Brian Boyd, On the Origin of Stories

Brian Boyd, On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009), xxii + 540 pp. £25.95 hb. ISBN 978-0-674-03357-3.

George Levine, winner of the BSLS book prize for 2008, reviews On the Origin of Stories, shortlisted for the BSLS book prize for 2009:

The recent upsurge in what has been calling itself ‘Literary Darwinism’ has left many who care about the relations between science and literature pretty cold. Almost always skeptical about the idea that criticism can (or should) be a science, in the sense of empirical verifiability and systematic ordering, literary scholars have been particularly offended, not only by Literary Darwinism’s aggressive and total dismissal of contemporary criticism, but more seriously by the generally tone-deaf quality of the practical criticism that has by and large emerged from its long theoretical windups. Scholars know that every new critical movement and every new art makes space for itself by attempting to knock off the reigning fashion; every new criticism imagines itself as unlike any other. As Dryden and Pope displaced ‘metaphysical’ poetry; as Wordsworth displaced Pope’s tradition; as the new critics displaced biographical and historical criticism, and Deconstruction, Foucauldianism, Lacanian methods struggled with each other to displace the assertively objective methods of the new criticism, so Literary Darwinism displaces ‘postmodernism’ and takes us all to the Nirvana in which criticism escapes its own cultural and linguistic swerves, particularities, and reversals and becomes at last respectable by joining the empirical sciences in speaking truths about the real world. 

On one hand, Brian Boyd’s brilliant and ambitious On the Origin of Stories participates in this illusion and aspiration; but on the other, it is both a sound foundational work for the new biologically oriented criticism and a passionate ‘Defence of Poetry’ (or of narrative, at least), by a critic who cares deeply about literature and who is sensitive to its nuances and complexities. Like the Literary Darwinists before him, Boyd is strongly hostile to what he calls ‘postmodernism’, although his polemic is more subtle and his understanding of and regard for literature undoubtedly greater. He cannot forgive that postmodern criticism has, as he sees it, taken the joy out of literature, a joy that he clearly feels. But he cleverly gets it in its moral heart when he claims that ‘Postmodern thought has been a last bastion of human exceptionalism’, by which he means that it ‘has decreed the world of human life to be entirely shaped by culture and convention and therefore distinct from the rest of reality’ (386). While this is not entirely fair, given the varieties of ‘postmodernism’ out there in the disciplinary market, Boyd’s determination to think about all human activities as profoundly shaped by biology seems only just, and it surely is time that even critics most hostile to literary Darwinism concede that too much of academic literary culture has too long resisted all biological explanation. Boyd makes by far the best and most profound case so far for this new kind of criticism, and although I remain, inescapably, sceptical about its possible reach, I am convinced that this is a book to take seriously and to learn from.

It is an excellent sign that Boyd rejects the label ‘Literary Darwinism’, which has not done good service to the project, and calls it ‘evocriticism’. Poor Darwin has little to do with ‘Literary Darwinism’, and Boyd confronts directly the fact that the criticism to which he aspires, and for which this book attempts to create a model, is to be based not on Darwin but on an integrative understanding of modern science, particularly evolutionary psychology, and of literary criticism and scholarship.

To make his case, Boyd has to fight many battles. Like all evolutionary psychologists and all his critical predecessors, he has to demonstrate that there is such a thing as human nature, and that understanding what that is, we are in a better position to understand art. He has to demonstrate that the art instinct is both humanly universal and not exclusively human but inherent across the animal kingdom in forms of play. And he must resist (and does so successfully) one of the deniers’ most insistent complaints, that biological explanations are reductive in the worst sense and that they imply ‘genetic determinism’. He has to show (and does) that basing one’s criticism on biology does not deny the importance of culture, but makes culture and its effects more understandable. ‘It makes no sense,’ he writes, ‘to set biology in opposition to society or culture’ (25). He has to show that understanding the scientific literature about adaptation and animal cooperation, the workings of memory, the evolution of brain and mind, the ways in which children learn and the stages of cognitive development, the functions of animal play, and so on, will really matter to how we read and understand stories.   

