Gottschall’s encouraging thesis is that human beings are natural storytellers—that they can’t help telling stories, and that they turn things that aren’t really stories into stories because they like narratives so much. Everything—faith, science, love—needs a story for people to find it plausible. No story, no sale.
Do entertaining stories make us more ethical? “The only way to find out is to do the science,” Gottschall says, reasonably enough, and then announces that “the constant firing of our neurons in response to fictional stimuli strengthens and refines the neural pathways that lead to skillful navigation of life’s problems” and that the studies show that therefore people who read a lot of novels have better social and empathetic abilities, are more skillful navigators, than those who don’t.
Good scientific theories are always startling, too. The narrative excitement of the great scientific theories, far from residing in their reassuring simplicity, lies in their similarly radical exclusions, their shocks: Everything in the whole universe is instantly attracting everything else! Everything! The big earth is dully pulling the apple and the apple is pluckily pulling on the earth.