Design Thinking as the Evolution of Storytelling: Part One

The ability to tell stories has given our species the evolutionary advantages responsible for our proliferation to 8 billion people worldwide. Could design thinking be an evolved form of our narrative abilities that we are cultivating just in time to save us from ourselves?
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October 28, 2022

Humans are born problem solvers. Strange, clawless, furless beasts who, unlike every other creature, adapted our environments to meet our needs, not the other way around. This legacy sets us apart in and at odds with the world in which we currently live. Yes, evolution has been a double-edged sword. Our skill at changing our environment has also thrown it dangerously out of whack. To overcome this evolutionary catch-22, an adjunct skill (preferably one we also have been developing for a very long time) would be nice. We may have one in design thinking

Circular, holistic, and innovative, it is perfectly suited for astoundingly complex and global climate systems in crisis. And while we know design thinking uses stories, in some ways, might it be the evolution of storytelling too? In order to answer that, we need to go back to where the story began.

Storytelling and Its Humble Beginnings

Like nearly everything else in our human evolutionary bag of tricks, the story evolved along with us to help us survive. A tool used by the great toolmaker to relay information about the observed world around us--and then change it.  

The way we tell stories morphed over tens of thousands of years, but at their core, the stories are all the same—a report of change or the threat of it. The human brain is obsessed with change because of our limited senses. Our eyes, for example, only see color and high-definition within a 20-30 degree focus core. To compensate for this, our five senses quickly and continually scan our environments for changes and report them to our brains. 

The resulting interpretation is what we call reality. Stories inside our heads,  about what is happening outside of them, are told to us by an electrochemical cascade. Not surprisingly, when gifted with language (perhaps by the “tree of knowledge mutation”) humans went swiftly to telling them.

The Homo Sapien (Sapien) Storytelling Advantage

Served raw, storytelling is just communication. But simmered and stirred in the brains and imaginations of humans for eons, it has turned into something more layered, nuanced, complex, and extremely powerful. The evolution of the story–and its telling–led to the rise of our hominid specie, Homo Sapien, Sapien, for example. It is theorized it also led to the extinction of seven other hominid competitors during the cognitive revolution. 

Language, Storytelling, and the Cognitive Revolution

Through ages of time –and at least two additional revolutions– the story has continued to adapt and change in lockstep with our needs and demands. In fact, the story is so in sync with the progress of the teller, sometimes hard to separate which is influencing which. For this reason, to understand design thinking as an evolution of storytelling, we must go back to the tipping point. The one that got us where we are today: The Cognitive Revolution. And, as it turns out, it's a pretty good story too.

The Rise of Wise Man

The timeline of human evolution curves lazily upward for roughly four billion years until about 70,000 years ago. This was when ages of tiny blips of progress were suddenly punctuated by a spike called the Cognitive Revolution. It was the first of three revolutions to date and likely the most important. One could call it the dawn of human history, not because that is where human history started, but rather where Homo Sapiens ("Wise Man") ended up. The lone, soon-to-be last of our genus made superior by neural networks sophisticated enough to produce language and, with it, stories.

All Language is Communication: All Communication is Not Language

It is important not to confuse language with communication. Many animals communicate. The seven species today's Sapiens out-competed likely uttered crude cries of danger or help. But the relatively recent ability to convey a narrative of shared thoughts and abstract concepts that other hominids lacked is what gave us dominion today. 

This shiny new Sapien ability, language, was fundamentally a story from the start: reports of change or threats of change. What were once generic warnings became narrative descriptions--detailed plans for hunting, stalking, or coordinated counterattacks, for example. 

The Novel Storytelling Ability

The benefit of novel storytelling was three-pronged, the ability for complexity, gossip, and collective fiction. Each prong, extended outward in time, exhibits could be seen to have fundamental kinships to design thinking tenets of today. However, unlike the cognitive revolution--a hardware update to the brain's neuropathways--our ability to "design think" is a software update. It is an improvement in how we think, resulting in disruptive, life-saving innovations. We see this in the agricultural revolution when primitive humans began farming in response to hunting their food sources to extinction. 

However, to best understand design thinking as the extension, if not the evolution of the aforementioned prongs, it is best to examine them individually. In part two of “Design Thinking as the Evolution of Storytelling”, we will break down the evolutionary advantages and show a thru line to the design thinking we need to implement today to solve global crises and challenges.

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