand it all.

However, Gottschall suggests that the story has changed in order to better suit our cultural needs for a unifying story:

“Revisionist historians such as Howard Zinn and James Loewen have argued that American history texts have been whitewashed so thoroughly that they don’t count as history anymore. They represent determined forgetting—an erasure of what is shameful from our national memory banks so that history can function as a unifying, patriotic myth. Stories about Columbus, Squanto and the first Thanksgiving, George Washington’s inability to lie, and so on, serve as national creation myths. The men at the center of these stories are presented not as flesh-and-blood humans with flaws to match their virtues, but as the airbrushed leading men of hero stories. The purpose of these myths is not to provide an objective account of what happened. It is to tell a story that binds a community together…

Why do we need unifying stories? Well, Gottschall points out that, at their heart, stories are deeply moral. They teach us what is good and what is bad. And, when everybody in our community or culture learns those stories, it brings us together and gives us a common identity.

In a beautiful paragraph, Gottschall writes:

“Story … continues to fulfill its ancient function of binding society by reinforcing a set of common values and strengthening the ties of common culture. Story enculturates the youth. It defines the people. It tells us what is laudable and what is contemptible. It subtly and constantly encourages us to be decent instead of decadent. Story is the grease and glue of society: by encouraging us to behave well, story reduces social friction while uniting people around common values. … Story—sacred and profane—is perhaps the main cohering force in human life. A society is composed of fractious people with different personalities, goals, and agendas. What connects us beyond our kinship ties? Story. As John Gardner puts it, fiction ‘is essentially serious and beneficial, a game played against chaos and death, against entropy.’ Story is the counterforce to social disorder, the tendency of things to fall apart. Story is the center without which the rest cannot hold.”

Religious fundamentalism is a relatively new phenomenon. Myths and religious stories were never meant to be read literally. Rather, they were sources of metaphorical wisdom that captured important truths about how to live.

Now, in a time where faeries, spirits and talking clouds makes us uncomfortable, mythology needs to come from a source that is palatable to our scientific minds. I suppose history is one such source.

If the story of Christopher Columbus is to serve as a moral guide, it’s no surprise that the ugliest aspects of his story have been whitewashed and eliminated. We don’t want our mythologies saying, “Hey, if someone treats you nicely, you should enslave them, infect them with disease, and slowly commit genocide on their entire race.“

Likewise, it’s not a surprise when completely fictional events (such as the story of young George Washington and the cherry tree) are added into the stories. In a way, we’re doing R&D to try and produce the best possible mythology—better than anything real life can provide.

Of course, it’s a problem when people confuse myth for reality and literally think that Columbus was this wonderful guy. But I guess that’s what happens when you have to get your mythologies from history and not from, well, mythology.

Source: XKCD

Blueprints for action

Another way to think about stories—both the true ones and the mythological ones—is that they serve as “blueprints for action.”

Children and teenagers form their personalities by identifying with a particular social category or group and then trying to become more like the people in that group. This is driven by our fundamental desire to belong to a tribe.

At the same time, we also have a drive to succeed within whatever tribe we belong to. It’s not enough to be in the DDR club, we also want to be the best player in the DDR club.

In his book Selfie, the journalist Will Storr says that we look to our cultural environment for guidance on how we can succeed:

“…the thing all human selves fundamentally wants is to get along and get ahead. Everyone has this in common. When we’re born, our brain looks to the environment to tell it who we ought to become in order to best fulfil this deep and primal need. What it’s looking for is the model of the ideal of self that exists in its cultural surroundings.

Where do does the model of the ideal self come from? Well, they come in part from stories:

“From the fairy tales we hear as children, to films and works of literature, to the documentaries and news stories that narrativize the world more directly, to ancient parables in holy books, stories work as both entertainment and a kind of shopping mall for the self. ‘Culture provides each person with an extensive menu of stories about how to live,’ writes [psychologist Dan] McAdams, ‘and each of us chooses from the menu.’ We build our sense of who we are by ‘appropriating stories from culture’.”

I guess you can think of mythical heroes as the ultimate role models. We may never be able to become like Jesus, Joan de arc, or Superman, but they gives us something to aim for.

So, in a way, you could say that we’ve (perhaps unconsciously) edited and updated the story of Columbus to make him look more like how we want our heroes to be.

