Evolution, evil and original sin

BY DARYL P. DOMNING*, PROFESSOR OF ANATOMY

One of the iron laws of God’s universe is Darwinian natural selection, which enforces selfish behaviour on the part of all living things as the price of survival and evolutionary progress—even though, as a practical certainty, this selfishness eventually entails sin on the part of moral creatures. God, in the Christian view, knew this from the beginning, and knew that we would eventually need an incarnate example of perfect, divine altruism to show us how to transcend our original selfishness and even the limited, self-interested sort of altruism that evolution can create

Of all the puzzles of existence that challenge our religious ideas, none cause more anguish and more crises of faith than suffering, death and evil. From the dawn of human sensibility these have resisted what Leibnitz called theodicy—vindication of the justice of God. Even today, many thinkers and mystics confronted by the suffering of the innocent can only fall silent, like Job, before the inscrutable mystery of God’s ways.

While this problem has always been with us, its urgency only grows. It is of vital concern to every thinking person. But in particular, it is this existential angst over the source of evil and death that drives the endless quarrel between creationists and evolutionists. To Christian fundamentalists, as well as to atheists, Darwinism destroys the biblical explanation of evil and death and precludes the possibility of purpose for the universe. It is fear of this yawning abyss of meaninglessness that makes creationists—sincerely and understandably—so resolute in their defence of biblical literalism. As a result, all attempts to resolve the debate on the basis of science alone will remain futile, as the two sides continue to talk past each other without facing the existential concerns that are really at stake.

The rebirth of theistic evolution

Far from being resolved, this battle is only growing more complicated. Even now, the usual antagonists of both fundamentalists and evolutionists are having to make way for two new teams of combatants, who are vying for control of the middle ground and revivifying the position traditionally labelled “theistic evolution”. These are the proponents of so-called Intelligent Design (I.D.) theory (such as William Dembski, Phillip Johnson and Michael Behe) and the pioneers of the new field of evolutionary theology (including John Haught, Jerry Korsmeyer and Denis Edwards). American Catholics are prominent in both camps, and it remains to be seen which group will have more influence in shaping the position taken by the Catholic Church in the future.

I.D. theorists claim that some features and adaptations of organisms are so “irreducibly complex” that they could not have evolved in Darwinian fashion by mutation and natural selection alone, but must have been assembled by an Intelligent Designer—presumably a divine creator who is not above micromanaging evolution and helping it over the rough spots.

The evolutionary theologians, in contrast, are quite willing to accept the Darwinian conclusions of mainstream science, and they have no trouble harmonizing these with the kind of God envisioned by process theology and “humility of God” theology—one who acts through persuasive love rather than coercive force and trusts creation to operate with genuine autonomy. John Haught, a theologian at Georgetown University, even speaks aptly of our modern view of evolution as “Darwin’s gift to theology” (God after Darwin, 2000).

As numerous critics have pointed out, I.D. is basically the old god-of-the-gaps argument from design dressed up in the new raiment of molecular biology, and in this writer’s opinion it offers nothing new to our understanding of either biology or God. Haught has trenchantly described I.D. as “both apologetically ineffective and theologically inconsequential” (God after Darwin, p. 45).

Evolutionary theologians, on the other hand, by not picking needless fights with science have made real progress in filling in the details of what a Christian concept of evolution should look like. In this, they follow the trail blazed by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin SJ, but broaden the latter’s focus on the world’s ultimate future to embrace the whole range of theological concerns.

On the brink of a breakthrough

In one critical area, however, they remain stalled on the very brink of a crucial breakthrough: the explanation of evil and, with it, a satisfactory reformulation of the doctrine of original sin. No problem has proven more intractable in the past, but I am convinced that all the elements of the solution are now in hand.

The doctrine of original sin is the theory developed by Western Christianity, from Paul through Augustine and beyond, to cope with the problem of evil. This tradition looks to the book of Genesis, Chapters 1 to 3, for an explanation of creation, seeing there a story of how God’s good work was corrupted by human sin. This explanation sufficed for over 1 000 years. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, however, it was undermined by geology’s discovery of deep time, followed by the Darwinian revolution in biology. Simultaneously, the work of biblical scholars confirmed that Genesis had been misread in too literal a fashion, and most educated Christians today accept the fact of evolution. Yet, no substitute has been agreed upon for the classic notion of original sin and its mysterious inheritance by all descendants of Adam.

