Science Stories: The Mythology of Evolution

Most people will be at least passingly familiar with the ‘war’ between ‘science’ and ‘religion’ that has been a central theme in the history of the West in the past few centuries. My quotes are intentional because each of these concepts is far more complicated than common usage would suggest. The problem is: most, if not all of us have been raised in an intellectual climate that predisposes us to interpret this conflict of world views (and indeed what it consists of) in a particular, non-neutral way.

I’ve been raised as a non-believer in a country where there are quite a few such people. My parents’ generation, or my grandparents’, or some generation in the not too distant past, gave up belief in christianity to a significant degree, supplanting it with worldviews that are often either inarticulate, or founded on political and social ideologies. Of course, there are still many christians in the Netherlands, as well as muslims, jews, and a plethora of other belief systems. However, my own upbringing as a non-christian and my further development as a student and junior scholar make me a perfect candidate for movements that combine this non-belief in a christian god with a trust in science as a worldview.

That said, I feel little connection with the forms of atheism, secular humanism, etc. that are so visible in the current intellectual climate. Having been taught that one of the core principles of science as a method of constructing an understanding of the world is skepticism, I can’t help but feel that this principle is severely underapplied by many people who flock to the banners of atheism to provide a counterweight against the forces of organised religion in this world, particularly when it comes to understanding the nature of religion, religious people, and most importantly of all, science itself.

The Mythology of Evolution

As such, I am always on the lookout for people who are prepared to think out of the box and provide accounts of this philosophical struggle of our times that is fair and even-handed. Enter Chris Bateman and his latest book The Mythology of Evolution.

An independent philosopher and game designer, Bateman has dedicated much of his written work to issues such as fictionality, games and play, ethics, and belief. This includes most of the excellent articles on his blog, Only a Game. His previous book, Imaginary Games, dealt mostly with the first three and investigated the way in which make-believe and fictionality plays a role in many aspects of culture, including art, play, language, metaphor, and science. The reader is referred to this review by Allen Zhang for more information on that book.

In his latest book, Bateman turns his attention wholly to science and religion, and the role of myth in the way worldviews are built and framed. First of all, I should clarify that Bateman uses the word myth not in the pejorative sense of ‘untrue story’, but as stories that can not be directly tested or proven. As such, they “can be understood as metaphors, imaginative fictions, or as metaphysical stories” (p. 14). Myths in this sense of the word are used to clarify statements about understanding the world, for example. In particular, Bateman applies this concept of myth to the theory of evolution:

[...] when I talk about ‘myths of evolution’ I am not necessarily accusing various ideas of being unscientific, I am talking about stories that are spun out of the scientific theories in circulation. [...] When I, for instance, call ‘the selfish gene‘ a myth of evolution, I do not mean that what is termed ‘the gene-centered view’ is not a valid scientific perspective, but rather that the idea of a ‘selfish gene’ is an abstract metaphorical embellishment that puts a particular spin onto an otherwise neutral concept. This is what I mean by ‘myth’ in this context: a metaphorical image used to present the facts in a particular way, or (synonymously) a metaphysical story that expresses a particular interpretative bias. These myths can be criticized or replaced but they can never be entirely eliminated, since there is no science without mythology in this sense. (p. 15)

As Bateman explains in his first chapter, mythmaking in this sense of the world is an integral part of doing and explaining science. This does mean, however, that there is no science without some measure of metaphysical conjecture. This in itself is not a bad thing, just something we all have to deal with. In order to do so, however, we need to be aware of it, and that awareness is often ignored by scientists and not present in the general public, because science is often presented by its practitioners as truth.

To this end, Bateman distinguishes and discusses seven myths concerning evolution (with the last applying to science in general), and supplements these with alternative myths or viewpoints. I will not address all of these, but I want to name them anyway, as they are central to the structure of the book: 1) the ladder of progress; 2) survival of the fittest; 3) the selfish gene; 4) kin selection; 5) intelligent design; 6) adaptationism; 7) science as truth.

Over the course of the book, Bateman addresses these myths and the way they relate to empirical fact in a systematic manner that is at the same time quite easy and enjoyable to read. Starting with chapter two, he presents a discussion of some of the basic principles of evolutionary theory, starting with Darwin and his contemporaries, all the way to today’s biology. Besides addressing technical issues of biological evolution, Bateman illustrates some of the mythology surrounding evolution as a theory, such as the origin and spreading of the phrase “survival of the fittest” and its social-Darwinist connotations – better called Spencerism, as Bateman indicates, for the phrase does not originate in Darwin’s works.

