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Evolution and Sin

September 22, 2014
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I know plenty of people who believe that one cannot be a Christian and believe in evolution. I know plenty more people who believe that one can be a Christian and believe in evolution but regard these beliefs as belonging to essentially separate spheres of knowledge. I don’t know all that many people who believe that one can be a Christian and believe in evolution and have these ideas interact significantly without seriously modifying one or the other belief. Despite this, I find that my evolutionary thinking and my Christianity frequently run together.

Stephen Jay Gould, an evolutionary biologist who wrote many books and articles aimed at laypeople, referred to the relationship of religion and science as “non-overlapping magisteria”. In this idea science and religion both have a place but they have separate places that do not interact. A great deal of Christians think about evolution in these terms. They may permit evolutionary thinking but it is supposed to stay on its side of the line between theology and science. One may argue that the creation accounts in Genesis are not world-building guides (I’ve done this at some length) but often the goal is not to let evolution touch anything else.

I find this rather odd. I find it odd first because this is just not how we handle knowledge. If I learn that people work a certain way then I incorporate that into my Christian anthropology. If I learn that a particular economic policy has a certain effect then I use that knowledge when reading the Torah’s guidelines on trade. I also find this odd because I use evolutionary thinking all the time.

Christians talk about the Fall and sin quite a lot. The sinfulness of humanity is a central Christian doctrine and one that I think is hard for anyone with eyeballs to deny. Despite this, there are people who deny this doctrine. The idea that we are all pulled towards evil seems to be a stretch for them. Where are the societies that have devolved into endless torture and murder? Part of this is historical illiteracy – there have been some truly horrific cultures on earth. However, part of this can be attributed to expectations. If we are all drawn to evil are we all drawn to maximize evil? If we were all cut loose from all our better impulses, if common grace failed us entirely, would we all immediately begin plotting the most intricate tortures and betrayals?

I think not. I think, instead, that we should consider evolution for a minute. Evolution tells us that creatures do whatever maximizes their reproduction. Within evolutionary thinking altruism does not exist. Cooperation exists if it aids both parties but true altruism, where a creature puts itself at risk or endures a loss to benefit another creature without any return benefit, cannot. Ultimately evolution tells us that creatures should be supremely selfish. This doesn’t always look like maximizing evil – in modern society the best selfish action is often to stay within the legal and societal rules so that one does not suffer the consequences of breaking those rules. However, in societies where these safeguards fail, or for individuals for whom the safeguards do not work, this does lead to evil. Does evolution push a victor in war to be merciful to the defeated? Only if this is directly beneficial for the victor. More often it makes more sense to loot everything the loser has, kill any of the losing population who might pose a threat, and engage in rather indiscriminate rape to up the odds of successfully passing those winning genes on. This looks a lot like most of warfare in most of history.

Warfare isn’t the only example (although I’ve just been reading about ancient warfare so it’s on my mind). Evolutionary thinking finds sexual harassment unsurprising. It finds greed unsurprising. Nepotism makes perfect sense if all one is ultimately concerned with is the perpetuation of one’s genes. Short-sighted thinking that produces gains for you now but hurts other people down the road is perfectly natural in evolutionary thinking.

I think that one of the great advantages to evolutionary thinking is that it explains what sin is about. If you strip away noble goals and religious commitment you get predictably selfish creatures – creatures that have crawled right out of any evolutionary biology textbook. In some sense sin is a reversion to this state, a rejection of these odd human things we bring with us like moral consciousness and philosophical probings of the meaning of goodness.

I’m not sure how much of this would have actually been news to anyone in the ancient world. I have a sense that the edge-of-survival type of life of ancient people put them into much closer contact with a world in which you making choices to better yourself and your family at the expense of others is more clear. However, for people who feel a long way away from a world of constant struggle to survive I think it is useful to stop and think about who we are with our best intentions stripped away. What do we look like when we become depraved? Are we perhaps exactly what a good evolutionary biologist would have predicted?

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. dylanwolf permalink
    September 22, 2014 10:02 am

    This is an interesting comparison. I’ve thought before that a lot of Jesus’s teachings seem designed to counteract survival-of-the-fittest thinking (turn the other cheek/go the extra mile, etc.), and maybe that said something about evolution. It might not be a stretch to say that sort of morality is itself intended to be an evolution of the human species.

    The only thing that makes me uncomfortable about that speculation is that evolutionary behavior served an ostensibly creative purpose–to further the development of a species. I think for many, this might imply revising the understanding of the Fall or suggesting depravity is God’s fault. (Of course, there’s a lot of nuance to be considered, and it may simply be that trying to fully explain the how and why of the Fall is not as important as its implications for us.)

    I also find this interesting in that there seems to exist what I’d call an “alpha” morality that says protecting yourself and yours supersedes all other moral concepts. As long as one is retaliating for a good reason (which may include matters of feelings or pride, not just threats of violence or harm), one isn’t bound by any other moral rules. To me, this feels like rationalizing or feeding one’s baser instincts by setting them up as a “higher” form of morality. This view of evolutionary behavior and sin would definitely cast that in a different light, especially for Christians who take that approach.

    • Eric permalink
      September 22, 2014 7:20 pm

      This is why I think “evolutionary morality” is such a crock. Evolved tendencies are at the heart of our immorality. It’s not our natural tendencies but our uniquely human ways of processing our world that give us something else.

  2. September 22, 2014 4:50 pm

    Reblogged this on Red-Headed Monk and commented:
    This is from my college friend Eric Butler. Admittedly, he and I may disagree on some points of theology and life as we all do, but I wanted to reblog this post because Eric takes a position that not many have considered, and it is worth pondering

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