The Evolution of (Im)morality (RJS)

A couple of weeks ago I received a request for a post on the evolution of immorality from a frequent reader.

Is there any chance that you will at some point write about the evolution of immorality in your blog? For me, this question is at the front line of my personal battle with these issues as I try to reconcile my Christian faith with my belief in evolution. Genesis 2 says we were good when God created us, and that we chose sin; evolution tells us “sinful” behavior is natural part of our evolutionary heritage (i.e., how we were created). A solution may be straightforward but it has proven elusive to me, whether a refutation of evolutionary theory on this point or a satisfying synthesis of the two. If we answer that immoral behavior (adultery, murder, gluttony, etc.) wasn’t truly immoral until we became fully human, the problem still remains that our evolutionary heritage seems to have predisposed us to such things. How can we then say that God saw us and pronounced us “very good”?

This reader brings up an excellent topic, and one to which I hope to dedicate a number of posts over the next few months. I expect that many have similar questions. This topic isn’t one for which I have an immediate clear answer, and perhaps it is best to begin simply by posing the question.  A few days later the same reader sent a link to a recent Opinionator piece in the NY Times by E. O. Wilson Evolution and Our Inner Conflict. This piece provides an opportunity to begin the conversation. Wilson begins:

Are human beings intrinsically good but corruptible by the forces of evil, or the reverse, innately sinful yet redeemable by the forces of good? Are we built to pledge our lives to a group, even to the risk of death, or the opposite, built to place ourselves and our families above all else? Scientific evidence, a good part of it accumulated during the past 20 years, suggests that we are all of these things simultaneously. Each of us is inherently complicated. We are all genetic chimeras, at once saints and sinners — not because humanity has failed to reach some foreordained religious or ideological ideal — but because of the way our species originated across millions of years of biological evolution.

Morality is a concept that really only has meaning in the context of a group. As individuals self interest rules, but in a group other forces take over. Many scientists will attribute morality and altruism to kin selection, preserving the selfish gene indirectly (as a group your kinfolk carry your genes). Wilson, along with a growing number of other evolutionary biologists, see a more complicated picture. The selfish gene of the individual is not the sole driving force. There is also group selection at play. Most of these people, Wilson included, see nothing of a creator or a purpose in this.  But this is a topic of interest in the discussion of science and the Christian faith.

Is the evolution of morality or immorality a problem for the Christian view of humanity?

How do we (or did we) become moral creatures?

This is a holiday week, in the US at least, and I am not going to try to get to deeply into the topic. I’ll simply highlight a few of Wilson’s comments and conclusions and open it up for comment.

All things being equal (fortunately things are seldom equal, not exactly), people prefer to be with others who look like them, speak the same dialect, and hold the same beliefs An amplification of this evidently inborn predisposition leads with frightening ease to racism and religious bigotry.

This, of course, is not a problem that leads only to racism and religious bigotry. It is also a problem that leads to elitism and the arrogance of academic, scientific, and scholarly circles. Sitting in the middle, as a professor in a secular major research university, and as an evangelical (although not all will have me), the tendency is strikingly uniform across all persuasions and viewpoints. It is equally common in the faculty meeting and the Sunday school class.

But back to to the evolution of morality. Wilson concludes his column:

So it appeared that humans are forever conflicted by their prehistory of multilevel selection. They are suspended in unstable and constantly changing locations between the two extreme forces that created us. We are unlikely to yield completely to either force as an ideal solution to our social and political turmoil. To yield completely to the instinctual urgings born from individual selection would dissolve society. To surrender to the urgings from group selection would turn us into angelic robots — students of insects call them ants.

The eternal conflict is not God’s test of humanity. It is not a machination of Satan. It is just the way things worked out. It might be the only way in the entire universe that human-level intelligence and social organization can evolve. We will find a way eventually to live with our inborn turmoil, and perhaps find pleasure in viewing it as a primary source of our creativity.

I find Wilson’s observation that morality focused too much on the group and too little on the individual would turn us into angelic robots, something like the ants intriguing. Wilson, of course, sees nothing of God in the evolution of morality, but we are not compelled  to agree with his conclusion. This leads to a number of questions, though, all worth some reflection and discussion.

Is such a unity of opinion and action what God intended when he declared creation good?

Were we meant to be angelic robots – similar to the ants?

