On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction
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90 of 96 people found the following review helpful
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. For a generation or more, the humanities have resisted the developments which have occurred in the departments that surround them. Sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, cognitive science--a panoply of subjects that build upon the advanced study of Darwin, evolution and the structure and function of the brain (now facilitated enormously by imaging instruments) have changed the face of anthropology, biology, psychology and other disciplines, while the humanities stood in opposition not only to aspects of contemporary science but often to science itself.

A number of individuals have attempted to bridge these gaps, individuals such as Lisa Zunshine and Patrick Colm Hogan. Their task has not been easy, given the long romance between the academic humanists and the French Nietzscheans, a romance that has involved the subscribing to notions which are internally inconsistent, contrary to common sense and millennia of experience and, now, definitively, contradicted by science. Chomsky, Steven Pinker and others have played a decisive role here, but Boyd's book, which is cognizant of all of the relevant scientific work, emerges directly from the humanities and utilizes studies of cognition and evolution to trace the origins of stories and storytelling.

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 recriprocal altruism (among other things).

In the course of his study, Boyd focuses on two specific texts to elucidate and validate his method: Homer's Odyssey and Dr. Seuss's Horton Hears a Who! These extensive analyses are searching, lucid and effective.

Most important, this is a large book. Boyd is aware that he is throwing down a gauntlet, though we are now reaching the hour when the reign of Theory is largely in the past and the thoroughgoing opposition to empiricism and the doctrinaire beliefs that we cannot talk reasonably about `human nature' and that everything is culturally constructed (to give two examples) are increasingly seen as untenable and even quaint. In a jacket blurb, David Bordwell compares Boyd's work with Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, because of its imaginative sweep and analytical precision. Basically, Frye was trying to bring `system' to literary study. Boyd is as well, but Boyd's `system' is closer to `science' and it is validated by the work of thousands of individuals in science and social science departments. Frye's myth/ritual/Jung-inspired program did not enjoy the foundational strengths of Boyd's and it was often loosely taxonomic rather than truly systematic.

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 through the leverage of contemporary, cutting edge science.

That does not mean that it is beyond question or dispute, for much of this contemporary science remains inchoate and our understanding of the human brain remains limited and partial and not all will draw the same conclusions as a Boyd or Pinker, e.g., with regard to religion, but the bottom line is that this work restores much of what we have lost in literary studies and it does so with intelligence, authority and great promise for the future.
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38 of 40 people found the following review helpful
on June 24, 2010
Not a full review, but an additional note: I wanted to add that Boyd is very good at making his topic engaging. His work was a joy to read. The prose was crisp and clear, and theories were well-illustrated by examples. Most of these examples came in the form of animal behavior stories or childhood development test results, but they were always clear and pertinent.

I would not normally write a review (or an addendum to the other fine reviews out there) just to say a book is well-written, but in the field of literary criticism this is really a rare treat. The post-modernists have taken the joy out of literature, and Boyd and the other evocritics/Literary Darwinists are attempting to unearth it after 40 years of Derrida, difference, and textuality.

Honestly -- read any article by someone like Judith Butler or Homi Babha and then read a chapter of Boyd. You will feel as if you have traveled from a country whose official language is babbling nonsense back to the world of clearly-articulated English. If you can't explain your ideas to other professionals in the field, let alone educated laypeople, then your ideas likely aren't very well conceived. By contrast, Boyd demonstrates clear and careful thought throughout his book. It is apparent that he worked through every idea quite carefully and did his best to demonstrate each fully.

Highly recommended!
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on February 4, 2011
If I borrowed this book from the library, I wouldn't return it. When the librarian bounty hunters came for me, I would skip town and shave my crown and live under a fake name. That's how important this book is to me. Luckily for my local library I bought a copy online; I had an inkling that this would be the book I've been hoping for.

I'm a young person who lives to read and write fiction, and I just came out of an oppressively dogmatic undergrad program where my two favorite disciplines, aesthetics and biology, were strictly separate. I strongly believed the weight of evidence was on the side of natural origins for artistic passion, but I only had a few YouTube videos of ticklish rats and dolphins playing with bubble rings to back me up. This book is wonderfully vindicating and I will recommend it to all my professors and friends.

I bought the hardcover edition when it came out last year and it had a few typographical errors, but perhaps they're fixed in current copies. The one error that may irk some readers: Boyd mentions "Revenge of the Jedi" in a section about justice; the film is actually called "Return of the Jedi."

