Book note: On the origin of stories

Why do we spend so much time with stories? Is it just an accident, or is this behavior with deep evolutionary roots? Brian Boyd argues in On The Origin of Stories that our love for stories has evolved and serves several different important purposes. He rejects the simplistic explanation that story telling is simply a way to preen and prance, and so such be seen as a classical mating signal (although it is tempting and somewhat funny to see the self-consuming artist as trying to signal that he or she is so fit that they can live a destructive life, and hence should be a perfect mate). Instead, he notes that stories allow us to explore the adjacent possible and to examine the future through different scenarios. This in itself is enough for stories to have paid their evolutionary dues, but Boyd goes on to also show how they can carry core cultural memes and behaviours that are important in our culture (like punishing cheaters or recognizing the death spiral of revenge).

Art, in Boyds telling, becomes patterned cognitive play – and he has a fascinating discussion about patterns that shows how clearly pattern recognition is at the very heart of human cognition – or at least constitutes a very important part of it (some would argue, and Boyd does not seem to directly disagree, that it is the capacity to recognize and project one pattern as another in analogy that really sets us apart in our cognition. The bird cannot see an unknown predator analogically). This play is crucial to us, it has deep value in itself, and one comment in the book really drives this home: primates taught to paint become uninterested in doing so if they do it for a reward – their real payoff is in the play itself, and if left without any pay out they truly become passionate (a crude argument for letting artists starve could be construed from this insight, but would be mistaken: play presupposes that our basic needs are covered).

Boyd’s points are extremely important, and the book outlines the surprisingly narrow frames narrative can move within. If narrative partly is there to convey evolutionary insights that are cultural in nature (such as the importance of punishing cheaters in social games), we cannot shift narratives easily unless we also operate in that narrow biological and evolutionary frame. This is something to think about for those professionally tasked with ”changing the narrative” — and suggests that the question is if the evolutionary tale you can tell is stronger than the one you are trying to change.

All in all, narrative emerges as a core pattern in all of society (supporting our earlier model of lobbyism as consisting of pattern, narrative and story) and Boyd then provides two interesting examples of what he calls ”evo-criticism” to support the hypothesis. He delivers plausible and interesting readings of Odysseus as well as Horton hears a Who in a way that highlights his points well.

One thing that in the book that I found fairly quickly dealt with was the role of narrative as an information bearer. Narration seems to me to be a supremely effective information compression algorithm — there is so much that can be compressed into a narrative, and once we know it we can use it as a ”script” to project into a wealth of scenarios. Narrative compresses and stores knowledge in a format that is easy to transmit and integrate in the human mind (we are hard-coded for narrative). This also limits narrative in the sense that if the projections or predictions we have been coded to do on a narrative need to be changed, it will take time and a lot of effort.

All in all a great read, and an important addition to the reading list for a philosphy of lobbyism.

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