Friday, May 14, 2010

The Great Story

Do you know your origin story—the evolutionary account of your roots and those of everything else? If you’re like most people in Western societies, your honest answer is no. And that, it turns out, is a BIG problem.

What’s the problem with being story-less? We’re in the midst of a gargantuan sustainability crisis, the greatest challenge ever faced by humanity. The vast majority of scientific experts, from ecologists to climatologists, are in full agreement that we are currently on a collision course with ruin, involving human suffering and devastation to the biosphere on an almost unimaginable scale. Finding and following a new, more sustainable path will require much more than new technologies. Any solution demands no less than a novel way of seeing the world, one that gives our lives greater meaning and causes us to take action to protect and nurture our native places. In other words, we must foster a new worldview that roots humanity in both local places and deep time—exactly the kind of thing that origin stories do best.

Fortunately, an astonishing, awe-inspiring, and staggeringly beautiful story of our origins is now readily available, one with the potential to unite humanity at this critical juncture in our history. Variously called the Great Story, the Universe Story, the New Story, or the Epic of Evolution, this grand narrative is founded on several centuries of scientific inquiry [1,2]. Evolution isn’t just Darwin, natural selection, and mutation. Evolution is the history of the universe, from the Big Bang to the present day. And far from leading to a view that the universe is random and meaningless, as commonly conceived, this saga provides the foundation for seeing ourselves as deeply embedded within the fabric of a creative cosmos.

Indeed the Great Story is arguably the greatest contribution of science, offering a direct glimpse into where we come from and what it means. More than three decades ago, famed biologist E. O. Wilson [3] stated that, “the evolutionary epic is probably the best myth we will ever have.” He added that this same story, “retold as poetry, is as intrinsically ennobling as any religious epic.” In the intervening decades, fields like cosmology, geology, paleontology, and archaeology have greatly augmented this saga, generating for the first time a unified, evidence-based narrative encompassing the cosmos, life, and culture.

Over that same time period, a number of people, in particular the late “geologian” Thomas Berry [1], have argued strongly for the importance of a general understanding of this unified epic. Yet the Great Story has remained virtually absent from all arenas of education. Today, few of us can convey anything of this story beyond perhaps an incomplete sequence of origins—for example, galaxy, Earth, bacteria, worm, fish, amphibian, mammal, upright primate, Homo sapiens—with humans generally placed atop the pile as the “king of the world” (if not king of the universe). It is ironic that we who have access to the most rigorous and complete story of everything do not use it to inform the arc of our lives.

I agree wholeheartedly with Thomas Berry that the Great Story, expanded beyond biology to encompass cosmos and culture, deserves to reside at the very core of the education curriculum. This astounding epic deserves to be told and retold, with appropriate increases in complexity, from childhood through adulthood. Education is currently focused almost entirely on the present day, with the unspoken assumption that everything that came before is meaningless and irrelevant. Yet meaning, purpose, and belonging have less to do with where we are at any given moment than where we’ve been and where we’re going. So, in addition to the horizontal perspective offered by understanding the present day world, education must convey the vertical context that roots us in deep time. Humanity must reinvent the sacred [4] and learn to see that everything around us has its origins in deep time stardust.

But isn’t the Epic of Evolution incompatible with the beliefs of major religious traditions? So it might seem, given ongoing media coverage of this conflict. It’s true that, despite resounding acceptance by the scientific community, biological evolution remains a hotly debated topic within the general public, particularly in the United States. About one half of all Americans currently support the statement that “God created humans pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.” And many scientists, educators, and parents, responding to attempts by Christian fundamentalists to discredit Darwin and re-inspire a dominant role for a Creator throughout the history of life, have been fighting to keep evolution in America’s classrooms.

So embittered is this conflict that rarely is much thought given to why evolution education is important. Scientists and educators often state that learning the fundamentals of evolution is necessary because this idea is central to biology, or because evolutionary concepts underlie hot button topics like genetics. Such arguments miss a fundamental point. Teaching evolution is critical because the underlying concept of transformation is the very glue that holds together the epic of cosmos, life, and culture. And understanding this story could change the world by shifting the human conception of nature.

