More Stories

Still working my way through Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories.

After Book I, on the evolution of play, art and fiction as part of the evolution of human cognitive capabilities and behaviour, Book II, as advertised, switches to two specific works of fiction, to illustrate how the evolutionary theories are applicable in practice. Homer’s Odyssey and Dr Seuss’ Horton. Something ancient and complex for adults, and something recent and simple for children. I’m guessing chapters 14, 15 and 16 are LitCrit101. Phylogeny on plot, character, structure and patterns, natural and contrived open-ended ironies. Interesting in their own right, since I’m neither a scholar of Homer, not of literary criticism. Phylogeny, because the age of The Odyssey says much about how fiction evolved as a species, with and since Homer.

If the first half was about the need for mutual attention of speaker/writer and listener/reader in developing knowledge of and strategic information about intents and beliefs, that affect our ability to predict our future behaviours, then these early chapters on The Odyssey show that this really is what is going-on, even if Homeric Greek has no language of mind, belief and psychology. There are all the obvious dramatic ironies between the mortals and between the gods and mortals over how much is known, both here and now and ahead of time, and of course deliberate “deceptions” as part of the process. Deceptions of incomplete knowledge, even in collaborative processes. Two points caused me to pause and blog.

Intelligence as curiosity as opposed to intellect. Curiosity for explanation that is, and the recognition that explanation in human affairs always involves implicit or explicit understanding of psychological games, and that these games may exist on infinitely many levels over many time-scales. Odysseus being the exemplar at the hands of Homer.

Taking a God-like view. Far from being primitives who knew no better, invoking gods as part of such explanations, actually shows a sophisticated understanding of how complex (and interminable) that explanatory process is, and that some things do need to be taken effectively as “god-given”, illustrated by examples, but never objectively known.

Like for example the idea of Xenia, the stranger/guest/host/friend behaviour amongst strangers. A behaviour that extends tendencies to mutual altruistic behaviours amongst close genetic individuals, to remote individuals recognized from their behaviours as members of the species – humans. If I turn up as a stranger (but a human) on your doorstep it is your duty to feed and show me hospitality (and more) before even needing to know my identity as an individual. An engrained code of behavior that can be explained in terms of evolutionary cost-benefit value at the species level, but would be intractable at the level of each individual transaction. A social pattern easily shared (a meme)  and statically preserved because it is worth preserving. A value.

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