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!