Oren Harman

The Lore of Life

Air Date: June 13, 2018

Bar-Ilan University chair in Science, Technology, and Society Oren Harman talks about his new book “Evolutions: 15 Myths That Explain Our World.”


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Our guest today is Oren Harman, chair of the graduate program in Science, Technology, and Society at Bar-Ilan University and senior research fellow at the Van Leer Institute, where he hosts the public series Talking About Science in the 21st Century. He teaches evolutionary theory, history, and philosophy. His newest book is “Evolutions: 15 Myths That Explain Our World,” an exquisite chronicling of the mythic origins of science and the scientific process. “In this daring, learned, and humane book, Harman attempts to create a modern scientific understanding of the universe in which, for as long as we can remember, human beings have always encoded their deepest perceptions of truth.” That’s the compliment of noted historian Stephen Greenblatt. In this new lyrical scientific prose, Harman proceeds to unearth the birth of the universe, the creation of the solar system, the Earth and the moon, the origins of life, multicellularity, biodiversity, the birth of language, the tricks of the mind, consciousness, hope, truth, memory, sacrifice, solitude, curiosity, jealousy, pride, and ultimately, freedom, and death. Welcome, Oren. A pleasure for you to come this way. Thank you for being here.

HARMAN: Thank you for having me.

HEFFNER: I was just commenting to you that had this been written when Inherit the Wind was released and there was a great cry about Darwinism. As the response that you know we understand that there is a story as you write here. “Science pretends to be a replacement for mythology but in reality it’s driven by the same hunger for understanding that brought us the gods and the afterlife.” If this [LAUGHS] had been assigned to classes, there was the bible, there was Darwin, and here- here is the story to justify the science.

HARMAN: At one level, what I was really interested in doing in this book was just to tell the story, to tell the story of our universe and life on planet Earth from the Big Bang and through the great transformations, as you said the creation in the solar system and the birth of the moon. And then the invention of life, you know the first self-replicating molecule and- and through the great sort of transformations of life on the planet all the way through to the evolution of human kind. And to tell it in language that was poetic rather than pedagogic, pedagogical. So that people could actually sort of feel the science more intimately and perhaps find ways to connect to it at an emotional level rather than just a cerebral level. So that was the first approach to this project. But then it became about something deeper, something more philosophical and that was an attempt to explore the relationship between mythological thinking, on the one hand, and scientific thinking on the other hand, and to try to understand, to better understand what are the similarities between these two things and two ways of knowing. And what are the differences? So we tend to think of the differences quite obviously. I think the best definition of what myths are, was given by a pagan thinker almost 2000 years ago. A man by the name of Sallustius who said these things were never and are always. The literary critic Northrup Frye cribbed Sallustius’ idea, saying that myths are not what happened but what happens. So myths are really sort of reveries into existential conundrums. They deal with problems that we know with our head we can never fully encompass, but also feel in our gut are central to our humanity and who we are. And these questions these are questions that don’t really have solutions or answers. So myths deal with things like motherhood and freedom and death and immortality, memory and jealousy and solitude and sacrifice, birth and rebirth. Truth, hubris, love. What matters to us about these themes, which are very central to who we are, can’t really be answered in a scientific way. We can only try to touch these things, these penultimate truths rather than finding one absolute answer for them. So off the bat, you know myths deal with questions that don’t really have solutions, whereas science deals precisely with kinds of questions that must have solutions. The Austrian philosopher Karl Popper called it the method of science, conjectures, and refutations. So you have a conjecture about a particular problem. And if it can be refuted, meaning if it’s falsifiable then it’s a scientific conjecture. If it can’t be refuted, then it’s not scientific. So if you tell me you know Zeus took a thunderbolt and threw it at Hera, I can’t refute that ‘cause I’ve never seen Zeus. Or if you say all unicorns are green, I can’t tell you whether you’re- you’re right or wrong ‘cause I’ve never seen a unicorn. But if you say you know Clydesdale has five legs. Then I’ll tell you well I actually just saw a Clydesdale that has four legs. So off the bat it seems like myths deal with questions that don’t really have solutions whereas science is completely directed towards types of questions that have solutions. So they’re extremely different. But then when you look more closely, it actually becomes apparent that science too is a form of storytelling. A form of competitive storytelling, which is based on a method which has been honed very carefully over generations. And, but what it does is really it gives names to things, it defines entities, then it creates a narrative based on hypothesis and tries to figure out whether the hypothesis is correct. And so science too is a form of storytelling. You can’t just take data and publish it in a scientific journal, you have to tell a story, an hypothes, you have to have an hypothesis, which basically is a story. So in that respect, science is a little bit closer to mythology than we would initially think. But when you look even more closely, scientists use metaphor just as we use metaphor in our regular lives. And so we talk about electrons jumping from one orbital to the next, or we talk about genes coding for one you know for a certain trait. That’s a metaphorical way of speaking. And we really can’t speak without metaphors. So, and metaphors really count. They have a deep influence on how we think about things. So take for instance the human mind, ever since the 17th century. We’ve used different metaphors to understand what the mind is. So back in the 17th century, it was- it was kind of a hydraulic system. Then it became a huge mechanical clock. Then it was a telegraph, switchboard. You know, a neural network. Today some people think of it as a quantum computer. And the words that you use actually have a real effect on how you think about the problem and what types of questions you ask. So…

HEFFNER: There’s been a problem in society that has failed to harmonize those two accounts, those two competitive stories. The mythology born out of religion. And the science born out of fact. And- and you, in effect, mythologize the science. You do an end-around and you show how you can believe the fantastic through science. Is this book not an effort to try to transcend that iron curtain amongst the religious folks on one side of the curtain and the seculars on the other side of the curtain?

