The science of evolution
The science of evolution

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The science of evolution

4 Logos and mythos

An interesting perspective on the distinction between religious belief and scientific understanding has been provided by Karen Armstrong, who relates them to two complementary modes of human thinking, both with ancient pedigrees and given the classical Greek names of 'logos' and 'mythos'. The former deals with the practical understanding of how nature works, and has long been used to advantage in, say, agriculture and technology. Although this mode of thinking, as exemplified by modern science, can satisfy our natural curiosity concerning objective matters, it cannot, as noted earlier, fully address our subjective concerns with ethical values, aesthetic judgements and any personal sense of identity and purpose in life, although it may inform our views on them.

Such irrational needs have, throughout history, been ministered to by the various forms of mythos. The point of mythos, Armstrong argues, is not literal explanation, which is what logos provides, but - through symbols, sagas and rituals - to inspire a sense of seeing beyond mundane matters, so to invest life with meaning and value. Hence to expect mythos to furnish informative answers to questions that are properly the domain of logos, such as the origins of life's diversity and adaptedness, and indeed of ourselves, is to confuse the psychological roles of the two modes of thought. Yet that is precisely the confusion to which creationists of various 'fundamentalist' denominations have succumbed, as an essentially modern - one might say paranoid - reaction to the ascendancy of science and retreat of religion over the last few centuries.

Figure 2
Istockphoto ©
Figure 2: The start of only the first of the biblical creation myths

The irony of the creationists' self-delusion is that, with a little more study of the very scriptural sources to which they appeal, they would soon discover something that has long been known to biblical scholars: inconsistencies in the texts themselves render insistence on literal interpretation logically untenable, without the need even for scientific refutation. Thus, for example, besides the two incompatible creation myths that follow one another in the Book of Genesis, there are further allusions in subsequent books to yet another contrasting myth involving an initial struggle between Yahweh and a primal sea monster, inherited from Babylonian mythology.

As an apt response to the quotation at the start of this course, then, we can leave the last words to Karen Armstrong:

Figure quo6
Armstrong, K. (2005) A Short History of Myth

Creationism is not really a significant challenge to evolution because the scientific evidence for evolution is overwhelming. A more interesting challenge for evolution as a science is whether it can tell us anything about the future.


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