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On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition and Fiction 
by Brian Boyd.
Harvard, 540 pp., £25.95, May 2009, 978 0 674 03357 3
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In pre-Romantic times, a treatise on the mollusc or the optic nerve would have been considered part of literature. In the post-Romantic era, literature has looked on science with a much more sceptical eye. Once the arts come to achieve a monopoly on the imagination, so that ‘imaginative literature’ means poetry and drama rather than history or psychology, scientists like Heisenberg or Schrödinger can be dismissed as dull, uncreative souls. Science deals with the actual, while fiction trades in the possible; and in the bleak conditions of modernity, the subjunctive is always likely to trump the indicative. What doesn’t exist seems more precious than what does.

Science, so the story goes, delivers us a world bleached of taste and texture, purged of value and feeling. The task of literature is to restore to the world its plundered body, redeeming it from the reductive schemas of the technocrats. Art is organic, science is mechanical. Poetic language is richly connotative, while scientific language is merely denotative. (It isn’t clear where Francis Bacon would fit on this axis.) Science deals with facts, and art with values. The Victorian man of letters spent much of his time seeking to coat unpalatable scientific truths with the sugar of spiritual consolation. Science’s chilling reports on the material world were not what the spiritual self, hungry for order, purpose and transcendent value, wanted to hear.

At some point in the 19th century, the natural sciences became more or less synonymous with knowledge as such, and the arts were faced with a choice. On the one hand, they could simply refuse to compete with the laboratories, disowning any claim to be cognitive. Their business was not knowledge but the affections; and since the affections are of vital concern to political power, which needs to scrutinise the hearts of its underlings quite as much as their conscious beliefs, this lent art an enviable status. Perhaps its function, as with the realist novel, was to alert the middle classes to stretches of social experience beyond their ken. Or perhaps it was to adapt human sensibilities to new social conditions, re-educating the body to render it suitable for urbanism, technological change or socialist revolution. From Alfred Tennyson to the Soviet Proletkultists, the human sensorium was to be reshaped by art. Art would help us come to terms with the fact that Darwin had apparently struck all purpose from the cosmos, or it would construct the New Man demanded by the first workers’ state in history. Science told us what the world was like, while art told us what it felt like. Literary propositions, according to I.A. Richards, were really ‘pseudo-propositions’, which looked like descriptions of the world but were secretly accounts of the way we felt about it. Kant had come up with a similar doctrine a century or so earlier. By brandishing their non-cognitive credentials, the arts in a scientific culture could carve a distinct identity for themselves, striking an uneasy truce with the chemist and biologist. Art was an emotional supplement, not a superior form of knowledge. It was no longer out to change the world, but to soften its rigours. Dickens’s Hard Times is not intent on dismantling a philistine industrialism, but on adding a spot of imagination to it. John Stuart Mill did not reject Benthamism; he simply mixed it with a creative dash of Coleridge.

The more aggressive choice for art was to beat science at its own game – to insist that it was itself a form of cognition, but one far superior to the reflections of the botanist or geologist. Aesthetics, after all, had actually begun as a science: in the work of the 18th-century philosopher Alexander Baumgarten, it represented a systematic investigation into human perception and sensation. The work of art could be seen as the paradigm of a new kind of rationality, one in which the sensory and the spiritual, the individual and the universal, were harmoniously blended. The bloodless Reason of the Enlightenment rode roughshod over sensuous particularity; the task of art was to salvage this precious substance without relinquishing its universal claims. In this, it differed sharply from science. There can be a science of octopuses, but not a science of a single octopus. Science deals in the generic and art in the specific. It would be interesting to know what Dante or Pope would have made of this claim.

A long time later, this idea of alternative rationalities would bear fruit in new forms of politics, all the way from feminism to the Frankfurt School. A valid form of reason would respect the feel and heft of things, rather than treating them instrumentally. It would refuse to reduce them to their representations in the mind. It understood, as conventional philosophy did not, that to start with reasoning was never to start far back enough: that the act of reason implied a whole stage-setting of bodily needs, material conditions, proddings of power, emotional bonds, practical relations with the world.

