ISBN-10:
0674057112
ISBN-13:
9780674057111
Pub. Date:
11/15/2010
Publisher:
Harvard
On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction

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

by Brian Boyd

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Overview

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

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780674057111
Publisher: Harvard
Publication date: 11/15/2010
Pages: 560
Sales rank: 468,432
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

Brian Boyd, University Distinguished Professor in the Department of English, Drama and Writing Studies, University of Auckland, is the world’s foremost authority on the works of Nabokov.

Table of Contents

  • Illustrations
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Animal, Human, Art, Story

  • Book I: Evolution, Art, and Fiction
    Part 1
    Evolution and Nature

  1. Evolution and Human Nature?
  2. Evolution, Adaptation, and Adapted Minds
  3. The Evolution of Intelligence
  4. The Evolution of Cooperation


    Part 2
    Evolution and Art

  1. Art as Adaptation?
  2. Art as Cognitive Play
  3. Art and Attention
  4. From Tradition to Innovation


    Part 3
    Evolution and Fiction

  1. Art, Narrative, Fiction
  2. Understanding and Recalling Events
  3. Narrative: Representing Events
  4. Fiction: Inventing Events
  5. Fiction as Adaptation


    Book II: From Zeus to Seuss: Origins of Stories
    Part 4
    Phylogeny: The Odyssey

  1. Earning Attention (1): Natural Patterns: Character and Plot
  2. Earning Attention (2): Open-Ended Patterns: Ironies of Structure
  3. The Evolution of Intelligence (1): In the Here and Now
  4. The Evolution of Intelligence (2): Beyond the Here and Now
  5. The Evolution of Cooperation (1): Expanding the Circle
  6. The Evolution of Cooperation (2): Punishment


    Part 5
    Ontogeny: Horton Hears a Who!

  1. Problems and Solutions: Working at Play
  2. Levels of Explanation: Universal, Local, and Individual
  3. Levels of Explanation: Individuality Again
  4. Levels of Explanation: Particular
  5. Meanings

  • Conclusion
  • Retrospect and Prospects: Evolution, Literature, Criticism
  • Afterword
  • Evolution, Art, Story, Purpose
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

What People are Saying About This

This is a very important book--important in its own right, but also important as a marker for significant change in the academic study of the humanities. Basically, Boyd sees art as an adaptation, one that brings advantages in our struggle for survival and procreative success. He studies the ways in which stories focus attention (as play does) and foster collaboration and unity. This heightened form of play yields a heightened form of sociality, creates 'creativity,' refines and extends our cognitive skills, helps us to understand one another's thoughts, intentions and motives, see our world from multiple perspectives, explore possibilities and not just actualities, command attention, enjoy status and foster reciprocal altruism (among other things).

Most interesting, I believe, is the fact that Boyd's position validates thousands of years of humanistic thought, from Aristotle to Horace, Sidney, Johnson, the Kant of the Critique of Pure Reason (though not perhaps the Kant of the Critique of Judgment) and the successful practice of the storyteller's art by a host of writers whose work has been not only substantive but widely popular. In short, Boyd's study of human nature, human behavior, human development and human artistic expression squares with what many of us have long believed and it does so with the leverage of contemporary, evolutionary science.

Michael Wood

Rich, intelligent and incredibly wide-ranging--from Zeus to Seuss,
as one chapter title says--this book is indispensable reading for anyone who wants to think about the nature of fiction. Do we imagine that situating art within a theory of evolution must be reductive? Then we must consider, as Boyd suggests we do, the difference between solving a problem and picturing a chance of solving a problem--and imagine what it would be mean not to be able to do the second.
Michael Wood, Princeton University

Steven Pinker

This is an insightful, erudite, and thoroughly original work. Aside from illuminating the human love of fiction, it proves that consilience between the humanities and sciences can enrich both fields of knowledge.
Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor, Harvard University, and author of The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature

Richard B. Schwartz

This is a very important book--important in its own right, but also important as a marker for significant change in the academic study of the humanities. Basically, Boyd sees art as an adaptation, one that brings advantages in our struggle for survival and procreative success. He studies the ways in which stories focus attention (as play does) and foster collaboration and unity. This heightened form of play yields a heightened form of sociality, creates 'creativity,' refines and extends our cognitive skills, helps us to understand one another's thoughts, intentions and motives, see our world from multiple perspectives, explore possibilities and not just actualities, command attention, enjoy status and foster reciprocal altruism (among other things).

Most interesting, I believe, is the fact that Boyd's position validates thousands of years of humanistic thought, from Aristotle to Horace, Sidney, Johnson, the Kant of the Critique of Pure Reason (though not perhaps the Kant of the Critique of Judgment) and the successful practice of the storyteller's art by a host of writers whose work has been not only substantive but widely popular. In short, Boyd's study of human nature, human behavior, human development and human artistic expression squares with what many of us have long believed and it does so with the leverage of contemporary, evolutionary science.
Richard B. Schwartz, University of Missouri, Columbia

David Bordwell

Integrating a vast array of findings in the social and biological sciences and in the history of the arts, Boyd makes a compelling case for art as an adaptive human behavior. I can think of no similar work in contemporary literary theory; I have to go back to Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism for a work of comparable imaginative sweep and analytical precision. A monumental achievement.
David Bordwell, University of Wisconsin-Madison

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