Evolution and the Fall

This is a belated response to an intriguing post by Clayboy who’s an Anglican priest with an interest in theology and science. He was asking how we might understand the Biblical story of the Fall in the light of modern theories of evolution. Here are my tentative attempts to look specifically at the story of Adam and Eve (in Genesis 2-3) and how it might be understood in a non-literal sense that still finds symbolic meaning in it.

I start from what seems to be generally agreed by cognitive scientists: that humans are god-prone animals. The cognitive skills that allowed humans to develop into complex beings (such as imagination, the connecting together of causes and effects) also make humans prone either to ‘imagine’ gods (if you’re an atheist) or recognise God/gods (if you’re a theist). I also want to work from the hypothesis (and it can’t be more than a hypothesis) that God is capable of ‘rigging’ the initial parameters of the universe such that even with random processes a God-prone animal is eventually bound to develop somewhere in it. (The basic principle that you can have an entirely random process at each individual step, but in which one outcome is inevitable, is, among other things, how casinos make money).

Once an animal evolves that is god-prone, that has consciousness and the kind of cognitive skills that can enable it to cope with certain kinds of abstract thought, God can enter into a relationship with such an animal, as seen in the story of Adam and Eve. What destroys that relationship is them eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (which is never said to be an apple).

The traditional views of the sin that this eating involves are 1) disobedience (they’ve been told not to eat it); 2) pride (because they want to be like God) or 3) bodily desires. All three of these reasons seem very suspect to modern thought. Firstly, because we do not live in an era of hierarchy and deference – behind the ideas of both disobedience and pride as the key sins are the hints of a view that humans should not get above themselves. As for bodily desire, it now seems odd, if not abhorrent, to make that much fuss about eating something you shouldn’t.

I want to look at the incident in a slightly different way. Suppose I tell my friend that they’re welcome to come and stay in my house while I’m away, but please not to go into my study, because they’ll mess up all my papers. And suppose I get back and they have gone into my study and my papers are messed up. Do I have a right to be annoyed? Most people would say I would. Deliberately to go against the request of a friend who is helping you seems like a thoroughly selfish attitude. Now, you can argue that God didn’t ask Adam and Eve not to eat, but told them not to, but I don’t see how that makes more than a marginal difference.

So the action of Adam and Eve was morally wrong; but it was also stupid. A powerful and so-far benevolent being tells you not to eat something, or you will die. You have lots of other food: you don’t need to eat it. But nevertheless, you decide you’re going to eat it, because someone else suggests you should do it.

Eating the fruit is therefore a wrong and a stupid decision, but it’s a wrong and a stupid decision because it’s done by reasoning human agents. Suppose it hadn’t been Adam and Eve that God had been talking to in Eden, but a couple of goats. It wouldn’t have made much sense to forbid them from eating a particular kind of fruit: a goat either would or would not eat the fruit, but it wouldn’t feel guilty afterwards if it did. Animals don’t have a moral sense in that way. Or suppose God had been talking to a child. If you tell a 3 or 4 year old child not to eat something, s/he probably either can’t foresee that the threatened consequences would really happen, or wouldn’t have the impulse control anyway to resist eating. And if you told my 7 year old not to eat something, even though she has the impulse control, there’s still a substantial probability that she’d forget what she’d been told; she is still at the irritating stage where she considers ‘I forgot’ to be excuse her from all culpability.

Adam and Eve’s act is sinful because it’s done by adult humans (who are able to be moral and rational), but at the same time it’s understandable because of human nature. There have been psychological studies that suggest that the more you try not to think of something or say something, the harder it is to do so. There’s also a long tradition (at least in the West) of myths and stories about human curiosity, where someone causes disaster by doing the thing they’re told not to, from Pandora’s box to the Swan Knight and Bluebeard. Curiosity, the urge to see what happens if you try something, even if it’s forbidden and dangerous, is part of what makes evolved humans what they are. It’s hard for most of us not to sympathise with Adam and Eve in some ways, even if their act is both wrong and stupid.

