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On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction

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A century and a half after the publication of "Origin of Species, " evolutionary thinking has expanded beyond the field of biology to include virtually all human-related subjects--anthropology, archeology, psychology, economics, religion, morality, politics, culture, and art. Now a distinguished scholar offers the first comprehensive account of the evolutionary origins of A century and a half after the publication of "Origin of Species, " evolutionary thinking has expanded beyond the field of biology to include virtually all human-related subjects--anthropology, archeology, psychology, economics, religion, morality, politics, culture, and art. Now a distinguished scholar offers the first comprehensive account of the evolutionary origins of art and storytelling. Brian Boyd explains why we tell stories, how our minds are shaped to understand them, and what difference an evolutionary understanding of human nature makes to stories we love. Art is a specifically human adaptation, Boyd argues. It offers tangible advantages for human survival, and it derives from play, itself an adaptation widespread among more intelligent animals. More particularly, our fondness for storytelling has sharpened social cognition, encouraged cooperation, and fostered creativity. After considering art as adaptation, Boyd examines Homer's "Odyssey" and Dr. Seuss's "Horton Hears a Who!" demonstrating how an evolutionary lens can offer new understanding and appreciation of specific works. What triggers our emotional engagement with these works? What patterns facilitate our responses? The need to hold an audience's attention, Boyd underscores, is the fundamental problem facing all storytellers. Enduring artists arrive at solutions that appeal to cognitive universals: an insight out of step with contemporary criticism, which obscures both the individual and universal. Published for the bicentenary of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of "Origin of Species, " Boyd's study embraces a Darwinian view of human nature and art, and offers a credo for a new humanism.


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A century and a half after the publication of "Origin of Species, " evolutionary thinking has expanded beyond the field of biology to include virtually all human-related subjects--anthropology, archeology, psychology, economics, religion, morality, politics, culture, and art. Now a distinguished scholar offers the first comprehensive account of the evolutionary origins of A century and a half after the publication of "Origin of Species, " evolutionary thinking has expanded beyond the field of biology to include virtually all human-related subjects--anthropology, archeology, psychology, economics, religion, morality, politics, culture, and art. Now a distinguished scholar offers the first comprehensive account of the evolutionary origins of art and storytelling. Brian Boyd explains why we tell stories, how our minds are shaped to understand them, and what difference an evolutionary understanding of human nature makes to stories we love. Art is a specifically human adaptation, Boyd argues. It offers tangible advantages for human survival, and it derives from play, itself an adaptation widespread among more intelligent animals. More particularly, our fondness for storytelling has sharpened social cognition, encouraged cooperation, and fostered creativity. After considering art as adaptation, Boyd examines Homer's "Odyssey" and Dr. Seuss's "Horton Hears a Who!" demonstrating how an evolutionary lens can offer new understanding and appreciation of specific works. What triggers our emotional engagement with these works? What patterns facilitate our responses? The need to hold an audience's attention, Boyd underscores, is the fundamental problem facing all storytellers. Enduring artists arrive at solutions that appeal to cognitive universals: an insight out of step with contemporary criticism, which obscures both the individual and universal. Published for the bicentenary of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of "Origin of Species, " Boyd's study embraces a Darwinian view of human nature and art, and offers a credo for a new humanism.

30 review for On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction

  1. 5 out of 5

    Adam Floridia

    After finishing this, I wanted to take the time to mull over what I had read so that I could write a specific, detailed review. Instead, I’m going with the lazy list of overarching ideas that I had while reading. One of Boyd’s goals is to prove that art, especially narrative, is a specifically human adaptation that is biological part of our species. In this, he succeeds. However, he does so tediously. Maybe it’s because I buy evolutionary theories in general, but his conjectures were all logical, After finishing this, I wanted to take the time to mull over what I had read so that I could write a specific, detailed review. Instead, I’m going with the lazy list of overarching ideas that I had while reading. One of Boyd’s goals is to prove that art, especially narrative, is a specifically human adaptation that is biological part of our species. In this, he succeeds. However, he does so tediously. Maybe it’s because I buy evolutionary theories in general, but his conjectures were all logical, almost no-brainers. For example, animals engage in play in order to hone key survival skills. Art is cognitive play, so it is pretty much brain exercise. Human minds respond to patterns, which art provides. Human minds also respond strongly to novel ideas and the sensational, which fiction provides. Okay. Next “innovative” idea: we draw comfort and strength from our physical and emotional attunement, which is bolstered by shared attention and cooperation. Art provides a focus of attention. Producing art also earns the artist attention. People like attention, so they tell stories to make themselves the centers of attention. Okay. Here’s where my criticism will seem contradictory. While I understand the need to provide scientific evidence, especially when attempting to prove an evolutionary claim, Boyd simultaneously offered way too much information and, conversely, not enough good information. As I said, so many of his claims seemed intuitive, that 200 pages of proof seemed superfluous. (Here’s where I’m too lazy to seek out specific examples). However, so much of his proof was based on animal observations THAT WERE NOT REPEATED TESTS that they were hardly strong proof. Seeing a monkey or a dolphin act in a certain way proves nothing; what if the individual animal is NOT representative of its species? Then there are when discussing early art leads to “we can only presume that works as elaborate as this bespeak a long prior process.” Presume?! Still, the first half of the book proves, albeit laboriously, that telling fictional stories is a biological adaptation in humans. What I was more interested in when I bought the book is what effect, according to Boyd, this would have on LITERARY CRITICISM. Despite two “case studies” (The Odyssey and Horton Hears a Who) and another 300 pages, Boyd offers only the most cursory explanations. He argues, accurately, that for the past few decades, since Barthes and Foucault pronounced the death of the author, Theory has heard its own death knell. Evolutionary/Biocultural Theory may actuate its revival; however, he does so in such a pell-mell manner that one is still left wondering “how?” His new theory is a hodgepodge of old modes of criticism, most notably the following: cultural, biographical, and reader response. In his case study of the Odyssey, he picks out all the examples of dramatic irony and explains how they would pique “readers’” interests. He also notes patterns in character and plot and the purported effects they have on an audience—“revenge elicits intense emotions.” All of this ties into his the evolutionary instinct to earn attention (for Homer) and share attention via culture (the audience). So what? I could certainly BS many a paper explaining why readers might be drawn to (attention!) ANY piece of crap. He also spends way too much time explaining how characters in The Odyssey behave in evolutionary ways that he described in the first half of the book. So what? How does any of this enhance our understanding of The Odyssey??? Much like reading the book, I am quickly growing tired of reviewing the book. His dumb analysis of Horton Hears a Who looks at the biographical impetuses that prompted Seuss’s writing it. He takes into account the individual, local, and universal factors that went into it. He also explains how it expresses universal human values. (I suppose a big part of his theory is this: There IS universal human nature, thanks to evolution.) Again, though, so what?? It’s like this whole case study promoted the “bullshit method of answering CAPT question 4” that we teach sophomores to answer. When asked “What is ‘good literature’?” they are told to reply “Good literature is universal and timeless.” That amounts to finding a theme (usually grounded in a human emotion) that is both universal and timeless, all of which is the MOST BASIC level of literary criticism. There are a few interesting ideas here and there throughout the book (for personal reasons, I enjoy the secular slant of it), but you can gain whatever is to be gained from it by reading the conclusion (NOT the afterward, which is complete shit). On page 397 of the conclusion, you will find the most summative sentence of the book: “Evolutionary criticism offers no set questions, let alone set answers.” In other words, evolutionary criticism offers NOTHING new, but it does warn against buying into one of the very reductive theories. Boyd’s writing also does not have the attention-keeping qualities that it does in his Nabokov biographies. Very disappointing.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Ashley

