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Life as We Write It

The author on what evolutionary science can teach us about art and literature, his enduring interest in Nabokov, and why a good joke never dies.

Why do we tell stories? According to Brian Boyd, author and Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Auckland, evolutionary science has the answer. In On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, published in 2009, Boyd argues that recent advances in evolutionary psychology and evolutionary biology can help us not only to better understand our greatest and most enduring works of art, but also to make an empirical claim for their importance.

“An evolutionary understanding of human nature has begun to reshape psychology, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, economics, history, political studies, linguistics, law, and religion,” Boyd writes. “Can it also help explain even art, even human minds at their freest and most inventive?”

Boyd defines art as “cognitive play with pattern,” characterizing a piece of artwork as “like a playground for the mind.” Our urge to play—shared with all mammals—is not a waste of energy or a simple frivolity but, in fact, a seminal method by which we ensure our own survival. Fictional narratives, Boyd claims, lend insight into how others experience the world, and thus aid in establishing and developing our capacity for empathy, a necessary precursor to cooperation—an ability not only unique to humans but also critical to our continuity as a species.

Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Boyd moved to New Zealand with his family at age five. Outside of his doctoral studies in Toronto, and various long research trips and visiting professorships, he has lived there ever since. Prior to publishing On the Origin of Stories, Boyd was best known for his extensive writing on Vladimir Nabokov, including a two-volume biography, analyses of Pale Fire and Ada, or Ardor, and the collection of essays, Stalking Nabokov. The website Ada Online features a digitized version of Ada with Boyd’s annotations, which Boyd estimates add up to about 11,000 pages of writing.

Boyd’s scholarship on Nabokov was informed by an unusually close proximity to his chief subject: Nabokov himself praised Boyd’s master’s thesis on Transparent Things, and, after Boyd sent her parts of his doctoral thesis, Véra Nabokov invited him to catalogue her husband’s archives. His subsequent relationship with Véra and the Nabokovs’ son, Dmitri, afforded him a uniquely rich perspective on Nabokov’s work and life.

Boyd has also turned his analytical attention to Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Art Spiegelman. In 2012, he published Why Lyrics Last, which turns his evolutionary literary theory to the lyric. The book looks at Shakespeare’s sonnets, among other examples, to determine whether poetry itself might be an evolutionary adaptation, as well as why and how the form has morphed and endured over the course of human history. Boyd is set to explore these ideas further in 2016, when he will co-curate an exhibit on the origins of art at the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Tasmania.

This month, Boyd returns to Nabokov with the publication of his co-edited, co-translated, Letters to Véra. The book is a collection of letters from Vladimir Nabokov to his wife, dating from the time of their meeting in Berlin in 1923 through to the peak of his worldwide literary fame in the 1950s and beyond. Taken together, the letters are a formidable and evocative testament to the Nabokovs’ lifelong love, and an elucidating glimpse into the private world of the Nabokov family.

I spoke to Boyd over Skype and email about how Nabokov led him to consider evolutionary theory in relation to art, why other animals don’t tell stories, and how literature continues to transform the human species.

Nika Knight for Guernica

Guernica: How did you first encounter Nabokov’s work?

Brian Boyd: My parents both left school at fourteen, during the Depression, and didn’t know how to feed my appetite for reading. They ended up buying a corner store where we had magazine orders and it was my job to sort them out. I would check out the magazines and read everything from cover to cover, practically. Then they moved up to a bookstore with a lending library, which had Lolita in it. I was about twelve or thirteen at the time and realized that this was both a dirty book and a classic, so I went for it. It was over my head, but a few years later, in ’69, when I was sixteen, there was a Time magazine cover story on Nabokov at the time of Ada’s being published. I was sorting out magazine orders for my family and I read this featured interview that had the wonderful headline, I have never met a more lonely, more lucid, better balanced mad mind than mine.

I was blown away. I went to the library to get his latest novel, which was Pale Fire, and I just adored it. I followed every clue that he dropped—which meant reading it about three times in the course of reading it for the first time—and it seemed to open up so many avenues of discovery all the way through. I’ve been hooked ever since.

Guernica: When we first emailed, you mentioned that Nabokov and the philosopher Karl Popper both led you to your exploration of evolutionary theory in relation to literature. How did their work influence you?

