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

4.1 out of 5 stars 24 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674057111
ISBN-10: 0674057112
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 560 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press; Reprint edition (November 15, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674057112
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674057111
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.5 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #64,598 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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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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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