    A summer's worth of reading and I've finally finished Brian Boyd's On the Origin of Stories, a colossal treatise on the intersection of literature and cognitive science. Boyd, a prominent Nabokov scholar, dives head-first into the world of evolutionary biology in an effort to understand what it is about stories that appeal to us, why we expend so much time and effort in telling them, and why some endure for generations while others barely register at all on our cultural radars. His main theory i A summer's worth of reading and I've finally finished Brian Boyd's On the Origin of Stories, a colossal treatise on the intersection of literature and cognitive science. Boyd, a prominent Nabokov scholar, dives head-first into the world of evolutionary biology in an effort to understand what it is about stories that appeal to us, why we expend so much time and effort in telling them, and why some endure for generations while others barely register at all on our cultural radars. His main theory is that fiction, like much art, is a form of cognitive play—engaging attention and developing social intelligence with very little risk, just as physical play develops the reflexes and coordination that the young of many species will need as adults. Boyd's central argument is compelling and the reach of his book heroic; where he starts to fall flat is in his analysis of The Odyssey, which he ostensibly uses to show the phylogenetic development of a story that has lasted generations, but instead turns into a line-by-line exercise in explication that doesn't go very far in supporting his thesis. He redeems himself, though, in his lively and engaging discussion of Horton Hears a Who!, where he describes the writing as a process of constant regeneration, a series of nested problems and solutions. Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, said that he wrote his children's books by "work[ing:] like hell—write, re-write, reject, and polish incessantly." Boyd takes the Seussian appeal to people of all ages, including those too young to understand all of the words, as evidence that there is a hardwired element in our attraction to stories. Ultimately, Boyd suggests that "evocriticism," a biological approach to fiction, take over for capital-T Theory in academic English departments. His book is too cumbersome at 500+ pages for me to call it a manifesto, but he makes a very good case for his biolcultural perspective, which "connects literature, for so long our best repository of information about human experience, with ongoing research of various kinds that can refine and challenge our understanding of human nature and thought." Boyd is at his best when he concretely shows us how understanding some part of the science enhances some particular aspect of art, but because he spans such immense bodies of knowledge it takes a very long time to get to those argent moments. But they are there, and if you're paying attention, you'll find them. I like his epigraph too much not to include it here: We are absurdly accustomed to the miracle of a few written signs being able to contain immortal imagery, involutions of thought, new worlds with live people, speaking, weeping, laughing. We take it for granted so simply that in a sense, by the very act of brutish routine acceptance, we undo the work of the ages, the history of the gradual elaboration of poetical description and construction, from the tree-man to Browning, from the caveman to Keats. -Nabokov, Pale Fire I wouldn't be surprised if this passage alone sparked Boyd's whole tome of an endeavor. He wants to know how it works, and why, and not in sweeping generalizations but somewhere down in the messy sequence of words that pulls us in. And that makes him very, very cool.

