Sunday, November 28, 2010

Does Storytelling Make Us Human??

I'm back...2,400 words to go and I missed you guys so much I just can't stay away!

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What makes us human?

This question is essentially the ‘plot’ within the field of Anthropology. I’ve taken a few classes and in my intro to anthropology class my professor asked this question of the students.

He expected US (students with no experience in the field) to come up with an answer by the end of the quarter. Fledging minds come up with unbiased answers all the time, but to answer this questions…


This question is the basis for the entire field. Anthropologist study human history in order to answer this question. It’s kind of a circular thought pattern:  humans studying older humans to discover what makes us human.

He said if we came up with an irrefutable answer that any university would hand us our PhD no questions asked…

We all shook our heads, much the same way you are now, because there is no such thing as an irrefutable answer…

Or is there.

Hang with me, I will bring this back around to writing in a few more lines.

Some of the answers the class came up with are probably the ones running through your head:

Biggest brains: well, not exactly the biggest brain on the planet belongs to a blue whale. The brain ways about 6kg, while humans weigh ~ 1.4kg.

Tool use: humans are handy creatures, but so are chimpanzees. Chimps modify reeds and sticks to fish out ants from deep inside anthills. The create and use tools.

Ability to communicate: again, not exactly. Whales use sonar to communicate and monkey and chimps use mouth made noises –clicks and screams—to communicate.

But they don’t speak with verbal commands: okay, so we’re getting a little warmer and way more scientific. Humans have the hyoid bone which assists us in forming sounds for speaking, but many mammals have hyoid bones, the yak is one of them.

So what, besides the obvious make us different from Yaks if we both share the bone needed to communicate with?

…and we are back to writing here.

Many of our ancestor passed down information from one generation to the next by way of mouth.

They told stories to teach lessons, to make sure their families knew where to hunt and fish and how to migrate to avoid the colder season.

As authors and humans, we tell stories.

Some are for the useful aforementioned reasons and others are to entertain each other with our vastly different takes on things that don’t exist.

So is it the ability to tell and retell stories that makes us human? Your guess is as good as mine, but I think we might be onto something.

If this were what makes us human, what would an Anthropologist from the future think if all they had were our books to base our civilization on? Okay for the sake of argument, let’s say it’s an alien Anthropologist who is tasked with discovering what our race was all about.

Would they think there were two rival clans of vampires living in secret among the human species: 1. the able to walk in the sun, sparkling sort of Stephenie Meyer’s world and 2. the across the board-more common-vampires stricken to walk only at night?

Would they see an evolution of the werewolf from the beastly-walking on two legs monsters- from books like Jim Butcher’s Fool Moon to the were’s that look like natural wolves in books like Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson Novels?

What would they think of our law system based on books like Keri Arthur’s The Riley Jenson Guardian Series where vampires and half-breeds work together to keep the rogues of the preternatural species in check and the humans are fully aware of everything that goes bump in the night.

 Or books like Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments and Infernal Devices, where a group of angel decedents (the Nephilim) live outside the knowledge of the humans in the world and police the Downworlders (the preternatural species that the humans know nothing about)?

What do you think makes us human? {Please don’t give me politics and religion-I don’t want a comment war, and I will take those responses downJ}

What is the genre you write? What would the vast differences in said genre tell an alien Anthropologist in the future?

Happy Reading. Happier Writing.



Elliot Grace said...

...hello Jodi, and welcome back:)
What makes us human?...from a literary standpoint, as with most characters we writers create, humans carry with them the unique ability to face adversity, to overcome obstacles from a standpoint of reasoning...(at least some humans can;). We're capable of hashing out a dispute, instead of bearing fangs and causing bloodshed as a first and only option.

Great post!

Dominic de Mattos said...

Thanks for a really interesting post Jodi.

What makes us human? I was trying to decide between creativity and appreciation of creativity, then realised that, of course, they are two sides of the same coin. Our ability to stand and gaze in awe and wonder at a magnificent sunset, a snow clad range of mountains, or a riot of wild flowers is the very thing that enables us to create a painting, a poem, a music composition or a novel.

As for an alien anthropologist looking at our science fiction... no doubt it would look at our works in the same amused condescension that we reserve for the works of the thirties.

Roland D. Yeomans said...

Only humans feel the need to define themselves. No other animals do. They just are.

Thought-provoking post. I've missed you. I've done 63,000 words in three weeks. Whew. I just finished two minutes ago. I'm drained. I know how you must feel.

Have a great holiday season, Roland

Rachael Harrie said...

Intriguing post Jodi, loved your questions/thoughts about what the alien anthropologist would think :)


Francine said...


Excellent thought-provoking post.

What would an alien Anthropologist think re us in this era? Not a lot!

I feel sure we would be categorised wasteful of natural resources re Industrial Revolution, considered to be materialistic beings with little knowledge or concept of our surroundings beyond our own comforts, the majority unable to survive when oil/natural gas dries up and gadgets for easy life die a miserable death. Final alien Anthropologist conclusion: we are sadly lacking knowledge of where we are headed and cannot or will not accept we humans are destroying the very thing that is our life blood, the planet!

What will an alien Anthropologist think from reading our books? I guess, if reading a historical novel set before the era of Industrial Revolution he/she alien Anthropologist might think the writer sensitive aware the past - although a harsher existance in human terms - of greater advantage to human survival and that of the planet as a source for continued living! ;)


Ax said...

Those are really good questions, but I'm only going to tackle the first one: does storytelling make us human?

This came up as I've been working on my family memoir. We're farmers. We've always been farmers. Hopefully always will be. One of the big components of rural living is getting together and inevitably stories come out. While writing family stories, I realized just how many stories and vignettes I'd collected in my head from other agriculturalists. We trade stories like currency, collecting them like magpies, and breaking them out like war rations sitting around a kitchen table or a campfire. It may not be what makes us human, but storytelling is how we relate, connect, reconnect, and make those bonds that have seemingly enabled us to survive for so many years when humans are, lets face it, the weaker species.

Now what I want to know is what stories do vamps and weres trade when they kick back around a wood-stove in somebody's garage in the middle of the winter at a potluck while the winter winds howl outside and the sparrow flies through? :p (Sorry for oblique literary reference. Figured if anybody would get the sparrow in the roof thing, this group might.)