Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Everlasting Ape-Man: A Modern Myth

"If the critic of mythology, upon hearing that the world was once nothing but a great feathered serpent, did not get an urge to kick his heels like a child and half-wish it were true, he is no judge of such things."

(loose quotation of a passage from The Everlasting Man)

And what does this have to do with anything? Consider this:
According to "Prehistoric Journey," an exhibit at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, the creature we call a whale came about in something like this way:

"At some point in time, the creatures we call animals came up out of the water, and began to live as land life-forms. These developed into diverse forms. Among these were the animals of the highest sort: the complex, motherly, and beautiful creatures we call mammals.
One of these animals was somewhat similar to the modern tiger, with carnivorous habits, orange-and-black striped fur (author's aside: why they illustrated him such, I shall never know, except that it looks cool), and claws. Spurred on by the inevetible destiny of evolution, it returned to its original home, the sea. Its ferocious nature, in the company of the serenity of the ocean, turned graudually or by leaps and bounds into the gentle and large creature we know as the whale."

I don't know about you, but I don't believe a word of it. I also find this idea, and indeed, all the ideas of evolution, to be highly poetic. I almost wish that I wished it were true. Why? Because evolution is a myth in the grand, Chestertonian sense of the word?

First: Chesterton says in The Everlasting Man, that myths are products of the human imagination, and that they are divorced from reason, a fact attested to by the philosophers who consistently disbelieved the myths, with their unworshippable objects of worship. To my knowledge (I do not wish to bore you with science here, although I am prepared to explain in the comments box), evolution on the scale espoused by the makers of "Prehistoric Journey" is practically impossible, and unworthy of belief. For this very reason, only imagination could have come up with these fascinating theories. Think of "Nebraska Man," for example, a creative imaginative construct based on a tooth. The evocative power of this biological artistry shows in the poetic response given to it by a disbeliever.

Second: Chesterton also says that mythology satisfied several human needs, such as the need for sacrifice and the need for doing certain things at certain times. Sincere believers in evolution sacrifice a great deal of time and effort, some of the most valuble things they have, in devotion to their beliefs. Whether they are right or wrong has no effect on the fact that they pay homage (not worship, of course) to the object of their either logical or illogical faith. Additionally, whenever they study anything relating to geology or fossils, they feel compelled to insert, with a regularity that seems almost ritualistic, their belief in this phenomenon, allowing it to affect their facts, their judgments, and their presentations. Indeed, one could even make a case that evolution was a greater mythology than the pagan beliefs, for the pagans sacrificed grain and cows, but the scientists ritually place their very minds in the service of Lady Evolution.

Third: Chesterton says that if he were to cease being a Catholic, he would become a pagan, and make the very trees holy places. Now, of course, the animals of the past are not worshipped, but they do acquire a sort of feudal dignity that they did not have before under the governance of this theory. In addition to their dignity as creations of God, every plant and animal is suddenly a recipient of a (albeit diluted) human emotion of pleasant surpise and greater wonder, for The Earth is our Mother, and the Sea Urchin our long-lost cousin.

So, whether you believe in evolution or not, treat it as Chesterton treated the Iliad, as a literary treasure, a thing of poetic beauty regardless of its truth.


Ryan said...

I'd actually be interested to hear a more technical debunking of the whale theory, if you have the time.

Old Fashioned Liberal said...

The story about the evolution of whales was only an illustration of the wild poetry of evolution. I personally do not have the slightest idea of what the scientists use as their justification of this particular theory. If I was going to debunk anything, it would be the very idea of macroevolution, not the particular case of the evolution of whales.