  3. 5 out of 5

    James Murphy

    Since the publication of Origin of Species, Darwin's discoveries on evolution have gradually sprung from his biological underpinnings to encompass all the social and cultural disciplines of mankind. Brian Boyd here explains the sources and function of story by using evolutionary thinking. In doing so he discusses how culture in general and art in particular had origins in the human need to develop a self-awareness giving us advantages over other species. By using our ability to focus attention a Since the publication of Origin of Species, Darwin's discoveries on evolution have gradually sprung from his biological underpinnings to encompass all the social and cultural disciplines of mankind. Brian Boyd here explains the sources and function of story by using evolutionary thinking. In doing so he discusses how culture in general and art in particular had origins in the human need to develop a self-awareness giving us advantages over other species. By using our ability to focus attention and to learn from pattern we've developed variety and option and creativity. Art produces variation from which flows option and new ways of thinking. Human purpose drives the creativity. Art and story, Boyd says, emerge from play as children develop social skills. We learn how to direct attention toward innovation in understanding and representing events, real and invented. We've developed fiction to give the artistic design of stories we tell some social function. Fiction allows us a myriad of ways to process social information. The end product of this process, the ability to create and narrate stories,Boyd calls evocriticism. The thinking of humans, so superior to animal thought, has "decreed the world of human life to be entirely shaped by culture and convention and therefore distinct from the rest of reality." Our greater sociability, information analysis, and thinking capacity added to our having evolved language has made it possible for us to develop far in advance of animals, and from Beowulf to Gravity's Rainbow. The examples he uses to illustrate all this is Homer's Odyssey and the Dr. Seuss book Horton Hears a Who! About half the book is used for deep discussions of those 2 works and how they reflect the ideas he explains in the 1st 200 pages or so. Late in the book he tells us he'd originally intended to include Hamlet, Twelfth Night, Pride and Prejudice, Ulysses, and Maus in his analytical illustrations. I personally would've preferred one of these to Horton, but it's not surprising he was reined in by the limitations of space. Considering that his examinations of the Odyssey and Horton Hears a Who! cover 171 pages, adding another 4 or 5 books to his study would've made it enormous. As it is, it's a hefty, dense read, and I'm sure I didn't grasp all of it. Just my trying to condense some of Boyd's ideas on evolution and the human wellspring of stories in this brief review doesn't do justice to the scope of his subject matter or the depth of his interpretations.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Keith

    A book about evolution. A book about literature. A book about Homer and Dr. Seuss. All things I’m very interested in. Yet, somehow, Brian Boyd’s book was just not very compelling reading. It was, in fact, a difficult book to read -- it was a struggle taking me months to finish. I don’t know if it’s just the writing style or the content. Some of the evolutionary background was certainly redundant to me, but I can see why he needed it in the book. Regardless of that, the book has an important stat A book about evolution. A book about literature. A book about Homer and Dr. Seuss. All things I’m very interested in. Yet, somehow, Brian Boyd’s book was just not very compelling reading. It was, in fact, a difficult book to read -- it was a struggle taking me months to finish. I don’t know if it’s just the writing style or the content. Some of the evolutionary background was certainly redundant to me, but I can see why he needed it in the book. Regardless of that, the book has an important statement about the future of literary analysis. We’ve had Jungian readings, Freudian interpretations and Marxist studies. We have Theory (with a capital T), women studies, cultural studies and post-colonial interpretations. An evolutionary reading of literature is just like those – except it is based on fact. Personally, I’m more interested in studies of form rather than interpretation. “How does the artist achieve this effect?” is a more compelling to me than a dozen interpretive statements like this: “Because this balancing act militates against the totalizing logic of ideology, it offers an alternative to the reification of self by unsettling such primary binary oppositions as those that hold between subject and object, reading and author.” What the -- ? The primary theme of Boyd’s book is that fiction (and art in general) offers a survival advantage and is thus favor by natural selection. The author has some interesting points about attention and the role it plays in art. I can’t help but think there are better books about Darwinian literary studies. (Boyd calls it evocriticism.) The life sciences and the arts will continue to be coming closer together, like it or not. I’ll end with a wonderfully ironic quote that Boyd features in his book: “Criticism seems to be badly in need of a coordinating principle, a central hypothesis which, like the theory of evolution in biology, will see the phenomena it deals with as parts of a whole.” – Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism

  5. 4 out of 5

    Peter King

    This book is about a conjecture.The conjecture is that stories are as much a part of our evolutionary heritage as any physical attribute of humankind.In my opinion that conjecture is probably more important than the actual book itself as I will attempt to explain. First of all an English literature professor getting down and dirty with evolutionary science is a refreshing display of courage in academic circles where so many content themselves with obscure mumbling of little significance. Very few This book is about a conjecture.The conjecture is that stories are as much a part of our evolutionary heritage as any physical attribute of humankind.In my opinion that conjecture is probably more important than the actual book itself as I will attempt to explain. First of all an English literature professor getting down and dirty with evolutionary science is a refreshing display of courage in academic circles where so many content themselves with obscure mumbling of little significance. Very few academics step outside their own department let alone their faculty. Boyd has left the comfortable shores of literary criticism for a journey into the exacting world of natural science. Unfortunately while he has collected an impressive pile of references to join the dots between his assertions they remain anecdotes rather than any form of proof. The result is a narrative which itself is a tour of hypotheses rather than a compelling story (in its literary capacity) and not strong enough to bear the weight of detailed scrutiny as science. Part of the problem, I would suggest is that he has tried to prove too much. Rather than confine himself to the evolution of narrative he has taken on the entire question of art. Trying to reduce all art to playing is, in my opinion, stretching a hypothesis to breaking point. Surely there is a distinction in evolutionary terms between decorating (visual arts) and celebrating (song and dance). There is also the distinction between making and decorating, games and plays, rituals and practice. This is where the problem of authority raises itself. This book has been published because Boyd is a literature professor with an interesting idea. Aware that he is well outside his field of authority he has done what he can to invoke authoritative evidence. Unfortunately the tone is not one of conjecture but of the authority the professor does not actually have. A little more humility or narrative invention would have made this a better work. Despite its failings I still consider this a very important work. It is about the roots of story and the way story has evolved and become a key part of the way we think. This has important implications for psychology, marketing and politics. I hope Professor Boyd will publish more in this field, preferably with others from the humanities faculty.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Kai Teorn

