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The Validity of Certain Narratives: Scientific vs. Religious Stories

jhercher's picture

James Hercher

Evolution in Literature

P. Grobstein & A. Dalke

Web Project #1



The Validity of Certain Narratives: Scientific vs. Religious Stories



We have, for the past couple weeks, spent some time struggling to distinguish between different ways of viewing the world.  In class we have discussed these different points of view as “stories,” which is an apt term considering the framework humans use to conceptualize the world tends to be through narrative.  By narrative in this case I mean that how we see the world and seek to explain what is misunderstood (or not understood at all) is through a kind of story.  In ancient Greece, a lightning bolt was a mysterious intrusion into the human world, and was explained through an elaborate narrative involving a human-like being that wielded them as weapons against those who incurred his wrath.  Narratives like this have surrounded religious points of view, as well as scientific ones.  One of the great scientific narratives ever conceived was Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection.  Some might believe that scientific concepts, such as natural selection, are not stories or narratives, but they would be mistaken.  The problem is that many people associate the word “story” with “fiction,” which is misleading in this case.  For these purposes I am using the terms story and narrative because that is the way humans digest information.  Richard Dawkins, a prominent biologist and vehement Darwinian, wrote an expansive book about evolution, The Ancestor’s Tale, framed in parallel to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  One of the things Dawkins tapped into by structuring his scientific literature like this, and it is a reason why he is a leading figure among atheist scientists, is that people understand through stories.  We don’t just learn about natural selection when studying Darwin, we learn about his travels aboard the Beagle and his internal moral struggles about publishing, because that’s a part of the narrative of the idea, even though it’s a scientific theory. 

            The distinction I make between stories that are useful, and not just useful, but truthful, and those that are not is that some of these stories embrace new knowledge and are flexible to change while others are not.   I believe that evolution embraces this concept of progress, incorporating new facts and evidence into the greater body of work to make a constantly updated theory.  In a sense, knowledge and scientific thought mirror natural selection in this way.  Society is continually updating its store of knowledge, taking in new information that either reinforces what is accepted or displaces an idea that has been disproven or outdated.  Natural selection is excellent example of this.  Generations of scientific inquiry continue to affirm and expand what we know about evolution and natural selection.  Darwin had the right idea, but he did not have the whole idea.  Discoveries by other scientists, like Gregor Mendel, strengthened Darwin’s idea, and changed it.  It is this malleable quality, the ability to adapt to new information, that distinguishes stories that are useful and scientific from those that are not. 

            On the flip side of this, some stories and ideas are unable to respond to changing times and a constantly updating base of human knowledge.  One example that stands out for me, and which is a typical counterpoint to evolution in our society, is the religious concept of creationism or its somewhat more secular variations, like intelligent design.  When stories, such as religious stories, are accepted not as an ever-changing narrative but as concrete fact, it leads to stagnation.  Another example would be the concept that the Earth is flat.  This was an idea that was unable to incorporate the advance of human knowledge, and thus faded into obscurity: eventually becoming notable only because of its identity as an outdated scientific narrative.  Creationism and intelligent design have difficulty incorporating progressive knowledge, even things, such as the age of the Earth, which are pretty well established and substantiated.  The issue is that religious beliefs are not malleable stories.  A medical textbook becomes outdated and needs to be revised every couple years.  That is representative of the speed with which scientific theories progress.  Medical textbooks are a good example because young doctors are not afforded the liberty of being able to hold on to antiquated beliefs that they are attached to; they are in the business of saving lives, and that means embracing new ideas as they are substantiated and discarding those that become outdated and counterproductive.  Religious stories, in stark contrast, are never updated.  Religions themselves change and evolve-what was once a single, unified Christianity, or Islam, or Judaism, or Buddhism, etc… have now branched into vastly disparate sects of the same religion-but the stories themselves, whichever story it is a person may subscribe to, are foundational.  By foundational I mean that they are inflexible to change.  Unlike stories that are accepted by the scientific and medical communities, religious beliefs are not updated.  The Vatican does not release a new Bible every two or three years that corrects disproven information. 

            This is all fine; people are allowed to embrace whatever stories they like, regardless of their validity.  If I choose to believe in Poseidon and worship the sea, that has no negative effect on society, it merely changes my lifestyle.  But where it does matter a great deal is in the public realm of politics and education.  A great many people are under the influence of stories that are antagonistic to change or new ideas, and they wish their beliefs to be expressed in the classroom or by the people running our country.  If stories that are stagnant and antiquated are taught to children, that same sluggish, myopic quality will be a part of their worldview.  If stories are accepted as unquestionably true that were created by people who were unaware of gravity or electricity or the solar system, by people who knew less about the natural world than a typical six year old in modern society, then the children’s ability to learn and accept new information will be permanently fettered.  And that is why it is crucial to understand the importance of supporting stories that are open to a changing and developing world. 



Paul Grobstein's picture

evolving stories, scientific and otherwise

 "It is this malleable quality, the ability to adapt to new information, that distinguishes stories that are useful and scientific from those that are not."

I like this and the associated link of story to evolution itself  ("evolution embraces this concept of progress, incorporating new facts and evidence into the greater body of work to make a constantly updated theory").  But maybe its used in a way that overstates a science/religion distinction and so ends up some what discouraging rather than enhancing story revision?  Not all "religious stories" are "stagnant and antiquated" and its worth keeping any eye in this regard on the character of "scientific stories" at any given time.