The Origin of Man, Original Sin, and Why It’s All Your Fault

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.

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.

Homo habilis

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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–aleph, daleth, 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.”

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.

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.

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.

UPDATE: Mike Flynn explains this better. He knows science and stuff.

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • Gary Chapin

    I can’t even comprehend the mindset that requires a literal truth of the Adam and Eve story in order to understand (and benefit from!) the idea of original sin. Original — essential, inherent, inevitable — sin is a part of every person’s life, and is re-created with discouraging regularity. It is punishment for, and the direct consequence of, accessing “knowledge of good and evil.” There are so many ways to approach these ideas — a number that you may disagree with, Tom — but truthfully, I don’t see how anyone with any reflective capability can get past the age of twenty-five without realizing that sin (among all the other forms of fallibility) is essential to our nature, inherent, inevitable, and, very likely, original.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    I’ll turn the microphone ever to GKC for a reply:

    “Modern masters of science are much impressed with the need of beginning all inquiry with a fact. The ancient masters of religion were quite equally impressed with that necessity. They began with the fact of sin — a fact as practical as potatoes. Whether or no man could be washed in miraculous waters, there was no doubt at any rate that he wanted washing. But certain religious leaders in London, not mere materialists, have begun in our day not to deny the highly disputable water, but to deny the indisputable dirt. Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved. … The strongest saints and the strongest sceptics alike took positive evil as the starting-point of their argument. If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat. “(Orthodoxy, “The Maniac”)

  • Elizabeth Scalia

    Love this. Thank you.

  • Paul A’Barge

    Poor Paul. All that teaching about Grace and no one seems to get it.

  • GeekLady

    Michael Flynn took this silly idea to the woodshed back in September of last year, and he is well worth a read:

  • Gail Finke

    GKC also said that original sin is the only dogma that doesn’t need to be proved, as we see it every day.
    A great book about original sin by a non-Catholic is “Original Sin” by Alan Jacobs. It’s eminently readable, and quite depressing. If you didn’t believe in original sin because you never gave it much thought and the idea is a downer, you need this great introduction. The chapter on children particularly got to me. Everyone these days wants to believe that children have no sin, original or otherwise. This book says — nope, the ancients got it right. They have original sin, all right. The Tweeter should read this book and stop worrying about scientific proof for Adam and Eve!

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    Wow. He does such a better job on this one I should just put a link to his at the top of this post. Great stuff.

  • victor

    Hear, hear!

  • GeekLady

    He just has a different focus, I think. Mr. Flynn is always at his best when he’s taking bad science down a peg or two, so he really focuses in on the problems silly ideas encounter (as well as the presumption that we’re the first people to ever think of this as an issue), instead of clearly and generously enunciating the Catholic understanding.

    Mr. Flynn is entertaining and thorough, but reading him takes stamina. And perhaps the parts that we think are funny make him less effective to the people asking the question with all seriousness.

  • Thinkling

    I have had that argument with people about Adam, “How do we know it was Adam and not someone else?”

    This argument is almost equivalent (and just as vacuous) as the one from freshman math class regarding the imaginary unit that some poor soul inevitably stumbles upon. “How do we know *this* i is the positive one, and not the one we call -i?” Unfortunately, there seems no middle ground for understanding the resolution; either it is obvious, or you will never, ever see it. I fear that the same dichotomy might exist for folks who cling to the Adam query.

  • Ted Seeber

    Ever since the election, I’ve been struggling with the American definition of Freedom, as opposed to the theological definition of Freedom.

    St. Paul in Prison, writing his epistles, had a freedom that I, a cube farm worker in modern America, can never match, despite the fact that I can go home at the end of the day and hug my child.

    If we all have original sin, what makes us think Democracy (self rule by the mob) or even Republic (rule by representatives elected by the mob) can ever be a good idea?

  • Iris Celeste

    Here is the problem with taking the Bible literally, especially the very beginning of Genesis. If Moses was the author of the first 5 books, then he was probably given a Mystic vision of “creation” as many other mystics after Moses have been given. I am always surprised how people don’t seem to realize that mystic visions contain spiritual realities converted to physical representations. I have read numerous descriptions of the act of creation given by Catholic Mystics and I’m convinced the story of Adam and Eve is referring to a spiritual really and not a physical one. I think “Adam and Eve” refer to spiritual beings involved in creation who fell when the “dragon fell and took a third of the stars with him” as described in Revelations. No, that is not what the Church teaches, and I could be wrong, but that is how I interpret a number of mystic visions I have studied…

    Iris Celeste

  • Ted Seeber

    Reading this a second time, I’m not sure if you intended this or not, but:
    If animals without reason can be people (Cain’s wife may not have been homo sapiens sapiens, but she was surely people), why can’t the unborn?

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    As a monarchist, I agree.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    How do you mean?

  • Jim

    Perhaps the neglected ancient tales are correct.

