EvolutionMythologyPoetry & ProseReligionScience

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.