Expert Voices

As Myth Marries Science, the Origin Story Matters (Op-Ed)

an illustration of a Neanderthal face
Neanderthals were once the closest living relatives of modern humans, dwelling across a vast area ranging from Europe to the Middle East to western Asia. This ancient lineage of humans went extinct about 40,000 years ago, about the same time modern humans expanded across the world. (Image credit: Mauro Cutrona)

Roger Briggs is the author of "Journey to Civilization: The Science of How We Got Here" (Collins Foundation Press, 2013). In his book, he presents a new creation story of the universe, the Earth, life and humanity based on the evidence and skepticism of science. Briggs contributed this article toLiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Imagine that you just woke up where you are right now, with no memory of the past. You have amnesia. Your body and mind function normally, but you have no idea how you got where you are. You have no life story, and without this, you are lost. To make matters even worse, you have no idea what to do next. If someone found you in this state, that person would probably think you were insane.

In order to make sense of the world, and our own existence, humans need to situate ourselves in a personal story that begins with our birth (or shortly after) and flows continuously to the present moment. Although we may lose sight of this story each night when we sleep, we regain it each morning when we awake, and only then can we resume our normal life.

Adding to our personal life story is a more encompassing one that predates each of our births — our family history and ancestry, and bigger still, the history of Western civilization. As taught in schools, that history goes back about 5,000 years, and most people do not have any real sense of connection to events before then.

Ancient people also needed stories to make sense of their frightening world. These stories were passed along through oral traditions and are often called myths. Virtually every culture and society for perhaps 60,000 years had a strong mythical foundation — and a creation myth that explained how the world came to be and how "our people" got here. These ancient myths were the highest truths, originating from the most revered sages and prophets. Yet today, the word "myth" is taken to mean falsehood —the very opposite of truth. What happened?

The short answer is, science happened. This new and powerful way of uncovering truth blossomed in the early 1600s, as heretics like Nicolaus Copernicus and Galileo Galilei shattered the myth that the Earth was the center of the universe. Logos replaced mythos, and the old creation stories were relegated to the shelf for quaint fairy tales. In their place grew the story of the mechanical universe largely attributed to Isaac Newton. The world was like a giant clock that could be reduced to many individual parts, each obeying the laws of physics with perfect predictability. Knowing these laws gave humans great power to manipulate and exploit nature. The Industrial Revolution, powered by the steam engine, became the proof of concept.

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While ancient people had a strong sense of connection with nature and a reverence for its powers, modern science and its story of the mechanical universe left humanity disconnected and alienated. People had no story of how they got here or how they fit into the universe. Newton needed a creator to wind up the clock at the beginning, but after that, everything — including humans — played out by cause and effect, like colliding balls on a billiard table. The Romantic movement of the 1800s tried, unsuccessfully, to push back against the determinism and materialism of Newtonian science, and the existentialists who followed expressed the despair and absurdity of the human condition in a meaningless world.

Finally, by the late 1960s, it was becoming impossible to ignore that humanity was on a path to destruction. The predominant story said that humans rule the Earth, that it is ours to exploit and that we could do this with impunity. But it was becoming clear that this story was as untrue as any of the ancient myths, and it was killing us. We were on course to become the first species on Earth to go extinct with only ourselves to blame!

A new story began to emerge in the late 20th century, and it was science itself that provided the evidence to support it. For the first time, people could begin piecing together the ultimate creation story, from the birth of the universe and the first stars, to the formation of the Earth, the evolution of life and the diaspora of modern humans out of Africa to cover the planet. A number of new books recounted this great story from different perspectives, including Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme's poetic and spiritual "The Universe Story" (HarperOne, 1994), historian David Christian's "Maps of Time" (University of California Press, 2005) and my own science-based version, "Journey to Civilization" (Collins Foundation Press, 2013).

The traditional view of history has been that prehistoric humans achieved civilization for the first time about 5,000 years ago in the Middle East, and was then followed by the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Dark Ages, the Renaissance and so on. Throughout this scenario came endless wars, violence, cruelty, powerful rulers and oppressed people, leading to the conclusion that history repeats itself, and therefore, humanity is doomed to repeat these patterns forever. The actors and locations will vary, but the basic plot will always be the same. Not much of a future.

But think about how different it would be to see the last 5,000 years as a very brief moment in a much bigger drama that began almost 14 billion years ago. From this perspective, one would never think that humans are stuck where they are, or that they have arrived at some final destination. Fossil discoveries have shown that humans in their modern anatomical form have been around for at least 200,000 years — and have been a work in progress for that entire time. One can now begin to see the last 5,000 years as merely the most recent stage that humanity is ready to outgrow. Perhaps war, domination and exploitation are no longer serving us. Perhaps a whole new era lies ahead for humanity, and we are simply in a painful stage of transition. The origin story that science can now tell is our new creation myth. It is the story of all people, and all living things, and the universe itself. It awakens us to whole new possibilities for humanity, and inspires us to create a better world.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on LiveScience.