I call it a myth because it is, as I have said, the imaginative and not the logical result of what is vaguely called ‘modern science’. Strictly speaking, there is, I confess, no such thing as ‘modern science’. There are only particular sciences, all in a state of rapid change, and sometimes inconsistent with one another. What the Myth uses is a selection from the scientific theories--a selection made at first, and modified afterwards, in obedience to imaginative and emotional needs. It is the work of the folk imagination, moved by its natural appetite for an impressive unity. It therefore treats its data with great freedom--selecting, slurring, expurgating, and adding at will.
The central idea of the Myth is what its believers would call ‘Evolution’ or ‘Development’ or ‘Emergence’, just as the central idea in the myth of Adonis is Death and Re-birth. I do not mean that the doctrine of Evolution as held by practising biologists is a Myth. It may be shown, by later biologists, to be a less satisfactory hypothesis than was hoped fifty years ago. But that does not amount to being a Myth. It is a genuine scientific hypothesis. But we must sharply distinguish between Evolution as a biological theorem and popular Evolutionism or Developmentalism which is certainly a Myth. Before proceeding to describe it and (which is my chief business) to pronounce its eulogy, I had better make clear its mythical character.
In the science, Evolution is a theory about changes: in the Myth it is a fact about improvements. Thus a real scientist like Professor J.B.S. Haldane is at pains to point out that popular ideas of Evolution lay a wholly unjustified emphasis on those changes which have rendered creatures (by human standards) ‘better’ or more interesting. He adds, ‘We are therefore inclined to regard progress as the rule in evolution. Actually it is the exception, and for every case of it there are ten of degeneration.’ But the Myth simply expurgates the ten cases of degeneration. In the popular mind the word ‘Evolution’ conjures up a picture of things moving ‘onward and upwards’, and of nothing else whatsoever. And it might have been predicted that it would do so. Already, before science had spoken, the mythical imagination knew the kind of ‘Evolution’ it wanted. It wanted the Keatsian and Wagnerian kind: the gods superseding the Titans, and the young, joyous, careless, amorous Siegfried superseding the care-worn, anxious, treaty-entangled Wotan. If science offers any instances to satisfy that demand, they will be eagerly accepted. If it offers any instances that frustrate it, they will simply be ignored.
Again, for the scientist Evolution is purely a biological theorem. It takes over organic life on this planet as a going concern and tries to explain certain changes within that field. It makes no cosmic statements, no metaphysical statements, no eschatological statements. Granted that we now have minds we can trust, granted that organic life came to exist, it tries to explain, say, how a species that once had wings came to lose them. It explains this by the negative effect of environment operating on small variations. It does not in itself explain the origin of organic life, nor of the variations, nor does it discuss the origin and validity of reason. It may well tell you how the brain, through which reason now operates, arose, but that is a different matter. Still less does it even attempt to tell you how the universe as a whole arose, or what it is, or whither it is tending. But the Myth knows none of these reticences. Having first turned what was a theory of change into a theory of improvement, it then makes this a cosmic theory. Not merely terrestrial organisms but everything is moving ‘upwards and onwards’. Reason has ‘evolved’ out of instinct, virtue out of complexes, poetry out of erotic howls and grunts, civilization out of savagery, the organic out of the inorganic, the solar system out of some sidereal soup or traffic block. And conversely, reason, virtue, art and civilization as we now know them are only the crude or embryonic beginnings of far better things--perhaps Deity itself--in the remote future. For in the Myth, ‘Evolution’ (as the Myth understands it) is the formula for all existence. To exist means to be moving from the status of ‘almost zero’ to the status of ‘almost infinity’. To those brought up on the Myth nothing seems more normal, more natural, more plausible, than that chaos should turn to order, death into life, ignorance into knowledge. And with this we reach the full-blown Myth. It is one of the most moving and satisfying world dramas which have ever been imagined.