Substitutes have of course been offered. Perhaps most widely accepted among Catholic theologians today is the idea of Piet Schoonenberg SJ, and others that “original sin” imposes itself on each human being as the evil influence of the sinful social situations into which we all are born. Though true, this hardly satisfies those who are scandalized by the pervasive suffering in nature; nor does it really go beyond invoking simple free will in explaining why humans sinned in the first place. How and why did human society originally become sinful, and what sinful society were the first humans (however defined) born into, when by definition no human society preceded them? The Schoonenberg school does not consider these historical questions relevant, but instead addresses itself to the more practically important problems we face in living our lives in the present.

Nonetheless, the historical origin of our present situation remains a valid and unanswered question, especially in the larger context of theodicy, suffering in nature and evil in the largest sense. Though we once thought we had the answer (in Genesis 2–3), biblical scholars have shown this to be not a history of the past but a myth explaining the present. A more satisfactory, modern answer to this historical question has not been forthcoming, from the Schoonenberg school or anywhere else. As a result, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had to admit in 1985 that “[t]he inability to understand ‘original sin’ and to make it understandable is really one of the most difficult problems of present-day theology and pastoral ministry” (The Ratzinger Report, p. 79). So for lack of a better idea, Adam and Eve remain in the Catholic catechism to this day—a theological scandal to one and all, as Joan Acker, H.M., recently pointed out (America, 12/16/00).

Lessons from the animal world

Two jigsaw puzzles lie before us. One is scientific: through what process and stages have life and humanity evolved? The second is theological: how is the believer to understand and cope with evil? The nagging question remains: are they not actually parts of the same puzzle? Mustn’t there be some interface between them? If only we could find the missing pieces that might connect them, or even see how to turn each puzzle section so they fit together!

The biological and theological data have seemed irreconcilable since the time of Darwin. It hardly seems possible any more that the problem might really have a solution, let alone a simple one using puzzle pieces already on the table; still less that the key insight might come from evolutionary biology, which started all the trouble in the first place. Yet, I wish to suggest that the failure of saints and scholars to solve the problem of evil has not been due to insufficient plumbing of the depths of suffering, nor inadequate insight into the mind of God. It has resulted from our simple lack, until the present generation, of certain facts about how the natural world works.

At least two distinct lines of scientific evidence contribute to this solution. First is the study of animal behaviour. Up through the mid-20th century, the knowledge of this subject available to philosophers and theologians hardly surpassed in depth or accuracy what we read in Aesop’s Fables. Only in the last 30 years, thanks to workers such as Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, E.O. Wilson, Craig Packer, Frans de Waal, and many others, have we gained solid, meticulously documented, quantitative knowledge of how animals (especially our closest primate relatives) really act in the wild and among themselves.

The picture is not altogether pretty. From ants to apes, the animal world is awash in intraspecific [intraspecies] aggression, deceit, theft, exploitation, infanticide and cannibalism. Our cousins the great apes are adept at political intrigue and quite capable of serial murder and lethal warfare. If any of this language seems inappropriately anthropomorphic, I invite you to read these scientists’ voluminous, carefully documented technical reports and draw your own conclusions. The inescapable fact is that there is virtually no known human behaviour that we call “sin” that is not also found among nonhuman animals. Even pride, proverbially the deadliest sin of all, is not absent. De Waal has observed that, when seeking to make up after a fight, chimpanzees use not only third-party mediation but elaborate, mutually-agreed-upon public pretence simply to save face (Peacemaking among primates, pp. 238–39).

This is not to say that these animals are guilty of sin; they are simply doing things that would be sinful if done by morally reflective human beings. They also do many things we can applaud, such as peacemaking and reconciliation, as de Waal has emphasized; but it is their less admirable actions that are most relevant in the present context.

Behaviours that favour survival

These revelations lead at once to an unambiguous conclusion. Logical parsimony and the formal methods of inference used in modern studies of biological diversity affirm that these patterns of behaviour are displayed in common by humans and other animals because they have been inherited from a common ancestor which also possessed them. In biologists’ jargon, these behaviours are homologous. Needless to say, this common ancestor long predated the first humans and cannot be identified with the biblical Adam.

Furthermore, it is demonstrable by experiment and fully in accord with Darwinian theory that these behaviours exist because they promote the survival and reproduction of those individuals that perform them. Having once originated (ultimately through mutation), they persist because they are favoured by natural selection for survival in the organisms’ natural environments. Since these behaviours are directed to self-perpetuation and succeed in a world of finite resources only at the expense of others, it is accurate to call them, in an entirely objective, non-psychological and non-pejorative sense, selfish. Natural selection enforces selfish behaviour as the price of survival and self-perpetuation in all living things, even the simplest imaginable. Where co-operative or outwardly altruistic behaviour has evolved, it seems always (at least in nonhuman creatures) to be explainable in terms of selfishness and individual advantage; but the reverse is not true. Hence selfish behaviour must be the more primitive and fundamental condition.

