Self Help

The Magic of Reality - Dawkins, Richard

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Matheus Puppe

· 32 min read



  • Reality is everything that exists, including things we can detect with our senses as well as things we cannot directly detect but can infer through evidence and reason.

  • Our senses can be enhanced by instruments like telescopes and microscopes to expand our understanding of reality. Fossils provide evidence of past realities like dinosaurs.

  • Light takes time to travel so when we look at distant stars we are seeing the past. The Andromeda galaxy image we see is from 2.5 million years ago.

  • Models and predictions are another way scientists expand knowledge, even of things not directly detectable like atoms and DNA. Mendel used models and breeding experiments to unravel genetics.

  • Science keeps uncovering new aspects of reality. We should be open-minded but believe something only with evidence, not just imagine it.

  • The joy of science is it keeps unveiling new real things, not just fantasies. Reality encompasses what we know now and what we have yet to discover.

This passage explains the scientific method of understanding reality. It starts by describing how Gregor Mendel, through observing and counting smooth and wrinkled peas, indirectly discovered the existence of genes. Later scientists built on his work using fruit flies to show genes are arranged along chromosomes. Though genes weren’t directly observable at the time, scientists imagined models and tested predictions to uncover the truth.

The passage argues science reveals reality through our senses directly or aided by instruments, or through testing models that predict observable phenomena. It acknowledges emotions like love are real but depend on brains. Supernatural magic found in myths doesn’t happen in reality. Stage magic appears supernatural but is trickery. Poetic magic conveys a sense of awe and wonder.

The passage contends supernatural explanations shut off further inquiry, whereas science seeks natural explanations. If something defied current understanding, scientists would see it as a challenge to improve their models. Attributing events to the supernatural rather than investigating is like a detective calling a murder supernatural. Historically, the supernatural has been replaced by scientific explanations. There’s no reason to think current unexplained phenomena are supernatural.

Overall, the key points are that science uncovers reality through observation, instruments, and testing models, in contrast to supernatural magic which is fictional, and poetic magic which conveys a sense of awe. Science constantly seeks natural explanations rather than attributing events to the supernatural.

Here’s a summary of the key points:

  • Complicated things like frogs and coaches have many precisely arranged parts that must come together in a specific way. They can’t just happen by chance.

  • It would be virtually impossible for a pile of coach parts shaken randomly in a bag to assemble into a working coach by luck. There are too many possible wrong arrangements compared to the one right arrangement.

  • Similarly, it is extremely unlikely a prince could be randomly rearranged into a frog, as most rearrangements would just create a meaningless mess rather than a functioning frog.

  • Living things evolved gradually through many small steps, not giant leaps. Slow, incremental changes over many generations allowed evolution from simpler to more complicated organisms.

  • Selective breeding demonstrates this gradual evolution. By choosing which individuals mate over many generations, populations can be slowly shaped, like breeding frogs with slightly longer legs each time.

  • Natural selection plays a similar role to artificial selection in selective breeding. It “chooses” which individuals survive and reproduce, gradually shaping populations over time.

  • Evolution is not just random chance, but the incremental accumulation of small changes driven by selection pressures. This allows the appearance of “designed” complexity without an actual designer.

Here is a summary of the main points:

  • All cultures have origin myths to explain where people came from. These myths often focus on a particular tribe and involve supernatural beings.

  • A Tasmanian aboriginal myth describes how the god Moinee created the first humans but forgot to give them knees or cut off their kangaroo tails. Another god, Dromerdeener, fixed these problems so people could sit down.

  • In the Biblical story, the Hebrew god made the first man Adam out of dust and put him in the Garden of Eden. God then made Eve from Adam’s rib. A snake persuaded Eve to eat forbidden fruit and God expelled them from the garden.

  • The Norse origin myth describes the god Odin finding two tree trunks, which he and his brothers turned into the first man Ask and woman Embla, giving them life and abilities like speech.

  • Origin myths often have different versions and involve supernatural beings. The scientific view is that humans evolved gradually over a long period of time through natural selection, not sudden creation by gods.

  • There was never really a “first person” or “first human” because every person had parents who were also human. The same is true for other species - there was never really a “first rabbit” or “first dragonfly”, etc.

  • Every creature belongs to the same species as its parents and grandparents, going back through many generations.

