A Very Old Story

Interesting discussion yesterday with a friend who is a Christian but also scientifically literate and living in the modern world. The business of reconciling religion with science set me thinking — and since I’m repurposing the Oblong Blob as a writing blog, it’s handy that what I’ve been thinking about is a story. The story of Adam and Eve.

Christians who are mired in Medieval stupidity tend, with distressing tenacity, to insist that this story is literal truth. We need not debate them, as they’re incapable of reasoned discourse. Nonetheless, the story is worth looking at, because it encapsulates some important themes.

A great deal is known about human evolution. A Christian who is prepared to embrace science really has no alternative but to accept and work with the current state of scientific findings on the subject of evolution, including the evolution of our own species. What then, is the Christian to make of the story of Adam and Eve?

Genetically modern humans, homo sapiens, have existed for at least 100,000 years, perhaps 150,000. For most of that time, up to about 12,000 years ago (or somewhat more recently in Northern Asia, Africa, and the New World), we were hunter-gatherers. And prior to that time, up to perhaps as much as 3 million years ago, proto-humans lived pretty much the same way. We roved the grassland in East Africa, hanging out with our friends and finding stuff to eat. There were no villages. There were no laws.

That’s the science.

About 12,000 years ago, possibly due to a climate change, people in the Middle East invented farming. The archaeology really leaves no room for doubt. And it was a radical development. The food supply was now more secure, but we had to live in villages. We had to do more repetitive tasks. We had to plan ahead, storing grain and then protecting it against thieves. We had to dig and maintain irrigation ditches, and pretty soon there were guys with spears standing around to make sure we dug the ditches and didn’t harvest our neighbor’s grain. All of a sudden there were laws, and guys whose job was to enforce the laws.

As much sense as this made economically, it was a shock. Our genes were well adapted to a hunter-gatherer way of life. A farming way of life was not comfortable or natural for us. And of course evolution works very slowly. A settled way of life in a modern city still doesn’t feel natural.

On some level, this is what the story of Adam and Eve is about. There was a time when we roamed freely in a garden, but now we’re condemned to live by the sweat of our brow. And we can’t go back. However distorted the myth of Adam and Eve may be, it expresses that essential conflict. If you’re a Christian and hope to guide your life by the stories in the Bible, I suppose the take-away might be, “I’m going to have to be responsible for making a living, whether I like it or not.”

Other interpretations are possible. The myth also tells us that we’re not perfect. We would like to be perfect, but inevitably we screw it up. And when we screw up, there are consequences. It’s a useful reminder.

Ideally, fiction should at least touch on basic themes of this sort — themes that tell us about our shared humanity. Sadly, a lot of plotted genre fiction falls short of this ideal. A distressing amount of genre fiction boils down to, “I’m good, you’re bad, so I’m going to kill you.” If that’s as deep as you can dig as a writer, pardon me while I don’t read your book.

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4 Responses to A Very Old Story

  1. kaptonok says:

    The story is far more subtle. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is a winner.
    It represents the birth of our moral nature. Scientifically we don’t really know when or how this took place.
    Notice it was forbidden because becoming moral took away our happiness spent in animal oblivion.
    We do not know how old the book of genesis is but it shows the problematic moral nature of man.

    • midiguru says:

      Morality is instinctive. Even wolves have their own version of morality. Morality among our ancestors certainly dates back to when they were swinging through the trees. It has, of course, become more sophisticated and nuanced since then.

      “Animal oblivion” is a fiction. Animals are anything but oblivious! Bees care for their young, okay?

      • kaptonok says:

        Only man has self-awareness which makes him self judgemental. Tigers and bears have no conscience they cannot be evil. Wolves behave in such away as to help the pack survive since that ensures the survival of the individual.
        Animals live without the problem of self- judgement as described by Freud. Bees behave instinctively they are survivors. The prime purpose of life is survival . Religion came into being because we became self aware not just conscious ; all life is conscious.
        There is still much debate about self consciousness it is an undecided property of mankind.

      • midiguru says:

        You should probably read up a little on animal awareness and psychology. What you’re saying is basically a bit of human arrogance. You _think_ you know that animals (that is to say, other animals — humans are animals too!) are not self-aware, but the main reason people think that is because it’s not possible to have a conversation with a non-human animal to find out what it’s thinking. Also because people would feel worse about killing and eating other animals if we knew more about their level of awareness.

        I recommend a book called Baboon Metaphysics. It provides some detailed insights into how baboons think.

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