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Which came first? The chicken or the egg? 

(It’s meant to be a conundrum).

Now, of course, science knows the answer. And the answer is … the egg. Something almost like a chicken laid an egg with a novel cross-over or mutation and that egg grew into a chicken.

Here’s another conundrum and so far as I know, science does not yet know the answer.

Which came first?

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The word or the story? 

Let’s expand the question a little. Did humans first come up with nouns — names for particular things or perhaps verbs referring to actions and then later, string some of these together to make the first stories?

Or, did stories come first and later, the names for things and objects were excised from these stories? 

Most likely, the two co-evolved — language and stories. But I will argue that story is actually more fundamental. 


It turns out that my cat Luna is a storyteller. 

Remarkable cat? Perhaps. But I think after I explain just how she’s a storyteller, you’ll remember other times that animals used “storytelling” in your own life. 

When Luna was a kitten, she loved to chase the laser pointer. At the ripe old age of three, she’s far less enthusiastic about it. But she still likes the idea of playing laser pointer. She may or may not recognize the words “laser pointer” but she definitely can’t reproduce it. She vocalizes a lot and it seems as though she’s “taking turns” with me when we “talk.” But, at least to my ear, she’s always saying the same thing which sounds much like a plaintive chirp of a question. 

Her repertoire of actions however, is much more varied. At night, which is when we play laser chase, she often comes up to me and “chirps.” She looks at me while she chirps and when I look at her, she goes into phase two which is to “re-enact” chasing the laser pointer. It is possible that she re-enacts chasing the laser pointer to “communicate” with me that she wants to do it. Or, it’s possible that she just “imagines” chasing the laser pointer and the imagining is associated with the actions. It is also possible that at first, she simply recreates the associated actions, but, since it reminds me of the laser pointer and I often play with her at that point, the reinforcement could turn a passive re-enactment into an instrumental and perhaps “intentional” behavior pattern. 

In a similar way, it’s easy to imagine one of our distant ancestors re-enacting a struggle, finding and digging up roots, picking berries, running away from a particular form of danger, etc. For our ancestor too, it might be that they begin by simply remembering something, and in so doing, they re-enact some of the actions they took. Eventually, they come to realize that their re-enactment encourages others in the tribe to follow and do their own berry picking. 

We can easily imagine that in a particular region there might be several kinds of berries; some kinds might sport thorns; some not. Some might require bending over to reach (like strawberries) while other might require reaching up like high-bush blueberries. Re-enacting a story of berry picking might easily be repeated on many occasions. Eventually, the motion of picking a particular kind of berry might become ritualized or routinized. Some other clever ancestor may have trapped a small rabbit by using a strawberry as bait. He might use the same gesture(s) for strawberry that others used earlier in order to indicate that strawberries exist. This gesture, or sequence of gestures, over time, comes to indicate “strawberry” in many different stories. Eventually, it becomes the “word” for “strawberry.” 

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But the stories came first. 

All right, you might say, but such stories are all reconstructive stories. How did fiction arise?

To answer that question, let me tell a tale about another cat from a much earlier point in my life. That cat was named Eva. She was an indoor/outdoor cat. We didn’t even have a litter box for her. Whenever she wanted to go out, she would go to the front door and scratch at it. There were five of us in the house so someone was likely to be close by. Whoever was nearby would open the door; she’d go out & do her business and then come back to the door and scrape it on the outside. Unlike my current crop of cats, Eva pawed gently at the door. She didn’t seem bent on destroying it. She was simply signaling that she wanted in or out.

In a similar fashion, when Eva was hungry, she would go to the kitchen and paw on the little wooden doors under the sink. This was where the cat food was kept. Whoever was near would pour out some cat food for Eva. 

It’s not necessary to invoke stories here. She was reinforced for scratching the front door by having us open it so she could go out or in. She was reinforced for scratching the doors beneath the sink by being fed. 

Eva, in due course, as an indoor/outdoor cat, became pregnant. Three tiny kittens were born to her. One nice spring day, a few months later, Eva left the living room and trotted into the kitchen and scratched on the cupboard door. I was nearby, so I brought out the cat food and filled up her dish. Instead of digging in, however, as she usually did, she instead, left immediately and trotted to the front door. She hand’t taken even a single bite!

 This struck me as odd. I wondered whether she had a sudden urge to go relieve herself. Such a sudden and overwhelming urge that she ignored her food? I don’t recall a cat ever doing that while I was observing. But there she was at the front door. Okay. 