These chapters are illuminating, particularly because they do a good job – as far as I can judge – of explaining much of the science behind evolution. Of course, this is necessary in a book that seeks to point out what is not scientific in matters of evolution, but it is an approach that I’ve rarely encountered and one that I can only describe as fair.

The final chapter of the book, “True Myths”, cuts to the heart of the matter: the relationship between fact and fiction. Bateman argues – correctly in my view – that fact and fiction are supplementary rather than oppositional concepts. Building on Kendall Walton’s ‘make-believe theory of representation’, he explores the interplay between the two concepts, and shows that all representations are fictional, and that some of them can also be true in an ontological sense. In practice, we base our assessment of which stories are true mostly on authority, as the following example illustrates:

This idea of an authorized story is relevant to the case of the hurricane footage. When this appears in the movie, we imagine that there is a hurricane since it is fictional in the world of the film that there is a hurricane. If the same footage is presented as news it gains the authority to be believed as true as well as imagined. The images we see and the sounds we hear are the same in both cases – the only difference is whether there is any source of authority that supports its claim to being considered fact. Walton says “what is true is to be believed, what is fictional is to be imagined” but I would say “whether it is fact or fiction, it is to be imagined; if it is authorized as fact, it is also to be believed true”. (p. 190)

Metaphor is a very important type of fiction, and one that is used widely not only in our daily language, but also in science and religion. In fact, science and religion have in common the tendency to use metaphor, fiction, and mythology (an overarching narrative or megatext) to build up a more or less coherent world view. The major difference would be, and now I am generalising, that science tries to do more justice to the facts behind the fictions, whereas (organised) religions tend to place less value on factual basis than on the overall world view. But then again, doing justice to fact is the raison d’être of science, whereas the aims of religion are usually more spiritual, ethical, and social in nature.

In the last chapter, Bateman presents a sharp analysis of these issues, arguing among other things for a more subtle view of what constitutes religion, and what constitutes science. This sounds like something too obvious to mention, but it is surprising how narrow-minded the views are that people hold of both science and religion. Religion is a very broad concept, and popular secularist discourse generally focuses on very narrow parts of the religious spectrum, and neither do we often find that religious groups have a particularly subtle view of other religions. Conversely, it is not always clear where the borders of science are: is it a method, a body of accumulated knowledge, or a practice?

What then, of the ‘war’ between the two? As Bateman argues, in order for there to be a war, there must be some form of common ground over which to do battle. First of all, the relation between science and religion can be analysed in a number of ways, often grouped into four types, such as Ian Barbour‘s typology: 1) conflict; 2) independence; 3) dialogue; 4) integration. Bateman reanalyses this and comes up with a categorisation based on truth assertions:

If my conceptual analysis is accepted, then we are back to four categories in the relationship between religion and science – but they are not quite the same as those proposed by Barbour and Haught. There are two positions based on belief in absolute truth, the absolute disjunction of ‘conflict atheism‘ and the absolute intersection of ‘conflict theism‘. There are also two positions based on belief in indirect access to truth, the perspectival disjunction of Gould‘s NOMA and its equivalents and the perspectival intersection of theology of nature and other forms of dialogue. But as Orr suggests, Gould‘s position begins outside of religion, whereas Barbour, Haught and other advocates of dialogue hold positions that begin inside of religion. (p. 206)

The first two groups believe in the absolute truth of their own assertions, either that religion is false, or that only science that conforms to religion is true. The latter two groups believe in perspectival truth, but differ in their belief in the possibility of interaction between science and religion.

Bateman ultimately chooses the middle road in arguing that each of these four approaches is partly right. More importantly, he turns to how we can solve the conflicts between science and religion in our societies. Starting from the human right of freedom of belief, he argues that all sides will have to learn to live together if this right is to be respected. To do this, the intellectual needs of all sides need to be taken into account. The belief in, need for and assertion of absolute truth is one of the most difficult ones to tackle, and one that is found in both sides of the discussions. Indeed, it seems that you don’t have to be religious to hold truth as sacred. Instead, Bateman sees it as a necessity that we all tolerate the fact that other people might have different mythologies.

In practice, this means that the areas that have to be shared in a society – for example, schools – should not be the territory of one mythology or another. Some people do not want creationism taught as fact in school, just as others don’t want evolution taught as fact. Perhaps it is indeed better, as Bateman seems to argue, to stick to the facts as much as possible in school. It is perfectly doable to teach children about nature without resorting to creationist or evolutionary myth. If a child asks “where does everything come from”, perhaps our teachers should be trained to say: “ask your parents” and/or explain that there exist multiple belief systems in this regard. I must say that Bateman offers few suggestions as to how such issues should be tackled in practice, though to be fair, that is not the aim of his book.

