Nika Knight interviews Brian Boyd in Guernica:
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.