Origin Of Stories – Initial Review

Brian Boyd On The Origin Of Stories is a comprehensively researched and referenced story of the evolution of the human mind, psychology and behaviour, involving the evolution of art (representative and not) and stories (true and not) as part of that process, rather than some incidental “cheesecake for the mind” bi-product. Pinker, the originator of that quote, is well referenced and provides supporting cover note :-

“This is an insightful, erudite, and thoroughly original work. Aside from illuminating the human love of fiction, it proves that consilience between the humanities and sciences can enrich both fields of knowledge.”
– Steven Pinker

I’m only about a third through the text (see the previous meta-review), and only as far a the evolution of narrative specifically in the evolution of recalling and representing events and people as agents. Up to this point the evolution has been more generally about art, creativity and communication.

It’s really very good. It fits my evolutionary psychology agenda to a tee, of course, and provides much reinforcement and “illumination”. A recommended read, and I suspect a very important book.

Here some significant quotes from the end of Ch10 Understanding & Recalling Events and the beginning of Ch11 Narrative : Representing Events. Firstly, the game-theoretic battle-of-wits (*), behaviour :

The capacity to track other agents effortlessly surely derives from the need of any flexible agent facing potential predators, prey, partners, rivals or allies to infer the maximum information about the likely next behaviour of those who could make a decisive difference to its fate.

Our capacities to comprehend events and to recall and reconfigure them in memory develop in us naturally, and to a considerable extent without language. But that we can handle events so well individually does not prevent us from trying to find ever more interesting ways to relate events, if we have good reason to – as we do.

It becomes clearer as we move into Ch11 that Boyd is using the word language here in a narrow sense of symbolic written & verbal communication …

Narrative need not involve language. It can operate through modes like mime, still pictures, shadow-puppets, or silent movies. It need not be restricted to language, and often gains impact through enactment or the emotional focussing that music offers in dance, theatre, opera or film, of the visual focus in stage lighting, comics or film. But language of course makes narrative more precise, efficient and flexible.

Narrative need not involve language, but it does need external representation, not merely internal [diffuse, distractable, mental] “representations” of events as we witness, recall, anticipate, imagine or dream them. Lately it has become almost a truism to speak of the self or of experience as fundamentally narrative. Despite the near-concensus, we have little reason to think that this is true in either case.

[….] It would be burdensome to tell ourselves continuously the story of ourselves. But why should we tell any stories to others ?

[….] Active communication, especially via voice, allows the rapid transmission of detailed, complex, contingent information. Although such signals remain comparatively cheap, they cost senders in time, energy and risk.

[….] How then, does cooperative communication establish itself ? And how can we explain the much more complex and costly communication of narrative.

Dawkins and Krebs argued in 1978 that “communication should arise more for competitive than for cooperative reasons: we should expect the manipulation rather than accurate transmission of information”. But competition thrives best on concealing information: a predator silently stalking its prey, and ambush catching enemies unaware. Cooperation by contrast, usually stands to gain from communication.

[….]  Signals that eveolve through competition tend to be costly, as arms-races develop between insistent senders and receivers. [….] Signals used for cooperative purposes, by contrast – eg conspiratorial whispers – will be energetically cheap and informationally rich. This is what we find ….

[….] Brains evolved not to give humans rich mental lives – though we are delighted they do – but to permit the creatures that have them to make better decisions …

The psychology of better decision-making. My agenda I’d say. Reading on.

(*) Post Note – When I say “battle” of wits, I’m not talking about competitive situations. In my experience even debating with yourself and friendly collaborators, communication – forward directed intentional communication – is still a “battle of wits” if intended understandings and outcomes are to be achieved. Then again, maybe I’m just a lousy communicator 😉

6 thoughts on “Origin Of Stories – Initial Review”

  1. That’s an interesting observation – about various ways of communication evolution in a natural selection process.

    Common “competitive selection” understanding brings quite unexpected results if applied to the evolution of Avatar planet-size biological network, as discussed here: http://www.nakedsky.com/html/Blog/?p=3&cpage=1

    “Cooperative selection” allows for the possibility of evolution of such phenomena without exotic assumptions 🙂

  2. Hi Sam. Yes I suspect it may be an important book . It is certainly thorough. I’m going to blog some more thoughts on it in a moment.

  3. Hi Victor.

    Interesting you should mention Avatar (my next blog post). The “Gaya” message of treating the biosphere (cosmos even) as an interacting network is played so superficially – for effects – in the film. A massive disappointment. I’ve not read the book, I’ll read the link.

    Life can be as exotic as we like, without any assumptions 😉

    (BTW Victor, a message for my Russian readers. My comment spam filter is not able to “understand” and process Cyrillic script, so it effectively works only by blocking all “.ru” email sourced comments. I know Anatoly blogs in Russian. Something we could talk about in Moscow ?)

  4. Pingback: Psybertron Asks

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