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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group


Fifteen Myths That Explain Our World

Oren Harman

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



The great creator Viracocha rose from Lake Titicaca during the time of darkness to bring forth light. First he made the Sun, the Moon, and the stars. Then, breathing into the stones, he made the humans. But the humans were brainless giants, and soon they displeased him. So he ruined the world he had created with a flood, and made the humans once more from smaller stones. Eventually, walking on the waters, he disappeared across the Pacific Ocean and never returned again. But the Inca believed that he sometimes walked the Earth disguised as a beggar, teaching the people the secrets of civilization and weeping over the plight of mankind.

What does this mean? It depends who you ask. In the eyes of the philosopher, myths are allegories for philosophical truths; in the eyes of the historian, they are perversions of historical truths. To the psychologist myths reflect our deepest fears; to the moralist they provide a compass, and to the poet, inspiration. Myths are stories about a distant past or an imagined future, shadowing our existence like intimate, mysterious companions. They orient us in the universe and provide a kind of comfort. But myths also summon truths beyond our jurisdiction: about the nature of matter, and time, and the forces. About how we came to be, and why we can or cannot hope, and where we might be headed. However much we try to capture their meanings, we can only grasp at them fleetingly, like children lunging after butterflies.

Perhaps the literary critic Northrop Frye came closest to capturing their essence when he said that myths describe not what happened but what happens. Frye probably cribbed this from the pagan thinker Sallustius, the author of On the Gods and the Cosmos, who wrote of myths: “These things were never, and are always.” And Sallustius himself would have read Plato’s Phaedrus, where the Greek philosopher calls myths “plain tall tales” while confessing that unique fictions may express general truths. Whether myths are conveyed esoterically or symbolically, some believe that they begin with a kernel of fact about the cosmos and the relations within it. But do facts ever really exist outside of how we make them? Is there such a thing as “reality,” unambiguously presented to human consciousness and then described by language directly? Perhaps our concepts organize our world, before we perceive its so-called certainties. And perhaps these concepts are intimately tied to who we are.

And so, whether you are a philosopher, a moralist, a historian, a psychologist, or a poet, or just someone who loves to read myths, here is a useful way to think of things: myths are expressions of existential conundrums, creatures of our lonely, searching minds. And since our minds have always both imagined infinity and lived, uneasily, with the surety and sadness of death, throughout the ages the themes of myth have remained strikingly unchanging. Myths are humankind’s stories about what we all feel in our guts is fundamental to our humanity but know with our brains can never truly be plumbed. Motherhood, Freedom, Death and Immortality; Memory and Jealousy and Solitude and Sacrifice; Birth and Rebirth, Truth, Love, Hubris, Fate—these are the realms of our indispensable mythologies.

Mythological themes may be universal, but they did not always mean the same thing to different peoples. To the ancient Egyptians, and later to the Christians, resurrection meant redemption, originally related perhaps to fertility rites of the yearly cycle of vegetation. But to modern minds who devised villains from Dracula to Batman’s Joker, those who return often seek revenge and destruction. Despite the changing mores, the unannounced feeling that the themes of myths can never truly be penetrated is common to the ancient Greek, the medieval Mogul, the Bushman, the Algonquian, the Laplander, and you and me: Why are we here? How did we get here? What is the meaning of the hidden forces shaping our certain deaths and unpredictable lives?

As far as we know, rocks and trees and toads do not ponder such questions, and so, whatever our beliefs, we take myths as signs of our human distinctiveness. Certainly, they go back to our beginnings: most probably myths were not foreign to the hands that drew haunting images of animals in mountain caverns, such as the Chauvet Cave in southern France, tens of thousands of years ago. However we construe them, myths are not lies, nor are they pure inventions. Instead they are an odyssey, powerfully grounded in our collective human experience. Like life, which they set out to illuminate, they are both tangible and abstract, actual and imagined. But in the final reckoning, they do not provide definitive answers because the questions they raise have no definitive answers. Digging deeper than any other form of thought, myths represent humankind’s gloriously futile quest for existential understanding.

