out of all knowledge…

History became legend, legend became myth…”

— Galadriel, Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien

It is unfair to myth to let it become a mere synonym of error and/or antiquated, foolish notions. Joseph Campbell includes the following in description of term and its true function: “A ritual is the enactment of a myth.”

Rites serve civilization as on-the-job training for establishing the connection of individual to the social environment. Ritual dramatizes recognition – in the sense of both comprehension and the act honoring. Such practices serve as a foundation to assess our culture and, hopefully, to understand our talent and role within it. Myth is instructional metaphor intended to build sameness and community not bring it to raze and ruin. Ritual and mythology are far from absent in today’s society.

The word and its importance are being abused. At least half the time it is seen on the internet it is pressed into service as part of clickbait. “Ten Myths About…” is, more often than not, the beginning of an attempt at indoctrination – leading the reader away from genuine truth. This usage is propaganda not a mechanism that may imbue a person with effectiveness.

Myth and ritual used this way is exploitation of the trusting souls and their beliefs. Those who engage in this misuse view their targets as dupes and rubes; that’s exactly the strategy of a cult.

There is a dichotomy in how we view ancient civilization. In terms of their religion we represent them as naïve primitives without the sophistication to understand plainly stated morals given after highly stylized tales. Yet at the same time we laud the same people as the inventors of our celebrated ideas of republic and democracy. “Behold the gullible genius!”

The larger-than-life tale is best used as mnemonic device or as an attention-getting preface. In contrast the hoax and the bold-faced lie depend on reaching the impressionable.

For both the individual and society resisting indoctrination depends on enough introspection to know what we believe and why. We must maintain our memory (and history) properly fit and exercise due diligence to confirm new information before writing it into our memory as actual fact.

Critical thinking is our best tool after domesticated fire and the wheel. Healthy skepticism, however, is not the same as ineducable suspicion. Willful opposition to new data is deplorable embrace of ignorance. As a practice that is certain to earn us a reputation as superstitious post-Neanderthals.

taprobane

In 139ᴀᴅ Ptolemy is said to have produced a map of the demi-continent called Taprobane (Ταπροβανῆ). There is no evidence that he traveled across the Indian Ocean nor any account of his having been asked to describe any such journey. Still, for centuries others copied the gigantic island onto newer maps and expeditions hoped to find it.

Orson Welles’ radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds is famous due to the panic it caused. Following a similar dramatization in Quito, Ecuador on 12 Feb 1949 the aftermath was greater. As many as twenty people were killed. There is no record in either case of people simply changing the station.

Myth is not error or falsehood. Mistakes are mistakes and lies are lies. We are the vanguard against the latter armed with the former when properly understood and utilized.

Or else —

Five centuries from now will John McCain be on his way to being regarded as the builder of the Panama Canal and began construction of the Great Wall on the southern border of The United States of New Laurentia. Will the senator’s maverick nature eventually inflate his image to the equivalent of a Trickster god?

And how much truth will be salvaged about McCain by any euhemerism at the end of the next millennium?


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dear Brutus…

dna chain

In mid-May of 2014, at the 60th anniversary of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC), Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) was quoted as stating the equivalent of “There’s no gene for invasion in Chinese people’s blood.”

In late June of that year, Jürgen Klinsmann, the head coach of United States Men’s National Soccer Team (USMNT) said, “It’s not in the U.S. DNA to go out and play for a draw, nor is it in the German DNA, we’ll both be playing to win.”

The phrase “not in our DNA” has long been a bête noire for me. The connotation is, more often than not, used to state an aversion somehow built in to the behavior of a person or group. As such, it is a reversal of the late ‘90s business jargon of “corporate DNA”. In that context it was meant to express what was part of a company’s vision, mission, and culture. It has evolved into what could become a dangerous misconception based on casual misuse.

While technically correct, behavior is not dictated by DNA, the metaphor has become very common in American political discourse. In May of 2011, then presidential candidate Herman Cain voiced the opinion that being No. 2 economically and militarily is not in our DNA. This bad habit is not limited to the GOP either; their critics often charge that “unlike the conservatives, it’s just not in our DNA.”

Often this is used to hint at one position having moral superiority over the opposing side. Last year, President Obama opined that discrimination casts “a long shadow and that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on.”

Misuse of “DNA” and what result it may or may not produce is probably unrelated to doubt of or actual opposition to science. For the most part, we trust doctors to use true understanding of genetics to treat or prevent disease. Increasingly we expect forensicologists to employ the same discipline either to convict or exonerate in matters of jurisprudence.

But at the same time the suspicion that the moon landing was a hoax persists and the anti-vaxxer subculture has been gaining strength for more than a century; it’s nothing new.

If we’re not careful about science, whether from ignorance or Luddism, in fiction or reality we run the risk of making potentially tragic mistakes. The Inquisition tried Galileo for heresy in 1633. He was sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life. Pope Urban VIII had acted out of anger and fear of science and its implications. Considering other acts of the Inquisition, Galileo got off lucky. It took the Vatican almost 360 years to come full circle on their decision with Pope John Paul II finally admitting the errors of the Catholic Church in that regard.

Misapprehension of science including genetics did not spare Alan Turing unfortunate and severe persecution. The father of artificial intelligence and hero of breaking the German Enigma cipher machines during WWII was honored in 1945 with induction to the Order of the British Empire. Six years later he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

The following year he was convicted of gross indecency (homosexuality was considered criminal in the United Kingdom from 1885 to 1967) and given a choice between imprisonment and probation. He chose the latter but that forced him agree to hormonal treatment designed to reduce libido. It is a widely held belief this judgment led to Turing committing suicide.

It may be hyperbolic to suggest that “It’s not in our DNA.” could lead to future attempts to cure racial or ideological diversity. There probably won’t be further recourse to medicine to enforce conformity with regard to gender binary. But misconceptions, like their cousin – superstition, die hard.

There are dangers in a political climate where one side seeks to make opposition illegal, or worse, misuse science to eradicate it. I can’t – and I don’t think we should – avoid the worry that any belief that fault lies in our stars (i.e., that our behavior is chained to our DNA) could end in catastrophe.