Narrative Devices

A good storyteller is always a good listener.  The converse is not always true.  Storytelling in science provides evidence for my claim.  Were the logical positivists good listeners?  Are they now? (Wittgenstein was a great, if laconic, storyteller once he abandoned positivism).    A legacy of the positivists seems to be an ongoing trend of science students (myself included) to tell only the ‘truth.’  I don’t dispute this goal, but it begs the question, what is ‘truth’?

John Edgar Wideman claimed ‘All Stories Are True’ in an interview in The Paris Review (no. 161).  I read this claim not literally, of course, but metaphorically.  True stories are derived from good listening and from a basic human impulse to make sense of the world.  Metaphor is one of many tools available to storytellers and to scientists.  To use language is to use metaphor, consciously or not.  Others are analogy, metonymy, hyperbole, repetition and circularity.

Stephen Jay Gould, distinguished scientist and palaeontologist, was a brilliant storyteller and a brilliant scholar.  All his stories are true in the sense that he never abandoned fidelity to the storytelling impulse, to good listening, to using the toolbox of narrative devices to make scientific discovery and argumentation come alive.  I would argue that Gould was a better storyteller than Dawkins.  This does not mean Dawkins is not a good writer and excellent scientist.  It means Dawkins is not as good a listener as Gould.

Dawkins’ insights into evolutionary mechanisms and effects are indispensable and difficult to refute.  My own work might not exist without him.  But look at Dawkins’ writing on religion and you find his proselytizing, pedantic and positivist side.  Dawkins seems to fall into the trap of letting the narrowness of his specialization in evolutionary science affect the narrowness of his available toolbox, of his ability to question his own prevailing paradigm (atheism and evolution) and worldview.  Compare Dawkins on religion (The God Delusion) to Dennett on religion (Breaking the Spell).  Dennett is able to synthesize the origins and evolution of belief into his story in a way that listens to both sides in a more objective way.

This brings me to reading groups.  My impetus for writing today is a reading group.  I didn’t say much yesterday during our weekly meeting partly because I was listening and partly because I didn’t want to interrupt the narrative flow that was developing.  At one point we examined the possibility of a story with an opening statement of “humans are stupid,” a clear case of hyperbole, but useful for catching attention, and not untruthful.  This hypothetical paper would then use archaeological data and logic to demonstrate the ways in which humans are stupid and why; it would then generalize and discuss and conclude by repeating the opening statement (there may actually be a paper out there like this, I don’t know).

If the story is well told, an identical statement at the beginning and at the end of this scientific paper would have radically different meanings in each case for the readers of the paper.

Good storytellers understand irony because it is contextual, requiring the listening storyteller to process data beyond the level of the verifiable statement.  Gould understood this well.   This doesn’t mean his papers on punctuated equilibrium were masterpieces of literature.  It means he was able to synthesize the art of storytelling into his life’s work.  For this he will be remembered at least as much as for his contributions to the theory and practice of paleontology and the natural sciences.  While I’m certain Dawkins will also be remembered, probably too as the one who was right, but will he be remembered as fondly or as intensely as Gould, will he be remembered as true, and does this matter?

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