Thursday, May 21, 2009

From Zeus to Seuss

I’m not much on academic-type studies, but Brian Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fictionlooks interesting. From the product description:
Art is a specifically human adaptation, Boyd argues. It offers tangible advantages for human survival, and it derives from play, itself an adaptation widespread among more intelligent animals. More particularly, our fondness for storytelling has sharpened social cognition, encouraged cooperation, and fostered creativity.

After considering art as adaptation, Boyd examines Homer’s Odyssey and Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who! demonstrating how an evolutionary lens can offer new understanding and appreciation of specific works. What triggers our emotional engagement with these works? What patterns facilitate our responses? The need to hold an audience’s attention, Boyd underscores, is the fundamental problem facing all storytellers. Enduring artists arrive at solutions that appeal to cognitive universals: an insight out of step with contemporary criticism, which obscures both the individual and universal.

The section of the book titled “From Zeus to Suess” caught my eye since his analysis parallels my current reading—bedtime reading to the boys (Curious George, Doctor Doolitle, Dr. Seuss lately) and then turning to The Odyssey before I go to bed.

Brian Boyd is an English professor at the University of Auckland and is considered a leading authority on Vladimir Nabokov. I first heard about the book in reading Robert Fulford’s article in the National Post.Here is an excerpt from the review:

Boyd draws parallels between the theory of evolution and the work of artists - Homer, Dr. Seuss, whoever. Natural selection, motiveless and unconscious as it is, nevertheless follows certain patterns. Again and again it randomly sets in motion possible solutions to problems of survival, fails, then starts again, re-using whatever elements have proven valuable. "In time, it can create richer solutions to richer problems." Put that way, evolution sounds exactly like the work of a writer.

Dr. Seuss's genius, as Boyd sees it, was the product of a brilliant artist who was also a tireless worker. Boyd contends that literary genius arises, in a perfectly naturalistic manner, through familiar Darwinian processes. A genius tests ideas, discards many, concentrates on a few. Like evolution, literary genius "does not know quite where it is going until it arrives there, usually after a long cycle of generate-test-regenerate." It builds on partial discoveries and then arrives at lasting solutions to problems no one could have formulated in advance.

Update: When looking for reviews, I missed the article by Laura Miller at reviewing the book. Yet another excerpt:

Boyd's explanation, heavily ballasted with citations from studies and treatises on neuroscience, cognitive theory and evolutionary biology, boils down to two general points. First, fiction -- like all art -- is a form of play, the enjoyable means by which we practice and hone certain abilities likely to come in handy in more serious situations. When kittens pounce on and wrestle with their litter mates, they're developing skills that will help them hunt, even though as far as they're concerned they're just larking around. Second, when we create and share stories with each other, we build and reinforce the cooperative bonds within groups of people (families, tribes, towns, nations), making those groups more cohesive and in time allowing human beings to lord it over the rest of creation. ...

Fiction also fosters a part of cognition known as the "theory of mind," one person's understanding that another person has feelings, desires, intentions and beliefs, the latter of which may or may not be correct. A child's ability to deduce that another child will mistakenly believe that a ball is still in a basket because the second child wasn't in the room when the ball was moved to a bucket develops surprisingly late, around age 5. Theory of mind is at the heart of empathy, and our brains are replete with systems for reinforcing it, such as the recently discovered mirror neurons, which fire both when you're, say, dancing and when you're watching someone else dance.

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