Monday, March 04, 2013

Tutorials on Narratives I: Narratives as a second set of "Genes"

What are narratives and why are they so important to us? 
So important that some of us cry out "canon" if a set of narratives that appeals to our emotions or spirits seems in need of order and regulation? Do we live of narratives?

It has become fashionable to think of human behavior as either guided by the optimization of utility (as in Economics) or as anchored in the un- or subconscious labyrinth of childhood experiences and primitive desires (as in Freudian psychology) or as residing in the exquisite electro-chemical workings of the complex brain. And no doubt there is more truth in some of these ideas than we would like to admit, and less of it than some would like to pretend. No doubt we partly live our lives and do our deeds within a range of options given to us by what our DNA has manufactured during our earliest stages as a phoetus.

DNA founded the biochemistry of life, inherited from generation to generation with small random changes as we pass it on. A recipe for every new human being is already present in the recipes according to which those who came before him/her were put together.  For billions of years this has been the single model of inheriting and passing on information that was crucial to our survival. It was the way the universe learned to live.

We humans represent a new stage in this process, though maybe it already kick-started before we appeared. But somewhere in the history of life on Earth a combination of DNA-ingredients put together a life-form that developed a non-vanishing awareness of what it meant to be alive. And with it must also have come a process, a structure, that allowed this life-form to pass on this fledgling awareness, somewhere in the "mirkwoods" of mammal ancestry I would guess.

Hence there is the subtle "DNA of narratives" in addition to our molecular biology. It too, especially in its oral tradition, is a matter of inheritance and a substance of "natural" selection. For stories that come down to us through the centuries somehow possess a quality that makes them capable of appealing to humans throughout the life-ages of this Earth. Pity those who believe that their value is determined by whether or not they are historically factual or not. Mourn those who hold that the impact of these narratives depends on the scientific accuracy of their contents. Forsake those who believe the narrative needs to be canonized for it to be worthy, for too little do they know. Biochemical DNA is neither canonized, nor a collection of factualities, but it to is a storyline of a pathway that animates the inanimate. Narrative DNA is no different.

So why are narratives important to us? Because they shape our world in very much the same way as our DNA does. Narratives are not a blue-print for life, as DNA isn't. Narratives are not unchanging as DNA isn't. For life to evolve, yes for life to survive the constant random change of its DNA is essential. So often it merely expresses and "old solution" in a new manner, so often it produces something genuinely novel. New elements being added, other elements being active in conjunction to produce new answer to old questions of survival and of life. So do these narratives around us.

We are alive in order to pass on unto the next generation. For countless millenia this passing on was restricted to the biochemical information within out DNA strands and that was done in the fiercest of competitions under natural selection. But our species need not rely solely on chemistry and biology to pass on to a next generation what we value and what held us alive and sane. What anyone of us needs at the end life is a great story, a good narrative that you can pass on. Something to give to your children if you were fortunate enough to have them, something to pass on to students, to apprentices, to readers of a letter, an article or a blog; or just to a stranger you met while waiting in a ticketing line for airline check-in.

So I will spill some of my narratives here and leave them for you to either pick them up if you think they may serve you well, or to ignore them if you have already seen to much pretentious bullshit on the internet.