The drama proper is preceded by the most austere of all preludes; the infinite void and matter endlessly, aimlessly moving to bring forth it knows not what. Then by some millionth, millionth chance--what tragic irony!--the conditions at one point of space and time bubble up into that tiny fermentation which we call organic life. At first everything seems to be against the infant hero of our drama; just as everything always was against the seventh son or ill-used step-daughter in a fairy tale. But life somehow wins through. With incalculable sufferings (the Sorrows of the Volsungs were nothing to it), against all but insuperable obstacles, it spreads, it breeds, it complicates itself; from the amoeba up to the reptile, up to the mammal. Life (here comes the first climax) ‘wantons as in her prime’. This is the age of the monsters: dragons prowl the earth, devour one another, and die. Then the irresistible theme of the Younger Son or the Ugly Duckling is repeated. As the weak, tiny spark of life herself began amidst the beasts that are far larger and stronger than he, there comes forth a little, naked, shivering, cowering biped, shuffling, not yet fully erect, promising nothing: the product of another millionth, millionth chance. His name in this Myth is Man: elsewhere he has been the young Beowulf whom men at first thought a dastard, or the stripling David armed only with a sling against a mail-clad Goliath, or a Jack the Giant-Killer himself, or even Hop-o’-my-Thumb. He thrives. He begins killing his giants. He becomes the Cave Man with his flints and his club, muttering and growling over his enemies’ bones, almost a brute and yet somehow able to invent art, pottery, language, weapons, cookery, and nearly everything else (his name in another story is Robinson Crusoe), dragging his screaming mate by her hair (I do not know exactly why), tearing his children to pieces in fierce jealousy until they are old enough to tear him, and cowering before the terrible gods whom he has invented in his own image.
But these were only growing pains. In the next act he has become true Man. He learns to master Nature. Science arises and dissipates the superstitions of his infancy. More and more he becomes the controller of his own fate. Passing hastily over the historical period (in it the upward and onward movement gets in places a little indistinct, but it is a mere nothing by the time-scale we are using) we follow our hero on into the future. See him in the last act, though not the last scene, of this great mystery. A race of demi-gods now rule the planet (in some versions, the galaxy). Eugenics have made certain that only demi-gods will now be born: psychoanalysis that none of them shall lose or smirch his divinity: economics that they shall have to hand all that demi-gods require. Man has ascended his throne. Man has become God. All is a blaze of glory. And now, mark well the final stroke of mythopoeic genius. It is only the more debased versions of the Myth that end here. For to end here is a little bathetic, even a little vulgar. If we stopped at this point the story would lack the highest grandeur. Therefore, in the best versions, the last scene reverses all. Arthur died: Siegfried died: Roland dies at Roncesvaux. Dusk steals darkly over the gods. All this time we have forgotten Mordred, Hagen, Ganilon. All this time Nature, the old enemy who only seemed to be defeated, has been gnawing away, silently, unceasingly, out of the reach of human power. The Sun will cool--all suns will cool--the whole universe will run down. Life (every form of life) will be banished without hope of return from every cubic inch of infinite space. All ends in nothingness. ‘Universal darkness covers all’. True to the shape of Elizabethan tragedy, the hero has swiftly fallen from the glory to which he slowly climbed: we are dismissed ‘in calm of mind, all passion spent’. It is indeed much better than Elizabethan tragedy, for it has a more complete finality. It brings us to the end not of a story, but of all possible stories: enden sah ich die welt.
I grew up believing in this Myth and have felt--I still feel--its almost perfect grandeur. Let no one say we are an unimaginative age: neither the Greeks nor the Norsemen ever invented a better story. Even to the present day, in certain moods, I could almost find it in my heart to wish that it was not mythical, but true. And yet, how could it be?
What makes it impossible that it should be true is not so much the lack of evidence for this or that scene in the drama or the fatal self-contradiction which runs right through it. The Myth cannot even get going without accepting a good deal from the real sciences. And the real sciences cannot be accepted for a moment unless rational inferences are valid: for every science claims to be a series of inferences from observed facts. It is only by such inferences that you can reach your nebulae and protoplasm and dinosaurs and sub-men and cave-men at all. Unless you start by believing that reality in the remotest space and the remotest time rigidly obeys the laws of logic, you can have no ground for believing in any astronomy, any biology, any paleontology, any archeology. To reach the positions held by the real scientists--which are taken over by the Myth--you must, in fact, treat reason as an absolute. But at the same time the Myth asks me to believe that reason is simply the unforeseen and unintended by-product of a mindless process at one stage of its endless and aimless becoming. The content of the Myth thus knocks from under me the only ground on which I could possibly believe the Myth to be true. If my own mind is a product of the irrational--if what seem my clearest reasonings are only the way in which a creature conditioned as I am is bound to feel--how shall I trust my mind when it tells me about Evolution? They say in effect ‘I will prove that what you call a proof is only the result of mental habits which result from heredity which results from biochemistry which results from physics’. But this is the same as saying: ‘I will prove that proofs are irrational’: more succinctly, ‘I will prove that there are no proofs’. The fact that some people of scientific education cannot by any effort be taught to see the difficulty, confirms one’s suspicion that we touch here a radical disease in their whole style of thought. But the man who does see it, is compelled to reject as mythical the cosmology in which most of us were brought up. That is has embedded in it many true particulars I do not doubt: but in its entirety, it simply will not do. Whatever the real universe may turn out to be like, it can’t be like that.