  • If you go back far enough (around 185 million greats-grandparents), our ancestors were fish.

  • The change from fish to human happened gradually over many generations. Each generation was able to mate with the next.

  • We see this gradual change in the fossil record. Fossils allow us to reconstruct what our distant ancestors looked like and when they lived.

  • At some point between 100,000 and 1 million years ago, our ancestors were different enough from modern humans that we wouldn’t have been able to interbreed. But the change was still gradual.

  • There’s no definitive point where our ancestors stopped being one species and suddenly became another. The dividing lines are fuzzy.

So in summary, the scientific evidence shows human evolution was a gradual process over many generations, not the sudden appearance of a “first human.” The original tellers of myths may not have realized this.

  • Rocks can be eroded into smaller particles like pebbles, sand, and dust. These can settle in layers to form sedimentary rock over long periods of time.

  • Fossils form when animals get trapped in sediment that later hardens into rock. There are different types of fossils - imprints, replicas, and mineral replacements.

  • Fossils can be dated using radioactive isotope clocks, like uranium-238 and carbon-14, which have known decay rates. These work as long timers.

  • Going back in time, humans would look the same until about 1 million years ago. Gradual changes over time add up.

  • At 6 million years ago, human ancestors would look ape-like but different from chimpanzees.

  • Further back, ancestors look monkey-like, then lemur-like, eventually mammal-like, reptile-like, fish-like over hundreds of millions of years.

  • Gradual imperceptible changes over time lead to modern humans evolving from ancient fish ancestors. The fossil record and genome sequencing supports this.

Here is a summary of the key points about why there are so many different kinds of animals:

  • There don’t seem to be many myths specifically explaining the diversity of animal species, unlike myths explaining things like different languages (e.g. Tower of Babel).

  • Some indigenous peoples were aware of the huge variety of species, like the New Guinea tribesmen who had names for 136 out of 137 local bird species identified by a scientist.

  • Some myths do touch on animal diversity, like the Hopi myth of Spider Woman creating all the animals, and the Pueblo/Navajo myth of animals emerging through stages from the underworld.

  • The variety of species resembles the variety of languages, both being examples of evolution producing diversity.

  • Biological evolution leads to multiplying species diversity due to factors like geographic isolation, specialization, and cumulative selection over time. Species multiply when populations split and diverge.

  • There are parallels between language evolution and animal evolution - languages also multiply and diverge into new languages when cultures split up.

  • So both the proliferation of languages and species can be explained as a natural process of divergence over time, rather than requiring supernatural explanations involving gods or creation myths.

  • There are estimated to be around 2 million named species, but this is only a fraction of the total number that exist.

  • Species are categorized using a hierarchical system of groupings - species, genus, family, order, class. This creates a tree-like structure showing how species are related.

  • Species split from common ancestors, just as languages diverge over time. Small changes accumulate over generations until populations can no longer interbreed, forming separate species.

  • Languages also diverge into dialects and eventually become mutually unintelligible, like Spanish and Italian evolving from Latin.

  • The branching pattern of species splitting from common ancestors produces the proliferation of species we see, just as languages splitting creates many languages.

  • Charles Darwin drew the first evolutionary “tree of life” to represent this branching process of species multiplying from common origins.

  • Like languages, species change over time when populations are separated. Their DNA drifts apart, eventually becoming incompatible, just as words in languages change over time.

  • Islands and other geographical barriers promote this separation and drift. Populations on different islands are cut off from each other, allowing their genes to diverge.

  • The Galapagos Islands provide a good example. Iguanas likely rafted there from the mainland. Separated on different islands, they evolved into distinct species that can no longer interbreed.

  • Within islands, things like volcanoes can also act as barriers, dividing populations. This happened on Isabela Island, where iguanas evolved into separate species on different volcanoes.

  • Any kind of isolation allows populations to diverge genetically. Once separated long enough that they can’t interbreed, they are on independent evolutionary paths.

  • This process of separation and genetic divergence is responsible for much of the branching of species we see, even the separation of major groups like vertebrates and invertebrates.

The marine iguanas of the Galapagos Islands are very different from the land iguanas found elsewhere, having adapted for life in the sea over time. Though evolved from land iguanas, marine iguanas are likely from an earlier extinct genus that colonized the islands long ago. There are different races of marine iguanas on different islands that may eventually become separate species. This pattern of animals adapting to islands and becoming new species is common in Galapagos and worldwide. Geographical barriers like islands, rivers, mountains, and distance can lead populations to drift apart genetically over time and become new species.

