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Brian Boyd's aim in his thorough, and thoroughly frustrating, On the Origin of Stories, is to explore and explain why humans tell stories. He wants to understand how and why an activity that, on the surface, may seem unrelated to our survival as a species, does in fact have an evolutionary basis. Following on from this, he develops an argument for an alternative, evolutionary-based literary criticism, tentatively called 'evocriticism'.
The book is organized into two sections, the first dealing with the author's argument for art, and fiction in particular, having an evolutionary basis, and the second with his application of this argument to two examples of supreme storytelling, Homer's The Odyssey and Dr Seuss' Horton Hears a Who!
The general scheme of Boyd's book is well-organized, proceeding logically through evolution generally, evolution and art, and then evolution and fiction. Unfortunately, I found this beautifully presented, big book frustrating because the arguments themselves are presented poorly, buried in overwriting and repetition, so that it is difficult to get a clear overview of them. The 400 pages could be condensed and clarified considerably to make those arguments stand out, and the reading less exhausting.
The subject is a terrific one: why is it that humans are the only species to have a sustained artistic impulse? Why do we exert so much energy to produce art, and specifically, tell made-up stories? Is art generally just a byproduct (as Stephen Pinker believes) of human development, something pleasurable we like to do but not really of any evolutionary benefit; or has it developed because it is actually of some benefit to our survival, and our dominance as a species?
Boyd appears to want to put art, and storytelling in particular, firmly in place as something vitally important to us as a species, and not just entertaining or academic. He argues fervently for evocriticism against post-modernist theories of human culture and literature (which he refers to as Theory), which do not recognize universals or human nature as such, and which, he appears to argue, take the pleasure out of reading. And he wants to dispel the idea of an evolutionary approach to literature as being reductive, narrowing all down to genes. For example, he states that '[e]volution has allowed humans to develop our singular capacity for culture because culture helps us to track changes in the environment more rapidly than genes do'. The two -- genes and culture -- work together to advance the species.
The author works methodically through explanations of adaptation, intelligence, cooperation (yields better results than selfishness in the long-term) and our intense sociality. Hethen applies evolution to the development of art, giving reasons why he feels biology and culture are both needed to explain it, including art's universality, persistence, cost, emotional resonance, and development in all of us from an early age.
He argues that art must be important to us as a species or it would have been selected out, and that it evolved as a form of play, specifically cognitive play. As animals play for fun but also for hunting and fighting training, humans make art for their enjoyment, but also for more serious reasons. Art offers benefits by encouraging cooperation and intense sociality that gives a group advantages over another without so much art. It is also self-rewarding, increases status, and develops creativity and imagination.
When Boyd comes to fiction specifically, he discusses theory of mind, the understanding of others in terms of their goals, intentions, desires and beliefs, which develops during early childhood in humans in a particularly elaborate and complex way, and enables us to feel empathy for others. Fiction taps into this through presenting the possible motivations for characters in stories, thus helping us experience situations in our imagination that we might not have in real life.
The second part of the book deals with Boyd's discussion of the two great works of fiction. He believes that evocriticism offers 'new directions in which to look' and 'deepens our understanding and appreciation of literature' over and above the current methods of literary analysis and criticism. While his analysis is thorough, too much of it seemed obvious (Homer's tactics to attract and keep readers, for example) and not particularly interesting or original. In contrast, another book I have reviewed here recently, Affective Mapping: Melancholia and the Politics of Modernism by Jonathan Flatley, shows me how rich, complex and original literary analysis can be, revealing aspects of Henry James, for example, that I had not encountered before.
In scanning the work of other literary Darwinists, such as Joseph Carroll, I see a similar attitude towards other types of literary theory as Boyd's. Instead of convincing me of the merits of evocriticism, I am irritated by the scathing and dismissive arguments against political, psychoanalytical or semiotic analysis, and see it as short-sighted and limiting.
However, I think Boyd has done a service to literature by arguing for a different way of talking about the books we love. He has argued that we cannot, in fact, live without stories, because they are an adaptation that has enabled our success as a species. We enjoy them, they bring us together and foster cooperation and sharing of values, they encourage attention and empathy. At a recent writers' festival in my city, I found myself thinking about Boyd's book. One writer in particular spoke of things that bind us together as human beings: love, family, luck, birth, death. He was speaking of memoir, which I think has a place in Boyd's theory, as do other forms of storytelling, not only the fictional.
Boyd takes the reader through The Odyssey and Horton Hears a Who!, using the evocritical methods he has so painstakingly developed in a equally painstaking manner. However, I am not convinced that evocriticism is going to provide an adequate method of analyzing stories on its own. I see it as a useful, but perhaps limited, way of asserting the importance of storytelling, a form of criticism to add to our collection of methods of analyses.
© 2009 Sue Bond
Sue Bond has degrees in medicine and literature and a Master of Arts in Creative Writing. She reviews for online and print publications. She lives in Queensland, Australia