When is selfish interest not immoral (by Christian standards)?

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  • phil_style

    I’ve always thought there were some “clues” in the Genesis story that can help us with our understanding of morality and human “goodness”.

    It seems to me there is a strong connection in the biblical story between knowledge and moral responsibility (contrary to modern legal systems under which ignorance is no excuse). What is this “knowledge of good and evil” fruit referring to? How does Paul’s thinking about there being no “sin” before the giving of the law influence our understanding of moral culpability? Before tasting this knowledge, was humanity not morally culpable.

    Moral problems arise when we have knowledge of the potential consequences of our actions. The more we learn about the world (and thus the more we are able to predict the complex outcomes of our actions) the more morally responsible we become as a species. Knowledge is responsibility.

  • phil_style

    from E.O Wilson people prefer to be with others who look like them, speak the same dialect, and hold the same beliefs An amplification of this evidently inborn predisposition leads with frightening ease to racism and religious bigotry

    I’m not sure about this anthropology.
    People tend to mimic others, thus making them more and more alike. It is the coming together of these desires that results in competition and rivalry. It is the “un-differentiation” that leads to conflict, not the differences.

    In the words of Girard : They confront one another all the more implacably because their conflict dissolves the real differences that formerly separated them. Envy, jealousy, and hate render alike those they possess, but in our world people tend to misunderstand or ignore the resemblances and identities that these passions generate. They have ears only for the deceptive celebration of differences, which rages more than ever in our societies, not because real differences are increasing but because they are disappearing

  • Norman

    This is indeed an interesting investigation although I don’t believe I would frame it biblically in the manner the questioner did regarding good and very good. Gen 1 is the setting for the good and very good declarations and that relates around a temple construction format on which day 6 is the pinnacle of the creation of the adamites in which the projection to create them in the Image of God becomes the Goal and in Day 7 that goal is achieved. As Meredith Kline has proposed Gen 1 is an introductory prologue. Gen 2 is therefore the detailed investigation of what is projected in Gen 1. Gen 1 can be understood to simply be an ANE period division in which history is played out or projected in 7 distinctive periods or epochs of time. So the very good of the desire for the Image of God to inhabit the faith seeking adamites should be considered to occur from the author’s perspective at some point in the future. Paul and the first Christians have interpreted that period as having occurred during the time of God’s visitation upon man in the form of Jesus the messiah. That is why the NT speaks of the Image of God being fully endowed only through Jesus who is the Image of God.

    Also there is the idea that there was a magical period in which somehow humans were transformed into the moral from non-moral creatures through some manifestation of Godly creationism or God of the gaps intrusion. Paul can’t be read to back up that assertion because in his discussion of Adam and how humanity fell from the original Garden relationship he plainly states in Rom 5:13 that “sin” was in the world before the commandment was given to Adam. He reaffirms that in Rom 7:9 again when he speaks somewhat euphuistically saying he was alive before the Garden commandment was given. Paul is basically saying that a Garden relationship with God stipulates a place where our natural sin does not count toward us in God’s eyes. This reality is the same one that Paul says the Christian now has via their reestablishment into a Garden walk with Christ in which our sins do not count against us. Paul and Genesis are not projecting that humans were miraculously transformed via God somehow not to have a “sin” issue but via their relationship with God their natural sinful nature would be under God’s grace.

    If we want to delve further into Paul’s NT insights into the morality factor we need to go no further than chapter 8 of Romans. Here Paul contrast a mental activity of self-centered indulgence with a mental activity that seeks a higher moral plane that is attained through seeking the “spirit” of God via Christ.

    Rom 8:5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.

    We have a choice of setting one’s mind upon self-centeredness or upon what Christ exemplified and modeled as the method of a higher evolutionary plane as the biblical dynamic espoused by Paul. So it boils down to a free will choice to seek the greater needs which Christ says begin with Loving God and our fellow neighbor as ourselves. In other words it is for the collective good that is reinforced as the higher calling .

    Now this gets us back to the evolutionary question of how humans evolved into this state of being. That is a fascinating query there is no doubt. So let the speculations begin. I would project that as humanity grew in size and number that the propensity for group dynamics increased proportionately. As great civilizations developed around the river cultures these human concerns were added and built upon into our collective cultural database that are passed along as attributes needed for survival. Now how we evolved into the mental state that allows for that we likely need to go back hundreds of thousands of years. Homo sapiens likely had this biological capacity 200,000 years ago but lifestyles didn’t reinforce its exploitation until around 15,000 years ago.

