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

by Brian Boyd

Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009


Since I got a dog in 2002, I have become fascinated with the connections between evolution and theater. Going to the dog park every day for years has convinced me that the origins of art lie behind the human genome. This is based on two observations: (1) dogs are incredible at staging combats and playing to audiences; and (2) dogs use the same techniques as human stage directors and designers to get attention and convey basic stories around dominance and intention, including height, proximity, size, color, shape, volume, and pitch. I find myself clapping (and barking) frequently at their performances.

Recently, I read On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction by Brian Boyd, and this book took the same idea way further. The title is a play on Charles Darwin's seminal The Origin of Species, but it is no idle pun. Boyd explains in almost 400 pages of detail how the arts have served to increase the evolutionary success of humans and other species over tens of millions of years of biological development.

He begins by marking a major distinction between the purely factual stories that can be found in animal behaviors such as bee dances ("food thirty feet away at this location") or the autonomic responses of amoebas ("danger!"), and the kinds of emotional truths that can be found in the stories of humans and other complex social species. Boyd's thesis is that it is our ability to make up stories and the drive we have to create imaginary experiences, that more clearly (although still not uniquely) defines us as human beings.

To review, Darwin's theory of evolution suggests that over generations, natural selection has the effect of universalizing those behaviors that increase the ability of a species to reproduce and pass on their genes, without costing more energy or risk than they are worth. Common human behaviors that span across culture and history, such as the telling of fictional stories, must somehow provide a cost-effective strategy for humans to increase our chances at procreation.

Within complex social species such as humans, many ethologists (i.e., biologists that study the character traits of species) believe the greatest evolutionary costs arise from the need to track the identities, status, powers, and intentions of peers. On the one hand, each of us needs to cooperate with the others in order to earn and hold on to the resources necessary for reproduction that are obtainable only together, such as food, safety, and mates. On the other hand, we must also compete with each other in order to maximize our individual piece of this collective pie, without risking our prospects for future cooperation. Boyd believes that it is our ability to tell and interpret these imaginary stories ("lies") that drives our ability to understand and navigate the almost limitless subtleties and complexities of everyday social life.

Thought experiments, such as the ones found in art, do not need to be realistic in order to be useful; they merely need to help clarify our thinking. The animals in Aesop's fables, for example, directly defy our expectations of the real, but they succeed because they help us anticipate, empathize, and deal with the human situations we engage in every day. Human beings, indeed all organisms, are problem solvers, and anything that helps us learn how to solve life problems, without forcing us to actually risk our lives, is going to be valuable.

Boyd applies his theories to the work of two storytelling giants: Homer and Dr. Seuss. Boyd believes that in Homer's The Odyssey, as in many of the world's greatest stories, whatever else stories may be "about" (love, home, etc.) in terms of thematics, most of the action ("what happens") involves death, destruction, and the apparent triumph of evil. This is because ". . . the negative emotions, like fear and anger, are more powerful, because they are more critical: we need to avoid being eaten much more urgently than we need to eat" (228). These stories are the ones that, sometimes to our dismay, gain our greatest attention (think splatter films). Homer's genius was to find ways to use the primal power of the splatter films of his time, heroic poetry, to tell a nuanced, multilayered story with a multitude of emotion-based plot points and themes.

Boyd's framework, it seems to me, does not replace or even challenge other forms of interpretation. What it does is identify another, more primal layer of interpretation, one that exists within the deepest emotional centers of the brain and that exists before the other layers, and undergirds and wraps around all interpretation. This more primal layer of the onion is focused exclusively and cross-culturally on two fundamental themes: cooperation and competition among humans.

From an evolutionary standpoint, Homer's goal is to get us to see that if we remain true to ourselves and to those around us, we can compete and win under even the direst circumstances. All the other themes and strategies—our emotional identification with Odysseus's homesickness and his predicament concerning his wives' many suitors, the novelty of his hair-raising challenges, etc.—Homer uses to keep our attention and engagement in the story until our investment is eventually rewarded in the climax and resolution. We learn, as Homer wishes us to, how to cooperate and compete better.

Centuries later, in Horton Hears a Who, Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) tackles a similar problem using very different strategies. Instead of instilling fear and anger in his audience, Seuss uses playful humor to make equally serious points about boundaries, stereotypes, and the capacity of human beings to accomplish great things when we work together. In 1953, Geisel visited post-World War II Japan, and found many of the same challenges he saw in the anti-individual culture of Germany. He took the seemingly innocuous form of rhyming children's literature and used it to make profound statements about the individual's place in society.

Though he never explicitly makes the connection, Boyd's work seems particularly powerful when it is applied to art that wants to somehow influence the knowledge, attitudes, and/or behaviors of human beings, such as in community-based arts or arts for social change. First, it helps demystify the notion of artistic genius. Boyd shows, through close textual analysis of Homer and Seuss, that rather than spontaneous creativity, the work of geniuses comes from the endless Darwinian trial and error of combining-and-recombining the signs, symbols, rituals, and stories of their societies. To greatly paraphrase Bertolt Brecht's epic poem On Everyday Theater, "Geniuses may do what they do better than the rest of us, but we all are constantly engaged in the same experimental process of using cultural matter to focus one another's attention and to convey the meaning of what we see around us." It is not as pretty as some theories of art, but it seems a lot more real to me, particularly because it can help erase the false dichotomies that linger between high and low, popular and fine, etc. The central question becomes: What are the best ways to get and to keep your audience's attention, while you say or ask whatever else you "actually" want to say or ask?

Second, Boyd shows how all artists in all media are storytellers, and why storytellers are central to our survival as a species. Plainly, without art and artists, we would be left to figure out all the complexities of human social interactions through actual trial and error, and that, Boyd shows, would require an amount of energy and risk that we cannot and do not need to afford. Stories and the art forms we use to tell them are an adaptive process that we use to continuously expand, prioritize, and make the best choices from our available repertoire of behaviors. Art is not here to do our thinking for us; it is here to give us the raw data that we need in order to make and execute better decisions ourselves.

Third, unlike many forms of criticism currently in vogue that focus on ideology or cultural context, an evolutionary approach enables us to use a more practical, problem-solution model for the artistic process. It begins with the universal features of human nature that individual authors represent and appeal to, moves to the local conditions available for earning an audience and the individual qualities that shape an author's unique range of approaches, and arrives at the particular problems of a certain story. To me, this is critical theory at its most creative.

To some in our field, using the sciences to explain art seems counter-intuitive, reductive, and maybe even fascistic, in that it challenges the traditional notion of the individual genius. I say, "Bring it on!" What would it mean for us to become accountable for enhancing the survival skills of our audiences? How could we measure or just think about how our work accomplishes these outcomes? The work of theorists like Boyd gives us some good places to start.

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