Brian Boyd: As you know, Nabokov was a lepidopterist, a specialist in butterflies, and that hadn’t been well dealt with from the literary side. It hadn’t even been looked at much from the scientific side. I knew that it was such an important part of his imagination and his time that I wound up thoroughly exploring it, and through working on Nabokov’s material on butterflies, I became interested in his attitudes toward evolution. I was also, in the 1980s, reading the essays of Stephen Jay Gould, as many intellectuals were, and being turned on to evolutionary psychology through Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct. Just by chance, I discovered Simon Baron-Cohen’s Mindblindness, on autism as “mind blindness,” in the library’s new acquisitions. It was influenced by evolutionary psychology, and I loved it.

So I started reading evolutionary psychology, and actually wrote an article on Jane Austen from a Darwinian point of view in ’97 called “Jane, Meet Charles,” which I thought was a one-off. But then, in ’96, I began working on the Popper biography. What attracted me most about Popper—although there were other things, too—was his evolutionary epistemology, his trying to understand how we know what we know if we’re evolved creatures. And how human knowledge relates to animal knowledge.

I guess both Nabokov and Popper had, in different ways, immunized me against the fashion for French-influenced literary theory in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s—“immunized” in the sense that they made me no longer susceptible to this epidemic cultural virus. I looked into Derrida and found that he rarely seemed to be interested in truth; he was more interested in making a splash. I just found the premises from which theorists were working untenable, and their denial of the importance of biology, of anything outside language, and of human commonalities across the species—I found them almost certainly wrong, and antipathetic. And I saw incorporating evolution as a way of possibly creating a framework for literature that was comprehensive, intensely self-critical, and able to be held up to empirical testability.

The arts harness our sharpest senses, sight and sound, and our richest ways of understanding

Guernica: I found On the Origin of Stories surprisingly affirming—it read like an argument about what it means to be human, and how art and literature is at the core of it.

Brian Boyd: Literature often gets taught nowadays as a record of the sins and shortcomings of the past. I see literature and the arts very differently: as essential to being human and to human progress, individual and collective. Literature and the other arts play with pattern—our brains understand our world by recognizing patterns—and with possibility. The arts harness our sharpest senses, sight and sound, and our richest ways of understanding, in language and narrative. They were our first schools before schools were ever invented. They develop our imaginations, extend our possibilities, and deepen what we can all share.

Guernica: There’s a popular movement in the US right now called We Need Diverse Books that is pushing for greater diversity in children’s literature. Your argument in On the Origin of Stories, that stories are how we learn empathy, could also support the mission propelling that movement. Do you think evolutionary literary criticism could be applied in this way?

Brian Boyd: Philosopher Peter Singer talks of the importance of expanding the circle of human sympathy. There can be no better way to expand sympathies toward others than through fiction: Uncle Tom’s Cabin or a single scene in The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas for slaves, Black Beauty for animals, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time for those with autism, Lolita, if read with the author and not the narrator, for victims of pedophilia.

Let me quote On the Origin of Stories: “In fiction the story lives the more everyone comes to life, the more each character seems to exist in his or her own right. The twelfth-century Persian poet Nizāmi reports his hero’s feelings: ‘While each warrior thought of nothing but to kill the enemy and to defend himself, the poet was sharing the sufferings of both sides’—a remark that could equally characterize Homer in the Iliad or Tim O’Brien in his novels of the Vietnam War.”

The historian Lynn Hunt, the psychologist Steven Pinker, and the literary critic Elaine Scarry all make a persuasive case for the role of fiction—the invitation it offers to see from the viewpoints of others—in causing the humanitarian revolution in the West from about 1650 to 1850. As book production, literacy, and the novel exploded, despotism, judicial torture, capital punishment, and slavery shrank from the norm to the exception.

An evolutionary perspective only strengthens the case: after thousands of generations of stories, our sympathetic imaginations have expanded and we cooperate on wider and wider scales. That doesn’t mean there isn’t still work to do to expand sympathies still wider.

Guernica: Do you feel that a life spent absorbed in literature has enhanced or expanded your own personal capacity for empathy?

Brian Boyd: How could I find out if literature has made me more empathetic? How could I disentangle my character now from my experience, un-bake the potato, and bake it in a different test oven? But recent experiments on short-term impacts do confirm the empathy effect from reading literature. And I know literary examples do come to mind as insightful guides when I find myself in particular emotional and social contexts.

Guernica: You have noted that some critics might see your theory as reductive. How would you respond to the critic who argues that to view texts in solely evolutionary terms sidelines the different political and cultural contexts of individual works?

Brian Boyd: I would say this critic just doesn’t know the kind of work that goes on in evolutionary study. There is behavioral ecology, which looks closely at the difference different ecologies make to behavior and other features of animals and humans. There’s evolutionary individual psychology, there’s evolutionary social psychology. In Darwin’s terms, evolution couldn’t exist without variation, and variation is important in behavioral genetics. And so on, and so on. There are so many instances in which evolution actually sharpens the precision, I think, with which one can find out the importance of differences. We’re interested in differences as well as commonalities.

