Distinguished Professor Brian Boyd

MA (Cant), PhD (Tor), FNZAH, FRSNZ

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Professor (Personal Chair)


After a BA in English and in American Studies and an MA in English at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, I studied for a PhD at the University of Toronto, writing a thesis (1979) on Vladimir Nabokov’s most complex novel, Ada, and its relation to his thought and style in general. In 1979 I took up a postdoctoral fellowship in New Zealand literature at the University of Auckland, and wrote on Maurice Gee, whose Plumb had appeared the previous year.

            On reading my PhD thesis (later published as Nabokov’s Ada: The Place of Consciousness 1985, second edition 2001, Russian translation 2013), Véra Nabokov invited me to catalogue her husband’s archive. My relationship with Véra allowed me in 1981 to begin working on a biography, published in two volumes (Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years, 1990, Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years, 1991) and translated into seven languages.

            I was appointed a lecturer in English at UoA in 1980, teaching mostly in the modern novel, the age of Shakespeare, and the nineteenth century. After publishing the Nabokov biography, I began to write on Shakespeare but then in 1994 introduced a graduate course in Narrative, from Homer to Spiegelman via Shakespeare, Austen, Tolstoy, Joyce, Nabokov, Dr. Seuss and narrative painting (Giotto, Victorian narrative painting, Australian aboriginal painting), film of four continents, and comics.

            In the wake of the Nabokov biography’s reception, I decided to undertake the biography of philosopher Karl Popper, while continuing with Nabokov projects (an edition in three volumes of Nabokov’s English-language fiction and memoirs, for the Library of America, 1996, an edition of his uncollected butterfly writings, 1999, a book on his second most complex novel--after Ada--Pale Fire, 1999). The work on both Popper, the founder of evolutionary epistemology, and Nabokov, who traced the evolution of certain butterfly lines, as well as my teaching the Narrative course, helped move me toward writing on literature, evolution, and cognition, first on Austen (1998), then Dr. Seuss (2001) and eventually others (Homer, Shakespeare, Nabokov, Spiegelman).

            On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction (2009) proposed an evolutionary and cognitive account of art in general, narrative in general, and fiction in particular, and showed how this perspective could illuminate classics as near as we can easily get to the origin of stories in our species (Homer’s Odyssey) and our individual development (Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who!). This was followed by the co-edited Evolution, Literature, and Film: A Reader (2010) and a monograph on lyrics, as verse without narrative, Why Lyrics Last: Evolution, Cognition, and Shakespeare’s Sonnets (2102).

            Reading intensely in biology and psychology, and my work on Nabokov, a world-class lepidopterist, and Popper, “incomparably the greatest philosopher of science there has ever been” (Nobel Medicine and Physiology laureate Peter Medawar), led me to introduce, when the call came at UoA for General Education courses, a course in Literature and Science, taught with award-winning teacher Associate Professor Cather Simpson, who works at the interface of Physics, Chemistry, and Biology.

            Meanwhile I had also continued to work on Shakespeare, editing Words that Count (2004), a Festschrift for my retired colleague Mac Jackson, and on Nabokov, annotating Ada  (AdaOnline, 2004- ), co-editing Verses and Versions: Three Centuries of Russian Poetry (2008), a collection of his translations from Russian verse, my own Stalking Nabokov: Selected Essays (2011), editing John Shade’s Pale Fire: A Poem in Four Cantos (2011), and co-editing and co-translating Letters to Véra (2014), and on Spiegelman and the origins of comics.

            Since 2012 I have been on a Marsden grant that allows me to focus once again on the biography of Karl Popper, which has involved me in research in 20 countries. 

I have also been invited to co-curate a 2016 exhibition on the origins of art for the Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania. The works I’ve selected date from 14,500 years ago to now (including a work in progress and works still to be commissioned), and from all continents, and including painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, basketwork, music, musical drama (with dance, masks and puppetry), installations, film, music videos, comics, literature, posters, magazine covers, and avant-garde clothing and carpet.

Research | Current


  • Co-editor, with Stanislav Shvabrin, Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Russian Poetry and Drama (2 vols) (in preparation).
  • Co-editor, with Anastasia Tolstoy, Vladimir Nabokov, Think, Write, Speak. London: Penguin, 2016 (in preparation).
  • "Nabokov: A Life in Contexts: I: Russia and Emigration." For Nabokov in Context (Cambridge), ed. Siggy Frank and David Bethea.
  • "Nabokov: A Life in Contexts: II: Beyond the Emigration." For Nabokov in Context (Cambridge), ed. Siggy Frank and David Bethea.
  • Co-editor, with Marijeta Bozovic, Nabokov Upside Down (Northwestern University Press, 2016).
  • "Enchanted Hunting: Lolita and Lolita, Diana and diana." In Stephen H. Blackwell and Kurt Johson, eds. Fine Lines: Vladimir Nabokov's Scientific Art. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016.
  • Co-translator and co-editor, with Olga Voronina, Letters to Véra (Penguin, 2014 and Knopf, 2015).
  • Annotations to Ada (ongoing, The Nabokovian, 1993 - ): and on the Internet as ADAonline, www.ada.auckland.ac.nz

Literature and evolution

  • "Evolution and Literature: Theory and Example." Routledge Handbook of Evolution and Philosophy, ed. Richard Joyce (in press)
  • "Narrative and Storytelling." International Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Wiley-Blackwell (forthcoming).
  • "Making Adaptation Studies Adaptive." Oxford Handbook of Adaptation, ed. Thomas Leitch (forthcoming).
  • "Patterns of Thought: Narrative and Verse." In Michael Burke and Emily Toscianko, eds., Dialogues Between Literature and Cognition. Ed. Michael Burke and Emily Troscianko. New York: Oxford University Press (forthcoming).
  • In forthcoming web documentary, Vestigial Tales: Biology of Story, dir. Amnon Buchbinder, 2015.

