Biological Theory

, Volume 6, Issue 2, pp 176–183 | Cite as

Brian Boyd’s Evolutionary Account of Art: Fiction or Future?

Brian Boyd: On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA/London, 2009, 540 pp, $35.00 hbk, ISBN 978-0-6740-3357-3
  • Jan VerpootenEmail author
Essay Review


There has been a recent surge of evolutionary explanations of art. In this article I evaluate one currently influential example, Brian Boyd’s recent book On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction (2009). The book offers a stimulating collection of findings, ideas, and hypotheses borrowed from a wide range of research disciplines (philosophy of art and art criticism, anthropology, evolutionary and developmental psychology, neurobiology, ethology, etc.), brought together under the umbrella of evolution. However, in so doing Boyd lumps together issues that need to be separated, most importantly, organic and cultural evolution. In addition, he fails to consider alternative explanations to art as adaptation such as exaptation and constraint. Moreover, the neurobiological literature suggests current evidence of biological adaptation for most of the arts is weak at best. Given these considerations, I conclude by proposing to regard the arts instead as culturally evolved practices building on pre-existing biological traits.


Thought Experiment Evolutionary Function Pretend Play Evolutionary Account Biological Adaptation 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



Thanks to Brian Boyd for discussion of the book, and Wayne Christensen, Rachael Brown, Brett Calcott, and Eran Shifferman for commenting on an earlier version of this manuscript. This paper was supported by the Research Foundation—Flanders (FWO) and the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research, Austria.


  1. Andrews P, Gangestad S, Matthews D (2002) Adaptationism: how to carry out an exaptationist program. Behav Brain Sci 25:489–553Google Scholar
  2. Boyd B (2009) On the origin of stories: evolution, cognition and fiction. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  3. Chabris CF (1999) Prelude or requiem for the “Mozart effect”? Nature 400:826–827CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Changizi M (2011) Harnessed: how language and music mimicked nature and transformed ape to man. Benbella Books, DallasGoogle Scholar
  5. Coe K (2003) The ancestress hypothesis: visual art as adaptation. Rutgers University Press, New BrunswickGoogle Scholar
  6. Cosmides L, Tooby J (1995) Beyond intuition and instinct blindness: toward an evolutionarily rigorous cognitive science. Cognition 50:41–77CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Dutton D (2009) The art instinct: beauty, pleasure and human evolution. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  8. Fitch WT (2006) The biology and evolution of music: a comparative perspective. Cognition 100:173–215CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Goldstein T, Winner E (2012) Enhancing empathy and theory of mind. J Cogn Dev 13:19–37CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Gould SJ (1991) Exaptation: a crucial tool for an evolutionary psychology. JSI 47:43–65Google Scholar
  11. Gould SJ, Vrba ES (1982) Exaptation: a missing term in the science of form. Paleobiology 8:4–15Google Scholar
  12. Huffman MA (1984) Stone play of Macaca fuscata in Arashiyama B troop: transmission of a non-adaptive behavior. J Hum Evol 13:725–735CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Huffman MA, Quiatt D (1986) Stone handling by Japanese macaques (Macaca fuscata): implications for tool use of stone. Primates 27:413–423CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Huffman MA, Nahallage CAD, Leca J (2008) Cultured monkeys: social learning cast in stones. Curr Dir Psychol Sci 17:410–414CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Kraus N, Chandrasekaran B (2010) Music training for the development of auditory skills. Nat Rev Neurosci 11:599–605CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Mellmann K (2010) The multifunctionality of idle afternoons: art and fiction in Boyd’s vision of evolution [review of Brian Boyd, On the origin of stories: evolution, cognition, and fiction, 2009]. JLT Online Reviews. Accessed 26 March 2012
  17. Peretz I (2006) The nature of music from a biological perspective. Cognition 100:1–32CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Rakoczy H, Tomasello M, Striano T (2005) On tools and toys: how children learn to act on and pretend with “virgin objects.”. Dev Sci 8:57–73CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Schacter DL, Addis DR, Buckner RL (2007) The prospective brain: remembering the past to imagine the future. Nat Rev Neurosci 8:657–661CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Steen F, Owens S (2001) Evolution’s pedagogy: an adaptationist model of pretense and entertainment. J Cogn Cult 1:289–321CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Striano T, Tomasello M, Rochat P (2001) Social and object support for early symbolic play. Dev Sci 4:442–455CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. van Schaik C (2006) Why are some animals so smart? Sci Am 294(4):64–71CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Williams GC (1966) Adaptation and natural selection. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  24. Zaidel D (2010) Art and brain: insights from neuropsychology, biology and evolution. J Anat 216:177–183CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognitive Research 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Research Centre for Marketing and Consumer ScienceUniversity of LeuvenLeuvenBelgium
  2. 2.Ethology Research Group, Department of BiologyUniversity of AntwerpAntwerpBelgium

Personalised recommendations