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Discovering Our World
Humanity's Epic Journey from Myth to Knowledge
By Paul Singh, John R. Shook, Matt DiPalma
Pitchstone PublishingCopyright © 2015 Paul Singh and John R. Shook
All rights reserved.
THE ORIGIN OF THE UNIVERSE
In the beginning ... How many stories have started that way? For as long as humans have gazed up toward the sky, they have wondered where it all came from. Their stories have become as uncountable as the stars. Wherever you go, anywhere in the world from desert to plain to valley or mountain, you will meet people who have lived there a long while and can tell you how it began. And not just where their own land or tribe came from. Talk to people a while and eventually you will be treated to some story about how everything began, all of it, everything from the Earth and the seas and even the stars, and especially about where all humans came from and why we are here.
We are storytelling animals. Perhaps we aren't the only species capable of language. But we are the only kind of animal that would make up a story and then believe it. Humans are a species that must have stories — we cannot learn how to live without our stories. There is something about the great size of our brains that gives us not only the capacity to talk with each other, but also the drive to figure out where we came from, and where we are going. As a species, we have been living by our legends for a very long time. Before there were scientists, before there were priests, before anything was written down, there were people who had plenty of time to watch the glorious skies. They wondered why there are stars shining down on the land, and why there are people gazing back up at the stars. And they began to tell stories.
Stories of Creation
Stories continued to be told as the first civilizations arose around six thousand years ago. From Egypt and Mesopotamia to India, China, and Central America, every gathering of peoples into the first small cities was accompanied by some organizing of the best stories. When writing was invented, many of the first things recorded on papyrus or clay or animal skins were the peoples' origin stories. We now regard those stories as those civilization's creation myths, containing imaginative ideas about the world that may be more than ten thousand years old or even older.
By the time that the world's first civilizations arose and flourished, people had long been sharing and trading their stories right along with everything else they had of value. Nearby cities borrowed and combined stories and neighboring civilizations soon had religions that shared as many similarities as differences. After the great trade routes across land and sea were able to connect the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and the Middle East with Central Asia and India, and India on with China, religious stories traveled with the travelers. The great civilizations, such as the Persian and Roman empires and the Gupta Empire in India, contained within their borders many religions simultaneously, and the blending and merging of mythological stories accelerated. While the names of gods and details of their deeds still proliferated, all those religions included similar themes and narrative plots.
The ancient Egyptians had several creation stories, dating back before 3000 BCE. Many involve the primeval and oldest kind of being, a fundamental watery darkness called the Nun. Vaster than the world, comprising what exists beyond the stars above and beneath the Earth below, Nun generated everything else alive, including the other gods. Egyptian myths add a rivalry between this watery deep and the first male god, usually associated with the sun. One myth important to the Heliopolis theology of the Old Kingdom (roughly 2600 to 2100 BCE) credits the supreme deity Atum with creating the world. In the beginning Atum was submerged among the chaotic waters called Nu or Nun. By first creating a hill of earth in the middle of the waters, Atum had a place to stand so he could then make two more gods, Shu and Tefnut, out of himself. Shu and Tefnut gave birth to the earth god Geb and the sky goddess Nut, who in turn birthed more gods including Osiris and Isis.
The earliest Babylonian creation story is preserved in the Enuma Elish clay tablets. In the beginning there were two gods. Apsu was the fresh water of the world, and Tiamat was the salt water (the oceans) of the world. Their intermingling produced more gods, such as a sky god and an earth god. After one of these gods, named Ea, kills Apsu before Apsu could destroy them, Ea's son Marduk has to do battle with a vengeful Tiamat. By killing Tiamat and dividing her body into the earth and the sky, Marduk created the world. Marduk then creates humans from the body of Tiamat's husband and places them on the earth to work as slaves to the gods.