The matter of myth is therefore more profound than the material of morality, which in comparison seems parochial, a child and perfect captive of its age. Myth is more defining than the functional fabric of religion, which comes from the Latin ligare, meaning “to bind.” As for the objective kingdom of fact, it has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth—penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It seems Plutarch got it right, then, when he wrote that truth and myth have the same relationship as the sun to the rainbow, which dissipates light into iridescent variety. Myths have been spoken in different tongues throughout the ages, but their root and concerns remain universal.

As all peoples do and always have done, the ancient Greeks fashioned their myths in the idiom at their disposal. Even their greatest rebels could speak only in the tongue of their time. Take, for example, Empedocles.

Born in Acragas, Sicily, Empedocles lived sometime between 493 and 423 B.C., and was a magician, a minstrel, a politician, a doctor, a philosopher, a tragedian, a charlatan, a prophet, or perhaps all of the above. He was teacher to Gorgias, pupil of Parmenides, contemporary of Zeno, follower of Xenophanes, and, like Plato, a student of Pythagoras accused of logoklopia, or the stealing of ideas. Empedocles, it is said, allayed a young man’s murderous rage with a soothing melody on the lyre; wrote forty-three tragedies; checked a disease-carrying wind; and saved the women of the town from barrenness by blocking a cleft in the mountains. As if this were not enough, he also stopped a storm cloud from overwhelming the people of Acragas; revived a woman who had been for thirty days without sign of breathing or pulse; and cleared the acropolis of a plague caused by an evil stench from the river by digging channels from two neighboring rivers at his own expense. So wonderfully mystifying was this ancient sage of the Greek world that no one could agree on how it was he died: Demetrius of Troezen claimed he hanged himself. Favorinus wrote of a fall from a carriage and a broken thigh that never healed. Telauges had it that as an old man Empedocles had lost his balance on board ship and drowned. Heraclides Ponticus, and after him Horace and Ovid and Lucian, all great poets of the ancient world, provided the most dramatic death of all: Empedocles, according to them, dove headfirst into the gushing mouth of Mount Etna in order to confirm the report that he had become a god.

God or mortal, wondrous physician or quack, one thing about Empedocles is certain. It is he to whom we owe the four eternal elements that were to order man’s understanding of nature for over two thousand years following his mysterious disappearance. “Hear, first, the four roots of all things,” he proclaimed in his Physics: “shining Zeus, life-giving Hera, Aidoneus, and Nestis, who with her tears supplies mortal springs with water.” Aghast at the untruths of the Hesiodic storytellers of his time, Empedocles desperately sought firmer ground upon which to build man’s worldly knowledge. A logos was a demonstrable proposition, not a mythos or a lie. It was certainty he was after, not a filigree of fancy, nor the extraordinary, nor the unimaginable imagined. Who were Zeus, Nestis, Aidoneus, and Hera? They were Fire, Water, Earth, and the boundless height of Air. And everything the eye could see was made of them.

But why fashion the elements as gods? Why disguise the logoi as mythoi if it was the awakening from juvenile stupor that Empedocles sought above all else? A crusader and a contrarian, Empedocles wasn’t trying to rescue history from pure invention. Here was a challenge aimed at the very core of ancient belief: mythical figures are mere code names for the unexplained powers of nature. Zeus, Hera, Aidoneus, and Nestis aren’t the fire, air, earth, and water perceptible to the senses, literally. They are abstract powers signifying the indestructible and eternal nature of the elements we call reality. Your gods are creations! Empedocles shouted, just before hanging himself, or falling out of the carriage, or into the ocean, or jumping headfirst, in a fit of drunken hubris, into the roaring, blazing mouth of Mount Etna, disappearing forever to the world.

This was his legacy. But then came the moderns.

If the gods were mythological inventions that allowed the Greeks to plunge into greater depths of understanding, modern humans could do better, or so they thought. Ancient skeptics needed their deities, but modern skeptics could do away with God entirely. Myths were suddenly rendered superfluous, a new concreteness having come to the world of the steam engine, the train, the telegraph, and the electric light. Science, modernity’s Promethean incarnation, was rapidly wresting the secrets from the heavens.