Art and Evolution

  • "Shaping Worlds." In On the Origins of Art. Exhibition and catalogue, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania. (forthcoming)


  • "Engaging 'Authors.'" Projections (forthcoming)


  • "Popper and Eccles: Body, Brain, Mind, Self." (forthcoming)
  • "Popper's World 3: Origins, Progress, and Impact." (forthcoming)
  • Karl Popper: A Life (in preparation).

Teaching | Current

ENGLISH 102 Great Books: Seduction and Betrayal

ENGLISH 207 Creating Stories

ENGLISH 311 Creating Stories

Postgraduate supervision


  • Ania Grant. From Mr Darcy to Mr Big: sexual selection and female choice in popular narratives for women. 2009-
  • Anaise Irvine. Children of Chaos: Genetic inheritance as a chaotic-deterministic system in heredity narratives. 2010-.
  • Bruce Sheridan. Imagination, Mind, and Creativity, 2010-.
  • Maria MacKay, Klytaimestra and Gender Conflict, 2012-.
  • Jake Mahaffy, Trauma-State Cinema: Narrative Principles of Recreating a Subjective Experience of Dissociative and Traumatic Stress Disorders in Film, 2014-.
  • Severi Luoto, Cognitive versus Sensory Bases for Mate Selection in Literature, 2015-.



Humanities Aronui Medal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, 2014.

Guardian Book of the Year 2014 award for Nabokov, Letters to Véra

Awards for books (Nabokov's Ada, 1985 and 2001, Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years, 1990, Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years, 1991, Nabokov's Pale Fire, 1999, Verses and Versions, 2008, On the Origin of Stories, 2009, Pale Fire: A Poem in Four Cantos, 2011), in Germany, Japan, New Zealand, UK and US.

Major research awards:

Claude McCarthy Fellowship (1981-82)

James Cook Fellowship (1997-99)

Marsden Fund Award (2012-14)


Areas of expertise

Literature, especially narrative

Literature, evolution, and cognition

Homer, Shakespeare, Austen, Tolstoy, Machado de Assis, Joyce, Nabokov, Seuss, Spiegelman

Literature / humanities / arts and their relation to the sciences

Art and evolution

Philosophy: Popper




Committees/Professional groups/Services

University of Auckland

  • Auckland Writers Festival Liaison Committee
  • Distinguished Alumni Awards Committee
  • Hood Fellowship Committee
  • Robb Lecture Committee

Editorial Boards

  • Evolutionary Review
  • Nabokov Studies
  • NOJ/Nozh (Nabokov On-line Journal)
  • Readings
  • Scientific Study of Literature
  • Studies in Modern European Literature (Palgrave Macmillan)

Reader for the following presses:

Bloomsbury, Cambridge UP, Edinburgh UP, McGill-Queen's UP, Northwestern UP, Ohio State UP, Oxford UP, Palgrave, Routledge, University of Chicago Press, University of Nebraska Press, University of Washington Press, Victoria UP, Yale UP

Reader for the following periodicals:

Canadian Review of American Studies; Comparative Literature; Contemporary Literature; Evolution and Human Behavior; Evolution: Education and Outreach; Evolutionary Psychology; History of Intellectual Culture; Journal of Anthropological Research; Journal of Applied Social Psychology; Journal of Dutch Literature; Literature Compass; Literature, Interpretation, Theory; Memory Studies Journal; Modern Fiction Studies; Modern Language Review; Mosaic; Nabokov On-line Journal; Nabokov Studies;  The Nabokovian; Philosophical Psychology; Philosophy and Literature; Philosophy of the Social Sciences; PMLA; Review of English Studies; Review Scando-Slavica; Russian Review; Scientific Study of Literature; Studia Humaniora Tartuensia; Studies in the Novel; Style

Selected publications and creative works (Research Outputs)

  • Voronina, O., & Boyd, B. (Eds.) (2014). Letters to Véra London: Penguin Classics. i-798.
  • Boyd, B. (2013). Arts, Humanities, Sciences, Uses. New Literary History: a journal of theory and interpretation, 44 (4), 575-594. 10.1353/nlh.2013.0041
    URL: http://hdl.handle.net/2292/23146
  • Boyd, B. (2013). The Last Word—or Not? On Some Cards Entitled Laura. In Y. Leving (Ed.) Shades of Laura: Vladimir Nabokov’s Last Novel, The Original of Laura (pp. 243-257, 287-89). Montreal, Quebec, Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
    URL: http://hdl.handle.net/2292/23116
  • Boyd, B. D. (2012). For Evocriticism: Minds Shaped to be Reshaped. Critical Inquiry, 38 (2), 394-404. 10.1086/662750
  • Boyd, B. (2012). Why Lyrics Last: Evolution, Cognition, and Shakespeare's Sonnets. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Pages: 244.
  • Boyd, B. (2012). Evolution and Literary Response. In C. Gansel, D. Vanderbeke (Eds.) Telling Stories: Literature and Evolution / Geschichten erzählen: Literatur und Evolution (pp. 64-76). Berlin: De Gruyter.
    URL: http://hdl.handle.net/2292/23095
  • Boyd, B. D. (2011). On the Origin of Stories. http://www.themontrealreview.com/2009/On-the-origin-of-stories.php.
  • Boyd, B. D. (2011). Pale Fire: Poem and Pattern. In B. Boyd (Ed.) Pale Fire: A Poem in Four Cantos by John Shade (pp. 5-32). Berkeley, California: Ginkgo Press.
    URL: http://hdl.handle.net/2292/23114


Contact details

  • Media Contact

Primary location

ARTS 1 - Bldg 206
Level 6 , Room 602
New Zealand

Web links