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Exposing the Mythologies of Evolution

The official release date for The Mythology of Evolution is next Friday*, and to celebrate here's a link to this post I wrote for the Zero Books blog back in July:

Is the conflict over evolution in the United States a straightforward case of “science” versus “religion” or is there more to this story that meets the eye? In my latest book, The Mythology of Evolution, I look deep into both the research and the cultural conflicts surrounding evolutionary theories and conclude that the usual way these issues are presented is deeply misleading. If we revalidate the science, we end up looking very differently at what evolution can mean.

You can read the entire Exposing the Mythologies of Evolution by clicking the link.

*Although actually you can already buy it.


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Nearly finished - damned good read!

Chairman: really glad you're enjoying it!

Hi Chris,

I'm hoping that writing you helps refine my own ideas.
Evolution is a mechanistic term used to describe change as in; the evolution of our solar system etc.
Our solar system was formed from an extinct super nova that eventually coalesced into what we now describe as our our solar system of which our planet Earth is a part.
It's perfect in describing the change in what we now describe as homo sapiens. Evolution is a really handy term.

Where it starts to fall apart is when we try and fit the puzzle pieces together in connecting evolution and the perplexing question of consciousness. And how we as moderns fit into the cosmos.

We come from our parents. They had a little wine one night and a little while later you were born.
They are your immediate ancestors. They in turn come from their parents and so forth. They are our ancestors. That ancestry goes back a ways. The moon landing was only 2.3 generations ago. Gutenberg invinted the printing press in 1440 – 29 generations. Magna Carta 1215 –
40 generations. Birth of Christ – only 100 generations. First Europeans
43,000 – 2150 generations. Early human migrations from Africa (100,000 years) – 5000 generations. Australopithecus africanus (2.5 million years) –125,000 generations. First mammals
(320 million years) – 16,000,000 generations

According to the most recent research, our ancestry goes back some 4.1 billion years.

The life that you and I are at this very moment goes back to that beginning some 4.1 billion years unbroken. Not for one millionth of a second was that life interrupted. I've changed a bit, no doubt.

Our ancestry goes back a bit further because we come from what is described as solid rock, liquid and gas found in what we commonly describe as the Earth (whatever "IT" really is.)

And to continue down that line, we come out of what is described as "The Big Bang" some 13.5 billion years ago which "evolved" from what is described as a singularity.

There was a philosopher/physicist in my area (Norther California) by the name of Arthur Young.
He described Quantum Mechanics in literary terms describing the universe as a "verb" not a "noun". A quantum of action – a "thing" in the process of becoming.

That thing he's talking about is you and I.

In my other post regarding Joseph Campbell and his appreciation of the Upanishad was because it fits neatly with modern cosmology. Whereas mythology from the near East is based on a world view that no longer holds water. But the poetry hidden in the language does.
He liked the gospel according to Luke. Jesus tells his followers to, "drink from my mouth and become as I am." The being of beings of which you and I are.

Best regards,

Hi Richard,
Thanks for your thoughts here... the unbroken chain of inheritance, and the sense in which the story of life as a whole is one of continuity, is a thread that I explore in depth in The Mythology of Evolution. One of the things I find fascinating about the stories told about evolution is the choice of emphasis one has - but like you, I prefer to emphasise this sense of continuity.

Regarding Campbell and the distinction between Dharmic (Eastern) and Abrahamic (Western) religious traditions, you are certainly correct that he recognised that the Dharmic traditions were well-suited to our new cosmic imaginary. But his complaint against the Abrahamic traditions was slightly more complicated than suggesting that the world view was unworkable; on the contrary, he was keen to stress that Christian mythology was just as workable a mythic system as any other, and that the problem was coming because "it always been the way of multitudes to interpret their own symbols literally" ("The Impact of Science on Myth", 1961). There's something of a problem with Campbell's thought here (although he gestures well towards possible resolutions), in that he is calling into problem a psychological tendency that he also admits as inevitable.

Campbell was also acutely aware that the Abrahamic mythologies had an important legacy for us today, writing:

"It is not easy for Westerners to realize that the ideas recently developed in the West of the individual, his selfhood, his rights, and his freedom, have no meaning whatsoever in the Orient. They had no meaning for primitive man. They would have meant nothing to the peoples of the early Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Chinese, or Indian civilizations. They are, in fact, repugnant to the ideals, the aims and orders of life, of most of the peoples of this earth. And yet... they are the truly great 'new thing' that we do indeed represent to the world and that constitutes our Occidental revelation of a properly human spiritual ideal, true to the highest potentiality of our species."
("The Separation of East and West", 1961)

So for Campbell, and for me, the religious traditions all bring something to the table, and the problem is not so much any specific tradition as it is failures in practice within certain traditions.

