Dist Prof Brian Boyd

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


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).

This work fed into a first-year course, From Sonnets to Comics, soon taught, in fact, in reverse order, from comics to sonnets, from the more accessible (Dr Seuss and Spiegelman) to the less (Shakespeare). This introductory course also introduced students to a biocultural appraoch to literature. 

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), co-editing Nabokov Upside Down (2017, selected papers from a Nabokov conference I organized at Auckland in 2012) and on Spiegelman and the origins of comics.

From 2012 to 2015 I was on a Marsden grant that has allowed me to focus once again on the biography of Karl Popper, which has involved me in research in 20 countries. 

I was also invited to co-curate a 2016-17 exhibition, On the Origin of Art, for the Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania. The works I selected date from 14,500 years ago to now (including new commissions), 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. The exhibition drew 230,000 visitors.

In 2016 I introduced a new Stage II and III course, Creating Stories, which runs from before Shakespeare to the present and across modes including children's book, comics, and film, and emphasizes the creative role of the audience in bringing stories to life from cues authors provide.

After a stint (March-May 2017) as visiting professor in English at Kyoto University, I am back at Auckland, working on literary and narrative theory, language, reason, Nabokov, and especially Popper.

Research | Current

  • Literature (and the arts), evolution and cognition
  • Narrative
  • Literary theory
  • Nabokov
  • Spiegelman
  • Shakespeare
  • Austen
  • Literature/humanities/arts and science
  • Literary translation
  • Philosophy of science
  • Karl Popper


  • Co-editor, with Stanislav Shvabrin, Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Russian Poetry and Drama (2 vols) (in preparation).
  • “Girl Misinterpreted.” [Review article on Sarah Weinman, The Real Lolita). The Listener (NZ), March 16-22, 2019, 26-29. Online at https://www.noted.co.nz/currently/history/the-real-lolita-nabokov-scholar-brian-boyd/
  • Preface to the second edition of Chinese translation of Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years and Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years, trans. Liu Jialin (Shanghai: BBT/Guilin: Guangxi Normal University Press, 2019, forthcoming). 
  • Foreword to the Russian translation of Stalking Nabokov, trans. Gennady Kreymer (St. Petersburg: Symposium, 2019, forthcoming). 
  • “Annotations to Ada, 42: Part I Chapter 42,” thenabokovian.org (International Vladimir Nabokov Society Website), https://www.thenabokovian.org/annotations/ada-1-42, live 12 November 2018.
  • Kyoto Reading Circle with Brian Boyd. “Annotations to Ada (24). Part I: Chapter 42.” 30pp. http://vnjapan.org/main/ada/andmore.html
  • “The Senses in Nabokov’s Thought and Work.” Krug, 11 (2018), 1-19.
  • “Annotations to Ada, 41: Part 1 Chapter 41.” thenabokovian.org (International Vladimir Nabokov Society Website), live 20 June 2018.
  • Chronology. thenabokovian.org (International Vladimir Nabokov Society Website), live 20 June 2018.
  • “Aligning with Pushkin.” Foreword to Vladimir Nabokov, translation of Aleksandr Pushkin, Eugene Onegin. San Francisco: Arion Press, 2018, 7-20.
  • "Pushing us to Pushkin," Foreword to Aleksandr Pushkin, Eugene Onegin, trans. Vladimir Nabokov (Princeton University Press, 2018), ix-xxiv.
  • Co-editor, with Anastasia Tolstoy, Vladimir Nabokov, Think, Write, Speak. New York: Knopf, and London: Penguin, 2019 (in press).
  • "Nabokov: A Life in Contexts: I: Russia and Emigration." For Vladimir Nabokov in Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), ed. David M. Bethea and Siggy Frank, 11-18.
  • "Nabokov: A Life in Contexts: II: Beyond the Emigration." For Vladimir Nabokov in Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), ed. David M. Bethea and Siggy Frank, 19-27.
  • "Preface; The Haunted Enchanter," In Vladimir Nabokov et la France, ed. Yannicke Chupin, Lara Delage-Toriel, Agnes Edel-Roy and Monica Manolescu (Strasbourg: Presses de l'Université de Strasbourg, 2017), 9-15.
  • "Do the Senses Make Sense?" Keynote, Biarritz International Nabokov Conference of French Nabokov Society, April 28-May 1, 2016.
  • 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 (London: Penguin, 2014 and (pbk) 2016; New York: Knopf, 2015, Vintage pbk 2017; in Russian, Moscow: KoLibri, 2017; translations, Bucharest: Polirom, 2016; Paris: Fayard, 2017; Rheinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 2017; Shanghai: People's Literature Publishing House, 2017 ).
  • Annotations to Ada (ongoing, The Nabokovian, 1993 - ): and on the Internet as ADAonline, www.ada.auckland.ac.nz

