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On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction

3.86  ·  Rating details ·  336 Ratings  ·  50 Reviews
A century and a half after the publication of "Origin of Species, " evolutionary thinking has expanded beyond the field of biology to include virtually all human-related subjects--anthropology, archeology, psychology, economics, religion, morality, politics, culture, and art. Now a distinguished scholar offers the first comprehensive account of the evolutionary origins of ...more
Hardcover, 540 pages
Published May 1st 2009 by Belknap Press
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Adam Floridia
Mar 21, 2010 rated it it was ok
After finishing this, I wanted to take the time to mull over what I had read so that I could write a specific, detailed review. Instead, I’m going with the lazy list of overarching ideas that I had while reading.

One of Boyd’s goals is to prove that art, especially narrative, is a specifically human adaptation that is biological part of our species. In this, he succeeds. However, he does so tediously. Maybe it’s because I buy evolutionary theories in general, but his conjectures were all logical,
May 15, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
A summer's worth of reading and I've finally finished Brian Boyd's On the Origin of Stories, a colossal treatise on the intersection of literature and cognitive science. Boyd, a prominent Nabokov scholar, dives head-first into the world of evolutionary biology in an effort to understand what it is about stories that appeal to us, why we expend so much time and effort in telling them, and why some endure for generations while others barely register at all on our cultural radars. His main theory i ...more
Feb 10, 2012 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
A book about evolution. A book about literature. A book about Homer and Dr. Seuss. All things I’m very interested in. Yet, somehow, Brian Boyd’s book was just not very compelling reading. It was, in fact, a difficult book to read -- it was a struggle taking me months to finish. I don’t know if it’s just the writing style or the content. Some of the evolutionary background was certainly redundant to me, but I can see why he needed it in the book.

Regardless of that, the book has an important stat
Apr 25, 2012 rated it liked it
a pretty good book that i felt sabotaged itself from the get-go, by picking such an ostentatious title. the book is really literary theory through the lens of evolutionary psychology (which he labels evocriticism) - and the idea itself is interesting and somewhat original. but, by picking that title he falls into the trap that all evolutionary psychologists fall into, namely, acting as if you theory is some how provable. boyd does mumble something about how his idea can be falsifiable, but negle ...more
Nov 24, 2009 rated it it was ok
In writing a book about fiction and evolution, the author should have spent time to make his text much more illustrative of his points.

We humans need fiction, he says. Our brains have, for better or for worse, evolved to see our world in terms of stories. So, it is likely that seeing our world this way gives out species a part of the evolutionary advantage which we now enjoy.

He's not the first human to observe this. In antiquity, sages figured out how to build a "cathedral of the mind" in orde
Peter King
May 12, 2014 rated it really liked it
This book is about a conjecture.The conjecture is that stories are as much a part of our evolutionary heritage as any physical attribute of humankind.In my opinion that conjecture is probably more important than the actual book itself as I will attempt to explain.
First of all an English literature professor getting down and dirty with evolutionary science is a refreshing display of courage in academic circles where so many content themselves with obscure mumbling of little significance. Very few
Kai Teorn
Mar 23, 2013 rated it it was amazing
The thrust of this book is simple: a human is not a clean slate, but a social animal shaped by evolution. Most of the things humans do, including art, make a lot more sense if viewed in light of this. Moreover, culture itself, including art, is a subject of its own mutation pressure, selection, and inheritance - that is, its own evolution.

This book is a critical element in the ongoing "evolutionary revolution" in science, which may in the long term rival the Copernican revolution by its depth a
Jonna Higgins-Freese
A mildly interesting investigation of the possible evolutionary value of stories, the ability to imaginatively project ourselves into others' experiences, and the mimetic cognitive value of story telling. But in the end, the author forgets what a scientist friend always points out: "Nature selects for the barely adequate." Storytelling and pattern-seeking may be marginally more adaptively helpful than not. But the lesson of Buddhism -- and science -- is, I think, that our propensity to seek patt ...more
Christina "6 word reviewer" Lake
Evolution explains art's origins. Still unconvinced.
Jun 05, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Incredibly informative and inspiring, with exciting facts. Among many intereting suggestions, a gem for educators who feel that stories are important in the development of skills and competences.
Jan 31, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: culture, professional
Interesting first theoretical part; incredibly boring and repetitive text discussions in the second part.
Gregg Sapp
Jul 05, 2017 rated it liked it

