• Original Sin – answering Thomas L. McDonald

    I was recently sent a link to Thomas L. McDonald’s piece “The Origin of Man, Original Sin, and Why It’s All Your Fault” on his Patheos blog. There is much to talk about in this attempt to reconcile Catholic doctrine with science. My opinion is that he fails in multiple ways to do justice to any such reconciliation. That said, there are some interesting and ‘original’ attempts.

    I will look to expose some of the issues found in the essay in this post.

    On Twitter, Kyle Cupp asked the following question:

    I replied with a quip I use with my students: “The sin of Adam was inevitable, even if ‘Adam’ wasn’t the one who committed it. If Adam hadn’t eaten the apple, I would have.”

    He was, however, looking for something more specific:

    I have to say at the outset that I reject the premise, so I doubt I’ll be able to provide a satisfactory reply to his completely reasonable question. Science–particularly genome sequencing–is a moving target, and the theologian who chases it winds up like a kitty following a laser pointer as it flits around the floor. It’s foolish to change ancient and settled points of theology derived from scripture and tradition in the light of trending information. Science can never achieve the level of certainty about human origins to force definitive changes to our theological understanding of original sin.

    The idea is that historical claims, which can be derived form scientific analysis, potentially invalidate the claims of Genesis. If these historical claims are undermined, on what basis is the concept of Original Sin founded? Such a crucial doctrine to theology and the existence of Jesus needs to be epistemologically sound, surely.

    Whilst it is a changeable discipline with new discoveries aplenty, the whole foundation, empirically evidenced, upon which it is built is sound. And it is predicated upon an evolutionary paradigm which simply refutes the idea that Homo Sapiens even exists, per se, or that there were a distinct and objective ‘first two’.

    A problem for McDonald here is that he imagines we have distinct species. But in philosophical terms, this is not true. We have the problem of the Sorites Paradox. As I explained to a theist once:

    “The Theist

    OK, so you have some half-baked idea that Hovind has a clue what he is talking about. Hint, he doesn’t. What was one of his classic lines? “I’ve never seen a dog give birth to a non-dog?” What a dick who doesn’t have the first clue. He could do with investigating the “problem of species” which even Darwin was cognisant of. In reality, there is no such thing as a species, since all animals exist on a continuum of development over time. Check my post here: http://atipplingphilosopher.yo…. Species are a useful labelling tool to enable humans to understand a taxonomy of life; however, they do not have real ontology outside of the human conceptual mind. It is the same mechanism we use in laws. We allow people to vote when they are 18, to have consensual sex when they are 16, to drive… The reality is, there is no discernible difference between the girl who is 17 and 364 days, 23 hrs and 59 minutes 59 seconds, and that same girl a second later. However, one second she can’t vote, the next she can. We draw arbitrary lines in time continuums for pragmatic reasons. This is what the idea of species does. However, if you found a fossil of an early Homo, you could rightly argue that it is actually a late Austrolapithecus (and this is what has happened with the famous fossil, Twiggy). Fossils which sit closer to that arbitrary line are harder to argue. That is because that line is arbitrary. It is not as if an Austrolapithecus gave birth to a homo. This gradual move took thousands and thousands of years. We, now, look back and whack a line somewhere to differentiate the two. However, at that line, there would be no discernible difference. So the questions “Why don’t dogs give birth to non-dogs?” could only ever be asked by a complete wanker.

    This is often called microevolution vs macroevolution. The Creationist says “Well, we accept since we can see small changes, but big ones, from a fish to a bird are just silly”. The point can be eliminated. There is no difference, only time. Macroevolution is what happens when you either have shed loads of times (millions of years) or quick evolution (we know that evolution CAN happen quickly sometimes – see observations and experiments with guppies, and also the Italian Wall Lizard). In other words, EVERY species . organism is, by definition, transitional, just ever so slightly.”