Creation stories from the ancient Hebrews were recorded in Genesis, the first book of the Jewish Torah. As Genesis opens, in the beginning the gods called Elohim existed along with darkness and waters. (The early Hebrews were polytheists, and the singular god Yahweh's creation story starts in the second chapter of Genesis.) Deciding to create the Earth, the Elohim first created light and then they divided the waters to make room for sky, where they placed the sun and moon. By dividing the water under the sky, the earth was formed between the seas, and then the Elohim filled land and sea with living creatures. Finally the Elohim announced the creation of mankind, "in our image," and gave humans dominion over all the life on Earth. This creation tale is an example of how tribal communities residing near earlier great civilizations borrow from their older mythologies. The primary events of Genesis (dating from 800–500 BCE) echo much older myths commonly told around the Near East at least 3,000 years before Christ and 1,500 years before Moses supposedly wrote down the Torah. God had to create light and earth but not water, repeating a much older mythic idea found from Egypt and Mesopotamia to Persia and India associating water with a dangerous cosmic power which had to be controlled and divided.
Both ancient Egypt of the Nile and ancient Sumeria of Mesopotamia (now present-day Iraq) looked to vast cosmic waters as the stage where the drama of the world's creation took place. This made some sense for settled peoples relying on large rivers like the Nile and the Euphrates for irrigation farming. There's no reason for nomadic herders from the dry uplands to think much about huge rivers and vast floods, yet the Hebrew genesis story included not one, but two flood stories. In the beginning, God had to begin creation by dealing with the primeval and chaotic waters that were already there, dividing them just like Marduk had to divide Tiamat. The Hebrews were also familiar with a Sumerian story, also adopted by the Babylonians a millennia later, about a great flood striking the population centers, and so the story of Noah and the Flood entered the Hebrew genesis legends.
Ancient Hinduism is based on the Vedic scriptures. In the Rig Veda, a variety of hymns about the creation of the world are narrated. In the beginning there was only darkness and water. A Golden Embryo came into being by itself, which then generated the sky, the earth, and the sun. A later sacred Hindu text titled The Brahmanas credits the waters with creation. In the beginning the primeval waters formed a golden egg, from which came the first god named Prajapati. From Prajapati's breath came the light, the sky, and the earth, along with other gods.
The Yoruba have long inhabited a region of West Africa, today mostly in the country of Nigeria. According to one of the Yoruba creation myths, in the beginning only chaotic waters exist. The supreme god Olódùmarè (also called Olorun) sent a godly assistant named Obatala to make land. Obatala descended down to the waters on a chain, carrying a shell holding some earth, some iron, and a chicken. Obatala piled the iron in the water, then mounded the earth on top of the iron. When Obatala set the chicken down on the earth, the chicken scratched and scattered the earth around, creating all the land. After some minor gods had lived on the land awhile, it had sufficiently dried out, so Obatala then fashioned humans from some of the dry earth and Olódùmarè made them come to life by blowing into them.
Among the Finnish legends are tales preserved in the Kalevala, a collection of epic poetry. In the beginning there were only the waters and the sky. Sky had a daughter, Ilmatar, who let a beautiful bird make a nest on her knee. When the eggs broke, shells made land, the egg whites made the moon and stars, and a yolk became the sun. Ilmatar continued creation in the new land, forming the features of the earth. A son, born of her and the sea, was the first human.
A long poem by Hesiod called Theogeny records ancient Greek myths. In the beginning there was only Chaos, but two gods emerged in this chaos, Gaia of earth and Eros of love. Gaia and her children in turn produced further generations of gods, whose battles resulted in the eventual victory of Zeus and the final pantheon of Olympian gods. Along the way, humans get created only to end up as the playthings of the gods for their amusement.
Almost every culture includes legendary stories about how the world began from some original condition, how the first creator(s) did their mighty deeds, and how humans were formed along the way. Collections of creation myths can include hundreds of these sorts of stories, and even a one-volume survey such as A Dictionary of Creation Myths by David and Margaret Leeming offers a bewildering variety from all around the world.
