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Creation Myths and Cultural Cohesion

One night in Japan year ago I was sharing a couple rounds of after-dinner sake, sitting on the tatami at the home an older friend.  Out of the blue he said,  “Mike-san, have I ever told you what I was doing when the war ended?”  No, he hadn’t.  I really knew nothing about his younger days.  “I was in the Navy training to be a kamikaze pilot.  But the war ended before I could fly my mission.  It’s almost incomprehensible now,  but at the time I could think of no higher honor.  I wanted to die for the emperor.  Then when the war ended and the emperor renounced his divinity,  I felt utterly lost.”

In his latest book, The Social Conquest of the Earth, E.O. Wilson describes the power of myth to bind people together and inspire sacrificial behavior.  All cultures have had creation myths and other narratives that have provided a sense of group cohesion and made the tribe stronger.   Once upon in the ancestral past, it may have been impossible for a group to survive without such myths.   The story of my Japanese friend is an example of how powerful those myths can be and how the yearning for an explanatory narrative must be deeply implanted in the human psyche.   He was a not a dumb man.  Quite the contrary.  He was highly educated, a polyglot, and after the war ultimately went on to enjoy a successful career.   Yet, somehow, in his younger days,  a sense of tribal loyalty overrode his talent, his intelligence, and even his desire to live.  Scary.

Creation myths and religious narratives may have been necessary in our tribal past, but the world has clearly become too  small for them now.   All over the planet people with competing mythical narratives threaten the survival of all of us.  Iranian leaders have said they want to wipe out Israel.   Muslims and Christians are killing each other in Nigeria.  India and Pakistan,  both armed with nuclear weapons,  have an uneasy coexistence.  And in the U.S. we have plenty of Christian fundamentalists who would like to hasten Armageddon.

The choice is pretty clear:  cling to our myths and wreck humanity, or find a new narrative that helps us see all of humans as members of the same fragile tribe. The narrative of evolution would be a good place to start.

  1. April 17, 2012 at 12:49 am

    Once again, I find myself grateful and reminded how lucky I was to have a good public education that included evolution.

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