In the meantime, however, various parallels between science and the arts had proved possible. Scientific realism, which investigates the generative mechanisms underlying the visible world, has an affinity with literary realism, which seeks to lay bare the hidden forces that go into the making of character and event. At the end of the 19th century, this evolved into naturalism, with its clinical narratives and pseudo-scientific explorations of heredity and environment, in accordance with which the novel could be regarded as a social laboratory. The dispassionate stance of the scientist found an echo in the disinterestedness of the artist. A decade or so later, art and science fused for a brief, enthralling moment in the work of the revolutionary avant-gardes, as the Futurists and Constructivists dreamed of a brave new technological world as heroic as anything out of Homer. The scientific spirit was now at one with youth, dissent and political innovation. Precocious Russian Formalists cocked a snook at the cultural establishment by defining the literary work as an assemblage of devices. Meanwhile, most other modernist thinkers from Heidegger to D.H. Lawrence continued to look on science as the death of the spirit.

F.R. Leavis may have inveighed against what he called the ‘technologico-Bethamite spirit’, but his Cambridge colleague I.A. Richards drew on psychology and neurology for his theory of poetry. Poetry became a kind of mental hygiene or spiritual therapy, in contrast to the liturgical talk of the Leavisites. In the United States, the New Critics won themselves the best of both worlds: poetic language had a rich ambiguity about it which defeated scientific reduction, yet it was to be analysed in toughly objective terms. The criticism of Northrop Frye dealt in myth and archetype, but imitated the scientific spirit in its sweeping totalities, rigorous taxonomies and refusal to evaluate.

‘System,’ Roland Barthes once remarked, ‘is the declared enemy of Man.’ He intended the remark as a criticism of Man, not System. The human, he meant, is thought to be irreducible to the structures which set it in place. Structuralism launched a scandalous assault on this assumption, ushering the technocratic spirit into the inner sanctum of the human subject. Human meaning was simply the difference between two or more elements of a structure. Freud had anticipated this onslaught on humanism by coming up with that outrageous oxymoron, a science of subjectivity. At the core of the human subject lay anonymous forces which constituted it all the way through, yet of which it was necessarily oblivious. At the root of human meaning lurk processes that are not in themselves meaningful. Literature could train you to be as exquisitely perceptive as the author of The Golden Bowl, but it could not deliver this secret knowledge, which only Theory had in its grasp. The civilised literary ego was no longer master of its own house.

It was Darwin above all who sent the literati scrambling for their spiritual values along with the parsons. The world he portrayed no longer seemed to be going anywhere. There were some marvellous characters, but distressingly little plot. A novel like Middlemarch trades on the assumption that reality itself is story-shaped: that there is a design of sorts immanent in the world, a tale of gradual human enlightenment which can serve as a template for one’s own fictional inventions. By the time of Lord Jim and Nostromo, this faith had almost evaporated. A crisis of narrativity had set in. There was no longer an unruptured evolution in art, as there was no longer one in nature. Instead, Conrad’s non-linear fables reflect the way the world is precisely in their non-linearity. Modernism is thus the new form of realism. Humanism prizes pedigree, provenance, heritage and tradition; evolutionary science seems to offer struggle, disruption, waste and chance in their place.

Brian Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories, which presents itself as a work of ‘evocriticism’, might well be a straw in the wind blowing contemporary criticism back from Culture to Nature. Given the rampant culturalism of much current literary work, which can see the natural only as an ideologically insidious ‘naturalising’, it is agreeable to read a work which discusses Homer cheek by jowl with allusions to dung beetles, the neocortex and cases of sexual harassment among pigeons. In sober evolutionary spirit, Boyd has no doubt that whatever more glamorous things human beings can get up to, they are in the first place natural material objects. He also insists in the teeth of postmodern orthodoxy that there is indeed a universal human nature; that culture is not unique to the human animal; and that there is a universally identifiable activity known as art. Nobody who is aware of the excesses of contemporary culturalism could doubt the subversive force of these platitudes. The word ‘natural’, like the words ‘fact’ and ‘truth’, hardly ever turns up in such writings without being ceremoniously draped in scare quotes – and this in an ecological age.

