This is part two in a three part series exploring the role of stories in our daily lives. In part one, we looked at how stories enabled humans to cooperate flexibly in large groups which helped us climb to the top of the food chain. Today, we will explore how stories impact our behavior. In the final part of the series, we will learn a few thinking tools for seeking truth in stories.
"It is as if one were confessing to a murder." - Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin was terrified of publishing his theory of evolution to the world. It was in direct opposition to the creation story espoused by the Church for centuries.
But after two decades of refining his theory in private, he finally shared his life's work with the public.
Darwin's core insight was that evolution occurred through natural selection (e.g., "survival of the fittest") instead of artificial selection (e.g., creationism). Darwin's theory of natural selection, plus subsequent discoveries in genetics, helped the world understand the core of biological evolution.
But evolution isn't limited to biology. It appears all throughout nature. Ideas, products, and institutions all follow an evolutionary process.
One of the most complex evolutionary processes is human behavior. It is complex because human behavior does not evolve solely based on genetic makeup. We also evolve based on which stories we believe in.
For our purposes, a story is the full range of beliefs a human has. This includes beliefs around morals, values, the past, the future, and purpose.
Other animal species haven’t evolved the same capacity for imagination and storytelling that humans have. Therefore, two animals from the same species tend to act more or less the same. Meanwhile, humans' ability to believe in stories causes our behavior to vary much more widely than other animal species.
Tim Urban, creator of the popular blog WaitButWhy, explains:
Imagine if wolves were like humans. You’d be on a trek through the woods on a Monday and come across a wolf pack, and you’d be scared for a minute, but then you’d realize that this one believed it was evil to be violent. They’d come give you a few licks and move on... On Wednesday, you’d come across two wolves who weren’t part of a pack at all because they were convinced that most of the problems in the wolf world stemmed from “pack supremacy.” On Thursday you’d run into the totally non-violent pack from Monday and they’d ruthlessly attack you and kill you. Because a wolf missionary who preached the gospel of violence visited the pack on Wednesday and changed their beliefs.
Human evolution has gone from survival of the fittest genes, to survival of the fittest stories. In part one, we looked at how this change enabled humans to cooperate flexibly in large groups which helped us climb to the top of the food chain.
In part two of this series, we will explore how stories drive human behavior.
Let's start by looking at the relationship between stories and genes.
Stories vs. Genes
Even though humans can believe in stories, we are still constrained by biology through genes and DNA.
DNA is the source code for an organism's operating system. For humans, it shapes our physical, emotional, and cognitive abilities. In fact, we share 99% of our DNA with our chimpanzee cousins.
On an individual basis, a chimpanzee is strikingly similar to a human. We both crave social connection, seek status, and have a desire to mate.
Major differences only begin to arise once we cross the threshold of 150 individuals. Imagine 1,000 gathered chimpanzees in Times Square or 100,000 in a football stadium. It would be pandemonium.
Chimps are limited to small groups because their genes constrain them to only cooperating with those they have strong social ties with. Meanwhile, humans cooperate flexibly through systems like trade networks and political institutions.
The glue that holds humans together is their shared belief in stories. Religions, laws, and money enable humans to trust each other because they believe in the same story. Even if they have never met. Other animal species are limited to cooperating in rigid ways.
Over time, humans created more elaborate rules and games, which enabled us to cooperate in larger groups, which accelerated the evolution of our behavior.
Stories evolved based on a natural selection process where only the "fittest" stories survived. Like genes, a "fit" story needs a host - you and me. Also like genes, "fit" stories don't optimize for their hosts’ happiness or wellbeing. They optimize for survival and reproduction.
Therefore, it may be worth reflecting on how stories are driving our behavior. Stories include spiritual beliefs, political ideologies, views on wealth, status, purpose, etc.
Ask yourself questions like:
- What stories are currently driving my behavior?
- Are they serving me?
- Are they true to me or were they adopted from an authority figure?
Today, popular religions, political ideologies, and financial systems are the surviving gladiators in the Coliseum of Stories.
At some point, there was probably a religion that thought people should eat their babies. But they would have died off pretty damn quickly. There was probably a political regime with no laws. But they would self-destruct.
Therefore, successful stories must strike the right balance between cooperation and self-preservation.