    Many apologists attack evolution, and attack the notion that species can evolve into new species, and that there is no transitional fossil evidence for X,Y and Z. However, what they do not realise is that there is no such thing as a species (in a manner of speaking). Objectively, such an idea does not exist. ‘Species’ is a label that we humans have attached to groups of organisms that we see common characteristics between. We also tend to attach arbitrary rules to them too, such as they cannot interbreed with another species, otherwise they are effectively the same species etc. What this labelling does is give a false impression that a) species are static; and b) that these labels define these organisms whether humans exist or not. These labels are human constructs – that is all. Every organism is constantly shifting its genetic blueprint. We are constantly evolving. Humans now are different genetically from humans 1,000, 5,000, 10,000 and 100,000 years ago. Yet we still define ourselves as the same species. Species is a temporal notion. It is like taking a picture of all organisms at a given time and sorting them according to effectively arbitrary characteristics. There is nothing to say you can’t sort species by the number of legs. On the temporal front, every organism (and I mean that in its entirety – every organism on earth at a given time) is shifting in evolutionary terms. There is a dynamism to evolution, though some organisms do it on a much faster basis than others. It renders the notion of when a reptile became a bird, or similar claims, utter nonsense. The slow and gradual process of changing one’s genome piece by piece to morph into something ever so different at each mutation is a paradigm shift away from a simple view of biological taxonomy. Every organism sits on a continuum of evolution from the very first organism to what will be the last in the heat death of the universe. You can pick any organism alive today and follow its path back to the first in a linear fashion. By declaring that species exist (in a sort of objective, definite manner), all you are doing is chopping up that line arbitrarily. We shall return to this problem later.Thus, species don’t exist other than in the human mind. A perfect example, if you will, of philosophical conceptualism.

    I spent enough time studying anthropology to realize that what we know about human origins is a very very tiny sliver of the whole picture, and that picture is always changing. For example, when, in 1987, an 18-year-old me asked my anthropology professor if Neanderthals and homo sapiens had interbred, he laughed at the idea. Now, it seems likely that such interbreeding of anatomically modern humans and “lower” orders of hominid took place.

    But both theories are still dependent upon science which refutes an actual Adam and Eve, so this is really a false analogy.

    So, no: I’m not going to bite at that apple, except to make one or two points. Mitochondrial Eve could have lived anywhere between 50,000 and 200,000 years ago. (Or more. Or less. This is far from settled.) Some even suggest that humanity may have a most recent common ancestor as recently as 5,000 years ago.  The idea that hominids developed along different tracks is uncontroversial. Certainly one need only look at the diversity of the human population to understand that our genetic makeup isn’t a nice neat line from Eden to us. It’s more like a stew.

    Rather a few assumptions and presuppositions here – Eden, humanity and such. What are these?

    The problem is viewing human lines of descent as a series of replacements, rather than a lot of strange dead ends and offshoots, possibly with interbreeding among various members of Genus Homo (and perhaps even between Genera Homo and Australopithecus), and significant periods of overlap, perhaps including trade, warfare, and cultural influence. The idea of a nice neat “ascent of man” from lower to higher orders is a post-Enlightenment prejudice. The fossil hominid record is quite small, and often it’s asked to carry the weight of far more speculation about human origins than it can possibly bear. Genome sequencing may help clear up some of the mystery, but without a more robust fossil record, it’s little more than educated guesses.

    Here is a list of human fossils. Here is a list of fossil hominids and evidence for human evolution. Well worth checking over.

    So where does this leave us with Adam and Eve and original sin? If they didn’t exist, can the doctrine of original sin still hold? If we are not all descended from a single person, what happens to the notion of inherited sin?

    I know moderns are uneasy with the idea of Adam and Eve, and certainly elements of Genesis are meant to be read as a figurative theological account of how a universe, created by a perfect God, came to be so completely screwed up. Does this mean Adam and Eve “weren’t real”? Can the notion of a single set of first parents survive in the light of developing knowledge about human origins?


    Of course it can, because there is nothing at all that science can do to disprove this statement: humankind as we know it was uniquely and specially created with a rational soul by a loving God, and placed in a ideal world with the power of free will.

