An essay comparing the Ancient Egyptian creation myth with Darwin's theory of evolution.
| Throughout human history man has sought knowledge and understanding as a means of ascertaining truth. Truth is, some would argue, the epitome of our intellectual desire. But of all truths, none are more eagerly studied nor more fervently argued than those surrounding our beginnings. How did we and the world we inhabit come into existence? A question that most recently has been taken up by science under the banner of Darwin’s theory of evolution, but one that has been speculated upon since the birth of human culture. The ancient Egyptians, for instance, addressed this subject more than five thousand years ago, and their answer is every bit as elaborate as those put forth by modern science. The main difference between the two is that the ancient Egyptians may have sought to answer an even more complex quandary than that taken up by Darwin, that is, not just how but why? In order to compare and contrast the two theories one must first set them on an equal plane of credibility, that is, one that encompasses science, philosophy and spirituality as equally acceptable mediums for speculation upon the origins of life. For only by lending credibility to all concepts based off of human observation and contemplation can one say that he or she is really seeking an unbiased and therefore truly wise conclusion. The conclusion is then naturally truth. With this in mind, let us observe these myths and draw from them what we can.
The Egyptian creation myth begins with the chaotic primordial waters called Nu. The god Atum, having created himself, rises out of the churning waters of Nu and finds that he is without a place to stand, so he creates a hill beneath him. This hill is said to be where the temple of the ancient Egyptian city of Heliopolis was eventually erected. When Atum stands upon the hill he brings light into the darkness of Nu, taking the form of Khepri, the god of the rising sun. Looking around, Atum realizes that he is all alone in the world so he mates with his shadow (Atum was sometimes referred to as “The Great He-She” for his ability to reproduce asexually) and gives birth to two children. He spits out his son, Shu, the god of air. And he vomits his daughter, Tefnut, the goddess of moisture. “Shu and Tefnut continued the act of creation by establishing a social order. To this order Shu contributed the ’principles of Life’ while Tefnut contributed the ’principles of order’.” (Deurer). Later on Shu and Tefnut become lost in the surging, black waters of Nu, separated from Atum, their father. When Atum is unable to locate his two children he removes his eye and sends it in search of them. Atum’s removable eye is known as the “Udjat eye” (Deurer). Finally Shu and Tefnut return with the eye and Atum weeps tears of joy at their reunion. These tears fell to the earth and from them sprung men and women. Soon after this Shu and Tefnut “Became the parents of Geb, the earth and Nut, the sky. Geb and Nut gave birth to Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys.” (Deurer). In another telling of the Egyptian creation myth the sun god Ra takes the form of Khepri “The scarab god who is usually credited as the great creative force of the universe.” (Deurer). Khepri then creates Nu and draws from it all that he need to create the rest of the universe. First creating “land with its foundation in Maat (law, order, and stability)” (Deurer). and going on to create gods, goddesses, man, animals, and plants
“Darwin’s theory of evolution is the “notion that all life is related and has descended from a common ancestor.” (Darwin’s Theory of Evolution- A Theory in Crisis). The way in which evolution is said to function is through a process called natural selection which can be summarized “as random genetic mutations occur within an organism’s genetic code, the beneficial mutations are preserved because they aid survival” (DTE-ATC) Evolution is an extremely slow process, as Darwin himself writes, “…Natural selection acts only by taking advantage of slight successive variations; she can never take a great and sudden leap, but must advance by short and sure, though slow steps.” And thus, Darwin asserts, is how one single celled organism eventually grew into several more complex organisms that eventually became man, animals, plants etc.