Art, he claims, is a form ‘of cognitive play, with pattern’ (15). It is not so much that Auden was wrong in saying that ‘Poetry makes nothing happen’, but that its power to make nothing happen while imitating things happening actually opens up endless possibility of happening. Like the play of young animals, it is adaptive; it has had, by way of the workings of natural selection, a fundamental role in human development. Art, that is, can be justified because it is useful. And it is the utilitarian argument with which Boyd most strongly supports his insistence that a biological approach is not determinist: ‘Art generates a confidence that we can transform the world to suit our own preference, that we need not accept the given but can work to modify it in ways we choose; and it supplies skills and models we can refine and recombine to ensure our ongoing cumulative creativity’ (15).

There is always, for such arguments, the test of what it means to apply them to the actual work of reading literature. The history of this kind of application is not cheering, but rarely have the Darwinian critics had the kind of literary skill and depth of literary background that Boyd has. As he correctly puts it, ‘Evolutionary literary criticism will be worth the detour into biology and psychology only if it deepens our understanding and appreciation of literature’ (210). To test the power and the limits of  this ‘biocultural’ criticism, Boyd studies for half this volume two improbably paired books, Homer’s Odyssey and Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who, works that represent virtually absolute contrasts – ‘ancient and modern, adult and children’s, serious and comic, massive and minuscule’ (210). It is a wonderful strategy, and overall an at least a partially successful one. If evocriticism can tell us something new and interesting about such diverse books, it promises to tell us something new about all stories.

It is impossible here to summarize adequately the details of the arguments in such a large, ambitious, and scholarly volume; it would be easy to misrepresent it by simplification. Roughly, however, this is Boyd’s approach. For each book, he uses an evolutionary perspective that attends to familiar elements of narrative, like ‘character, plot, structure, dramatic irony, and theme,’ and he does so by returning to what he calls ‘first principles’, treating fiction ‘as a human activity arising naturally out of other human and animal behavior’ (211). It is a rhetorical difficulty of his project that he must work with the simple and familiar and yet show that the most simple, fundamental ideas are actually producing original results. Part of what makes Boyd convincing is that he does not pretend that all that he touches is ‘new’. He not only recognizes the value of earlier criticism, but he knows it well. At the same time, it is fair to say that the simple and the familiar are, after all, just simple and familiar.

The three fundamental angles of approach that Boyd adapts are, first, a consideration of the artists’ efforts to gain and retain the readers’ attention; second, a demonstration of the way ‘intelligence’ is pervasive in art, historically (Boyd brilliantly explodes a familiar critical argument – see, for example, Erich Auerbach – that ‘mind’ as we know it was absent in Homer), and developmentally (that is, in the earliest manifestations of infant and childhood consciousness); and third, an exploration of the way ‘cooperation’ is intrinsic to human nature and society. These are huge and elemental categories; following Boyd’s discussion of them in the first half of the book, in terms of the work of evolutionary psychology, and watching them in operation in the criticism is an exhausting activity. Are they, in the end, too crude to help us account for and understand great works of art? 

Despite Boyd’s critical agility and passion for his texts, from time to time, this is a very tempting conclusion. Do we really need all that science to explain what might well have been taken as self-evident in the first place? Boyd wants, for example, to emphasize how the artist works to seize the attention of the audience by using complex artistic modes like irony. But of course there are virtually infinite reasons, other than bids for attention, why artists might use irony. And nobody will be surprised that one of irony’s effects is likely to be attracting attention. Or consider Boyd’s early discussion of ‘competition’, an element obviously important in the Odyssey. ‘In diploid species such as mammals, parents are genetically related by 50 percent to each of their children, but each child is related 100 percent to itself and only 50 percent to its…siblings’ (55). And he concludes, ‘Here we see why even in the most cooperative of relationships, competition is inevitable and why the powerful emotions engendered by family loyalty and conflict saturates stories from Genesis to The Sopranos’ (56).

Here are first principles with a vengeance, and I am reminded a bit how Matthew Arnold responded with aesthetic revulsion from Darwin’s discussion of man’s origin as a ‘hairy quadruped’. Indeed, reading this book for me from time to time created a weird experience of simultaneously conflicting feelings: Arnoldian revulsion from the inevitably analytic and technical language of evolutionary psychology and recognition of extraordinary scholarship and critical perceptiveness; a hearty cheer for a commitment to the joy of literature, and a deep sense of the joylessness both of this language and of a strictly utilitarian reading of the adaptive powers of art; a strong admiration for that critical perceptiveness and the sense that the perceptiveness has no necessary link to the theory that seems to have inspired it; a sense of critical originality accompanied frequently by a powerful sense of banality. To get clear the first principles, the obvious must be asserted and explained – and explained in terms of evolutionary theory. 