Evolution means change in the gene pool of a population over long periods of time. Sexual reproduction shuffles genes in each generation so the population shares a common gene pool. Separated populations have gene pools that drift apart and can no longer interbreed, becoming new species. Natural selection causes some genes to become more common and others rarer based on their survival value - genes good at helping organisms survive and reproduce become more prevalent. So species evolve to be well-adapted survival machines for passing on genes.

  • Ancient Greeks like Democritus theorized that matter is made up of tiny indivisible particles called atoms. The word “atom” comes from the Greek word “a-tomos” meaning “uncuttable”.

  • Today we know there are about 100 different types of atoms, of which 90 occur naturally. The rest have been created artificially in labs.

  • Atoms of a single element that join together form molecules. Examples are oxygen (O2) and ozone (O3).

  • Compounds are formed when atoms of different elements join together such as in water (H2O).

  • Crystals consist of many atoms arranged in an orderly, repeating pattern like soldiers on parade. The type of atoms and their arrangement gives crystals their structure and properties.

  • Solids are made up of crystalline structures. Liquids have molecules that can move around each other. Gases have molecules moving very fast and freely.

  • Viscosity is the resistance of a liquid to flow. Very viscous liquids can behave almost like solids.

Here is a summary of the key points about atoms and crystals:

  • Atoms are made up of a nucleus surrounded by electrons. The nucleus contains most of the mass, while electrons whiz around the nucleus.

  • In a solid crystal like diamond, the atoms are arranged in an orderly 3D structure, but the nuclei are actually very far apart - around 15 km if scaled up to football size.

  • So solid objects are mostly empty space, with tiny nuclei separated by large distances, and even smaller electrons orbiting around.

  • However, solid objects feel hard and impenetrable due to mysterious “forces” and “bonds” between the atoms and nuclei. These forces hold the crystal structure together.

  • Liquids and gases have looser bonds between atoms, allowing more freedom of motion.

  • Light and other small particles can pass through transparent materials where the atom forces allow it. Opaque materials reflect or absorb light.

  • So the properties of matter ultimately depend on the atomic forces and bonds at tiny scales, even though matter feels solid and substantial to us.

Here is a summary of the key points about why things fall:

  • Gravity is the force that causes objects to fall towards each other. It is an attractive force that acts between all objects that have mass.

  • On Earth, gravity pulls objects towards the center of the planet. When you drop something, gravity accelerates it downwards at 9.8 m/s2, giving it speed and kinetic energy.

  • Gravity gets weaker with distance. The farther apart two objects are, the weaker the gravitational attraction between them. But it never completely goes away.

  • The mass of an object determines how strong its gravitational pull is. More massive objects exert a stronger gravitational force.

  • Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity explains gravity as the curving of spacetime by mass and energy. Massive objects like planets curve spacetime around them, causing other objects to follow those curved paths.

  • Gravity holds planets in orbit around stars, moons around planets, and overall drives the motion and evolution of the universe. Without gravity, matter would simply float apart.

  • There are still mysteries about gravity, like dark matter and dark energy, that physics is trying to unravel. But we know gravity is fundamental force of nature essential to the cosmos.

  • There are two major rhythms that dominate our lives: the 24-hour cycle of day and night, and the yearly cycle of seasons.

  • Ancient myths often try to explain these cycles, such as myths about the sun being a chariot crossing the sky daily, or eggs hatching the sun.

  • The cycle of seasons often features in myths, like the Native American myth of Porcupine and Beaver arguing over the length of winter.

  • The Greek myth of Persephone explains the seasons through her time spent above ground with her mother Demeter versus below ground with Hades.

  • These cycles are caused by the rotation of the Earth on its axis (day/night) and its orbit around the sun (seasons).

  • The apparent movement of the sun across the sky is an illusion caused by the Earth’s spin - we are moving while the sun stays still.

  • Myths tried to explain these natural cycles before science uncovered the true causes through astronomy.

  • When you are moving at a steady speed in an enclosed space like a train carriage, the motion of the carriage does not affect activities inside like playing ping pong. However, if the train speeds up, slows down, or turns, it does affect things happening inside.

