Darwin’s theory of evolution is generally regarded as one of—if not the—most important scientific revelations in history. Even amateurs like me give it props, but respect and understanding are two different things. It’s particularly difficult to wrap your head around the theory’s profound implications when you are one of those evolved forms. To put it another way, while humans have evolved many powerful mental abilities to help us understand the world in which we live, we haven’t evolved any particular mental ability to let us clearly see ourselves in an evolutionary perspective. We struggle to grasp what it really means to be an animal, driven by instinct, composed of an unordered set of adaptations, and not the rational, clear-headed, self-directed person we imagine ourselves to be.
It’s true that humans are animals with a highly evolved set of cognitive powers, but that doesn’t mean that we are without instinct or without invisible motivations rooted in our survival adaptations. Not only do humans have a history of ignoring the effect of their adaptations, but our recent history shows us misunderstanding and abusing them. In the middle of the twentieth century, the pseudo-science of eugenics was used as a justification for genocide. Academia, in recoiling from eugenics, banished any enquiry into how Darwinism might affect Homo sapiens. For at least a half-century, serious enquiry into the evolutionary basis of human behavior was suppressed. Unfortunately, in the vacuum, touchy-feely psycho-babble like Freudianism dominated the landscape of study.
The passage of time as well as such technical tools as computer-aided-tomography has finally allowed serious scientists to turn their attention to human evolution, provoking only ragged outbursts of hysteria. The last couple of decades have seen a tremendous explosion of fascinating and important work in the many new evolution-based fields of study.
Enough researchers have probed the subject with sufficient rigor and repeatability to elevate cutting-edge, evolutionary psychology to the level of “hard” science. We are not just working with theories and metaphors any more. What’s more, there are many skilled writers bringing scientific findings to the amateur reader. Brian Boyd’s new book, “On the Origin of Stories”, subtitled “Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction”, is a fine example.
The book is a fascinating enquiry into how humans think, behave, and conceive of the world and each other through the startling lens of our evolved survival mechanisms. Boyd says that “Minds exist to predict what will happen next.” What sets this book apart is its focus on the role of art, and particularly the art of telling not-strictly-true-stories, in shaping human behavior and civilization.
Some readers will object to Boyd’s pedantic, step-by-relentless-step defense of fiction—and all art—as an evolved behavior. But political correctness, in its unyielding fight against eugenics, still actively combats contemporary researchers when they look human-ward. To make his case, Boyd clearly feels that he must not only examine art from an evolutionary perspective, but he must also examine evolutionary biology as well, which he does doggedly, but effectively. Boyd explains, “Since evolution challenges deeply held intuitions about our special place in the world, since the controversies have been sharp and the confusions and misrepresentations profuse, we have to tread carefully.” Even if you are not a hyper-sensitive, political-correctness Nazi, or a bible-thumping Creationist, seeing human nature through Darwinian lenses can be challenging to one’s self-image, and while Boyd’s methodical arguments are demanding, they are not unwelcome.
I’m neither an academic nor a scientist, but a designer and builder of software, which means that I endow high-technology products with human-facing behavior. Understanding how humans conceive of the world around them, and how they are motivated, is an essential skill for anyone in my line of work.
Historically, computer programmers have ignored all of this human stuff and instead immersed themselves in the abundant technical minutia of programming. Of course, the software they wrote was heartbreakingly difficult to use. It took many years and many tears before an awareness of the linkage between bad software and misconstrued human nature emerged. And sort of like those vestigial defenders against eugenics, there remain many who resist the idea that evolutionary psychology plays a role in the design of software. Yet, because evolutionary psychology directly addresses human motivation, it is arguably the single most useful tool for understanding and designing the form and behavior of software.
Not only are Boyd’s opening chapters on evolutionary psychology an excellent précis of the territory, but his focus on the evolutionary origins of storytelling are even more useful to the software designer. Narrative, or storytelling, is a vitally important tool both for the design of behavior and for the communication of that design.
Boyd gives us a vocabulary for understanding storytelling. He shows how humans conceive of the world through stories. Our relations with others are framed by our physical memory into narratives with characters and events to enable future recall. Our values and our perceptions are based on these storytelling mechanisms. We imagine the world through narrative eyes: plot and character, event and intent, attention and pattern, anticipation and surprise.
