On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction
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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.
motivations to practice such behaviors in situations of low danger and adequate resources will fare better. A predisposition toward the patterned cognitive play of art will establish itself in a species in which cognitive skills are paramount. Art as a kind of cognitive play stimulates our brains more than does routine proÂ�cessing of the environment.36 It offers what biologists call a supernormal stimulus, an incentive more intense than usual, in this case a rush of the kinds of patterned
attention, as people since Aristotle have noted, both within and outside evolutionary explanation.2 Art alters our minds because it en 99 On the Or ig in of Stor ies [To view this image, refer to the print version of this title.] Samburu girls, Kenya: art as pattern. gages and reengages our attention from nursery rhymes to rest-Â�home singalongs. But art has rarely been considered in terms of the special role that engaging attention has evolved to play in human lives.3 Art begins in
individually, but we will then compete for those beneÂ�fits: indeed, as Darwin pointed out, “competition should be most severe between 108 Art and Attention allied forms, which fill nearly the same place in the economy of nature.”34 Social hierarchy relaxes the tension between cooperation and competition by reducing conÂ�flict over precedence—expensive in terms of time, energy, and injury. Since after a hierarchy has been established those of higher staÂ�tus have better access to
the experimenters, all the students except one reported in terms not of a series of spatial shifts but of individuals in conÂ�flict, usually two men competing for the attentions of a woman, who found one of them too aggressive and favored the other. Only one student described the film in terms of the displacements of different shapes in a plane.34 More recent studies have produced similar results.35 Our minds naturally mature to interpret events in the most powerful way we can, automatically
at all, but not what this girl liked by the age of four. By now her favorite book was a fairy-Â�tale treaÂ�sury, with stories like “The Emperor’s New Clothes”: The emperor thought he would like to see it while it was still on the loom. So, accompanied by a number of selected courtiers, among whom were the two faithful ofÂ�fiÂ�cials who had already seen the imaginary stuff, he went to visit the crafty impostors, who were working away as hard as ever they could at the empty loomÂ€.Â€.Â€.17