Want 500-something pages of thrills? Then this is the book for you. It has invigorated my creative work and enriched my enjoyment of art.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on October 11, 2010
Good. That's the first ingredient for a good piece of art, suggests Boyd. In contrast to traditional methods of literary analysis, which have focused on idiosyncrasies of writing style, ideological underpinnings, and other historical contingencies of a given text, Boyd goes below the surface and examines the fundamental evolutionary nature of storytelling. Why do humans waste time telling and listening to stories that are clearly false? What purpose does fiction serve now, and what possible purpose could it have served for our ancestors? These are huge questions, and Boyd delivers huge answers.

The cornerstone of storytelling is our extreme sociality, explains Boyd. Indeed, the mainstream biological theory of human intelligence is the "social intelligence hypothesis: that the greatest pressures for advanced intelligence arise from the need to track identities, status, powers, and intentions of conspecifics [other humans] and to respond to them to best advantage." Thus, human brains (as well as those of dogs, dolphins, and other primates) evolved to make complex social computations--to both cooperate *and* compete within a group, to keep track of friends and rivals, monitor potential mates, to predict future behavior based on past experience, and so on. Boyd argues that story evolved largely to strengthen our social cognition. Just as physical play serves to sharpen our skills in hunting and battle, so story ("cognitive play") enhances our ability to synthesize social information, i.e. - look at things from multiple perspectives, predict behavior, evaluate outcomes, etc. Fiction thereby helps us make optimal decisions in real social situations. In order for fiction to have this effect, it needs to actually change the structure of human brains, indicating that it enhances them. Luckily cognitive science has begun to demonstrate that the brain can change in remarkable ways in response to environmental stimuli (see "The Brain That Changes Itself"). The essential component of this change is attention. Without it, the brain remains unaffected. Thus the first and most important component of fiction--and art in general--is catching people's attention. Abstract meanings, which take time and effort to grasp, are secondary. So the most important question is: what causes people to pay attention to a given story? A complimentary question is: what causes them to remember it and pass it on? Satisfactory answers to these questions demand a complex understanding of the brain and human behavior, a criteria that Boyd definitely fulfills. Game theory, animal behavior, cognitive science, and developmental psychology (to name a few) are masterfully blended.

Nevertheless, storytelling serves a variety of purposes, says Boyd, and it's purposes have changed and shifted emphasis over time.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on October 20, 2011
Brian Boyd has written a revolutionary book on the Origins of Stories. Rarely have I enjoyed reading as much as I did reading Boyd's book. There is a richness and pace about his writing that captured me from page one. His summation of what is currently know about human development, is breath taking in it's brillance. It is worth buying just for that! But it is his application of this knowledge to analysis of why literature enthralls us where his real genius shows itself. I will not try to summarise his hypotheses. Just buy the book. It will be your best purchase this year! Enjoy.
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16 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on October 12, 2009
In a world of seemingly unsparing, efficient competition, what can we make of play, practice, art, and the making and sharing of stories? From a narrow competitive point of view, each minute spent on these things should be measured against thoughts of "wasting ones time" and "delivering our advantage to the competition." But while competition suggests a scarcity of resources, storytelling contributes to a wealth of unity; the prize here is "attention," one says something of worth to the group, or is cast out as a gabbling scrabbler.

As a reader of both science surveys and books on story structure and "How to Write a Screenplay in Five Minutes" books, I was interested in getting my mitts on this book as soon as possible.

The narrative, as a piece of art, is the one thing most likely to appeal to the consensual understanding in the greatest way; while much of the narrative art remains open to interpretation, much is based on our agreement on the meaning of a shared lexicon. Thus it offers, perhaps, the "highest yield" of meaning, learning, and information.

The story has its roots deep in the animal past, yet still offers us a `skyhook" to attach our rickety ladders to, offering a ride into the future. It is a product of elementary animal communication, and in its elaboration, an engine of innovation and invention. (Heck, I like to say I've seen us evolve from when we used to put tollbooths on both ends of the bridge.)

