Genetics and Evolution

 email page    print page

All Topic Reviews
A Companion to GenethicsA Companion to GenethicsA Cooperative SpeciesA Mind So RareA Natural History of RapeAcquiring GenomesAdapting MindsAgeing, Health and CareAlas, Poor DarwinAn Introduction to Evolutionary EthicsAncient Bodies, Modern LivesAnimal ArchitectsAping MankindAre We Hardwired?Bang!BehavingBeyond EvolutionBeyond GeneticsBlood MattersBody BazaarBoneBrain Evolution and CognitionBrain StormBrave New BrainBrave New WorldsChoosing ChildrenCloneCloningConceptual Issues in Evolutionary BiologyConsciousness EvolvingContemporary Debates in Philosophy of BiologyControlling Our DestiniesCooperation and Its EvolutionCreatures of AccidentDarwin Loves YouDarwin's Brave New WorldDarwin's Gift to Science and ReligionDarwin's UniverseDarwin's WormsDarwinian ConservatismDarwinian PsychiatryDarwinism and its DiscontentsDarwinism as ReligionDebating DesignDecoding DarknessDefenders of the TruthDo We Still Need Doctors?Doubting Darwin?Early WarningEngineering the Human GermlineEnhancing EvolutionEnoughEntwined LivesEthical Issues in Human CloningEthical Issues in the New GeneticsEvil GenesEvolutionEvolutionEvolution and Human BehaviorEvolution and Human BehaviorEvolution and Human Sexual BehaviorEvolution and LearningEvolution and ReligionEvolution and the Human MindEvolution in MindEvolution, Gender, and RapeEvolution: The Modern SynthesisEvolutionary Ethics and Contemporary BiologyEvolutionary Origins of MoralityEvolutionary PsychiatryEvolutionary PsychologyEvolutionary Psychology and ViolenceEvolutionary Psychology as Maladapted PsychologyExploding the Gene MythFaces of Huntington'sFlesh of My FleshFrom Chance to ChoiceFrom Darwin to HitlerGenesGenes in ConflictGenes on the CouchGenes, Environment, and PsychopathologyGenes, Environment, and PsychopathologyGenes, Women, EqualityGenetic Nature/CultureGenetic PoliticsGenetic ProspectsGenetic ProspectsGenetic SecretsGenetics in the MadhouseGenetics of Criminal and Antisocial BehaviourGenetics of Mental DisordersGenetics of Original SinGenetics of Original SinGenomeGenomeGenome: Updated EditionGenomes and What to Make of ThemGlowing GenesHow Women Got Their Curves and Other Just-So StoriesHuman CloningHuman Evolution, Reproduction, and MoralityImproving Nature?In Our Own ImageIn Pursuit of the GeneIn the Name of GodIngenious GenesInheritanceInside the Human GenomeInside the O'BriensIntegrating Evolution and DevelopmentIntelligence, Race, and GeneticsIs Human Nature Obsolete?Language OriginsLess Than HumanLiberal EugenicsLiving with Our GenesMaking Genes, Making WavesMaking Sense of EvolutionMan As The PrayerMean GenesMenMood GenesMoral OriginsMothers and OthersNature Via NurtureNever Let Me GoNot By Genes AloneOf Flies, Mice, and MenOn the Origin of StoriesOrigin of MindOrigins of Human NatureOrigins of PsychopathologyOur Posthuman FuturePhilosophy of BiologyPlaying God?Playing God?Portraits of Huntington'sPrimates and PhilosophersPromiscuityPsychiatric Genetics and GenomicsPsychologyQuality of Life and Human DifferenceRe-creating MedicineRedesigning HumansResearch Advances in Genetics and GenomicsResponsible GeneticsResponsible GeneticsScience, Seeds and CyborgsSex and WarSociological Perspectives on the New GeneticsStrange BedfellowsStrange BehaviorSubjects of the WorldSubordination and DefeatThe Age of EmpathyThe Agile GeneThe Ape and the Sushi MasterThe Biotech CenturyThe Blank SlateThe Book of LifeThe Boy Who Loved Too MuchThe Bridge to HumanityThe Case Against PerfectionThe Case for PerfectionThe Case of the Female OrgasmThe Century of the GeneThe Common ThreadThe Concept of the Gene in Development and EvolutionThe Debated MindThe Double-Edged HelixThe Epidemiology of SchizophreniaThe Ethics of Choosing ChildrenThe Ethics of Human CloningThe Evolution of CooperationThe Evolution of MindThe Evolution of MindThe Evolved ApprenticeThe Evolving WorldThe Extended Selfish GeneThe Fact of EvolutionThe Folly of FoolsThe Future of Human NatureThe God GeneThe Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksThe Impact of the GeneThe Innate MindThe Innate MindThe Innate Mind: Volume 3The Limits and Lies of Human Genetic ResearchThe Lives of the BrainThe Maladapted MindThe Meme MachineThe Misunderstood GeneThe Moral, Social, and Commercial Imperatives of Genetic Testing and ScreeningThe Most Dangerous AnimalThe New Genetic MedicineThe Nurture AssumptionThe Origin and Evolution of CulturesThe Origins of FairnessThe Paradoxical PrimateThe Perfect BabyThe Robot's RebellionThe Selfish GeneThe Shape of ThoughtThe Shattered SelfThe Stem Cell ControversyThe Story WithinThe Stuff of LifeThe Talking ApeThe Temperamental ThreadThe Terrible GiftThe Theory of OptionsThe Top 10 Myths About EvolutionThe Triple HelixThe Triumph of SociobiologyThe Woman Who Walked into the SeaTwinsUnderstanding CloningUnderstanding the GenomeUnnatural SelectionUnto OthersUp From DragonsVoracious Science and Vulnerable AnimalsWar Against the WeakWhat Genes Can't DoWhat It Means to Be 98 Percent ChimpanzeeWho Owns YouWhose View of Life?Why Evolution Is TrueWhy Think? WondergenesWrestling with Behavioral GeneticsYour Genetic Destiny

Related Topics
On the Origin of StoriesReview - On the Origin of Stories
Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction
by Brian Boyd
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009
Review by Sue Bond
Oct 6th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 41)

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 


Welcome to Metapsychology. We feature over 8200 in-depth reviews of a wide range of books and DVDs written by our reviewers from many backgrounds and perspectives. We update our front page weekly and add more than twenty new reviews each month. Our editor is Christian Perring, PhD. To contact him, use one of the forms available here.

Metapsychology Online reviewers normally receive gratis review copies of the items they review.
Metapsychology Online receives a commission from for purchases through this site, which helps us send review copies to reviewers. Please support us by making your purchases through our Amazon links. We thank you for your support!

Join our e-mail list!: Metapsychology New Review Announcements: Sent out monthly, these announcements list our recent reviews. To subscribe, click here.

Interested in becoming a book reviewer for Metapsychology? To apply, write to our editor.

Metapsychology Online Reviews

Promote your Page too

Metapsychology Online Reviews
ISSN 1931-5716