The Nexus of Storytelling and Collective Learning A Synergistic Spark for Human Emergence


John Hasse


This paper explores the implications of storytelling as an essential complimentary concept to collective learning for labeling human emergence within the Big History thresholds framework. It proposes that the distinctively human cognitive capability for communicating explanatory descriptive narration (i.e., storytelling) was a foundational adaptive behavior and central driving force that launched humans into a unique evolutionary pathway as collective learners whose increasing knowledge has transformed the world. Storytelling provides a theorem for why human language skills and brain capacity increased so dramatically since our common ancestor with chimpanzees, and how our storytelling brain models our world through narratives that undergird human belief systems and facilitate complex social coordination. The paper outlines the symbiotic role that storytelling played in turning the cultural “ratchet” of collective learning throughout prehistoric times and its corresponding influence on prehistorical milestones. It goes on to explore the benefits of teaching storytelling as a complement to Big History threshold (6) collective learning and concludes with a look at the vulnerability of the human storytelling brain regarding its ability to unite or divide people through the power of narratives, whether they are factual or fictional. The paper invites the Big History community to consider embracing the emerging transdiscipline of storytelling within the Big History tent as synergistic complement to collective learning, that pulls together many Big History threads and which can help improve the effectiveness of telling Big History as a common human origin story for navigating the precarious prospects of the Anthropocene.


Author Biography

John Hasse, Rowan University

John Hasse, Ph.D. AICP is a professor of geography and Director of the Geospatial Research Lab in the Department of Geography, Planning & Sustainability at Rowan University where he teaches various courses in geography, GIS and planning. Hasse’s research interest focuses on land use geography and the interface of land use, environmental planning and spatial analysis. Hasse has taught courses in geography, planning and GIS where he integrates the big picture perspectives of geography and Big History with the applied tools of planning for designing a more resilient future land system. Professor Hasse integrates these same interests in his research where he has been conducting an on-going multi-decade analysis of urbanization and open space loss in New Jersey and studies the environmental impacts of future development buildout. Hasse has established the NJ MAP project, an award-winning online interactive atlas of New Jersey’s environmental data. For the past decade Hasse has been teaching a course that tells the story of planet earth that integrates the time dimensions of Big History with the spatial dimensions of geography. Central to this work is the perspective of humans as the storytelling species.