The Use of Myths in Science
Phyllis D. Peck
1994 Woodrow Wilson Biology Institute
Introduction and Teacher Information
The introduction and information section of this activity contains material known to many via history courses and life experiences. Please refer to references for complete explanations.
The process that we, in the late twentieth century western world, know as science has changed over the millennia. Pre-historic humans were thought to have a pantheon of gods and goddesses that ruled the world and its inhabitants. During the Golden Age of Greece, science began to change to rationality and logic. With the fall of Rome and its government, scientific thought changed again, to the superstitions of the Middle Ages. At the end of the Middle Ages, the Age of Reason and the Renaissance began the trend toward the present, the Age of Information.
Science now relies on data that can be reported, duplicated, verified. It is linearly logical, rational, using numbers to compute, compare and analyze information. This has not always been so. People use the knowledge they have to explain the natural and physical world around them. Ancient people and people without the technology available in the Age of Information developed stories, myths and legends to explain their world.
The people of pre-history are, by modern standards, thought to have been very superstitious, with stories and characters to explain their worlds. Our knowledge of their beliefs has been extrapolated from contemporary, "primitive" societies and cultures such as the Maori of New Zealand, the Hmong of Indochina, and the Inuits of Alaska. Anthropologists have examined oral histories and religious practices of these modern cultures and compared them to ancient, pre-historical cultural artifacts. Both the modern and ancient cultures have various, but often similar, stories to explain events in their world.
The Egyptians, ancient Greeks, and Romans had well self-documented cultures, with explanations of beliefs as well as stories and myths. Zeus, Jupiter, Hera and Juno are Greek and Roman gods that most Westerners study at some point in their educational process. The Golden Age of Greece produced people who thought about the world rationally. These people developed answers that relied more on reason and mathematics rather than on answers from the Gods. The Romans expanded upon Greek ideas and utilized them until their civilization collapsed from within. The barbarian attacks from without also contributed to the fall of Rome and the rise of the superstitious Middle Ages.
The Middle Ages contributed to science via the many alchemists, the last of whom is said to have been Sir Isaac Newton. Newton, along with Galileo, Copernicus, Redi, Pasteur and many others, added their contributions to the body of knowledge that explains the world in rational, logical terms known to late twentieth century people as science.
These paradigm shifts demonstrate that logic has not always been part of science. Cultures around the world and across the ages developed many different explanations for events in the natural world. There are different cultural explanations of creation. Chinese, Native Americans and Central Americans explain creation as the mating of the sun and the moon. The ancient Greeks explained the beginning of the earth with the Olympians Zeus and Hera. There are many other stories explaining other natural events.
Only two of the many folk tales will be discussed here: Why the female mosquito bites and why frogs croak. The mosquito tale is from the Vietnamese culture and the other is from Native American lore. The source of each story comes from the oral history of each culture. The basic tale has been embellished and added to over many years so that the origins are now lost in history.
The stories should be told dramatically, with appropriate grunts, growls and whines. Because these are part of an oral history, they need to be told to the students in the oral tradition. The students are usually amazed that the teacher acts so "foolishly" but they remember the stories and the reason for them. The Vietnamese tale does not have names for the characters. By remaining nameless, the stories encourage the students to imagine themselves in the role, thereby making the story more real for them.
After telling the tales and discussing them, an assignment for the students is to write a myth that describes a familiar situation, such as why the school garbage cans are always empty in the morning. Then, they are to explain something in their own lives, perhaps a family myth, tradition, or ordinary happening. This demonstrates that myths and legends arise out of everyday events and can be passed on in an oral tradition.
Target Age/Ability Group: Regular/Honors Biology or Life Science
Student/Class Time Required: One period to explain briefly how science has changed and to tell stories. This may take more time if desired.
Homework assignment: Student-generated myths.
Materials: The two stories in this module and any others the teacher is comfortable with and able to tell, and not read, to the students.
Teacher preparation: Learning the stories used, so that they can be told, not read aloud.
Cross-curricular possibilities: A cross-curricular unit might be planned with high school English classes which often study classic Greek myths. Math and science might combine a unit which discusses the history of both subjects during the Golden Age of Greece. Social studies and science might develop a unit that discusses myths from many cultures and the scientific explanation of each. Vocational child development classes might prepare these and other stories to tell the pre-school children, giving also the scientific explanation. Choir classes often sing songs which are myths and those myths might be explained by science classes, either in common English or in poetry. The explanation could be part of a choir concert. Foreign language classes could write or translate myths in the language they are studying since language classes include a large cultural component.
Purpose: Demonstrate that the perception of the world has changed as new information is gained.