Literary theory, Literature and evolution

  • "Learning from Fiction?" Review essay on Gregory Currie, Imagining and Knowing: The Shape of Fiction. Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture, fortchoming 4:2 (2020).
  • "Implied Authors and Imposed Narrators, or Actual Authors?" In Sylvie Patron, ed., Optional Narrator Theories: Attempts at Unification (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2020), 53-71.
  • "Resetting Literature through Language." Forthcoming, Style, 54:2 (Spring 2020). 9000 words. 
  • Review of Neema Parvini, Shakespeare's Moral Compass. Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture, 3;2 (2019), 119-22. DOI: 10.26613/esic.3.2.153 
  • “Narrative and Storytelling.” International Encyclopaedia of Anthropology. Ed. Hilary Callan. Wiley-Blackwell, 2018. 3000 words. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118924396.wbiea1900.
  • Review of Beth Lau, ed. Jane Austen and the Sciences of the Mind. Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture, 2: 2 (2018), 143-46. DOI: 10.26613/esic/2.2.103.
  • "Language, Experience, and Imagination: The Invention and Evolution of Language." Review essay on Daniel Dor, The Instruction of Imagination: Language as a Social Communication Technology. Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture, 1:2 (2017), 105-110. doi: 10.26613/esic/1.2.52, http://journals.academicstudiespress.com/index.php/ESIC/article/view/52
  • "Evolutionary Explanations of Literary Universals." For Literary Universals Project website (in preparation)
  • "Challenging Chomsky and His Challengers: Brian Boyd Interviews Daniel Dor." This View of Life, May 25, 2017.
  • "The Evolution of Stories: From mimesis to language, from fact to fiction." WIREs Cogn Sci 2017, e1444. doi: 10.1002/wcs.1444
  • "The Evolution of Stories: Ancient Origins, Modern Impacts," talk, Institute of Advanced Studies, Toulouse (December 2016)
  • "Does Austen Need Narrators? Does Anyone?" New Literary History Spring 2017, 48: 285-308.
  • "Evolution and Literature: Theory and Example." Routledge Handbook of Evolution and Philosophy, ed. Richard Joyce, London: Routledge, 2017, 399-411.
  • "Making Adaptation Studies Adaptive." Oxford Handbook of Adaptation, ed. Thomas Leitch, New York: Oxford University Press, 2017, 587-606.
  • "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, 2017, 93-109.
  • Web documentary, Biology of Story, dir. Amnon Buchbinder, 2016. Live March 11, 2016. http://biologyofstory.com/#/main?entity=brian-boyd
  • "Experiments with Experience: Consilient Multilevel Explanations of Art and Literature." In Joseph Carroll, Dan P. McAdams and Edward O. Wilson, eds., Darwin's Bridge: Uniting the Humanities and Sciences, New York: Oxford University Pres, 2016, 222-244.

Art and Evolution

  • (With Steven Pinker, Geoffrey Miller, and Marc Changizi) On the Origin of Art. Exhibition: Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, November 5, 2016-April 17, 2017. Catalogue, On the Origin of Art  (Hobart: Museum of Old and New Art, 2016), 490 pp. 
  • "Art as play with pattern: It need not be adaptive, but often is." In On the Origin of Art. (Hobart: Museum of Old and New Art, 2016), 272-409.


  • Review of Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire, Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, for Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture, 1:1 (2017), 255-56.


  • "Engaging 'Authors.'" Projections 10:1 (Summer 2016), 17-24.  doi: 10:3167/proj.2016.100105.

Literature/humanites/arts and sciences


  • "Popper: His Life in Politics," for Guide to Popper's Political Thought, ed. José Colen (in preparation)
  • "Popper and Eccles: Body, Brain, Mind, Self." (forthcoming)
  • Karl Popper: The Adventure of Discovery (in preparation).
  • "Popper's World 3: Origins, Progress, and Impact." Philosophy of the Social Sciences. 2016, 1-20, DOI: 10.1177/0048393116640282.
  • “Psychology of Reasoning, the Logic of Discovery, and Critical Rationalism.” Abstract. Karl Popper and the Philosophy of Mathematics: Proceedings of the Conference held in Klagenfurt, 5-7 April, 2018. https://www.aau.at/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/KPF_NL-4_1_Proceedings_final.pdf, 67-70.


