[excerpts] Brian Boyd's On the Origin of Stories


[excerpts] Brian Boyd's On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction

5 June 2016



*A brief note before the excerpts begin below: The evolutionary perspective is perhaps one of the most obviously useful mental models one deploy in day to day life. The theories covered in this book are remarkably aids in contemplating various happenings from day to day Life. As I read this book the past week, various social scenes from the past three years at Berkeley and at home in Irvine flashed into my head, and due to a new conceptual vocabulary, I found myself finally understanding them with clarity. 10/10 would recommend.


On Social Hierarchy and 'Attention'


"Social hierarchy relaxes the tension between corporation and competition by reducing conflict over precedence- expensive in terms of time, energy, and injury. Since after a hierarchy has been established those of higher status have better access to resources and hence usually enjoy greater reproductive success, the desire for status often intensifies over evolutionary time. Humans naturally pursue status with ferocity: we all relentlessly, if unconsciously, try to raise our own standings by impressing peers, and naturally, if unconsciously, evaluate others in terms of their standing."

"Yet because no one prefers inferior positions, we often cooperate to resists hierarchy. Hunger-gatherer societies manage this well, since without agriculture no one can easily accumulate resources or concentrate power. All known hunter-gatherer societies remain more or less egalitarian, not because their members lack the desire for higher status, but because none of them wants lower status and because they can act together to ensure that no one else establishes ascendancy. Although they notice differences in strength and skills, the use ridicule, ostracism, and even expulsion to thwart any individual’s attempt to earn special treatment for special qualities, in a strategy that anthropologists call reverse dominance."


"The more dominant a primate, the more attention others direct toward him or her Primatologist Michael Chance recognized that subordinates pay disproportionate attention to dominants, glancing at them far more than the dominants at the subordinates. He defined dominance in terms of being the focus of attention of subordinates, and proposed that the social organization of attention has been a crucial factor in human evolution. He observed that hierarchy establishes itself rapidly among children, whose status can be ranked accurately according to the frequency with which they are looked at by three other children simultaneously…"

"We all seek attention as a mark of the acceptance, respect, and even status it betokens. But attention is at a premium. Each of us needs to attend to what matters for us now. The emotions sensitively track changes in our environment, awarding a positive or negative valence to events (the smell of food or smoke, say), overriding whatever we might be doing and ordering us to “pay attention now!” We do not want to have our attention diverted by others unless the distraction proves its worth."

"So not only do we seek to win others’ attention; we also resist our own being commandeered by others without good reason. A chimpanzee uncertain that ti can gain rank through force or threat “can often improve its status by other attention-getting devices- doing tricks and ‘showing off.’ Children do the same thing, often accompanied by cries of ‘Look at me.’“ But children also soon learn about others’ emotional resistance to the undeserved usurpation of attention, and our consequent dislike of showoffs or bores."


"From infancy humans seek to command the attention of others, to shape it more finely, and to share it more fully, than do any other species. Unlike other primates, humans have eyes whose elongated shape and whose color contrast between iris and sclera make eye direction easy to see: in short, humans have evolved eyes that reveal rather than conceal their direction…Although apes note where others look, on the basis of head direction, only humans, from a year old, track eye gaze as well as head movement." p96


On Cooperation, Competition, and Community


"Recently however these programs and their leading proponents have come to accept the need for multilevel selection theory, which rests on one key postulate: “Selfishness beats altruism within single groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups.”"


"But even before such cultural systems were invented, other ways of motivating cooperation emerged. One was through story. Stories arose, as we will see, out of our intense interest in social monitoring. They succeed by riveting our attention to social information, whether in the form of gossip- indirect but real and relevant social information- or fiction- admittedly invented and heightened versions of behaviors that we naturally monitor. Modern hunger-gatherer societies preserve their strong egalitarianism by gossip, sharing reports of anyone seeking status, and by admonitory stories warning against violating egalitarian norms. And in societies of any size, stories involving agents with unusual powers capture attention and commandeer memory,  and stories with unseen agents who can monitor our behavior and administer punishment or reward- the stories we call religion- permeate and persist partly because they offer such powerful ways of motivating and apparently monitoring cooperative behavior. Religious stories establish a secret spirit police."

