Evolution, Creationism, and Other Modern Myths: A Critical Inquiry

I watched a show from NOVA about the battle between Intelligent Design and Evolution. Evolution won, which is good.  We really don’t want to go back to the dark ages as far as science goes. Creation Science isn’t science. But at the same time, the battle between Evolution and Creationism always troubles me, a bit.  We always want stories about how we originated, but what if we’re looking at it all wrong? Many Buddhists, for instance, don’t have a problem with Evolution. If we are evolving, we might as well affect that evolution as beneficially as possible. But I have also heard many Buddhists claim that evolution is still just a story we tell ourselves about ourselves. That’s not to say they believe in Intelligent Design, but simply that we are only viewing the surface of our existence when we talk about Evolution.

I have long been a proponent of Evolution and first came across the idea that Evolution is a modern myth in a Shambhala Sun magazine. I don’t remember wrote the article now. I wish I had kept it because it was another one of those punches in the stomach. The author of the article wasn’t trying to discredit Evolution, he/she was simply trying to put evolution into perspective.

There are certain levels where science and rationalism are absolutely spot on. But there are other levels that science and rationalism cannot claim. These levels are not irrational, they are transrational.

I’ve had a book by Vine Deloria Jr. for years and finally got around to reading it after watching the NOVA film:  Evolution, Creationism, and Other Modern Myths. He has a knack for busting American prejudices and I think he may be right that the current battle between Creationism and Evolution exists because of something most of us have failed to notice:  both are based on the exact same cultural bias.

I think this is exactly what Nietzsche was calling our attention to over 150 years ago. The Western notion of an abstract God/Reality is dead, yet no one has noticed!   Not the fundamentalist theist nor the atheistic scientist. Both are still stuck in the same mindset that was handed down to us through medieval Christianity and that mindset no longer serves us!  Deloria says the following set of absolute beliefs have been uncritically accepted by science and that they have reistricted our intellectual horizons for over a century:

  • Monogenesis – the idea that all life must come from one source, held to be a creator in religion, determined to be an arbitrary, unseen process in science.
  • Time as real and linear – derived from Christian theology and uncritically accepted by science as the uniformitarian, homogenous passage of time.
  • Binary thinking – derived from Aristotlean logic (either/or) and Christian missionary zeal (“those not for us are against us”)
  • Stability of the solar system – nothing has changed in our solar system since god created it or produced our sun.
  • Homogeneity and interchangeability of individuals – we allege to believe that all atoms and particles are the same, and that all humans are equal – derived from Christian theology and Greek philosophy.  (Read any popular article on science today, and you will find these assumptions taken for granted – without the slightest hint that perhaps they are mistaken.)

Deloria goes on to say, “It may be possible to formulate a new understanding of the world that is not Darwinian, but to do so we must move from these pointless confrontations and let the data speak for itself. We already have a massive amount of data on how things act. Do we need to have a story on how they became what they are? Deep down, since we have no way of knowing, could we not simply admit that the question itself is impossible and invalid?…Do we need a beginning to make sense of the world?”

That is an excellent question. It is only Western society that insists we have a beginning to our story. When the Evolutionists are asked about a beginning on the witness stand, they claim they aren’t interested in the beginning, only about how things have changed. Deloria claims this is a bogus claim. The entire premise of Evolution requires a beginning and a linear progression of time.

The Ancient Greeks don’t claim a beginning. Their story is one of constant creation – societies coming into and going out of being. Perhaps there is a sort of evolution going on, but there isn’t an end. Once we finally make it to the golden age, we are destined to make our way through the darker ages again. That’s Nietzsche’s three stages (camel, lion, child).  The stages never actually begin nor do they conclude. It’s an ongoing process of becoming.

Deloria says we need to ask ourselves: “What is the nature of our ability to understand the natural world?”  He sites three levels (which reminds me of how Huston Smith has dealt with this subject).  At the micro level, Western science has had the most spectacular success.  This is all of the stuff that is smaller than us – the atoms, DNA, RNA, etc.  At the micro level,  scientific formulas work because we have so much control over the data. The macro level comprises everything larger than us: space, weather patterns, continental plates. This is the opposite of the subatomic level because, unlike the micro level, we have no control over the data we are observing and have to accept what it is the universe gives us.