  • The changing of night to day and winter to summer is dramatic and animals adapt in various ways, like hibernating or migrating. Some people don’t understand that the seasons are caused by the tilt of the Earth’s axis, not distance from the sun.

  • Orbits work because of gravity - objects are constantly “falling” towards each other but miss because of their sideways motion. Satellites stay in orbit by “falling” around the curve of the Earth.

  • In orbit, objects are weightless but not massless. Weight depends on gravity while mass stays the same. So while you would be weightless on a space station, you would still have mass and could injure yourself by jumping into a wall.

Here is a summary of the main points:

  • Objects like cannonballs have mass, which means they require force to set them in motion. Weight is the force that gravity exerts on mass.

  • In the ‘weightless’ environment of a spacecraft, objects still retain their mass. A cannonball will still feel heavy and require effort to throw, even though it has no weight.

  • Planets and comets orbit the sun in ellipses, with the sun at one focus. Circles are special cases of ellipses.

  • As a cannon on Earth is made more powerful, the ellipse of the cannonball’s trajectory becomes more eccentric, until it reaches escape velocity and does not return.

  • Spacecraft can exploit gravitational ‘slingshot’ effects to gain speed around planets.

  • Comets have highly eccentric elliptical orbits, so they speed up massively when passing near the sun. Their dust tails point away from the sun.

  • The Earth’s mild seasons are not caused by its proximity to the sun, since its orbit is nearly circular. Seasons are caused by the tilt of Earth’s axis.

Here is a summary of the key points about ancient sun worship and myths:

  • Many ancient cultures worshipped the sun as a god, often pairing it with worship of the moon as a goddess. Examples include the Aztecs, Incas, Egyptians, and Japanese Shinto religion.

  • In the Aztec myth of the Five Suns, there were four previous worlds each with its own sun god that were destroyed. The current fifth sun is the god Tonatiuh or Huitzilopochtli.

  • The Aztecs believed they had to perform gruesome human sacrifices to appease Tonatiuh and ensure the sun would rise each day. It’s estimated 20,000-80,000 were sacrificed at one temple rededication ceremony.

  • Other ancient myths personified the sun and moon in various ways, such as the Japanese sun goddess Amaterasu and moon god Ogetsuno.

  • The Incas of Peru believed the sun and moon were their ancestors. Many cultures paired worship of a male sun god with a female moon goddess.

  • Myths often contain specific but strange details, like the Aztec goddess crying tears of blood for precisely 52 years.

  • The sun was worshipped as a god or creator deity in many ancient cultures, such as the Aztecs, Maya, Egyptians, Greeks, and Norse. They had myths and legends about the sun being a chariot or swallowed by a goddess each night.

  • In reality, the sun is a star, no different than many others except that it is much closer to Earth. Its size and proximity make it seem bigger and hotter.

  • Stars produce heat and light through nuclear fusion, converting hydrogen into helium. Their inward gravitational pull is balanced by the outward pressure of the nuclear reactions.

  • Our sun is an average-sized star midway through its lifecycle. Much larger stars burn out faster, while smaller stars last longer.

  • As stars age, they change size and brightness, fusing heavier elements. Our sun will become a red giant in 5 billion years as it starts fusing helium, ending life on Earth.

  • Astronomers observe stars at different stages to understand the lifecycles of stars like our sun. The sun is currently about halfway through its total lifespan.

  • Stars like our sun generate energy by fusing hydrogen into helium. This process cannot continue forever as the hydrogen will eventually run out.

  • Our sun will likely swell into a red giant in several billion years, potentially engulfing the inner planets including Earth. It will then shrink into a white dwarf.

  • More massive stars fusion heavier elements and can explode as supernovas, scattering elements like carbon, nitrogen and oxygen through space. Supernovas are necessary for creating the elements needed for life.

  • The planets in our solar system all orbit in the same plane, likely because the system originated from a spinning cloud of gas and dust. Gravity caused the cloud to flatten into a disc.

  • Asteroids are debris that failed to coalesce into a planet between Mars and Jupiter. Some asteroids periodically hit Earth as meteorites. A massive meteor impact likely caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.

  • Life as we know it relies on energy from starlight. Plants gather sunlight and convert it to chemical energy like sugars, which ultimately provide energy for other life forms.