Original sin seen anew

The juxtaposition of these firmly established scientific facts suggests a way to reformulate the doctrine of original sin in evolutionary terms. Original sin has been defined as the need for salvation by Christ that is universal to all human beings and acquired through natural generation. Descent of all humans from a single couple—monogenism—is not essential to the doctrine; the Catholic magisterium has continued to insist on it simply in order to explain why all humans need to be saved. The requirement of natural generation likewise sought only to account for the undeniable fact that the tendency to sin is present in all of us, even prior to our first moral choices. It does not imply, in Augustinian fashion, that sexuality is somehow the root of all evil.

The geneticist F.J. Ayala has demonstrated (Science, 1995) that the genetic diversity of the present human population (much of which we inherit from pre-human ancestors) could not possibly have been funnelled through a single human couple, so monogenism must be rejected on scientific grounds alone. In any case, the requirements of the definition of original sin given above can instead be met within an evolutionary framework by distinguishing and decoupling the source of original sin’s universality from the source of its moral character. These need not stem (as has always been tacitly assumed) from one and the same individual act and moment in time (the “Fall of Adam”). The overt selfish acts that, in humans, demonstrate the reality of original sin by manifesting it as actual sin, do indeed owe their universality among humans to natural descent from a common ancestor. However, this ancestor must be placed not at the origin of the human race but at the origin of life itself. Yet, these overt acts did not acquire their sinful character until the evolution of human intelligence allowed them to be performed by morally responsible beings.

We all sin because we have all inherited—from the very first living things on earth—a powerful tendency to act selfishly, no matter the cost to others. Free will enables us to override this tendency, but only sporadically and with great effort; we more readily opt for self. This tendency in all of us is what our tradition calls “the stain of original sin”. It is not the result of a “Fall” in our prehistory, since we were never more selfless than we are now. It is present even in infants, who are undeniably self-centred, though guiltless of actual sin. We incur guilt only when we freely choose to act on this tendency to the detriment of others. Not all self-centred acts are sinful, but all sins are instances of selfishness.

The need of suffering

These are the puzzle pieces that have been missing from the problem of original sin’s origins—a problem in which Schoonenberg and most other recent Catholic theologians have shown no interest. Indeed, we do learn to sin from the sinful society into which we are born; and even the very first humans learned to sin from the selfish though sinless pre-human society into which they were born. But even without that legacy of learned behaviour, we would still be urged to sin by the genetically programmed selfishness, dating from the dawn of life, that underlies it and gave rise to it.

This, I think, adequately accounts for moral evil and explains in terms of an evolutionary worldview what the doctrine of Adam’s Fall sought to explain within a static universe. For the solution to the larger problem of so-called physical evil (suffering and death), we must turn to a second, more varied body of scientific evidence.

Our modern understanding of physiology and cell biology allows us to recognise the adaptive value of our ability to suffer: the sensation of pain is an alarm that warns us away from the danger of injury. Any good alarm system must err on the safe side, because the cost of a false-positive reaction (e.g. nausea and vomiting when we have not really ingested poison) is trivial compared with the potentially lethal result of not triggering the alarm when a threat is really present. The seemingly pointless suffering that results when these alarms are triggered uselessly, by unavoidable mishap, disease or even anxiety is the price we pay for our sophisticated nervous system, with its myriad safety features.

The central role of death

Likewise with death. Life itself could not spread and evolve on a finite planet if death did not recycle space, energy and materials and cull undesirable genes for the benefit of the living. Moreover, as single cells evolved into multicellular organisms, it became necessary for some cells to self-destruct according to a precise, genetically programmed timetable in order for the organism to grow and function properly. Hence tadpoles lose their tails, a woman’s uterus sheds its lining every month, and deciduous trees annually inundate us with dead leaves. This programmed suicide of cells (apoptosis) even generates our skin, hair, fingernails and the lenses of our eyes. But it also leads to senescence, or aging.

Our earliest single-celled ancestors reproduced by asexual cell division, as modern bacteria do. Barring starvation, predation or other accident, they were in effect immortal; aging was unknown to them. Programmed cell death and senescence first appeared perhaps a billion years after the origin of life, when single-celled organisms began to have sex and eventually evolved into multicellular ones. Sex increased genetic variety, speeding up evolution; together with multicellularity, it made possible the large, complex, versatile kinds of creatures that we are today.

