When university studies of mythology began in the 19th century, scholars often saw myth as primitive science. ‘Why do seas surge and winds blow?’ Edward Burnett Tylor, Oxford University’s first professor of anthropology, argued that cultures evolve from seeing events as random to a higher belief in causation. ‘The tidal wave was not accidental. It came because Poseidon was angry. Next time we’ll make a sacrifice and avert his anger.’
Noah, of course, knew that the greatest physical disaster was not accidental. He communicated that understanding on to his descendants, but in a few generations some became fuzzy on the details and tried to stop minor floods by propitiating gods of their own creation. Refugees from the Tower of Babel created Hindu and Greek mythology. They did not want chance to rule their lives. They thought they could bring order by offering sacrifices, and some even killed their children in an attempt to gain control -- but they learned that mythology science didn’t work.
Christianity broke with the idea of exchange, the faith that ‘if I do something for God, He’ll do something for me.’ The New Testament taught that we could not ascend to God: He had come down to us. But that did not satisfy those who wanted more control. The medieval church hierarchy worked out a system of indulgences: Specific actions or payments would decrease the number of years we or loved ones would spend in purgatory. With indulgence science, man could control what had seemed to be uncontrollable -- and there seemed no way to disprove it.
But there was: In the 16th century, reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin taught that the Bible was the only true instructor in the way God and the world worked. They undermined belief in purgatory, and in so doing attacked the sense that man could control God. They did not undermine belief in order, since Luther and Calvin both emphasized God’s sovereignty, but Enlightenment intellectuals like Voltaire argued that disasters like the earthquake that destroyed Lisbon in 1755 showed a lack of order: Randomness ruled. Then the French Revolution razed order-giving institutions, and other revolutions followed in 1848. Chaos was back in the saddle again.
Let’s jump to recent times: If you don’t believe in Christ but don’t want chaos to rule, what’s the gift that keeps on giving? Islam, for some, but for much of Europe and America, Charles Darwin. “On the Origin of Species”in 1859 posited “survival of the fittest,” with life a tale of sound and fury where those with the biggest roar and the biggest teeth win. True, Darwinian evolution left neither God nor man in charge of the process, but everything did not occur just by chance. Although individual lives lost their purpose, Life did not: higher, stronger, faster, fitter.
But the problem that bugged Darwin proved unsolvable: How did one kind of creature turn into another kind? In the 20th century, neo-Darwinians integrated Mendelian genetics with Darwin’s overview, claiming that change came not only through natural selection but via genetic drift, random changes in the frequency of genes. Neo-Darwinians often explained it by picturing 50 orange and 50 green marbles in a jar. Choose 10, and you might end up with seven oranges and three greens. Then fill up a second jar proportionally, with 70 orange and 30 green marbles. Choose 10 more, and you might end up with nine oranges and one green. Repeat the process, and by the fourth generation you might have all orange marbles.
What a melancholy notion! The orange ones are no more fit than the green ones. If you did the experiment the next time, you might end up with all greens. The neo-Darwinian synthesis was unrealistic: Would random changes in DNA or chance recombination of strands over time turn the descendants of marbles into Legos? But the greater sadness is that neo-Darwinism elevated chance to a spot it hasn’t had in Western thought since ancient Greek beliefs became known as mythology. As the late paleontologist Stephen Gould admitted, “I believe that... any replay of the tape would lead evolution down a pathway radically different from the road actually taken.”
No wonder “The Purpose Driven Life” has sold a gazillion copies. The alternative is purposelessness not only for one life but all life.