HARMAN: I didn’t set out for it to be that, but I think- but I’d be very happy if it ends up being that. In other words, I do think that a major theme of this book is to say the truths of science are provisional to an extent. That’s the way science works. You, again, you have an idea, then the rest of the scientific community either accepts it or rejects it. Say it accepts it. Then comes the next generation, tries out new ways of approaching the problem, and rejects it. And so the truths of yesterday are really the, you know the falsehoods of tomorrow. And that’s okay, so that there’s the, so there’s something provisional about the truths of science. And yet it represents our best and most earnest attempt to really understand ourselves and the universe around us. And the myths were that for the ages.

HEFFNER: Right. Well I was just gonna say why have scientists been so maligned? Why has it been viewed as a war? You know a war on religion, or a war on science?

HARMAN: Well to some extent, that’s you know down to the- the pretension of science to be a replacement for pre-scientific ways of thinking and pre-scientific culture. So every culture you know approaches its myths with the help of the language at its disposal, language broadly construed. So for the Greeks, it was the gods of the Olympus. You know for Animist cultures it was nature. And then in the 17th century, men of science who began working in you know, in different societies, scientific societies like the Royal Society, really presented their way of knowing as a replacement for earlier ways of knowing. And so it’s not very surprising that this was viewed as a kind of threat and a challenge. And also the other thing is that if we come back to our date today there remains a kind of pretension amongst certain scientists, not all obviously. And not only scientists but you know expositors of science. To say that you know science, that you know- we make heroes of people who tell us that the only mysteries worth cracking will succumb one day to our inquiries. That the only questions that are really worthwhile, that are really meaningful are the kinds of questions that have solutions. And by doing so, we confuse between knowledge on the one hand and wisdom on the other. And we also confuse between comfort and happiness. We are progressing all the time in terms of our understanding of ourselves, our human natures, and the physical world around us, our universe and so forth. There’s no doubt that you can draw a trajectory of progress in terms of our understanding of these entities.

But you don’t want to confuse that with internal worlds that have to do with our welfare, with our psychological welfare, our happiness, basically. And to some extent by promising that we will have solutions to every problem, people get the wrong idea about what science can and cannot do. And I think it’s very important to sort of draw the boundaries of the field within which using the scientific method, we can answer questions that are extremely important to us very well. And outside of which, those same self tools really become irrelevant. So you know the next iPhone won’t bring you happiness. No more than the genetic promise for perfect babies will. And a cure for cancer will be a wonderful thing, and we should work towards that, as we are with full strength and with full support from governments and private money and all that. But it shouldn’t be confused with existential deliverance. And so part of the theme of this book is to sort of connect us to the peoples that came before us.

HEFFNER: The peoples and the ingredients. The ribosomes, the mitochondria, the DNA, which you lay out as the- the heroes that overcame conditions that might have prevented life. But that’s really the crux of this very, quite tortured conflict between religion and secular, which you I think overcome in this book. And that is to say that even the most devout believer of evolution and Darwinism would still or might still, and I’ll speak as that person, question that initial speck, that initial circumstance that would allow the Big Bang, that would allow the formation of a universe. And that there had to be some kind of [LAUGHS] inanimate or mystical or mythical delivery of that, and you know I’ve always hoped you could help clarify this but it’s always disturbed me that there can’t be that shared unified position in the scientific method and still the unknowability of it all.

HARMAN: Yeah. I mean, on the one hand, it’s very important that science suffer from a lack of a modesty. Because a lack of modesty and a kind of hubris is the motor behind discovery and behind the notion that we can know the unknowable and we should strive to know the unknowable. So it’s good that there is a kind of hubris to science. On the other hand, it’s also important to remember a kind of modesty…

HEFFNER: A humbled hubris.

HARMAN: A humbled hubris. You know the Maori speak about, they have this myth about the creation of the universe. The universe was created by the breaking up of a love embrace between the Father Sky and the Mother Earth, Papa and Rangi. It was their children who are stuck in between their embrace, and they wanted to get out. And so they started pushing and you know finally they were able to break apart their loving parents, and that’s how the world was created. The Chinese believe that it was from an egg that opened up. We now believe with the best of our science that it was a Big Bang. But there are, there are physicists who also believe that there were many Big Bangs and that there might be ten to the five-hundred universes. Each created via a Big Bang, birthed on a kind of bubble, and that these bubbles won’t know each other. Even burped on a bubble. When you think about it, it sounds as incredible as the earlier stories and I think that again, it’s important that we remember that this is our age’s earnest attempt to take a stab at these large existential questions.