Now that we've explored the relationship between stories and genes, let's take a closer look at a few ingredients for "fit" stories.
Ingredients for "Fit" Stories*
Tribal Values. Powerful stories foster an "Us vs. Them" mentality. This helps a tribe maximize their chances of survival. To do so, tribes usually have a strict set of rules that guide it's members' morals and values. This can be a sacred text, a constitution, or a set of laws.
The uncompromising nature of the tribe’s rules tend to paint a clear picture of who the enemy is. It can be a heretic, political opponent, or nationality. Having a clear enemy helps the tribe bond over shared values, gain status internally by disparaging them, and improves their self-preservation instincts.
Lastly, tribal values create a sense of identity. This usually takes the form of people saying "I am a x". It proclaims a clear distinction of who's part of the tribe and who isn't.
A Leader. The leader can be a ruler, mythical figure, or an ideal like freedom. Regardless, the key is that the queen bee should be viewed as sacred and never be questioned. The leader is usually declared the messenger of a higher power in order to establish authority. For example, The Declaration of Independence states:
"We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights..."
A Stick. Even with tribal values and a queen bee, there will usually be some dissenters. To deal with them, most stories outlaw any behavior that may destabilize the story. Rules are enforced by armies, police officers, courts, and prisons. Very quickly, people learn not to question the story. Else they get their ass whooped.
A Carrot. Prior to the Enlightenment Period in the 1700s, most human societies relied solely on tribal values, a queen bee, and a stick. Carrots weren't a key ingredient. They weren't until a few men escaped the clutches of British Rule and ushered in an era of modern values like freedom, human rights, and tolerance. Although modern nations still have plenty of issues, many historians agree that this new era provided certain protections that created a more equitable system than anything that existed previously among world powers.
As a result, the societal dynamic has gone from:
With these four ingredients - tribal values, a queen bee, a carrot, and a stick - a story becomes a fit competitor in the marketplace of ideas.
Over the next century, there are two competing stories that are on the cusp of defining the future of the human race.
Two Stories Defining the Next Century
Pre-internet, beliefs were largely determined by the culture you were born into. Today, your environment still plays a large role in what you believe, but now we have access to an infinite amount of information. Not just what our friends, family, and pastor think.
As a result, humans are finally able to transition away from seeking the safety of conformity and can instead begin to seek the mystery of truth.
But some believe truth is dangerous. This fight over truth is at the core of a recent controversy: TikTok.
The potential shutdown of TikTok in the US won't just crush the heart and soul of every Gen-Zer across America. It's also a key chess move in the growing tensions between the US and China. Based on leaked documents within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the CCP's greatest fear isn't the US military.
It's western ideology.
Security analyst Tanner Greer wrote about the rift in an incredible essay:
A leaked internal party directive from 2013 describes “the very real threat of Western anti-China forces and their attempt at carrying out westernization” within China. The directive describes the party as being in the midst of an “intense, ideological struggle” for survival. According to the directive, the ideas that threaten China with “major disorder” include concepts such as “separation of powers,” “independent judiciaries,” “universal human rights,” “Western freedom,” “civil society,” “economic liberalism,” “total privatization,” “freedom of the press,” and “free flow of information on the internet.” To allow the Chinese people to contemplate these concepts would “dismantle [our] party’s social foundation” and jeopardize the party’s aim to build a modern, socialist future.
Many analysts believe the future state of humanity will largely depend on how this tension between western democracy and communist ideals plays out.
After a self-proclaimed "century of humiliation", the CCP is prepared to claim their spot back at the top of the global world order. Key ingredients for the CCP story include nationalist values, admiration of their leader Xi Jinping, sticks in the form of the great firewall, virtually zero privacy, and strictly enforced laws, as well as a carrot in the form of pseudo-capitalism.
The CCP has an uncompromising vision of what the world should look like in a hundred years.
Meanwhile, the US does not seem to have a clear vision for the future. And if this continues, we won't be able to get our shit together until it's too late. The US started as a beacon of hope for enlightenment ideals and rose to power with a level of scrappiness that hasn't been matched by any country other than modern-day China.
Whether we are prepared or not, we are already at war. A war of stories.
To prepare for this type of war, we need powerful thinking tools. So in the final part of this series, we will explore a few tools that will help us on the journey of seeking truth.
*Heavily inspired by this essay