The Science of Sustainability

Sin and Biology

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Dowd explores the idea of sin as going backwards on the evolutionary track and that when we are sinning we let the primitive, instinctual, aggressive, fear-driven part of our brain take charge.

Call it the Devil, or evil, or sin, or whatever, something is not quite right in the world. Read a newspaper or turn on the news. Study history. Study your own history. Live life and you’ll find that out. Mystics from all traditions will say that the problem is the way we perceive the world.

Augustine, a Fourth Century Bishop and a Catholic Saint, is credited with conceiving the notion of “original sin”. He found something not quite right in the human mind and human will. But because we have reason, with the help of God, we can chose to do good rather than evil. Julian of Norwich, a Fourteenth Century Christian mystic who lived in Norwich, England, wrote a document describing a series of visions that she had, called Showings or Revelations of Divine Love. Actually, she wrote it about 20 years after she had the visions. She lived in a small room attached to a church. People would come to her to share their problems and pain. She lived through the plague in her town. She would have seen dead bodies in the streets outside her room. But she wrote that sin is “behovely”, or necessary, and that “All shall be well.”

Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who lived in a Kentucky monastery and died in 1968, thought that life was about recovering our true nature that has been lost. I like this idea of Merton because life, it seems to me, is something like a journey home. As we grow, we can become more comfortable with who we are and less concerned about what others think of us. Paul Tillich, a Protestant theologian and contemporary of Merton thought of sin as separation. We are born separated from our real selves, other people, and God. Modern theologians might add that we also think of ourselves as separated from the Earth and that this sense of separation has led to environmental degradation, species extinction, and perhaps eventually it will lead to our own extinction. Some have called the Devil the Father of Lies. In this case the lie is that we are separated from our best selves, one another, and the Earth.

But what do scientists think about sin? I’ve recently read a book that provided an interesting connection between the biological idea of evolution and sin. The book, by Michael Dowd, an Evangelical Christian, is called Thank God for Evolution. In the book, Dowd explores the idea of sin as going backwards on the evolutionary track and that when we are sinning we let the primitive, instinctual, aggressive, fear-driven part of our brain take charge. We stop thinking and words become weapons; our heart rate goes up and the body releases lots of stress hormones into our bloodstream. Like when we are mad at the person who just cut us off in traffic. We’re not our best selves in these moments, or living as full human beings. And we tend to be selfish and inconsiderate when we’re trying to tailgate the person who cut us off; and we don’t notice the child in the back seat of the other car. Later we might say, “I wasn’t myself”.

(FYI: The Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley is sponsoring a two-day event, Exploring the Frontiers of Science and Religion, April 23-24, 2010.)

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Category: Biology

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Jim Gunshinan

About the Author ()

Jim Gunshinan is the editor of Home Energy, the magazine of sustainable home building and renovation.
  • Clay

    Interesting point of view. It's fun to read how other people rationalize the seeming divide between who we'd like to be and who we actually are.

    I'd instead argue that the 'lie' is that we are somehow different than what we've evolved to be. If you look at natural selection from a purely scientific perspective, you'll fairly easily be able to explain all the things that we've defined as 'sin' and how those traits would perpetuate themselves. These traits actually are what makes our genes the most 'fit' for survival. Rather than being a digression from our upward evolutionary path, they are in fact the very result of it.

    Augustine is an interesting example, the originator of the concept of original sin and in particular the originator of the concept of the seminal transmission of sin. He is quoted as having said, "Lord, help me to be pure, but not yet." He is also believed to have been a sex addict himself so one may wonder if the modern belief that sin is transmitted through sex may actually be the institutionalization of his self condemnation.

    Regardless, sex and in particular promiscuous sex is a fairly obvious example of a trait that is universally regarded as a sin that would certainly make one's genes more likely to succeed in the process of natural selection and as such make the offspring of such person more likely to be predisposed to this trait.

    It's all science; no big judgemental man in the sky. We do, however, appear to have at least some sort of free will so if you don't want to 'sin' be my guest and try. Just look at the Catholic Church or the Republican party to see how successful most people are at this goal.

  • http://www.homeenergy.org Jim Gunshinan

    You may understand something of science, but you have a superficial understanding of religion. And you seem to regard science the same fundamentalists regard their religion. Science answers all. But it doesn't.

