“No educated person believes the Adam and Eve myth nowadays, but it is surprising how many parents think that it is somehow fun to pass on this falsehood (and others in the same vein) to their children…perhaps they think it is harmless, like Father Christmas. Or maybe they think the truth is less poetic, less “fun” or harder to understand than the myth.” Richard Dawkins, The Times “Eureka Magazine” September 1, 2011.
Richard Dawkins has written a book explaining the universe to children and adults. His motivation is to educate us, not just about the process of evolution, but to help us see it as full of poetry and fun. Having dismissed poetic myths as useless he seeks to establish evolution as the monopolistic poetic truth that should satisfy us all.
Dawkins is no poet or script writer. If you want to read science as a “wow, imagine that” read Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Everything” or watch David Attenborough or Brian Cox. They see the poetry in their subject and help others to see it so they can bring it even further to life. The point that Dawkins (and most of us miss) about creation stories is that they are not generated from an earnest desire to explain the mechanics of creation. They are generated from a desire to explain meaning in the midst of those mechanics.
“Why do I matter?” asks most good religious literature. It fills a gap in the evolutionary poetry because the only answer it can give you from its poetic tale is that beyond your genes, you don’t matter.
And yet people want to matter.
Imagine this conversation between lovers: “Explain to me again the mechanics of sexual and filial desire. What chemical reactions make you feel this way towards me”? Does that get you hot under the collar? No? Not surprising, is it?
That’s because wooing one another requires a bit of a catalyst and effort and investment. The whole point of love poetry is to get natural reactions bubbling inside us rather than explaining the process. The question “why do you love me?” invites the suitor to become Shakespeare or Neruda (or at least copy them).
Humans have been exploring the truth through poetry as long as they have been able to communicate. It hasn’t been a means of sidestepping the truth; it is how we are inclined to explore it in the cut and thrust of everyday experience. We create myths and sentiments that can’t be proved but do make us more whole than we were before their telling.
WH Auden knew this when he wrote two poems which explored grief and the Royal Mail. One is called The Night Mail and the other is called Stop all the Clocks (there are links to them below).
Auden could have saved himself a lot of time if he had just said, “Grief sucks the colour out of life and to the person suffering it, everything seems to be over. They feel trapped in a bubble that they may never get out of. And by the way, there are trains that sort and deliver mail of all kinds through the night as we sleep. Let me explain now how modern national communications systems work.”
Instead, his poetry makes us imagine how deep and lonely grief is by telling us to stop all the ordinary every day things because they are distracting the mourner from the loss of the extraordinary. It makes us wonder about this train chugging past us as we sleep, delivering all the things dreams deliver. It fills the train with our lives.
I believe that I am a created being and I believe that evolution is a process that helps explain how we got here. I recognise that like all “answers to everything”, it is a work in progress. The evidence still leads to a lot of guesswork. But that’s fine because a life of faith is full of guesswork too. I find my poetry in both places.
Any knowledgeable reader knows that Genesis is telling the tale that we are an integral part of creation, that our lives matter because we were wonderfully made and somehow, we chose to throw it all away by breaking every relationship that mattered. The story doesn’t explain mechanics, it argues that there is something special about us that needs reclaiming. At the same time that knowledgeable reader will note the authors of Genesis were pretty keen observers of humans and how easily they fall out with one another and themselves. They note that we are more than just animals and that living by tooth and claw isn’t really a good way of making society and is a waste of our potential and vocation. They tell us a truth to wrestle with.
The dismissal of transcendent stories that tell us about where we’re from and where we are going is something we do at our peril. You can’t prove justice or peace or companionship. They are in their own ways myths in the midst of a bigger tale of a cruel brutal impersonal world. Tell me why I should care about these things if they don’t really matter because evolution has no need of them? Poetry and myth tells me I should care.
So I am indebted to stories and storytellers who tell me the truth that there is more to life than just surviving. I need stories that tell me about the truth of hope and that I matter. I need these stories because I need a life rather than an existence.