Category Archives: myth

Science v. Myth

It’s a sacred time of year for a tiny segment of the world’s population, as Jews celebrate the birth of the new year, atone for our sins, and celebrate ancient harvest rituals. Maybe that’s why I recently entered into an uncharacteristically controversial debate about the length of human history.

My initial top-of-the-head comment in the discussion, that we know the age of humankind through fossil records, betrayed my lack of experience thinking or talking much about this subject. No, we don’t know about human history through fossils; we know it through carbon dating of skeletons and material culture, the vessels, tools, etc. that early humans left behind. And that record tells scientists that human history began somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-13,000 years ago, after a much, much longer time evolving into what we now consider humankind.

My interlocutor, who is extremely intelligent and well-read, begged to differ. Quoting scripture and questioning—with all the exceptional critical thinking skills I try to inculcate in my students—the hegemony of science, he countered that carbon dating is a theory, as is evolution. And that it makes just as much sense to believe the oral tradition, more recently recorded as the Old Testament, that humankind was created approximately 6,000 years ago.

This placed me in an awkward position, even for a devil’s advocate. I regularly challenge the assumption that since scientific knowledge is our “best guess,” we should place all our apples in that particular conceptual basket. Having experienced and seen astonishing results from alternative medicine, for example, I am considerably more skeptical of the scientific pronouncements of the Westernized allopathic medical community than are most people I know. Yet I still went to get that MRI when my shoulder wouldn’t heal, just to find out what was wrong. The acupuncturist didn’t need to know to treat it, but I have been conditioned to require the imprimatur of the scientific community.

But I digress. Back to the history of humankind. My friend said, “There are flood stories all over the world, throughout human history. Doesn’t that tell you that the Bible is true?”

“Look,” I replied, “what that tells me is that there are flood stories all over the world, throughout human history. Period. Floods represent a cleansing, a transformation, a destruction and rebirth. That doesn’t prove that the situations are true. And even if they are, even if there was a great flood, the point is, why was the story repeated over and over in the sacred texts? Because it meant something larger than itself.”

There are two major understandings of why similar stories, characters and situations (tale types and motifs) exist throughout the world. One, the historical-geographical theory of the Finnish school, suggests that traders, travelers and conquerors spread the stories along with germs, traditions and everything else. The other, the collective unconscious theory of Jung and Campbell, argues that these archetypes, these patterns, are in our DNA, that the ability to respond to and create these forms is an important characteristic of the human brain.

In other words, the stories don’t have to have documentable, verifiable proof to be meaningful and important. These universal truths connect people both vertically (through time) and horizontally (across space). But do the numbers matter? Does it matter exactly how old Sarah or Abraham were when they had Isaac, or is it more important that they waited for him a long, long time and thus his birth was that much sweeter, and his impending sacrifice that much more bitter?

This discussion puts me in mind of a psychic I once visited who told me the date when my novel would be published. The 21st or 22nd of that month, we decided, I would get the happy call from my agent. On the 21st, I am embarrassed to say, I wore my favorite outfit to work and jumped every time the phone rang. I jumped a little less on the 22nd. For several months I still noticed when it was the 21st or the 22nd. Then, gradually, I realized that the novel was most likely not going to sell.

The thing is, it didn’t, but my career took off regardless. The truth of her “story”—that I would be successful at my chosen profession—was, after all, what mattered. Not when or exactly how. And that, I suggest, is the truth of our most sacred stories. Not the dates, but the values and the deep understandings of the human capacity for good, evil, stupidity, intelligence, greed, generosity and faith.

Even Joseph Campbell, the great American scholar of myth, said that the fact that all religions had similar myths didn’t challenge his devout Catholicism. It meant, he said, that they were all true in a much more important sense that if they had really happened.

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