    The best scientists understand this. Dig deep in science and religion and you are left in awe and wonder. When you think you have all the answers you don't. You've ceased to evolve.

  • Clay

    I appreciate you posting my comment. I also appreciate your response. I'm a little offended by your categorization of my understanding of religion being superficial but I'm not horribly surprised by your rationale. In my defense and the defense of science, I certainly doubt that any true scientist would argue that science has all the answers. Science, unlike religion, allows for endless revisions to positions based on new evidence. There is simply no way to reconcile the religious view of the world to the observable in this day and age without jumping through hoops in an attempt to support a pre existing position. As a scientist, I'm sure you know that this is anything but scientific.

  • http://www.homeenergy.org Jim Gunshinan

    Clay,

    This is an interesting discussion. I'll try to be more civil. I ask the same of you. I don't like being told I am rationalizing, and the smug tone of your posting does not serve your cause.

    Hasn't a religious attitude been a part of every known human culture? Does that mean it is an aberration, or something that is somehow good for human life and survival? Human beings of all times and places have developed religious attitudes towards life. So all those wars over religion have been part of being human. And all that death and suffering caused by atheists (Mao and Stalin to name a few) has been a part of human life as well. I can chose to call the purposeful harming of self, others, and the environment sin and I can call it survival of the fittest as a scientist, but I am trying to describe the same reality. You seem to be saying that if I call it sin I am wrong, and if you call it a mechanism of evolution you are right.

    I think the problem is True Believers of every stripe, including those who consider vast numbers of their fellow humans as misguided, or deluded, or whatever, because they think differently.

    I think you are stereotyping all religious people just as religious fundamentalists stereotype scientists as less than fully human.

  • Clay

    Thanks. I appreciate the dialog. You make some very interesting points. Let me respond as best I can.

    While it certainly seems true that a religious attitude has been very wide spread throughout history that certainly doesn't make it true. Also, while I'll admit that most cultures have had some sort of religious belief, these have been vastly different throughout history. I won't argue that we aren't all trying to describe the same reality in our fractured and imperfect way, however, I will argue that no dogmatic or imparted religion that relies on ancient scripture and revelations comes anywhere close to actually describing the universe and the nature of reality. I get the feeling that you may agree with me to a certain degree but instead value the tradition and goodness you see in religious belief. I do see a grand and mysterious universe that we're nowhere close to understanding and I see much more value in observing and learning from what we can see than trying to reconcile what we see to what we've been taught. This probably has to do with my personal upbringing because I always felt stifled and judged by religion rather than empowered.

  • Clay

    My belief is that there are certain underlying factors which cause people to believe or look for truths and religion is based on these perpetuating a story much the same way that natural selection perpetuates successful genes. I'm not a humanist and I don't think that evolution is necessarily moving us on an upward, ever improving trajectory. I feel that natural selection is working mindlessly multiplying traits that succeed in whatever environment they inhabit. I feel religion perpetuates itself in much the same way. The desire to believe in a life after death, the feeling that there is something larger than us, the mystery about how all this wonder came into being naturally seem to point to a god. At least they did until Darwin came up with a better solution to the problem; one that doesn't endlessly multiply because of course the concept of a creator begs the question, "Where did he come from?"

    Evolution and natural selection and the big bang certainly reach a logical end short of a full explanation but they seem a lot closer to explaining the situation in a way that I can understand and they certainly have a lot more evidence to support them. Once again, I doubt you'd disagree but I think we may quickly get to the point where we start splitting hairs about what it actually means that there is a god or a creator. If we take it to the logical end that there certainly seems to have been some causal force which started the whole thing in motion but there seems to be no evidence that whatever that force was or is exerts force to change our modify it's course than I think we've gotten to an impasse and it becomes a question of philosophy rather than a disagreement over the nature of a reality. I believe that the meaning in life is what you choose to place value on so if you choose to place value on an ancient philosophy but accept it doesn't affect the world one way or another then I can't disagree with you.

  • Clay

    Sorry. I submitted my response twice. Thanks again for taking the time to talk with a skeptic.

  • http://www.homeenergy.org Jim Gunshinan

    Clay,

    This has turned into a very thoughtful discussion. Thank you for taking the time to think about what I have written and respond. For some reason I am fortunate enough to have the QUEST forum to express myself. I'm glad someone is reading my stuff, and responding,even if they disagree. I must be doing something right!