History would chronicle the great achievements. An English magus single-handedly fashioned a new cosmos made of Matter, Force, Gravity, Acceleration. After Newton, the Russian chemist Mendeleev ordered the elements, un-allegorically: Bromine, Calcium, Hydrogen, Zinc. Mendel, a Moravian monk with a passion for peas, discovered the laws of heredity linking generation to generation. Independently, squabbling, Pasteur and Koch disciplined disease. Darwin, the bearded man from Down House, fitted all life-forms on a tree of descent with modification. And Rutherford, a hefty New Zealander with a quarter smile permanently fixed on his face, split the indivisible atom—a feat Democritus and his friends had thought impossible. Inexorably, science was disrobing the mythic world of its wonder. Empedocles may have needed his gods to do away with them, but modern man suffered no such affliction. Finally, he could read Nature’s book unalloyed.

Since the dawn of Rutherford’s and Mendel’s century, science has proven a muscular method for getting to know the world and ourselves. It has become the magisterial language of our age, our chosen idiom. Beyond physics and chemistry, biology—the most lawless of all sciences—has fashioned itself the Ur-language of the times, bringing us closer than we ever were to understanding the very natures of those who once drew on cave walls and produced our first mythologies. The artists of Chauvet depicted galloping bison and menacing leopards, and the ancient Greeks a tempestuous Hera and a cunning Zeus, but we now invoke genes and natural selection to explain fear and desire, jealousy and hope. Instead of weeping with Virgil’s Dido as Aeneas’s ship pulls away from the Carthaginian bay, we pretend to capture something important by speaking of emotion with words such as “acetylcholine” and “serotonin,” “dopamine” and “oxytocin,” and we treat ourselves with drugs that help modulate our behaviors. The titles of our books tell the story: The Biology of Trust, The Evolution of Morality, The Anatomy of Violence, The Science of a Meaningful Life. The logic of natural selection and the intricacies of genetics and development have become our modern-day tongue for discussing motherhood and memory, the origin of morals, and the meaning of death.

We have come a long way. Since the age of Francis Bacon a techno-scientific revolution has transformed our world—how we eat, and travel, and make war and love. Predictions based on esoteric abstract mathematics have been validated and sold for billions. Huge industries have risen, providing energy for the masses and protection for our bodies and ideas. Even our greatest enigmas seem primed to be unraveled. Many scientists today celebrate the telling connections between particular areas of the brain and states of human consciousness. Observing such insults as anoxia and anesthesia, uncovering the molecules involved in depression and elation, few doubt that consciousness emerges from specific mechanisms rooted in particular brain locations and consistent with the principles of biology. Consciousness is a hard problem, but despite centuries of befuddlement we don’t view it as untouchable. The future will uncover more about how the brain creates the mind. We are the makers of our brave new world.

And yet the “how” of consciousness is one thing and the “what” another. Even if we could divine the modern alchemy, the precise ratio of oxytocin and acetylcholine, dopamine and serotonin, necessary to bring about happiness in all humans under all conditions—a rather incredible assumption—knowing its chemical trigger can tell us little about what happiness means. We may uncover neural correlates for our emotions, but we remain ignorant of what they are at the level of experience. The brain creates the feeling of self, of this we’re confident. But what is the essence of this “I”? No one can say.

Perhaps that should not surprise us. Science pretends to be a replacement for mythology, but in reality it is driven by the same hunger for understanding that brought us the gods and the afterlife, souls and creation myths, and it too is shaped by tales. Science is a form of competitive storytelling: it gives names to things, and produces narratives based on a method that has undergone impressive refinement. In this sense it is very special indeed. But even great stories are still stories—even stories that help fly airplanes and rid us of disease. In a scientific age, we should expect a mystery like consciousness to be couched in the language of physical processes. Ever since the seventeenth century, importing metaphors from different fields, we have fashioned the brain as a system of hydraulics, an intricate clock, a telegraph switchboard, a neural network, a quantum computer; we have spoken of levers being pulled and signals being processed and the emergence of nonlinear dynamics. We spin the best tales we can conjure, and our tales, just like our cultures, change with the times.