  • The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest known stories, from ancient Sumerian civilization in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) over 5,000 years ago.

  • In the story, Gilgamesh meets a very old man named Utnapishtim, who tells him about a great flood long ago.

  • The gods were angry with humans for making too much noise, so the chief god Enlil wanted to send a flood to destroy them.

  • But the water god Ea decided to warn Utnapishtim to build a large boat and fill it with the seeds of all living creatures.

  • It rained for 6 days and nights flooding the earth. Only those safely inside the boat survived.

  • After the flood, Utnapishtim released birds to look for dry land. First a dove and then a swallow returned finding no land.

  • Finally a raven didn’t return, meaning it found dry land somewhere. So the flood waters were receding.

  • The story of Noah’s Ark is very similar to an older Sumerian legend about a man named Utnapishtim who built a boat to survive a great flood.

  • In both stories, the flood is sent by the gods/God because humans were too noisy and disruptive.

  • After the flood ends, a rainbow appears as a sign from the gods/God not to send another devastating flood.

  • Rainbow myths are common across many cultures, with rainbows often seen as bridges, snakes, etc.

  • Isaac Newton discovered that white light is made up of all the colors of the rainbow, which can be separated into the spectrum using a prism.

  • Newton proved light is made up of different colored components through experiments with prisms bending light.

  • Understanding how rainbows form comes from knowing white light contains all rainbow colors that can be separated or merged. The author then continues on to further explain rainbows in the next chapter.

Here is a summary of the key points about colors in the passage:

  • White sunlight contains all the colors of the rainbow. When it passes through a prism, the colors separate into a spectrum from red to violet because each color bends by a different amount.

  • Red light bends the least and violet light bends the most. The other colors fall in between - orange, yellow, green, blue.

  • Raindrops act like tiny prisms and mirrors. Sunlight reflects and refracts inside raindrops, separating into colored beams.

  • We see different colored beams from different raindrops, combining to make a rainbow.

  • Color is related to the wavelength of light. Red has the longest wavelength, violet has the shortest. The visible spectrum we see is only a small part of the full electromagnetic spectrum.

  • Galaxies are groups of billions of stars, plus gas and dust clouds. Our sun is one of the stars in the Milky Way galaxy.

  • It’s possible to measure the distance to galaxies using methods like parallax for nearby stars, and ‘standard candles’ like special types of stars whose brightness we understand for more distant galaxies.

  • Spectroscopes spread out starlight into a spectrum or rainbow. Measurements of these spectra show that distant galaxies have their light ‘redshifted’ - shifted towards the red end of the spectrum.

  • This redshift implies that distant galaxies are moving away from us at high speeds. The furthest galaxies are receding the fastest.

  • This evidence supports the ‘Big Bang’ model that the universe exploded into being 13-14 billion years ago and has been expanding ever since.

  • The ‘Steady State’ model of an unchanging, eternal universe is not supported by the evidence.

  • Some speculate about a ‘multiverse’ with many bubble universes, but there is no evidence beyond our own observable universe, which likely began in the Big Bang.

  • What happened before the Big Bang, or how any creator came into existence, remains unknown. The Big Bang model explains what happened after time began, around 13-14 billion years ago.

  • Starlight contains the same colors that we see on Earth, just arranged in different patterns. There are no “new” colors that our eyes cannot perceive.

  • When starlight is spread into a rainbow spectrum, it shows dark lines or colored bars in particular locations. This pattern acts like a barcode, revealing which elements are present in the star.

  • Each element produces its own unique barcode pattern in the spectrum. By reading these barcodes, astronomers can determine the composition of distant stars.

  • The barcode patterns for elements in very distant galaxies are shifted towards the red end of the spectrum. This redshift increases with increasing galaxy distance.

  • The redshift is like a Doppler shift for light waves, similar to how an approaching object has a higher pitch and a receding object has a lower pitch.

  • The redshift indicates that distant galaxies are moving away from us. This provides evidence for the expansion of the universe that began with the Big Bang.

  • By analyzing redshifts and decoding the elemental barcodes in starlight, astronomers gain insight into the nature of stars across the universe and the history of cosmic expansion.

  • Myths about alien life on other planets are rare in ancient times, but common in modern times. We can see these modern myths arising before our eyes.

