Can the epic of evolution serve as a mythic story for our time?
To do so requires insights of the world’s wisdom traditions.
“Science as Epic?”, Science & Spirit, (9:1), March 1998.
The more humans learn about the universe through science, the more we must look anew at ourselves. Science is a kind of magic mirror for human identity. The appropriate integration and interpretation of these new scientific insights requires creative collaboration of the world’s wisdom traditions.
Today, humans can gaze out upon the fascinating complexity of the universe with the Hubble Space Telescope, even as we discover that the elemental components of our bodies are recycled stardust.
Today, humans can explore and edit the intricate chemical structures of life, even as we understand that the cellular structures of our organs are condominiums for DNA-replicating microorganisms.
Today, humans can ponder global climate change, even as we recognize that the chemical composition our bodies is a complex manifestation of ocean water — thinking about itself.
Today, we can log on to the Internet and share in rich technological and cultural legacies, even as we learn that this negentropic exchange of information is as ephemeral as the vibrating subatomic particles which beam across fiber-optic cables and bounce off satellites.
Certainly, the modern scientific account of physical, biological, and cultural evolution is an extraordinary discovery of our times. Many different scientists in diverse disciplines have pieced together the “Epic of Evolution” over the last few decades, but it really represents a cultural achievement spanning the millennia of human existence.
In brief outline, this omnicentric universe began some 15 billion years ago as infinite heat, infinite density, and total symmetry. The universe expanded and evolved into more differentiated and complex structures – forces, quarks, hydrogen, helium, galaxies, stars, heavier elements, planetary systems. Some 3.5 billion years ago, in a small second or third generation solar system, the intricate processes called “life” began on at least one small planet. Animate matter-energy on Earth presented itself as a marvelous new intensification of the creative dynamic at work in the universe. Then some 2 million years ago, as if yesterday in the enormous timescales of the universe, early humans emerged on the savanna of Africa with their enormously heightened capacities for conscious self-reflection, language, and tool making. The question is whether and how we can understand this Epic of Evolution as a mythic narrative for our times.
The word “myth” is popularly understood to mean idle fancy, fiction, or falsehood; but there is another meaning of the word in academic discourse. A myth, in this latter sense of the word, is a story that serves to define the fundamental worldview of a culture by explaining aspects of the natural world and delineating the psychological and social practices and ideals of a society. Using the original Greek term mythos is perhaps a better way to distinguish this more positive and all-encompassing definition of the word.
So the question now becomes can modern science provide a mythos for our times? On the one hand, the modern scientific enterprise has assiduously sought to avoid such questions of meaning, values, and purpose implied by the term mythos. Science is about describing reality as it is, not how it ought to be. This is the famous Is/Ought distinction in the philosophy of science. Indeed, many of the descriptions of how nature is in reality would be horrific guidelines for how humans ought to think and behave. Using a description of nature as a prescription for human behavior is called the Naturalistic Fallacy. In the ought-world of our moral imagination, for instance, we should not have famine, death, predation, and extinction, though this is true and necessary of natural processes. The is-world of nature should not become normative for human behavior.
Furthermore, the objection to the Epic of Evolution would continue, the history of combining science with preconceived ideals and ideologies for how the world ought to be has resulted in bad science and bad societies. So the plea from this camp is to leave science alone to do its methodical and myopic work of figuring out the intricate details of how reality really works. No good will come from asking these big mythological questions in the context of science.
On the other hand, it can be argued that science is necessarily and always important currency in our cultural unfolding. It is not the least bit clear how the rest of society can leave science alone to do its work in isolation. Nor is it clear that a mythos free society is possible or desirable. Indeed, humans might better be classified as Homo religiosus in our seemingly universal need to discover, create, and tie-together a seemingly chaotic reality into ordered and meaningfulnarratives. In the name of demystifying one religious story, we always seem to create new religious stories. Nietzsche’s famous aphorism applies: “he who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” Humans are hard-wired, beginning some time around two years of age, to ask why. We must develop deep cultural structures that are filled with profound stories and meaningful symbol systems.
