Not everyone can tell a gripping story but telling stories may be as integral to the evolution of Homo sapiens as bipedalism or opposable thumbs; it’s in our DNA.  The stories we tell, from gossip to heroic myths, from personal life-stories to invented,  massaged and publicized political campaign narratives, from childhood “let’s pretend” to great works of literature, are fundamental not only to each of us personally but to us as a species.

Books On the Origin of StoriesAs Brian Boyd has it in On The Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition and Fiction (2009), story telling in human development is an “adaptive trait,” one that has “enhanced fitness, the capacity to survive and to produce viable offspring.”  It is not simply a serendipitous by-product of a complex mind which we have learned to use for entertainment and passing idle hours.

This is not an uncontroversial idea. Boyd acknowledges there is opposition to  “applying the principle of adaptation to human minds and behavior,” citing Stephen Jay Gould as the best known. He meets their objections fairly, and to my mind persuasively.

The brain in all creatures, he points out, is an organ for survival, allowing “the organism to respond to relevant features in their environments … phenomenon like three dimensional space or the motion of light and sound through air or water … from biological kinds such as flora and fauna … to the intentions and reactions of others.” As Homo sapiens began its long evolution from small group primates into the “supersocial” species we now are, social intelligence grew in power and complexity, pressured by “the need to track the identities, status, power, and intentions of conspecifics and to respond to them to best advantage.”


On The Origin of Stories is one of a short list of books, like Guns, Germs and Steel  by Jared Diamond (1997) which not only crosses disciplines, with deep knowledge in all, but is written to be read by non-experts in any.  Evolutionary biology and psychology, anthropology, game theory, childhood development are mined and cross referenced. Neither burdened with for-professionals-only obscurities nor patronizingly explanatory, the over-all shape and first layers of his argument are accessible to all. As any good teacher knows, judicious repetition of new concepts in different contexts will ensure the whole is eventually seen; and we do.  Even so, there are pages that will reward multiple readings, looping back after conclusions to see the starting points again.

Diamond, in Guns, Germs and Steel,  set out to answer a simple question posed to him by a friend, “Why you white man have so much cargo and we New Guineans have so little?” So Brian Boyd begins with a simple question:  “Why, in a world of necessity, do we spend so much time caught up in stories that both teller and told know never happened and never will?  Can evolution provide an answer?”

He has a secondary interest as well, though no less important to him.  As he describes his aims:

“One, is to offer an account of fiction (and of art in general) that takes into account our widest context for explaining life –evolution.  Two, to offer a way beyond much current literary theory.”

For many readers, particularly those attracted to evolution and science,  criticism of the last thirty years of Lit Crit in western universities –the post-modern notion, advanced by Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, that everything is contingent, there are no ultimate truths– will seem a rarefied concern.  As a University Distinguished Professor, Department of English, University of Auckland, Boyd will have reason, born of sheer exasperation, I imagine.  Not that it is purely an academic fight: post modern ways of interpreting the world, and acting in it, pervade everything from moral perceptions to public policy, from religion to the writing of history, from urban planning to, of course, literature.

The book loses none of its interest or explanatory power for those not familiar with such concerns, and indeed such “not interested” readers may begin to see why the fight exists.  For those wanting to know more, Boyd’s long essay in American Scholar, (Autumn, 2006) “Getting It All Wrong” will be helpful.


The text is divided into two “books.” The first, “Evolution, Art and Fiction,” sets out the wide field of investigation — evolution, play, cooperation, culture, intelligence, art, fiction, the trailing six always developing in the crucible of the first.  Book II takes these lines of argument and shows how they work in Homer’s Odyssey and, of all things, in Dr Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who.

The opening book is further sectioned into three parts, each with four or five chapters: Evolution and Nature; Evolution and Art; Evolution and Fiction.

The early pages are a good primer, or reminder, of the basics of current evolutionary understanding.

(1) If there is inheritance of biology, and we know there is( a child resembles its parents more than a random stranger, let alone a tree frog or toadstool); (2) if there is variation, and we  know there is (a child never exactly resembles its parents, and by definition could never be exactly like two different parents); and (3) if some variations are more successful than others, and we know they are (the ability to run a little faster or think your way out of difficulties a little more often, for instance,) then in the world of limited resources and competing interests , not all will be equally successful in producing offspring that themselves produce reproductively viable offspring.
Evolution is not a theory of random chance.  It is a theory of random mutation plus non-random cumulative natural selection.”  (Dawkins)

Particularly  interesting are the chapters on play and fitness, theory of mind, and the evolution of cooperation.

Play and Art

Play is common in many animals, especially when young.  Judging speed, distance, strength, reaction time in non-threatening situations prepares fitness for adult life. The young pick up social cues: this is play, this is not; bite, but not too hard; run, now away, now towards.  Those with quicker reactions, stronger responses draw attention, become dominant.  Play in human young, from tag to throwing rocks to carrying dolls is similar, in form and foundation. Being affected by others, as Boyd reminds us, “is a design feature of human beings.”  [One study he cites found that the only commonality of imprisoned sociopathic killers was little, or restricted play time as children.]

