In the current Skeptical Inquirer Keith Taylor reviews Richard Dawkins’s new children’s book The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True. In the review, Taylor quotes Dawkins on the origins of pagan mythology. Dawkins relates the story of how Odin created humanity out of tree trunks. The story runs thus in the Prose Edda:
Dawkins writes of this tale:
Since Dawkins feels (correctly) that mythology is prima facie false, he therefore presumes that it must be the result of falsehood and lies. I beg to differ with Dr. Dawkins. I don’t think anyone just “made up” or "came up" with intentional falsehoods. This happened occasionally in very late, literary myths, like that of Cupid and Psyche, but everyone knew those were poetic falsehoods. No, there weren’t ancient con artists sitting around telling people lies to watch them worship false idols for fun.
The very interesting work of David Lewis-Williams in The Mind in the Cave (2002) and Inside the Neolithic Mind (2005, with David Pearce) provide a plausible, evolutionary explanation that requires no con artists, liars, or frauds to explain the origins of myth. Mythic tropes emerged from the experiences of early shamans during altered states of consciousness, brought about by trance or drugs, in which the shaman believed he had visited a supernatural realm and encountered the gods. This realm is actually a product of the evolved neural pathways of the brain and accessible during altered states of consciousness. From these voyages, the shamans developed the kernels of stories about the origin of all things that persisted through time, accumulating gradual changes like in a game of Chinese telephone, where the story evolves without any one actor thinking he or she was responsible for a given change.
In other words, we would all benefit from taking Dawkins's own advice in The Magic of Reality and avoid “presuming” anything about the past, since presumptions only reflect back on us our own assumptions and biases.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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