Curiouser & Curiouser

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

Brian Boyd. On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition and Fiction. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknapp Press, 2009. ISBN 9780674033573.

Reviewer: Virginia Lowe

A Darwinist asks of every behavioural feature that is instinctive, compulsive – what is the evolutionary purpose it serves? How does it help this organism thrive and propagate in its environment? Brian Boyd asks this of storytelling in human beings.

He begins by looking at art generally – what purpose can it serve? It takes a great deal of energy. It costs a lot in time and mental energy, in its appreciation as well as its creation.  What must be the evolutionary explanation for it? Boyd argues that it is based on play, and play is what trains flexible thinkers to be flexible. Young animals practise and practise hunting and ambushing in a completely secure, danger-free situation, so that not only are their reflexes physically prepared, but their understanding of different moves becomes automatic also. As adults they survive and thrive because they do not need to stop and think which technique will work best in a real danger of hunting or fighting.

It is similar with people. The one thing that has taken us slow and relatively small creatures to the top of the pecking order is our intelligence. And play is what trains this, in the same way that kittens and puppies and lion cubs train to hunt and fight. A child playing alone or with other people – playing imaginary games – is working through social roles, and finding out how people react together in the ‘real’ world. We practise and practise this role playing, or acting out stories, so that when we grow up alternative behaviours will present themselves automatically. We need to hone our skills in thinking flexibly: predicting what will happen, understanding how others think, and solving problems in the social world.

Art, Boyd says, is based on play. Art is ‘cognitive play with pattern’ (page 15) designed to be shared with others. Human beings are uniquely designed to attract and direct attention – we are the only animal with whites to the eyes and an eye shape that makes indication of where we are looking completely unambiguous. Pointing is one of the first activities that a baby masters. First the infant instinctively follows where its adult is looking – it follows the line of gaze – and then it learns to indicate the thing it wants the adult to pay attention to. This human desire for attention is unique. So art is play that requires attention, that draws attention to itself and also gains attention for its maker, the artist.

The practice in thinking as others do is exactly what enjoyment of story does. Fiction teaches us the theory of mind, as it is called – the way others think, and think differently to us.

So fiction does serve an evolutionary purpose, despite being untrue, and known to be untrue. Overall, those who are good at predicting the future, at understanding other people, at finding ways to co-cooperate, will succeed in evolutionary terms, long enough to reproduce themselves. We are the super-social species. We are most interested in others – in how they behave, what they think and believe, what they make and do. It is these skills which fiction hones.

Art is a way of gaining attention – a sophisticated way. It gains the attention of its audience first, and most importantly. It has to be enjoyed and also encourage discussion – it has to be interesting as well. It is designed to be shared. Then, if it is very successful, it gains the attention of the whole culture, so the artist/author/composer becomes ‘famous’ – and in our society may well earn money as well. And the work of art may last, with the creator’s name attached (Think of Shakespeare, Dali, Mozart...). The creator’s job is to inspire this attention in his/her audience. This is done by problem solving. Artists must surprise their audiences, who expect and enjoy the familiar style, but still need new twists. Boyd uses two texts to make his points, and like an artist he makes his points with surprise – as he says, ‘From Zeus to Seuss’ – using Homer’s Odyssey and Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who!

So not only Darwinists should look at story this way, but everyone. It is a new sort of theory (‘biocultural’) which Boyd hopes will replace theory with a capital T – currently post-modern theory, but also Marxist and Freudian. It ought to displace these but still leave room for their concepts. All can be fitted within evolutionary theory, which acknowledges that enjoyment of the art work, attention, must come first of all. And that Theory is not just a rite of passage for post-graduates in literary studies and drama. Instead of being almost completely divorced from story itself, in this theory story comes first. Boyd wants us all to look at our innate and compulsive love affair with story, as a species.

As Barbara Hardy said forty years ago, narrative is the ‘primary act of mind’.


Virginia Lowe is the author of Stories, Pictures and Reality: Two children tell (Routledge) as well as numerous papers on children’s literature. She has lectured at university and been a school and children’s librarian, and currently she is proprietor of Create a Kids’ Book assessment agency.

Volume 14, Issue 1, The Looking Glass, January/February, 2010

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