  • In 1997, the Heaven’s Gate cult committed mass suicide because they believed a UFO was accompanying comet Hale-Bopp. Their leader probably sincerely believed this myth he created.

  • Many otherwise normal people sincerely believe they have been abducted by aliens. They have detailed memories of being experimented on by aliens, though there is no evidence it actually happened.

  • Psychologists like Susan Clancy have studied these people. Many “abductees” have sleep disorders and false memories triggered by sleep paralysis and hallucinations.

  • Belief in alien abductions fills a need for mystery and excitement. It stems from imaginative fiction and popular culture. People want to believe there is more out there.

  • No convincing evidence of alien visitations has ever been found. Photos and videos purported to show UFOs have always proven fake or mistaken.

  • It is statistically unlikely we are alone in the vast universe, but no proof of alien life has been discovered. Our imaginations run wild in the absence of evidence.

  • Some people claim to have been abducted by aliens and subjected to medical experiments. They often ‘recover’ memories of this through hypnosis or psychotherapy. However, recovered memories are unreliable and can be false memories.

  • Many of these ‘abductees’ are fans of science fiction and their descriptions of aliens match those in sci-fi movies/TV.

  • A more likely explanation is that they experienced sleep paralysis - where you wake up paralyzed and may hallucinate. People see things like aliens that reflect cultural myths and media.

  • Sleep paralysis explains historical accounts too - e.g. people reporting demon or vampire attacks.

  • There’s no good evidence Earth has been visited by aliens. But the question remains - could life exist on other planets?

  • We now know many stars have orbiting planets. Over 700 have been detected so far.

  • We detect them indirectly, like through Doppler spectroscope measurements of the star’s motion as planets orbit it.

  • So the number of planets makes it seem likely there is life elsewhere, though we have no direct evidence yet. Finding out is an exciting scientific challenge.

  • There are likely billions of planets orbiting the hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy, and trillions more planets across the universe. Even if only a small percentage are capable of supporting life, the total number is still likely enormous.

  • Most planets discovered so far are gas giants like Jupiter, but smaller rocky planets like Earth are also common. Some of these rocky planets orbit in the “Goldilocks zones” around their stars where liquid water could exist.

  • For a planet to support life as we know it, it needs liquid water and a stable temperature conducive to life, as well as a mass and gravity that allows organisms to function and evolve.

  • If alien life exists on other planets, it may have recognizable features like eyes, since eyes are a simple and effective way to detect light that would likely evolve on any planet with available light. However, aliens would also evolve to suit their own environmental conditions.

  • In summary, while we have not yet found definitive evidence of life beyond Earth, the astronomical number of potentially habitable planets makes it statistically very likely that life exists elsewhere in the vastness of space. Discovering and studying such alien life is a tantalizing possibility for the future.

Here is a summary of the key points about earthquakes:

  • An earthquake is a sudden, violent shaking of the ground caused by movements within the Earth’s crust. It can cause tremendous destruction as the ground shakes and rolls.

  • Earthquakes are associated with faults, which are cracks or fractures in the Earth’s crust. When blocks of crust shift or move along a fault, this releases seismic waves that cause the shaking felt during an earthquake.

  • Major fault lines where earthquakes occur frequently include the “Ring of Fire” around the Pacific Ocean, including offshore Japan, the west coast of North America, and many other regions.

  • Historical myths exist attempting to explain earthquakes, such as the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah or the rescue of Muhammad’s son-in-law from execution.

  • Early thinkers like Aristotle believed earthquakes were caused by winds trapped underground. Later scholars recognized they were related to movements in the Earth’s crust.

  • Monitoring with seismographs allows scientists to detect and measure earthquakes. The magnitude of an earthquake relates to the amount of energy released. Bigger quakes cause more intense shaking and damage.

  • Earthquakes can trigger other hazards like tsunamis or nuclear disasters if power plants are damaged. Recent major quakes have caused severe damage and loss of life in places like Haiti, Japan, and New Zealand.

  • Improved building designs and emergency preparedness help reduce risks, but earthquakes remain powerful and unpredictable natural hazards. Understanding their causes helps societies be more resilient.

  • The Bible contains myths about the destruction of the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. According to the myth, God destroyed the cities with fire and brimstone, turning Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt when she disobeyed and looked back.

  • Some archaeologists believe evidence of a large ancient earthquake may explain the myth, as earthquakes were common in the Dead Sea region.

