- On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction
Brian Boyd's On the Origin of Stories will not be mistaken for a monograph on Homer. In Boyd's big picture tale of how fiction came to be and why fiction persists, the Odyssey takes its rightful place alongside Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who! as playground for bio-critical literary exercise. This deceptively plain-speaking book is among the latest specimens to wriggle up out of the growing sea of what Boyd calls "evocriticism," a recently gestated field that for some time has gone by the moniker Literary Darwinism (a term which Boyd rightly rejects as an unproductive form of ancestor worship). Whatever the proper term, such studies look at literature under the influence of research in evolution and, more specifically, evolutionary psychology. The Iliad has received similar sustained attention in Jonathan Gottschall's The Rape of Troy as "an evolutionary anthropology of conflict in Homeric society" ([Cambridge 2008]:3). Both Gottschall and Boyd claim an empirical basis for the study of literature; their work, like others' in this burgeoning literary area, is deeply embroiled in debates over the direction and nature of humanist engagement with the cognitive sciences. (See, for example, William Deresiewicz, "Adaptation: On Literary Darwinism," The Nation June 8, 2009:26-31 and Alan Richardson, "Studies in Literature and Cognition: A Field Map," in The Work of Fiction: Cognition, Culture, and Complexity, Alan Richardson and Ellen Spolsky, eds. [Burlington, Vt., 2004]:1-29.) These sorts of debates about the interface of science and humanities have a particular public dimension (e.g., D. T. Max, "The Literary Darwinists," The New York Times, Nov. 6, 2005:G74-79; for further references, see Jonathan Kramnick, "Against Literary Darwinism," Critical Inquiry 2011:315-47) and while Classicists may or may not find such debates of pressing interest in themselves, with Boyd and Gottschall hunting in Classical woods, this work should draw our attention and is a convenient entry-point through which to consider the relevance of such debates to the study of ancient works.
For Boyd, literary criticism built from the scaffolding of evolutionary biology can explain how the otherwise adaptively useless production of art, particularly the verbal art of stories, helps the human species survive and thrive. The biological advantage of fiction, in Boyd's view, stems from the fact that art is a form of cognitive play which shapes human minds to the benefit of individuals, societies, and the species. As he puts it: "Art prepares minds for open-ended learning and creativity; fiction specifically improves our social cognition and our thinking beyond the here and now. Both invite and hold our attention strongly enough to engage and reengage our minds, altering synaptic strengths a little at a time, over many encounters, by exposing us to the supernormally intense patterns of art" (209). That such a telescopic vision sounds reductive to the classicist attuned to listen for nuance and minutiae makes it tempting to dismiss this book shortly after skipping ahead to the non-trivial 100-page chunk on the Odyssey. This would [End Page 678] be a mistake, not so much because of any profundity in what Boyd says of the Odyssey (a discussion which most will find frustrating on a first pass), but because of what can be gained by grappling with the sorts of issues which he brings to the forefront in a provocative and, for the first 200 pages (an introduction to the general terms of his model), urgently lucid way.
Boyd himself actively resists charges of reductivism and argues that evo-criticism must be an open-ended research program rather than one supplying "prefabricated conclusions" of the sort he finds in big-T literary Theory (391). Though his critique of Theory, particularly at the book's end (384-92), oversells the promise of evocriticism, his more specific charges elsewhere in the book rightly and persuasively take to task the assumptions of historicist criticism. Chapter 21, for...