Sea otters and other preoccupations of the storytelling animal

A few years ago I spent five weeks at the Banff Centre for the Arts. I was sitting in the small on-campus cafe one day when I noticed a man and woman leaning in close across a table. Their temples were touching for the entire time I sat eating my sandwich. And I was struck by how deeply connected they seemed, so oblivious to sandwich-eating voyeurs.


The (great) thing about the Banff Center is that most folks go to escape the work of everyday life. Free from cooking or cleaning or even making your own bed, you have to put a bit more effort into finding distractions. Surrounded by other writers and dancers and visual artists, and bears and cougars and imposing, craggy mountains, it’s easy to feel inspired, or, at the very least, to forget about regular life for a while. And it’s rare that artists have romantic partners in tow. I went to Banff to write, but also to spend some time away from my relationship to see if I might get some perspective on it.

When I saw those two leaning over the table that afternoon, I counted the things my own relationship was lacking: teamwork, an ability to tune out the world, a genuine sense of pleasure in each other’s company. That was love, I thought wistfully, and it was so obvious that those two had what I was missing.

But it wasn’t love. As I walked out of the cafe, I saw that they were leaning over a flip phone where a third, tinny voice was cranking out of the tiny speaker. For weeks I’d spent several hours a day reading love stories, writing them, theorizing about why they had such a hold on me–on everyone. And now I’d arrived at a weird place: I was the man with a hammer seeing a world full of nails.

The other day I was talking to a friend about sea otters. “Sea otters are good topic for your blog,” he said, “because they hold hands while they sleep.” He said everyone loves this fact (They do–Google it!), but they don’t know much about the function behind it. And who can blame them? Sea otters are playful and dextrous in this way which is soul-crushingly cute. They have one-million hairs per square inch. Mothers carry their babies on their stomachs. They hold hands!

Sea otters do pretty much everything at sea. They eat and mate and nurse and sleep in the deep blue Pacific, and they hold hands, sometimes in pairs and sometimes in large groups called rafts (!), so they won’t drift apart. It’s a smart survival mechanism. But I suspect this isn’t why the hand-holding fact is so popular. I suspect it’s because we–all of us humans–love love stories. And we see sweet, simple stories wherever we look. If you click on any of the links from a Google search for “sea otters”, most will tell you about their voluminous pelts. Most will tell you about the hand holding, and their eating and sleeping habits. But few mention that the rafts are always single sex: males hold hands with only males, and females with only females. Fewer still will tell you that, when they mate, male otters bite females’ noses–sometimes until they bleed. (Wikipedia, ever unafraid of tough topics, includes a photo.)

Lately, I’ve been reading up on some theories of evolutionary psychology which offer some insight into our tendency toward story. Jonathan Gottschall believes that our storytelling minds are what separate us from the sea otters. He argues that we are addicted to stories, which seems likely given our tendency to create a narrative from a single fact or a series of images:

The storytelling mind is a crucial evolutionary adaptation. It allows us to experience our lives as coherent, orderly, and meaningful. […] But the storytelling mind is imperfect. [It] is allergic to uncertainty, randomness, and coincidence. It is addicted to meaning.”

Intuitively, this makes sense to me. And, as an English teacher, I love the idea that reading fiction can make us more empathetic. But I have some reservations about Gottschall’s other arguments. He writes:

Stories make societies work better by encouraging us to behave ethically. As with sacred myths, ordinary stories from tv shows to fairy tales steep us all in the same norms and values. They relentlessly stigmatize anti-social behavior and just as relentlessly celebrate pro-social behavior. We learn by association that if we are more like protagonists, we will be more apt to reap the typical reward of protagonists, for instance love, social advancement and other happy endings, and less likely to reap the rewards of antagonists.

Here’s where I’m stuck. If this is the case, how should we account for the many love stories which seem to offer love as reward for some rather unimpressive personality traits? Take Disney’s version of Cinderella, a story with a huge cultural presence: nearly every North American age 3-100 knows it well.

The reward: love and marriage to Prince Charming (which includes social status, wealth, no more sleeping by fireplaces, happiness ever after, etc.).

The recipient of reward (protagonist): Cinderalla, whose primary personal characteristics are obedience, beauty, humility, passivity, grace, and kindness to animals.

The unrewarded (antagonists): Stepsisters, who are ugly, greedy, ambitious, and self-confident.

My reading of Cinderella doesn’t quite see it as one that promotes pro-social behavior. Beyond, perhaps, kindness to animals, which we could all benefit from, her other qualities are fairly unremarkable. Some are pretty undesirable. The stepsisters, on the other hand possess some qualities I’d want my daughter to aspire to. Rather than a story that encourages pro-social behavior, it seems the story really functions to maintain the status-quo. It doesn’t perpetuate our species so much as our patriarchal society. Gottschall claims that “fiction pulls us together around common values” and certainly I can think of lots of examples where this is the case (the Gospels in the New Testament, for example, do this compellingly). But when I think of powerful pop love stories, I think of the movies I watched over and over as a kid: Sleeping Beauty, Pretty Woman, Sixteen Candles. Every one can be summed up the same way: blessed are the meek and beautiful, for they will be loved.

Over at the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik had this to say:

The interesting questions about stories, which have, as they say, excited the interests of readers for millennia, are not about what makes a taste for them “universal,” but what makes the good ones so different from the dull ones, and whether the good ones really make us better people, or just make us people who happen to have heard a good story.

Gopnik argues that good stories are strange or startling, and that good science offers us just these kinds of stories. I am thinking of the sea otters with their bloody noses, and how I want to live in a world where that is the story we tell, hand-holding be damned.

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