Myth into Science or Science into Myth

eglaser's picture

Many individuals have attempted to define humanity in one form or another, we were the toolmakers, the intelligent ones, we are bipeds and philosophers but most of all, we are storytellers. We have and always will define our world and ourselves in terms of stories. As we have evolved and changed over time and space so too have the stories we tell. Two different ways of describing the world have arisen as the primary forms of narration, the imaginative, or mythic, fashion and the abstract, scientific method. These two main types of stories are closely connected and are considered to have evolved one from the other. This paper will examine the evolution of these two types of stories in an attempt to determine which kind arose from which and how the evolution of stories has occurred in the past and will continue to occur.

Most will agree that science and myth are intertwined but they are still very different types of stories. Both have served an important function in the development of the modern world but they have done so in different ways.  “Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings and values” (Gould, 4). As this quote indicates, and as many believe, science is often credited as being the primary vehicle with which we analyze and recreate the natural world and its rules. Religion, is more often used to provide allegorical meaning or ethics on a cultural and personal level. Thus the modern view is that science is the primary mode for creating lasting theories about the physical world and its living things but religion is how we interact with that world. As Dennett would explain it, science is like a crane; “Cranes can do the lifting work our imaginary skyhooks might do, and they do it in an honest, non-question-begging fashion…They have to be designed and built, from everyday parts already on hand, and they have to be located on a firm base of existing ground” (Dennett, 75). Science stories must be well supported, presented with copious amounts of empirical evidence that fit the observations. Skyhooks, on the other hand, “Skyhooks are miraculous lifters, unsupported and unsupportable. Cranes are no less excellent lifters, and they have the decided advantage of being real”(Dennett, 75). Skyhooks, or imaginative stories, exist in a different world, in the esoteric world of human principles, beliefs and dreams.

So science and myth serve different purposes, how did this affect us in the past? How did their functions coexist with human development? I have found that a useful quote to aid in this discussion is Archimedes famous declaration, “Give me a place to stand and a lever long enough and I will move the world.” Mythic stories are our foundation; they are the ‘place to stand’. The first myths created a ground with which we built up our first cultures. As our culture has changed the myths we use to support our culture change as well. Myths provide a way for our cultures to develop and advance. Or, as Dennett would have put it,” Another things religions have accomplished, without this being thereby their raison d’être, is that they have kept homo sapiens civilized enough, for long enough, for us to have learned how to reflect more systematically and accurately on our positioning the universe”(Dennett, 518). In this instance, science is a natural outgrowth of the mythic story. Once we have our solid ground to stand on (our culture) scientific stories emerge to explain how the mundane, non-mythic, world functions and paves the way for technological advancements. Science is the tool with which we then proceed to use to move the world. Thus science and myths work in tandem, providing new steps for each other to evolve along. A new cultural innovation will allow for a new scientific insight and vice versus.

If that line of thinking is correct then mythic stories would have arisen first and science evolved out of that way of thinking. But, is that completely accurate? There are two different opinions on this topic. One is that myth did arrive first as a “…‘primitive’ science – or, more precisely, the pre-scientific counterpart to science” (Segal, 13). In this instance, science is a naturally evolve form of the myth, taking the observations and accounts of myths and exposing them to a criticism that did not previously exist. The other opinion is that science and myth (at least at the beginning) are the same thing. “If by science be understood a body of rules and conceptions, based on experience and derived from it by logical inference, embodied in material achievements and in a fixed form of tradition and carried on by some sort of social organization – then there is no doubt that even the lowest savage communities have the beginnings of science, however rudimentary” (Malinowski, 1). According the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, all cultures, no matter how advanced, have the capacity for both science and myth. If the early stories were a combination of both then that means that the evolution of stories proceeded very differently. Rather then evolving, one from the other, both types of stories would develop alongside one another from this early common ancestor.

Either form of evolution is equally probable, is science the ‘higher form’ of myth, as Dennett believes, or are myth and science equally well evolved forms, arisen from the same primordial ooze, as Malinowski believes? For a start, both myth and science exist in the modern world. True, science has achieved a higher status as the explanatory form but “In the twentieth century the trend has been to reconcile myth as well as religion with science, so that moderns can retain myth as well as religion” (Segal, 17). If myth and religion were simply early forms of scientific thought that science stories evolved from shouldn’t they have died out according to Darwin’s principles of evolution? It has been the opposite really, science and mythic/ religious stories have both remained equally important in society but their roles have both changed. Although myth and science first arose as a method for explaining natural phenomenon, myth has become solely accountable for ethics and human behavior, where science has become the method of viewing the world. This points to a joint evolution from one form. Both tell similar stories with similar goals, explaining natural phenomenon, but now their motives serve two different functions in society. One gives us a firm cultural foundation and the other a tool for analyzing and changing the world. Thus it would seem that science is not a higher, evolved form of mythic stories but is a related co adaptor that evolved alongside them.  

In this case it is a shame, what Dennett said about the relationship between skyhooks and cranes, that Skyhooks are “miraculous”, “unsupported” and not real (Dennett, 75). According to the principles of Darwin that he loves so much cranes and skyhooks both serve important functions in our society and should both be given their due. Science and myth evolved together, and thus are still hopelessly intertwined despite what Gould and others think. They may serve different functions today, but they didn’t in the past, and they may not in the future. In order to continue evolving as a culture, as a species, we must maintain both our mythic stories and our science stories. “Because a lot of science is really about this non-existent world of thought experiments, our understanding of science must concern itself with worlds of the imagination as well as worlds of reality. Imagination, rather than mere intelligence, is the truly human quality” (Cohen, 12). Remember, we are the storytelling species, no other form of life on this planet writes dissertations or sees bulls and heroes in the stars. As long as we continue to gaze in wonder on the beauty of this universe we will write stories. And, as long as we continue to be a dynamic, evolving species, our stories will evolve with us.

Works Cited
Cohen, Jack, Ian Stewart, and Terry Pratchett. The Science of Discworld. London: Ebury
P, 2002.

Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin's Dangerous Idea Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New
York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Gould, Stephen Jay. Rocks of ages science and religion in the fullness of life. New York:
Ballantine Pub. Group, 1999.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. Magic, Science and Religion. New York, 1954.

Segal, Robert A. Myth A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions). New York:
Oxford UP, USA, 2004.


Anne Dalke's picture

not non-over-lapping?

You’re continuing here the exploration you began in your last paper, about the similarities and differences between science and religion, with a focus, this time ‘round, on the historical relationship between the two sorts of stories. In the first paper, you argued that science fills a religious role in our culture. But in this paper, I got confused. I couldn’t tell whether you were saying (as you seemed to be saying, sometimes) that science and religion are identical (“science and myth are the same thing”; “science must concern itself with worlds of the imagination”) or whether you see them (as you seem to say elsewhere) as different, but fulfilling compatible functions (“all cultures have the capacity for both science and myth”; “we must maintain both our mythic stories and our science stories”).

It’s probably significant that the main support you use for the argument that science evolved out of religion is the very-well known developmental biologist Stephen Jay Gould, and that your support for the coterminous account is the anthropologist Bronislaw Manislowski. Scientists and social scientists (not to mention humanists, cough!) tell different stories about the evolution of their fields, stories that—understandably enough--reflect (and valorize) their own investments.

I’m also curious to know a little more about how you see science ‘helping myth evolve.’ An example…? But my more important question for you would be what difference it makes—either for your understanding of the world, or for our shared project of understanding evolution in this course, whether you advocate a co-evolving or a more sequential historical relation between what Gould (again, but I think you do not?) calls two “non-over-lapping magisteria.”

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