Science Loves Myths…Really
In my previous blog post, I argued that life is the result of Chemistry and Physics at their finest. Lots of people find this idea uncomfortable however because Science has a habit of shredding cultural myths and replacing them with brute knowledge. Obviously that’s an intellectually honest approach, but I do understand the objection because nobody likes abandoning a belief - even when trading it for truth.
Virtually every supernatural claim Science has investigated has crumbled under close inspection and that gives Scientists a reputation as curmudgeonly pedants who enjoy ruining people’s fun. Exactly the opposite is true though; Scientists want to believe in wondrous things just like everyone else, we just limit our cognitive diet to what can be proved reliably.
Every Scientific investigation is built on the hope that strange things are possible. Vigorous and rigorous Scientists are the ones willing to stretch their imaginations and consider possibilities outside what’s already known. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence that's true, but that doesn’t mean we have to reject extraordinary hypotheses in the first place.
Richard Feynman once described Science as being “imagination in a straitjacket” and I think that’s very apt. You obviously need to consider unproven hypotheses in order to investigate them, but keep your flights of fancy within testable parameters, otherwise nonsense will creep in.
The point of my last blog was to show that ethereal ideas have to be investigated and sometimes sadly, they have to die. However, I feel it’s important to redress the balance a little so today I’m going to write a counter-blog.
I’m going to select a far-fetched mythical creature and argue in favour of its biological plausibility. Not because I want to suggest such things are real, but to show how Scientists engage their imagination without the dreaded “anything is possible” mantra. Getting excited about outlandish ideas is crucial, but we don’t want impurities filtering into our head.
Here be Dragons
Ancient myths provide a panoply of monsters to choose from, so I'm going to narrow my thinking to something truly fantastical. Blood-drinking vampires are tempting, but they’re a recent invention and I want something universal to all human history. Older myth-monsters are always more intriguing because they speak to something primal in our psyche, and the two oldest supernatural creatures are werewolves and dragons.
Unsettling accounts of humans transforming into wolves date back to the 4th Century BCE but such stories are light on detail. The middle ages were when werewolves became iconic monster-men, and back then they were treated as literal beings.
You’re reading this as a 21st century internet-user so you consider werewolves artistic creations, but there was a time when they were considered a serious threat. One grisly court-case which took place in Germany, 1589, ended with the torture and execution of a man named Peter Stubbs on charges of being an actual werewolf…on the night of Hallowe’en no less.
Ultimately however, although werewolves are cool, I decided to go with dragons. Books, poems, songs, artworks and local legends about dragons are not only found in every human culture, they seem to be the oldest monster we’ve ever frightened ourselves with. Reaching back to the earliest human civilizations, we find stories about dragons tormenting humans since the beginning of written thought.
Even in locations where you don’t get reptiles, dragon myths are still told. Every culture in the world seems to recognise the iconography of dragons which admittedly seems a little spooky. Anthropologically it makes sense though, because the human species started in one place and traditions which originated there (including fears) could easily have been carried along as we expanded our territory.
Not only that, some human knowledge seems to be truly innate and passed down through neural architecture. New-born babies know breasts are where they get food from and you’ve probably seen internet videos of cats freaking-out over cucumbers because the shape apparently triggers a snake warning in their brain.
Explanations for these mass-phobias are widespread of course, with the most famous being Carl Jung’s notion that humans share a collective unconscious mind. Jung’s hypothesis is definitely cool but it’s hopelessly vague and, more importantly, unnecessary. Occam’s razor insists we don’t need elaborate explanations for something if a simple one will suffice and I think there are perfectly straightforward reasons for the prevalence of dragon myths.
You, like every other sentient animal, are programmed to avoid predators and share a common fear of “big monster harming me,” so all we really need to explain is why humans invented dragons specifically.
Why be there Dragons?
I once heard someone suggest that the dragon myth is a hangover from pre-history when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. The claim goes that mammals who survived the mass extinction had a species-wide fear of giant lizards and passed them on. It's a neat idea but I find it doesn't work for two reasons. First, 65 million years feels too long for such a specific memory to survive in our brains.
Second, dinosaurs weren't actually reptillian, they were actually feathered, and we don't have a species-wide fear of being hunted by giant chickens. Although, having recently sat through the mess-terpiece that was Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom I can't help but feel that a giant chicken is the next logical step for the franchise. Nevertheless, I think we need to look eslewhere in our quest to explain dragons.
The word dragon comes from the Greek “drakon” which originally meant “sea-serpent.” Indeed, most early dragon stories emphasise these monsters living in rivers, lakes or oceans and in the Bible Satan is associated with dragons and serpents - the terms originally being synonymous. In fact, Chinese dragons are still considered to be river-dwellers, depicted as snake-like monsters, sometimes with a lion's head.
This all makes environmental sense because snakes were a significant threat to early humans. Their sneak attacks, sharp teeth and venom made them seem like evil creatures, so it’s no surprise people living in the Indus valley told stories of monstrous snakes. It’s also no surprise they sometimes made snakes even scarier by hybridising them with another feared predator – lions.
The first major work of fantasy fiction, the Gilgamesh epic, tells the story of a hero doing battle with a dragon called Humbaba (depicted below). Humbaba was a monster who had the body and head of a lion but was scaled like a snake, winged like a vulture and possessed a serpent for a tail...and penis for some impractical reason. Dragons are basically an amalgamation of all the unpleasant animals we used to contend with in pre-history.