    Er. WTF? You might be interested in seeing a few recent posts on the soul. Science has a lot to say about it. It would be nice if Christians could actually define what the hell a soul is, for a start… Check here and here. How can a soul be rational if it supervenes on the rational elements of the brain. Without such areas, which, when affected, affect rationality, how can the soul have independent rationality? The same applies to sight, feelings and emotion, all physiologically grounded. And free will. Wow. He asserts that science cannot disprove it! Er, yes it can, and so can philosophy. Since no libertarian has ever been able to establish how, empirically or logically, contra-causal free will can work, I would like to see McDonald actually defend his wild assertion. Basically, that paragraph couldn’t be more wrong.

    In scripture, there is a tantalizing answer the question of genetic diversity in humans. It’s right there, in Genesis 4, and it’s a subject of some controversy:

    13 Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is greater than I can bear. 14 Behold, thou hast driven me this day away from the ground; and from thy face I shall be hidden; and I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will slay me.” 15 Then the LORD said to him, “Not so! If any one slays Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the LORD put a mark on Cain, lest any who came upon him should kill him.16 Then Cain went away from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod, east of Eden. 17 Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch; and he built a city, and called the name of the city after the name of his son, Enoch.

    Questions: If there are only three people on earth (Adam, Eve, Cain), how can Cain be a “fugitive”? Who exactly will “find” and “slay” him? Who are these people who might come upon and kill him? Most mysteriously, who is this “wife” who gives him a child, Enoch? And how does he populate an entire city, also called Enoch?

    The answer we often get is: incest with his mother. That’s not even good nonsense, since Eve is clearly depicted as remaining with Adam and giving birth to Seth and others.

    So the question remains: who are all these people who threaten Cain, fill cities, and provide wives for him and his decedents?

    Perhaps the answer is right there in the fossil record.

    God created man after his image. We understand this to mean that God created a man and a woman with rational souls. We can call them anatomically modern humans, or Homo sapiens sapiens. Who is to say there weren’t other hominids at large in the world at the time, with the first parents inserted into the timeline, bringing with them something new: a rational, immortal soul? And when we were cast from Eden, perhaps Cain and the descendants of Adam and Eve took spouses from among these people. There’s nothing at all in the scripture to suggest this is not possible, and some evidence (such as the sudden appearance of wives and foes and cities full of people) to suggest it is.

    Um. No. “Who is to say there weren’t other hominids at large in the world at the time”… OK, let’s start with this. This is the identical problem to that above. Zebras don’t give birth to non-zebras.

    In humans, we have about 3 billion base pairs in our genome with the number of mutations estimated at about ~3× or ~2.7×10−5 per base per 20 year generation.

    Let’s say, for sake of argument, that dogs have about 60 mutations per generation and a 2 year generation, then over, say, 100,000 years there would be 50,000 generations making about 300,000 mutations. Then of course, there is breeding between subspecies which would cause much larger changes in the genome than mutation. There are also other types of evolutionary mechanisms.

    Let’s imagine an early dog. Lets call it Dog + 0. So if we take Dog + 0 and compare it ‘genomically’ to Dog + 50,000 you can see there would be a observable difference. It could be that Dog + 0 is actually a grey wolf and that dog + 50,000 is a Chihuahua, for example.

    Now, the wolf would never give birth to a Chihuahua and a genetic biologist would be the first to say this. What Hovind, for example, does is build a straw man. These subspecies are clearly distinct, though with a little help could probably still mate. However, further evolution would leave such a subspecies (say Dog + 100,000) unable to mate with the grey wolf.(Dog + 0), in all probability. Either way, a dog does give birth to a dog (if we accept and arbitrary human constructed labelling system). But eventually, such a subspecies will become distinct from the original subspecies so one is left wondering whether it is, indeed, a dog in comparison to the ‘original’ (which is itself arbitrarily selected by a human out of a continuum). This will be more obvious if there remained a geographically, and thus genetically, isolated original dog (such as the wolf). But if all subspecies mutated and interbred etc, there would be nothing extant with which to compare such a newly evolved organism to. If I have made any error with my claims here, please let me know. I am no evolutionary biologist myself, though I am at least willing to investigate what it all means and how it works.