Literary theory, like evolutionary theory is, to use the famous phrase coined by Ernst Mayr, “one long argument.” While both search for enduring principles and systematic processes, both contain elements of subjectivity that can reflect contemporary trends of thought. Evolutionary thought has been warped into doctrines supporting eugenics and social Darwinism. Modern literary theory has been hijacked by the absurd excesses of postmodernism. “Proof” of any opinion in either is often little more t
May 30, 2017 rated it liked it
While I appreciate Boyd's focus on how the need to capture attention as an evolutionary drive for fiction and a way of explaining design features of stories, I'm struggling to see how his proposed "evocritical" approach can lend itself to richer readings of stories than we can already produce with reader response, biographical, and cultural studies approaches. I felt like his book was overly repetitious and yet at the same time too general, especially in the last half of the book devoted to appl ...more
Jan 01, 2018 rated it really liked it
A profound book that argues we’ve developed storytelling as a way of getting and holding the attention of others. Art (storytelling) begins as creative play that shapes the mind, then raises status with others. Boyd uses the examples of the Odyssey and Dr Suess to talk about patterns of narrative and how those fit our deep needs for attention and meaning. If he doesn't quite make the case that storytelling is an evolved, essential human trait like eating and sleeping, he does argue quite compell ...more
May 13, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
This one was a bit of a slog to read, not to mention hard to wrap one's head around. I feel like I didn't get as much out of it as I could have, as evolutionary biology is hardly my forte--and the author delved into it quite a bit. I was expecting/hoping for less of that and more literary analysis. It's still an interesting new type of literary theory, and a good deep dive into the origins of storytelling, but...expect to expend a lot of time and mental energy trying to sort out what the author' ...more
Stephanie Wasek
An interesting theory, fairly elegantly argued in book one, although its evo-bio cherry-picking is trash on gender. The literary analysis in book two is entirely Western-lensed and just feels tired when there are so many creative connections to make.
Alessandro Veneri
I highly valued this book much because of its ability to open up new connections between different subjects, such as art, theory of evolution and religion - providing a more complete explanation of why humans end up enjoying so much storytelling. Considering how a costly activity storytelling is (sum the creative effort of the author to the potential risks the audience faces in attending to a story, postponing resting or responding to existential threats), it needed an equally strong explanation ...more
Peter Gelfan
Mar 11, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Boyd, a professor of English, presents a thoroughly scientific theory of why humans of all cultures love to create and hear stories. Actually, his theory applies to all the arts, but Boyd mainly sticks to his own artistic bailiwick, literature. His approach to the topic is refreshing because it doesn’t deal with abstractions like “the human quest for transcendent meaning in life and the universe,” which is simply another made-up story that carries us away. He deals with the nitty-gritty question ...more
Paul Groos
Mar 01, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I've rarely read a book during which I was continually nodding in agreement. In this broad, sweeping and all encompassing study Boyd answers the question asked by Jonathan Gottschall in The Storytelling Animal (another highly recommended work on the subject): why do we like stories so much? Why do we see a story in almost everything? Why do we live and think stories?
Boyd starts by explaining evolution and proves that art and specifically storytelling are evolutionary adaptations that contributed
Ryan Mishap
Jul 04, 2009 rated it it was ok
An argument synthesized from what must have been years of research and interest and also of disciplines: human fictional storytelling is an evolutionary adaptation that provides an evolutionary benefit to humankind.

Like any academic, Boyd marshals his evidence and arguments methodically, tracking human and other animal developments that build the foundation for his claim, before moving on to explicating it.

Intriguing, certainly, and he didn't fall into any of those evolutionary pitfalls that aff
William Kirkland
Feb 10, 2016 rated it really liked it
As 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
محمد  الخواص
Jun 28, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Evolutionary approach to Art

“‘Thou shalt not’ might reach the head, but it takes ‘Once upon a time’ to reach
the heart.” -Philip Pullman

