On the Origin of Stories (Boyd) Book Review

by Jon on September 13, 2011

Ever since I wrote Game On, I’m frequently asked by people what other books they should read about game design and social media.  My advice has been consistent: yes, there are great titles out there.  Chris Brogan’s books on social media are fantastic, as are Jesse Schell’s book on the art of game design. However, I think that before you narrow your focus on game and online worlds, you should first expand your intellectual universe to think about the big picture of why.

Evolution shaped our brains, minds and behaviors across billions of years. If you want to understand why we act the way we do, you need to start with a framework that includes the deep history that shaped who we are.  Why is art important to people?  Why is communication and sociality central to the human experience? Why are games–which are artifacts of both art and our social interactions–central to what it is to be human?

Brian Boyd tackles the question of why art is important in
On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction. This is the book I’m recommending to everyone who wants to understand more about the mind, about evolution, and about why art (which includes games) is so important.  It’s a thick, 500+ page tome that reads quickly thanks to Boyd’s compelling prose, clear explanations and cogent evidence.

Play is important to most mammals we’ve studied, as well as a wide range of other species.  But why is play important?  Boyd argues that play is essentially practicing the behaviors which will be important to an organism’s survival. Human beings occupy a unique niche: one that transcends our day-to-day coping with the natural ecosystem to include the “cognitive niche” in which our environment is formed through our language, social relationships and thought processes.  For humans, success in the cognitive niche is essential to our survival (which mirrors my own claim that evolutionary psychology offers a richer explanation for successful game designs than the superficial behaviorism that is too-often invoked in game design discussions).

Boyd makes the case that art is a form of cognitive play, important for practicing and strengthening the neural fabric which is important for surviving in the cognitive niche. The idea that art is a form of play isn’t entirely novel; this is precisely the argument made by Kendall Walton in  Mimesis as Make-Believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts — and writing about the importance of art goes back at least as far as Aristotle.  However, On the Origin of Stories is not a work of philosophy; it is about the science of evolution as it applies to art and fiction.  Boyd solves the problem that’s often deficient in the philosophical treatment of this subject by presenting a mountain of evidence from psychology, biology and neuroscience to support his case–one can hardly turn a page without learning about an important area of current research.

Boyd also explains what makes art successful: it is about grabbing and maintaining attention. I explained in Game On that attention is the currency that makes any form of media work; Boyd takes this subject deeper in his treatment of the subject.

As if presenting a scientific hypothesis wasn’t enough for this book, Boyd also presents a new approach to literary criticism: one that draws upon the knowledge of what’s been important in surviving the cognitive niche. It’s a refreshing, evidence-based way to look at art that connects us to our lives–one that offers more than so much else in the postmodern modes within the humanities. After presenting his evolutionary approach to criticism, Boyd demonstrates it by analyzing Odyssey as well as Horton Hears a Who! – where he offers both fresh insights as well as devastating criticism of some of the alternative approaches that have been used to understand these texts.

A great deal of Boyd’s argument rests on an arguing against Steve Pinker’s “art as an evolutionary byproduct” hypothesis. Pinker frequently claims that art (music in particular) is a pleasure technology that plays on a number of circuits that were important in our evolutionary history.  Boyd offers an alternative hypothesis: that the creation and consumption of art is such a time-consuming behavior in human societies that it could not have perpetuated unless there was an adaptive benefit. He makes a persuasive argument in this respect, but probably should not have relied upon the controversial D.S. Wilson multi-level selection theory (drawing upon his much-quoted line, “Selfishness beats altruism within single groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups.”)  While this does appear to be true in certain cases, it is misleading: D.S. Wilson is referring to a means of genetic evolution, and his theories remain quite controversial among mainstream evolutionary biologists.  On the other hand, the gene-culture coevolution hypothesis–as described by Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd (no relation)–offers a more detailed model of how cultural groups can prosper. Brian Boyd’s thesis would have been strengthened if he had drawn more heavily upon this research (which he does cite within his bibliography). Nevertheless, this is a minor blemish on an impressive and important work–and simply shows that there’s still a great deal more research that’s needed in this domain.

If you are curious about the human mind–or if you’re a creator of any stripe (games, websites, films, paintings, stories) then this book will expand your understanding of what, how and why art works–and why art is important. Indeed, I consider On the Origin of Stories the most important new book I’ve picked up this year. It’s accessible, informative, witty and mind-blowing–and after you read it, all those other design books will make so much more sense.

Thank you for reading this article. Please follow me on Twitter to hear more from me on innovation, games and entrepreneurship. If you'd like to learn how games can transform your business, also check out my book, Game On: Energize Your Business with Social Media Games.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

steve grahamNo Gravatar September 13, 2011 at 12:22 pm

Your review reminded me of a book I just finished, David Deutsch’s _The Beginning of Infinity_. (see http://beginningofinfinity.com/) I think it is an important and profound book that will relate to Boyd’s book — Deutsch doesn’t directly address or focus on art, but his subject is definitely evolution, cognition and knowledge, and he would classify art as a kind of knowledge…. Once I’ve read Boyd’s book, I’ll have to let you know how the connections I’m imagining based on your review turn out on closer examination.

Michael SillionNo Gravatar September 20, 2011 at 10:34 am

Have you read The Science of Discworld II and their take on us as Story Telling Ape?


The book concludes with: “The [stories] we’ve got have brought us a long way. Plenty of creatures are intelligent but only one tells stories. That’s us: Pan narrans. And what about Homo sapiens? Yes, we think that would be a very good idea …”

JonNo Gravatar September 20, 2011 at 11:38 am

@Steve and @Michael – thanks for sharing. I haven’t read either of these.

Jennifer KincaidNo Gravatar June 15, 2012 at 3:11 pm

@Michael… quoting “Plenty of creatures are intelligent but only one tells stories.” I think everything tells stories but we understand mostly only our own. Doesn’t a male dog tell a story on every tree and fire hydrant he walks by? :)
@Jon… bought your book today on Amazon. Can’t wait to read it.

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