Boyd assembles the material in several fields to see what we know, what kind of convergence of information do we have now, asking:

Does consciousness and advanced cognition fit into some evolutionary schema? If the main product of these two conditions is science, and art, and more specifically the story, why do we tell stories?
What are the multiple purposes of the story?
How are we different from apes when it comes to story-generating? How, developmentally, does 'the story' evolve, uncovering our essential questions and makeup?
What is the unique cognitive/conscious place of fiction?
How does fabulation differ from lying?
How does fiction "fill in," and how does the development of story development "fill in," developmentally? We see that play fits into this; one snippet of the unstructured story-building play of children is revelatory, and mention of a study in which 90% of sociopathic murderers in an inmate population did not play this way as children suggested limited socialization and ability at storyline development limited their choices of action. We begin to see how cognition is structured around events.
What is the value of "attention" to our culture and individual plights?
What are the specific qualities of mine that we take for granted, but use to differentiate ourselves from other animals? - and further, "normal" from "autistic"?
How do we connect, and how do we just think we are connecting?

Part of human nature is curiosity, but when do we know to be curious and when not? A child may take apart a watch to see how it works, but find herself unable to put it back together again. We have longed to take apart consciousness to see how it works, but how can we master the means, understand the system, be able to reconstruct it? But this is not about the mind but the story. With the wealth of information coming to us through the various branches of science, what does the consensus of "worldview" look like today, what is explained and what is not, and where is the story going to next?

Anyone who can understand the spectacular fecundity of assigning purpose not to the larger story of evolution, which makes it reductive and life deterministic, but to individuals, in the moment, facing the unknown understands the comfort those derive from making this universal attribute detracts far too much from the awe of individual choice, expression, and construction made moment by moment.

This book will make you smarter. The psychic bubble of individual worldview benefits from a somewhat permeable membrane, yet needs a particular heartiness to make useful action. One's connection to art, science, and narrative feeds all parts of the system. On the Origin of Stories outlines several ways. It outlines findings that will have you pawing through the notes and bibliography, Googling new and exciting terms, and pondering how this all relates to your own stuff. From sorting out an understanding of why certain people seem determined to stop you from telling your story, what is the worth of the bewildering actions of children, to understanding how infants prioritize pattern-recognition and novelty, to how do you shape your own understanding of universal, local, and individual, you will get a better picture of actual individual construction of consciousness, and the current scientific developments in understanding it, to help you decide what happens next.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
I've been using Boyd's text for several years in our gen ed course titled Good Stories: Teaching Narratives for Peace & Justice. Because the 60 students each semester come from a wide variety of majors, including both sciences and arts, Boyd's combo emphasis on science in the first half and lit in the second serves to bridge the orientations and to ground the value of play, art, and creativity. Vital to our course is his theme of human's developing capacity for cooperation and the place of story in cultivating our enactment of it. For the first time this semester, I am using the e-book with the advantage of selecting "teasers" in order to guide and motivate the students to do the assigned reading. As others note, the e-book lacks the images that are in the hard copy, but I don't find this a difficulty. The images are particularly important in the final section on Dr. Seuss, but we look at the full text of Horton anyway.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on December 16, 2012
This is one of those books that can change the way you think of stories forever. Comprehensive yet entertaining, every chapter raises a plethora of questions for discussion. I'm using it as a textbook in the spring.
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on September 29, 2014
I am a great admirer of Brian Boyd, and I am grateful to him for his brilliant and illuminating analyses of Nabokov. On the Origin of Stories is likewise brilliant—or at least extraordinarily clever. And the book contains some powerful insights, such as the connection between art and play. Still, perhaps because of overly high expectations, I came away from the book both unconvinced and a little disappointed.

It seems to me that anyone who has fully experienced Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion or Nabokov’s A Letter that Never Reached Russia will know that Boyd’s theory, while perhaps explaining some of the ways in which art serves human development, cannot explain art itself or our experience of art. Nabokov once commented that the artist is a story-teller, a teacher, and an enchanter. Boyd’s utilitarian theory of art, while helping to explain the roles of story-teller and teacher, fails to capture the enchantment.
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on June 25, 2014
A very thought provoking book that drives home a particular argument for why we tell stories and uses the Odyessy (the mother of all literature) to illustrate why we tell stories. It's informed my thinking on this subject.

Not a book I would read again and again for pleasure, since it is rather thick and I paid so much attention the first reading, but it's a pleasure to read a book by a Homeric scholar.

This book is not really "about evolution", despite its title, although it does look at how we evolved to think, and why stories seem to be necessary for our cognition, and thus survival.

The lens is backwards, through literature, rather than through science. A good and enjoyable choice by a careful and skilled scholar who believes, deeply, that stories make us human.
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