REINFORCING BASIC CHRISTIAN DOCTRINES
In previous posts, as well as my book, The Unexpected Perspective, I've made the argument that Christians should love Darwin's theory of evolution because it actually reinforces three basic doctrines of Christianity:
- Original sin, first committed by Adam and Eve, but from which all humans suffer
- The reality of the Garden of Eden
- The imperfectability of man (i.e., mankind cannot overcome its moral and character flaws, and cannot "save" itself).
The underlying reason, I believe, is because of a concept in biology called antagonistic pleiotropy (pronounced PLY-ot-tro-pee). Pleiotropy is the idea that individual genes perform multiple functions, something that is well documented. In other words, a particular gene doesn't just do one thing, it typically is involved in multiple different things. Thus, for a particular human trait such as eye color or height, one can't point to a single gene and say that it is the reason. Usually, multiple genes are involved. Likewise, any given gene performs multiple functions, so one won't find a specific gene whose only function is to determine eye color, for example.
Darwin's theory predicts that undesirable traits will eventually die out because they leave the organism/animal ill equipped for its environment. Based upon this, one should expect that certain terrible diseases would eventually disappear because they certainly don't help better adapt the disease victim to the environment. The thing is, however, terrible diseases seem to persist. The reason certain diseases don't disappear may be because of the concept of antagonistic pleiotropy. I've described pleiotropy in the previous paragraph, so what is antagonistic pleiotropy?
Antagonistic pleiotropy is an idea that was formulated about 60 years ago to explain the biological causes of aging. It's also been employed to help explain why certain diseases don't disappear, as Darwin's theory would predict. A perfect example is a disease called sickle cell anemia. Sickle cell, which mainly affects blacks, is a terrible disease that disables its victims, as well as shortens the lives of those who have it. The reason sickle cell anemia doesn't disappear from the gene pool, in spite of the terrible destruction is causes, is because it has the peculiar characteristic of providing resistance to malaria. If one lives in a malarial zone such as Africa, that malarial resistance is very beneficial. Thus, the genes that cause sickle cell disease have both positive and negative aspects. Antagonistic pleiotropy is the idea that given genes have both positive and negative characteristics, and sickle cell is a perfect example. Scientists are finding other examples of antagonistic pleiotropy in nature. Thus, those who carry the sickle cell trait are more likely than others to have resistance to malaria, so they survive long enough to reproduce and pass the sickle cell genetic material on to their children.
I'd like you to think of antagonistic pleiotropy in general, and sickle cell disease in particular, as a metaphor for human behavior. I believe a high percentage of human behaviors fit the metaphor of sickle cell disease (i.e., having both positive and negative aspects), meaning that each behavior has both a positive side and a negative side, much as every coin has both a head and a tail. When considering sickle cell disease, think of the head of the coin as resistance to malaria (the positive side) and the tail of the coin as the disease manifesting itself (the negative side). Now, think of typical human behaviors the same way. Good examples are lying, cheating, stealing, bullying, and lust. Every one of these behaviors fits the coin analogy because there is a positive side to each of these behaviors as well as a negative side.
Here's a good example. Nearly everyone, including me, thinks that bullying is wrong. The funny thing is there is plenty of evidence to show that it has persisted in both human and non-human populations because it is evolutionarily beneficial: the best bullies tend to become dominant in the population, gain access to females, and tend to reproduce dis-proportionately more. This is clearly observable in the natural world. The head and the tail of the behavior are inextricably linked. The same is true in the human world: those who are good bullies, at least throughout most of human history, tend to become dominant and, therefore, tend to gain preferred access to females and reproduce more than less successful bullies. Thus bullying, despite being bad in certain respects, is evolutionarily beneficial. Social attitudes about bullying have certainly changed, but only recently.
This will tend to explain something that those who observe the non-human animal world – these animals exhibit many of the kinds of behavior that we label as sin, or at least bad, in humans. The argument is that these bad behaviors have positive analogues that help the animals succeed and reproduce. For example, there's lots of evidence that monkeys deceive one another and steal from one another. These behaviors help individual monkeys to survive and, because over time they have tended survive more than other monkeys, reproduce, passing genes on to the next generation.
