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Story of Evolution, Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2004
Second Web Paper
On Serendip

Evolution Before Darwin, The Evolution of the Primal Meme

Student Contributor

"Yet the water did not calm,
It stirred within itself,
And waters within the waters
Moved and parted, the waters folded open
And from the deeps of the deeps...
Ak-ana whispered:
'Create.'"
(Persian creation myth)

It is not an astounding observation to say that there exists (or existed at one point in time) thousands, possibly millions, of stories on Earth. Stories that our innocent young selves were subjected to in elementary school that have influenced the way we see ourselves and those around us, more so than we would like to admit. Stories that our parents have read to us late at night willing us with their words of cats in hats and cows jumping over the moon to shut our eyelids and drift off to sleep, and stories that come and visit us in our dreams, usually only for a moment, leaving behind traces of its scent the next morning. We are a species who thrive on this thing called 'story', much the same way a bee thrives on honey or a poet thrives on words. As we continue to generate new stories and, by doing so, generate new meanings of the world, it is hard not to feel as if one is sinking deep into a quicksand of life, unable to make sense of all the sense, mainly because there is too much it. Just when you think you're going to choke on all of the suffocating information regarding the origin of the world, of species, and of culture too many stories something clicks and you find yourself breathing fresh air once again. I stopped sinking once I learned not to fight against the sand, but instead, to become friends with it.

Much the same way Darwin based his theory of evolution on patterns that he had observed on the Galapagos Islands, I base the arguments presented in this paper on patterns that I have observed in ancient creation myths regarding the creation of the world. What once felt like a random bombardment of infinite stories, now feels like a handful of calculable stories told by an infinite number of story tellers. Darwin's theory of evolution, his creation myth regarding the origin of the world and of species, is not an exception. The theory of evolution is not as innovative as was once thought; in fact, the major observations embodied within the theory of evolution has been a common theme in ancient creation myths from around the world. Darwin himself states: "The formation of different languages and of distinct species, and the proofs that both have been developed through a gradual process, are curiously the same" (Dennet, 135). And indeed, they are the same, just as the formation of different stories is curiously similar.

In Darwin's Dangerous Ideas, Daniel Dennett argues that the fact that species share homologies is an argument for evolution, for if they had been created separately there would be no reason why they should show similarity (Dennett, PAGE). While Dennett would probably not agree with the presumption that Darwin's theory of evolution is itself an evolved story from a long line of ancestors, the same argument he uses to support the evolution of species can be used to support the evolution of stories. Why else would stories share homologies?

The creation myths discussed at length in this paper were chosen to illustrate the commonality with the theory of evolution. Alongside the traditional creation myth involving a God who created life through the first male and female, such as the Judeo-Christian and Iroquois creation myths, exists other creation myths involving the emergence of life from chaos. As early as 2400 B.C. inhabitants of the Near East, which is known today as the Middle East, believed that Atum, "the complete one", arose from watery chaos. An ancient tablet which is believed to have been from that particular era was recovered and discovered to reveal the following script: "I raised up them from out of Nu (i.e., the primeval abyss of water) from a state of inactivity...I came forth from (or, in the plants, the form of) creeping things all, [and] things which came into being all [are] in them" (Sproul, 83-86). It appears that the belief that all living things potentially originated from a single source preceded Darwin by a few thousand years. Chinese and Japanese creation myths also tell of a similar story of life emerging from chaos.

According to an old African Mande myth, all the forces that gave rise to people, worlds, and nature originated from the "egg of God" (Sproul, 66). The Brahmanas of India tell a similar story: In the beginning this universe was nothing but a sea of water. Out of the watery chaos a creative power of heat was recognized and a golden egg was produced. This egg is believed to have given birth to all creation (Sproul, 184). Water, chaos, and a single source of creation, are all common themes in the above creation myths, as well as many others that could not be discussed here, and it is hard to believe that these stories developed independently of each other. It is highly likely that these stories diffused to other cultures with the passing of time and resurfaced in myths, songs, and artwork a sort of universal acid. The origin of these stories, if there is a single origin, will be impossible to ascertain, analogous to Dennett's argument about the universal authorship of jokes. The jokes we hear and pass have evolved, picking up revisions and updates as they are passed along, and its authorship is distributed over hundreds of tellers (Dennet, 99). In the same way, the authorship of these creation myths is collectively shared by hundreds of cultures, including the Darwinian culture.

One of the most striking similarities between certain ancient culture myths and Darwin's theory of evolution is the idea that humans were, at one point in time, to 'animalistic'. A North American Wyot myth tells a story of a God who, at one point in time, was so disappointed in humans because they "were too animalistic; they were still furry and their speech was indistinct" (Sproul, 139). According to an Australian Aborigine myth, the Sun Mother was commanded by the Father Spirit to awake the sleeping spirits on earth, starting with the waters, next the fish, small snakes, and lizards, finally the plants and animals. Once she was finished she rose into the sky and became the sun. At first all the spirits lived together peacefully but then they began to argue. To mediate their bickering she bestowed upon each creature the ability to change their form. The rats soon changed themselves to bats; there were giant lizards and fish with blue tongues and feet, and unusual creatures, such as duck and platypus, arose. The Sun Mother was not pleased. These are striking examples of common ancestry well before Darwin's revolutionary book On the Origin of Species was published in 1859.

The argument that the theory of evolution predates Darwin has alarming implications. It implies that Darwin was not the 'Father of Evolution' nor was he the founder. It implies that the story of evolution is a meme that resurfaces unexpectedly anywhere from ancient tablets, to modern-day poetry from Iran, to private journals of biologists in the nineteenth century. This is not to say that Darwin read an Australian Aborigine creation myth as a young adult and was inspired to write Origin of Species, on the contrary, we know his voyages on the Beagle were his inspiration, but what it does insinuate is the possibility that there were other scientists, or poets, or holy men, or whatever you want to call them really, who noticed the same startling similarities in creatures and were inspired to write their own stories. It would be interesting to know what Darwin read as a child, if his parents were keen on reading to him at bedtime about the various myths of the creation of the universe, stories that lulled him to sleep and then left quickly once he awoke in the morning. Mythologists talk of an unusual approach to explain the parallels that exist between myths. Apart from the argument of cross-cultural exchange, there is a psychological view of mythology that believes that myths are products of the human psyche and therefore universal to all human beings (Murtagh, 3). This supports the notion that Darwin founded his theory of evolution independently of the stories that preceded him, and the reason for their similarity is not a product of chance, as Dennett would argue with his elaborate example of randomness in the Library of Babel, but is inherent in the human psyche. It is something inherent within us that forces us to think certain things and make certain observations. This approach is intimidating by nature, but nonetheless alluring. However, for the sake of simplicity (and sanity) I find the cross-cultural exchange approach to be the more convincing.

Dennett argues that all achievements of the human culture, such as language, religion, and science, are themselves artifacts of the same fundamental process that developed bacteria. No meme is an island (Dennett, 144). And I agree wholeheartedly. No meme is died with its creator, but is modified and revised, and resurfaces now and again usually in the most unlikely of places.

Bibliography

Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Simon & Schuster, New York. 1995

Murtagh, Lindsey. Common Elements in Creation Myths. Available on-line at
http://www.cs.williams.edu/~lindsey/myths/myths.html. Visited on 3/17/2004

Sproul, Barbara C. Primal Myths: Creating the World. Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.,
USA. 1979


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