A common assumption, rarely questioned, is that myth and science are oppositional concepts.
On the one hand you have fanciful fairy stories, fabricated from whole cloth for dubious purposes (control, comfort, or perhaps just entertainment), and on the other hand you have cold objective “truth”.
It’s probably fair to say that this the official opinion of orthodox Western culture in 2019, and it’s an opinion which, we tell ourselves, is insturmental in furnishing a greater understanding of the world and our place within it.
And maybe that’s accurate. However there is another seldom explored distinction between myth and science which, if understood correctly, could actually position the two concepts as “partners”, rather than “opponents” — and in doing so could dramatically expand our wisdom beyond the bounds of the science-centred paradigm.
This distinction, rather than seeing science and myth as fact and fiction, instead sees them simply as two different “languages” used to elucidate truth. One is materialist, reductive, and static — all of which are useful attributes in certain circumstances — whilst the other is more generalist, dynamic, and conceptual. In both cases however they are methods of describing reality, with neither one having any more claim over it than the other.
Viewed this way, myths can be seen as almost as equivalent to modern scientific “thought experiments”. When Einstein explained relativity using his example of a train being struck by lightning at two points, nobody dismissed his theory with the critique that this train never existed. They recognised that he was creating a “myth” to demonstrate truth. Well, that is precisely the process that thousands of myth makers throughout human history have gone through — most of them at a time when they had no alternative language with which to communicate.
To demonstrate this idea with a specific example, I want to look briefly at the story of Adam and Eve, and the Fall of Man.
According to the theory, this story should communicate a hard scientific “fact” — perhaps even communicating it better than we could with scientific language. And on examination we can see that it does precisely that, if we read it as a description of the clash between evolution and the emergence of consciousness.
We know, loosely, that consciousness emerged around 100,000 years ago; consciousness being defined as man’s “self awareness”, his abilitly to imagine the future, and to improvise. Beyond this we know little else — in fact we understand no more of any consequence than those who wrote the creation story thousands of years later. All that matters was that there was a time pre-consciousness, where we were animals just like any other, and then there was a time post-conscoiusness, where we had this unique quality which fundamentally changed the game.
The story of Adam and Eve, quite clearly and insightfully, describes this transition from pre-consciousness to post-consciousness man.
Naturally their life in the Garden of Eden represented their pre-consciousness state, where they lived in harmony with the law of God, which for our purposes here we can translate as living according to their “evolutionarily defined nature” — just like any other animal. This animal status was of course represented by their unselfconscious nakedness.
Then, they ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The dubious “gifts” of this tree have clear parallels with the gifts of consciousness. At its most basic level it gave them “knowlege” — i.e. a creative power which hitherto had been the exclusive preserve of God. Unlike other animals, from this point they were free to veer away from their evolutionarily defined template and improvise with their ways of living, making their own rules, and no longer following the template set for them without question. Moving up a notch, the fact that the knowledge was specifically knowledge of “good and evil” implies the invention of morality — something which doesn’t exist in a purely natural context. Finally the fact that they immediately saw that they were naked, and felt shame, perfectly reflects the self-awarness which is inherent to consciousness.
We can see then, on a simplistic level, how the story pretty accurately describes a real historical and scientific phenomenon — and in fact arguably describes it rather more insightfully than we are able to using purely scientific language.
But there’s more. The benefit of myth — its continued utility even in this age of science — is its ability to explain things dynamically, and non-reductively. In other words it doesn’t only explain what happened, but the general consequences of what happened. In this regard the creation myth really comes into its own.
The emergence of consciousness, far from being a triumph, is painted by the Bible as being a tragic failure. This, after all, is not seen as the rise of man, but the fall of man. How does that analysis stand up, evolutionarily speaking?
Well, if we consider the characteristics of an evolutionarily shaped system, each component of it necessarily behaves in a set, predictable way which synchronises with the system around it. In other words, we might say that each organism, or each species, has a “job” to do. For example a bee’s job is to collect honey, a wolf’s job is to hunt in a pack, a salmon’s job is to swim upstream — all because this is how they are adapted to the wider system. There is no choice in the matter, only adherence to one’s evolutionarily defined “nature”.
Consciousness however, does inject choice. Man, just like any other animal, has a “nature” to which he is adapted. However consciousness enables him to choose whether he will behave in accordance with nature, or mix things up a bit because he thinks he has a better idea. For example naturally he is diurnal, and so is awake during the day and sleeps at night. However with the gift of consciousness, he can decide not to do this, and sleep all day and be awake at night. No non-conscious animal could ever do this, as it would never even occur to them; such freedom is the exclusive preserve of man.
The problem with this ability, however, is that if something veers away from its evolutionary template it creates a new set of conditions to which neither it or the system are evolutionarily adapted. This then provokes unpredictable consequences, which will be harmful for both the thing and the system around it. As an analogy, imagine your liver. It is a discrete entity in its own right, but it exists within a system (your body) where it has a specific job to do. Imagine if one day the liver “decided”, unilaterally, to start behaving in a different way. What would the consequence be? Harm for both the liver and the body. Harm for the body, because its system relies on the liver doing its job, and harm for the liver because 1) it’s behaving in a manner to which it isn’t optimally adapted, and 2) because it’s harming the system around it on which it ultimately relies.
Consequently consciousness essentially dooms man to repeatedly making hubristic decisions which clash with the evolutionary conditions which preceded them, harming him and the world around him. Therefore its emergence could accurately be described as a “fall”, and its continued presence could also be described as “original sin”. It appears superficially to be a triumph, but due to its “breaking of evolutionary rules” is actually supremely harmful.
With stunning insight (or incredible conincidence) the Biblical story actually gives a specific example of this.
When God casts them out, he condemns Eve to forever more give birth in pain. What is meant by this? Well, consider that in the (non-conscoius) animal kingdom, birth is not a particularly painful or gruelling affair. Certainly not by human standards. So the implication is that consciousness has somehow led to painful births. This idea actually has a deep scientific underpinning. One of the primary consequences of consciousness was the innovation of agriculture, and man’s transition from being a nomadic hunter-gatherer species, to a static farming one. This non-evolutionary change unleashed a wave of unanticipated consequences, one of which has been found to be a narrowing of the hips in comparison to the few humans left who still lead non-agricultural lifestyles. It has even been observed that in these primitive communities, women given birth so effortlessly and peacefully that they don’t wake their sleeping husbands lying by their side. Such a hubristic innovation, followed by an unanticipated harmful consequence (due to the corrupting of the evolutionary balance) is a perfect example of the process in action.
To say that the Biblical statement is a reference to this specific agricultural development is, of course, conjecture. But it’s fair to say that it is, at least, a fairly dramatic coincidence.
In conclusion then, we can see that in the simple story of Adam and Eve, a huge amount of scientific sophistication is buried:
- It describes quite insightfully the condition of consciousness; what it was like before it, and what it was like after
- It displays a sophisticated understanding of the clash between consciousness and evolutionarily defined systems
- And it explains, even up to the point of concrete examples, why consciousness may indeed be a poisoned apple — apparently juicy and tempting, but bearing dark consequences
Although not all myths will have this level of depth to them, I hope this demonstrates their continued utility and wisdom even in this age of scientific sophistication. Imagine what other insights are buried in stories which we’ve decided to dismiss as fairytales. In some cases they will contain prototype explanations for things which we’ve now formalised into fact, which is in and of itself quite interesting. But in other cases they may hide realities which we have yet to grasp by other means; truths which are only accessible if we relearn the language in which they are told.