  • Another biblical myth about the destruction of Jericho’s walls may also have origins in real earthquakes that frequently affected the region. Over time, the story was exaggerated into a tale of Joshua conquering Jericho.

  • Many cultures have myths and legends to explain earthquakes, such as giant catfish causing tremors in Japan and gods hugging in West Africa.

  • However, science now provides the real explanations behind earthquakes through plate tectonics theory. The continents slowly move and collide over millions of years, causing earthquakes when pressure builds and the land mass suddenly shifts. Alfred Wegener proposed the idea of drifting continents in the early 1900s, which led to the modern understanding of plate tectonics and the causes of earthquakes.

  • Alfred Wegener proposed in the early 1900s that the continents had once been joined together and later drifted apart. He was right about the continents moving, but wrong about how it happened.

  • According to the modern theory of plate tectonics, the Earth’s crust is divided into large plates that cover both the continents and the seafloor. The plates move very slowly on viscous material in the mantle below.

  • Convection currents in the mantle generated by heat from the Earth’s core cause the plates to move. Where plates pull apart, new crust is created by volcanic activity at mid-ocean ridges. Where plates collide, one can be pushed under the other in a process called subduction.

  • The slow grinding of the plates against each other causes earthquakes. Major earthquake zones like the San Andreas Fault in California occur along plate boundaries.

  • The continents seem to have moved because they are carried on the plates. Africa and South America were once joined but have moved apart as the seafloor spreads at the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Evidence like matching coastlines and fossil patterns supports this.

  • Plate tectonics explains the locations of earthquakes, volcanoes, mountain ranges, and other geological features as consequences of plate motions driven by convection in the mantle. It is a unifying theory that revolutionized geology.

  • In fiction, good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. But real life is not like that - bad things happen to good people too.

  • Many cultures have myths and legends to explain why bad things happen, often involving gods, cosmic eggs, twins, messengers, etc. These are attempts to understand the mysterious nature of suffering.

  • People often blamed diseases on witchcraft, spells, lack of sacrifices, etc. Diseases seemed to strike unpredictably so people resorted to superstition.

  • People have tried many strange cures over history, like temple healing dreams, holy water at Lourdes, bleeding patients. The four humours theory led to harmful bleeding practices.

  • Some think bad things are punishment for sin or the result of conflict between good and evil gods. Others trace it back to an original sin like Adam and Eve.

  • But there’s no real evidence bad things happen more than random chance, or that there is some universal justice where only bad people suffer.

  • Ideas like Murphy’s Law or Sod’s Law that the universe is out to get you are really cognitive biases where we notice annoyances more.

  • The real question is why does anything happen at all, not just bad things. There’s no need to single out bad events as needing special explanation.

  • Everything happens for a cause, not a ‘reason’ in the sense of purpose. Earthquakes happen due to shifts in tectonic plates, not because of divine punishment.

  • The ‘law of averages’ is often misunderstood - previous outcomes don’t affect future probabilities. If you’ve flipped heads 999 times, the next flip still has a 50% chance of being heads.

  • Some people may be accident prone, but no one is inherently ‘lucky’ or ‘unlucky’. Charms don’t improve your luck.

  • While inanimate things like weather don’t deliberately cause bad events, living things like predators evolve to act against their prey. So in an evolutionary sense, rabbits are ‘out to get’ foxes and vice versa.

  • Animals may evolve a paranoid or pessimistic attitude as a survival strategy against predators. But for humans today, a more optimistic attitude is healthier and more constructive. Bad things will happen, but dwelling on them excessively is not useful.

  • Animals like antelopes have evolved to be constantly on alert for predators that want to eat them. Rustling in the grass could signal a dangerous predator like a leopard. Those antelopes that act as if danger is present are more likely to survive.

  • Humans also evolved in an environment filled with mortal dangers like lions and snakes. It was advantageous for our ancestors to be suspicious and assume threats were present. This paranoid tendency persists today in some superstitious beliefs.

  • In addition to predators, parasites like viruses, bacteria, and worms have threatened human health and survival. Our immune systems evolved to defend against these parasites, though they sometimes overreact resulting in allergies or autoimmune diseases.

  • Cancers can also be seen as parasitic cells that break away and feed on the body. Tumors grow out of control. The worst cancers spread through the body.

