Exposing the Mythologies of Evolution

Jul 26th, 2012 | By | Category: Articles

by Chris Bateman

Is the conflict over evolution in the United States a straightforward case of “science” versus “religion” or is there more to this story that meets the eye? In my latest book, The Mythology of Evolution, I look deep into both the research and the cultural conflicts surrounding evolutionary theories and conclude that the usual way these issues are presented is deeply misleading. If we revalidate the science, we end up looking very differently at what evolution can mean.

There is a tendency to look back at previous civilisations and scoff at the strange things they believed, apparently without question. The word ‘myth’ has come to mean ‘false’ for many people – but this overlooks the complexity of mythologies. The mythic element of any culture, as folklorist and scholar Joseph Campbell was well aware, is part of its deep foundations, and as British philosopher Mary Midgley has shrewdly observed myths are still an intimate part of our world today. However, whereas for the ancient Greeks and Hindus their mythologies involved heroes battling monsters, today our mythologies more frequently concern science and technology. It is no coincidence that modern heroes – from 007 to the X-Men – are defined by gadgets, mutations and other quasi-scientific macguffins.

In The Mythology of Evolution, I extend Midgley’s work on contemporary myths by examining some of the key metaphorical stories that “spin” our understanding of evolution in certain ways. In most cases, there is a legitimate scientific basis for the myth – but once it is presented as a metaphor, it acquires additional baggage that can be deceptive. A classic example of this is “the selfish gene”, Richard Dawkins attempt to repackage George C. Williams’ critique of adaptation into what became the gene-centric view. This model is a valid scientific perspective – but it is misleadingly expressed in terms of selfish genes, which suggests psychological egoism (the view that we are all fundamentally selfish) is scientifically validated by genetic research. This turns out to be a mistake. The relationship between behaviour and genes is not clean cut, and does not support this kind of reductive view of motive. A better myth in this case would be that “advantages persist”, a view that can be found in Dawkins’ book Climbing Mount Improbable.

Another classic myth of evolution is intelligent design – and oddly, the questions surrounding this issue were dealt with two centuries ago by the Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant. What’s interesting about digging into the issues surrounding ID, however, is just how partisan this issue has become. Opponents of ID, allegedly waving the flag of “science”, sometimes tacitly end up touting a particular kind of theology – what can be called atheology. Ironically, this kind of half-baked theological critique (which Dawkins indulges in far too often) has the potential to violate the separation of Church and State even more savagely than intelligent design. When these issues are carefully analysed, it becomes clear that rather than a conflict between “science” and “religion”, what is revealed are conflicts within science and within religion – in the latter case, between nonreligious positivists (such as Dawkins) and people of faith. The idealised story is, once again, mythological rather than factual.

Ever since reading Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould in the 1990s, I’ve been intrigued by evolutionary studies – and particularly by the philosophical complexities of the subject. Writing The Mythology of Evolution was a fascinating journey for me – one that involved a great deal of research into the state of the subject, and which revealed a much less tidy picture than the ones that are usually offered. Talking about “the theory of evolution” – or even “Darwin’s theory of evolution” turns out to be misrepresent the facts. While evolutionary theories are an important part of contemporary biological sciences, there is not so much a single theory as a cluster of research areas descended from Darwin’s hugely influential image of ‘natural selection’. Metaphors such as these are absolutely crucial to scientific practice – which means that science, like art, is founded ultimately upon our powers of imagination. The facts are never quite as brute as some people like to suggest – we always have choices as to what stories we make from the research. When it comes to presenting evolutionary theories, we are desperately in need of a better mythology.

978-1-78099-649-3, paperback, $24.95, £14.99  - publishing September 2012

Also by Chris Bateman


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6 Comments to “Exposing the Mythologies of Evolution”

  1. Andrew says:

    Your critique of Dawkin’s book The Selfish Gene is completely off, and the only way you could come to the conclusion you have is if you only read the title. The Selfish Gene does NOT suggest “psychological egoism”. It is not saying that we are all selfish and that this is proved by research in genetics. In fact, much of the book does the opposite. For example, it explains why would be willing to sacrifice our lives for those closest to us (like a mother protecting her young), as they harbour so many of our own genes. The “selfishness” talked about has nothing to do with any kind of concious, self-aware or psychological narcissism. It is simply helping us switch from the view that evolution favours what is good for a particular organism, when in fact it favours what is good for a particular gene. In most cases what benefits the organism DOES benefit the gene, but this provides the explanation in cases where it does not.

    Your second point about ID is quite vague, and you haven’t actually presented any strong idea so it is hard to know where you got these conclusions from. Saying that people who are against ID have their own theology is absurd, and completely unsupported. It sounds like you are going down the whole “well, maybe ID is really a religion/faith, but so is evolution”. This view has been debunked time and time again.

    Evolution is a fact. We know it happened. The evidence is absolutely overwhelming. We don’t know every single piece of it, and we never will. We will never know any one human-being’s lineage EXACTLY; all the way from their parents right back to the first form of life. That’s impossible. And because of that there will always be differing opinions on exactly which course evolution took, and at what times certain changes happened and what caused them. But to imply that this makes evolution just some cluster of research without any strong foothold in reality is absurd.

    • People read into books what their mind decides
      Genes are mindless ,Richard Dawkins
      Admits that truth,
      They are not selfish ,just mechanisms
      Evolution,does not show there is no intelligence
      In our creation,just that ,we are designed by our environment,
      Intelligence occurred ,
      When it got a chance to,.that is quite plain .
      But it must be available to be chosen ,
      That is another truth ;
      It must be in our seed,
      What put it there, ?
      Where did it come from,
      What is its plan.
      Where is it taking us to.

    • Kamal says:

      Andrew’s reply to the author’s synopsis is spot on. Chris Batemen hasn’t read the Selfish Gene, and if he has, then he is intentionally misrepresenting it in order to support the bogus premise of his book. Dawkins’ views have been consistent throughout his career, namely that a process of natural selection of DNA has led over millions of generations to elaborate life forms all containing (surprisingly similar) variations of the genetic code. If a gene was not viable in a previous generation, then it would haved failed to make it into the current generation, which in turn is shaped by the genes that were.

      Dawkins often expresses regret for his choice regarding book’s title precisely because of this common misreading. In fact, Mr Bateman is taking a metaphor too literally, which is exactly what warns readers against in the synopsis. I’ve also never heard of the XMen and James Bond being used to argue against evolution. Seriously, I feel like I’m wasting my time writing this.

  2. larry riedinger says:

    I think you’ve hit this nail on the head! I’ve been a student of evolution since I was a kid in the mid-’50s and continued since I became an evangelical Christian at age 21.

    Typical of all political approaches to THIS IS THE TRUTH, YOU INFIDELS!! – both sides get more extreme and more mythic/ideological than the evidences claimed by each side warrant.

    Now, do please turn your hand to demonstrating the mythic aspects of Creationism!

    • James M. Martin says:

      The line, “since I became an evangelical Christian at age 21” says it all. You have accepted dogma of a most fundamentalist, extreme form. Science and religion are not compatible to the extent that one is supported by facts while the other is 100% bereft of them. The cosmos could not possible have been created in one fell swoop circa 6,000 BCE when science has shown the earth to be many millions and millions of years older. Evangelical Christians cannot hope to understand Darwinism and they should give up trying. This book is bogus.

  3. Agnostic Al says:

    ” Science and religion are not compatible to the extent that one is supported by facts while the other is 100% bereft of them”

    so says the atheist fundamentalist.

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