If Adam and Eve’s status as sinners is due to their nature as reasoning humans, the punishments they receive in Genesis 3: 15-19 also seem to me symbolically resonant of some characteristic we know about early human life. Here is the passage in the NIV version:

I will put enmity between you [the snake] and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”
To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”
To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

I want to consider the aspects of human life listed here less as punishments than as consequences of human development. Some of the factors mentioned here resonate with what we know about the development of humans from apes. Pain in childbearing is essentially a result of the evolution of bipedalism: the baby has to emerge through a relatively narrow pelvis. The reference to Eve’s desire for her husband may also be a reflection of a difference between humans and most mammals: while most female mammals have an estrous cycle and are only sexually active when ‘in heat’, women can be sexually active at all times of their menstrual cycle. There are a lot of conflicting theories about why ‘concealed ovulation’ may be an evolutionary benefit to humans, many of which focus on the possibility of it increasing co-operation within groups or pairs. A consciousness of their own mortality (‘to dust you will return’) has also been thought characteristic of humans as opposed to other animals, although discoveries about animal behaviour may be altering this understanding now.

There are also some references in the passage to aspects of human behaviour which seem to me connected to further changes: between simple and more complex societies, and especially between hunter-gather and agricultural societies. These are alienation from the animal world, patriarchy, and the extra physical work involved in agriculture. I don’t want to idealise hunter-gatherer societies too much, but they do seem to be marked by more appreciation of the ecosystem, greater egalitarianism (including between men and women) and fewer hours of work, especially when compared with early agricultural societies. The ‘Garden’ of Eden doesn’t actually make sense in the context of the story: who is maintaining it if Adam and Eve aren’t working? Maybe we should be thinking about it as the Forest of Eden. And maybe the expulsion from it is about the impossibility of returning to such a lifestyle. There has been much interest in why, if agricultural societies were less beneficial to most humans, they didn’t return to hunter-gatherer ways. One suggestion has been about how quickly the key knowledge of how to survive in such a lifestyle has been lost; another possibility might be that the local ecosystem can easily be damaged by agriculture. But it’s also been suggested that the new agricultural societies were maintained by coercion: although most people were worse off, the accumulation of surplus made possible hierarchies with dominant warrior lords forcing others to supply them and living a life of greater wealth than ever before. Maybe it’s no coincidence that the way back to the ‘Garden of Eden’ is prevented by an angel with a flaming sword.

I don’t think my speculations above mean that it’s possible to turn the Genesis story into a ‘scientific account’ of human development, even in heavily metaphorical language. For example, bipedalism almost certainly preceded the development of a consciousness of God. But I think that the story can still be interpreted to tell us something about humanity. The traditional idea, of the Fall as being a fall from an angel-like state into animality, no longer makes much sense now we know about evolution. I want to suggest that the Fall is instead about two ‘rises’: a psychological rise from being an animal to being a conscious human and a sociological rise from simple to complex societies. Both of these rises made us what we are today: I wouldn’t be writing this if it wasn’t a conscious human living in a very complex society. But these psychological/social developments have also had downsides, making it possible for us to choose to do evil, and giving us greater capability to do so. There is no animal Hitler or Stalin, and a hunter-gatherer Hitler or Stalin could kill at most a few hundred people. We cannot return to being just animals or living in simple societies, just as we cannot return to being children: we cannot uneat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Richard Dawkins decides (hypothetically) whether to kill an elephant to protect a child. He might make a morally wrong decision: an elephant would not, because it could not. It is this capacity for human choice that is the enduring message of the story of the Fall, even in a scientific age.  

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One thought on “Evolution and the Fall

  1. Now I always viewed the fall as a way of looking at ourselves today, not as a true historical narrative. Viewed as a metaphor for humanity’s flaws, it doesn’t need to be integrated with history. There’s history, that strange, scientific truth about what physically happened, and then there’s myth, that explains truths about our spiritual history. At some point in scientific history, we evolved and killed off something like 14 different kinds of humans to emerge victorious. At some point in Christian mythology we learned about our own (and others’) mortality, and killed our metaphorical brothers. Sounds true.

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