Brian Boyd


On his book On the Origin of Stories

Cover Interview of September 22, 2009

The wide angle

We love the arts but can consider them an indulgence.  We need not do so.  Art not only reshapes individual minds.  Because art facilitates shared attention and emotional contagion, it also helps societies cohere.  Art tends, moreover, to encapsulate prosocial values in emotionally compelling forms, in shared song, story, costume, architecture and other design.  And, finally, art fosters creativity, essential to a species that has specialized in adaptive flexibility.

I stress the power of art, its objective benefits for us as individuals and as a species, as well as its subjective pleasures.  But I do so through harnessing the power of science: evolutionary biology, anthropology, psychology, economics, and cognitive and developmental psychology.  On the Origin of Stories thereby contributes to “consilience,” E.O. Wilson’s term for the ultimate unification of knowledge, from the physical sciences through the life and mind sciences to the humanities and the arts.

Some who accept that evolution can explain our bodies do not think it can also explain our minds and culture: the causal chain somehow breaks at the point where humans become human.  In fact we now know that culture exists in many animals, but also that human culture constitutes what biologists call a major transition in evolution, like the momentous leaps from single-celled organisms to multi-celled, and from individuals to societies.  Humans have evolved to be ultrasocial, far more cooperative than other individualized animals, and to be uniquely steeped in culture.  Cultural evolution can respond to environmental challenges and changes much more rapidly than genetic evolution, but we can explain it fully only by understanding how and why we, uniquely, evolved to be so thoroughly cultural.

Many have felt evolutionary explanations of the human must smother culture under biology and replace freedom with determinism.  But if evolution can help explain art—human minds at their most free and creative—then it can surely account without loss for any feature of human nature.

Evolution can indeed explain art and offer a unified and naturalistic causal system from the general to the very particular.  Far from reducing all to biology and then to chemistry and physics, evolutionary explanations of art easily and eagerly plug in more local factors—ecological, historical, technological, social, artistic and individual, for instance—the closer we get to particulars.  Evolution accepts multilevel explanations, from cells to societies, and allows full room for nature and culture, society and individuals.

Many also feel that evolution by natural selection robs life of purpose.  I argue the converse.  Evolution evolves and extends purpose: from life, to emotions, intelligence, cooperation and then also to the creativity that emerged in art and now also feeds into science.

Art at its best offers us the durability that became life’s first purpose, the variety that became its second, the appeal to the intelligence and the cooperative emotions that took so much longer to evolve, and the creativity that keeps adding new possibilities, including religion and science.  We do not know a purpose guaranteed from outside life, but we can add as much as we can to the creativity of life.  We do not know what other purposes life may eventually generate, but creativity offers us our best chance of reaching them.

While I spend half of On the Origin of Stories explaining why we love art and especially fiction, I also show how an evolutionary approach can explain particular works of art, especially stories.  Academic criticism of the arts has tended to erase the pleasure, awe and achievement of art.  I want to revive and deepen them.  To show that evolutionary criticism can be expansive, not reductive, I focus on two masterpieces as close as possible to the origin of stories: first in human history (phylogeny) with Homer’s Odyssey, then in individual human development (ontogeny) with Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who!

Art cannot produce its effects without engaging minds and feelings.  I show how Homer and Dr. Seuss in their different ways engage audiences over time, space and repeated rereadings by appealing to deep human preferences and capacities.  I show how evolutionary accounts of cooperation, intelligence and creativity help to explain the human nature depicted or implied in the stories; how historical, technological, cultural, political and economic factors interact with evolved features of human nature in different ways in each story; how genius emerges in a perfectly natural way through a Darwinian process of generating, selecting and regenerating, cycle after cycle, in a culture as a whole and in the efforts of individual artists; how life itself has evolved through solving a series of often more complicated and constantly changing problems; how audiences can tap into the creativity of artists by approaching a work as a nested hierarchy of particular problems and solutions.

I have always been interested in stories—but then who hasn’t?  In the 1990s I taught a graduate course in narrative across as many eras and modes as we could squeeze into a year: Homer, Genesis, the Arabian nights, Giotto’s Arena Chapel frescoes, Hamlet, Hogarth, Mansfield Park, Hokusai and Victorian narrative paintings, Anna Karenina, Three Sisters, Ulysses, film of four continents, Nabokov’s Ada, Australian aboriginal painting, and Spiegelman’s Maus.  That made me look at our addiction to stories and at what links stories of different times, places and modes.

I have also long been interested in science, and especially evolution.  In the 1990s I found that to answer my new questions about stories I needed an evolutionary understanding of human nature, just at the time it was beginning to emerge.