Explanation: Entomologists know that mosquitoes bite, not to become beautiful girls, but for a blood meal so that they will be able to lay more eggs. Female mosquitoes utilize the blood proteins to produce more eggs. They are able to lay a few eggs without the blood but many more with the blood. Mosquitoes may not have always needed a blood meal. Evolution might explain the adaptation as a change in the genes either due to mutation or a gradual change in the mosquito chromosomes.
Many frog species croak because of proclaiming territory or because they are calling to the available females. It is mainly the males. The males want females to know their location and that they are available, breeding males. The males also wish to proclaim to other males that a particular territory is claimed. These characteristic behaviors are determined by genes on the chromosomes. As with all behaviors, determination by fossils is difficult. In many species, there is a broad variety of traits. It is hypothesized that at one point in their ancient genetic history, there were frogs that did not croak as well as frogs that did. Those frogs that were successful in breeding may have been the ones that were able to attract more females and keep more territory. That attraction may have been croaking which was determined by the genes. The croaking frogs survived to pass on their traits and the non-croaking frogs did not. Now all frogs croak.
Blue Cloud, Peter. 1990. Other Side of Nowhere: Contemporary Coyote Stories. White Pine.
Bulfinch, Thomas. 1986. The Golden Age of Myth and Legend. Bracken Books.
Bulfinch, Thomas. 1990. Age of Fable. Courage Books.
Cain, A. J. 1993. Animal Species and Their Evolution. Princeton Press.
Dowden, Ken. 1992. The Uses of Greek Mythology. Routledge.
Donaldson, Gerald, ed. 1980. Frogs. Van Nostrand Reinhold, Co.
Gifford, Edward Winston. 1990. Californian Indian Nights. University of Nebraska Press.
Gillot, Cedric. 1980. Entomology. Plenum Press.
Monigold, Glenn. 1964. Folk Tales from Vietnam. Peter Pauper Press.
Ribuoli, Patrizia. 1991. Frogs: Art, Legend and History. Little Brown.
Salerno-White, John. 1994. Entomologist. Unpublished interview.
Shorrocks, Bryan. 1978. The Genetics of Diversity. Hodder and Stoughton.
Trueb, Duellman. 1986. Biology of Amphibians. McGraw-Hill.
Why Only the Female Mosquito Bites
Once, long ago, there was a handsome farmer. He was so handsome that he could choose any wife he wished. This farmer had a small but productive farm passed down from his father and his grandfather before him. The village matchmaker, an old woman, decided that he needed a wife. She went to all the nearby villages, looking for a wife who would be worthy of this handsome farmer.
After looking for a number of days, she found a lovely girl who lived with her family two villages away from the farmer's. All of her life, this girl had been told that she was beautiful and could have any husband she wished. Because she was beautiful, she was also told that she did not have to work, cook, clean and sew.
A Tale from Vietnam
When the matchmaker came to her village, this beautiful girl waited until all the rest of the girls in the village were examined. Then she came forward. After all, she was more beautiful than all the other girls in the village and she really wanted to marry and leave home in order to see the rest of the world.
The matchmaker examined all of the girls and returned to the village of the handsome farmer to tell him of the choices. When he heard about the beautiful girl, he decided to choose her. He needed a wife to sew and cook and have his babies. Besides, the planting season was due to start soon. If he did not marry soon, he would have to wait until the following year to marry because planting and harvesting would involve all of his time.
And so, the matchmaker arranged the marriage between the handsome farmer and the beautiful village girl. After the wedding, they moved into the house that had been his father's and his grandfather's before him. It was an ordinary farm house but very comfortable and sturdy.
Because she had not learned how to cook and clean very well, the farmer's wife was clumsy and awkward, often spilling or breaking things as she struggled to get her tasks completed. One day, as she was slicing some vegetables, the knife slipped and cut her finger. The cut was very bad and, because she did not know what to do, she bled to death. The farmer, who by this time loved her very much, came home for lunch and found her on the floor. He began wailing and sobbing and crying that his beloved wife had died. What was he to do without her? The spirits heard his lament and told him to get the knife and prick his finger. When he did this, he was to let three drops of his blood fall upon her. This he did. When the third drop of blood touched her, she sat up, alive again. He was very happy. And life continued as it had before.
After a few weeks more of cooking, cleaning and sewing, the beautiful young girl who was now the farmer's beautiful wife became tired of the work and very discontented. After all, she had been raised to expect only the best when she married and being a farmer's wife was not what she had envisioned.
One day, as she was taking time from her chores, she sat on the side of the canal, hoping that she could get through another day. A magnificent boat appeared in the distance. As it grew closer, she began dreaming about being on the boat, traveling away from the farmer, his house and all the tasks that she had to do.