  • phil_style

    @Norman; Paul “plainly states in Rom 5:13 that “sin” was in the world before the commandment was given to Adam.”

    Can we be sure that Paul is referring to Adam? He seems to me to be talking about the law given to Moses, not the commandment given to Adam… Maybe I#’m reading this wrong, Romans 5 is a funny old text….

  • LT

    @phil_style, #1

    Before tasting this knowledge, was humanity not morally culpable.

    Better to say that they were morally upright. The knowledge is more likely experiential knowledge. They knew what obedience was, and they obeyed. In the moment of probation, they made a faith choice to believe Satan rather than God.

  • LT

    This article is troubling on a number of fronts, and reveals many of the problems inherent and inescapable in an evolutionary worldview.

    To say that “Morality is a concept that really only has meaning in the context of a group,” is to deny any meaningful sense of right and wrong. Right and wrong, morality, cannot be constantly changing according to groups.

    His identification of “instincts” has a biblical name, the image of God in man or the law written on the hearts. There is a reason that the moral codes of society look very similar on things–it has a common source, namely, the image of God in man. To attribute this commonality to evolution is virtually impossible. It only makes sense in a world where humans are created in the image of God.

  • Nate W.

    This is a Set of questions that I’ve thought about a lot over the past couple years. I’ve arrived at my conceptual answers to these questions, but will admit that my understanding seems to be at a very intuitional level. While it all makes sense to me, It is exceedingly difficult to communicate. I will say that the path to answering these questions has been one of humbly allowing my conceptualizations of God to overflow the theological boxes I’ve inherited and tried to stuff him into. I can do my best to explain how I see things, but no promises it will come out right. : )

    I think that at the core of questions like this lie issues with how many understand the evangelical conceptions of sin (and consequently the fall and related issues like “total depravity”, etc.). This is a difficult set of doctrines to discuss because so much of evangelical theology is built upon this foundation. I will resist the urge to qualify endlessly because I know that my words will fail regardless to contain God. Here’s what I’ve come to understand.

    Sin and evil are the absence of God. Evil is not a substance that makes us reprehensible to God and Immorality (lust, gluttony, murder, greed, etc.) is a symptom of separation from God, not the cause (though practicing these symptoms willingly perpetuates a cycle of separation).

    What separates from God if not our sins? Shame. After Adam and Eve sinned, what happened? God came looking for them, but they hid from him because they were ashamed. How were they tempted? They were deceived into believing that they needed to be MORE to be “like God” (notice the distance she felt from God even before the fall?)

    Sin then is what we do when we fail to believe that we are perfectly Loved by God. it isn’t sin that separates, it’s our exchange of the truth about God (He is unconditional Love) for a lie (I’m not enough to be loved, I need to be MORE).

    Everything that happens in the rest of the bible is God’s love working to appease the human conscience—to convince us that he loves us and to allow us to rest in knowing that we are loved.

    Abrahamic covenant – Gods promise to be “for” us.
    The sacrificial system – Gods provision to allow us to rest knowing we are forgiven (while also satisfying our desire for violence (see Rene Gerard)

    The Law – a necessary set of failures to protect us from the damaging effect of shame and guilt and sin on our souls. (see Peter Rollins blog post on ethics from yesterday)

    Sorry I don’t hav time to tie this up right now… More in a bit.

  • Luke Allison


    Have you ever studied the books of Enoch? There is a little bit about the tree of life in there, albeit nothing about the other tree (and the same goes for the rest of our Bible). The tree of life is seen as instruction for the nations (7-fold, no less!).

    I’m very interested in this conversation. Margaret Barker has written an interesting piece over at her website called “Wisdom and the Stewardship of Knowledge”

    The crux of the piece is that wisdom (and I think there’s good evidence to suggest that Jesus is wisdom personified) is meant to inform knowledge. Knowledge without wisdom is dangerous and destructive. The path of wisdom begins with “the fear of the Lord”, and the ideal picture of a wise human is found in Psalm 8.

    I’m interested in the fact that many Hebrews tended to view Genesis 6 as the true “fall” story, and not Genesis 3. Genesis 6 is about knowledge being passed on from the divine to the human, but it’s not done with wisdom.