I give just one example: Boyd’s explanation of Odysseus’s anger with the suitors. ‘If we do not feel anger and sometimes act upon it, others may well encroach on our rights’. This banality is followed by yet more. ‘Once an offense occurs, of course, full redress may be impossible, but if we lack a sense of outrage sufficient to make us retaliate, others may feel they can take piecemeal what is ours – as the suitors do to Odysseus before he appears’ (305). The point of all this obviousness is a large one, that Boyd recognizes in Odysseus behaviour elements fundamental to ‘human nature.’ Somehow, explaining them in so fundamental a way is to lead us to a deeper and fresher understanding of Odysseus and the working out of the plot of the Odyssey. But while Boyd knows the scholarship, and knows that he is laying out fundamentals, there is absolutely nothing in what he says of Odysseus’ behaviour here that requires a biocultural evolutionary explanation.

And yet this is not fair. Boyd as critic is much more interesting than the little sample I’ve given here. I think the jury is still out on his overall argument, although it is clear that following out this evolutionary/adaptationist line will produce a lot banality along the way. This book is serious enough, despite the unease that it constantly aroused in me, to deserve to be taken seriously, to be thought against and thought through. There can be no doubt, if there ever was any, that criticism needs not to shy away from biology and science but to confront it. And I am convinced, partly on the basis of Boyd’s long theoretical opening sections, that we should indeed be thinking seriously about evolutionary aesthetics, while we may want to be extremely tentative about evolutionary criticism.

In concluding what should in fact require much more detailed attention to the subtlety and openness of Boyd’s argument, I just want to raise a few very questions that this book provokes. First, does it really make sense to try to think of criticism as a science, with all the epistemological complexities that come with it – testability, falsifiability, system, accumulative and orderly knowledge? Is that what criticism aspires to, and is that the ‘cost’ of believing that somehow criticism is committed to speak truths about art as science is committed to speaking truth about nature? Do we really believe that there can be an understanding of the universal conditions of human nature such that they will open out on a more profound understanding of the particularities of narrative and art – much of which is driven certainly by a deep need to resist the normal, the conventional, the universal? Second, is a utilitarian understanding of art – a justification of it by demonstration that it adapts us better to our world – the only or even the primary defence of poetry? To honour art in its richness and diversity, isn’t it necessary to come to terms with that tradition of the artist as precisely not adapted or committed to adaptation? I mean here not merely artists committed self-consciously to art for art’s sake, but artists whose very originality has depended on alienation from the norms of social connection. Isn’t there a great tradition of literature and literary study affirming just that literature is not utilitarian, but precisely what humans have invented for the opening to joy, or to other intense feelings that are also not adaptive (except of course if one needs to claim that all such feelings have adaptive functions as well)? So, third, is it possible to create a criticism that does not betray the ‘joy’ of art? While I am in fact more persuaded by Boyd than I have been by Lacanians or even Foucauldians, from whom of course I have learned a lot along the way, I can’t quite see that all these evocations of evolutionary studies are any more joyful than all those quotations from Freud, or Lacan, or Foucauld, to which we sombre academics have become accustomed.

What matters most about this book, however, is that it demands engagement: one might from passage to passage disagree with Boyd, but he writes with the depth and authority that requires the fullest attention. And I believe that whatever else this book does, it makes a powerful case for evolutionary aesthetics – that is, for the recognition of the aesthetic as a fundamental aspect of human nature, deriving from the universal presence in human (and other animals) of the element of play. Whether such an aesthetics can develop into a significant kind of critical method that ‘makes it possible to show that a biocultural approach makes it possible to explain stories more comprehensively and more precisely than though other current approaches’ and will deepen our understanding of great literature like Homer’s Odyssey is another, but genuinely open, question.  

George Levine, Rutgers University

For a further review of On the Origin of Stories in the context of evolutionary studies of epic poetry, click here.

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