Non-Fiction Reviews

A Very Short Introduction

(2004 / 2015) Robert A. Segal, Oxford University Press, 7.99 / US$11.95, pbk, 142pp, ISBN 978-0-198-72470-4


This is a very worthy as the series title says short introduction to the topic of myth and the 2015 edition a slightly altered version of the first edition that came out in 2004.

Segal begins, relevant enough for science fact and science fiction concateneers, with an examination of the relationship between myth and science. Historically, one view is that myth has been supplanted by (the major organised) religion(s) and that as such myth is incompatible with science. Another is that some myths have a basis in science and here Segal takes as an example the Old Testament (Exodus) Biblical Egyptian plagues that may have been based on genuine scientific phenomena. Yet another is that it is wrong to compare myth with science as the two serve different functions: the Bible's purpose is to teach ethics not physics. Of course if science is so powerful, why does the modern world retain a popularity of myths? This brings us to the concept of both myth and science being part of philosphy. For me, Segal's recounting of Karl Popper's view of myth and science is compelling. (Personally I have always given much credence to Popper.) Here myth is intrinsically found in science in that a science hypothesis is in fact a myth. True, science may (or may not) lend weight to a myth/hypothesis but as hypotheses are, by definition, hypothetical they must always be challenged (attempted to be falsified) or tested with other hypotheses so that the model can be improved.

Next, myth is looked at in the context of philosophy. Here myth might be considered as philosophy wrapped up in a story with emotion. Myths might be reduced to a philosophical message.

Segal makes much of myth and religion: religion is an area of the author's studies. Here myths are metaphors used by religion.

This takes us into the role of myths in ritual such as rites of passage or funerals. Here myths can provide the script for rituals.

Of particular interest to this site's regulars is the look at myths in literature. Myths are not only perpetuated in literature but many of literatures enduring themes have been taken from myths and many of literature's plots are drawn from myths.

After delving into myths in psychology Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud Otto Rank etc. Segal analyses myth and structure. That there is significant psychological relevance of myths means that myths, or adaptations thereof, have been employed by politicians.

Finally, Segal concludes with the use of myth as a metaphor by scientists. He makes a fair (albeit biased towards the myth perspective) appraisal of James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis. Unfortunately, presumably in an attempt to round off this short book, he ends with the sentences:

But the Gaia hypothesis, which he [Lovelock] comes to call a 'theory', is far more. It is about the ability of the earth (sic) to save itself, and to do so intentionally

Ignoring that Oxford U. Press have editorially allowed use of the term 'earth' in its common noun form ('earth' = soil, 'Earth' = our specific planet and a proper noun), these sentences are uncomfortable for the scientist, especially the Earth system scientist, as this was not what Lovelock meant and which, to be fair Segal clearly notes on the previous page. However, if one assumes that a living planet develops sufficiently for intelligence to evolve that then develops science-based technology that then manages the Earth, one might argue that Lovelock's Gaia can do just what Segal suggests.

Science Fiction readers, and more so writers, may well find this short introduction to myth of interest. SF has drawn on mythological tropes from supermen (including Superman) and technology with, and imparting, god-like powers, through to flights to the heavens. Indeed, SF is arguably born of fantasy, many of whose tropes can be found in myth. One only has to think of mythical creatures such as dragons. Now, Segal does not make this connection. This is a major failing: SF & fantasy (books, films, TV series, computer games) plays such a major contribution to society and modern culture that it is a global industry with an annual multi-billion pound turnover! But while this is a major omission (at least as far as many of this site's regulars might be concerned), it is an omission that does not affect us (SF aficionados, professionals and semi-pros) as we can easily join these dots for ourselves. (Though it does affirm that C. P. Snow's two-culture divide still exists.)

Nonetheless, what we end up with is another useful addition to Oxford U. Press' 'Very Short Introduction' series, a series well worth checking out.

Jonathan Cowie

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