Is Evolution a Story?

A recent blog post by Tom Bartlett on the site of the Chronicle of Higher Education mentions the possibility that “evolution is a lousy story” and that “the biblical story of creation . . . couldn’t be richer.” According to Dan McAdams, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, this is one reason why more Americans don’t believe in evolution (fewer than half do, according to the Pew Research Center). Others (e.g., Jerry Coyne) say Americans’ opposition to evolution has nothing to do with whether or not evolution is a story. Instead, as Bartlett points out, most who reject evolution say that it’s because of “God or Jesus or religion in general.” According to Coyne, “belief in evolution will only rise when belief in God declines.”

I think that McAdams is on to something important. Stories are what we tell ourselves to make meaning out of the stuff of life and the world around us. Bartlett quotes McAdams: “People create stories to make sense of their lives.” And then he  paraphrases him: “When you think about it, we tell stories to make sense of pretty much everything.” To make sense of = to make meaning out of. Without stories (and I would include music as a type of story), I’m not sure that there would be much of a way to do this. Science gives us data, but, as soon as it starts using words such as “wonderful” and “elegant,” it’s no longer science but story. What Coyne really wants, without realizing it I suppose, is for people to stop believing in story (i.e., appreciating and wanting the meaning that stories provide). After all, religious ideas are really about trying to tell a story. I don’t think that the decline Coyne is looking for is going to happen. What would be better, it seems to me, is to find a way to integrate the religious/mythic stories we tell ourselves with evolution and to understand that we need both–good data and good stories. Either one will be much poorer without the other. (This insight is thanks to my colleague at SJU, Gerard Jacobitz.)

For religious believers, especially those Christians who are more or less biblical literalists, there is a lesson in this as well. There is more meaning in the biblical accounts when they are read as stories/myths than when they are read as history. Despite what might appear to be evidence to the contrary at the present time, I don’t think that reading them as history has very good long-term prospects. In contrast, finding value in stories and, as a corollary, believing in “god” probably do.

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3 comments
  1. Great post. Perhaps evolution is not contrary to the existence of a God, although it my seem contrary to any particular sacred text. History seems to show that humanity has its foundations in storytelling. In many ancient cultures the poets used to hold a place as valued as priests, for the storyteller knew all laws, profane or sacred. And in certain traditional African cultures storytelling elements, such as rhyming, functioned as a tool to remember sacred verses. It truly seems that no religion could subsist without the story, because the story serves to create numerous interpretations which perpetuate a kind of religious gossip. A religion without interpretations is a dead religion. What keeps anything relevant is, in many ways, its ability to be misunderstood, or rather understood by numerous points of view.

    • I love your point about religious gossip. As you say, it’s this gossip/interpretation that keeps a religious tradition alive.

  2. Great post. Perhaps evolution is not contrary to the existence of a God, although it my seem contrary to any particular sacred text. History seems to show that humanity has its foundations in storytelling. In many ancient cultures the poets used to hold a place as valued as priests, for the storyteller knew all laws, profane or sacred. And in certain traditional African cultures storytelling elements, such as rhyming, functioned as a tool to remember sacred verses. It truly seems that no religion could subsist without the story, because the story serves to create numerous interpretations which perpetuate a kind of religious gossip. A religion without interpretations is a dead religion. What keeps anything relevant is, in many ways, its ability to be misunderstood, or rather understood by numerous points of view continuously.

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