Our theories are expressions not only of the world around us but also of the different ways in which we wish to see ourselves in our world—the two are constitutive of each other and ultimately inseparable. Just as the coal sketches were to Cro-Magnon, and the Olympians were to the Greeks, the sciences serve as both our guide and our reflection. We might not think of ourselves as part of a continuum, but every age without exception frames its profound existential puzzles in the terms of its greatest achievement. We are the children of Empedocles, after all.

* * *

Despite science’s willful break with mythology, and notwithstanding its marvelous achievements, let’s be brave enough to ask ourselves: Are we any better off than the Greeks were when it comes to wrapping our minds and our hearts around our existential puzzles? Has the knowledge of the inflating universe gotten us closer to understanding Fate? Has the correlation between oxytocin levels in the blood and “prosociality” unmasked the essence of Motherhood? Have the shadows of Jealousy or Love or Sacrifice been further illuminated by the understanding that emotions must have conferred an advantage in evolution? Even if science will one day be able to read our thoughts by mapping interactions between the nerve cells in our brain, will we be able to say—and believe—that we have gained a deeper understanding of experience?

Science today is our safest path to knowledge, and wedded to technology it continues to amaze. Just ask anyone who has ever surfed the Web on a transatlantic flight, or popped Ritalin before an interview, or glimpsed an unborn baby through an ultrasound, or sat under an LED with a genetically modified apple to read a book at night. Science is our best path to providing answers to the type of questions that have solutions. There, incontrovertibly, it has no peers.

And yet, too frequently control is confused with understanding, by scientists and the rest of us. Too often what is natural is taken for what is right, complexity simplified into grotesque caricature, and modesty thrown to the side. Most disconcerting is something fundamental: we champion atheist horsemen, making heroes of those who tell us that the only mysteries worth revealing will succumb one day to our inquiries. This is a grave misjudgment. For there are many worthy mysteries that are not on a path to resolution. Science gives us knowledge but will not alone deliver wisdom. If we fail to define its promise, and what lies beyond its reach, our guide and reflection is in danger of becoming a hollow pledge.

Ultimately, we can do no better than to disguise our search for meaning in the language of our time, just as Empedocles did before us. Just like the cavemen and the ancient Greeks and the medieval Moguls, the Bushmen and Algonquians and Laplanders, we continue our odyssey in the human-experienced world of unlimited imagination and undeniable demise. All cultures have always known that there are places so deep not even knowledge can penetrate. “Natural science will never discover for us the inside of things … that which is not appearances,” Immanuel Kant proclaimed in the age of Joseph Priestley and William Herschel and Edmund Halley. “Even if all possible scientific questions be answered,” Ludwig Wittgenstein professed in his Tractatus, a century and a half later, “the problems of life have still not been touched at all. But of course there is then no question left, and just this is the answer.” Both men knew what the great mythographers have always intuited: unlike in science, knowledge is not a relevant commodity in the unforgiving realm of myth.

The ancients recognized: the truths of myths are beyond our authority. They are even beyond what we can know. Yet science pretends to achieve control through knowledge, to replace submission to providence with the mastery of manipulation. It promises complete understanding, and in too many hands, complete deliverance. Synthetic biology, drug design, eco-engineering, artificial intelligence: all will come to the rescue of humanity. And when all the gaps in our knowledge are closed, and all possible meaningful queries answered, the good will surely follow.

The pledge is enticing, but it leaves many spirits wanting. Ending world hunger and achieving longer life spans are goals to be championed with all our might, but, along with “perfect” babies, they should not be confused with happiness. Intergalactic travel may be coming, but it will not reveal to us the meaning of fate, nor will a cure for cancer, however wonderful, bring existential deliverance. For good reason, looking around our world of iPhones and antibiotics, people wonder: Is this really all there is?

