How Can We Make Evolution a Better Story?

The quick answer to this question is this: We cannot make evolution into a better story. Let me explain.

A story is a narrative account of a motivated character who acts to achieve certain goals or ends over time. Every great story you can think of—from Homer’s Iliad to your favorite television show—involves characters who pursue goals over time, characters who want something and set out to achieve it. In this sense, the classic biblical creation stories are very good stories. You have a main character—God, the creator—who sets out to achieve something over time. There is purpose and design to what God, the main character, does. God is an agent—a self-conscious, motivated actor. All stories have agents.

Evolutionary theory, however, is not a story in that there is no prime agent, no self-conscious and motivated main character who strives to achieve something over time. For this reason, there is no overall narrative arc or design, no purpose that is being achieved by a purposeful agent. Instead, you have random, mechanical forces—variation, selection, and heredity. Bad story! But, at the same time, extraordinarily brilliant and elegant theory, for it provides a compelling and scientifically testable explanation for life on earth.

At the end of the day, science depends on great theories rather than great stories. Theories explain how the world works in terms of basic laws, testable hypotheses, empirical data, and logic. Science traffics in theories. By contrast, stories depict human experience in all of its phenomenological richness and complexity, calling upon the basic ideas of character, plot, and so on. Theories and stories are very different. They can’t really be compared. You have great theorists—like Darwin and Einstein. And you have great storytellers—like Fyodor Dostoevsky and Jane Austen.

We don’t expect great scientists to tell wonderful stories about life, and we don’t expect great novelists to develop scientific breakthroughs about how the world works. For the most part, religion traffics in stories, images, rituals, beliefs, and many other compelling human experiences and practices that are not really subject to scientific scrutiny. Religion and science are different—just as stores and theories are different.

Dan McAdams is the chair of the department of psychology and director of the Foley Center for the Study of Lives at Northwestern University and the author of The Redemptive Self.

Category: Q&A

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6 Responses

  1. kenell J Touryan says:

    My comment is always the same, and it is another way of looking at religion and science, one that was developed by an ASA team in 1986 In other words:
    “Science continually raises philosphical questions that go beyond the competence snd purview of science”.
    One caution though, we need to remember another important point when we tend to extoll Darwinian evolution:
    “The confidence expressed in any scientific conclusion [including the thoery of macroevolution] should be directly proportional to the quantity and quality of evidence for that conclusion”

  2. Peter Kinnon says:

    While the distinction made in this article is entirely valid it can be said that it does still not go far enough,

    Stories, of course, stem from anthropocentric world-views. They naturally include the mythologies of religion and superstition.

    But much of this anthropocentrism is also to be found in the traditional “heroic” view of the development of technology and science

    To properly maintain objectivity we have to be careful not to too lightly attribute the existence of these knowledge-systems (and the resulting artifacts) to individuals.

    If we shake off our very natural anthropocentric biases it becomes clear that, except in a very trivial sense there are no inventors, no designers.

    We do, of course have discoverers, those who happen to be the right types, in the right place at the right time who pick the low-hanging fruit.

    But objectively, we have to interpret science and technology as evolving autonomously within the collective imagination of our species. A stochastic process given directionality by the dynamically changing prevailing conditions.

    To quickly bring this very counter-intuitive but historically quite well evidenced view into focus, would you not agree with the following statement:

    Without Faraday we would have no electric motors or transformers, no mathematical understanding of the electromagnetic field without Maxwell, no calculus of variations without Liebnitz or Newton, No relativity or quantum theory without Einstein, no steam engines without Stephenson Without Marie Curie we would know nothing of radium, we would have no radio without Marconi?

    The broad evolutionary model which accommodates such considerations is very informally presented in “The Goldilocks Effect: What Has Serendipity Ever Done For Us?” (free download in e-book formats from my “Unusual Perspectives” website)

  3. Heron says:

    If life can develop on its own, then what role does god serve? That’s why modern-day militant, revivalist, evangelical religion (whether it’s Christian, Islam, or whatever else)resists evolution; it removes God from the equation, and the entire power structure of organized religion rests on God.

    It doesn’t need to be so strict, of course. Plenty of folks were, for centuries, perfectly happy with a “watchmaker” god who set everything in motion then sat back and let things go their own way. Mainline religion in the US, in particular, was very sympathetic to science and evolution up as late as the 1920s; so much so that we even had a president (Woodrow Wilson) saying that evolution was obviously correct and that there was no conflict between it and faith. Moreover, the US is positively rife, in the modern day, with all manner of pseudo-Christian New-Age sects that appropriate the theory for their own purposes.

    In other words, it isn’t a “problem” of framing. Stories have little to do with it. So long as the revivalists of all stripes cling to a Religious destiny and a Messianic, Interventionist God, they must oppose evolution because the sort of god who would use such a system for creating life is too hands-off for what they want from a God.

  4. blaze says:

    The Hindu understanding of Paramashiva fills your bill. Prana is intelligent. Although it is not anthropomorphic, intelligence infuses all and evolution is an elegant (and sometimes not) expression of that intelligence.

  5. There are many stories of evolution. Stories of bravery… sacrifice… ingenuity…. Ever approached a mother goose, moose or grizzly? Ever been in a desert after a rainstorm? Corn plants’ drooping leaves directs rain water out into furrows where seedlings sprout. Apple and peach trees wrap their young in sweet-fleshed fertilizer capsules. “Motherly love” is a evolutionary trait — and not limited to the animal kingdom. And it makes some pretty good stories. :-)

  6. Agreed. Science and religion are very different. But I think it is possible to attract more “believers” to science if we look at it on its own terms but from a slightly new angle.

    Here’s the key question: What do people need from and get from religion? The answer is complex but here are three of the pieces. One is, it gives us the big picture—how the universe began and what our purpose is in being here. Two, it offers consolation in the face of death. And three, it gives guidance about the difference between right and wrong.

    I think science can answer these needs to a greater degree than most people think.

    First, science not only describes the Big Bang and the cosmic aftermath; it also makes a strong case that, as living things, our built-in, never-ending purpose, always pursued in ways basic or sophisticated, is to stay alive and try to thrive.

    Two, about death, science doesn’t promise an eternity in heaven, but it does show us the awesome 3 billion year history of living things, with good reason to expect a long future. For me, there is some consolation in knowing my life/death is a link in a very long, very large chain of life.

    Finally, all creatures, even plants, cooperate and compete, reproduce and kill, and, if the creatures are us, love and hate. Science doesn’t hand down commandments, but by showing us the deep roots of good and evil, its helps us make choices.

    So maybe looking to science to tell stories is not the best approach. We might do better sharing the ways that science, on its own terms and with reasonable expectations, meets some of our spiritual needs.

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