  • In general, evolution has shaped humans and other animals to be on guard for threats and dangers. But being too risk averse or too gung-ho both have penalties. Treading the fine line between these extremes is difficult but important.

  • Miracle stories are supernatural tales that many people believe, unlike fairy tales that nobody believes or conjuring tricks that are known to be fake.

  • Miracle stories often originate as rumors or urban legends that get distorted and exaggerated as they are passed on over time. The original source is usually a rumor with no solid evidence behind it.

  • People enjoy spreading spooky stories and coincidences, especially if they can make them sound more remarkable. Newspapers often report coincidences that seem meaningful but are just chance occurrences.

  • As stories are retold, details get embellished and made more dramatic. Vague timings and approximations turn into exact times and events lining up perfectly.

  • Apparent miracles often have normal explanations when examined closely. One example is the “weeping” statues that were found to have leaky pipes behind them.

  • Belief in miracles persists because people want to believe and ignore more mundane explanations. Human brains see patterns even when coincidences are just chance.

  • Overall, miracle stories spread through rumor and get more dramatic with retelling. But they usually have normal explanations and little solid evidence when examined critically. The belief comes more from human psychology than Actual supernatural events.

  • Richard Feynman’s wife died of tuberculosis, and the clock in her room stopped at the precise moment she died. Feynman realized there was a rational explanation - the clock was faulty and stopped when the nurse tilted it to see the time and record it for the death certificate.

  • Even if there was no explanation, the coincidence of a clock stopping and someone dying at the same moment is not that improbable given the number of clocks and deaths every day.

  • The Scottish philosopher David Hume argued that testimony of a miracle should only be believed if the falsehood of the testimony would be an even greater miracle than the alleged miracle itself.

  • Hume’s argument can be applied to various miracle claims to show they are likely false, such as the 1917 photos of fairies, which were later admitted to be fakes.

  • The “miracle” of the sun at Fatima in 1917 is also likely better explained as exaggeration, hallucination or fabrication rather than an actual miracle of the sun moving in the sky.

  • Hume argues that when weighing competing explanations for an event, we should compare the likelihood of each one. Even if a “miracle” seems unlikely, it may still be more probable than an even more improbable alternative.

  • Hume uses the example of 70,000 people reporting seeing the sun move in the sky. He presents two possibilities: 1) A miracle occurred and the sun actually moved or 2) It was a mass hallucination or lie.

  • Though a mass hallucination seems unlikely, Hume argues it is still more likely than the sun actually moving, since that would have catastrophic effects on the Earth.

  • Hume advises comparing the probability of purported miracles to alternative mundane explanations like lies, tricks, or fiction. Though we can’t calculate exact odds, we can reasonably judge which is more likely.

  • Hume applies this reasoning to the water into wine miracle, arguing it is more likely to be fiction, a lie, or a trick than an actual violation of natural laws.

  • Hume argues we should never conclude a supernatural explanation is needed just because we don’t currently understand something. That would prematurely halt investigation.

  • Many things once seen as miracles have been explained through science and technology over time. We should remain open to natural explanations yet to be discovered.

  • Myths and legends can be fun, but science reveals the true magic of reality. Scientific explanations are more wondrous than supernatural stories.

  • Evolution occurs through natural selection acting on random genetic mutations over long periods of time. All life on Earth shares common ancestry.

  • The diversity of languages developed gradually over tens of thousands of years as human populations spread and fragmented.

  • Atoms, elements, and chemical compounds make up all matter. Scientists have uncovered the components and structure of atoms.

  • The Earth spins on its axis causing day-night cycles. It orbits the Sun leading to seasons. Tectonic plate movement causes earthquakes and forged continents.

  • Weather patterns are driven by heating, cooling, and movement of air and water. Climate change is scientifically proven.

  • Coincidences and luck are the result of randomness, probability, and the human tendency to see patterns. They do not imply supernatural forces.

  • Alien visits and miracles contradict scientific evidence and principles. Apparent supernatural events have rational explanations.

Overall the book argues for science over myths, evidence over miracles, and critical thinking over supernatural belief. It makes a case for appreciating the true wonder of nature revealed through the scientific method.

Latha Menon

Figures originally designed and drawn by:

Dave McKean of Studio La La Land

Author Photo

About Matheus Puppe