At first glance one major fundamental difference between these two theories becomes easily detectable. In the Egyptian’s theory there is a primordial chaos, a violent darkness which precedes all life. Only after life has emerged are the notions of order, stability and law set in place to counteract the natural disorder of things. But in Darwin’s theory order is innate, stability and law are a part of the very definition of nature in that without it nature cannot be, and since (in Darwin’s theory) nothing precedes nature, order, law and stability have always been. For how could their be a traceable pattern (evolution) within chaos? This difference of chaos to order serves to assist in determining just what questions each myth is trying to answer, that is, Darwin seems to only ask how whereas the Egyptians also inquire as to why. By asserting that life is a supplement to chaos one lends to life, and therefore to man, the purpose of creating and maintaining order within a violent, formless universe. To the Egyptians it seems that the meaning of existence itself is to uphold stability and law, for this is the “land with it’s foundation in Maat” upon which all else was created.
Although there are some obvious differences between the two myths, they also share some surprising similarities. For example, both myths agree that water is the primordial substance from which life eventually took form. For water is the most basic requirement of all life, making up the majority of most organisms and acting as the most universal stipulation for sustaining life within said organisms. For Darwin this was an observation born from data incurred by modern science. For the ancient Egyptians this was an observation based in the logical reasoning that eventually evolved into scientific method. Egyptian society centered around the great Nile River, both in the sense that they relied on it for agriculture, bathing and general survival and more literally in that they built their towns and cities along its winding banks. Building our societies around water is not some ancient practice but rather one that is still consistently upheld. Every human settlement, from villages, to cities, to townships to districts has some water source at it’s heart. The introduction of irrigation made it possible for people to expand away from natural lakes and rivers, but it is still true that without some form of water source there cannot be civilization. Ancient Egyptian society, with the mighty Nile River at it’s heart, became quite accustomed to its annual overflow. In fact, it was this consistent occurrence that dictated much of the early Egyptian’s agricultural practices. It is because the ancient Egyptians relied on water to live and to continue living that they assumed that life, then, must have began with it. The similarities between this notion and the theory of evolution do not stop there, for both also agree that life eventually came out of the water, and on to the land.
Atum’s first decision after creating himself was to create a hill to stand on. Similarly, in Darwin’s theory once complex organisms developed they emerged out of the water and began to crawl on land. In both myths only after foot (or claw) came down upon dry land does any process that would eventually result in the creation of man begin. The main difference between the two conceptions of this process is how long it took to happen. As has already been stated, Darwin’s evolution is a slow and gradual process, taking hundreds of years to progress in the slightest. Whereas the Egyptian myth (although time is not specifically addressed in the story itself) implies that the movement from water to land was a relatively quick one, maybe even instantaneous. Whether it took eons or happened in the blink of an eye, the connection between the two theories is conceptually sound. Life comes out of water, life moves onto land. But perhaps the most striking parallel to be drawn here lies within the most general understanding of the two.
In both myths a single idea, one that greatly dictates the nature of each, rings true: out of one, many. In the theory of evolution all life on Earth can be traced back to a single ancestral organism. One single celled being that eventually produced or developed into all the different plants and animals we know. In the Egyptian creation story there is Atum, the lone god who set into motion a chain reaction of creation and development. Atum began this process by mating with his own shadow. This asexual method of reproduction is very similar to the way in which single celled organisms reproduce by simply splitting into two identical animals. When taken literally the difference between the two lies in that one involves a somewhat “natural” process called mitosis and the other involves the culturally taboo subject of incest. Cell creates two sister cells which then create more cells like it, eventually these cells develop into more complex organisms which then evolve into more and more different species of animals. This explanation is somewhat more “acceptable” than: Man mates with himself and births a son and a daughter. The son and daughter then mate with each other and give birth to two more gods, who then mate with each other and so on and so on….. But if one were to take away the more literal implications of each story, they are again, conceptually similar. But now we begin to approach a common problem in comparing and contrasting two ideas, that is, to become lost in the realm of conceptual generality for the sake of convenience. To assure that we do not tread too far down this path let us again glance back upon the rift which first sparked our interest. Let us cease to superimpose, let us draw from the rift itself, let us juxtapose.
