Reconciling the Doctrine of Original Sin with Evolutionary Biology

06/26/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I have just finished reading the third part of historian Richard Evans' great work on the Third Reich. The Third Reich at War is one of the most stunning and depressing books I have ever encountered. Evans describes in detail -- in huge detail -- not just the war itself, but the killing that went on during it. I was about to say "mindless killing," but it was anything but that: from the moment that the Germans invaded Poland, they were in the business of exterminating large numbers of human beings.

We all know about the Jews, but the Poles, the Slavs, the gays, the mentally handicapped, the prisoners of war, the ... Here the details throb from every page, and it is this that makes the reading so painful: the list goes on endlessly. On September 7, 1940, a village in Poland was destroyed. From a soldier's diary: A woman tried to get out of a burning house. "We stopped her." Our opponents "can't be treated any differently because they are in skirts." Another example: By mid-1941, Hitler's quota of 70,000 handicapped exterminations -- in Germany -- had been met, and the executioners were looking for new victims. They found them. And yet a third: The SS turned up in Vilnius in June 1941. Up to 10,000 Jews were killed at once. As Evans writes, "Most of them were taken out to pits previously dug by the Red Army for a tank base, made to tie their shirts over their heads so they could not see, and then machine-gunned in groups of twelve."

For me, an English-born, professional philosopher, what makes the whole story so obsessively and morbidly fascinating, something that evokes huge amounts of guilt even as I read on and on -- rather like the man in Plato's Republic who could not take his eyes off the bodies of the condemned prisoners and loathed himself for it -- is that of all countries, it was Germany that did all of this. This is the country of Immanuel Kant, the greatest and the most humane of all modern philosophers, the man who exhorted us to treat others as ends in themselves and not as means to other goods. It is also the country of Beethoven and Goethe and Schiller and of countless religious leaders and theologians, the country that revolutionized the writing of history and so much more. And I have not even started on the scientists or on the institutions of higher education that were an inspiration to others in many countries, starting with the USA.

Historians like Evans can give us explanations about why all of this happened. There were contingent things like the defeat in the First World War and the subsequent hated and resented Versailles Treaty. There was the inflation of the 1920s and the consequent loss of savings. There was the Great Depression, which caused so much misery in Germany. There was the personal charisma of Hitler and the ways in which his followers manipulated the masses. There was, from 1931 on, the non-stop perversion of education and the indoctrination of the young, so that when they encountered Jews, peoples from the East, or others, they regarded them as less than human and had little hesitation in carrying out vile commands against them.

But there is still the question of why people who, as Evans points out, were so often decent people at the individual level, concerned about family and children and jobs, could be overtaken by so dreadful a regime. It was a regime that, when you think about it, was just so vulgar. All of those night-time torchlight processions. The mindless book-burning. Even the great things were perverted and moved down the scale. If you think Wagner the greatest composer of all time, you have to admit that there was something tacky about Hitler's obsession with those medieval tales. And when you think of the grotesque architectural plans that he plotted with Albert Speer, you don't know whether to laugh or cry.

Christians, those in the Augustinian tradition, have an explanation for all of this: original sin. God is good and loving and what He creates is good. Humans were good and then, thanks to the transgressions of Adam and Eve, they fell into sin. This was countered, finally, by the arrival of Jesus Christ and his death on the Cross. It does not matter how great the Germans may have been; they were tainted. When the circumstances came about, there was fertile ground in which the rank weeds could take root and thrive. That is why all of those eighteenth-century hopes about progress and doing things in our own right were not just wrong but positively harmful. Hubris.

Of course, even Christians today realize that this cannot all be right. For a start, modern evolutionary biology absolutely negates the claims about an original Adam and Eve as the progenitors of the human race. And then there are the theological difficulties. Why should I be tainted by a sin committed by Adam? Augustine himself was attracted to a form of Traducianism, whereby souls (or soul components) are passed on rather like genes and hence sin can get passed on like a defective gene. Others are not so sure. The Catholic Church has surely pushed itself into a bit of a corner here with the insistence that as soon as a zygote is formed, a soul is inserted miraculously. Why does God insert a soul so obviously flawed?

