Culture & Ethics Icon Culture & Ethics

Darwinism, Storytelling, and the Futurist ET Myth

Photo: Humans and hominids, by Carolyn WIlczynski, CC BY 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

The classic science fiction movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I referred to here yesterday, doesn’t begin in space but in the prehistoric past, with a little tribe of pre-human hominids. The opening scene shows an African landscape where water is scarce. The words appear on screen, “The Dawn of Man.” 

This little ape-like tribe lacks the mental capacity even to use animal bones as weapons, and they’ve been driven from their watering hole by another little tribe. The next day, a strange, tall black monolith appears in their midst, shaped roughly like a domino, but perfectly smooth and geometrical. It emits a strange noise. The ape-like creatures draw near, terrified but also fascinated. Eventually one of them touches the monolith. His fellow tribesmen follow suit.

A bit later our protagonist is toying with some animal bones and thinking. Suddenly, he gets an idea. He picks up one of the longer bones and tentatively strikes the ground with it. He grows a little bolder. He tries striking some of the other bones. He grows more excited, thrilled by the idea now dawning on him: the bone can be used as a tool . . . as a weapon. He raises his arm and brings the bone crashing down on an animal skull, which smashes to bits.

The implication is clear: the alien monolith has somehow bequeathed to him and his little tribe a sudden quantum leap in brain power. In the next scene they use the animal bones to drive away the tribe that earlier drove them away from their watering hole. When the victory is complete and one of the enemy hominids lies battered and motionless at their feet, our protagonist tosses the bone up into the air in ecstatic triumph. 

At this point the film drops into slow motion and, as the bone spins through the air, the scene switches to a scene in space, with the bone suddenly replaced by another human tool of a similar shape, though far larger: a space vessel in the near future of the modern age.

An Escape Hatch

These opening minutes of the film convey several themes. Most obviously, they reinforce the Darwinian idea that humans descended from ape-like ancestors. There is also here the central premise of Robert Ardrey’s Territorial Imperative — man as a violent territorial animal, programmed by millions of years of evolution to kill and conquer. 

And lastly, the film provides an explanation, if only fictional, for the great gap between apes and humans: an alien monolith came down and, upon being touched, bequeathed our ancient ancestors with a major brain boost, setting us on a trajectory stretching from primitive bone tools to the glories of space travel. 

Both in this opening scene and later in the story, the film epitomizes a futurist ET myth that Michael Keas excavates and describes in his excellent recent book Unbelievable: 7 Myths About the History and Future of Science and Religion

To grasp what Keas means by a futurist ET myth, some additional background is helpful. Darwinian materialism, taken at face value, strips life and the world of higher meaning and purpose. (H. G. Wells deserves credit for facing those implications in The Time Machine.) But many who accept Darwinism don’t want to go there. One escape hatch is the idea of humanity rescued and exalted by a race of wise and advanced extra-terrestrials — a substitute god to replace the God of the Bible Darwin is said to have killed with his theory of evolution. 

This is the ET myth that Kubrick reenacts in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s the artist whose vision of reality has been impoverished by Darwinism grasping for meaning and purpose in a mirage.

Faith in More than Matter

Darwinism is partly responsible for the slide into ugliness and formlessness in the arts. It is also a key contributor to the postmodern turn toward a hermeneutics of relativism and nihilism, championed in the deconstructionist criticism of thinkers such as Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. But that’s an essay for another time. 

Here, suffice to say that Darwinian materialism’s impoverishing effect on literature is so much of a problem that my alma mater, a Christian university in Texas, published an anthology of literary works that are not nihilistic and materialistic, just to provide balance for the typical literary anthologies assigned to students in freshman and sophomore English. 

It’s called Shadow and Light: Literature and the Life of Faith. It includes short stories and poems from various great authors who maintained faith in a cosmos that is more than matter — John Milton, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Flannery O’Connor, Isaac Bashevis Singer, John Updike, and various others. 

Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared in Salvo Magazine as “Art for Nothing” and is republished here with permission.