We want Columbus to be a nice guy who is also courageous, bold, and explores new territories. What we don’t want is for him to be a mass murderer and slave trader with a lust for gold.

Curtain call

Last year, I couldn’t quite understand why certain public intellectuals—Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson comes to mind—were so worried about postmodernism and its systematic dismantling of traditions, mythologies, and values.

But if cultural stories and myths are important for (a) feeling life is meaningful, (b) cooperating with your community, and (c) orienting yourself morally in the world, then I guess I can understand why they may be worried.

What do you get when cultural stories are removed? Nihilism? Happiness? Depression? And, if we need stories, where do the new ones come from? Vampire novels? Comic books? YouTube? 

Honestly, I have no idea.

In the second part of this two-part series, I’ll be looking at another equally interesting side of the Columbus myth: His supposed “discovery” that the earth was round.

A Few Principles for Thinking Clearly

One of my favorite essays I wrote this year was A Few Principles for Intellectual Freedom.

In that piece, I took scenes from the life of the scientist James Lovelock to illustrate some principles for pursuing a life of intellectual freedom. In this essay, I’d like to do something similar with another inspirational character—the Czech-Canadian polymath Vaclav Smil.

File:Vaclav-smil.jpgSmil was a little-known academic until he rose into public awareness thanks to Bill Gates. Gates has read all of Smil’s books (over 30 of them) and goes as far as to say, “I learn more by reading Vaclav Smil than just about anyone.”

Many of Smil’s books focus on environmental themes such as population growth, climate change, and energy transitions. These fields are rife with political bias and emotional reasoning, but Smil manages to say important, interesting things in a way that is neither deluded nor dogmatic.

Here are a few things I’m learning from him on how to think clearly.

Read widely, with maximum curiosity

As Philip Tetlock has shown in his book Superforecasting, the clearest thinkers tend to be those that draw from multiple disciplines. I call these people dragonfloxes—they can do many things (like a fox) and also see the world in many ways (like dragonflies, which have many eyes).

Smil is a dragonflox. At age 74, he continues to read 80+ books a year (while still finding the time to write up to 3 books in a single year):

“I’ve read about 80 books a year for the past 50 years. I come from cultural breeding. I don’t have a cellphone. When you spend all your time checking your cellphone messages, or updating your Facebook (of course I don’t have a Facebook page) then you don’t have any time for reading.”

This habit of learning, it seems, started when Smil was still a student:

“Smil completed his undergraduate studies at the Faculty of Natural Sciences of Charles University in Prague, where he took 35 classes a week, 10 months a year, for 5 years. “They taught me nature, from geology to clouds,” Smil said. After graduation he refused to join the Communist party, undermining his job prospects, though he found employment at a regional planning office.” (Wikipedia)

Put reality first and theory last

Though I don’t know the details, I find it interesting that Smil refused to join the Communist party as a student. One problem with Marxism is that it puts too much faith in its model of how history works. Marx thought that history moved in predictable phases, converging on a paradise in the future where humans lived as equals.

Confusing models with reality is a cardinal sin of clear thinking. If you believe too strongly in your models of the world, you can start to ignore evidence that your model is wrong.

Smil is not a fan of models. When, in the 1870s, the influential book The Limits to Growth used a computer model to predict impending doom, Smil was skeptical. 

From an article in Science magazine:

“Smil was intrigued and taught himself programming to re-create the model for himself. ‘I saw it was utter nonsense,’ he recalls; the model was far too simple and easily skewed by initial assumptions. He constructed a similar model of how carbon dioxide emissions affect climate and found it similarly wanting. He understood the physics of the greenhouse effect and the potential for a carbon dioxide buildup to warm Earth, but models seemed too dependent on assumptions about things like clouds. Ever since, he’s held models of all kinds in contempt. ‘I have too much respect for reality,’ he says.

If you look at history, it becomes clear how easy it is for humans to fool themselves with faulty forecasts and myth-driven theories. In the face of that, the only proper stance, I think, is intellectual humility.

Smil has humility. He refuses to make long-term forecasts (because he knows they are useless) and instead focuses only on saying what is worth saying:

“I never push anything hard because I do not believe that any individual has all the solutions… I try to illuminate complexities, raise concerns, and suggest some desirable tools and sensible outcomes.”

This is the opposite of what many pundits and political commentators do. People will always need certainty where no certainty exists. In this sense, pundits and long-term forecasters are the priests and faith healers of our time.

