“Ancient Myth and Modern Science; a reconsideration” by John David Ebert. Originally printed in Parabola, vol. 33:3, Fall 2008.
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Perusing through the spines of the Rice University library collection, my eyes befell a thematic title barely a lustrum old: “Man & Machine”, in a publication which rarely raises a brow. Ebert’s article is an example of why. “Finally,” I figured, “some meat on the bones of what I usually find to be fanciful fluff from a journal with only a marginal historical worth.”
Was I wrong.
Within, I chose this article because I have a running familiarity with the author, and because the theme of the title is, to me, the most interesting source of divisiveness in the modern world.
The central point of discussion: how are we to view “the conflict between myth and science”?
In order to arrive at any perceivable outcome, he uses one of Joseph Campbell’s several attempts at defining myth, and relies on a strictly partisan view of science, necessarily producing an “us vs. them” and “black vs. white”, or “good cop vs. bad cop” view in his effort at creating a post-dichotomous synthesis, best illustrated in this dual-vision worldview:
VISIONARY COSMOLOGIES = MYTH
SCIENCE = “FACT”/“TRUTH”
Campbell, here poorly used as a continuer of the dichotomous contrast, is offered to support these worldviews: one can don the science/reason/rationality goggles, or the religion/primitivism/aboriginal blinders. One must be worn exclusively, according to this vision.
Specifically in the given quotes, Ebert refers to mythic cosmologies (allegorical interpretation of “pre-literate” reasoning of everything from hero and ancestor worship to seasonal patterning) as based on the stars. Though this is a fair starting point to his effort, Ebert attempts to macro-manage the effort at hand, coming off as an apologetic attempt at justifying pre-literate allegories through the lens of a modern deductive mechanism.
Specifically cosmological figurations filtered through ratiocinations have always found their way through the biases of the filtering medium. Unsurprisingly, the “schools” and backgrounds of the rationalizers will always influence the outcome.
Here is just a brief example. Astronomical interpretations of mythology have their own interesting intertwining in history. Beginning in the last decade of the 1700s, French savant Charles Dupuis published his 12 volume Origine de tous les Cultes, ou la Réligion Universelle (a one-volume English version, The Origin of all Religious Worship was published a short time later). In this wandering and often-confusing work, he added plausible explanations to our knowledge of Christianity by finding interpretations for the origins of many of its features in the zodiac and its mostly Greek stories entangled within. This, of course, is barely surprising, given the recent decoupling of the repressive Catholicism of France less than 2 decades earlier, Dupuis is seen by most commentators as having reached too far into the theme to discredit Christianity, while making valuable contributions nonetheless.
Dupuis also considered both the original cultural fount of civilization as being Egyptian (diffusionism) and made the intangible claim that the earliest zodiac was Egyptian, from 15,000 BCE. None of this is surprising, considering the Egyptomania which trickled into Europe in the 1790s, becoming a completely saturated phenomena several years later with Napoleon’s expeditions in the Land of the Pharaohs.
A short time later, Anton Krichenbauer, who was a classical philologist (thus Latin and several forms of pre-koine Greek) found astronomical allegory in Homer’s Illiad. Will wonders ever cease?
Ebert certainly understands the bicameral configuration plaguing modern discourse on these subjects, and is aware of the need to grow tendons between the lobes, while offering no clues, no direction, no guidance on getting there. This, and impatient nonspecificity, doom this discussion to failure.
Of course Eberts is a fan of science, and seems to want to use it in ways that not only make sense of the world as it is, but meld into its methods the world as it was. He discusses, for instance, weaving
. . . scientific narratives of the origins of things with an eye for the deep structures that these narratives might have in common with ancient myths, [to] find surprising parallels.
He does mention the Big Bang and its similarity to certain cosmic narratives of creation, without of course discussing how these were arrived at, what the strengths and weaknesses are, and other factors that must be relied upon to make science work. Throwing out the tools that science and its mechanics need in order to more accurately deduce the observable Cartesian world looks like a toolbox without wrenches and screwdrivers.
For instance, he attempts to make the case that Lemaître drew parallels between the then-known understanding of the earliest universe with a cosmic egg in mythic cosmology because he was tapping into “the deep structure shared by ancient creation myths with current narratives …” Simplistically, Lemaître’s insights drew from nascent forms of the remembrance of creation in the same way that homeopathy considers chemically pure water to “remember” chemicals that barely exist in a given sample, passing the efficacy of the chemical into the water.
Strangely Ebert uses the term Big Bang twice in association with Lemaître the priest and philosopher, in a way to suggest his origination of the term, when in fact it was Fred Hoyle who used the term as a pejorative in 1949, nearly 2 decades after Lemaître’s synthetic explanations.
Ebert uses easy markers, sometimes false colorings to support contentions. He does, for instance, rehash the popular notion known mostly through Hindutvu mis-characterizations of the vast body of archaeological evidence and interpretations, that yogic postures go back “as far as Harappa and Mohenjo-daro.” In his attempt at showing archaic structure our author lamely falls back on popular notions that take extensive ink to show are poor understandings of underlying historic structures.
Through the article, flighty explanatory devices which explain nothing (as I like to call them) are used that rely on other scholars than himself. One is Misia Landau, a Harvard paleoanthropologist (not a “bioanthropologist”), whose 1991 book Narratives of Human Evolution does a disservice to what Ebers attempts.
Her flight of fancy draws the biological processes of human development into ‘mythemes’ (as in ‘mythic themes’) that almost look like Justin Martyr explaining common cultural themes in Christian ritual.
Landau shows how, in scientific narratives of human evolution, the hero is the nonhuman primate who departs from his arboreal habitat with the aid of natural selection and who is tried and tested by competition from other animals, harsh climate, and predation, but eventually arrives at an apotheosis in the achievement of the upright posture of humanity.
That sounds like a whirlwind of typification. Reading this, I thought to myself “Yeah, maybe, but the human upright posture is nonetheless a biological accident of the psoas muscle going through the human pelvic bone instead of stretching around it, allowing for upright ambulation instead of hunched locomotion.”
And as a paleoanthroplogist, Landau knows this. Maybe this is an example of using a bad example on Ebert’s part, but it certainly does no good in illustrating his intention at bridging the chasm between opposite and opposing perspectives.
Apologies to Ebert, but the Weltanschauung will remain elusive to deductive methodology. Maybe here he placed the first grain of sand, but many more rocks must be worn to create the smooth beach between the rocky shore and sweltering sea.
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