there lies the power of stories to entrench, consolidate moral values; the story engage our attention, our emotions, our hearts.
moreover, it has an adaptive function through human evolution. it refines, sharpens, hones our social capacities and skills, improves coordination and cooperation in human communities.
if you ever wondered, why do we sink our heads into
Jun 26, 2010 added it
Recommends it for: those who like the obvious
The first half of Boyd's work is an interesting survey of the science behind an evolutionary perspective on storytelling. The second half consists of detailed readings of Homer and Dr. Seuss, both of which state the obvious for over 200 pages. We learn that Homer uses plot and character to -- wait for it -- capture the reader's attention. We learn that *The Odyssey* is about the need for self-restraint over human recklessness. The literary analysis did not need the evolutionary framework, and th ...more
Tim Sharp
Mar 04, 2016 rated it really liked it
Whatever your views on evolutionary psychology, (I'm personally pretty dubious of a lot of it), this is a fascinating read and provides a unique perspective on narrative that I haven't seen proposed elsewhere. The explicit linking of story with aspects of play was particularly engaging. Clearly written, with a strong sense of style and humour, the explorations at the end of the book which investigates the subtextual threads of narratives such as Horton Hears A Who and the Odyssey certainly provi ...more
Nov 17, 2012 rated it liked it
If you've read the Selfish Gene or otherwise have some understanding of natural selection, you can probably guess with rather good accuracy at the main lines of argument of this book. Which isn't to say that it's bad at all, just that I found the writing a little bit too leisurely (which is to say, I spent too much time in engineering school. the writing is good.)

But if you haven't read the selfish gene or anything else on natural selection, I would HIGHLY RECOMMEND READING THIS, because the aut
Jan 07, 2010 rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: visitors from another planet
Recommended to Bob by: New York Review of Books
150 years after Darwin's Evolution of Species, Brian Boyd applies evolutionary theory to literature, comparing Homer's Odyssey and Dr. Seuss's Horton Hears A Who.
No, I'm not making this up.
Yes, the library paid $35 for a hardcover copy of this epic tome.
Is it too late to get our money back?

SAMPLE TEXT: As we have seen in Part 2, the capacity to command attention in social animals correlates highly with status...We seek attention as a good in itself and compete to tell stories.

Apr 07, 2014 rated it really liked it
Started by giving it a three. At times dense, scientistic, and all that. Too bio-centric. At the same time, some great insight into the role of play and stories as a form of play in our evolutionary history, and the cultural impacts of that. A bit specialist for me, but I got a lot out of it. A more general, readable, and fun approach to much of the same material can be found in Jonathan Gottschall's, "The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human."
Sue Bridgwater
Apr 20, 2016 rated it really liked it
How could you fail to love a book that, in the course of its wide-ranging exposition of the origins of stories, studies in detail just two examples of narratives; Homer's Odyssey and Dr. Seuss's Horton hears a who?

This is an amazing work, blending science and arts, prehistory and and history to demonstrate how the making and use of narrative fits into the overall picture of human evolution. Highly recommended.
Gabriel Orgrease
Jan 29, 2010 rated it really liked it
This book is a slow read for me. I mean slow in the sense that I pick it up and put it down in the casual wandering that one has when a book causes the reader to stop and think. I have read a lot of books over the years, and I have read quite a few books on the craft of writing. What I like particularly about this book is that it explores our human need of story on a neurological and cognitive level for, as the author early on expresses, an evolutionary explanation for fiction.
Gindho Rizano
Feb 03, 2016 rated it it was amazing
The book that successfully explains why literature matters to our species. Everything now makes sense: why we love stories, why we reproduce them, why we respect great authors, or why there are stories at all. Any respectable account on literature should take "evocriticism" into account. It also offers a powerful tool to read individual literary works, illustrated by Boyd's analyses on Homer's Odyssey and Dr. Seuss's Horton Hears a Who.
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Brian Boyd (b.1952) is known primarily as an expert on the life and works of author Vladimir Nabokov and on literature and evolution. He is University Distinguished Professor in the Department of English at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.

In 1979, after Boyd completed a PhD at the University of Toronto with a dissertation on Nabokov's novel Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle , he took up a
“Whenever a noise exceeds our processing abilities—we can’t
decipher all the different sound waves hitting our hair cells—
the mind . . . stops trying to understand the individual notes
and seeks instead to understand the relationships between the
notes. The human auditory cortex pulls off this feat by using
it's short- term memory for sound (in the left posterior hemisphere) to uncover patterns at the large level of the phrase,
motif, and movement. This new approximation lets us extract order from all those notes haphazardly ͒flying through
space, and the brain is obsessed with order . . .
It is this psychological instinct—this desperate neuronal
search for a pattern, any pattern, that is the source of music . . . We continually abstract on our own inputs, inventing
patterns in order to keep pace with the onrush of noise. And
once the brain ͒finds a pattern, it immediately starts to make
predictions . . . It projects imaginary order into the future . . .
The structure of music reflects the human brain’s penchant for patterns . . . But before a pattern can be desired by
the brain, that pattern must play hard to get”
More quotes…