If you have not already read it, I can recommend Campbell's book "The Myths We Live By", from which the quotes above are taken. I used it extensively while I was writing The Mythology of Evolution. It's a set of essays adapted from a series of talks he gave in New York between 1958 and 1971, and it's the best source for examining his views on the challenges facing contemporary mythology, and will be most rewarding for someone like yourself who is already well-engaged with the core of Campbell's thought.

All the best,



Thanks for your thoughtful input. I'll definitely check out your book. Sounds good. I'll have to look back at both of those books you recommend by Campbell. Been a while since I've picked them up.

One of the things that we are faced with unlike Campbell, though he saw it coming, is that we are literally running out of time. We are consuming ourselves into oblivion as I write. People are beginning to recognize that the sands are running out and are starting to accept it – albeit a small number right now. I think we all have this sense that we are living on borrowed time. Here in California we're running out of water. This time it's not a dogmatic prophecy but math and science telling us the end is near.
The rest of humanity is, at least in my area, focused economic growth only. Environmental concerns are lip service pretty much. At least in the main stream.

If you look at the news coming from the environmental front it's all bad. WWF study has shown that 50% of wildlife on land and in the oceans has been killed off in the last 40 years! Nobody is taking climate change seriously. The resultant acidification of the ocean will put the final nail on its coffin from the bottom species on up.

I posted this link (below) in another area of your site. An excerpt from one of Alan Watts' lectures. Campbell's expertise stemmed from the world mythological perspective, Watts does a great job in filling in some blanks. Watts came at it from a Zen perspective but ultimately abandoned ALL religious dogma, Zen and otherwise. He and Campbell netted out in the same place. As Campbell said, "religion is the final barrier to a religious experience".


Maybe it's not your cup of tea but Watts thought his ideas through very well. The Website, Tragedy and Hope does a nice job editing parts of Watts' many audio lectures and create compelling little shorts.

I live right above Watts' house where he lived and spent his final days next to Muir Woods National Monument in northern California. I'm also a fellow at the Joseph Campbell Foundation. Designed the JCF identity along with all of the foundations accumulation of Campbell's books, DVD's etc. – including 'The Hero with a Thousand Faces'.

Whatever this new and improved mythology is, it better come fast. It has to be digested by the masses and incorporates everything we have learned in the 500 years. it HAS to put the natural world above all else on which we are dependent for our very lives. Campbell new full well that the Earth Rise (the catalyst for the environmental movement) would have to be the symbol for this new mythological symbol. The new myth has to be enviro-centric. The old myths have to be tweaked to incorporate this as the Pope Francis is trying to do. he's the only one that I'm aware of that is attacking the problems we are facing head on. They are, overconsumption, overpopulation and really the capitalist system. At least he's beginning to address overpopulation. That's quite a turnaround for the Catholics.

The reason I used the 20-year generational time frame is that it is a useful device that everyone can get their heads around. I'm 59 years-old and am surprised by how few generations it is to my own countries Declaration of Independence. Only 12 generations – that's nothing. And the birth of Christ is only 100 generations. The idea of connecting that with your direct ancestors works on a very simple level– most people stop at around five max. But where does it stop? The answer is that is doesn't. That coupled with the knowledge that man and woman don't create life but bring it forward works on a base level. Campbell describes woman as "the vehicle of life".

This generation is faced with challenges unlike anything described in the past. The development of a REAL living, working mythology, like evolutionary biology, take a long time. Not much left. We have to become more self-less and realize what we are. To save ourselves from ourselves. The Wests focus on the individual is fantastic but has its limits. Reductive thinking is great for studying individual things but as John Muir said, "when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe."

Please excuse my ramblings. I have this sense of urgency for change and am impatient.


My apologies on the editing of my previous post. I'm horrible at reviewing.
Wanted to mention Brian Swimme if you're not familiar with his work.

From Wiki

"...is a professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies, in San Francisco, where he teaches evolutionary cosmology to graduate students in the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program. He received his Ph.D. (1978) from the department of mathematics at the University of Oregon for work with Richard Barrar on singularity theory, with a dissertation entitled Singularities in the N-Body Problem.[1] Swimme was a faculty member in the department of mathematics at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, 1978–81. He was a member of the faculty at the Institute in Culture and Creation Spirituality at Holy Names University in Oakland, California, 1983–89."

"The Journey of the Universe" is a great piece (DVD) that's really worth checking out.


Hi Richard,
Thanks for coming back to continue our conversation. I have a number of things I should like to respond to here, but I might as well start with Alan Watts and Zen Buddhism. (I didn't respond to your video link because it was a video and I don't watch internet videos... I'm afraid I'm a words-person; I get impatient with videos - they are so slow compared to reading!) Regarding Watts, you say:

"Watts came at it from a Zen perspective but ultimately abandoned ALL religious dogma, Zen and otherwise."

