Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 32, Issue 6, pp 839–853 | Cite as

Collective narratives, false memories, and the origins of autobiographical memory

  • Eva JablonkaEmail author
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. The Evolution of Language


Building on Dor’s theory of language as a social technology for the instruction of imagination, I suggest that autobiographical memory evolved culturally as a response to the problems of false memory and deliberate deceit that were introduced by that technology. I propose that sapiens’ linguistic communication about past and future events initially occurred in small groups, and this helped to correct individual memory defects. However, when human groups grew in size and became more socially differentiated, and movement between groups prevented story-verification, misattributions of events became more common. In such conditions individuals with better autobiographical memory had an advantage because they could evaluate their own contents and sources of information, as well as that of others, more accurately; this not only benefitted them directly, but also improved their reliability as social partners. Autobiographical memory thus evolved in the context of human linguistic communication through selection for communicative reliability. However, the advantages of imagination, which enables forward-planning and decision-Making, meant that memory distortions, although controlled and moderated by autobiographical memory, could not be totally eradicated. This may have driven the evolution of additional forms of memory control involving social and linguistic norms. I interpret the language and the social norms of the Pirahã as the outcome of the cultural-evolutionary control of memory distortions. Some ways of testing aspects of this proposal are outlined.


Autobiographical memory Collective memory Episodic memory Evolution of language False memory Imagination Pirahã 



I am grateful to the participants of the 2015 in the 29th Annual International Workshop on the History and Philosophy of Science, Israel, Landscapes of collectively and the ANU 2016 workshop on The Evolution of Language for their constructive comments, and to Simona Ginsburg, Zohar Bronfman, Daniel Dor and Dan Everett for critical comments on an earlier version of this paper. Special thanks are due to Marion Lamb who read and commented on the various versions of this paper.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The Cohn Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and IdeasTel-Aviv UniversityTel-AvivIsrael

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