Perhaps that is why many of us continue, despite modernity, to dress our existential puzzles up just like Empedocles did, but with one important twist. We may not always rediscover Thor and Apollo, but we intuit that oxytocin and serotonin won’t be able to fill their sandals. We somehow know that there are questions left untouched by science, and that these questions matter, even matter most. And so we fabricate upgraded versions of the old heroes: Spider-Man and Batman, Wonder Woman and Mr. Incredible. We invent imaginary places, like the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros and the Matrix and Narnia, and return, perennially, to Harry Potter and Star Wars. Searching for unknowable meaning, we find our way to poetry and literature, to music and art and the body, to nature and God and philosophy—anywhere but science. For science promises to cast aside mythology.

But does it have to, really?

* * *

In the myths that follow, the eternal contemplation on the wonders of life will be retold and reinvented in the language of our times. Here astronomy, physics, geochemistry, and biology will be our chosen idioms. Evolutionary theory in particular uses the latest knowledge from genetics, development, chemistry, neuroscience, geology, paleontology, and linguistics to crack the mystery of life’s beginnings and the sweeping saga of its unfolding. It hopes to uncover how life started, when the first cell was born, and why cells came together to form bodies in the first place. It offers theories about the great transformations of life on earth: the origins of photosynthesis and sex and vision and flight and language and consciousness. It tells us how we got here and how we came to be.

Too often science is presented as definitive, and its lessons from history forgotten. For centuries the Ptolemaic astronomers assumed the existence of heavenly epicycles, and the Neoplatonists bowed to a Great Chain of Being. Aristotle was certain that women had fewer teeth and colder blood than men, Galen that the heart stoked our bodies, and Descartes that “I think, therefore I am.” We may no longer believe these stories, nor speak of phlogiston, pangenesis, or the ether. But we should make a point of reminding ourselves that what we call “true” today will likely be “false” tomorrow; that the fate of some of the choicest theories of our greatest minds will be no different from those discarded theories of Aristotle, Galen, and Descartes. Despite our trust in the enterprise, science is not a march toward truth in some absolute sense, but rather a way to erase the “truths” of yesterday as we recast our present knowledge. Astronomical and evolutionary theories, in particular, deal with the deep past, and we must concede that many of them are highly speculative. The astronomer Edwin Hubble reminded his day that “the scientist explains the world by successive approximations,” and he was right. But the nineteenth-century utopian writer and evolutionist Samuel Butler may have come closer to the heart of things when he cautioned, “Science, after all, is only an expression of our ignorance of our own ignorance.”

And yet, as speculative and approximate as our theories are on the origin of matter, the galaxies, and human feelings and consciousness, they remain our best guesses for how things unfolded in our universe. Scientific theories represent the most honest attempt of our age to explain our greatest mysteries. In this sense they are no different from the gods of Olympus, though they sometimes trick us into believing that we have control over what lies beyond our reach. Empedocles may have been a skeptic, but many Greeks believed their myths just as many of us believe our science. And just as the Olympians were for the Greeks, so too will the forces and elements and molecules and organisms in the myths that follow be our prisms for filtering existential conundrums.

There are scientists and writers who tell it like it is, faithfully juxtaposing what we know against what remains beyond our grasp, but Evolutions will take a different path. Here, what we think we know will serve to highlight the limits of our understanding—the latest cutting-edge knowledge marshaled, against the tide, to celebrate the perennial mystery of what resides within. Science has neglected mythology by pretending to render it superfluous. But this robs our modern-day language of an important duty, one that all languages of all times have faithfully carried out. For alongside answering questions that do have answers, science can also, surprisingly, help us live more comfortably with the uncertainty of wonder, reminding us that outside the realm of knowledge the highest we can reach is for penultimate truths. This, then, will be the mandate of Evolutions: through storytelling, to reclaim an age-old task for our flamboyant modern tongue.