At both levels, time and space have little meaning.  They are just handy mathematical devices we use to describe what is otherwise completely meaningless to us. It is the meso level that is the most difficult to comprehend. This is the level where everything is “man-sized” and where the critical element is participation. Participation necessarily alters experimentation and Deloria says we should  honestly admit that we have virtually no objectivity at the meso level because our participation in the experiment alters the outcome. Everything we say or think about the meso level is therefore subject to cultural blinders. We should not assume science has the same success on the meso level as it does on the micro and macro levels. That science refuses to recognize its blinders at this level has made it the reigning religion of today. Its basis is belief, not unbiased empirical data.

Heisenberg warned: “When we speak of the picture of nature in the exact science of our age, we do not mean a picture so much as a picture of our relationship with nature.  We have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning.”  Deloria says that much of what passes for scientific certainty is simply the personal belief that entities exist because they help explain mathematical equations. And what we Westerners call religions in other cultures (Buddhism, Shinto, Native American spirituality) is often far more empirically based and less biased than is Western science. We Westerners, on the other hand, were converted to monotheism by force and coercion which required a manipulation of belief and we have yet to let that manipulated belief go – even within science.

It’s a very interesting argument!

Chief Seattle’s Speech

The fourth episode of The Power of Myth begins with Joseph Campbell reading Chief Seattle’s speech. But, it wasn’t Chief Seattle’s speech! It was a version created by Dr. Ted Perry (from Texas) for an ecological documentary in the 1970s. Ted Perry’s message is one of universal brotherhood but this is far different than Chief Seattle’s actual message which was about the vast gulf between his people and the Europeans. Chief Seattle believed his people were going to be completely wiped out by the Europeans and it is very unlikely he ever said anything about the “web of life”.

I’m very surprised Campbell would have used Dr. Perry’s version. The reason people like Perry’s version is because it upholds the fantasy that if we just returned to the attitudes of the past, all would be OK. Many environmentalists believe this is true and like to point to how their thinking is exactly like that of Native people by pointing to Perry’s speech, using it as though it were the authentic speech of Chief Seattle. (Maybe this is part of the problem Wilber has with Campbell?)

This is what was originally published in the Seattle Sunday Star on October 29, 1887 by Dr. Henry A. Smith. He said it was the best he could do based on the notes he had and was written 30 years after the speech was given. Chief Seattle never learned English so it is also the translation of a translation. But it is much closer to what Chief Seattle actually said than the version Joseph Campbell used:

     Yonder sky that has wept tears of compassion upon my people for centuries untold, and which to us appears changeless and eternal, may change. Today is fair. Tomorrow it may be overcast with clouds. My words are like the stars that never change. Whatever Seattle says, the great chief at Washington can rely upon with as much certainty as he can upon the return of the sun or the seasons. The white chief says that Big Chief at Washington sends us greetings of friendship and goodwill. This is kind of him for we know he has little need of our friendship in return. His people are many. They are like the grass that covers vast prairies. My people are few. They resemble the scattering trees of a storm-swept plain. The great, and I presume — good, White Chief sends us word that he wishes to buy our land but is willing to allow us enough to live comfortably. This indeed appears just, even generous, for the Red Man no longer has rights that he need respect, and the offer may be wise, also, as we are no longer in need of an extensive country.

     There was a time when our people covered the land as the waves of a wind-ruffled sea cover its shell-paved floor, but that time long since passed away with the greatness of tribes that are now but a mournful memory. I will not dwell on, nor mourn over, our untimely decay, nor reproach my paleface brothers with hastening it, as we too may have been somewhat to blame.

     Youth is impulsive. When our young men grow angry at some real or imaginary wrong, and disfigure their faces with black paint, it denotes that their hearts are black, and that they are often cruel and relentless, and our old men and old women are unable to restrain them. Thus it has ever been. Thus it was when the white man began to push our forefathers ever westward. But let us hope that the hostilities between us may never return. We would have everything to lose and nothing to gain. Revenge by young men is considered gain, even at the cost of their own lives, but old men who stay at home in times of war, and mothers who have sons to lose, know better.