    The thrust of this book is simple: a human is not a clean slate, but a social animal shaped by evolution. Most of the things humans do, including art, make a lot more sense if viewed in light of this. Moreover, culture itself, including art, is a subject of its own mutation pressure, selection, and inheritance - that is, its own evolution. This book is a critical element in the ongoing "evolutionary revolution" in science, which may in the long term rival the Copernican revolution by its depth a The thrust of this book is simple: a human is not a clean slate, but a social animal shaped by evolution. Most of the things humans do, including art, make a lot more sense if viewed in light of this. Moreover, culture itself, including art, is a subject of its own mutation pressure, selection, and inheritance - that is, its own evolution. This book is a critical element in the ongoing "evolutionary revolution" in science, which may in the long term rival the Copernican revolution by its depth and implications. Whether or not you still think art is "safe" from the biological insights, you need to read this. The book argues its case very convincingly and offers a lot of keen observations. To me it sounded a little slow and repetitive at times, but that's explainable given the book's target audience: people in the humanities are sometimes surprisingly unaware of the basics of evolutionary theory.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Peter

    Incredibly informative and inspiring, with exciting facts. Among many intereting suggestions, a gem for educators who feel that stories are important in the development of skills and competences.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Monica

    In writing a book about fiction and evolution, the author should have spent time to make his text much more illustrative of his points. We humans need fiction, he says. Our brains have, for better or for worse, evolved to see our world in terms of stories. So, it is likely that seeing our world this way gives out species a part of the evolutionary advantage which we now enjoy. He's not the first human to observe this. In antiquity, sages figured out how to build a "cathedral of the mind" in orde In writing a book about fiction and evolution, the author should have spent time to make his text much more illustrative of his points. We humans need fiction, he says. Our brains have, for better or for worse, evolved to see our world in terms of stories. So, it is likely that seeing our world this way gives out species a part of the evolutionary advantage which we now enjoy. He's not the first human to observe this. In antiquity, sages figured out how to build a "cathedral of the mind" in order to memorize large bodies of information and be able to recite them from memory at will. This was done in part by creating and remembering little stories about the bits of information to be remembered and then locating them in a real or imagined place in a building or place you know well. Take an imaginary walk through the building in your memory and review the stories you've stored there - and flawlessly retrieve your memorized data. Modern feats of memorization are done the same way. The method, rarely taught in this age of plentiful and instantly accessible reference materials, takes lovely advantage of our evolutionary affinity to story-telling. Alas, the author failed to use the very principles he was describing. Had he done so, this book might have been a fascinating, enjoyable, and memorable read. Instead it reminded me of long-winded dissertations by graduate students trying to buy a Ph.D with obscure language peppered with obtuse references, obscure jargon, and 10 dollar words in the hope that those evaluating the work will give up and grant the sought-after certification without bothering to slog through the mess that supposedly proves they have earned it. He has other excellent points to make about the evolution of fiction itself, and about literary analytics and criticism, but alas - the writing was so bad that it really isn't worth slogging through it unless you are a glutton for this sort of punishment. The style reminded me of certain modern authors whose claim to fame is in writing totally horrendous novels in extremely obscure modes so that the self-named intelligentsia can read them, praise them, and so feel superior to those like myself who feel very strongly that the best writing, fiction or fact, is clear, simple, unambiguous, and transparent - letting the story shine through like clear sunlight through glass.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Jesse

    a pretty good book that i felt sabotaged itself from the get-go, by picking such an ostentatious title. the book is really literary theory through the lens of evolutionary psychology (which he labels evocriticism) - and the idea itself is interesting and somewhat original. but, by picking that title he falls into the trap that all evolutionary psychologists fall into, namely, acting as if you theory is some how provable. boyd does mumble something about how his idea can be falsifiable, but negle a pretty good book that i felt sabotaged itself from the get-go, by picking such an ostentatious title. the book is really literary theory through the lens of evolutionary psychology (which he labels evocriticism) - and the idea itself is interesting and somewhat original. but, by picking that title he falls into the trap that all evolutionary psychologists fall into, namely, acting as if you theory is some how provable. boyd does mumble something about how his idea can be falsifiable, but neglects to mention that all the information needed to judge veracity are subjective literary decisions (hardly the solid data that astronomers, and physicists use). and sadly what could have been a great litcrit book, turns into an exersize in claiming to know the unkowable. the ideas of art developing through competing attentions by the mechanism of natural selection is an intriguing idea, but claiming that its falsifiable is difficult to accept. this, of course, is a common problem when experts of one field take ideas from another - they don't fully understand the backdrop of that idea, and the correct ways to use them. now sometimes this lack of knowledge allows people to ignore accepted ideas and make leaps foward, but sometimes they just embarras themselves. i think boyd falls somewhere in between, making a great connection between fiction and evolution, but then failing to state what it really is: an unprovable theory, an idea sprung from soft science.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Jonna Higgins-Freese

    A mildly interesting investigation of the possible evolutionary value of stories, the ability to imaginatively project ourselves into others' experiences, and the mimetic cognitive value of story telling. But in the end, the author forgets what a scientist friend always points out: "Nature selects for the barely adequate." Storytelling and pattern-seeking may be marginally more adaptively helpful than not. But the lesson of Buddhism -- and science -- is, I think, that our propensity to seek patt A mildly interesting investigation of the possible evolutionary value of stories, the ability to imaginatively project ourselves into others' experiences, and the mimetic cognitive value of story telling. But in the end, the author forgets what a scientist friend always points out: "Nature selects for the barely adequate." Storytelling and pattern-seeking may be marginally more adaptively helpful than not. But the lesson of Buddhism -- and science -- is, I think, that our propensity to seek pattern often causes us to see patterns that aren't there, with often-unhelpful, un-adaptive consequences.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Christina “6 word reviewer” Lake

    Evolution explains art's origins. Still unconvinced. Evolution explains art's origins. Still unconvinced.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Maria

    Interesting first theoretical part; incredibly boring and repetitive text discussions in the second part.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Gregg Sapp