    The point being that other hominids wouldn’t suddenly give birth to Homo Sapiens. Evolution doesn’t work like that. There would be no discernible difference between Adam and Eve’s parents and them.

    Perhaps McDonald is not saying this at all. Perhaps he is saying the God plonked these Homo Sapiens down on earth to intermingle with   other co-existing hominids. Well, if you are going to posit supernatural stuff which magically appears, then there is no point us appealing to naturalistic science. God can do what the hell he wants, and he can insert stuff in, brainwash people, fudge evidence and whatever. But if McDonald is claiming that science can defend the thesis of an Adam and Eve evolving, then he has serious problems.

    For instance, we can use evidence such as Endogenous Retroviruses to establish common ancestry. Which means that Adam and Eve, as Homo Sapiens, had fossilised virus insertions in their genomes which is shared in location and type with chimpanzees, showing that both species had a common ancestor. This invalidates the claim that Adam and Eve could suddenly have been a different species popping into being naturalistically – a dog giving birth to a non-dog or simply a species plonked on earth by God equipped with ERVs to fool later scientists.

    Some people claim that this Edenic existence precluded death. That death did not exist until the Fall of Adam and Eve. Well, given a theory that other hominids existed (through evolution) in order for Homo Sapiens to interbreed with them, we can assume that there was death and that this thesis does not hold.

    The offspring of these people are still traceable to our first parents. It doesn’t need to be a closed loop of Adam + Eve = Cain, Cain + Eve = Enoch in order to for original sin to be passed along. Adam was given the gift of the spirit. He was given a soul and a desire for God. This soul was wounded in act of free will. This gift (and this wound) was passed along, introducing something new into the human family.

    And here we can see that McDonald is willing to posit mere assertions. What is interesting is that he claims that we do pass evolved characteristics down through genetic evolution, and in the same breath asserts that “sin” can be passed in the same sort of way. What does this look like? How can sin be passed from one to another? What is the ontology of sin? Because it sounds like McDonald would at least need to be a Platonic Realist of sorts, with abstract ideas existing in some kind of extra realm. Not only does sin need to be a coherent concept, but it must have an abstract reality, and must be able to interact causally with physical entities. And it must be able to be attached to humans and then passed through birth in some way to others. Simply saying “it was passed along” is, to me, nonsense, asserted soundbite. What does it mean, and what does it look like?

    If free will led inevitably to the Fall, then this is an odd and rather loaded gift indeed.

    We have no reason to fear any new understanding of human diversity and development. As people of faith, we have only to remember this: someone had to be first. God created a world, and God created a person to carry his gift into that world. Whether you prefer the old model of a single pair populating a planet, or an image of a first pair of ensouled humans uplifting a diverse population of hominids, both models follow the same arc: creation, fall, redemption.

    What he really means is that science cannot defy this claim, since it is a claim of a miracle with no lasting evidence.

    However, given that the genome of Homo Sapiens can be mapped out through evolution in the context of other species, then I think there is a problem for the idea that God simply plonked a couple of compatible hominids down amongst a bunch of other Hominids, which were not, somehow, rational and who did not own souls. I am not sure this theory can really be taken seriously.

    If the name “Adam” bothers you and smacks of too many Sunday school lessons for comfort, make up your own name. You could come up with a word in an ancient language that describes the ruddy appearance of this first human. Handily, we have a word in Hebrew that does the job: âdâm ( אָדָם), which means (literally) “ruddy”, and also “mankind.” Oddly enough adâmâh (אֲדָמָה), means “earth,” as in soil. So you have a ruddy man made from the earth.

    Language is how we communicate ideas. We can communicate those ideas this way:

    That’s a language. The language of DNA.