     Our good father in Washington–for I presume he is now our father as well as yours, since King George has moved his boundaries further north–our great and good father, I say, sends us word that if we do as he desires he will protect us. His brave warriors will be to us a bristling wall of strength, and his wonderful ships of war will fill our harbors, so that our ancient enemies far to the northward — the Haidas and Tsimshians — will cease to frighten our women, children, and old men. Then in reality he will be our father and we his children. But can that ever be? Your God is not our God! Your God loves your people and hates mine! He folds his strong protecting arms lovingly about the paleface and leads him by the hand as a father leads an infant son. But, He has forsaken His Red children, if they really are His. Our God, the Great Spirit, seems also to have forsaken us. Your God makes your people wax stronger every day. Soon they will fill all the land. Our people are ebbing away like a rapidly receding tide that will never return. The white man’s God cannot love our people or He would protect them. They seem to be orphans who can look nowhere for help. How then can we be brothers? How can your God become our God and renew our prosperity and awaken in us dreams of returning greatness? If we have a common Heavenly Father He must be partial, for He came to His paleface children. We never saw Him. He gave you laws but had no word for His red children whose teeming multitudes once filled this vast continent as stars fill the firmament. No; we are two distinct races with separate origins and separate destinies. There is little in common between us.

     To us the ashes of our ancestors are sacred and their resting place is hallowed ground. You wander far from the graves of your ancestors and seemingly without regret. Your religion was written upon tablets of stone by the iron finger of your God so that you could not forget. The Red Man could never comprehend or remember it. Our religion is the traditions of our ancestors — the dreams of our old men, given them in solemn hours of the night by the Great Spirit; and the visions of our sachems, and is written in the hearts of our people.

     Your dead cease to love you and the land of their nativity as soon as they pass the portals of the tomb and wander away beyond the stars. They are soon forgotten and never return. Our dead never forget this beautiful world that gave them being. They still love its verdant valleys, its murmuring rivers, its magnificent mountains, sequestered vales and verdant lined lakes and bays, and ever yearn in tender fond affection over the lonely hearted living, and often return from the happy hunting ground to visit, guide, console, and comfort them.

     Day and night cannot dwell together. The Red Man has ever fled the approach of the White Man, as the morning mist flees before the morning sun. However, your proposition seems fair and I think that my people will accept it and will retire to the reservation you offer them. Then we will dwell apart in peace, for the words of the Great White Chief seem to be the words of nature speaking to my people out of dense darkness.

     It matters little where we pass the remnant of our days. They will not be many. The Indian’s night promises to be dark. Not a single star of hope hovers above his horizon. Sad-voiced winds moan in the distance. Grim fate seems to be on the Red Man’s trail, and wherever he will hear the approaching footsteps of his fell destroyer and prepare stolidly to meet his doom, as does the wounded doe that hears the approaching footsteps of the hunter.

     A few more moons, a few more winters, and not one of the descendants of the mighty hosts that once moved over this broad land or lived in happy homes, protected by the Great Spirit, will remain to mourn over the graves of a people once more powerful and hopeful than yours. But why should I mourn at the untimely fate of my people? Tribe follows tribe, and nation follows nation, like the waves of the sea. It is the order of nature, and regret is useless. Your time of decay may be distant, but it will surely come, for even the White Man whose God walked and talked with him as friend to friend, cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all. We will see.

     We will ponder your proposition and when we decide we will let you know. But should we accept it, I here and now make this condition that we will not be denied the privilege without molestation of visiting at any time the tombs of our ancestors, friends, and children. Every part of this soil is sacred in the estimation of my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove, has been hallowed by some sad or happy event in days long vanished. Even the rocks, which seem to be dumb and dead as the swelter in the sun along the silent shore, thrill with memories of stirring events connected with the lives of my people, and the very dust upon which you now stand responds more lovingly to their footsteps than yours, because it is rich with the blood of our ancestors, and our bare feet are conscious of the sympathetic touch. Our departed braves, fond mothers, glad, happy hearted maidens, and even the little children who lived here and rejoiced here for a brief season, will love these somber solitudes and at eventide they greet shadowy returning spirits. And when the last Red Man shall have perished, and the memory of my tribe shall have become a myth among the White Men, these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe, and when your children’s children think themselves alone in the field, the store, the shop, upon the highway, or in the silence of the pathless woods, they will not be alone. In all the earth there is no place dedicated to solitude. At night when the streets of your cities and villages are silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled them and still love this beautiful land. The White Man will never be alone.

     Let him be just and deal kindly with my people, for the dead are not powerless. Dead, did I say? There is no death, only a change of worlds.

Lost Civilizations

While I was looking for stuff on the Chinese Revolution, I also came across Time Life’s series on Lost Civilizations. This was another absolutely gripping series. There are 10 programs, almost 1 hour each on different civilizations that have been lost over time. They start with the most ancient and move toward the more recent: Mesopotamia – Return to Eden, Ancient Egypt – Quest for Immortality, Aegean – Legacy of Atlantis, Greece – A Moment of Excellence, China – Dynasties of Power, Rome – The Ultimate Empire, The Maya – the Blood of the Kings, The Inca – Secrets of the Ancestors, Africa – A History Denied, Tibet – The End of Time.

I took a few notes – primarily on Tibet because of my recent interests…

On Tibet:

Tibet was the very last surviving major ancient civilization and is currently a diaspora on the brink of extinction. In the 7th century, the Tibetans were feared conquerors, their methods being not unlike those used by Ghengis Khan. After 1000 years of military might, Tibet decided to demilitarize. This is the only civilization ever known to voluntarily give up it’s military might so it is absolutely remarkable from a historical standpoint. Most tend to go the other direction and strengthen their military might. By the end of the 17th century, Tibet had given up it’s fortresses for monasteries and violence was replaced with spiritual wisdom. A peaceful, self-sufficient society emerged dedicated to the pursuit of non-violence and it existed this way for 800 years.

It’s a very interesting experiment for a country to say “I do it for the other”. Tibet maintained it’s independence by trading spiritual blessings with China. But when Mao Zedong gained rule, religion came to be seen as a superstition and the Tibetan society was viewed as one that was in need of education. In 1949, China invaded Tibet. In 1959, the Dalai Lama fled to India. He was only 23 years old.

100,000 Tibetans follows the Dalai Lama to Tibet, but 1.2 million more died. This was a Holocaust, not unlike what happened to the Jews. But like it took quite a while for the details of the fate of the Jews to emerge after WWII, we don’t yet have the details of what happened to the Tibetans and don’t yet know the full extent of the carnage. Some of the survivors have horrible stories – of terrible torture: being suspended upside down, having their legs imprisoned in casts for years, being so hungry they were tempted to eat their own excrement. Many of these Tibetans have been imprisoned all of their lives, being arrested when they were young and only released when they were elderly.

The Tibetans remain in India, not having access to their land. The Dalai Lama believes that there is still hope for their survival, if they can somehow negotiate some sort of self-rule with China. But if they cannot obtain this, then their society will become extinct, leaving no surviving ancient civilizations on earth.

I have just a few notes on the other shows:

On Mesopotamia:

1. Ten Commandments: The Ten Commandments come from Hammurabi’s Code? 1200 years before the Israelites had been taken captive, Hammurabi was a Babylonian king who had a stone inscribed with laws that bare his name. This stone emerged in the late 19th century. This Babylonian code is the precursor to the laws we find in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

2. Noah’s Ark: In 1852, Nineveh was discovered in Northern Iraq. This was an Assyrian civilization and contained the Library of Nineveh in which the Epic of Gilgamesh was discovered. This story predates the Bible by 2000 years and contains within it, a story of a man building a boat that is exactly like the story of Noah in Genesis. The major cities of Sumer were Uruk, Ur (said to be the birthplace of Abraham) and Eridu. The Sumerians invented the wheel, gardening, government and were the first civilization on earth to invent the 60 second minute. And most significantly, they wrote things down – they invented Cuneiform. According to this documentary, they are considered to be the first civilization to ever exist. 

3. Garden of Eden: Part of the Epic of Gilgamesh contains a story of a Garden of paradise, complete with a serpent. Archaeologists now think the myth was based upon an actual place – the Island of Bahrain which would have seemed like paradise compared to the surrounding areas. They have found embalmed remains of people and serpents – embalmed serpents are everywhere on the island of Bahrain.

