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On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction 1st Edition

4.1 out of 5 stars 24 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674033573
ISBN-10: 0674033574
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Editorial Reviews


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

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

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

On the Origin of Stories may have an impact far beyond academic circles...No one thinks on this scale anymore. Bent to the cultivation of shrinking plots of expertise, enlivened by the occasional boundary squabble, we are ill-accustomed to broad new theories even from Young Turks, let alone established critics. Ambition is in itself cause for celebration...Boyd's treatment is engrossing, as elegant in the writing as the reasoning. It offers a new insight into the question of why some works [of fiction] speak to audiences across cultures and generations...To look at a story as a naturalist looks at a leaf or a shell, not criticizing improvisations but marveling at its inventive beauty, is a refreshing experience...Whatever your opinion of Derrida, Boyd offers absolution to all lovers of fiction. Our childish taste for make-believe, it seems, is a little more serious than we thought.
--Laura Dietz (Times Literary Supplement 2009-08-21)

Brian Boyd's On the Origin of Stories, which presents itself as a work of "evocriticism," might well be a straw in the wind blowing contemporary criticism back from Culture to Nature. Given the rampant culturalism of much current literary work, which can see the natural only as an ideologically insidious "naturalizing," it is agreeable to read a work which discusses Homer cheek by jowl with allusions to dung beetles, the neocortex and cases of sexual harassment among pigeons. In sober evolutionary spirit, Boyd has no doubt that whatever more glamorous things human beings can get up to, they are in the first place natural material objects. He also insists in the teeth of postmodern orthodoxy that there is indeed a universal human nature; that culture is not unique to the human animal; and that there is a universally identifiable activity known as art. Nobody who is aware of the excesses of contemporary culturalism could doubt the subversive force of these platitudes. The word "natural," like the words "fact" and "truth," hardly ever turns up in such writings without being ceremoniously draped in scare quotes--and this in an ecological age. The point to Boyd's superbly erudite study is to offer an evolutionary theory of art...Brian Boyd has produced a challenging piece of critical theory, which might well herald the return to Nature of which cultural criticism is in such sore need.
--Terry Eagleton (London Review of Books 2009-09-24)

Like all the best stories, this one has a pleasing symmetry. It is a book in two parts, each illuminating the other. On one side stands evolutionary theory and its attempts to explain human nature. On the other is story itself, represented by two great works of fiction: Homer's Odyssey and Dr. Seuss's Horton Hears a Who!...[Boyd] has some novel and thought-provoking ideas, and his book covers an impressively wide terrain...What really matters, Boyd makes clear, is whether a story is worthy of our attention. On the Origin of Stories surely is.
--Kate Douglas (New Scientist 2009-05-23)

[Boyd's] highly intelligent, impressively learned and patiently elaborated theory of the origin of fiction and the other arts begins with the idea that art is cognitive play...Diffusion of Boyd's ideas might even, in our utilitarian and scientistic society, restore the prestige of the arts and humanities.
--William Deresiewicz (The Nation 2009-06-08)

Fascinating...Elaborate hypotheses like this one are themselves a kind of story, and Boyd tells his on a grand scale. His central arguments are prefaced by a substantial reprise of basic evolutionary theory--very useful if you're unfamiliar with it--and followed by two case studies, of Homer's Odyssey and the tales of Dr. Seuss. It is expert, though highly idiosyncratic, literary criticism..."Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive," Wordsworth wrote of the first, intoxicating years of the French Revolution. Reading [a] path-breaking book like [this], one feels something similar.
--George Scialabba (Boston Globe 2009-05-24)

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

Brian Boyd brilliantly makes the case for literature as necessary for the survival of humankind. Step by step, he builds his argument that we have evolved to engage in play and, in particular, in storytelling...Both Homer and Dr. Seuss must catch and hold our attention with their artistry, their universality, and their moral tone. Boyd forcefully and elegantly supports his view that art is not simply pleasurable for humans but crucial to our survival.
--Barbara Fisher (Boston Globe 2009-06-07)