    Literary theory, like evolutionary theory is, to use the famous phrase coined by Ernst Mayr, “one long argument.” While both search for enduring principles and systematic processes, both contain elements of subjectivity that can reflect contemporary trends of thought. Evolutionary thought has been warped into doctrines supporting eugenics and social Darwinism. Modern literary theory has been hijacked by the absurd excesses of postmodernism. “Proof” of any opinion in either is often little more t Literary theory, like evolutionary theory is, to use the famous phrase coined by Ernst Mayr, “one long argument.” While both search for enduring principles and systematic processes, both contain elements of subjectivity that can reflect contemporary trends of thought. Evolutionary thought has been warped into doctrines supporting eugenics and social Darwinism. Modern literary theory has been hijacked by the absurd excesses of postmodernism. “Proof” of any opinion in either is often little more than a measure of its popularity. Brian Boyd’s “On the Origin of Stories” postulates that “Art is a byproduct of adaptive features of the human mind.” Thus, the social function and even the aesthetic appeal of art, in general, and literature, in particular, can be understood by applying key suppositions of evolutionary psychology. Storytelling is an adaptive skill that conveys certain benefits to the raconteur (status, attention), to the listeners (cultivation of social intelligence and theory of mind), and to the individual listener (vicarious experience and problem-solving). These advantages fosters creativity, problem-solving, and the refinement of ideas. Boyd calls his biocultural and/ or evolutionary approach to literary theory “evocriticism.” To demonstrate how it can be applied, Boyd choose two quite disparate literary works and re-visits them through an evocritical perspective – Homer’s “The Odyssey” and “Horton Hears a Who” by Doctor Suess. Odysseus experiences several situations where he must correctly infer others’ inner motives and anticipate their actions, which, from an evolutionary perspective, is an invaluable aptitude favoring success in social living. Horton displays advanced empathy in his advocacy of the unseen Whos, and his selfless determination is rewarded in the end. There’s one more key element in Boyd’s formulation, though. He contends that a primary adaptive value inherent in art is that it facilitates creativity, which expresses itself as play. “I suggest that we can view art as a kind of cognitive play, the set of activities designed to engage human attention through their appeal to our preference for inferentially rich and therefore patterned information.” Anthropologists have long recognized that child’s play serves as a kind of practice for adult circumstances. Similarly, stories enable adults to vicariously experience situations that they may be unlikely to confront in their routine lives, but nevertheless engages their imaginations through the actions and feelings of fictional characters. A good story is like a simulation. According to the liner notes for “On the Origin of Stories,” Brian Boyd is the “world’s foremost authority on the works of Vladimir Nabokov.” As such, I’d imagine that his has given some consideration to the about the innate evolutionary psychology behind “Lolita” or “Ada” – Yikes! Pedophilia or incest, take your pick. It is hard to disprove evolutionary psychology, because it engulfs the entirety of human thought. The beauty of a theory like this is that it is infinitely malleable, so that readers can see something of themselves in Odysseus, Horton, and Humbert Humbert. The gene's eye view may also be infinitely reductive, so that heroism, altruism, and fetishism all fit into the paradigm.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Peter O'Brien

    "Storytelling appeals to our social intelligence. It arises out of our intense interest in monitoring one another and out of our evolved capacity to understand one another through theory of mind. Our capacity to comprehend events, many facets of which we share with other animals, underlies our capacity for story but should not be confused with narrative, with telling stories, an effortful process we undertake only to direct the attention of others to events real or imagined. Stories, whether tru "Storytelling appeals to our social intelligence. It arises out of our intense interest in monitoring one another and out of our evolved capacity to understand one another through theory of mind. Our capacity to comprehend events, many facets of which we share with other animals, underlies our capacity for story but should not be confused with narrative, with telling stories, an effortful process we undertake only to direct the attention of others to events real or imagined. Stories, whether true or false, appeal to our interest in others, but fiction can especially appeal by inventing events with an intensity and surprise that fact rarely permits. Fiction foster cooperation by engaging and attuning our social and moral emotions and values, and creativity by enticing us to think beyond the immediate in the ways our minds are most naturally disposed - in terms of social actions." As the title suggests, this book builds on Darwin's 'On the Origin of Species' and speculates on the origin of humanity's cognitive ability to create and tell stories... and what larger evolutionary and culture shaping purpose that storytelling ability serves. The ideas put forth are fascinating and make a lot of sense. It's just a shame that, for a book about storytelling, the author has a writing style that is as flat as a pancake... most probably why it has taken me 6 years to finish reading it 😵

  15. 4 out of 5

    Lindsay Hickman

    Felt very much like a textbook instead of a book that I would choose. Definitely be aware of the heavy science in the first half of the book. Very science heavy, like having to Google and dust off old high school chemistry heavy, but the second part of the book dips into Literary Theory and becomes more enjoyable to read, but still long and so, so, so repetitive. The main point of this book is that art, particularly narrative, and story is a specific human adaptation that is biological part of o Felt very much like a textbook instead of a book that I would choose. Definitely be aware of the heavy science in the first half of the book. Very science heavy, like having to Google and dust off old high school chemistry heavy, but the second part of the book dips into Literary Theory and becomes more enjoyable to read, but still long and so, so, so repetitive. The main point of this book is that art, particularly narrative, and story is a specific human adaptation that is biological part of our species. He proves this but takes the long way around the entire world to get there. People that are reading this book don't need to have 150 pages of convincing argument that animals enjoy play, humans enjoy play, narrative is a different type of play, so we get stories. The hardest part of this book was the part I wanted to read it for: the literary criticism. He uses two case studies on and dissects two books in every possible model, but NONE OF THIS IS NEW. (Sorry I get edgy when it comes to English Geek Speak.) His Literary Criticism are nothing new and they are just old types of criticism, specifically cultural, biographical, and reader response, but he attempts to parade them around as some new wave nonsense.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Shelley