  • "Prompting Monopods: Or The Options and Costs of Narrative. Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture, 3:1 (2019), 33-35.


Teaching | Current

ENGLISH 102 Great Books: Seduction and Betrayal

Postgraduate supervision


  • Bruce Sheridan. Imagination, Mind, and Creativity. 2010-.
  • Jake Mahaffy, Trauma-State Cinema: Narrative Principles of Recreating a Subjective Experience of Dissociative and Traumatic Stress Disorders in Film. 2014-.

Recent PhDs

  • Severi Luoto, Sexual dimorphism in language, and the gender shift hypothesis of homosexuality, 2020.
  • Maria MacKay, Klytaimestra and Gender Conflict. 2019.
  • Ania Grant. From Mr Darcy to Mr Big: sexual selection and female choice in popular narratives for women. 2018.
  • Anaise Irvine. Recycled Alterity: Familiar Dehumanisation in the Contemporary Fiction of Genetic Posthumanism. 2017.
  • Zachary Norwood. From Object to Affect in Literary Experience, Interpretation, and Evaluation. 2013.
  • Richard Viskovic. The Emire Never Ended: Philip K. Dick's Search for Reality. 2012.



Rutherford Medal of the Royal Society Te Apārangi, 2020

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

A Guardian Book of the Year 2014 selection 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 (2012-17)



Series Editor

Editorial Boards

  • Chinese Readings in Literature and Science (Tsinghua)
  • Cultural Science Journal
  • Evolutionary Review
  • Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture
  • Literary Universals Project
  • Nabokov Studies
  • Nabokovian
  • NOJ/Nozh (Nabokov On-line Journal)
  • Readings
  • Scientific Study of Literature
  • Studies in Modern European Literature (Palgrave Macmillan)

Trustee, Vladimir Nabokov Literary Foundation


Areas of expertise

Literature, especially narrative (including fiction and non-fiction, drama, comics, and film) and poetry

Literature, evolution, and cognition (and literary theory)

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

Biography and autobiography



Committees/Professional groups/Services

University of Auckland

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

Trustee, Vladimir Nabokov Literary Foundation (New York)

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; Current Anthropology; 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; Papers in Language and Literature; 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)

As of 29 October 2020 there will be no automatic updating of 'selected publications and creative works' from Research Outputs. Please continue to keep your Research Outputs profile up to date.
  • Boyd, B. (2019). Shakespeare's Moral Compass by Neema Parvini. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press 2018 [Book review]. Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture, 3 (2), 119-122. 10.26613/esic.3.2.153
  • Boyd, B. D. (2018). Narrative and storytelling. In H. Callan (Ed.) The international encyclopedia of anthropology (pp. ). Hoboken, NJ, USA: Wiley-Blackwell. 10.1002/9781118924396.wbiea1900
  • Boyd, B. (2017). The evolution of stories: From mimesis to language, from fact to fiction. WIREs: Cognitive Science10.1002/wcs.1444
  • Boyd, B. (2017). Language, experience, and imagination: The invention and evolution of language. Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture, 1 (2), 105-110.
  • Boyd, B. (2017). Does Austen need narrators? Does anyone?. New Literary History, 48 (2), 285-308. 10.1353/nlh.2017.0014
    URL: http://hdl.handle.net/2292/34967
  • Boyd, B. D. (2017). Making adaptation studies adaptive. In T. Leitch (Ed.) Oxford handbook of adaptation studies (pp. 587-606). New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Boyd, B. D. (2017). Patterns of thought: Narrative and verse. In M. Burke, E. T. Troscianko (Eds.) Cognitive literary science: Dialogues between literature and cognition (pp. 93-109). New York: Oxford University Press. 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190496869.003.0006
  • Boyd, B. D. (2016). Experiments with experience: Consilient multilevel explanations of art and literature. In J. Carroll, D. P. McAdams, E. O. Wilson (Eds.) Darwin's bridge: Uniting the humanities and sciences (pp. 223-244). New York: Oxford University Press.