Out of play, in human culture, comes art.  Drawing, painting, music, dance, are all “cognitive play with pattern.” Like all play they reward the brain with endorphin pleasure, compensating for the energy expended in non utilitarian effort. Like all play also, the arts contribute to sharing experience and understanding, to strengthening group cohesion and identity. Though narratives are told in dance and music, with language and stories comes the enormous leap into being a “supersocial” species. With much more specificity than possible in the other arts, stories represent reality, the what is known, and the what might be. It can draw attention to that the particular human concern – “what we may not know.”

Theory of Mind

Prior even to the emergence of music, dance, art and story telling is what is known as “theory of mind,” the ability of individuals to recognize others as “like-me” and therefore to impute capabilities to others: if I know a back trail to the camp, he may know it. If I can deceive about the store of tubers, she can do it.  The classic determination of having a theory of mind, in at least a rudimentary sense, is self recognition in a mirror.  Humans do so before one year of age; crows do it, elephants do it, porpoises do it.  Gorillas, leopards, most birds do not. [There are some fascinating videos on YouTube showing creatures attacking their own image in a mirror.]

Attention, Status and Culture

A problem common to all creatures, but particularly fraught for humans is how to negotiate a basic truth: selfishness beats altruism within single groups; altruistic groups beat selfish groups: an individual cooperates with the group to get a share of group-won rewards, but must compete within the group to get that share.

In social species this competition is not only of brute force.  Individuals who attract more attention from others, de facto attain status. Status matters; attention matters. “We crave attention,  respect, prestige, and status … Humans pursue status ferociously … especially with the advent of storable stuff.” Not only hunting or child-bearing or root gathering get attention, so do dance, art, music, and storytelling.  Music, for example increases coordination in timing and tones, we draw comfort and strength from the amplification of voices; dance is a way of imitating and training for coordinated projects. Those who contribute especially, achieve status, and therefore access to group goods.

“Individuals more motivated to catch the attention and stir the responses of others through carefully designed appeals to shared preferences, and individuals more motivated to respond to those appeals, are more likely to want and to be able to form more tightly coordinated and therefore successful groups.  106

And of course, with status comes dominance and subordinance — and not only for the moment.  With persistence of memory, anticipation of what may come, representation of reality and possibility, culture begins.  Defined as “the non-genetic transmission of information” culture is not only a human phenomenon but exists in many species from birds to primates.  Chimpanzees not only have culture, but each social grouping has their own. Though human culture is far more complex and far-reaching than that of other species, it is important not to see culture as thing in itself, created as it were by mental processes.  All culture rises out of biology, as evolutionarily shaped body and mind interact with nature and nurture.


The heart of all the preceding is how it prepares for Boyd’s theory of story telling, and fiction, as an evolutionary, perhaps sexual, adaptation. Fiction, like other arts, “improves one key mental mode: social cognition.”  It improves an individual’s fitness in the group by interpreting, characterizing and explaining.

Stories enhance the narrative possibilities of music and dance enormously, and variously.  Their importance is not only in long tales of overcoming the enemy and ancestral heroes, or in explaining why invisible beings control our lives, but in gossip: the best information about those around us earns status; bad information loses it.

We use fiction to represent reality, events of our lives, or possible lives.  “Fiction can design events and characters to provoke us to reflect on, say generosity, or threat, or deception and counter deception … it efficiently evokes our intense emotional engagement without requiring our belief.” It encourages the development of moral sense by shifting perspective, taking views of other-than-self; it can contribute to “solving the problems of cooperation that become more acute the large the population grows.”  And “can help solve the problem of common knowledge.”

Of course, just as imagination and stories can take us out of ourselves and into the possibilities of others, so can they  explain the perfidy of others, the need for their defeat.  Projections of self into others seen, also becomes projection into the unseen:  if I exist it is possible that unseen beings exist. Stories give us the details, who they are and how to get their attention and benevolence. Story telling and religion are fraternal twins, likely born in that order.  In an uncertain world we crave more information and deeper explanation; the supernatural offers this.  Boyd tackles the question of why we persist in converting fiction into belief,  but it is clear that even when gods are never seen, “if our group gains in cohesion through a sense of divine support, it is likely,  other things being equal, to be able to overcome enemies who lack such a compelling belief.” And so it goes…

Book II – “From Zeus to Seuss” is an interesting application of the ideas developed in Book I, to two well-known stories. Here again, he is interested not only showing the application of his theory to actual literature, but in countering the post-modern deconstruction of life and literature, to the detriment of both, in Boyd’s view.
For more commentary and reviews of The Origin of Stories, see Amazon, here.
For an online edition of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, see PBS here.
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