Storytelling is a feature of all human societies, yet its importance is hard to measure. A study of hunter-gatherers in the Philippines supports the view that it is essential, with the find that subgroups with the best storytellers are better at cooperating among themselves.
“Cooperation is a central problem in biology,” a paper in Nature Communications points out. Many organisms struggle with the problem of preventing “free riders”, and in more advanced cases of coordinating those who want to cooperate. Humanity relies on socialization to get us to work together, but people spend their lives trying to identify which aspects are effective – often in vain.
Hunter-gatherer communities had a lot more time to work out ways to build cooperation than the constantly changing societies that have arisen since the birth of agriculture. Consequently, seeing how they do it may provide lessons that are more widely applicable.
Senior author Dr Andrea Migliano of University College, London, explored the role of storytellers among the Agta people of Luzon in making group cooperation happen. As the paper notes: “Meta-knowledge is... required to solve these problems of coordination. In other words, it is not enough to know how to act in a given situation; individuals need to know that others also know how to act.” Migliano thought sharing stories might produce this metaknowledge.
Many Agta stories, while superficially magical tales of the interactions between the Sun and Moon or a pig and a manatee, contain morals about the value of empathy. Indeed, Migliano argues that 70 percent of stories from seven hunter-gatherer societies have an underlying message about social behavior.
Migliano asked 297 Agta to name the best storytellers, with no limit on how many they could name. Some Agta camps were rich in admired storytellers, others less so. Migliano then had adult Agta play a game testing selfishness versus generosity. For each 1 percent increase in the number of good storytellers a camp hosted, there was a 2.2 percent increase in donations to the common good from those based there. Aware that correlations can have many causes, Migliano ran other tests that appear to confirm storytelling's socially beneficial role.
For example, when asked who they would like to share a camp with, Agta were more likely to nominate those perceived as good storytellers than those known in the community for their skills in fishing or medicine. Good storytellers were also sexy, as measured by having more children.
There is much debate about the importance of the arts, with even some of the greatest poets doubting the significance of what they do. Yet if those living the lifestyle of our ancestors value the first art above finding food or healing the sick, perhaps that's a story worth telling.