When the boat came very near, she noticed that a handsome prince sat on the deck. This prince noticed the farmer's beautiful wife and told his crew to stop the boat. After the gangplank was lowered, the prince walked onto shore and introduced himself to the farmer's wife. He said that she was very beautiful and deserving of more than being a farmer's wife. If she came away with him she could have all she deserved. As a prince, he had many riches and could give the farmer's wife silks, jewels, and the perfumes from far away places. He also said that she would never have to cook again. She thought about her family, the farmer and her duty as a wife and daughter. She also thought about the silks, jewels, and perfumes. She also thought about having the luxury of having someone cook for her whenever she became hungry. She thought and thought and finally decided to go with the handsome prince. He told her to leave her clothes as he would buy the things she needed. They boarded the boat and it sailed away up the canal.
When the farmer came home for his dinner, he found an empty kitchen. At first, he thought she had cut herself again. He looked in every room. His beautiful wife was nowhere to be found. Finally, a neighbor took pity on him and told him where his wife was. He stopped being sad and became very angry. After some thought, he decided to go after her. He left his farm during the planting season, and followed the prince's boat.
After many days of travel, he came upon the boat. The prince had gone into a nearby village to buy supplies and presents for the farmer's wife. The wife remained on the boat. When the farmer appeared, the farmer's wife said, "I am not going back with you. I do not want to spend my life cooking and cleaning." The farmer, who was very mad, said, "That's fine. I do not want you to come back. But I do want my three drops of blood." His wife, agreeing that he should have those three drops of blood, picked up some scissors and cut her little finger. As the first drop of blood fell, she began to shrivel. The next drop of blood made her dry up even more. By the time the third drop of blood fell, she was as tiny as a mosquito and began buzzing around the room. The farmer listened carefully and heard her saying, "I want my blood back. I want my blood back."
The farmer turned and left, returning to the farm that had been his father's and his grandfather's before. He married the plain girl who lived next door and lived happily ever after.
And this is why only the female mosquitoes bite. They are trying to get their blood back so that they might again become that beautiful princess with silks, jewels and rare perfumes.
Why Frogs Croak
Once, long ago, the days and nights were of varying lengths. Brother Sun made some of the days very long and the following nights could also be very long. Many of the animals did not like this. They wished the days were more regulated and even, as they are now.
A Tale from Native American Literature
The animals got together and formed a committee to ask Brother Sun to better regulate the day length. There were many animals on the committee but two of the notable ones were Frog and Grizzly Bear. They were the two chosen by the rest of the committee to survey the rest of the animals.
Grizzly wanted one long day and one long night. He ate all day and slept all night. Long days and nights seemed very logical to him. Frog, on the other hand, wanted shorter days and nights. Frog did not live very long and he wanted his rest and feeding time to be spread out so he could enjoy them.
Grizzly was a big bully of a bear. He sauntered around, speaking to each of the animals about the length of the days and the nights. Because he was a bully, he growled to each animal "SIX MONTHS DAY AND SIX MONTHS NIGHT," showing his big teeth and long claws. He growled to Fox, "SIX MONTHS DAY AND SIX MONTHS NIGHT." Grizzly growled to Owl, "SIX MONTH'S DAY AND SIX MONTHS NIGHT." He saw Fish, "SIX MONTHS DAY AND SIX MONTHS NIGHT." After every animal was talked to, Grizzly wandered off to a den and took a long nap.
Frog, on the other hand, was a sociable sort of fellow. He hopped from place to place, listening to what the animals had to say. It didn't matter to Fish what the day length was. Swimming could be done at night as well as during the day. Fox preferred dawn and dusk and wanted many of those at fairly regular intervals. Owl, on the other hand, liked to hunt at night but enjoyed sleeping during the day. Periods of six months of day and six months of night were too long for Owl.
After listening to all of the animals, Frog returned to the committee to report. After Frog's report, the committee looked around for Grizzly. Grizzly, being a big bully, was sure that the rest of the animals would vote his way and did not bother to wake up from his long nap to return to the committee to report.
The committee weighed all the possibilities and choices, taking into consideration the opinions of all the animals surveyed. They voted. Eagle was sent to tell Brother Sun of their decision. Brother Sun agreed that their choice was possible and he changed the day length to be what we know today. The days in winter were to be short and progress to being longer until midsummer when they were again begin to shorten. The nights were to be just the opposite, going from long in winter to short in summer.
Frog was so happy about his part in the decision that he hopped from place to place, croaking, in a chirpy little voice, "One day, one night. One day, one night." He was so proud of himself and his descendants are also proud. In fact, if you listen quietly just shortly after the sun sets, you may hear the frogs still croaking, "One day, one night. One day, one night. One day, one night. One day, one night."