Storytelling is what allows the software designer to imagine real people in front of our software creations. Storytelling allows us to see their instinctive human motivations and perceptions at work as they manipulate the interfaces that we design. Storytelling allows us to share our abstract designs with others who must implement them.
The evolutionary basis of art is probably the least examined, and least understood, area of contemporary evolutionary study. Even Stephen Pinker’s 1997 book, How the Mind Works, a sweeping overview of the field, fumbled the art ball. Pinker posed two theories. The first being that art is merely a by-product—or vestigial remain—of our big brains used for other, more important things. Pinker’s second argument is that art is used to attract mates. Being otherwise without purpose, owning an expensive painting, for example, communicates one’s wealth, and by extension, ability to nurture offspring.
Boyd kindly but thoroughly dismantles both of Pinker’s arguments. Art as by-product falls to the argument that evolution quickly evolves away from costly but useless abilities, citing the way cave-dwelling salamanders soon become sightless. The art-as-sexual-attractant is a more resilient argument. Darwin described such mechanisms, like a peacock’s tail, calling the process “sexual selection.” Boyd argues,
“If art were sexually selected, this would predict that it is overwhelmingly male and directed to females, developing rapidly at puberty, peaking just before mate selection, and diminishing drastically afterward. But mothers of all cultures sing to infants; infants prefer their mother’s singing to their fathers; infants of both sexes engage in cooing and singing, clapping, and dancing as soon as they can.”
It is easier to recognize human adaptations when we look at the simple, fundamental manifestations of art in human behavior than it is to discern them by gazing at a Vermeer or a Klee.
Boyd says “Evolution by natural selection is a simple principle with staggeringly complex and unpredictable results.” No where is this more true than that uniquely human affect, art.
“Despite its many forms, art, too, is a specifically human adaptation, biologically part of our species. It offers tangible advantages for human survival and reproduction, and it derives from play, itself an adaptation widespread among animals with flexible behaviors.”
Some people might find it hard to believe that something instinctive and important for human survival could also be so entertaining, enjoyable, and often inconsequential. But humans persist in having sex even when there is no chance for reproduction.
Boyd also argues that just because something serves a purpose, it doesn’t mean that it can’t serve others as well.
“Eyes evolved for vision, but we also use them for communications: hence our contrastive white sclera, which highlight the direction of another’s gaze, and our highly refined capacities for registering and inferring attention and intention from others’ eye direction. That we can now intimidate others with our stare does not refute the fact that eyes evolved for vision.”
The core of Boyd’s case is that art is a form of cognitive play. “We can define art as cognitive play with pattern. Just as play refined behavioral options over time by being self-rewarding, so art increases cognitive skills, repertoires, and sensitivities.” The role of play is to safely practice what we will eventually need to survive. We play at fighting because eventually we will fight for our lives. We play at storytelling because eventually the real story that plays out around us will determine our fitness to succeed.
Storytelling, and all art, is the tool and training ground for humans to learn and practice social interaction. Humans develop a sense of “event comprehension” while still in the cradle. Events, of course, are a key element of plot and narrative.
The brain works by strengthening paths that are used repeatedly, so we need to practice those skills necessary for survival. In the ultra-social world of humans, perceiving and understanding the honesty and intent of others is paramount.
Boyd describes it by saying,
“A work of art acts like a playground for the mind, a swing or a slide or a merry-go-round of visual or aural or social pattern. Art’s appeal to our preferences for pattern ensures that we expose ourselves to high concentrations of humanly appropriate information eagerly enough that over time we strengthen the neural pathways that process key patterns in open-ended ways.”
The portion of our brains that are uniquely human, the neocortex, is constructed differently from the older parts of the brain, and it functions differently, too. It works more like an executive, integrating signals from widely disparate facilities. This necessitates a mechanism for aiming the executive. Boyd asserts that this mechanism is attention.
Attention is what allows us to focus on the tiny behavioral cues of others, to determine their intent and to assess their validity. Conversely, it allows us to alter our behavior, so that the cues we send to others suit our own intentions. Stories become cognitive exercises that focus our attention on “perceived patterns of behavior in order to infer intent.”