    I see things through the eyes of a scientist, but my attitude towards life has been shaped by my religious experience. In college I took a course on western mysticism. We read the personal writings of official saints and a woman from a barrio on Brazil and a Jewish women who threw her diary out the window of a train taking her to die in a camp. They lived lives with eyes pretty wide open and with courage. I began to recognize patterns in their stories that seemed to describe my life as well, or at least the life I wanted to live. I think scripture is just a record of what people experienced in the past. I am still surprised at my life, by the directions I take. And I take more responsibility for my life as I get older, and am grateful for my teachers, even if their stories don't resonate so much with mine.

    I think science depends on a written record of what scientists learned in the past as well.But science builds on the past and every once in a while someone takes science in a whole new direction. And then there are new questions…

    Sorry to go on… just thinking through my keyboard now. Thanks again for our conversation. I have a lot to learn.

  • Tom

    I have a couple of thoughts to contribute to this discussion, I think. One is that there have been many attempts lately to explain the ubiquity of religion via science in general, and evolutionary theory in particular. The goal of these efforts seems to be universally to discredit religion by showing that it was mere Darwinian tooth and claw logic, not actual divine mystery, that led peoples all over the world to become religious. But I am still waiting for the evolutionary explanation for religion that cannot be turned on science itself (and therefore any use of this mode of explanation to discredit religion also discredits science).

    I'm also not sure I agree with Clay that all of what we call sin are merely the qualities that got us to where we are today. If you look at the deadly sins, for example, what they mainly have in common is some level of selfishness, as opposed to acting for the common good. If you're a Richard Dawkins ("The Selfish Gene") fan, then there does seem to be some identity between sin/selfishness and getting ahead/evolving. But there are many other theorists, both inside and outside biology, who have argued that the Dawkins POV is, at best, radically incomplete. In particular, that there are higher, and often more powerful, levels of selection than at the level of the individual gene (or individual person). In many cases, the selfishness of sin works against higher levels of selection–a community where everyone steals and murders and behaves cholerically and gluttonously whenever they want is likely to be outcompeted by one where people largely restrain from these behaviors, for example, in which case sinning, whatever its short-term gains to the individual, can ultimately be evolutionarily counter-productive. It's inevitable that even in the face of strong prohibitions against sin some will selfishly "cheat" and be free-loaders on the system (because they get away with it), but that does not mean that selfish free-loading is how humans got to where they are evolutionarily today. Personally, I think both sin and the prohibitions against it (to the extent those prohibitions have been followed) have been powerful forces in human evolutionary development–I happen to think, though, that in a social species like man, (unselfish) group selection has been the more powerful of the two.

  • http://www.homeenergy.org Jim Gunshinan

    Tom,

    You have added to the discussion! Thanks for your thoughts. It's interesting to me that some Christian mystics talk of the necessity of sin (Julian of Norwich—sin is behoveley) and that in a sense, natural selection, in a one-sided sense, is about getting rid of the "weak" in favor of the strong—a necessary evil. I think you are saying that in either case, trying to overcome sin and living a more virtuous and less selfish life is good for the mystic and good for the biologist (and the species).

    I think Christianity at it's best aims at not having winners and losers, while, again in a one sided view of evolution as survival of the fittest, does have winners and losers.

  • Clay

    Tom,
    I liked your comments too. Very thought provoking… is it that obvious that I'm a Dawkins fan? Regardless, I don't think Dawkins (or myself for that matter) would disagree with you that behaviors that are good for a group can perpetuate themselves through naturally selecting that group to succeed. I think you can see perfect examples of this in the very recent 'successes' our species has gained through specialization, economies of scale, and building a trade society.

    I think, however, that the key distinction here is that natural selection has no foresight, therefore it can only operate at the level of the individual gene. This doesn't mean that an individual gene which makes a group of organisms more likely to succeed won't perpetuate itself and in certain circumstances be 'more fit' than a gene which promotes its organism at the expense of those around it.

    When Dawkins talks of a 'selfish gene' he means just that; an individual gene within an organism and that does not necessarily mean that the gene will create selfish trates in the organism if survival of that organism is better suited to cooperative behavior and as such more likely to be reproduced and survive into succeeding generations.