I opened the front door, and out she went. I closed the door so she could do her business. But almost immediately, she pawed at the door to be let back in! What was going on? Eva was a smart cat. She wasn’t like our poor cat Shasta who would go to the door of the back deck and meow loudly to be let out…even when the door was already open. 

But Eva was a smart cat. Why was she back so soon? I wondered about it as I opened the door again. Guess what?  In tumbled her three little kittens. She led her furry trio to the kitchen where they chowed down on the meal I had just “prepared” for Eva. 

Had Eva just “told me a story” in order to manipulate me into doing her bidding? I’m not sure we can really call what she did a story. But I’m not sure we cannot call it a story either. It certainly seems as though Eva did some nice problem solving behavior. It seems most likely that Eva had heard her kittens outside. She was much closer to the source and her hearing was much better than mine. It’s also possible that she “remembered” that they were out there. I had not let the kittens out and had not known they were out there. 

It seems as though Eva was using her “mental model” of how I would react to various stimuli and put together separate elements. She devised a multi-step plan which included my predictable behavior in order to reach her goal of feeding her cats. 

It seems as though Eva was using her “mental model” of how I would react to various stimuli and put together separate elements. She devised a multi-step plan which included my predictable behavior in order to reach her goal of feeding her cats. 

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When I was an undergraduate, I trained a rat to do a sequence of five behaviors in order to get a reward. That was completely contrived however. In order to train this behavior, I had to go through a very careful sequence myself. I first trained the rat to press a lever. Pro tip. You can’t simply wait for the rat to press a lever in order to reinforce it with a food pellet. First, it helps to “click train” the rat. Even after they get a food pellet, it takes time for them to find the thing and devour it. And it takes time. It turns out that in the long run, it’s more efficient to first train the rat that a “click” happens when the food pellet is delivered. The click is quite salient to the rat and can be heard everywhere in the cage. So, it’s “better” as a reinforcement in some ways than food. However, every so often, you still need to reward the rat with an actual food pellet or it will stop paying attention to the click. In much the same way, most dog owners teach their dogs that “Good Boy” is a kind of signal associated with a head being petted and occasionally a food treat. That’s much more practical than giving the dog a treat every time. 

If you are trying to teach an animal a multi-stage trick, you need to “thin out” the schedule so that they are not reinforced every time they execute the required behavior, but only occasionally. And, at every step, it took a great deal of attention to “lead” the animal to the intended behavior. At every step, beyond the first few, it is easy to “break” the chain of behavior by waiting too long to deliver reinforcement. Remember, these chains of behavior became trained in rats trapped in a cage. Their environment differed considerably from the one they evolved in. These rats, by the way, are almost like identical clones. How hard would it be to train a rat to execute a chain of five random behaviors in the wild? It took a lot of patience and attention to carry it out in the lab. I think it would be much harder in the wild. 

What if there’s another way? What if, in at least some cases, you establish a “relationship” with another animal so that you are able, at better than chance, to “read” each other’s intentions and desires. You can “tell” when your dog really needs to go out even if you haven’t trained him to a specific behavior. Your dog knows when you are about to go out for a walk, even if you carefully avoid using the forbidden word “walk” out loud! 

I’d be curious what you think about pets and whether you have any stories about them using stories. 

Real stories. 

I’m not talking about the typical Lassie episode which goes something like this:

Lassie: “WOOF! WOOF!” 

Timmy’s Dad, Mom, or Uncle: “What’s that you say, Lassie? Timmy was playing in the abandoned mine shaft again?” 

Lassie: “WOOF! WOOF!” 

Adult: “Well, didn’t you try to talk him out of it?”

Lassie: “WOOF! WOOF!”

Adult: “Oh, I see. Yeah, I agree, he can be pretty recalcitrant. Did you mention that last time he did this, I told him I would ground him for a month if he ever did it again?” 

Lassie: “WOOF! WOOF!”

Adult: “Right. Of course you did. Sorry. Well, what tools do I need to get him out this time?” 

Lassie: “WOOF! WOOF!” 

Adult: “Dynamite? Why would we need dynamite?” 

No, not that kind of story, but stories about things that actually happened. Have your pets ever tried to “manipulate you” into doing something by telling you a “story”? 


The Story of Story: Part One

You Gave me no Fangs

The Creation Myth of the Veritas 

Fool me!