On Egypt:

All I have written down is the discovery of the Rosetta Stone by Napoleon. This was a signficant discovery because there was a Greek translation under the Egyptian Cuneiform which finally allowed experts to break the code of the Egyptian writing. One of my favorite Catholic priests claimed that this proved that Moses did not actually exist – that his story was based upon an accumulation of stories that can be found in the Egyptian libraries. He said that Moses and Abraham were symbols for groups of nomadic tribes – not actual individuals. Many archaeologists concur with this, since absolutely nothing can be found on Abraham or Moses, but similar stories about other people abound.

On Greece:

Athens was a boys club and women were nothing. This tends to continue to be true in most of Greece.

Socrates was accused of not believing in the gods and was said to corrupt the minds of the youth. His trial and conviction would not have happened under Pericles who ruled during the city’s Golden Age. Socrates embodies Athens at it’s best.

On the Maya:

I think the most interesting thing about this show was one of the experts claiming that the decline of the Mayan civilization is not particularly mysterious or significant. What is significant is that a civilization like the Mayan civilization could be maintained for 2000 years.

The civilization was completely reliant upon a system. In order to survive, the people had to believe in the power of the King. When the people no longer had faith in the King, the civilization collapsed. As more and more people lost faith in their ruler, they left the cities.

The Mayan civilization was a bloody one. The King and Queen had to give blood in exchange for immortality. They would pierce their tongues and their genitals which caused tremendous bleeding, and offer this blood to the gods in great ceremonies. As they kingdoms began to falter, rather than increase military might, they created even more fearful ritualistic blood sacrifices, which of course, did not save their civilization.

It was very easy for the Mayans to accept Jesus because they were already so heavily into blood sacrifice. The idea of a King sacrificing himself for the people and becoming immortal made perfect sense to them. So they embraced Christianity without a qualm.

An interesting note: the Mayan calendar is among the most accurate ever developed and it abruptly ends in 2012. The Tibetans believe we are entering an Apocalyptic age, and some scientists claim we are in for a reversal in our magnetic field. This reversal has occurred at fairly regular intervals during the history of the earth. Could it be the Mayan’s calendar ends with the estimated reversal?

Symbols of Tibetan Buddhism by Claude Levenson

Symbols of Tibetan Buddhism has absolutely beautiful pictures with helpful descriptions about what is depicted. There was far too much detail to take many notes – way too much info. on each page. This was a significant introduction for me because I know next to nothing about Tibetan Buddhist symbolism. But I did book mark two pages:

One was simply a quote from Buddha:

“You should not believe anything simply because a wise man has said it, because it is generally believed, because it is written, because it is presented as being of the divine essence, or because someone else believes it. Believe only what you yourself judge to be true after you have tested it in the flame of experience.” (p. 88)

And carrying on this idea of flame, I bookmarked the entire section entitled “The Fire Ritual”. Fire is seen as the most powerful purifier – it purifies illness, evil, etc. The Tibetan practitioners of the fire ritual must purify themselves prior to using fire because it is so powerful and must not be misused. What interested me about this was a discussion on lexcorpninja blog about the symbolism of fire in Christianity as being both a symbol of the Holy Spirit and of Hell.

The reason people burn bodies is clearly for purification, purposes (whether those purposes are noble or not). For the Jews who went to great lengths to differentiate themselves from Pagans, the burning of the body was seen as horrifying and was only allowed during the time of plague (purification). This stems from a Jewish belief in permanence which is almost in direct opposition to the Buddhist idea of impermanence.

Ironically, the term Hell comes from a physical place called Gehenna. Originally, this was where the tribes of Judah practiced child sacrifice at one time and by Jesus’ day had become a garbage dump with fires burning 24/7 to keep bacteria, and smells, etc. at a minimum (purification). The criminal, and those who could not afford burial, were often dumped here, too. This was considered a horrible way to go by the Jews; thus – the fires of Hell (Gehenna). But, at the same time, those fires have a purifying element and that is what the Holy Spirit is in Christianity – a purifier.

Something quite interesting brought up in the book is that the Tibetan Fire Ritual is almost identical to the Native American Hopi Indian Fire Ritual.

“It is worth noting, although it should come as no surprise, that certain striking correspondences exist between the Tibetan fire ritual and Amerindian tradition. This shared practice forms a bridge across the Pacific, beyond time and human memory, standing as the reminder of a deep spiritual brotherhood which, over the ages, has come to be forgotten.”

Cool!!! Now I need to learn more about the Hopi.