Evolutionary origin of storytelling and how it led to pictures of gods and heroes

“We cannot offend gods, who we ourselves did create.” – Alciphron, 2nd century

We humans evolved as a social species. The development of our brains was motivated by the constant social struggle of acquiring a higher status within the community, so there would be a higher chance for us to reproduce and pass our genes to subsequent generations. It is proven that our brain solves social issues more easily than the mathematical ones, and thus it is no surprise when we see social relations all around in the environment, although there are actually none, or at least not human-like.

From this perspective, it is no surprise that chimpanzees, our closest evolutionary cousins, try to repel storm clouds by loud noises and dancing as they would repel hostile chimpanzees. Similarly, we and especially our social brains are prone to seeing images of human-like gods, demons and magical creatures in the environment around us. Our brains try to do what they can do the best: use their sneaky abilities to influence the environment as they would influence other humans. They do not care if it is possible or not for the talks expressed in prayers and rituals to take some real effect, they simply try. Some people are more likely to do so than others, of course.

The most striking stories are the ones about beasts living in swamps or other places people should avoid. These stories help people avoid such places that have higher probability for them to catch malaria and fail to reproduce, thus the chance that the people telling those stories pass their genes to subsequent generations is higher than fifty when compared to individuals with no stories. You do not have to be a mathematician to guess that the ability to imagine such beasts, thus avoiding places they should be living in, will more likely preserve with each iteration, each generation. In evolutionary biology, these imagined entities such as swamp beasts, demons, evil witches or a presumed predator waiting behind an opaque bush are called agents. And the ability to imagine the agents and react to their presumed presence is called prediction.

Daphne and Apollo, painted by Luca Giordano (18. 10. 1632 – 3. 1. 1705).

Fear of death and the unknown draws pictures of foreign and ugly, thus unhealthy and to us genetically unrelated beasts, while the expectation of abundance and prosperity paints colorful pictures of beautiful, healthy, powerful beings with familiar looks. This all comes back to the social nature of our brain, that tries to humanize everything to develop stronger emotional reactions to the natural phenomena to either avoid or attract them. Since our primary sense is sight, it is much more efficient for the brain to work in emotional pictures describing social relations than in words and thoughts. The gods, heroes or today’s urban superheroes, specifically the ones that protect us and bring fertility and abundance, are always like us, they belong to our community, plus they are beautiful and pleasant. The stories associated with them always tell about how to be good from the perspective of the given society. It is no coincidence.

The pictures of gods always change according to our look, social standards and the environment we and our relatives live in. The stories and pictures were influenced by many points in our evolutionary history. One of them lies in the time when our ancestors were mostly fruit and leaf eaters. Have you ever wondered why we see the red color so clearly in a multitude of leafy green? Our traffic lights would not work very well for, let us say, wolves, since they did not share the evolutionary history of finding mostly ripe red berries in the woods with us. Speaking of wolves, they have a wonderful sense of smell, much more developed and sensitive than our own. However, despite that, we humans are able to better detect certain substances located in bananas than wolves are. Think about that when you see pictures of gods bringing a horn of plenty, or read stories about the world tree, poems about blooming plants giving hope for future times. Flowers did give hope to our ancestors looking for fruits and berries, and this evolutionary, genetically programmed observation and story, is transferred to our abstract, symbolic society. All such stories have very deep evolutionary roots.

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