The Play’s the Thing

9780674057111-lgMichael Bérubé in American Scientist:

On the Origin of Stories attempts an evolutionary explanation of the appearance of art—and, more specifically, of the utility of fiction. From its title (with its obvious echo of Darwin) to its readings of The Odyssey and Horton Hears a Who!, Boyd’s book argues that the evolution of the brain (itself a development of some significance to the world) has slowly and fitfully managed to produce a species of primate whose members habitually try to entertain and edify one another by making stuff up.

If this sounds reductive, don’t worry: Boyd patiently explains that this isn’t your father’s sociobiology or your great-grandfather’s eugenics. To say that something is genetic is not, despite decades of bad science followed by decades of bad popularizations of bad science, to say that it is genetically determined, if “determined” means (as it usually does) “inevitably fated.” Boyd expresses some exasperation at the idea of genetic determinism, arguing that

the notion that genes shape us is less deterministic than the notion that we are the product of our environment, since the complexity and randomness of genetic recombination in sexual reproduction means that we are each the result of an unpredictably generated variation unique to each of us rather than of anything imposed from without.

Thus, writes Boyd, “we should see genes less as constraints than as enablers,” just as “we should see genes not as deniers of the role of the environment but as devices for extracting information from the environment.”

Continue reading here: The Play’s the Thing » American Scientist.

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