HEFFNER: The challenge of this age, which is I think truth to some degree and empathy, and you write about both that- how language, our ability to harness language, brought truth. And thanks to symbols, there was suddenly a far greater opportunity to depart from the facts than to present them more than one meager reality to delineate, but infinite amount to imagine. And so we as homo-erectus, homo sapiens began to distinguish between truth and falsehood. And then later, which I think is an important way to embellish on that idea, is that in order to live together amicably we had no choice but to develop trust. And guilt was born, with that, empathy and a sense of, or ideally, aspirationally, the sense of communion.

HARMAN: Right. So people say necessity is the mother of invention. But in the story of the evolution of language, that actually proves to be untrue. Because when homo-erectus began speaking, and we think it’s on the order of half a million years ago or so, some such, he suddenly stumbled on the lie. Language didn’t come in order to present the lie, it wasn’t, it didn’t evolve for a lie to become present. It just arrived. And then – you could make use with it. And in an interesting way, as I write in one of these myths, the lie came to define us hominids and later us homo sapiens even more than the truth in the sense that according to the, to the classic myth, it was the reason that got us out of the Garden of Eden. And you know sent us on our trajectory, which is both a tragic trajectory and a most unbelievably wonderful and wondrous trajectory. I mean what’s central to our humanity is that we’re all very keenly aware of our mortality. But on the other hand, we have evolved minds which can imagine anything, even infinity. And because that is our legacy, that’s our, the human nature legacy, the themes of mythology, and the things that we really care about really persist in our universal.

HEFFNER: You also write, Oren, what, and you just expounded on this, “What if the lie was as important to our evolution as truthfulness? What if, in fact, language provided great opportunity for forms of falsehood? And that they played a crucial role in allowing homo sapiens to instruct each other’s imagination.” Where is this all going? [LAUGHS] Where are we going? Where is this evolution that you chronicle, and those stages sometimes we think that as the science progresses, we as [LAUGHS] human beings are kind of going backwards. And there are moments in history where there is that very dominant feeling that we are devolving instead of evolving.

HARMAN: Right, well as you know, prophecy is given to fools and to madmen and I at this stage, at least, I don’t have any pretension to be either this one or that. But there’s an interesting idea that we’re stuck somehow in our evolution between two levels, level of the individual in the group, where if you take the example of social insects like termites and ants and bees, they, they function as superorganisms. And the individuals in those groups are almost like cells, individual cells in our body even though they seem to be autonomous individuals. Now we have come through our evolution as a social species, and to a large degree that has made us who we are. Including our abilities to empathize and sympathize and have trust and love and be altruistic. But we haven’t lost the ego either. And we remain wedded in our natures to our own biologies.

HEFFNER: And what is the mythic relevance or the story you want to impart to our viewers about consciousness? Because it was that state or it is that state that enables us to be emotive separate from a lot of other nature.

HARMAN: Right. So the myth about consciousness here is really a meeting underneath the water between an octopus and a human being. And really these have been the two great experiments in evolution in consciousness. On the one hand, all, and we had a common ancestor about 600 million years ago. On the, on one branch were born all the organisms that have a central nervous system and a brain which led to us. And on the other hand, are these cephalopods who have what’s called a distributed intelligence. Meaning that three-fifths of their neurons are not in their heads, they’re spread amongst their bodies, and in the case of the octopus their eight legs, which can do things autonomously, unbelievably, incredibly. And so I had these two creatures meet underwater because the way of knowing the world must be so different for an octopus than it is for us. I mean octopus, octopuses are amazing creatures, they don’t forget, they remember individual people. They don’t forget a difference. On the other hand, and they have you know three hearts and blue blood and so forth. But what I was interested is the, this notion that we can only know our selves and- and our- and our universe through our own forms of consciousness.

HEFFNER: We have evolved, but the evolution is not complete. And the truth is still being rewritten anew and anew and anew, no?

HARMAN: We are, we might believe that we once crossed this biological Rubicon and then culture took over, but the truth of the matter is is that we are continuing to evolve. It’s very difficult to figure out how culture and biology interact so as to impact our evolution. But we are evolving whether we like it or not. At the moment though, the existential mysteries remain as they are, just as they were for peoples 2000, 4000, and 35 thousand years ago when they made beautiful drawings on the caves like the ones discovered in the south of France there, Chauvet. And I think that there’s a beautiful message in that, it unites us with our species and with the rest of life on the planet in a very, in a large and wondrous journey of evolution, which is hopefully just beginning. And very far from ending yet.

HEFFNER: Oren, thank you for joining us along this journey and I suggest that all of our readers, our viewers find evolutions and find some shared humanity in what you’ve written. Thank you for being here with me today.

HARMAN: Thank you so much.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.