And so here we encounter the big bang and the multiverse, and through them take a newfound look at Fate. We watch the young moon being flung by a giant meteor off the earth, and contemplate the meaning of Motherhood. The promiscuous shuffling of genes between our most ancient ancestors becomes a challenge to our modern notions of Love; the first act of symbiosis exposes the Janus faces of Freedom; the birth of the eye on a trilobite introduces the world to Jealousy; the Memory of an octopus uncovers the paradox of consciousness; the birth of language narrates our struggle with Truth. Throughout the stories, a decisive development in the history of life and the universe will be linked to an existential theme, inviting the reader to consider that theme under the beam of a new light. In the final chapter, I return full circle to the question of who we are and why we need our myths in the first place.

* * *

A brief word on narrative: Despite attempts to avoid doing so, scientists routinely imbue their subjects with agency, be they molecules, organisms, or even physical forces. Together with their equally common use of metaphor and allegory, this represents a limitation of language, a genuine philosophical paradox, and a source of creativity. Scientists speak of energy, simultaneity, bonding, and altruism. They describe electrons “jumping,” stars “shooting,” flowers “opening up,” pigeons “cooing,” and monkeys falling in love. All such concepts have a meaning in our own lives. It is difficult, and perhaps impossible, to rid scientific definitions of the human nuances that are contained in them. Science is a language more mythic than we care to admit.

Many of the myths in Evolutions will be told in the voice of an all-knowing narrator, serving as a proxy for science, trying and sometimes failing to speak properly disinterested, non-teleological “scientese.” Others will be told in the voice of a skeptic, drawing back from the promises of science and questioning their truth. And in keeping with the attempt to loyally reflect the enterprise, sometimes the evolutionary and cosmological figures themselves will narrate the story, using science, alongside their feelings, as both their guide and reflection. The earth will thus present a cosmologically inflected view of Motherhood; an amoeba will help us look at Pride in an unfamiliar way; a trilobite will mourn Jealousy to another; an ungulate-turned-whale will expound on the meaning of Sacrifice; and the loneliness of consciousness will emerge from the Memory of an octopus. Love, too, will be given its due by early microorganisms: we think of it as an emotion, but perhaps there are different ways to define it, with evolution as our guide.

At the end of the book, a section called “Illuminations” will invite readers to engage the evidence directly by delving more deeply into the scientific literature. The sources cited will include recommendations of popular accounts as well as classical ones; technical papers alongside textbooks, websites, and films; literary and historical allusions, often idiosyncratic. Each relevant illumination can be read directly after reading each myth, or consulted en bloc after you’ve read them all—it’s your choice; “Illuminations” as a whole is meant to provide context and explanation, clarifying the scientific ideas as well as the relevant weight of controversial knowledge. Like all languages in the past that were used for writing mythology, many of the current scientific theories are provisional, some even highly contested. It was said of Newton that he died as he was born: a virgin. But it is also true that every scientific theory is born refuted, if history is any kind of counselor.

* * *

Saul Bellow once said that science has been a housecleaning of belief. Whether or not he is right, science doesn’t have to be a housecleaning of mythology. Some things, after all, are forever deeper than anything we can know. These stories are a resounding celebration of science, but they are also a corrective to its immodesty. “The roaring of lions,” William Blake wrote, “the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword, are portions of eternity too great for the eye of man.” We remember this when we glance at the paintings at Chauvet, or read about Zeus and Apollo—even when we settle into our comfortable theater chairs to watch Star Wars or Harry Potter. But we forget it when we put our trust blindly in science, or else reject it entirely.

Here we walk the middle road, led by new kinds of heroes: Gravity and Angular Momentum, the Sun and Earth and Moon, Oxygen and Mitochondria, Bacteria and Ribozymes, slime molds, trilobites, early whales, pterosaurs, octopuses, and Homo erectus, all the way to humans.

On one plane the tales will carry us through the unfolding history of the universe and life on Planet Earth, on the other through the perennial themes of human mythology. Philosophers may recognize allegories for philosophical truths, psychologists our fears and desires, moralists our compass, and future historians—who knows?—perhaps telling perversions of how we once saw ourselves in our world. But I hope that all readers, insofar as you are still fully human, will recognize an age-old journey, an ancient and meaningful quest.

“These things were never, and are always.”

Copyright © 2018 by Oren Harman