We don’t just think in stories, but in layers of stories, stories nested up and down a continuum of stories from the personal, familial, societal and even to the biological.

I had several favorite stories when I was a child. Yurtle the Turtle convinced his colleague turtles to allow him to achieve a greater and greater height by standing on the backs of his shelled associates. Disaster at the end. But not before the reader got a bird’s eye view of Turtleland. It reminds me of Newton’s suggestion that his accomplishments were achievable only because he was able to stand on the shoulders of his predecessors. In science, there are still moments of “all fall down.”

Our stories stack, back to back, not unlike an almost infinite pile of turtles. The philosopher Ken Wilber uses a stacking-turtle metaphor to describe how evolutionary scales nest and stack. There is a mirroring between the nested stages of social evolution and the stories that accompany those stages. The impact of competing societal stages can be experienced by stories that are told.

Perhaps the most classic tale of clashing societies is how the now lost stories, rituals and traditions of the prepatriarchal goddess cultures were demonized by their Indo-European conquerors. Snakes and serpents were integral to the symbology of the ancient, matriarchal societies. The victor writes history, in this case rewriting herstory, so that serpents morphed into dragons killed by heroes rewarded with an adulating wife.

During the Carter Administration Iran Hostage Crisis, I observed a political cartoon showing Khomeini, head of Iran, as a giant octopus with tentacles snaking out past Iran’s borders. Not noted by the cartoonist was that 25 years earlier, in 1953, the American government overthrew the Iranian democracy to install a head of country that would allow American and British petroleum corporations to do business there. Yesterday, while talking to a client in a hot dog stand, I noted on the restaurant TV CNN doing a history of the conflict between Iran and the U.S. As background for the present conflict, CNN’s history started in 1979.

Where we choose to begin and end the stories that we tell has everything to do with the message we assign them.

Carl Sagan has suggested that humans’ negative focus on serpent/dragon tales have biological origins in our fear of being poisoned over the course of our evolution. I would agree that there are biological informants to the stories that we make. The most profound biological imperative is that stories require a single narrative stream of information with a beginning and an end. As we know from dream, this structure is not the only way of receiving or imparting information. Very close to the language centers of the brain is the place where we process rhythm. Quite possibly, as language bridged over from gesture, with information being communicated by a combination of expression and hand movement, language transformed into speech in our brains, where we were making and listening to music. What would be the effect of how we tell and listen to stories, informed by a part of our brain that evolved making and listening to music? In music, there is a single, over time, thread of information with a limited number of complementing subthreads. In other words, a story is a song. A story is not reality, not even close. Yet we use the stories we tell to deeply inform how the world works.

I read yesterday that a couple generations ago, someone said that all models are wrong, but some models are useful. Models are wrong because they are stories. Some stories are more useful than others.

Perhaps the most useful story of all is the story we can tell ourselves that suggests that a story is a lie.


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