    Ever wondered why we humans find reading fiction so engrossing? Wonder no more. Brian Boyd, whose bio identifies him as a university professor and "the world's foremost authority on the works of Nabokov", argues that storytelling has given homo sapiens an evolutionary advantage. Stories help exercise cognition and creativity, and helps to bond societies together. Stories encourage imagination and the creation of new solutions. Looking at the world through other eyes supports social skills, hence Ever wondered why we humans find reading fiction so engrossing? Wonder no more. Brian Boyd, whose bio identifies him as a university professor and "the world's foremost authority on the works of Nabokov", argues that storytelling has given homo sapiens an evolutionary advantage. Stories help exercise cognition and creativity, and helps to bond societies together. Stories encourage imagination and the creation of new solutions. Looking at the world through other eyes supports social skills, hence social cohesion. While this book demands commitment (it's 500 pages, and in often academic language), it also provides much food for thought. His arguments are cogent and insightful. The two case studies he investigates are a delightful juxtaposition: Homer's The Odyssey and Dr. Seuss's Horton Hears a Who! If you love both science (especially evolutionary biology) and literature, this is a book for you.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Katie

    While I appreciate Boyd's focus on how the need to capture attention as an evolutionary drive for fiction and a way of explaining design features of stories, I'm struggling to see how his proposed "evocritical" approach can lend itself to richer readings of stories than we can already produce with reader response, biographical, and cultural studies approaches. I felt like his book was overly repetitious and yet at the same time too general, especially in the last half of the book devoted to appl While I appreciate Boyd's focus on how the need to capture attention as an evolutionary drive for fiction and a way of explaining design features of stories, I'm struggling to see how his proposed "evocritical" approach can lend itself to richer readings of stories than we can already produce with reader response, biographical, and cultural studies approaches. I felt like his book was overly repetitious and yet at the same time too general, especially in the last half of the book devoted to applying his approach to the Odyssey and Horton Hears a Who! I would have been much more interested to see him analyze Maus, for example. I concur with the previous poster who suggested you'd be better off just reading his conclusion rather than the whole book. PopSugar 2017 Reading Challenge: A book with a subtitle

  18. 4 out of 5

    Kate

    This one was a bit of a slog to read, not to mention hard to wrap one's head around. I feel like I didn't get as much out of it as I could have, as evolutionary biology is hardly my forte--and the author delved into it quite a bit. I was expecting/hoping for less of that and more literary analysis. It's still an interesting new type of literary theory, and a good deep dive into the origins of storytelling, but...expect to expend a lot of time and mental energy trying to sort out what the author' This one was a bit of a slog to read, not to mention hard to wrap one's head around. I feel like I didn't get as much out of it as I could have, as evolutionary biology is hardly my forte--and the author delved into it quite a bit. I was expecting/hoping for less of that and more literary analysis. It's still an interesting new type of literary theory, and a good deep dive into the origins of storytelling, but...expect to expend a lot of time and mental energy trying to sort out what the author's really trying to say to you.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Nick

    A profound book that argues we’ve developed storytelling as a way of getting and holding the attention of others. Art (storytelling) begins as creative play that shapes the mind, then raises status with others. Boyd uses the examples of the Odyssey and Dr Suess to talk about patterns of narrative and how those fit our deep needs for attention and meaning. If he doesn't quite make the case that storytelling is an evolved, essential human trait like eating and sleeping, he does argue quite compell A profound book that argues we’ve developed storytelling as a way of getting and holding the attention of others. Art (storytelling) begins as creative play that shapes the mind, then raises status with others. Boyd uses the examples of the Odyssey and Dr Suess to talk about patterns of narrative and how those fit our deep needs for attention and meaning. If he doesn't quite make the case that storytelling is an evolved, essential human trait like eating and sleeping, he does argue quite compellingly for the importance of story in human culture.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Daniella

    No judgement to the author here. It's a book based on literary theory, and I'm just not interested in theory. The parallels drawn between two widely known texts - Horton Hears a Who and The Odyssey - and evolution are fascinating. Boyd has insured that I have a richer understand of the way art has evolved over time and the way humans interact with art through the ages. Highly suggest for lovers of theory. No judgement to the author here. It's a book based on literary theory, and I'm just not interested in theory. The parallels drawn between two widely known texts - Horton Hears a Who and The Odyssey - and evolution are fascinating. Boyd has insured that I have a richer understand of the way art has evolved over time and the way humans interact with art through the ages. Highly suggest for lovers of theory.

  21. 5 out of 5

    anonymousreader

    to-read

  22. 5 out of 5

    Alessandro Veneri

    I highly valued this book much because of its ability to open up new connections between different subjects, such as art, theory of evolution and religion - providing a more complete explanation of why humans end up enjoying so much storytelling. Considering how a costly activity storytelling is (sum the creative effort of the author to the potential risks the audience faces in attending to a story, postponing resting or responding to existential threats), it needed an equally strong explanation I highly valued this book much because of its ability to open up new connections between different subjects, such as art, theory of evolution and religion - providing a more complete explanation of why humans end up enjoying so much storytelling. Considering how a costly activity storytelling is (sum the creative effort of the author to the potential risks the audience faces in attending to a story, postponing resting or responding to existential threats), it needed an equally strong explanation to account for how it could live up to evolution's design guidelines. After dwelling upon the evolutionary causes of intelligence and cooperation, Boyd defines "art as cognitive play with pattern". The benefits of motor and social skills refinement through repetition-and-adjustment in a safe environment account for why play became an evolutionary advantage among most complex animal species; the cognitive characterisation chiefly ascribe to humans' most prominent feature: intelligence; the ultrasocial aspect of human nature demands for an endless testing and mastering of social skills, to decipher how and why other conspecifics behave the way they do, and consequently adjust our actions to advance our status and reproductive chances. Far from ruling out previous explanations, to Boyd art therefore serves to command the evolutionary need of pattern recognition in a faster way, to channel shared attention and subsequent human cohesion. He adds how art raises the status of the artist and also certain members among the audience, besides fostering creativity as a second-order "Darwin machine", a way to produce endless possibilities to face environment's unpredictability. He points out how the understanding of false belief - knowing that we may not have the whole understanding of a situation - together with the rewarding activity of pattern recognition, made us reach for finer and finer explanations, which led to the development of religion as a supernatural explanation of things, besides being a powerful social reinforcer of cooperation. If the question was: "why do humans spend their mental and physical resources to hear invented stories?", then Boyd's analysis allows for a deeper understanding of literature evolutionary role: storytelling "arises out of our intense interest in monitoring one another", and "fiction can especially appeal by inventing events with an intensity and surprise that fact rarely permits. Fictions foster cooperation by engaging and attuning our social and moral emotions and values, and creativity by enticing us to think beyond the immediate".