    I have heard it said that there is ancient quip that says, “God made the Earth round as punishment for the Sin of Adam, and that before Original Sin the whole world was oriented vertically.” I forget where I heard or read that idea. Allow me to propose that perhaps Adam and Eve are literally true, but due to sin Mankind was thrown into a horrendous animalistic state that took thousands of years to come out of and become ready for the Resurrection of Our Lord. Maybe the old tale about the Earth not originally being round is right.

  • Darren

    ”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.”

    Perhaps it would make matters simpler if you would just indicate which elements are figurative; the rest, presumably, being literal. A bit of explanation as to how you came to these conclusions would likely help, as well.

    Genesis, but with Hominid evolution… So, sounds like 6 literal 24-hour days is out (sorry, Discovery Institute). Eve living 50,000 to 100,000 years ago, so the genealogies would be out, as well. How about the tree? The talking snake? Walking in the park with God every evening? Did Adam actually eat a fruit, or is that figurative as well? Clearly, Death would have already been a fact of life; perhaps we only count death after the Fall because only then does Man have a soul, and only then does it count?

    Come to think of it, just what is left to fall from? A bunch of stone age almost-humans running around, until one of them eats a certain fruit, or maybe only metaphorically eats a figurative fruit, and then two of these almost-humans are really-humans, with rational souls and all, except now they are cursed and will die, except they had been dying already, but this time they have souls that have to spend the next 50,000 to 100,000 years in the great metaphysical waiting room of Hades waiting for Jesus to come and fetch them to Heaven? And this is called being “elevated”?

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    All that typing to convey this: “I am a fundamentalist atheist with very low reading comprehension skills.” Or do you just keep this as a block of text in a file and paste it in whenever a theological discussion gets more complex than “dinosaurs are extinct because they couldn’t fit on Noah’s ark””?

  • Darren

    My, my… pithy.

    Low reading comprehension? Are we thinking that I somehow failed to note where you were coming from, metaphysically, teleologically, or otherwise-ly? I did not.

    It is an honest question; if your interpretation of scripture is that some parts are figurative, and some parts literal (or at least non-figurative), then it would seem to be rather important to know which ones were which, yes? The corollary then being who you came to those conclusions. Growing up as a Fundamentalist Christian, we had it easy; all true, everything, even the parts that don’t make sense. True, true, true. I have since been truly fascinated with how non-fundamentalists determine which verses are true, or tru-ish, and which not.

    Also, not a fundamentalist anything. I completely fail to see the point in engaging in the first place if I did not have a genuine interest in the answer. I came to your blog, and read this post, hoping for an interesting story. Were I not interested in how your ideas fill in what I consider to be gaps in this view, I would not have asked. In fact, I have a standing offer to convert on the spot to anyone who can provide sufficient evidence, or even a sufficiently convincing argument.

    Shall we try again?

    And the dinosaurs did not all drown, they happily walked behind the ark; see, it was easy cause they had those really long legs.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    Go ahead and reread your previous comment and tell me if that sounds like someone asking a question in search of an answer, or like someone “telling” a question in an effort to heap scorn. In case you can’t see it from inside your bubble, I’ll tell you how it reads: like someone heaping scorn. You come into my house, put your feet up on my furniture, and insult me, and then get wounded when I bite back? Try again.

    And trust me: you did not have to tell me you were raised a fundie: I knew that the instant I read your comment. You’re still inside a fundie bubble, only now it’s a fundie atheist bubble. I don’t have a lot of patience for fundies of any stripe, particularly when they don’t realize that they’ve exchanged one hyper-literalist reading for another. Most Catholic bloggers can spot you folks a mile away. You just can’t spot yourselves. It’s kind of ironic for people who think they’re so self-aware, don’t you think?

    I challenged your reading comprehension because, if you’d read what I wrote, your question was already answered. Just roll your eyeballs up the page a little and you’ll see this: “humankind as we know it was uniquely and specially created with a rational soul” and “His sin was simple: it’s a turning away from God to the desires of the self.” Augustine said our sin was simply that we said “no” to God. That’s about all you need to take away from the story of the fall. The rest is just details.

    You can get bogged down in mockery of figurative images and all the rest, and chuckle at the tools who believe in talking snakes, but those of us without fundie baggage don’t worry too much about it. You want to read those passages literally? Fine, go ahead. It’s not unreasonable. I’m inclined to read it as an effective way to convey the way our first parents turned from the love of God to the desire of the will in an act of pride.

    As for explaining the fairly complex issue of Catholic exegesis, I’ll pass. Google “Catholic senses of scripture” and you’ll get some ideas. (Hint: we’re not fundies.)

  • Darren

    Oh, right… Catholic model, not Protestant model; well that is just an embarrassing mistake to have made. I should have known better. I did know better; so this makes it a likely cognitive bias on my part. You have my thanks for correctly pointing this out so that it can now be addressed.

    You are also correct in that I was contentious, with no reason or cause. That makes it rude, and that makes in wrong. My apologies for that.