According to Wikipedia, the modern notion of a dragon emerged in the 11th Century with the first depiction of fire-breathing coming from a 1260 manuscript. I dispute that however. I think the earliest example of a dragon as we would recognise it today can be found in the book of Job, dating to the 6th Century BCE.
In Job 41, a description is given of "Leviathan", a giant scaly demon living both underwater and on land. We are told it would be difficult to tame it like a bird (implying it could fly)...and it breathed fire. For my money, Leviathan is the oldest record of a fire-breathing dragon and as Christianisation spread across Europe, Africa and America, the dragon meme hitched a ride. Take that Wikipedia.
Do dragons exist?
But could they?
Let’s get down to it. If we take the principles of biology as currently understood, would it be possible for a dragon to evolve on Earth? Well, the idea of giant animals is evidently fine. Komodo dragons (obvious to discuss) can grow up to three meters in length, saltwater crocodiles can reach seven meters and reticulated pythons can hit over nine. Big reptiles present no problem.
Dragons themselves, like the size we see in Game of Thrones, are also within nature’s limits. Animals can’t grow to an indefinite size of course, eventually the mass of a body becomes too great for the density of bone, but provided we keep to dinosaur/elephant size then giant lizards are fine.
The wings are acceptable too. Nature has invented wings on several occasions in many different species. Birds obviously have them, as do insects, some mammals (bats), fish (flying fish) and one species of lizard has arm-flaps which help it glide on the air between trees (dracos). It’s what’s called convergent evolution: species nowhere near each other hitting on the same solution to a problem. Every species has the same trials of life to overcome. They all need to feed, mate, raise young, avoid predators etc. so they often end up developing similar ways of achieving these goals.
Another good example is the development of opposable thumbs. Primates and pandas both have them despite their hands being very different (pandas have six fingers, while primates have five). It's because bears and primates need to do the same kinds of things and random chance hits on the same good ideas every now and then.
It’s absolutely permissable to have features more commonly associated with one species crop-up in another. So do the laws of evolution permit giant lizard creatures with leathery bat-like wings? Abso-dragon-lutley!
And the fire-breathing?
This particular aspect of dragon-lore took me a while to figure out because fires don't occur in any known biological system. Lightning and lava are usually responsible for fires in nature, and when humans achieve it, we do so by striking metals or oxidising chemicals together. How do we rationalise a fire-breathing animal?
In the Christian Bale movie Reign of Fire, dragon breath is explained as dragons producing a natural napalm which they spit out. That's creative and all, but the problem is that flammable or incendiary chemicals don't catch fire on their own. They need an ignition source.
The more I thought about it, the more frustrated I got. Fires typically burn at hundreds of degrees celsisus and even birds, the warmest-blooded creatures on Earth, rarely exceed forty. It didn't seem there was any way of justifying an animal getting things hot enough to start a fire.
Until I remembered bombardier beetles....
Bombardier beetles possess one of the most chemically remarkable adaptations in nature. When threatened, two glands in their bodies eject separate streams of hydrogen peroxide and paraquinone which blend together in mid-air. When mixed, these chemicals form a jet so hot it reaches the boiling point of water, burning any predator away.
Paraquinone and hydrogen peroxide are also irritant chemicals so it’s a wonderful defence mechanism…if you try to attack a bombardier beetle, it pees boiling poison in your face. Fun fact, John Cusack repels people the same way.
So, here’s what I’m thinking. Suppose our dragons had similar glands in their throats to bombardier beetles. They could spit out a chemical cocktail close to 100 degrees Celsius and that might be enough to achieve ignition. Most substances need to be scraped, scratched or electrocuted to catch fire but there are a few which ignite when you simply warm them.
Triethyl borane, for example, will catch fire at -21 degrees. That would do the trick but it's probably not a good idea because the body temperature of the dragon would set fire to it as soon as the gland produced it.
White phosophorus catches at body temperature of course, but it’s a solid powder. Powders take weeks to form inside a body (think of kidney stones) and presumably the dragon will want to use its fire-breath regularly, meaning we want something that a gland can produce at short notice.
That leaves carbon disulfide, a colourless liquid which catches fire at 90 degrees, roughly the same temperature of a bombardier beetle jet. Carbon disulfide can cause erectile dysfunction in humans but, to my knowledge, nobody has ever tested this on dragons so there’s no reason to assume it would cause any harm.
If we therefore propose that a dragon has three glands in its mouth, one for paraquinone, one for hydrogen peroxide and one for carbon disulfide, when all three squirt together they could theoretically create an honest-to-god biologenic flame-spray on demand!
So while dragons might not exist on Earth there's no reason they couldn't exist in nature. In fact, given the sheer size of the Universe and the number of potentially inhabited planets, there may even be a world on which dragons have actually evolved.
And there you have it. We've entertained a crazy idea, but rather than justifying it by saying "magic did it" or appealing to some other unprovable notion, we've used facts we already know to be true. And this is how Scientists speculate. Sticking to the laws of nature doesn't mean you have to abandon extravagant dreams. In fact, sticking to the laws of nature can sometimes make your dreams possible.
I love science, let me tell you why.