The storytelling species: how stories help us co-operate
Hunter-gatherers in the Philippines provide the first real-world evidence that storytelling is an evolutionary adaptation that helps us work together

Storytelling is a human universal. It exists in every part of the world, including remote tribes, and in every period of human history. We are the storytelling species but why?

A study has found the first real-world evidence that human beings evolved into storytellers because stories gave us an evolutionary edge.

The anthropologists from University College London discovered the Agta people, a group of hunter-gatherers in the Philippines, use stories to impart values, reduce conflict and improve cooperation. They found that camps with more skilled storytellers showed greater cooperation.

To their astonishment, they also discovered that the tribe’s best storytellers were more popular than the best hunters and foragers and had greater reproductive success. In other words, nature appears to be selecting for storytelling ability.

They are now hoping to explore how these findings could be practically applied within organisations to help people work together more effectively.


Laura Peek

Laura is the founder of StoryCode and a former Staff News Reporter at The Times and The Daily Mail. She has also written for The Guardian.

Wednesday, 15 September 2021

Photos: Photographs by Jacob Maentz. Banner Image: Tapog and Odang hunting in the forest looking for monkeys.

An evolutionary adaptation

Dr Daniel Smith told StoryCode Magazine: “Our research suggests that storytelling performs an important adaptive function in human societies. It is a way of broadcasting social norms, co-ordinating behaviour and promoting cooperation. It communicates the rules of the tribe and the penalties for breaking them. This helps people work together without conflict to achieve a common goal.

“Although others have suggested storytelling was an important step in human evolution, this hypothesis has until now remained largely untested using real-world empirical data.”

The Agta are thought to be among the earliest inhabitants of the Philippines. They hunt wild pig, deer and monkey with bows and arrows, catch fish with spears and forage for tubers, honey and wild fruit.

One of the Agta stories concerns a male sun falling out with a female moon before settling their differences over who should illuminate the sky by agreeing to share the duty – one during the day and one during the night. The story promotes cooperation between the sexes and it works: in common with other hunter-gatherer groups, the Agta are relatively gender equal, with both men and women having roughly equal status.

Agta are traditionally nomadic hunter-gatherers living in small temporary camps widely scattered over several thousand square kilometers of dense rainforest in the Sierra Madre of eastern Luzon. (JACOB MAENTZ)

“Evolution is ruthlessly efficient. Any trait which does not confer a fitness advantage will be lost. Cave fish living in perpetual darkness lose the use of their eyes, for instance, while many birds moving to islands without predators lose the ability to fly. Storytelling has been universal since the beginning of modern human cognition so is likely to confer an evolutionary advantage.”
– Dr Dan Smith

The historian Yuval Noah Harari has also made the case that storytelling enabled human beings to survive and thrive. He suggests our capacity to share stories in the form of gossip enabled small tribes to grow because it let people know who they could trust. Research shows a group bonded by gossip alone cannot exceed 150 people. Harari says human beings used fictional stories to cooperate in numbers larger than 150.

“How did homo sapiens manage to cross this critical threshold, eventually founding cities comprising thousands of inhabitants and empires ruling hundreds of millions? The secret was probably the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.”
– Yuval Noah Harari

We can’t be certain whether storytelling is an evolutionary adaptation written into our DNA. But we can be certain that stories continue to perform important group-level functions. We still unite around common myths: religions, states, businesses and football teams are stories that provide people with purpose, meaning and identity powerfully uniting modern tribes.

Stories also help us make sense of the world and our place in it, impart important life lessons, help us rehearse challenging situations in a safe setting (like flight simulators), put us in other people’s shoes increasing our empathy and, of course, divert and entertain helping us cope with stress.

Dr Smith is now considering how the findings of the Agta study might usefully be applied within organisations. There is already growing interest in using stories more consciously and purposefully. Dr Smith is exploring whether stories could be used strategically to increase cooperation in areas such as encouraging environmentally-friendly behaviours.

“Stories bridge cultural gaps because they speak the universal language of human emotion. I am hoping we might be able to help organisations harness the power of storytelling to impart values and unite teams.”
– Dr Dan Smith

Upcoming Book: Content Law Enquire