On The Origin Of Stories



ISBN: 978-0674057111

READ: 2016-07-22

AUTHOR: Brian Boyd



I highly valued this book much because of its ability to open up new connections between different subjects, such as art, theory of evolution and religion – providing a more complete explanation of why humans end up enjoying so much storytelling. Considering how a costly activity storytelling is (sum the creative effort of the author to the potential risks the audience faces in attending to a story, postponing resting or responding to existential threats), it needed an equally strong explanation to account for how it could live up to evolution’s design guidelines.

After dwelling upon the evolutionary causes of intelligence and cooperation, Boyd defines “art as cognitive play with pattern”. The benefits of motor and social skills refinement through repetition-and-adjustment in a safe environment account for why play became an evolutionary advantage among most complex animal species; the cognitive characterisation chiefly ascribe to humans’ most prominent feature: intelligence; the ultrasocial aspect of human nature demands for an endless testing and mastering of social skills, to decipher how and why other conspecifics behave the way they do, and consequently adjust our actions to advance our status and reproductive chances.

Far from ruling out previous explanations, to Boyd art therefore serves to command the evolutionary need of pattern recognition in a faster way, to channel shared attention and subsequent human cohesion. He adds how art raises the status of the artist and also certain members among the audience, besides fostering creativity as a second-order “Darwin machine”, a way to produce endless possibilities to face environment’s unpredictability.
He points out how the understanding of false belief – knowing that we may not have the whole understanding of a situation – together with the rewarding activity of pattern recognition, made us reach for finer and finer explanations, which led to the development of religion as a supernatural explanation of things, besides being a powerful social reinforcer of cooperation.

If the question was: “why do humans spend their mental and physical resources to hear invented stories?”, then Boyd’s analysis allows for a deeper understanding of literature evolutionary role: storytelling “arises out of our intense interest in monitoring one another”, and “fiction can especially appeal by inventing events with an intensity and surprise that fact rarely permits. Fictions foster cooperation by engaging and attuning our social and moral emotions and values, and creativity by enticing us to think beyond the immediate”.