On the Origin of Stories

I ran across a fascinating book the other day, a book that speaks directly to a question that has been driving me for a long time now: What is the purpose of Story? Why is Story so important in human life? And I am more and more convinced that it is important, extremely important. Story is a human universal; I have a theory that there is no human being who does not like Story in one form or another. But why? What is it about Story that makes it so crucial for humans?

And here, in this book, is the answer. Or one answer, or part of an answer, anyway, but a really good one. The book is called On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, by Brian Boyd (Cambridge: Harvard University, 2009). The title very consciously refers to Darwin’s Origin of Species; the whole book is on the evolution of storytelling in humans.

Let me see if I can summarise Boyd’s point (as I understand it) in a paragraph or less. Art, Boyd says, must have a purpose in human life, or else natural selection would have weeded out artistic genes a long time ago. If there was no other point to art – visual art, dance, music, and, yes, storytelling – than to give us pretty much useless pleasure, it would not confer any evolutionary advantage on humans to be able to make art, and the people who are good at it would eventually have died out. But they haven’t – very far from it. So what is the point of art? Boyd then talks about the importance of play: play is there to have us learn. Of course that’s obvious in small children, who need to learn the skills for living; the same goes for any young animal. But in humans, the ability and desire to play continues throughout life (which, incidentally, is the subject of another really great book, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, by Stuart Brown – he shows that people who stop playing age far more quickly than players). And what’s the point of play in adult humans? It’s still, and always, to learn. Playing at running, jumping or balancing (e.g. any kind of sports) teaches the body skills which might be life-saving in an emergency, such as meeting a saber tooth tiger or a thug in a back alley. And because play confers such a great advantage on humans, we are hard-wired to take pleasure in it, to insure we keep doing it over and over. (There you go – the Olympics are really just an elaborate display of saber-tooth-tiger-escape routines.) Now, art, Boyd says, is play for the mind. Art has us playing with patterns – visual, aural, physical – with recognising patterns or deviations from patterns, which, again, could be crucial for survival or even just well-being. And here is where stories come in: they have us playing with social patterns. Social connections are utterly fundamental to human survival – we are herd animals, we need other humans. In saber tooth tiger days, straying from the group might just have got you eaten; today, we still cannot live without others. So we are strongly invested in making life in a social group work, in continuously learning about and honing our skills in social patterns – and stories allow us to do that in a safe environment (guaranteed free of saber tooth tigers). We are so strongly hard-wired to take pleasure in stories because stories teach us how to live, and how to continue living.

Okay, so that’s a rather long paragraph, and it’s drastically oversimplifying Boyd’s argument and leaving out many other important points, of course. But that’s about the gist of what I got from his book. It makes heaps of sense to me. I only got it out in an ebook copy from my university library, but I think I’ll have to get me a hardcopy for keeps – among other things, I haven’t actually finished reading it all. What I’ve tried to summarise here is the first half of the book; in the second half, Boyd applies this theory to two specific stories, The Odyssey and Horton Hears a Who. I mean, a literary theory analysing Dr. Seuss by way of example, how awesome is that?

Oh, and what does any of this have to do with my studies? Only everything. The question I’m going to be asking, that I have been asking all along but will be that much more pointed now, is just what the stories I’m studying are teaching us. What do we learn from Oz, Narnia, Harry Potter, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty & Co? And what do we learn from their altered version in the films? Why did the movies make the changes they did? I don’t know that I’ll actually ever be able to answer the latter, but I can make a stab at it, an educated guess. And my guess is now that much more educated. Thank you, Dr Boyd.

8 thoughts on “On the Origin of Stories

  1. Hello Amo,
    That was quite brilliant. Isn’t it true though? But I want to take it a notch farther. I submit that stories aren’t just the way we learn for ourselves and from others, stories are the way we recognize the “humanness” in others. The one who has a story has also lived. CS Lewis did say that “we read to know we are not alone.” And we tell and hear stories for the same reason, I think. Like you mentioned, nature would have rid us of the unnecessary appendages of story-telling and art long ago if these things had not been vital to our human “beingness”. Everyone loves a story–our whole global community. In fact, and I have no idea where I recall this from–one of those bits of useless knowledge you say “huh” to, and then file away into obscurity–but there was once a community of people who swapped stories like currency. If you wanted something, you could trade a really good story for it. My point is, that’s how valuable our stories are to us. Just learning a great story is an end unto itself, because what do we do after we finish a really good book? We hate to put it down. We are disappointed it is over. The journey through the story is what we enjoy–not necessarily the end–although a good end is a gift. I don’t know what all this means, but you got me thinking, and I was forced to blurb on your blog. Lol.


    • Yes, of course, that’s one of the points that I left out in my coconut-shell summary. Humans are the storytelling animals; art is what makes us human. Animals have play, but they don’t have art (that we know of, anyway), and especially not story art.
      Interesting about stories as currency. Sounds almost Arabian-Night-ish. But in a sense, we even do that around here – stories are worth money, not just fiction, but news, as well.
      Sorry to force you to blurb on my blog – actually, no, I’m not sorry at all. 🙂


      • Hehehe. Yes, I am a blurber.
        I tried to remember where I heard or read that item about stories as currency, and you’re right, it is a little “Arabian Night-ish”, but for some reason I keep thinking that it was among the tribal people of South America. I wish I knew where I heard it so that I could pass the info on to you. I’ll bet that would make a cool anecdote in a paper. Btw, along your line of humans as the only species with “art”, we are also the only species that contemplates its own mortality. Hence, so many stories about death and what happens after. The topic of “stories” is so intriguing.


      • I just ran across something about Trobriand Islanders looking at a particular type of story as “personal property”. I wonder if that’s what you’re referring to.


  2. You know, I think I liked this book so much I sat down and read the whole thing on a chair in the Yale bookstore. (I was an interloper there, not a Yale person at all.) I don’t remember it very well now, but I do remember loving one thing he said: that we find most memorable anything that crosses ontological boundaries. That’s why Dr. Seuss is so good (animals with wheels instead of legs, and like that), and also is why we like jokes that surprise us. And why babies like peekaboo.

    (In my imagination, babies like peekaboo because every time you go BOO the babies are like HA HA HA object permanence is THE BEST, I’m psyched to have this new skill!)


    • LOL on the object permanence.

      I got this book in the first place because what you said about the ontological boundaries intrigued me. I noticed, for example, that all the big blockbuster movies seem to be fantasies – in the last twenty years, of the major box office hits there’ve been perhaps three or four “realistic” films (like “Titanic”) vs. dozens of fantasies (Harry Potter and Narnia being prime examples, of course, but also LOTR, Avatar, all those superhero films, Hunger Games etc). I mean, what’s with that? We seem to be fascinated with those ontological-boundary-crossing stories. (And I’m so proud of myself for knowing what “ontological” means in this context… 🙂 )


      • Have you looked at the “City of Bones” series? I started the first book, but couldn’t press through it. Not my cup of tea, and not enough time to try. However, the premise is interesting, and one of those ontological-boundary-crossing stories. So, hmmm…


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