Mythos and logos: Armstrong v Dawkins

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins

Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong

I admire people like Albert Einstein and Carl Jung (both characters in my book) who were able to feel awe. They retained their ability to be amazed by the world, and derived out of that amazement what Abraham Maslow called “peak experiences.”

I also admire people like Richard Dawkins (and of course Charles Darwin) who are able to use the precision-scalpels of their minds for clear thinking and shocking insight. Eg: Evolution. Eg: No God.

Like Einstein, I don’t really see combat between the one attitude and the other, between the left brain and the right, the yang and the yin. I especially like what happens when the two are well connected.

So I very much enjoyed this little contest in the Wall Street Journal (thank you Cheri) between Karen Amstrong, a religious scholar I have a lot of time for, and Richard Dawkins, the world’s most famous atheist. They were both asked: “Where does evolution leave God?”

Dawkins, true to take-no-prisoners form, answered:

The kindest thing to say is that it leaves him with nothing to do, and no achievements that might attract our praise, our worship or our fear. Evolution is God’s redundancy notice, his pink slip.

Armstrong responded brilliantly too, by avoiding the embarrassing efforts of certain people to deny the evidence of evolution and instead going a level deeper, into topics dear to The Hannibal Blog: story telling, mythology, and archetypes:

First Armstrong concedes that

Richard Dawkins has been right all along, of course—at least in one important respect. Evolution has indeed dealt a blow to the idea of a benign creator, literally conceived…. No wonder so many fundamentalist Christians find their faith shaken to the core.

But then she expands the topic:

Most cultures believed that there were two recognized ways of arriving at truth. The Greeks called them mythos and logos. Both were essential and neither was superior to the other; they were not in conflict but complementary, each with its own sphere of competence. Logos (“reason”) was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled us to function effectively in the world and had, therefore, to correspond accurately to external reality. But it could not assuage human grief or find ultimate meaning in life’s struggle. For that people turned to mythos, stories that made no pretensions to historical accuracy but should rather be seen as an early form of psychology; if translated into ritual or ethical action, a good myth showed you how to cope with mortality, discover an inner source of strength, and endure pain and sorrow with serenity…

(Note 1: Logos is one of those Greek words that can be translated in several different ways. Viktor Frankl, as you recall, translated it as meaning, and named his approach logotherapy after it.)

(Note 2: The complementarity of mythos and logos is the stylistic assumption behind the book I am writing. It is non-fiction (logos) but–or so I hope, and so the editor believes–reads like myth. That’s because I feel that ideas, even logical ones, require stories for their telling.)

Bookmark and Share

Greatest thinker, runner-up: Darwin,

So here we are in the ninth and penultimate post of The Hannibal Blog‘s search for the world’s greatest thinker ever. And the runner-up is…. Charles Darwin.

Darwin’s thought fits all the criteria The Hannibal Blog has laid out so far: his insight was simple and yet non-obvious and subtle (and thus still frequently misunderstood). He appears to have been right. And for good measure, his insight is also extensible, explaining far more than “just” speciation.


Even though the details are still being debated, the core insight is so simple that I always think it borders on tautological. Those genes whose vehicles (phenotypes) are relatively better at making it to the next generation and the next and the next … are the ones you see around you today. Duh. Those genes that manifested themselves in phenotypes that kicked off too early to reproduce, or that reproduced but created offspring that couldn’t repeat the performance … are not the ones you see around you today. Duh.


As Geoff Carr, our science editor at The Economist, once reminded me, people often get the implications of natural selection and evolution (which is what I described above) wrong. I’m not even talking about the fire-and-brimstone creationist types. What many people infer is that evolution is somehow about improvement. (This is the seed of an entire genre of cartoons.) It is not. Instead, evolution is about adaptation. It would merrily go on if we humans were to wipe ourselves out tomorrow with a nuclear war. The bacterial slime in thermal vents would carry on unperturbed.

The other thing that people get wrong is to overemphasize the survival part. It’s the reproduction part that drives the process. Somebody once explained it to me best by saying it’s about which organisms have the most grandchildren. Ie, think of a strapping stallion and a purdy donkey. Both are great at surviving, and great at reproducing, but something in their genotype makes them choose each other. They will have lots of sterile mules. Two generations later, their genes will be gone.


I think the expansion of the concept really kicked off in earnest with Richard Dawkins and his idea that even non-biological systems evolve. Culture is such a system, and the equivalents of genes are idea snippets called memes. Some memes (ideas, fads, fashions) adapt, travel and spread, others do not.

The basic concept also explains so amazingly much else. Why grandmothers tend to be closer to their daughters’ children than to their sons’. Why women show a bit more skin at one time of the month than during the rest of the month. Why humans are sometimes altruistic and sometimes not. Why so many of us are religious. And on and on and on. In short, why we are who we are….

Next time: the overall winner. Once again, I promise a surprise.

Bookmark and Share