This is a strange sentence to me, because Zen and Ch'an Buddhism are by their very nature anti-dogmatic. To abandon Zen dogma would be to practice Zen Buddhism! :) Watts later work moves very strongly in the space of Advaita Vendanta, which grows out of the Hindu traditions. I have a lot of time for philosophy in this space, and Watts was very talented at bringing it to the West.

We are facing a nest of problems at the moment, among which I concur with you that our greatest involves our relationship to our planet. But one of the unseen problems of the environmental crisis is that those who feel it most acutely rapidly become unable to communicate it to those who do not. That's because the extent of the problem is such that it quickly becomes apocalyptic, and thus tacitly dogmatic. The problem of dogma is not a problem of religion but a problem of human thought. And it's a tricky one, as it's something we see clearly in others but not ourselves.

I agree with Campbell that new mythologies are required. But I break slightly with Campbell in that the new mythology cannot be quite like traditional mythology, because the conditions that fostered those narratives are not the ones we currently face. Our current situation, one which Charles Taylor calls "the Nova effect", is of a tremendous diversity of ways of being, indeed, an ever-diversifying panoply of religious and non-religious positions. It is no longer possible for singular mythic systems to do the work they once did. We require new approaches.

One promising strand is coming from continental Europe, from the philosopher Isabelle Stengers, and her close colleague Bruno Latour. My own work in ethics draws against theirs and several other philosophers and writers to attempt to lay out a way of understanding the problem - because the problem is more complicated than at first it seems. This is the subject of my book "Chaos Ethics", which is a fractured analysis of the moral problems we are facing today.

A key challenge therein is that from every singular position, a natural entrenchment occurs, demonising those who do not share our concerns and cutting people off from genuine political discourse. This is a part of the problem that "Wikipedia Knows Nothing" comes at - that will be out within the next month, and it's a free ebook (and a short read), so if you're interested in my work that would be a great place to start.

All the best,



Thanks for the info, I look forward to reading your new work next month.

Because I'm a designer/musician I genuinely love multi-media. Love to read also but really appreciate when big ideas can be condensed into compelling and inspiring stories that utilize visual, sound and story together. Campbell says that, "shamans were the artists of their day and artists are the shamans of today." Not ashamed to say movies represent the greatest potential art form we have.

Because the industrialized world is primarily responsible for the destruction of the environment the only hope of introducing new ideas to that specific audience on a large scale and in a compelling way is through the media of television and the movies whether we like it or not.
The internet on a smaller scale still.

Campbell's work and ideas gained wide notoriety only after 'The Power of Myth" was produced for PBS in the U.S. Bill Moyers, the best journalist in our country and an important player within PBS, threatened to end his association with PBS if they didn't produce it. PBS now takes full credit for the production of course. Prior to that Campbell was barely known outside a small circle but now is pretty much a household name.

The dense little four minute video ('It Starts Now") of Watts lecturing on YouTube deals with a lot of what your working on I would suspect. I hadn't thought about the concept of time a lot but Watts quickly and beautifully reminds us that we are on the leading edge of the big bang that is still in the process of becoming. There is only the ever present. There is something powerful in hearing his voice and the inflections in the words that make it more compelling than reading his books as much as I enjoy them also. I enjoy listening to Campbell as well. I like hearing the interplay of him and his audience. I hear his voice when I'm reading his work. I actually had all of Campbell's hand written notes on 'The World Atlas of Mythology' in my studio when I was working on designing the system for 'The Collected works of Joseph Campbell'.

Again, Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker (Research Scholar at Yale University) do a terrific job in their book and documentery, 'Journey of the Universe'. It is written for a general audience but is densely packed with big ideas about the evolution of the universe. You might find their approach interesting. Link to - about the book - below .



Hi Richard,
I didn't know Moyers had to play hardball with PBS to get "The Power of Myth" made... although it does make a lot of sense! :)

As for films, I absolutely agree that the arts will be an important part of the resolution of our predicament, but no one media artefact or medium will suffice. Once the dimensions of the problem are fully understood (and I do not believe we have reached this point yet), it will take efforts from a variety of media, from the sciences, from philosophers, from journalists, and, frankly, from everyone, to make the changes (whatever they turn out to be in practice). But there is not a single audience to be reached, but rather a diverse panoply of cultures - so it will take many media artefacts (of whatever kind) to achieve anything of substance.

I'll take a look at the book you mention - it sounds interesting, and I'm very interested in writing techniques for reaching a wide audience.

All the best,


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