Thinking socially about evolution and original sin

E O Wilson is interviewed in the Guardian about his recent work on group selection. He says some uncharitable things about his detractor Richard Dawkins’ status as a scientist, which hasn’t stopped the BBC booking the latter in for their Life Scientific series on Radio 4. A trailer for that suggests that Dawkins’ post-scientific interests will be over-represented, which is a shame because it’s been a good series hitherto. But I want to range wider than Dawkins or Wilson, and wider than controversies in evolutionary theory too (except to note in passing that they are alive and well in the Guardian).

I haven’t yet read Wilson’s paper, or his book, so haven’t much to say about the strengths or weaknesses of his position. It is, of course, certainly radical because it cuts right across the Malthusian assumptions of Darwin, and many of those who followed him especially in areas beyond evolutionary biology. Let me remind you that that describes much of our current society: the eugenics movement has been under the surface since Hitler’s downfall, but still informs ethical issues surrounding “eradicating disease”. And this year’s Reith lectures were on “Evolutionary Economics”, with a fair sprinkling of talk of “survival of the fittest,” whilst modern capitalism thrives on the conceit that self-interest is ultimately good for society. All these derive from the Darwinian idea of individual selection.

That’s not irrelevant to Wilson, because he himself draws some wider inferences:

“Individual selection is responsible for much of what we call sin, while group selection is responsible for the greater part of virtue,” he writes in one of the book’s bluntest passages. “Together they have created the conflict between the poorer and better angels of our nature.”

A moment’s reflection shows us that Wilson is wearing the common blinkers of evolutionary scientists here. Once there’s an explanation in place, it is used to explain everything. But which does experience suggest to be more sinful – the lone protester, or the mob that lynches him? The individual German soldier, or the state machinery that turns him into a genocide? Life is more complex than even Wilson allows. But what his work does usefully achieve is to put another nail in the coffin of the extreme individualism that has obsessed Western society since even before Darwin. Darwin thought in terms of the individual struggle for survival because he was part of a culture that thought that way, socially fragmented and dominated, through Enlightenment ideology, by the idea of the individual rational soul alone in the world.

Margaret Thatcher famously said that there is no such thing as society. She is deliberately misunderstood on that – her point was that society is made up of the efforts of individuals, and their choices, rather than some passive inanimate entity. In practice, most of us think Margaret’s way most of the time. The more sophisticated among us have the understanding that many of the characteristics of societies are what one might call emergent properties that are more than the sum of such individual choices. Sociology is based on that assumption. But I want to encourage an idea beyond that – that individuals are also an emergent property of society. As much as society is a collective of individuals, the individual is also a distillation of society.

As soon as this idea is stated, it will become exaggerated, as it was by the Communist governments who assumed that changing society would also create the new Socialist Man. But they soon discovered their error. The truth is there is a productive tension between the God-given individuality of a human being, and his God-given inextricability from the society of mankind. This is clear in the Bible from day one, or actually day six – the image of God is born by generic adam, mankind, both male and female, not by any one individual. That is why murder, even of the unborn, is a sin – we all stand or fall as a race. So too Abraham is chosen from a Mesopotamian people to found a nation, and Jesus is born of the Jewish people to bring us into a catholic spiritual body.

I got to thinking about all this not because of Wilson, but because of my reading of the metaphysical poet Thomas Traherne, who provocatively points to the time in childhood when he related joyfully to God and his whole world, before learning from others the ways of sin, from which he had subsequently to be redeemed. My immediate thought was whether this mainstream Anglican was rejecting Augustinian original sin, but then he immediately notes that his sin goes back to that of Adam in Eden. So there’s more to what he’s suggesting than the innocence of childhood.

I’ve said before that the universality of human sin can hardly be attributed to mere imitation, nor its culpability to evolution. I still agree with that, but realise I’ve significantly underestimated the social dimension by using that word “imitation”. The truth is that there is no such thing as a human individual apart from human society. We don’t have a single thought or habit that wasn’t imitated, modified or rejected in reaction to others. Our very theory of mind – what enables all thought, language, and interpersonal behaviour – is the result of our observation of other humans. If one could, per impossibile, raise a child away from all human influence he would not be an independant individual, but an almost irretrievably damaged one. As individuals, then, we can only be in our very essence what our society is, even as the reality of individual choice and responsibility is still maintained.

One of my systematic theology books addresses the difficulty we moderns have in accepting a corporate notion of original sin. Why should “innocent” people suffer for the sins of the fathers? Yet an adequately social view of humanity makes that, to a large degree, inevitable. However sin first came into the world, once it is there we imbibe it with our mother’s milk; we learn rebellion while we learn to speak. Our sin is truly racial as well as individual: “in this way death came to all men, because all sinned.”

I don’t for one second suppose that to be the whole story, for death also comes to the newborn and the imbecile, and just as there are those born incapable of speech or normal human relationships, one would expect some to be born incapable of sin. But there’s something about us that always says “Yes” to sin – “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

Then again, though, maybe some of those newborn and imbeciles are incapable of sin, because they are incapable of fully-expressed humanity. Maybe in their case it is their disabilities, also the result of the race’s sin, that require the atonement of Christ.

Yet I think this idea is one to run with and toss round – why should I object to the idea that I voluntarily sin because of the one sin of Adam, when I’m happy to accept responsibility for my own thoughts and ideas though they, too, bear a striking resemblance to those I’ve been exposed to all my life?

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to Thinking socially about evolution and original sin

  1. Jon Garvey says:

    Less than a fortnight after writing this post I finished off Roger Scruton’s “Modern Philosophy.” His penultimate chapter is provocatively entitled “the Devil”, in which he describes the Modernist Philosophies like Nietsche, Marx and Sartre whose ideas caused unparalleled evils in the last century, or at least the first two. He argues that the uniting feature of modernist thought is the elevation of the “rational self” as an absolute.

    His final chapter, “Self and Other”, develops this in a way remarkably parallel to the spiritual vision of Thomas Traherne. One pithy sentence is wortyhy of reflection: “Communities are not formed through the fusion or agreement of rational individuals: it is rational individuals who are formed through communities.”

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