Science and Myth, an Unlikely Friendship

14/06/2017 — Leave a comment

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I love science. I like to understand and explain every day phenomena and I find science shows and publications the best place to satisfy this curiosity. In fact, some of my favorite Podcasts are science podcasts. RadioLab tops the list. Others include Invisibilia, Hidden Brain, The Naked Scientist and BBC Radio’s The Why Factor… just to name a few.

In a recent episode of The Naked Scientistthe team of scientists attempts to answer the question, “why do cats have vertical slit pupils rather than the usual circular pupils?” A scientist named Max explains that since cats need to see well both at night and in daytime, they need a more precise way to regulate light entering their eyes. The slit pupils are therefore best designed to achieve this.

The conversation then drifts into why some carnivorous animals like lions and leopards have their eyes at the front of the head while herbivores like cows and rabbits and antelopes have eyes that are more to the side. The explanation is that cats need the slit and front-placed eyes for better depth perception and focus when hunting, while herbivores (which tend to be prey) need a wider field of view in order to see danger approaching from all sides.

The scientists then go on to tackle other questions such as whether clouds defy gravity, why people have road rage and others. I have listened to numerous explanations of phenomena by scientists for years, but it is only the other day that I made the connection that scientists are some of the best mythologists we have today. Let me explain.

Almost all explanations that scientists give for animal and human behavior or physical traits today can be traced back to one major theory: Survival for the Fittest proposed by Charles Darwin in the 19th century. Consider the following examples picked from this site:

  • In an ecosystem, some giraffes have long necks and others have short ones. If something caused low-lying shrubs to die out, the giraffes with short necks would not get enough food. After a few generations, all the giraffes would have long necks.
  • Deer mice that migrated to the sand hills of Nebraska changed from dark brown to light brown to better hide from predators in the sand.
  • Sharks are colored white on the underside and blue or gray on the top. This is their camouflage as the top blends with the water color to someone looking down into the water and the bottom blends with the light coming through the water from above.
  • Because of its long body, the moray eel’s mouth did not produce enough suction to catch prey; so, it adapted and grew a second set of jaws and teeth.

The examples sound reasonable enough, scientific even. But the one thing that is often assumed and has increasingly become forgotten is that all the above statements are suppositions, or hypotheses. They are theories, not a record of something that was observed in history. It may as well turn out that the moray eel has always had two sets of jaws and teeth; or that the second set grew for a different reason and not the one given.

What we know for sure is what we can see, that the moral eel has two sets of jaws. Anything further is a step into speculation. In other words, any explanation for what we see now is a story that has been created to explain it. The fact of the matter is that scientists literally “invent” stories that best explain phenomena they see today.

In fact, the scientific way is to invent several stories until they find one that “best fits” as an explanation, one that best answers most of the questions related to the phenomena. This has always been the way scientific “laws” are discovered.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a myth as: “a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.” Would it be unreasonable to suggest that the definition be edited to include “typically natural beings and events?” I suggest we do so.

The fact is, science thrives on myths. Of course, experiments are good aids, but they are not the final verdict. Now, these myths may not be about supernatural beings or events, but they are myths nevertheless. In other words, they are works of fiction, not based on any observed history or eyewitness records. Furthermore, scientists would relegate to “the supernatural” those phenomena that they are yet to (yes, yet to) find a myth that best fits as an explanation.

As it turns out, science and mythology have more in common than many of us have often assumed. In fact, science needs mythology to be coherent and communicable. When evolutionary biologists talk of the early man (or the cave man) and what he used to do or why he made certain choices, you may almost think they are reporting recorded history.

But the reality is that it is not even reconstructed history. It is all myth, “a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon.”

Of course, many science junkies reading this will argue that it is always more complicated than I have presented here. True. But you get the basic point. I hope. Or what do you think?

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