The skeptical among you may say, that's fine and well with respect to non-human animals, but humans are different. I totally agree, humans are different – WE'RE WORSE! The reason we're worse is because of the key difference between humans and all other species. In short, we humans have:
- Agency (meaning the ability to make choices and take action)
- Capacity to understand the difference between right and wrong
- Ability to do the wrong thing even when we know it is wrong.
The reason we can do this is because we have bigger and more sophisticated brains, and possibly some other differentiating factors. The Darwinian argument is that primates all have a common ancestor who lived about 100 million years ago. Think of a giant tree with a trunk and multiple branches. Humans are one branch of the tree, gorillas are another, chimpanzees still another. It appears we humans have a lot of genetic material in common with these other species. Humans need not worry that we are descendants from monkeys, but Darwinian scientists say we do appear to have a common ancestor. According to Darwin's theory, at various points over the past 100 million years, various primates have split off from the others to form new branches on the tree.
Why is this important? First, the theory suggests that because the common ancestor to all of us, the one at the trunk of the tree, is the source of our behaviors that have both positive and negative sides. All of the creatures on this giant genetic tree possess them, because they are evolutionarily beneficial.
Second, our human branch is a little different than all of the other branches, because of our larger brains. Those larger brains have given us consciousness, agency, the capacity to know right from wrong, and the ability to do wrong when we know the difference. Monkeys, for example, deceive and steal, but so far as we know, they lack sufficient consciousness to understand the idea of right and wrong, much less the ability to make a choice. Presumably, monkeys deceive and steal because it works (i.e., it helps then get food and avoid being eaten), thus helping them to survive.
Which leads me to the Garden of Eden. The Garden of Eden is the story of the earliest humans and their encounter with God. These creatures were different than all other creatures because either they had evolved the four capacities I noted above, or God had provided them a special endowment. Their behavior fit the "coin" model I described above: the positive side of the behavior was the ability to act and think independently, thus giving them seeming dominion over the natural world; and the negative side was their defiance of God. My argument is that they were merely representative of all humans.
Thus, antagonistic pleiotropy can provide us a useful model for why Christians should love Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. This is because it offers:
- An explanation for the linkage of positive and negative behaviors
- An explanation for nonhuman animals manifesting "sinful" behavior
- A mechanism for transmission of sinful behavior from one generation to the next
- An explanation for the imperfectability of mankind, because the negative behaviors are inextricably linked to the positive ones. The "bad" must come along with the "good".
It thus provides a way to explain the emergence of humanity without requiring God to have made a special creation of humans. If you're a Christian like me, please understand, that doesn't mean God couldn't have made humans as a special creation, simply that it would not have been necessary. This "simpler" explanation offers Christians some additional benefits, which I'll explain in a later post.
But the Garden of Eden is not the end of the story, merely a waypoint. The story evokes different reactions. The key differentiator, I believe, is the reaction of God. What we don't often think about is that God had a choice, too. His reaction to Adam and Eve's disobedience might have been the following:
- This is one small corner of a giant universe. After all, there are an estimated , 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars in the universe, so who cares if the creatures on one planet in one tiny corner of this universe have gone "rogue"?
- "I'm outta here! I don't need these people!"
Sounds funny, but if we truly are made in the image of God, perhaps that thought crossed God's mind, just as it probably would have if someone had done to us what Adam and Eve did to God. In fact, one could make the argument that that is precisely the conclusion Deists have reached, that God more or less "bailed" on Adam and Eve, leaving the world alone, leaving humans to their own devices.
Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all share the Garden of Eden story, but each religion looks at the story a little differently. In contrast to Deism, all three are built upon the belief that God's response was not "I'm outta' here!", it was, I care about my creation and I will become involved.
The Christian Bible includes an Old Testament of 39 books and a New Testament of 27 books. The story of the Garden of Eden occurs in chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis, the very first book, so the latter 47 chapters of Genesis, as well as the remaining 65 books of the Bible (1,189 chapters in total), describe God's engagement with his creation. Christians believe God was anything but "outta' here!", particularly because of His relationship with the Israelites, as well as the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The foundation of Christianity, however, is those core doctrines of original sin, and the inability of humans to overcome their moral shortcomings on their own. Christians hold views that differ from Islam and Judaism on these. Combining Darwin's theory with the concept of antagonistic pleiotropy provides a way to explain the reality upon which Christianity is based. As such, Christians should not simply reconcile themselves to Darwin, they should absolutely love it!