Why we engage in art and fiction, and why these make us a special species

Cover Interview of

In a nutshell

Why do we tell stories—or, for that matter, engage in any of the arts? In a world of unsparing biological competition, how could a successful species afford an unflagging appetite for stories we know to be untrue? Why do we expend time and resources on music, dance, design, and stories? The arts, and especially the art of fiction, give us pleasure, of course. But does that pleasure reflect biological advantage? Or do the arts simply press our pleasure buttons, just as drugs or candy do, without offering us real long-term benefit, or even damaging us if we have too much?

What can a modern evolutionary understanding of humans and other animals explain about the arts? And since brains and behaviors don’t fossilize, how can we also use developmental psychology to trace the emergence of art?

On the Origin of Stories offers a comprehensive explanation for the arts, especially the art of fiction. Art, I argue, is a kind of high play.

Play exists in mammals, birds and even intelligent invertebrates. If in safe situations animals practice the behaviors that make the greatest life-and-death difference, like flight and fight, they can then perform better in moments of high urgency. As those more inclined to practice more often survive more often, the desire to practice intensifies over the generations until practice becomes irresistibly self-rewarding. The sheer fun of play overcomes the deeply-rooted inclination not to expend energy if effort can be avoided.

Humans depend not just on physical skills but even more on mental power: we alone inhabit the cognitive niche. We therefore crave the high yield of patterned information. We chase and tussle, but we also play cognitively, with patterns of the kinds of information that matter most to us: sound (music), sight (the visual arts) and, in our ultrasocial species, social information (story).

Art and fiction start here. Intense repetition and concentrated attention can rewire brains incrementally, as they do in play. The compulsiveness of music, images and story reshapes human minds as we play in a self-rewarding way with the high-density information of art.

“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.”

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.

September 23, 2009

A close-up

Children love stories, and they love pretend play. And developmental psychologists have discovered extraordinary things about the growth of children’s minds. Very young children learn to understand other minds in terms of intentions and desires, as other animals can, but only between four and five do children start to understand that others can have different beliefs about a situation than what they know to be the case—a level of theory of mind no non-human animal ever seems to reach.

New methods of experiment and observation allow psychologists to discover even in infant behavior just how much knowledge we enter the world with. But children’s mistakes even at the age of four, quite bizarre to adults, also show how slowly our minds develop to the fully human level, to where we can understand what lies behind most of our actions and therefore most of our stories.

Even before they develop a good deal of their capacity to comprehend events, children understand the role of pattern in story, and the need to engage attention, as this two-and-a-half-year-old’s “story” wonderfully illustrates:

The monkeys
They went up sky
They fall down
Choo choo train in the sky
The train fell down in the sky
I fell down in the sky in the water
I got on my boat and my legs hurt
Daddy fall down in the sky.

Longitudinal studies of children’s pretend play, too, reveal striking features of early stories.

Here two preschoolers, Jennifer and Muhammed, play with toy animals at a sand table. Jennifer has a little duck, and Muhammed a dinosaur.

Jennifer, high-pitched voicing, as duck:
Oh big dinosaur
I cannot

Muhammed, in deep, gruff voice:
No, you can get on me
I just won’t care.

Jennifer puts her duck on the dinosaur’s back.

Jennifer, in deep voice, pushing the duck into the sand:
He said, he said
You bad dinosaur
Quickly, she hided in the sand
so the dinosaur

No, pretend he killed her
He’s already killed

Notice how the children opt for the most dramatic, attention-catching events—like the sudden death here—yet negotiate, like animals at play, to keep the play going.

Minds evolved to focus on the here and now, and they could hardly have evolved any other way. But through pretend play, human children, starting with physical props, with a stick or a pebble that can be an animal or baby, or a toy dinosaur and a duck, can get beyond the actual to the possible or the impossible.

In time they can dispense with the physical props and use the cultural props of the stories and myths of the culture. They need not be confined to the way things are, but can turn actuality around within the much larger space of possibility to explain how things are or see how they might be.

“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.”


In On the Origin of Stories I want to help us understand why we engage in art and fiction, and why these make us such a special species. I want us to understand the role the arts play in individual and social development, and in fostering creativity. I want to help reshape the academic teaching of literature and other arts, to revive pleasure in the artfulness and the achievement of art, and to help audiences enjoy a sense of creative participation in art through learning to understand artists’ problems and solutions. I want us to link the sciences and the arts in one consistent framework of explanation, and in the way we foster and value both, and in our appreciation of the purpose they give to our lives.

But although I think science can explain why and how art has come to matter, that will not give science the emotional impact of art, nor allow it to find a formula for art, nor make art matter less. If anything, it will only clarify why and how art matters so much.

© 2009 Brian Boyd
Brian Boyd On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction Belknap Press of Harvard University Press 560 pages, 9 x 3 inches ISBN 978 0674033573

Brian Boyd is University Distinguished Professor in the Department of English, University of Auckland. His work on American, Brazilian, English, Greek, Irish, New Zealand and Russian fiction, drama, verse, prose and translation, from epics to comics, has appeared in thirteen languages and won awards on four continents. He is best known as the world’s leading Nabokov scholar, and for his work on evolution and literature.

Cover Interview of
September 23, 2009