Ancient Mythology of Modern Science

Ancient Mythology of Modern Science: A Mythologist Looks (Seriously) at Popular Science Writing

Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Ancient Mythology of Modern Science
    Book Description:

    Humans have long been captivated by mythology and theorized about the lessons embedded in their tales. In The Ancient Mythology of Modern Science, Gregory Schrempp brings a mythologist's critical eye to popular science writing, a flourishing genre that forms a key link between science and popular consciousness. Schrempp argues that the defining and appealing characteristic of this genre is not simplification or "dumbing-down," but the attempt to parlay scientific findings into aesthetically and morally compelling visions that offer guidance for humanity. Schrempp argues that in striving for inspirational visions, popular science invariably reproduces - with ingenious invention - the structures, strategies, and cosmic imagery that infuse traditional mythological views of the cosmos. His claim challenges the widespread tendency to separate myth and science. Schrempp considers both the intellectual history of mythography and concrete examples from world mythologies including ancient Greek, Oceanic, and Native American. Schrempp's explorations span a range of fields, including astronomy, evolutionary biology, and cognitive science. In a world informed, transformed, and sometimes mesmerized by science, this book offers the first in-depth study of popular science writing from a mythologist's perspective.

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-8747-2
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-2)
  4. INTRODUCTION: Centaurs and Scientists
    (pp. 3-11)

    Two observations converge in the idea of this study. First, books in which accredited specialists discuss science and/or specific scientific findings in terms accessible and appealing to the general public have come to occupy a prominent place in contemporary bookstores. Second, humans throughout history have been fascinated by mythology. My argument is that these two circumstances are not unrelated; or, more specifically, the thesis of this book is that popular science writing provides a primary arena for the creation of con temporary mythology.

    Popular science writers typically use the term “myth” (or “mythology”) to designate just those pre- or non-scientific...

  5. 1 Mythologizing Matter: On Myth, Popular Science, and the Problem of Centric Knowledge
    (pp. 12-34)

    The purpose of this chapter is to elaborate on the key concepts already introduced — popular science writing, myth, and anthropocentrism — in order to lay groundwork for the chapters that follow. I also discuss some highlights from the history of the idea of myth, focusing on developments of particular relevance to contemporary popular science writing.

    By “popular science writing” I mean non-fiction works written by accredited specialists with the aim of presenting scientific theories and findings, and/or general views about the nature and present state of science, in an accessible and appealing way. Typically the authors of such works adopt broad,...

  6. 2 It Had to Be You! Fire without Prometheus
    (pp. 35-71)

    Scientists do not lay great evolutionary transitions on the shoulders of heroes from mythology;¹ yet dispatching mythic heroes is an easier task than dispatching mythic thinking. InThe Artful Universe(1995; expanded edition 2005²), John Barrow, professor of mathematical sciences at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of the Royal Society, takes the reader on a tour of the cosmos, one that traverses scales from microscopic to astronomic. The tour is designed to reveal the operation of laws (or “constants”) of nature within realms that many regard as quintessential sites of human freedom and spontaneity: consciousness, culture, and art. More...

  7. 3 Randomness and Life: Sobering Lessons from the Drunkard’s Walk
    (pp. 72-108)

    In this chapter I consider another scholar who, toward a quite different vision, combines three themes that figured centrally in Barrow’s analysis: an emphasis on quantitative reasoning, the idea of walls delimiting the possible from the impossible in cosmic evolution, and an insistence on the importance of accidentalism and contingency within that evolution (an insistence once again inspired by chaos theory). Specifically, I consider the analysis of the human place in nature presented by paleontologist and popular science writer Stephen Jay Gould inFull House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin,the work that this prolific author calls...

  8. 4 Copernican Kinship: An Origin Myth for the Category
    (pp. 109-150)

    Within the history of mythic visions allegedly shattered by science, the Copernican Revolution holds a special, epitomizing place. And so to catch Copernicus purveying solar myths is a mythologist’s delight — a double delight, in fact, because there are, first of all, the wonderful solar myths that Copernicus rounds up for his reader; then, on top of these, the interesting friction that these create for our myth of Copernicus. Why, wasn’t Copernicus the one who first led us to the vantage from which, for the first time, we could see the universe as it really is, and not as our petty,...

  9. 5 Descartes Descending or the Last Homunculus: Introversive Anthropomorphizing in Popular Science Writing
    (pp. 151-189)

    Even if, as diagnosed by Frazer, the world outside “the narrow circle of our consciousness” is to be regarded, in the era of science, as “deserted” rather than bustling with the “warm passions of humanity,” may we at least remain confident that matters inside the circle will escape the same fate? The answer is not clear. In this chapter I address one element from the realm of artificial intelligence (or AI) research: the theme of homunculism. I am drawn to the homunculist theme in part through the obvious resonances with mythological traditions of “little men” (fairies, elves, and dwarves) and...

  10. 6 Once More, with Feeling! The View from the Moon and the Return of the Copernican Revolution
    (pp. 191-221)

    Long a topic of interest for history and philosophy of science, the Copernican Revolution more recently has become a favourite symbol for popular science writers. This symbol is used in two main ways, both of which shade easily into the mythic. First, the Copernican Revolution is invoked to mark a point of grand transformation between anthropocentric and objective thinking, between mythic darkness and scientific light. Second, many portrayals of the Copernican Revolution heroize this protagonist and ritualize his deed. The Copernican Revolution designates an alleged shift in worldview that took place in the past, but also a sort of personal...

  11. CONCLUSION: Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained: How Scientists Save Myth
    (pp. 222-232)

    It is no secret that the Biblical story of Adam and Eve ends up at loggerheads with the scientific view of human origins; we encountered this clash several times in the foregoing chapters, most specifically in Gould’s referring to the Genesis account as “mythology” that is “not an option for thinking people” (1997:19). But just because we are accustomed to the Biblical Genesis account appearing as the opposite, the nemesis, of scientific cosmology, the point is easily lost that on another level the theme of paradise lost is tapped repeatedly by popular science writers as a framing device for their...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 233-276)
  13. References
    (pp. 277-292)
  14. Index
    (pp. 293-300)