Modern science is an important part of this cultural process today, even as it discovers new aspects of reality through its methodical practices. Science itself is imbued at every level, consciously or unconsciously, intentionally or unintentionally, with meanings, purposes, and values. This is as it must be. Let us begin to talk about this as a society by examining the Epic of Evolution. As we traverse the sequential changes in time-space and matter-energy that have brought us to this moment of consciousness, let us ask the question why. Is it so preposterous to think that the biophysical processes that gave rise to our purpose-seeking species might themselves be processes imbued with purpose?
The universe is overflowing with meaning, order, and values. Philosopher Thomas Berry suggests that it is a peculiar kind of modern cultural autism to think of nature otherwise. Theologian Nancey Murphy and cosmologist George Ellis have collaborated in writing a rigorous scholarly book with the scandalous title On the Moral Nature of the Universe. And the most important cosmological insight in the Biblical tradition is summed up in the single word “good,” oft repeated by Elohim inGenesis 1. This Biblical cosmological insight can still guide us today as we reinterpret science and religion. The Epic of Evolution is begging for this kind of philosophical, mytho-poetic, moral, and cultural treatment today. From general science education in public and parochial schools to the most advanced levels of research, science and society will be left increasingly sterile and barren without such an engaged discussion.
Religionists have something important to teach the scientists in how to interpret this marvelous new story that they have quite unintentionally put together in bits and pieces. Religionists understand the importance of interpretation, though they frequently disagree about how. Religionists confront the problems of interpretation in revealed scriptures, mystical epiphanies, and evolving traditions. Though religionists seek a direct connection with the spiritual core of the universe, they are also necessarily nurtured and limited by communities of interpretation. While the Divine can powerfully manifest itself in human lives, humans are nevertheless finite in their ability to embrace this fullness of Spirit. For better and for worse, the understanding of and access to the Divine is always mediated by an interpretative tradition and living community. When religious people are at their best, they engage in vigorous dialogue about their differences and are enriched by this diversity.
There is not yet an interpretive tradition within science and society about this Epic of Evolution. If anything, there is an anti-interpretation tradition. This is actually a dangerous situation, because cultural beings, like other beings in nature, can be rather opportunistic, lazy, and selfish-rationalizing when not challenged to be otherwise. As the saying goes, even the Devil quotes the Bible. Precisely because the Epic of Evolution is a powerful revelation for our time, it is also dangerous.
We are at an extraordinary moment in the natural history of our planet and the cultural evolution of our species. The exponential growth in human population and consumption patterns, empowered in part by science and technology, is significantly altering atomic, chemical, genetic, ecological, and geological processes on Earth. Humans are a Lamarckian wild card in the Epic of Evolution. Our desires, abilities, intentions, and unintentions will significantly alter the future evolutionary trajectory of our species and the planet as a whole. The present moment and future challenges hold many known and unknown dangers and opportunities.
How to interpret the Epic of Evolution is neither obvious nor simple. It requires romantic vision and philosophical rigor. It requires appropriate metaphysical concepts and inspiring artistic forms. The Epic of Evolution requires an interpretative community that seeks to integrate knowledge and wisdom from across disciplinary boundaries of our compartmentalized modern university and our fragmented postmodern society. The solution is evolution. Adapt!
In cultural evolution, as in biophysical evolution, there is both continuity and change. New adaptive structures are built upon the old structures. Critical components of the continuity needed to face the challenges of the 21st century and beyond are surely to be found in the religious traditions of the world. A blanket rejection of the spiritual insights accumulated over the centuries of human experimentation in diverse contexts is cultural suicide. Indeed, many of the frameworks best able to interpret the Epic of Evolution are already present in the world’s spiritual traditions. Successful adaptation is built upon creative replication. We need ancient wisdom upon which to build this new world.