Attention is remarkably important to humans. To a significant extent, attention is the true currency of human civilization. The maxim “survival of the fittest” seems to say that all of us evolved beasts are constantly in competition not only with our surroundings, but with each other. That is certainly true, but it is also true that we cooperate, and we often do so across large populations. By definition, any social species must cooperate effectively, and humans are exceptional in this regard.
“All social species prosper more together than alone, or they would not remain social, but humans take this to another level, ultrasociality, the most intense cooperativeness of all individualized animal societies. Not endowed by nature with formidable strength or speed, we have been able for hundreds of thousands of years to coordinate our activity sufficiently to kill large prey—and, for thousands of years to construct pyramids or cathedrals and settlements of thousands or even millions.”
Cooperation itself is a multi-faceted thing. At the lowest level is mutualism, wherein simply being near others of the same species is helpful; watching for predators, for example.
The next step, active cooperation, explains why parents look out for their children. But in this case, the direct tie to genes is obvious. How can cooperation be explained when those involved don’t share genes? Deduced from game theory, the answer is termed reciprocal altruism: “I help you in the expectation that you may help me later.” Of course, it is still very easy to cheat, so humans have evolved many cognitive tools for the detection, prevention, and punishment of cheaters. These uniquely human tools include
“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 include 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.”
Boyd says, “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.”
One of the more fascinating aspects of this book is its description of the empirical tools employed by evolutionary psychologists to explore their theories. Boyd describes the work of evolutionary psychologist Leda Cosmides attempting to discern the workings of the human anti-cheating mechanism. She found that although people struggled to solve problems in logical reasoning when presented in abstractions, people solved them easily when they were presented in terms involving cheating in social exchange.
Behaving in non-selfish ways is logical only if you see the bigger picture of cooperative groups, but people don’t think of groups, they simply behave according to their emotions. And those emotions are mechanisms that function regardless of logic. Our justice-detection mechanism, key to mutual altruism, often makes us behave in ways that defy the assumptions of logicians.
“In one experiment, the dictator game, two strangers play for (usually real) money, say $100. I, as dictator, must offer you a share. If you accept the division, both of us keep our agreed portions. If you reject the offer, neither of us receives anything. In terms of strict economic rationality, an offer of a dollar, even a cent, would leave the second participant better off, and should therefore be accepted. But … often if the sum offered is only a little under $40, the respondent rejects it. A sense of fairness in social exchange overrides the rational calculation of gain. We have evolved not to be ‘rational individuals’, profit maximizers, but social animals, holding others to fair dealings even at our own cost.”
Stories originated in the need for informing our justice systems; for monitoring people’s compliance with fairness. Gossip is the simplest and most widespread form of this, and ultimately, all fiction derives from it. Out of such simple mechanisms grow mighty civilizations.
Slowly, methodically, Boyd steers us away from conventional thinking about the role of art and narrative. The importance of art can be seen in its ubiquity. “Art” he says
“(1) is universal in human societies; (2) it has persisted over several thousand generations; (3) despite the vast number of actual and possible combinations of behavior in all known human societies, art has the same major forms (music and dance; the manual creation of visual design; story and verse) in all; (4) it often involves high costs in time, energy, and resources; (5) it stirs strong emotions, which are evolved indicators that something matters to an organism; (6) it develops reliably in all normal humans without special training, unlike purely cultural products such as reading, writing, or science. The fact that it emerges early in individual development—that young infants respond with special pleasure to lullabies and spontaneously play with colors, shapes, rhythms, sounds, words and stories—particularly supports evolutionary against nonevolutionary explanations.”
As I read this book, I assumed that Boyd was a scientist; an evolutionary biologist. At some point I glanced at the dust jacket and was surprised to find that he is a professor of English in New Zealand, and that he is “the world’s foremost authority on the works of Vladimir Nabokov.” The book is divided in two equal portions. The first half is pure evolutionary psychology, and I found it quite fascinating and informative. In the second half of the book, Boyd-the-English-Professor emerges. He presents two timeless works of literature from the evolutionary point of view. You can get a glimpse of his dual nature just by knowing that his selections are “The Odyssey” by Homer, and “Horton Hears a Who” by Dr. Seuss.
While I devoured the first half of the book, the literary second half seemed prolix and redundant to me. You may have a different experience. In any case, I recommend the book to anyone interested in evolutionary science, and in particular to any practitioner in the world of human-facing software.