The value of The Mythology of Evolution rests in the philosophical underpinning of why this is the way to go. If we do not want metaphysical discussions to continue to sow conflict and mutual misunderstanding in our societies – or god forbid, even worse – we need to be able to turn a fair and scrutinising eye to all aspects of these discussions concerning science, knowledge, truth, etc. Striving to be fair towards our own worldviews as well as those of others is the first step in this process, and in my opinion a self-critical view is paramount in this. As someone who de facto is mostly on the science side of things, for me this means acknowledging the role fiction and mythmaking play not only within science, but perhaps more importantly in secular culture and the history of science.

This is corroborated by research into the history of science, philosophy, and various religious currents. For example, the work of Norwegian researcher Egil Asprem (working at the University of Amsterdam and owner of the excellent Heterodoxology blog) is focused among other things on the relation between science and religion in the early 20th century. A good introduction is his two-part lecture “Religion and Scientific Change: The Case of the New Natural Theologies between the World Wars ” [1, 2]. Like Bateman, Asprem explains the ways the relationship between religion and science can be and has been represented. In addition, he argues that different camps within science and religion have at times purposefully pushed away from each other, giving rise to the conflict model outlined above. His final point in the  lecture is that we should approach all claims about science and religion skeptically, taking into account the cultural and personal contexts surrounding such claims – again, a sensible argument, but one which is rarely applied in practice by many people.

Another work that supplies information in this direction is Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture by professor Wouter Hanegraaff, also of the University of Amsterdam. I’ve yet to read the book in its entirety, but based on lectures surrounding the book, it is a thoroughgoing study into how particular philosophical currents and traditions were at different points in history disqualified as false or heretical, leading to their exclusion in the traditional histories of science and philosophy, even though many have played important roles in the development of scientific and philosophical paradigms. A more well-known example is the artificial disentanglement of early chemistry from alchemy, leading to lots surprised faces of people who learn that Isaac Newton, of all people, left behind a great deal of alchemical writings. This isn’t what many people would expect from one of the great heroes of scientific mythology.

Summing up, there are many reasons why The Mythology of Evolution is a commendable book. It is an accessible read, but with a firm basis in science and philosophy, and a vision of current and future intellectual struggles that seems fair and hopeful. I believe the book will be most appealing to those people (religious or not) who already value freedom and peace above the authority to proclaim truth. I hope that these people are more numerous than at first appears.

As a final illustration of why this book is an enlightening read for anyone who has a vested interest in debates of worldview, I want to leave you with an image (supporters of a sporting match) and a quote that illustrate perfectly my own views on the matter:

Discussion of almost all of the myths under consideration tends to be dominated by partisan camps, each holding firmly entrenched beliefs. To some extent, this situation is inevitable – it is as impossible to exist without beliefs as it is to live without drawing breath. However, the flaws in what others believe cannot serve as endorsement for our own beliefs: the establishment of truth is not a sporting match in which one team wins and another loses. Rather, truth is glimpsed when an issue is viewed from many diverse perspectives, and even then we can never be sure that there is not some unseen angle as yet unrevealed. If we want to really understand the truth about any topic, we may first have to find a way to draw a line between discernible facts and inscrutable metaphysics. (p. 18f)

References:

  • Asprem, Egil (2012). “Religion and Scientific Change: The Case of the New Natural Theologies between the World Wars”. [1, 2]
  • Bateman, Chris. Only a Game. [1]
  • Bateman, Chris (2011). Imaginary Games. Winchester / Washington: Zero Books.
  • Bateman, Chris (2012, in press). The Mythology of Evolution. Winchester / Washington: Zero Books.
  • Hanegraaff, Wouter J. (2012). Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture. Cambridge [etc.]: Cambridge University Press.
  • ChrisBateman

    Just reread this for the first time since you first wrote it. This is a charming review, and to date basically the only review the book has had! Thanks so much for writing it.

    • http://www.eveningoflight.nl/subspecie Oscar Strik

      Thanks, Chris, and at the same time I’m really sorry to hear that the book has gone relatively unnoticed, or at least uncommented on. We’ll keep pushing it :-)

      • ChrisBateman

        Coming out shortly after the Darwin bicentennial was a real problem for this one – as perhaps was a title that fails to align with either side of the alleged “debate”. ‘Mythology?’ thinks one side, ‘must be a Creationist.’ But ‘Evolution?’ thinks the other, ‘must be a Neo-Darwinist’. *sigh*

        I’m lucky this is out on Zero Books who have a publishing model that doesn’t require a book to get immediate traction. I have time to grow interest in the book over the next decade or more… I’m optimistic it might be a book like Bernard Suits’ “The Grasshopper” that is initially invisible but eventually comes to be of value.

        All the best!

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