Monday, August 8, 2011

Genesis and Evolution

Some Christians have a hard time reconciling the traditional doctrine of original sin with belief in evolution, given that evolution over time is contingent on animal death. Indeed, animal death is the whole "engine" which drives natural selection.

This leads to a lot of bad attempts to square the circle. And so you see some conservatives creating bizarre theories of "retroactive" application of original sin, and some liberals eager to use it all to dismiss the doctrine of original sin or turn it into some wishy-washy purely poetic thing that merely describes our dependence on God and the state of chaos we are born into and need to find meaning in or something like that, rather than mortality being an actual result of an actual choice by an actual couple.

However, this all results from a simple misunderstanding. Specifically, it must be emphasized: original sin never applied to anything but humans. Animal death did exist before the Fall, and traditionally the Church never claimed otherwise.

For example, this from Aquinas:

In the opinion of some, those animals which now are fierce and kill others, would, in that state, have been tame, not only in regard to man, but also in regard to other animals. But this is quite unreasonable. For the nature of animals was not changed by man's sin, as if those whose nature now it is to devour the flesh of others, would then have lived on herbs, as the lion and falcon. Nor does Bede's gloss on Genesis 1:30, say that trees and herbs were given as food to all animals and birds, but to some. Thus there would have been a natural antipathy between some animals.
Outside sentimental attachment to animals and a sort of disturbing "creeping animism" in modern Christianity, traditional Christian theology has no reason to see their death as a problem, because in some ways animal death is only "death" by analogy. Since they don't have spiritual souls, animal death is basically just a material substance dissolving/changing forms, no more problematic than clay being molded into a different shape, or a glass shattering, or (more to the point) a robot or computer breaking down (animals being, traditionally, seen as something sort of like an organic robot; certainly, they don't experience qualia!)

Yes, "all creation has been groaning with the pains of childbirth up to the present time," but this is only relative to Man. The rest of creation did not change objectively. If it can be said to have fallen, it is only inasmuch as its purpose was to serve Man, and if Man's lofty position is downgraded, the nobility of his servants is relatively lower by comparison. However, there is no more reason to link animal death to Man's original sin than there is to link the outcome of our race in that regard to the test of the Angels. Original sin affected Man alone, as it is transmitted by descent, it did not extend to other species, either animal or angelic.

Additionally, most theologians traditionally taught that unglorified man (being a composite substance) has always been naturally inclined towards death just like animals, and that it was only the Preternatural Gift of Immortality which (before the Fall) kept us from dying when God first ensouled that which He had created from "the slime of the earth." So all this is very compatible with evolution, frankly. Really, our current state is not so much corrupted (as some Protestants might imagine) but simply returned to a state of animal nature without the preternatural aid of God to help us rise above that.

As for other issues raised by Genesis, as I explained in a post once, monogenism does not require a genetic bottleneck, merely the recognition that all human beings strictly-so-called (ie, ensouled with a spiritual soul) had at least one pair of common ancestors (in reality, science knows we have and have had many common ancestors, and in fact the current Most Recent Common Ancestor could have been as late as 2000 years ago, after Christ even, and the current Identical Ancestors Point as late as just 5000 years ago).

As for the whether the early chapters of Genesis are "myth"...I would be careful with that sort of terminology as Reginaldus explains in his comments on this post on the blog "New Theological Movement" (the "morning knowledge/evening knowledge" of the angelic intellect theory espoused by Augustine and Aquinas is especially interesting).

Saying "not written in the style of a history or science textbook" isn't the same as saying "myth" in the sense of a purely allegorical story used to express merely moral truths:
The spiritual sense must be founded on the literal. But metaphor (properly understood) is part of the literal sense.

So, no, metaphors do not require us to affirm that the words are first meant historically...

For example: "The Lord is my rock" does not mean that there is an historical rock, which we then use as a metaphor for God.

The "history" behind the creation metaphor is that the angels really did come to know God's plan of creation.

The "history" behind the life-span metaphor [...] would be the real virtues that these real people had.


In the cases of the two "metaphors" that I have mentioned, there would be "real events taking place" -- the angels really did come to know the plan of creation, and creation really did happen (though not necessarily in the order or time of Genesis 1).

Adam and company really did exist and live some time (though not necessarily those long years).

To say something is a metaphor is very different from claiming it to be myth or legend -- you are quite right on this point: Genesis is not pure myth, it is real history (but sometimes the history is told through metaphors).

Hence, when it says that God "walked" in the Garden (Genesis 2 and 3)-- we are not to think that God became incarnate and literally/historically walked in a Garden. Rather, this is a metaphor for the historical fact that God was with
Adam and Eve.
No one should claim that the natural sciences "requires" a re-interpretation of the traditional theological essentials surrounding monogenism or original sin (in the Catholic tradition at least) in any sense of the word. They don't.

I would also be wary of reducing Genesis purely to some "myth." It may be stylized or metaphorical, but the "theological truth" of the Genesis story is a truth rooted in a historical event, a choice made by our first parents, by two real human beings, a male and a female whom God ensouled, who were originally immortal and in a state of grace, but who lost that for themselves and their descendents because they were tempted by the chief of the fallen angels, and from whom we all descend in at least one line of descent.

The reconciliation of the essentials of dogma with modern science is much easier than some apparently think, and some basic knowledge of traditional theology and evolutionary biology would have made that clear from the start.

1 comment:

Who Am I said...

"and some liberals eager to use it all to dismiss the doctrine of original sin or turn it into some wishy-washy purely poetic thing that merely describes our dependence on God and the state of chaos we are born into and need to find meaning in or something like that, rather than mortality being an actual result of an actual choice by an actual couple."

Technically that position was espoused MUCH earlier than modern day liberals. Orthodox Judaism and Islam both teach that the tale is about man obtaining reason devoid of GOD. Hence the expulsion is our choice to engage the world as we see fit and not as GOD intended.

If you really think about it, Orthodoxy's teaching on Ancestral Sin SLIGHTLY figures into that model as well. That is why they take issue with our teaching concerning The Immaculate Conception.