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Reviewed here: On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, by Brian Boyd; Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention, by Stanislas Dehaene

In my farming days, when I injected mammals with oxytocin to induce labour or the expulsion of a retained placenta, I didn't think of Odysseus's love for Penelope and their son Telemachus. A section of On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction titled Phylogeny: The Odyssey, discussing the Greek epic, draws attention to "the fact that in mammals attachment between parents and children and between partners is expressed neurochemically through oxytocin." Thus Brian Boyd, a Nabokov scholar and a professor of English at New Zealand's Auckland University. Henceforth when I see a gravid heifer, I shall envision the wayworn warrior orgiastic on oxytocin.

One hundred and fifty years after Darwin's On the Origin of Species, Boyd proposes, as his echoic title indicates, an evolutionary approach to narrative. This Origin's scope includes all art (a "fuzzy" category, as Boyd admits) and widens further to enquire into the nature of human nature itself. A counterblast to postmodernist academics who, beginning in the 1960s, sought to "deconstruct" art, literature and human nature, Boyd's Origin seeks to reinstate the universality of art while constructing theories of aesthetic knowing and being rooted in Darwinism.

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"Evolution by natural selection," Boyd writes, "is a simple principle with staggeringly complex and unpredictable results. At its simplest, the principle says only that what works well enough in life gets passed on, and what works best gets passed on most frequently."

Quoting Richard Dawkins, Boyd celebrates the value-added use to theory of Canada's national animal: "The Darwinian can make the confident prediction that, if dams were a useless waste of time, rival beavers who refrained from building them would survive better and pass on genetic tendencies not to build."

Do beavers enjoy an aesthetic buzz from their dams? If all lodge-dwelling beavers build dams (which, to bank beavers, are indeed "a useless waste of time") and are programmed to paddle toward the sound of running water, not all urbanites are artists or appreciate art, though many seem programmed to watch bad movies. While forms of symbolic expression go back 32,000 years (the Chauvet Cave paintings), and some red-ochre-daubed objects and bones may date back 400,000 years, we haven't a clue about the function of Paleolithic art. And Boyd, who makes a pitch from developmental psychology for art's origin in play, ignores Johan Huizinga's study of the play element in culture, Homo Ludens.

Boyd assembles data, mostly from the "soft" sciences of psychology, anthropology and sociology, but also from "hard" sciences such as genetics and neurology, to construct what may be a petitio principii, a question-begging edifice that merely assumes narrative's adaptive value. What are the implications of this for genre criticism? How, for example, did a novel like Tristram Shandy surface almost at the beginning of this form in English? With all its "metarepresentational" tricks of self-referential awareness, it may have been Sterne's parody of the associationalist psychology of his day, but nothing like it would appear again for another couple of centuries.

How is art an evolutionary adaptation? What is its survivability value? Did we evolve for culture or is culture a byproduct of evolution? Boyd argues that art flourishes across cultures and eons, but where is the biocultural mechanism (akin to genetic mutation) that makes adaptation possible? Without "hard wiring," all is conjecture, metaphor, speculation.

Boyd does give the shining example of Wolfgang Köhler, who in "the dark days of Hitler ... wrote a newspaper article against the purges of the universities. He and friends spent the night after its publication playing chamber music together, in an avowal of ultimate value … as they waited for the fatal knock on the door - which, luckily, did not come." (Luckily? Well, perhaps luck has an adaptive value.) What of those the dictators slaughtered or forced into exile? What of those who compromised by so-called inner migration? For every individual whose loyalty was equivocal, like Shostakovich, Stalin shipped thousands off to the gulag. Boyd mentions muttering against the regime in Soviet cinemas during propaganda movies, but forgets Solzhenitsyn's dictum that an idea never killed anyone - only nine grams of lead. Of course art, like religion, consoles and inspires those in extremis, but Boyd has little to say of narrative's adaptive value in European or Third World totalitarian regimes.

Stanislas Dehaene's Reading in the Brain: the Science and Evolution of a Human Invention offers the hard wiring alluded to above. Originally trained as a mathematician, Dehaene, director of the Cognitive Neuroimaging Unit in Saclay, France, does for words in Reading in the Brain what he did for numbers in his 1999 book, The Number Sense: How the Mind Creates Mathematics.

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Unlike Boyd, who makes much of bee waggle-dancing, dolphin bubble-shows and paint-daubing pongids, Dehaene observes that "our species alone rises above its biological condition." When he comments that "Homo sapiens is a truly singular species in the cultural sphere," he could be offering a criticism of Boyd. Reading in the Brain certainly criticizes those who see religion as having "neurotheological" roots. If art and religion, as Boyd observes, are intertwined in certain historical epochs (as art and politics are in others), we lack the evidence that those Paleolithic cave paintings, say, had magico-religious origins.

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Dawkins, in The God Delusion, hypothesizes an adaptive value for religion as social glue (was "Darwin's Rottweiler" sniffing it?), the party line followed in On the Origin of Stories. "Evolution," Boyd avers, "will favour belief in a falsehood if it motivates adaptive behaviour better than a belief in a truth. It will favour belief in spirits … if such beliefs reinforce group cohesion." (Mark Twain put this deliciously "Faith is believing what you know ain't so.") Attempts to relate culture to cognitive phenomena or to mental representations called "memes" (which Boyd is perhaps wise to overlook) remind Dehaene of Kipling's "'just-so story' [sic]about how the camel got his hump or the leopard his spots. Theories of art and religion, like Kipling's stories, rest on speculative mechanisms that currently remain largely detached from objective experimentation."

All such evolutionary accounts "ring true," Dehaene remarks in Reading in the Brain, "but they also seem to fall short of the complexity of the social and cultural phenomena that they aim to explain." Language only seems to have a survival value. Thus, while I may heed the warning that there's a tiger over the hill, someone trying to get rid of me can say that the tiger's moved on.

One of the biocultural puzzles explored in Reading in the Brain is that "writing was born only fifty-four hundred years ago in the Fertile Crescent, and the alphabet itself is only thirty-eight hundred years old." Such time spans, Dehaene observes, "are a mere trifle in evolutionary terms."

The solution to what Dehaene calls the " reading paradox " (his italics) is posed in questions that, like some Zen koans, contain their own answers: "Why does our primate brain read? Why does it have an inclination for reading although this cultural activity was invented only a few thousand years ago?"

If the sapient brain evolved from a blueprint that enabled our ancient ancestors to survive in the veldt, Reading in the Brain takes readers on a guided tour of the neural substrate of phylogenetically modern brains, offering maps to Broca's and Wernicke's areas (where language is processed) and wiring diagrams of individual neuron clusters. Gathering historical and current evidence from pathology and clinical studies, Dehaene shows how specific cells process specific lexical items, and how some neurons mediate reading, others writing and speech. Reading in the Brain demonstrates what On the Origin of Stories does not: that culture is an evolutionary byproduct.

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Maybe it's the difference between the "soft" and "hard" sciences, but Dehaene avoids theoretical longueurs. Or maybe it's because he is that rare bird: a scientist who can write.

Novelist and ex-farmer Chris Scott is a long-time student of evolutionary theory.

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