    Or we communicate them this way:

    The genome tells us a great deal about the composition of human life, but nothing about its meaning or purpose. For as much as DNA helps us to live our lives and understand our world, they might as well be sequencing moss.

    On the other hand, three little letters–alephdaleth, and mem–pack a vast amount of meaning into an incredibly small package. It takes massive computing power for even a specialist to make sense of the DNA of a single human, and you won’t know a bloody thing about why that particular âdâm loves, makes bad choices, sacrifices himself, or creates great works of art. A little time spent with Genesis, and you understand man’s greatness and foolishness, his pride and his curiosity, his reason and freedom, and his willingness to abuse them all in an act of defiance. His sin is this simple: it’s a turning away from God to the desires of the self. Here, in the primordial history, our first parents experience in action what will be expressed as words in Deuteronomy: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life.”

    Sounds very nice, but is essentially a set of meaningless soundbites.

    And we choose death. Because we always do. I know what’s right, what’s healthy, what’s good, what I’m supposed to do. Yet time again, I make the wrong choice. That’s the tendency of original sin tugging at me, but even before that original sin, there was the great gift and the great danger of free-will. That’s what I mean when I say that if Adam hadn’t taken the apple, I would have. It was inevitable.

    The problem is, there is no evidence for this. No evidence, other than a couple of chapters of writing of unknown provenance in a parochial holy book that makes lots of claims which have been false – they are verifiably wrong. So why believe this claim? What epistemic justification is there to do so? That last paragraph is full of curcular reasoning and assumptions which fail under scrutiny.

    People like to blame Eve. As if you would have done anything differently. Pandora opens the box because she’s told not to. Eve takes the apple because she’s told not to. And you (and I) would have done the exact same thing. God well knew that we would fall, and he also knew that, in the fullness of time, he’d turn the wood of the forbidden tree into the wood of the cross.

    Unfortunately, Christians don’t like to blame the entity which is morally responsible. God. God designed and created, through actualisation of this world, the framework and variables as well as every organism, whilst knowing every counterfactual and eventuality, which has come into being. This means that if humans are evil, God is responsible. If I created a fully sentient race of entities in the lab from scratch, and I knew EXACTLY what they would do, that they would go on the rampage and kill everyone in town, but I created them anyway, who would be responsible? Irrespective of whether they had free will or not, I would be ultimately responsible. So as far as I am concerned, Original Sin doesn’t even get off the ground. This whole conversation is, in effect, pointless.

    Furthermore, of God selected Adam as representative of humanity, and he failed and Fell, God designed humanity badly. If Adam was not representative of us, what right did God have to choose him, and thus cause all of humanity to suffer s a result of his failed test? The two horns to this dilemma are insurmountable.

    The human genome is not a map of life. We make a grave error when we mistake it for one. It may provide answers to certain questions about our bodies and provide some hints about origins, but it’s not the vaunted Encyclopedia of Man some may think it is. At some point, we pass beyond the purview of the scientist and into the realm of the metaphysician, the artist, the philosopher, the theologian. We were uniquely created by the hand of a loving God, and given a gift–freedom–which we have abused ever since. Science can’t unravel that one.

    And the Bible is? So he would take a book of unknown provenance, with unknown sources, which is untestable and is unverified by archaeology and contemporary history, which has evidence of plagiarism off nearby cultures (Moses as Sargon II, commandments as the Code of Hammurabi, the flood as the flood from Tablet XI of the Epic of Gilgamesh etc)… and so on…

    … he would take that over science? Over repeatable, falsifiable, evidence-based claims which are defended by multitudinous disciplines across the realm of scientific pursuit? A two thousand year old book over the scientific method?

    “Science can;t unravel that one” is perhaps true. Maybe he is right. Science cannot unravel fairytales and conjectural mythological concepts of the human imagination.

    Or perhaps it can and it does. Choosing to ignore the evidence is nothing short of the confirmation bias in action.

    Category: EvolutionMoralityScience and religion


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce