Epics, myths, narratives enrich the imagination and a culture. Science merely and heroically endeavours to understand reality
“Autumn is the time
Of mists and mellow fruitfulness
And blankets of falling leaves
Which turn when wet to grime
Poets are blind to this slippery mess —
And the wretched road-sweeper grieves…”
From Dhoka Kola by Bachchoo
I know nothing about New Zealand but looking at an atlas I can see that it’s two islands, one which looks like a chewed bone and the other like a hat with a feather. Perhaps when He made them, God was thinking about a pub called the hat and bone. OK, I’ll stop being frivolous and confess that this column is not really about New Zealand or its capital of Constantinople or whatever. Happenings in NZ have triggered a universal consideration.
Some weeks ago, the New Zealand government’s working group on education proposed that all schools in the country should in their curriculum “give the same weight to Maori mythology as they do to science in the classroom”. This isn’t, I admit, a quote from the working group’s document itself, but from a neutral article that brought this fact and its aftermath to my attention.
The Maori understanding of the world is that all living things originated with Rangi and Papa, the sky mother and sky god. The Christian Old Testament says that the world was created by Jehovah in six days and the work was exhausting so he rested on the seventh.
Over the centuries since the Maoris formulated their belief and the Old Testament was written, human beings have produced, through diligent enquiry, observation, recording, experimentation, logic and theorising, what we today call the sciences.
It has been a slow and evolving process and some of the names associated with it are Pythagoras, Archimedes, Aryabhata, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Curie, Einstein … the list is long. Throughout this period, technology followed, taking advantage of scientific understanding to give us, in very large part, the material world we live in today.
Of course, there are non-material sciences. Medicine is part science and part technology as we, with the development of the anti-Covid vaccines, thankfully know today. Freud was a thinker and certainly some of his thoughts can be classified as science. Even the rest of his contentions are philosophical and some intuitive, but there is no act of faith which he has thrust on humanity. Yes, some of the techniques of his followers and the therapies that are practiced in his name may have a lot to do with just that — faith!
But all this is obvious and I only repeat it so as to get on with the New Zealand story. Following the recommendation or diktat of their governmental education working group, seven prominent New Zealand scientists signed a letter headlined “In Defence of Science” published in the New Zealand Listener. The authors didn’t denigrate the Maori mythological doctrines and agreed that they ought to be on the curriculum of schools, but ought not to be taught on a par with, or as an alternative belief structure to, the firm conclusions of physics, chemistry, biology and the rest. The signatories to the letter are all professors at Auckland University.
On publication of this point of view, as the cliche goes, all hell broke loose — in this case with Newfound Zeal. Two thousand academics signed a letter condemning in the main Prof. Garth Cooper, the professor of biochemistry at Auckland. The Royal Society of New Zealand has, as a result of the condemnatory objections to the “Defence of Science” letter, which even the vice-chancellor of Auckland, Dawn Freshwater, joined, instituted a disciplinary investigation into Prof. Cooper and his views.
In 1633, Galileo was tried for publishing his finding that the earth revolved around the sun. In 1925, John Scopes, a schoolteacher, was brought to trial for allegedly teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution instead of sticking to the Biblical myth of God creating the earth in six days. In our world too, many people have been persecuted and even killed for saying, in speech or writing that the assertions of religion are not “factual”.
Prof. Cooper’s continuing case in New Zealand is, at the least, a trial of freedom of expression in that country. At the worst, it’s a woke absurdity. Will he be dismissed from employment for saying that science is one thing and mythology another? Isn’t he more sinned against than sinning? I retract the word “more” from my previous sentence. Isn’t he totally right in asserting that the Maori view of creation is not a rival to science’s view of creation or reality?
For my part, gentle reader, I totally and unreservedly approve of, nay champion, the teaching of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana in Indian schools — and for that matter in all schools everywhere. Both our epics have roots in history, but they have evolved over thousands of years and have developed dynamic and interesting layers of narrative and, yes, myth.
Even if we concede that Hanuman was not a “vanar”, a forest-dwelling Adivasi, but a monkey god, and even if we are free and obliged to believe that he could carry a mountain in one hand while flying, does this epic story in any way rival the discovery that we live in a world of gravitational waves and forces?
Epics, myths, narratives enrich the imagination and a culture. Science merely and heroically endeavours to understand reality. They can and must coexist.