  23. 5 out of 5

    Peter Gelfan

    Boyd, a professor of English, presents a thoroughly scientific theory of why humans of all cultures love to create and hear stories. Actually, his theory applies to all the arts, but Boyd mainly sticks to his own artistic bailiwick, literature. His approach to the topic is refreshing because it doesn’t deal with abstractions like “the human quest for transcendent meaning in life and the universe,” which is simply another made-up story that carries us away. He deals with the nitty-gritty question Boyd, a professor of English, presents a thoroughly scientific theory of why humans of all cultures love to create and hear stories. Actually, his theory applies to all the arts, but Boyd mainly sticks to his own artistic bailiwick, literature. His approach to the topic is refreshing because it doesn’t deal with abstractions like “the human quest for transcendent meaning in life and the universe,” which is simply another made-up story that carries us away. He deals with the nitty-gritty questions that, like it or not, pertain to all living things and their activities. How does our investment in literature and other arts—attention, time, money, passion—pay off in helping us as individuals and a species not only survive but flourish? His answer is logical, illuminating, and useful. In brief, he sees art as a form of play. Play, in all species that engage in it, is a pleasurable, low-risk way to practice life-or-death skills. For humans, literature and the other arts hone our cognitive abilities to read people and situations, project possible outcomes, formulate individual and cooperative responses, and become emotionally involved in the process. All of this is how we thrive, and the arts make us better at it. Creativity encourages innovation, which in turn gives human culture more possibilities to experiment with in its own ongoing evolution. Whether deliberate or inadvertent, collaboration—the recombination of creative ideas and methods that is then passed on—is the cultural equivalent of sex. He presents his case clearly, rigorously, logically, and convincingly without a lot of jargon, either literary or scientific. For examples, he mostly uses two literary masterpieces that couldn’t be farther apart in time or subject matter: Homer’s Odyssey and Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who!. Personally, I found his exegeses of these two works fascinating at first but then too detailed and repetitive. I give the book five stars anyway because of its potential importance to writers, readers, and, one hopes, to the study and criticism of literature, fields that are rife with hifalutin theories that may provide careers to teachers and critics but often do little to improve storytelling or our appreciation of it. I strongly recommend Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories to readers, writers, artists of all stripe, editors, critics, and lit professors and students, as well as to anyone who thinks that art is a waste of valuable time, especially if we enjoy it.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Paul Groos

    I've rarely read a book during which I was continually nodding in agreement. In this broad, sweeping and all encompassing study Boyd answers the question asked by Jonathan Gottschall in The Storytelling Animal (another highly recommended work on the subject): why do we like stories so much? Why do we see a story in almost everything? Why do we live and think stories? Boyd starts by explaining evolution and proves that art and specifically storytelling are evolutionary adaptations that contributed I've rarely read a book during which I was continually nodding in agreement. In this broad, sweeping and all encompassing study Boyd answers the question asked by Jonathan Gottschall in The Storytelling Animal (another highly recommended work on the subject): why do we like stories so much? Why do we see a story in almost everything? Why do we live and think stories? Boyd starts by explaining evolution and proves that art and specifically storytelling are evolutionary adaptations that contributed to our success as a species. He then expands his theory horizontally and vertically by showing how stories contribute to evolution, how they themselves and their writers are part of an evolutionary process and how important evolutionary values become condensed into stories. Art is primarily entertainment, it is highly personal and original but also lives in a space of shared attention. It evolves from play and always retains that playful, creative part. Boyd implements his theory by analyzing two famous stories that are completely different: Homer's Odyssey and Dr. Seuss' Horton hears a Who. In both cases he clearly establishes an evolutionary perspective that contributes to a better understanding of the stories, the art, the universal, local, particular and individual problems they solve and values they discuss. For a reader who is unfamiliar with American children's literature the final chapters contain many references to unknown works, but this doesn't make the points made any less clear or any less valid. The book is highly recommended for storytellers, linguists and readers.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Ryan Mishap

    An argument synthesized from what must have been years of research and interest and also of disciplines: human fictional storytelling is an evolutionary adaptation that provides an evolutionary benefit to humankind. Like any academic, Boyd marshals his evidence and arguments methodically, tracking human and other animal developments that build the foundation for his claim, before moving on to explicating it. Intriguing, certainly, and he didn't fall into any of those evolutionary pitfalls that aff An argument synthesized from what must have been years of research and interest and also of disciplines: human fictional storytelling is an evolutionary adaptation that provides an evolutionary benefit to humankind. Like any academic, Boyd marshals his evidence and arguments methodically, tracking human and other animal developments that build the foundation for his claim, before moving on to explicating it. Intriguing, certainly, and he didn't fall into any of those evolutionary pitfalls that afflict any debate on the subject until page 195--of course I'm talking about using evolution to ignore sexism. Boyd claims that since males evolved to seek status in order to win females, it is no wonder so many authors in the cannon and recently are men--duh, they seek status and those altruistic womenfolk keep the home fires burning, but (he tells us patronizingly) women probably tell more stories than men, you know, like to the kids and stuff. Here I was thinking that sexism and male domination were what kept women out of recognized literature for so long, but all along it was evolution! Anyway, I kind of lost interest in what Boyd had to say at that point, and besides, I already believe in the importance of stories. Plus, I can't spend any more time reading this if I'm going to get in gear, gain some status, and win a chance to pass on my genes!