Scholars of world mythology have been able to largely agree on some type of order for categorizing creation stories. Obvious similarities among legends can't be missed. For example, the presence of chaotic waters in the beginning keeps recurring across many cultural myths. Both unformed chaos, and the waters that symbolize its unpredictability, struck many curious minds as an obvious place to start from. The founding of the world is linked with the origin of all order and regularity and law, which must survive in competition with its chaotic origins. The motif of birth is also essential to many creation stories, and the story of how the first birth took place supplies "the beginning" to it all. From this first birth, either of the world or of a god who then makes the world, everything else is subsequently born. Birth suggests reproduction, and mythologies are filled with accounts of divine parents making more gods and sometimes humans as well.
Some creations myths are focused on ancestry. They start from humanlike beings with divine powers, and proceed on to recount their great deeds and the noble births of the next generations. Other creation myths mention ancestors, but they also try to explain how those ancestors came into existence. Perhaps they were born from the supreme god or gods, or perhaps the first people were made by the gods. And where did the gods come from? Some creation myths describe the origin of the first god out of something else, while other creation myths assume that the first god had always existed right along with the primordial chaotic conditions. Only a few creation stories, like those of Christianity or Islam, declare that only one true god existed from all time and then made everything else.
What seems to be quite common throughout so many creation myths is that creation cannot be explained by chaos, by randomness, or by ignorance. At some point in the story a creator has to get going and take charge. This creator is an agent, a being similar to a person with a mind and a plan, who is responsible for creating us humans and the world we inhabit. Different creation myths attribute quite different roles to the supreme god or gods. Sometimes the supreme gods are like parents, trying to get along well enough to be lovers and then parents, reproducing a divine family and birthing humanity along the way. Sometimes the gods are like benevolent lords, taking responsibility for establishing and managing the orderly world so that humans can have a hospitable place to live. Sometimes the gods are like cruel masters, creating humans only to immediately demand their obedience and loyal service. Sometimes the gods are like military generals, gathering humans into an army to fight in some divine war.
Whatever the general theme of a creation myth, you can be sure to find a divine agent or two involved. Things have come to be the way that they are because some god or gods have deliberately caused it to be that way. Creation myths try to explain how order came from disorder, how the first birth happened and what god was born in the process, how this god is responsible for the rest of creation, and the way that the first people were created in the process. Narratives in general are like that; the point of stories has always been to recount what people have been doing, and why they are doing what they do. The focus of mythological stories is always on the deeds of the creators, what they have accomplished, and how humanity plays some small role in the cosmic drama.
The stage for these dramas has never been as grand as the plots, though. The earth, the sky, the stars — that's usually as far as the religious imagination extended. The most ambitious of the ancient myths usually only manage to put the earth at the center of it all, closely surrounded by the vault of the sky and its embedded heavenly lights. The notion that the heavens are much farther away than the clouds, or that some stars are much farther away than the sun, never occurred to mythmakers. Only after early astronomy began realizing how far away the moon and the sun and the planets must be, did mythmakers start to update their visions. By medieval times, creation had become a little bigger, but the earth still occupied center stage, the heavens were still pretty close, and the whole of creation was depicted as a sphere with a definite center and a surrounding edge.
During the Renaissance, a few brave astronomers starting with Copernicus and Galileo dared to say that the earth was not at the center of everything. They instead suggested that all the planets go around the sun and that the stars might be distant suns with their own planets. But religions were not interested. Removing the earth and its people from the center of everything threatened to ruin a good story.
The Science of Starlight
The stars turned out to be better storytellers than us. Information from all those stars, near and far, permitted astronomers to figure out what the universe was actually like. The progress of astronomy delivered more amazing discoveries after it displaced the earth from the center of creation. Not only is the earth just one of several planets orbiting the sun, but the sun is just one of many billions of stars going round and round in a disc-shaped galaxy. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the best astronomy could do was to depict our galaxy of stars as the entire universe. This was big progress, at a time when most religious people still faithfully believed that the earth is the center of everything. Then the little globs of fuzzy light scattered between the stars turned out to be other galaxies far beyond our own galaxy, as discovered by Edwin Hubble using the largest telescopes available in the early 1920s. Billions of galaxies could be seen through bigger and bigger telescopes built later on during the twentieth century, and telescopes in orbit around the earth, such as the Hubble Telescope, have focused in on the most distant galaxies.