A searching, free-wheeling book that sets forth a Darwinian view of narrative's place in human history.
--Robert Fulford (National Post 2009-05-04)

Masterful...[An] entrancing book...[Boyd] clearly invites comparison with Darwin's masterpiece. Like its namesake, Boyd's book is carefully constructed and constitutes, in Ernst Mayr's words, "one long argument."...While a number of evolutionary analyses of literature, fiction, myths, folklore, and art have appeared in the last 15 years or so, this one stands out for its accessibility and genuinely integrative approach, combined with a detailed analysis of two specific fictional works...Boyd covers an astonishing range of evolutionary concepts, human evolution, cognitive and developmental psychology, human ethology, anthropology, game theory and related topics. Having done research in several of these areas, I can attest that he has selected judiciously and described the science remarkably accurately and clearly...Unlike much of the early writings by promoters of simplistic Pleistocene EEA scenarios and typological human universals, Boyd explores detailed empirical observations and experiments, realizes that human variation is the engine of evolutionary change, but--and I view this as an essential strength--eschews a single-minded, or even primary, concern with adaptation...Boyd gets so much right!
--Gordon Burghardt, University of Tennessee (The Evolutionary Review 2010-01-01)

On the Origin of Stories is a fascinating book, even a necessary book. At its best, evocriticism can help to reorient the arts and humanities, renewing (or, in some benighted quarters, sparking) our appreciation for the creative works of human minds and hands, and leading humanists to take a fresh look at the rich evolutionary record.
--Michael Bérubé (New Scientist 2010-01-01)

Boyd's book will engage and excite readers for decades to come...Reading On the Origins of Stories, I was struck with the same excitement and enthusiasm I can only imagine the readers' of Darwin's text felt in 1859. Boyd's text is itself a seminal work synthesizing various literary theories upon an evolutionary framework strong enough to hold whatever stance from which the reader comes. Boyd illustrates this by applying evolutionary thinking to the works of Homer and Dr. Seuss alike...This amazing text allows us to see art from new vantage points that may, in fact, ensure its survival within our global culture...Brian Boyd elevates the writing of criticism to an art form by indeed considering the arousal and sustained engagement of his readers. On the Origin of Stories is itself a welcomed mutation in critical writing. Boyd carries his reader along an original odyssey into science, literature, human nature, the epic landscape of Ancient Greece and the tiny world of Whoville. Like Homer and Dr. Seuss, Boyd cares about his readers and wants us to find our way home to the text without sacrificing intellectual integrity and scholarly research.
--Christine Boyko-Head (arbuturian.com 2010-01-05)

[A] richly interesting and varied book.
--Lisa Gorton (Australian Book Review 2009-10-01)

Boyd has created a compelling, erudite, and thoroughly original work about the nature of humanistic expression in art and literature. Beautifully written and wide-ranging, the book delves into social science, evolutionary biology, art, and literature to create a comprehensive account of the evolutionary origins of art and storytelling. The author argues that art derives from play and is a humanistic adaptation, offering advantages for human survival. Storytelling, he contends, fosters cooperation, social cognition, and creativity...Apropos the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species, this book is a fitting tribute to Darwin.
--K. Wein (Choice 2010-01-01)

Boyd's understanding of human evolution thus leads him towards those features of literary texts that have always fascinated practical and humanist critics...Boyd alone provides us with a sophisticated literary analysis informed by an equally sophisticated understanding of human biology. Boyd demonstrates comprehensively that evolutionary literary theory is compatible with and can inform perceptive literary criticism.
--John Holmes (The British Society for Literature and Science)

About the Author

Brian Boyd, University Distinguished Professor in the Department of English, University of Auckland, is the world’s foremost authority on the works of <otherauthor>Nabokov</otherauthor>.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 560 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press; 1 edition (May 30, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674033574
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674033573
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.1 x 1.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #945,091 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Richard B. Schwartz TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 20, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.
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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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Format: Paperback
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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Format: Hardcover
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.
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