The point of Boyd’s superbly erudite study is to offer an evolutionary theory of art, one which must necessarily turn on its adaptive functions. Such functions must indeed exist, Boyd considers in his dryly actuarial way, since otherwise it would be impossible to account for the persistence of an activity so complex, so costly in time and resources and of so little apparent benefit to the competitive struggle for existence. Storytelling makes us more skilled in social situations, speeding up our capacity to process information and allowing us to test out alternative scenarios. It allows us to think beyond the here and now, which brings evolutionary benefits in its wake. Narratives can consolidate and communicate social norms, providing us with models of co-operation. As a richly patterned form of cognitive play, art serves to stimulate a flexible mind, modifying key perceptual, cognitive and expressive systems in ways conducive to our evolutionary flourishing. It improves our attunement to one another, thus fostering sociability within the group, and develops habits of imaginative exploration which can have a pay-off in real life. It raises our confidence by allowing us to reshape the world on our own terms, as well as offering us general principles and social information which can guide our behaviour and improve our decision-making. Fiction increases our range of behavioural options, acquaints us with risks and opportunities, and supplies the emotional resources needed to cope with inevitable setbacks.

‘An evolutionary approach,’ Boyd remarks, ‘should not seek to subvert commonsensical readings.’ One is tempted to retort that it does so all too little. The truth is that none of the familiar functions of art just listed is much illuminated by being redescribed in evolutionary terms. No appeal to Darwin is necessary to claim that art can refine our senses or yield us a sharper sense of other minds. It may well be worth knowing that such functions have an evolutionary foundation, but little new light is cast on them by this knowledge. The originality of Boyd’s book lies largely in providing a fresh context for what we already know, not in drawing on Darwin to give us a dramatically new sense of artistic practice. When the author buckles down to some extended textual analysis (of Homer and Dr Seuss), most of what he has to say could have been said without invoking an evolutionary framework. To talk about Penelope’s ‘mate selection’ in the Odyssey adds no more to our understanding of Homer than Boyd’s discussion of Telemachus’ curiosity about his father in terms of the curiosity of crows, parrots, rats and chimpanzees. We learn a lot in one sense about our responses to art, and in another sense precious little, by being told that ‘neurons in the substantia nigra and the ventral tegmental areas of the brain secrete dopamine in reaction to the surprising but not to the expected.’

There are times when the book sails close to reducing all fiction to a set of Just So Stories. Narratives can encourage us to identify with altruists and dissociate ourselves from cheats. ‘We may never be shipwrecked on a desert island like Robinson Crusoe,’ Boyd consolingly informs us, ‘but we can learn from the example of his fortitude, resolution and ingenuity.’ Stories ‘may help us to make better decisions’. Complex fictions are reduced to simple-minded moral guidebooks; literature becomes a way of flexing one’s spiritual muscles. One begins to wonder whether a dumbed-down version of the case might not appear in bookshops as Darwin and Corporate Decision-Making, alongside Zen for Business Executives.

Play, as we know, is a serious business, and art, so Boyd considers, springs out of it. So it is not surprising to find that, evolutionarily speaking, art is a serious business too. Part of its point, however, may lie in not having a point – a case that Boyd’s doggedly utilitarian cast of mind is loath to contemplate. If music, dance and story can educate our sensory skills, they can also permit those capacities pleasurably to freewheel, blessedly released from anything so dull as a direct function. It is just the same with power and desire, which have definite objects in view but which always overshoot them, delighting exultantly in themselves. In Boyd’s evolutionary world, however, nothing seems to be done just for the hell of it. Like children’s television in the puritanical United States, even the most frivolous piece of play must finally be revealed to contain a didactic message.

Brian Boyd has produced a challenging piece of critical theory, which might well herald the return to Nature of which cultural criticism is in such sore need. But evocriticism, if that is what it comes to be called, will need to be rather more subversive of commonsensical readings if it is to earn its keep, as well as a lot more subtle about Robinson Crusoe.

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