But one cost of this complexity was increased wear and tear on the DNA ‘instruction manuals’ in each of the body’s cells during a lengthier growth and life span. Constant ‘reading’ of these ‘manuals’ by the machinery in the body’s cells, plus other sources of cumulative damage, eventually degrades the DNA molecules until they are not fit to be copied for the next generation. Thus it became necessary to sequester pristine copies of each individual’s DNA (e.g. in the germ cells), to be consulted only at the time of reproduction and not for ‘everyday use’. The DNA in the ‘somatic’ cells making up the rest of the body then became, in a sense, expendable: when they were too far gone to use or repair (hopefully after reproduction had occurred), the somatic cells simply died. This senescence and death of our bodies is thus an inevitable price we pay for having evolved to a certain level of complexity.

This stark fact of biology, which has come into clear focus only in the last couple of decades, can be stated more generally and simply, perhaps, in terms of physics. We now know that all matter is made up of atoms, quarks and maybe even smaller entities, all in constant motion. Daily experience teaches us that anything with moving parts eventually breaks down. Nothing in the known universe has more moving parts, more complexly organised, than living organisms—most of all, us. It is physically impossible for any matter, let alone living matter, to be immune from the material breakdown and dissolution that we experience as suffering and death.

Did God have any choice?

The conclusion, even from this extremely simplified outline of the evidence, is clear. God’s decision to create a material world was inescapably a decision to create breakable, mortal beings. Moreover, one of the iron laws of God’s universe is Darwinian natural selection, which enforces selfish behaviour on the part of all living things as the price of survival and evolutionary progress—even though, as a practical certainty, this selfishness eventually entails sin on the part of moral creatures. Life cannot evolve any other way.

God, in the Christian view, knew this from the beginning, and knew that we would eventually need an incarnate example of perfect, divine altruism to show us how to transcend our original selfishness and even the limited, self-interested sort of altruism that evolution can create. To our surprise, God was able to use precisely the selfish, ethically repugnant Darwinian process (which we, in our distrust of the merely material, are so ready to despise) in creating a world divinely approved as “very good” (Gen 1: 31). Thus, it is not accurate or helpful to view this world as “fallen”, or Darwinian evolution as “evil”. Rather, like a booster rocket lifting astronauts into orbit, they are good and necessary for their purpose but limited in their potential, and must be transcended in order for us to reach higher.

Instead, we have imagined that God had a choice, that the world could have been different. But ours is not just the best of all possible worlds; it is the only possible world. God could no more make a dynamic, living material world in which bad things do not happen than God could make a square circle, or a rock too big to lift. It would be just as much a logical and physical contradiction. Our failure to comprehend, even today, that it is a contradiction results from our continuing to think of the cosmos as static even while we pay lip service to an evolutionary worldview. Teilhard saw long ago that “the problem of evil, insoluble in the case of a static universe”, is no more than a pseudoproblem, which does not even arise in the case of an evolving universe (Christianity and evolution, p. 196). Evil itself is all too real, but the philosophical “problem of evil” is merely an optical illusion of the mind, an artifact of an outmoded understanding of the world.

This historic insight, which we owe to modern evolutionary science, has been too long overlooked by theologians and too long denied to people labouring under the faith-corroding fantasy that suffering and death are the inscrutable, arbitrary will of a callous God. The Christian God is an incarnate God who cares, who suffers with the world and with us, like a woman in labour, to bring forth something new and wonderful. But the result will be worth the suffering: “When she has borne her child, she no longer remembers her pain” (Jn 16: 21).


* Daryl P. Domning is a professor of anatomy at the College of Medicine, Howard University, Washington DC. The article was published for the first time in the Jesuit magazine, America.

Pull Quotes:

“The doctrine of original sin is the theory developed by Western Christianity, from Paul through Augustine and beyond, to cope with the problem of evil.”

 

“The inescapable fact is that there is virtually no known human behaviour that we call “sin” that is not also found among nonhuman animals.”

We all sin because we have all inherited—from the very first living things on earth—a powerful tendency to act selfishly, no matter the cost to others.”

 

“Not all self-centred acts are sinful, but all sins are instances of selfishness.”

 

“It is physically impossible for any matter, let alone living matter, to be immune from the material breakdown and dissolution that we experience as suffering and death.”

 

“God’s decision to create a material world was inescapably a decision to create breakable, mortal beings.”