Above all there are issues about why Jesus' death on the Cross saved anyone, especially someone who does not appear on earth for another couple thousand years. I should say that on a trip to the Creationist Museum in Kentucky last year, I discovered that the theology there mixes salvation with God's overall passion for blood sacrifices. There is a truly horrific display of Adam and Eve in freshly acquired sheep skins hovering over naked animal corpses like something out of a Polanski movie.

It seems to me, however, that what evolutionary biology takes away with the one hand, it returns a hundred-fold with the other. The chief mechanism of change is natural selection, that is, the survival and reproduction of some organisms rather than others because of the struggle for existence. The successful, the fitter, succeed precisely because (on average) they have features, characteristics, that the losers do not have. In other words, adaptation is the name of the game. We don't just have change; we have change of a particular kind, namely in the production of features that help in the struggle -- eyes, teeth, noses, bark, leaves, roots, wings, fins, legs and flippers. Moreover, as Charles Darwin pointed out in his Origin of Species, adaptations can be behavioral as well. Ability to run or to flee can be as important as adaptive coloration. And sometimes behavior is directed not at finding and destroying others, but at working together. You scratch my back and I scratch yours. The honey bee, with the workers acting harmoniously for the good of the whole, was a favorite example of Darwin.

In the Descent of Man (1871), Darwin turned his attentions full-time to our own species, and he stressed over and over again how we as a group have gone in the direction of sociality. We work together genuinely because our biology saw that thereby we would do better than if we worked apart. Despite everything you hear about Social Darwinism -- nature red in tooth and claw, a phrase incidentally from Tennyson's In Memoriam, written a decade before the Origin -- the essential message of Darwin is that ethical behavior, morality, is no less an adaptation than teeth and ears and noses.

Today's evolutionary biologists continue in Darwin's tradition. For example, psychologist Marc Hauser at Harvard argues that we have a moral sense -- a kind of moral organ -- that is real and functions very much like language ability. No one wants to deny that culture is significant, and that this can lead to different moral practices (akin to different human languages), but underneath there is a kind of underlying moral structure. Psychopaths, lacking a moral sense, are like the blind or the dumb. They do not have everything needed to be fully adapted.

However, note -- and again this is absolutely fundamental Darwinism -- that ultimately everything goes down to the individual, today perhaps to the units of heredity. Richard Dawkins summed up everything when he wrote of "selfish genes": organisms that do not look out for Number One do not leave as many offspring as those that do. A faster leopard gets the meal and a slower one does not. And this applies completely to humans. A human prepared to help a chum in need is more likely to get help back than someone who is totally selfish. In the end, morality comes back to the individual rather than the group.

This means that, in a sense, morality is going to be a pragmatic sort of thing. Morality is going to function best when it is in your interests -- which may of course be long-term interests, so you don't necessarily look for an immediate payoff for every nice thing you do. So morality is going to be limited. All other things being equal, if you are hungry and you have just bought a nice steak, you are not going to give it to someone else. If you meet a pretty girl (or a handsome guy), you would be daft if you immediately turned to your friend and said "you first." As the saying goes, all is fair in love and war. Total altruists, to use the language of biologists, don't last long reproductively.

What this all means is that humans are going to be a mélange of good and bad, selfish and giving. This is our Darwinian human nature. And this, it seems to me, is a piece of candy for the Christian. He or she can keep the deep insights of Augustine but put them now in the context of modern science. There was no literal Adam and Eve. There was no literal Fall. We are both good and bad by reason of our biology, our evolutionary past. That is why we are not going to escape it soon. That is why a little bit of eighteenth-century optimism is not going to make us all perfect. And that is why in a sense we need help from outside -- or from Outside, as one might say.

Of course, none of this means that a Darwinian now must or should become a Christian. But at the least, in understanding the human nature that the Darwinian is trying to explain, it is open to use the insights of the Christians. That acute psychologist Saint Paul knew a thing or two about us: "For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate" (Romans 7:13). That is surely a major starting point for the Darwinian psychologist.

In all divides, the extremists at the two ends have more in common than with those in the middle. The Creationists and the New Atheists come together in agreeing that Christianity and modern biological science are incompatible. My plea is that we see how wrong they both are. No one is asking for conversions, but in modern biology there is much of real value for the thinking Christian, and in Christian thought there is much worth pondering by the biologist. Difficult questions demand grown-up answers and it is foolish to think that only one approach can yield all of the results.