"In both factual and fictional forms, stories can consolidate and communicate norms, providing us with memorable and shared models of cooperation that stir our social emotions, our desire to associate with altruists (like Dr. Seuss’s Horton), and our desire to dissociate ourselves from cheats and freeloaders (like the suitors whom the Odyssey repudiates and Odysseus routs). Such memorable images of pro- and antisocial characters and actions common to whole communities can not only define and communicate shared standards but ensure that all know what others know of these standards…"

"Our continually refined methods [stories] of prevention, detection, conviction, and punishment allow us to coexists in societies of many millions. "


"Another example from vision can show the kind of problem we or our ancestors have often had to face, and the relation between visual and other cognitive systems. We are born primed, through the exoskeleton of these mental modules, to attend to human faces and voices and to respond in particular ways to the gross features of either. If, say, we detect a mismatch between words or tone of a person’s speech and facial expressions, we may suspect deception. Attention and emotion will alert us to search for relevant information…"


"Evolution offers a much more complex and nuanced view of the social world than the artificial model of the rational individual of economics, or the romantic idea, common since Rousseau, of good people perverted by evil systems, or the paranoid Nietzchean or Foucauldian suspicion that all moral claims mask a lust for power. An evolutionary view of cooperation allows us to look at the social world without inordinate hopes, but with real confidence that we can continue to find better solutions, even to the new problems that the very successes of our cooperation create."


"Across human cultures and in many other species individuals incline to punish others for cheating. In our case at least, our emotions not only alert us to register unfairness but also motivate us to punish it, because in the long run doing so improves the chances of our benefiting from cooperation." p61


"Capuchin monkeys are known to be good cooperators. Experimenters gave each monkey a token, then, with hand outstretched, palm up solicited the token in return for a slice of cucumber. The monkeys happily exchanged a token each time for a cucumber, although it is not their favorite food.

But then unfairness was introduced.

In sight of one monkey, another was given for its token not a slice of cucumber but a much more appealing big juicy grape. When the other was then offered a cucumber for its token, it reacted angrily in 40 percent of trials. When one monkey received a grape without even needing to pay a token, the other, four times out of five, refused to hand over its token or to take the proffered cucumber unless to toss it away in disgust." p62


"For altruism to work robustly a whole suite of motivations has to be in place: sympathy, so that I am inclined to help another; trust, so that I can offer help now and expect it will be somehow repaid later; gratitude, to incline me, when I have been helped, to return the favor; shame to prompt me to repay when I still owe a debt; a sense of fairness, so that I can intuitively gauge an adequate share or repayment; indignation, to spur me to break off cooperation with or even inflict punishment on a cheat; and guilt, a displeasure at myself and fear of exposure and reprisal to deter me from seeking the short-term advantages of cheating. We reverse-engineer the social and moral emotions so central to our engagement with others in life and in story. Rather than merely taking these emotions as givens, we can account for them as natural selection’s way of motivating widespread cooperation in highly social species." p58


"Empathy arise from recognizing other’s goal and desires, a capacity necessary in an individualized social species. Darwin noted that “many animals certainly sympathize” with each others distress or danger,” as modern laboratory research confirms. Even rats and monkeys have a default response to others of their kind, not just their kind, whom they see in distress. As species become more flexibly social, such sympathy deepens: although monkeys appear never to offer consolation to victims of aggression, chimpanzees readily do. Human children “by one year of age…spontaneously comfort people in distress.” Distress at the sight of another’s pain is “an impulse over which we exert not control: it grabs us instantaneously, like a reflex.” " p138


"Theory of Bonds. 1) affiliation and association 2) hierarchy, status, rank ...

3) A third aspect of the theory of bonds is social exchange. In the human case this extends far further than in any other individualized society and has led to the evolution of a complex suite of moral emotions to solve problems of trust and commitment. We can observe for the basis for human moral emotions in other animals, especially primates: empathy, which as Darwin noted makes individuals more able to live in groups; a sense of fairness and self-righteous indignation, recently found experimentally even in capuchin monkeys…forgiveness and reconciliation, needed to repair relations…emotions like generosity and gratitude; and a capacity for detecting cheating in social relations…Children as young as a year and half spontaneously give toys, proffer help, and try to comfort the visibly distressed. The evidence for the social and moral emotions in other primates, not even our nearest relatives, suggests that “human behavior has very old evolutionary roots.” Nature has endowed us with a moral capacity “much like a gyroscope at rest” and culture’s role is “to spin it and establish its orientation.” "p140