We’ve evolved to fear the monstrous, to be very wary of large, unknown, life-threatening forces. In art, we can play with these things in “safe mode.”

Guernica: I was watching a lot of horror movies while reading On the Origin of Stories, which made me wonder if you might have an evolutionary explanation for the popularity of scary stories. Why do you think we have the urge to create and consume disturbing narratives?

Brian Boyd: There’s a young Danish guy who has done a lot of work from an evolutionary perspective, Mathias Clasen. Basically, his argument is we’ve evolved to fear the monstrous, to be very wary of large, unknown, life-threatening forces. In art, we can play with these things in ways that allow us to feel the intensity of the horror, but in “safe mode,” if you like, detached from real consequences.

I think that’s an important part of art in general. Especially in literature, in stories, we play with eventualities that may put us through a lot of intense negative feelings—say, in horror films or tragedies as intense as King Lear—but we come out feeling richer. We’ve lived to the fullest, we’ve tested ourselves in these environments.

The Canadian psychologist and novelist Keith Oatley calls fiction a simulator, like a flight simulator. We experience social simulations in extreme ups and downs in ways that enable us to master the difficult moments safely. And I think that’s a good analogy for what I’m trying to say, too.

Guernica: In the US, humanities departments are shrinking. Do you think making this very material argument might advocate for the importance of the humanities in higher education?

Brian Boyd: One of my arguments would be that everything is humanities. The sciences are a form of the humanities. They involve traditions of inquiry; they involve social engagement with ideas. They do not happen with a naked brain going out and encountering a nonhuman world. And the better we understand ourselves, the better we can do science, as well. So I don’t see them—the sciences and the humanities—as being at all different.

Scientists, to give them credit, do not think of the humanities in a negative way. It’s the bureaucrats who want to cut costs who think, Well, here’s something that’s not booming at the moment, let’s slash it.

Guernica: You argue that shared attention directed toward an artwork is a precursor for empathy, which leads to cooperation. Would you then classify a book or a work of art that fails to gain very widespread attention as a failure?

Brian Boyd: If an artwork never gets any attention from anybody, then obviously it’s got problems. If it gains attention from a very small elite, then it’s presumably doing something. Finnegans Wake gets a lot of attention from certain people who become passionate about it, who are usually very good readers in general. Although—I often talk about costs and benefits—it seems to me the costs of reading Finnegans Wake are not worth the benefits, however many there may be. And it’s the same with the more arcane among poets, Zukofsky and so on.

To me, I suppose, what’s most interesting is art that can gain a wider readership and can endure, so something like Shakespeare or Austen, or Homer, to go back a bit further, or Nabokov. There are a lot of people who pick up Lolita and find it, as I did when I was thirteen, a little bit over their heads, but it is a book that will also find enough readers who understand and respond to it—as I did a few years later—to endure.

Perhaps the most demanding trick in all of art is to know ways that are going to capture the attention of an audience right now, and yet to also hold an audience hundreds or thousands of years into the future in circumstances you just cannot imagine. You’ve got to go very deep into human nature to do that.

Guernica: In “On the Origin of Comics,” an article you wrote about the work of Art Spiegelman, you examine instances of artists creating problems in their art, and how they solve them. From an evolutionary perspective, why do you think artists are compelled to create problems for themselves?

Brian Boyd: Well, I think it’s the same for any art form. It can be in the problems Bach set himself in composing, or Beethoven. Any artist who really engages with the problems in their medium at that moment and tries to deepen the problems is likely to discover new problems, new possibilities that will excite audiences and continue to excite them.

Jokes, as the lowest-cost form of narrative, will certainly continue to exist. They’re a bit like microbes in the biological world.

Guernica: How do you see both lyric and narrative evolving in the future?

Brian Boyd: I think like almost everything in evolution, the old forms persist. New forms come along—not always, of course; there are species and whole lineages that go extinct—but basically novels and plays, and so on, will continue to exist. Jokes, as the lowest-cost form of narrative, will certainly continue to exist. They’re a bit like microbes in the biological world. They’re low-cost and they’re everywhere. They’re the most successful form of life, even though they’re not the ones we think about most.

