Mark Vernon: Dawkins as master myth-maker


One of my favorite bloggers, Mark Vernon, has a short essay up today talking about how Richard Dawkins, the uber-atheist, is, at his core, a maker of cosmic mythology.

And Vernon’s point is that all scientists do the same thing.

“Richard Dawkins is a master myth-maker. His best fiction is that of the selfish gene. His great book of that title, published over 35 years ago, described human beings as lumbering robots driven by immortal genes. It even had a brilliant, final twist. Sometimes, the myth promised, we can overcome the tyranny of the biological imperative inside us.

Inevitably – though perhaps more quickly than many anticipated – his myth is going the way of the world. It spoke powerfully of what was taken to be truth for a time. But subject to the inexorable shifts of human knowledge, the myth is now starting to look outdated.

A crucial moment came in August 2010, when Martin Nowak, Corina Tarnita and Edward O Wilson published an article in Nature. They argued that the mathematics behind the idea that Dawkins had so successfully popularised doesn’t stack up. It was wrong, Wilson insists – and he should know as one of the few people who originally did the maths. He now prefers evolutionary theories that speak about altruism, based upon group selection. The next generation awaits a myth-maker of Dawkins’ stature to tell us this new story about life. Now, I know what you are thinking. Is it not overly provocative to refer to the selfish gene as a myth, though it seems quite precise: my dictionary includes definitions such as ‘false belief’ and ‘fictitious thing’? It will be thought inflammatory because, unfortunately, naming something a myth carries these pejorative overtones in our times. It is as if myths are straightforwardly untrue, and those who believe them are ignorant and foolish.”

More here.

Vernon has this exactly right. We all use story to make sense of the world. That’s the power of the Christian scriptures – the stories they tell us, challenging, exulting, confusing and occasionally frightening give us a set of lens to understand our own narratives and lives.

I first read the Bible because I realized there was no way I could understand Dante without knowing the biblical worldview. But in reading it, I found myself forever changed, and now the stories in the bible (myths in Vernon’s parlance I suppose) have become the key to my understanding my own life.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. How we understand truth (small “t”) makes a difference. Myth is true for the teller(s) of the story in their time and place. But truth, to paraphrase my friend and colleague, Dan Burke, when extended to its outer limit becomes an untruth, including this very statement. In this sense truth is always dynamic and subject to change, and it can also lead to transformation.

  2. WmPaul says

    Hmmm. I seem to recall an important phrase, even the title of an essay, “When Myth Became Fact” which may invite reflection and caution in promoting the bible’s power solely as the power of story.

    When Jesus said ‘Come unto me all ye who are heavy laden, etc’ we may be moved by the images, the story, as we should be, but we also must press on to say, teach, proclaim, that with this episode in Palestine–historical, dateable–the divine offer was made concrete, actual, real by the singular Incarnate One, through whom the world was made, in his singular Incarnate existence, (theological realism here) and be careful not to shy away from historicity, factuality and truth.

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