Those interested in the truth, though, will have to learn to live with uncertainty.

Keep money and status out of it

Another interesting thing about Smil is that he has principles. In particular, you can tell he that he values intellectual honesty far more than he values fame or material wealth.

Smil lives very simply, hates interviews, and does not own a smartphone. And, despite his friendship with Gates, Smil hasn’t done anything to, as marketers would say, to “leverage the relationship”:

“…Gates has opened doors for Smil: Swiss banks weren’t calling for his advice before. But they keep the relationship pure. ‘I would never ask him for any favor—never ever,’ Smil says. ‘As simple as that.'”

In economics, there’s something called Campbell’s law. The basic idea is that, when you reward people for a particular measure—clicks, dollars, likes, etc.—people will find a way to “game” the system.

The classic example of this happened in India. The government offered rewards to people who caught and killed snakes. Unexpected result: People started to breed more snakes in order to get the rewards.

If college admissions require essays, rich parents will pay essay-writers to write those essays. If journalism is fueled by clicks, journalists are going to write sensationalist clickbait. Of course, scientists and academics are in no way exempt. 

This is the danger of getting paid for your ideas: It’s easy to sell out or self-censor because you’re afraid of (a) financial or (b) status pushback.

The cure—as far as I can tell—is to hold fame and financial success in low regard. In fact, it might actually help to look down on people who are interested in getting rich and getting ahead.

I don’t know if Smil does this intentionally, but his intense privacy and frugal lifestyle seem to me like signs that he is trying to protect his ability to think clearly.

Lately, I am trying to modify my life in the same way. Until recently, I accepted monthly contributions of $100 on my Patreon page in exchange for a monthly phone call. The money was nice, but I started to feel pressured to cater to these donors. It found it hard to disagree with them or write things that they might not like.

Manage your identity

Y Combinator’s Paul Graham has an excellent essay titled Keep Your Identity Small. The key idea is that the more a particular issue is wrapped up in your identity, the harder it is for you to think clearly about it.

It gets worse. When people are exposed to evidence that contradicts their identities or tribal affiliations, they’ll actually double down and become more confident in whatever they believed. This is why it’s important, when trying to think clearly, to avoid identifying with any particular tribe.

Take dietary advice. I find it hilarious how the paleo, primal, keto, vegan, and vegetarian diet camps are always quibbling about minor things when they share so many similarities (avoid processed foods, eat vegetables, etc.).

Smil has a book titled Should We Eat Meat? . In it, he refuses to identify with any tribe and instead says that (a) it’s fine to eat meat but (b) we shouldn’t eat too much of it.

Here he is in an interview:

“Meat eaters don’t like me because I call for moderation, and vegetarians don’t like me because I say there’s nothing wrong with eating meat. It’s part of our evolutionary heritage! Meat has helped to make us what we are. Meat helps to make our big brains. The problem is with eating 200 pounds of meat per capita per year. Eating hamburgers every day. And steak. You know, you take some chicken breast, cut it up into little cubes, and make a Chinese stew—three people can eat one chicken breast. When you cut meat into little pieces, as they do in India, China, and Malaysia, all you need to eat is maybe like 40 pounds a year.”

Humans are tribal creatures, and I don’t think we can fully escape the need to identify with a group.

If you have to choose a group, though, I think the best thing to do is what Annie Duke suggests in her book Thinking in Bets: Identify with a group that values the truth.

Skin in the game

I’m not sure how related this is to “clear thinking”, but another thing I find inspirational about Smil is how he lives in accordance with the advice that he gives.

Some examples:

  • Smil lives in a modest home, which he built to have 50% more insulation than your average home. The furnace uses natural gas, and it is 97% efficient.
  • He eats meat, but only an average of once a week, usually Asian-style in stir fried dishes.
  • He drives a Honda civic, which he calls “the most reliable, most efficient, most miraculously designed car.”

I suppose it’s like that old saying of how chefs should eat their own cooking and architects should live in the houses they build. If you’re going to give advice, then you better make sure you live by it.

Some final thoughts

Somehow, I don’t think that Smil would be happy to know that I wrote this essay. I probably got some things wrong, and maybe he doesn’t see things the way that I see them.

Still, I think that this was worth writing. Reading about Smil has encouraged me to re-organize my life. Perhaps it provide some hints for some of you as well.

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