Read this post in association with the post on Title 2 of the November 2014 TOK Title list.
You might think that the Arts and Sciences neatly fit into the distinction expressed by this title. The Arts involve imaginative descriptions of the world which draw you into a world of make believe, through words, paint, music or dance, for instance, and you’re thrown back into the real world after the story ends or you disengage from the art work or when the music stops. The Sciences involve a practical application of theories that lead to inventions in the physical worlds of media, technology and industry, for example, and you use the products of this process often without thinking about it and taking it very much for granted.
This distinction often leads people to argue that the Arts are generally useless when compared to the Sciences. How can the Arts ever be anything but secondary to the Sciences? But this would be naive at best and ignorant at worst. In fact, why can’t the Arts and Sciences be both descriptive and transformative? We need both equally and they are both equally crucial to our evolutionary development.
Consider Jonathon Gotschall’s thought experiment. Imagine millions of years ago in the evolutionary beginnings of our ancestors, there are only two human tribes, alike in every way except one, as designated by their names: the ‘Storytelling People’ and the Practical People’. One group is going die out, whereas the other is going to survive.
Here’s how the difference manifests itself: the Storytelling People do their hunting and gathering and mating as the Practical People do, but they get bored easily and when tired out by the day’s activities often spend long hours exchanging tales (sometimes downright lies) about things that have happened, might happen or might never happen at all. They enjoy themselves and have lots of fun making up their fictions while the Practical People don’t have anything to do with the seemingly trivial matter of telling stories; they keep on with their survival activities, hunting, gathering and mating more and more, and when they get tired, they crash with fatigue and sleep to refresh their energies for more of the same practical survival work.
We know the end of this thought experiment, Gotschall argues: the Storytelling People is homo sapiens and they survived; the purely Practical People (if they existed at all beyond the thought experiment) no longer exist. And yet if we hadn’t known this outcome from the beginning and had been asked to predict which of the two groups would survive, surely it would have been the Practical People, whose frugality and efficiency and value systems were more than a competitive match for the frivolous storytellers.
The fact that this didn’t happen Gotschall calls ‘the evolutionary riddle of fiction’. So what is it about our imaginative capabilities, our need for storytelling that gives us such an evolutionary edge?
Some answers are that the human imagination is like a virtual reality ‘holodeck’ which constantly runs internal simulations in which we project ourselves into make believe situations as a practice for real life situations; telling stories is a socialising experience which sharpens our empathetic skills and hones our altruistic nature which gives our species an evolutionary advantage of cooperating when faced with life’s manifest obstacles; moreover, engaging with these internal, imaginary fictions can be done in the safety of our head which takes away the risks and dangers involved in the real world.
Imagining the future paves the way of shaping a vision of how things can be which in itself is the first step towards transforming the here and now...