Richard Dawkins is one of my favorites, and I’m really enjoying his latest book The Ancestor’s Tale, but he does have a very big problem in an introductory chapter. The point is not at all central to his argument, and it’s really contained just in an analogy, but it’s a problem that I encounter far too often, and I would have hoped he’d be beyond this.
Frustratingly, oral tradition peters out almost immediately, unless hallowed in bardic recitations like those that were eventually written down by Homer, and even then the history is far from accurate. It decays into nonsense and falsehood after amazingly few generations. Historical facts about real heroes, villains, animals and volcanoes rapidly degenerate (or blossom, depending upon your taste) into myths about demi-gods, devils, centaurs and fire-breathing dragons.
What he’s missing here is that oral tradition (and “factual” “historical” writing, too, for that matter), is an intentional, creative, discourse. It’s literature–with a purpose and aesthetics that often have nothing to do with “accuracy.” People don’t just tell stories (or write them) about centaurs and dragons because the stories have somehow “degenerated” from the “real” events. They tell those stories because they like them.
Of course, Dawkins finishes that paragraph by saying that “oral traditions and their imperfections needn’t detain us because, in any case, they have no equivalent in evolutionary history.” And that is true. But I’m a little disappointed in him that he insists on seeing these features of oral tradition as “imperfections.” This may be a problem that’s particularly hard for scientists to overcome. It’s an unfortunate blind spot.