Ultimately, I can’t envision the necessary shift in worldview occurring (at least not in the brief time allotted to us) in the absence of a dialogue between the science and religion communities [4-6]. Fortunately, attitudes toward evolution, within and outside of religious circles, are far more nuanced than generally believed and great potential exists to integrate the Great Story with traditional theist views [6]. Spiritual leaders as diverse as the Pope and the Dalai Lama have advocated acceptance of evolution (though, granted, sometimes with caveats pertaining to human origins). Theologian John Haught [7] declared that, “Darwin has gifted us with an account of life whose depth, beauty and pathos—when seen in the context of the larger cosmic Epic of Evolution—exposes us afresh to the raw reality of the sacred and to a resoundingly meaningful universe.” Michael Dowd, minister and author of Thank God for Evolution [5], has adopted the role of “evolutionary evangelist,” preaching the Great Story to church congregations throughout North America.

“The universe is made of stories, not atoms.” So said poet Muriel Rukeyser, underlining the power of narrative. Why does the Great Story merit a central place in our culture? Because this grand epic represents our best understanding of the evolving universe; because internalizing the idea of common ancestry through deep time will help us reconnect with nonhuman nature; and because disseminating this story widely may well be critical to shifting worldviews and achieving sustainability. Only when the Great Story is finally expressed throughout our culture—not just in science, but in poetry, song, fine arts, and dance—will we begin to truly understand what it means to be part of a single, evolving universe at this pivotal moment in deep time. Only then will we begin to conceive of nature as relatives deserving of our compassion and empathy rather than resources for our exploitation. We need a story.

1) Berry, T. 1999. The Great Work: Our Way into the Future. Bell Tower, New York.
2) Swimme, B. and T. Berry. 1992. The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to Ecozoic Era. Harper Collins, New York.
3) Wilson, Edward O. 1978. On Human Nature. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. Pp. 206-207.
4) Kauffman, S. A. 2008. Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion. Basic Books, New York, 320 pp.
5) Dowd, M. 2005. Thank God for Evolution. Council Oak Books, San Francisco.
6) Phipps, C. 2007. The REAL Evolution Debate. EnlightenNext Magazine.
7) Haught, J. F. 2008. God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution. Westview Press (quote: p. 2).

Top image courtesy ofSky Image Labe:
All other images courtesy of National Geographic:


  1. This is the part of "Dinosaur Odyssey" that I found so riveting and thanks for sharing again. I found the videos at play a similar theme and highly suggest them. I fact, I know a teacher in Columbus (Ohio) who shows them to his science classes (8th thought 12th). It's a start.
    Reed Richmond

  2. Great post! In addition to seeing the Great Story expressed in "poetry, song, fine arts, and dance", I'd also like to see it expressed in comics. I recently experimented with that by turning a page of "The Selfish Gene" into a comic. Just one page, but it's a start.

  3. While I completely agree with you that we need more people to understand the origins of the cosmos and evolution as a subset of that, I find it really hard to accept your lumping the two together.

    So much of the refusal to accept evolution (in this country at least, the US) comes from those who think evolution explains the origin of life. It, of course, does not and has nothing to do with abiogenesis. But presenting the origin of the cosmos as "the epic of evolution" is just going to further that divide.

    We need to teach about the Big Bang, stellar birth and refinement, how planets form, the Miller-Uray experiment's results, and evolution and natural selection. But we can't put them all in the same basket since they're not actually related (and saying that non-reproducing things "evolve" is adding gasoline to the fire, too).

  4. That was so beautifully put. I love "deep time stardust"--that is poetry. I have never heard of or read someone link the teaching of evolution ultimately to our own survival (and that of the Earth and all her flora and fauna) and as a former teacher (kindergarten, first grade) and current mama, I find it revolutionary. And integrating it into the arts--brilliant!