In some ways, the history of science is the history of a philosophical resistance to mythical explanations of reality. In the ancient world, when we asked “Where did the world come from?” we were told creation myths. In the modern world, we are instead told a convincing scientific story: Big Bang theory, first proposed in 1927 by the Belgian Roman Catholic priest Georges Lemaître. It is based on observations that galaxies appear to be flying apart from one another, suggesting that the universe is expanding. We trace this movement back in space and time to nearly the original point of the explosion, the single original atom from which all the universe emerged 14 billion years ago.
While it is based on empirical measurement and quantitative reasoning, it is also a creation story, and therefore shares some of the traits of the stories that have come before. For one thing, it resonates with the ethos of the modern age—this is the era of big explosions, like those in White Sands and over Nagasaki. Also, like all creation stories, it explains in comprehensible language something which otherwise requires unobtainable categories of thought. After all, we cannot really know what the world was like before its creation. But we do see how things around us change, grow, are born, and die. And, like the ancients, we fashion these observations into the story of our creation.
The oldest creation myth on the planet, from perhaps 2600 B.C., was given as a preface to a Sumerian poem about the descent of Gilgamesh’s friend Enkidu into the underworld.1 The account begins:
After heaven had been moved away from earth,
After earth had been separated from heaven,
After the name of man had been fixed;
After An had carried off heaven,
After Enlil had carried off Ki…
At some time, the myth tells us, heaven and earth were united, and then they were separated. The separation of Sky and Earth made possible the appearance of man. The poem introduces us to elements that we see repeated again and again in ancient myths: First, creation was not from nothing, which you never find in ancient myth, but from something that was already there. What was it? In a tablet listing the Sumerian gods, the goddess Nammu is said to be “the mother, who gave birth to heaven and earth” and her name is written as a sign that means “sea.” Second, the act of naming and spoken language is deeply mixed into the act of creating: Man is created only “after [his name] had been fixed.”