But the largest surprises were still coming. Not only did the universe contain many billions of galaxies and trillions of stars, far vaster than any religious picture, but the universe itself was completely different than anyone had imagined. Hubble next discovered that most of the visible galaxies around us were getting farther away from our own galaxy. By 1970 or so, astronomers had concluded that according to the best available evidence, the universe is incredibly huge, has no center and no edge, and had a small beginning about fourteen billion years ago. The universe was created from a tiny burst of intense energy, all the energy the universe would need from then on, in order to inflate to its current size and keep on inflating. Of all that energy, only a tiny fraction ended up as stars and planets, just thin debris left scattered around the universe. Our own place in the universe turned out to be completely insignificant.
The stars that we can see in the night sky made it look like we are at the center of everything. Telescopes allowed us to figure out what is really going on out there, especially after the galaxies were discovered. It turns out that there is no good evidence that we occupy any special place in the universe. However, the galaxies might have deceived us too, just as the stars already had deceived prescientific minds. From the perspective of our galaxy, the Milky Way, we can observe many millions of other galaxies. They are very far away, and they are all getting farther away from us. Why would all the other galaxies look like they are moving away from us, if we aren't at the center of the universe? It turns out that there must be a different explanation for what appears to be happening. We can tell how far away other galaxies are and how they are moving by carefully examining the light coming from all those galaxies.
Excerpted from Discovering Our World by Paul Singh, John R. Shook, Matt DiPalma. Copyright © 2015 Paul Singh and John R. Shook. Excerpted by permission of Pitchstone Publishing.
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Table of Contents
1 The Origin of the Universe 13
Stories of Creation 14
The Science of Starlight 20
The Expansion of the Universe 24
The Birth of Our Universe 29
Gods and Universes 35
2 The Ages of Planet Earth 45
Young Earth or Old Earth? 46
The Dynamic Earth 51
The Earth's Cradle 60
The Sun, the Earth, and the Moon 63
The Oceans and Atmosphere 71
Resilient Life 75
3 The Evolution of Life 85
Curiosity about Life's Origins 85
Where Did Life Come From? 92
How Did Life Evolve? 102
Symbiosis and Complexity 107
Misconceptions about Evolution 112
Life Is Naturally Precious 120
4 Humanity's Beginnings 125
The First People 126
The First Homo Sapiens 132
The Myth of Adam and Eve 138
Religion and Racism 141
The Origin of Language 145
5 Human Culture 153
Social Roles and Rules 154
Women and Family 160
Sexuality, Mental Illness, and "Deviant" Behaviors 165
Virtue, Power, and Violence 175
6 Good and Evil 181
Divine Evil 184
Human Evil 190
Human Goodness 195
Natural Goodness 201
Liberating Ethics 205
7 Life and Death 211
Pregnancy and Birth 211
Longevity and Immortality 217
Disease and Dying 221
The Soul and Death 227
How to Die Today 233
8 Society and Politics 239
The Social Order 240
The Gods and Godly Kings 247
God's Empire 252
Heavenly Rulers 258
Religion and Social Stability 265
9 Science 276
Science and Religions Natural Differences 277
Why Should Science Accommodate Religion? 285
How Did Science Survive Despite Religion? 289
A Declaration of Science's Independence 296
Science vs. Religion Today 300
God Is Not a Scientific Hypothesis 303
10 Technology 307
Humanity's End 307
Dangerous Technology 311
Good Medicine, Bad Religion 316
Redesigning Humans 323
A Planet Worth Saving 333
About the Authors 349