  26. 4 out of 5

    William Kirkland

    As Brian Boyd has it in "On The Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition and Fiction" (2009), story telling in human development is an “adaptive trait,” one that has “enhanced fitness, the capacity to survive and to produce viable offspring.” It is not simply a serendipitous by-product of a complex mind which we have learned to use for entertainment and passing idle hours. This is not an uncontroversial idea. Boyd acknowledges there is opposition to “applying the principle of adaptation to human As Brian Boyd has it in "On The Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition and Fiction" (2009), story telling in human development is an “adaptive trait,” one that has “enhanced fitness, the capacity to survive and to produce viable offspring.” It is not simply a serendipitous by-product of a complex mind which we have learned to use for entertainment and passing idle hours. This is not an uncontroversial idea. Boyd acknowledges there is opposition to “applying the principle of adaptation to human minds and behavior,” citing Stephen Jay Gould as the best known. He meets their objections fairly, and to my mind persuasively. The brain in all creatures, he points out, is an organ for survival... ... On The Origin of Stories is one of a short list of books, like "Guns, Germs and Steel" by Jared Diamond (1997) which not only crosses disciplines, with deep knowledge in all, but is written to be read by non-experts in any. Evolutionary biology and psychology, anthropology, game theory, childhood development are mined and cross referenced. Neither burdened with for-professionals-only obscurities nor patronizingly explanatory, the over-all shape and first layers of his argument are accessible to all. - See more at: http://www.allinoneboat.org/2016/02/1...

  27. 4 out of 5

    محمد الخواص

    Evolutionary approach to Art “‘Thou shalt not’ might reach the head, but it takes ‘Once upon a time’ to reach the heart.” -Philip Pullman there lies the power of stories to entrench, consolidate moral values; the story engage our attention, our emotions, our hearts. moreover, it has an adaptive function through human evolution. it refines, sharpens, hones our social capacities and skills, improves coordination and cooperation in human communities. if you ever wondered, why do we sink our heads into Evolutionary approach to Art “‘Thou shalt not’ might reach the head, but it takes ‘Once upon a time’ to reach the heart.” -Philip Pullman there lies the power of stories to entrench, consolidate moral values; the story engage our attention, our emotions, our hearts. moreover, it has an adaptive function through human evolution. it refines, sharpens, hones our social capacities and skills, improves coordination and cooperation in human communities. if you ever wondered, why do we sink our heads into a book, compelled to reach the last page? what constitutes a good story? why do we appeal, entertain and appreciate a good story? why are we attracted to fiction, although we know then that it can't or didn't happen? is our appeal to fiction contradicts evolution laws(as it doesn't present facts that can improve our survival)? just consider reading this book. i can't promise you an easy ride, but a gleeful one.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Matthew

    The first half of Boyd's work is an interesting survey of the science behind an evolutionary perspective on storytelling. The second half consists of detailed readings of Homer and Dr. Seuss, both of which state the obvious for over 200 pages. We learn that Homer uses plot and character to -- wait for it -- capture the reader's attention. We learn that *The Odyssey* is about the need for self-restraint over human recklessness. The literary analysis did not need the evolutionary framework, and th The first half of Boyd's work is an interesting survey of the science behind an evolutionary perspective on storytelling. The second half consists of detailed readings of Homer and Dr. Seuss, both of which state the obvious for over 200 pages. We learn that Homer uses plot and character to -- wait for it -- capture the reader's attention. We learn that *The Odyssey* is about the need for self-restraint over human recklessness. The literary analysis did not need the evolutionary framework, and the evolutionary framework seems too generalized to offer any important perspective on individual works of art.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Bob

    150 years after Darwin's Evolution of Species, Brian Boyd applies evolutionary theory to literature, comparing Homer's Odyssey and Dr. Seuss's Horton Hears A Who. No, I'm not making this up. Yes, the library paid $35 for a hardcover copy of this epic tome. Is it too late to get our money back? SAMPLE TEXT: As we have seen in Part 2, the capacity to command attention in social animals correlates highly with status...We seek attention as a good in itself and compete to tell stories. http://www.hup.harv 150 years after Darwin's Evolution of Species, Brian Boyd applies evolutionary theory to literature, comparing Homer's Odyssey and Dr. Seuss's Horton Hears A Who. No, I'm not making this up. Yes, the library paid $35 for a hardcover copy of this epic tome. Is it too late to get our money back? SAMPLE TEXT: As we have seen in Part 2, the capacity to command attention in social animals correlates highly with status...We seek attention as a good in itself and compete to tell stories. http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog/BOYORI.html

  30. 5 out of 5

    Tissuereligion

    If you've read the Selfish Gene or otherwise have some understanding of natural selection, you can probably guess with rather good accuracy at the main lines of argument of this book. Which isn't to say that it's bad at all, just that I found the writing a little bit too leisurely (which is to say, I spent too much time in engineering school. the writing is good.) But if you haven't read the selfish gene or anything else on natural selection, I would HIGHLY RECOMMEND READING THIS, because the aut If you've read the Selfish Gene or otherwise have some understanding of natural selection, you can probably guess with rather good accuracy at the main lines of argument of this book. Which isn't to say that it's bad at all, just that I found the writing a little bit too leisurely (which is to say, I spent too much time in engineering school. the writing is good.) But if you haven't read the selfish gene or anything else on natural selection, I would HIGHLY RECOMMEND READING THIS, because the author does a good job of explaining natural selection and many many common misconceptions of it.

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