MECHANISM OF TRANSMISSION
A core belief of Christianity is that Adam and Eve sinned, and their sin has been transmitted to a humans who lived after them. Of course, the big question is, how was that sinful nature transmitted to everyone else? The two traditional ways that Christians have explained it is by the concepts of traducianism and creationism. In each case, some type of ethereal substance is transmitted from one person to the next. For many people, particularly the skeptical, that just seems like a lot of hocus pocus. Could there be a simpler explanation?
Yes, I think there is. In order to arrive at it, however, we need to take a look at our nearest genetic cousins – chimpanzees, gorillas, and apes. We share about 97% of our DNA with them. Now the first objection lots of skeptics in evolution have is that they don't believe humans are descendants of these animals. I agree, we're not. What the evidence suggests, however, is that all of us share a common ancestor – that's the reason we share so much DNA. What is hypothesized is that at some point in the distant past, humans split off and started a new branch. The branch continues to this day. Gorillas, chimpanzees and other primates went off in a slightly different direction.
A very interesting set of discoveries has been made in the last few years. Primatologists, the people who study non-human primates, have come to realize that our genetic cousins share our ability to cheat, steal, deceive, and even murder others. In other words, non-human primates have the capacity to do exactly what we refer to as sin in humans. So the obvious question is, where did that come from?
Based upon the way we've traditionally read the book of Genesis, sinful behavior began with Adam and Eve. But if non-human primates seem to do the same sinful things that we attribute to humans, does that mean that non-human primates are descendants of Adam and Eve? Certainly not! So where did that capacity come from? Was there some type of Garden of Eden event for gorillas, chimpanzees and apes? I highly doubt it!
This is where one can construct a plausible explanation for both the Garden of Eden and observable science. First, humans and non-human primates share a common ancestor, the source of all of that common DNA. It is from that common ancestor that we inherited the capacity to lie, cheat, steal, murder, and do other bad things. But there is an important difference between this bad behavior in non-human primates and the same bad behavior in humans: in the case of humans, we call it "sin" but in the case of the non-human primates, we don't call it sin. So what is the distinction? Is it a distinction with any meaningful difference?
Think about the difference between a human who steals and a chimpanzee that steals. While the act is the same, there are three critical differences. First, the human has a level of consciousness, as well as the capacity to know that stealing is wrong. The chimpanzee, so far as we know, does not have that capacity. Second, not only does the human know stealing is wrong, he/she also realizes there is a choice to be made. Third, the human occasionally decides to make the choice to do what is wrong.
When you get down to it, isn't that exactly what the Garden of Eden was about? Adam and Eve, the first humans, had sufficient consciousness and capacity to distinguish between right and wrong. They knew that God had told them not to eat from the one particular tree. Moreover, they knew they had a choice. Most importantly, they decided to make the wrong choice. Non-human primates can't do that.
If that's the distinction, then Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection provides a perfect explanation for this. Darwin theorized that animals evolved, slowly but surely. Humans branched off from other non-human primates. Over time their capabilities increased. They evolved the capacity for consciousness. Change happened imperceptibly slowly, but finally a certain threshold was crossed: Adam and Eve. Thus, the Garden of Eden represented the point at which a new milestone was achieved: creatures that possessed not only consciousness, but the capacity to distinguish between right and wrong, the capacity to make choices, and the capacity to make the wrong choice.
Looked at in this light, there is no need to explain the transmission of sin by an ethereal doctrine such as traducianism: the mechanism of transmission is clear and straightforward … and it comes courtesy of Charles Darwin! Thus, original sin, the most fundamental doctrine of Christianity, can be explained in terms of a natural transition that occurred when the first humans emerged.
So let's think about this in terms of why Christians ought not just to accept Charles Darwin, we ought to love his ideas! It's because we can provide a simple, natural explanation for what Christians believe is the most fundamental doctrine of Christianity. Even better, it's something that non-Christians, particularly atheists, readily accept – they've been trying to get Christians to buy into the concept for a long time. We haven't because we oftentimes didn't understand the implications of what Darwin was saying. Now atheists and other non-Christians will agree that an important transition occurred between non-human primates and humans, but they won't accept the "sin" part of the narrative. That will likely take some persuasion on the part of Christians, but we've been trying to persuade non-Christians of this narrative more nearly two millennia. Now we can explain it using the scientific framework that non-Christians accept.
Now all of this discussion has begged an important question: just why do non-human primates and other animals lie, cheat, steal and murder? Let's explore that idea in upcoming posts.