But there will be new forms that can be very powerful, like video games and who-knows-what in the future. Poetry, I don’t know. I think it’s very hard to predict, really. Poetry that was considered to be at the highest levels of literary interest had been getting more and more arcane, I think, during the first half of the twentieth century, and some poets remained like that and other poets came along and earned attention, if you like, by being very, very accessible—absolutely disarmingly accessible, like Frank O’Hara, or Billy Collins, for example.

Guernica: I read recently that some features that many different species have in common—the eye, for instance—have independently and spontaneously evolved over and over again. Do you think art and literature could ever evolve in other, nonhuman species?

Brian Boyd: Not really. Not until communication in other species is a lot better than it is. The only species that seem really able to communicate to a degree that might resemble the rudiments of human communication are dolphins. Two dolphins can work together and, when instructed to do a new routine together to surprise an audience, somehow work it out, and do it in perfect synchrony. That blows me away.

But I think there are so many preconditions. Art and literature need extreme sociality to a degree that even dolphins don’t have. We are the only large mammalian species that has such intense sociality. There are some small mammals that have become eusocial—the mole rats—but that’s a different thing.

Humans are able to understand one another at very high levels, to cooperate in very large groups. Humans depend on one another in ways that are an absolute precondition to sharing the kinds of information that makes narrative possible.

In On the Origin of Stories, I talk about honeybees having a kind of rudimentary narrative, and of course they’re eusocial. They give the signals that suggest something slightly blurry: “I went to / I foraged in / there’s a nectar source at / you should go to this point…so many degrees from the sun”—it’s blurry, but it is a kind of very, very proto-narrative, I suppose. But they don’t have the brains to develop anything richer, or the motivation.

I would be very surprised if on another planet we discovered a species as intelligent as humans that didn’t have narrative, or didn’t have art in general.

Guernica: What do you think is the future of evolutionary literary criticism?

Brian Boyd: We’re still fighting it out for a little bit of a niche. The primatologist Frans de Waal has been critical of aspects of evolutionary psychology that have been superseded by more sensible claims. There has been a lot of movement in the field in the past twenty years, and many of the criticisms were directed at an early and somewhat hubristic version of it. But Frans de Waal also said that he had no doubt that in the not-too-distant future, psychology departments would have photos of Darwin on their wall, it would be inconceivable to do psychology without Darwin.

I think that will be the case not only with psychology, but with literature. It will come. I don’t think it’s going to come fast, but it seems to me to make as much sense to talk about literature as a large-scale human phenomenon without bringing in evolution as it does to engage in cosmology while you’re thinking the universe is still geocentric.

Guernica: What are you working on currently?

Brian Boyd: I’m doing a biography of Karl Popper, the philosopher of science and also the philosopher of society, in that his work The Open Society and Its Enemies had a huge impact on the fall of the Iron Curtain. Popper is almost forgotten by professional philosophers, who tend to read him thirdhand. They read arguments against him that have depended on somebody else who made arguments against him, which really contradict what he actually wrote. As Popper says, “Criticism of my alleged views was widespread and highly successful. I have yet to meet a criticism of my views.”

He was an enormous polymath, which makes it very, very difficult for me. He talked a lot to scientists—Schrödinger, Bohr, Einstein, and others. He inspired a lot of scientists. But he also taught himself Greek and translated the pre-Socratics. He went into the Vienna Conservatory and composed music that has been recorded. He was interested in a huge range of things. He has influenced people in all sorts of areas. Nobel Prize winners in every field—peace, literature, physics, chemistry, medicine and physiology, and economics—have all paid tribute to him and said they’ve been inspired by him.

I’m going to try to show what’s so exciting about his ideas and try to redeem his character. He was a notoriously difficult man, unlike Nabokov, who some thought arrogant, perhaps, but he was basically very straightforward. As Nabokov said, “I’m a very uncomplicated person”—despite creating complicated creatures like Humbert and Kinbote. Popper was a difficult person, and some of his behavior—especially in the popular vulgarizations of his behavior—seems to run counter to his ideals and to his recommendations for how we should conduct debate, and so on.

I want to try and turn him back into a creature of flesh and a blood, rather than the voodoo doll he’s been made into by some philosophers.

Guernica: You have written about such a wide range of authors and subjects throughout your career. Is there is a common thread to your work?

Brian Boyd: Popper and Nabokov are very different people in some ways—and I’m ready to devote large chunks of my life to both of them. Popper didn’t think much of words but thought ideas mattered, and Nabokov didn’t think much of ideas, but words mattered, and so on. But both of them had a sense that this is a world of infinite discovery, unending discovery. That quest to discover more in any direction is what I think drives me, and what drives humans, when they’re doing the most interesting things.


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