There is an important detail within the Egyptian creation story that stands out in stark difference to the story of evolution, and it is one that will open doors to perhaps the most fascinating facet of this comparison. When Atum is finally reunited with his lost children he weeps tears of joy. This is the first and last time that feeling and emotion are brought up in the Egyptian creation myth. The place where the tears dropped, men came to form. In this story man is formed by the watery product of intense emotion. In Darwin’s story all creatures developed the same way, including man. To many it is this aspect of evolution which is hardest to swallow. How could people, with their introspection, their capacity for abstract thought, their emotions and moods, have come from the same thing, in the same way no less, as animals? This is a question that can be argued in countless ways and defended with equal validity. But it is a question that becomes all the more interesting when we see that over five-thousand years ago the Egyptians may have asked it of themselves. One telling of the myth reads, “After this Khepri created plants and herbs, animals, reptiles and crawling things.” (Deurer). Which implies that all living things besides humans were created with a careful deliberateness whereas human rose from a spontaneous reaction to emotion. Atum is so happy to once again hold his two beloved children that he weeps, and man is born. From a certain perspective the story tells us that it is our emotion and our spontaneity which separates us from the animals. A comfortable thought, but could it hold water? Could it hold up under any scientific scrutiny? Remember that we are using three lenses: spirituality, philosophy and science.
Charles Darwin wrote, “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.” (DTE-ATC). Due to immense advancements in molecular biology, biochemistry and genetics in the past fifty years Darwin’s concern is becoming a reality. The condition in which an organ is so complex that it could not have possibly formed piece by piece is referred to as irreducible complexity, and it is showing up at the heart of Darwin’s famous theory, that is, at the molecular level. Molecular biologist Michael Denton wrote, “Although the tiniest bacterial cells are incredibly small, weighing less than 10-12 grams, each is in effect a veritable micro-miniaturized factory containing thousands of exquisitely designed pieces of intricate molecular machinery, made up all together of one hundred thousand million atoms, far more complicated than any machinery built by man and absolutely without parallel in the non-living world.” (DTE-ATC). And even outside of the molecular world we find examples of irreducible complexity like the human heart, ear and nose. Darwin’s theory of evolution has no room for modern science’s advancements in detecting irreducible complexity, but a creation theory devised more than five millennia ago by the ancient Egyptians has plenty. Still, though, irreducible complexity does not defeat either myth nor does it lend absolute correctness to one or the other, for there are some ways in which the two are completely incomparable. If we are to draw a comparison let us do so completely.
These theories were written in vastly different times, for different reasons and for entirely different audiences. One could argue that not only do they speak to two different schools of thought entirely, they exist in two completely separate realms of reality. Our reality is, in essence, only what we believe it to be, in that we have no understanding of it which is not entirely subjective. In this sense both theories are just as correct as they are completely false, for they seek separate truths. If we are to call reality subjective, reinforced only by successive agreements with ourselves and others pertaining to its nature, than we must too call truth subjective. Whether or not one theory is “better” than another is a pointless conclusion to chase, for the origins of its supposed merits lay not within the theory itself, but within the observer. I believe this is put best by famous Russian author Leo Tolstoy in his masterwork, War and Peace;
When an apple has ripened and falls-why does it fall? Is it because of the force of gravity, because it’s stem withers, because it is dried by the sun, because it grows heavier, because the wind shakes it, or because the boy standing under the tree wants to eat it?
None of these is the cause. All this is only the conjunction of conditions in which every vital, organic, elemental event occurs. And the botanist who finds that the apple falls because the cellular tissue decomposes, and so forth, is just as right and as wrong as the child who stands under the tree and says that the apple fell because he wanted to eat it and prayed for it to fall.”
Although neither theory can boast supremacy over the other, they both provide something consistently yearned for, from the ancient Egyptians to Charles Darwin, that is, a means of understanding.
Deurer. “Creation Mythology.” www.egyptartsite.com/crea.html
Web.1996, pag. 3/7/11
“Darwin’s Theory of Evolution- A Theory in Crisis.” www.darwins-theory-of-evolution.com
Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace. New York:
Penguin, 1968. Print.