"Mirror neurons in monkeys, chimpanzees, and human preschoolers and adults allow an effortless, automatic understanding of the intention of others through an almost reflex inner imitation. As one mirror-neuron specialist remarks, in a phrase that could not be more relevant to storytelling, “when we (and apes) look at others, we find both them and ourselves.” " p142


On Cognitive Play and Art as Cognitive Play


"The more often and more exuberantly animals play, the more they hone skills, widen repertoires, and sharpen sensitivities. Play therefore has evolved to be highly self-rewarding. Through the compulsiveness of play, animals incrementally alter muscle tone and neural wiring, strengthen and increase the processing speed of synaptic pathways, and improve their capacity and potential for performance in later, less forgiving circumstances…"

"Animals eagerly initiate, solicit, and persist in play….Play stimulates the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine (central to the brain’s reward system and a key motivator of evolutionarily positive actions like eating and sex), which encourages further play. But like curiosity, play has its built in stopping routines, including fatigue and loss of interest. Animals, especially adults, with less to learn from the mental and bodily training that play offers, can therefore avoid expending too much energy in play."


"Art as a kind of cognitive play stimulates our brains more than does routine processing of the environment. It offers what biologists call supernormal stimulus, an incentive more intense than usual, in this case a rush of the kinds of patterned information our minds particularly crave.  Because neural connections establish themselves piecemeal through experience, and because we find art self-rewarding, because we engage in it eagerly and repeatedly, art can over time fine-tune our minds for rapid response in the information modes that matter most to us." p94


"After childhood, most adults in large-scale societies may become consumers rather than producers of most kinds of art, except in singing and storytelling for their children. For both those who produce and those who consume it, art staves off boredom- itself an emotion that evolved to reactivate curiosity- and counters habituation. "p95


"Art even as it diverts energy from immediate survival or reproductive needs, can improve cooperation within a single group enough for the group to compete successfully against others with less inclination to art. We should think in the first place not of art galleries or concert halls (though these too raise community confidence and lower alienation) but of chants, drums, dance, body-markings, costumes, banners and the like. But art also simply fosters more intense sociality within the group, before it enters into competition or even active conflict with other groups. Individuals more motivated to catch attention and stir the response of others through carefully designed appeals to shared preference, and individuals more motivated to respond to these appeals, are more likely to want and to be able to form more tightly coordinated and therefore successful groups." p106


"Juvenile play deprivation among both rats and humans correlates with serious social malfunction in later life. Young rats experimentally deprived of play grow up unable to judge how and when to defend themselves and veer from being far too aggressive and far too passive. In humans such experiments have yet to be tried, but in a large-scale study of sociopathic murderers in Texas, researchers were surprised to find no common background factor other than an absence or an extremely reduced amount of play in childhood in 90 percent of perpetrators."


On Fiction, which is specific type of Cognitive Play


"For the great bulk of the 600-million-year evolution of mind on Earth, this ability to think in sustained fashion beyond the here and the now has not been available to any species. But humans not only have this ability; we also have a compulsion to tell and listen to stories with no relation to the here and now or even to any real past. As we will see, our compulsion for story improves our capacity to think in the evolutionarily novel, complex, and strategically invaluable way sketched above. By developing our ability to think beyond the here and now, storytelling helps us not to override the given, but to be less restricted by it, to cope with it more flexibly and on something more like our own terms." p50


"Narratives “offer ways of reasoning about action: analogues or “parables” to guide our social planning; models to emulate or spurn; or merely images of the range of human character, situations, and behavior, and, in ancestral environments, perhaps also of behavior of predators and prey…but narrative especially helps coordinate groups, by informing their members of one another’s actions. It spreads prosocial values…it develops our capacity to see from different perspectives, and this capacity in turn both arise from and aids the evolution of cooperation and the growth of human mental flexibility."


"This may be the most important function of pure fiction. By appealing to our fascination with agents and actions, fiction rains us to reflect freely beyond the immediate and to revolve things in our minds within a vast and vividly populated world of the possible."


"Evolution, biologist D.S. Wilson observes, places no premium on truth. I may need to see where a rabbit is to hit it with a stick, but “there are many, many other situations in which it can be adaptive to distort reality… even massively fictitious beliefs can be adaptive as long as they motivate behaviors that are adaptive in the real world.” "