    Anyway, I think the sooner we begin to abandon Augustinian frameworks for reading any of this stuff, the better we’ll be. There’s obviously something else going on in the text. I’m not interested in towing some line just because the line is there.

  • Joe Canner

    If we answer that immoral behavior (adultery, murder, gluttony, etc.) wasn’t truly immoral until we became fully human, the problem still remains that our evolutionary heritage seems to have predisposed us to such things. How can we then say that God saw us and pronounced us “very good”?

    God endowed creation (including, eventually, human ancestors) with the ability of individuals to adapt to their ever-changing environments; even non-evolutionary creationists acknowledge this to some extent. While sometimes this ability looks messy (“red in tooth and claw”), it is still, on balance, “very good”. Try imagining some other long-term survival solution for creatures that don’t have the brain power for forward thinking, but instead must survive based solely on genetically controlled instincts.

  • dopderbeck

    This is a great question, and it lies at the heart of my current doctoral work in theology, which is dealing with law, morality, theology, and neurobiology. The nub of my take on it, at this point in my thinking, is this: the Fall is a fall away from “law.” The command given in the Garden was part of the “very good” of creation. The presence of this command implies the possibility of disobedience. It is therefore not surprising — not surprising in the least — that evolution wired human beings with all sorts of potentially conflicting inclinations. There was always the possibility of sin.

    But the wiring doesn’t determine the decision. “Adam” was capable of obedience or disobedience to the command in the Garden. Here I think Christian theology must respond to reductive materialism of the sort that informs folks like E.O. Wilson et al. Human beings are acting agents and their actions exert downward causality on our environment, including our biochemistry. Our choices even reshape our neural wiring.

    The possibility of disobedience in the Garden, BTW, is not a new problem at all. The Fathers recognized it. It does not require abandoning an “Augustinian” framework, if what is meant by that is that Adam was created in a state of innocence.

  • dopderbeck

    I wanted to break up these two comments. The possibility of sin in the Garden (and I should note that I do not think the Gen. 1-4 narratives are “literal” but that they nevertheless reflect something true-in-time — what precisely the “Garden” represents, I don’t know) is not a major problem for theology, or at least it’s not a new problem. The more difficult problem is the ontological effects of Adam’s sin. In Eastern Orthodox theology, this is less of a problem, because “original sin” is not seen as transmitted biologically in the same way as in the West. The West has long followed Augustine in emphasizing the generation of all of humanity from Adam, such that original sin is connected to physical birth in some way. Here if we are going to take a Western approach we probably do need to modify the Augustinian view to the extent it relies on a naive understanding of human biology and natural history.

    But not so fast. Augustine was never doing “genetics” — there was no such science in his day. The underlying idea for Augustine was that all human beings participate in a common nature. We are not just particular humans — Billy and Sue and Adam and Eve — we are also “human” in the universal sense of “human.” And universals, for Augustine, as well as for the Greek (Eastern) Fathers, were real. In this sense, Augustine’s view wasn’t radically different (I would argue) from the views of many of the Greek Fathers: they all asserted, consistent with the Biblical narratives, that Adam’s sin corrupted universal human nature.

    We as modern people want empirical evidence of this corruption of universal human nature in fossils and genes. But that is a mistake. Our natures both as particular human beings and as participants in universal human nature encompass far more than fossils and genes. The empirical evidence that universal human nature is indeed corrupted at its root is written in the history of human greed, violence, lust, and so on — that is, in culture.

  • Matt Scott

    A question from the text – does Genesis 2 really imply moral perfection of humanity? I read it that God is pleased in that His plan is going as He intended, but I think it’s possible that we’re reading moral perfection into the text based on the penal substitution framework for understanding the atonement.

  • dopderbeck

    BTW, here is a really theologically rich effort to address some of these concerns, from a Catholic (and thus Augustinian) perspective, from one of the highest organs in Catholic theology, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith:

  • Adam

    The problem I have with the “evolution of morality” is that there is only one reason for anything to happen: the propagation of the species. What if we turned things around and said relationship was the fundamental of reality and we propagated the species to increase relationship. As opposed to, seeking relationships for protection and reproduction.

    I don’t think morality is in service to reproduction. I think it is a thing of its own but we can’t really see that when we believe that everything is driven by an unconscious effort to reproduce.

  • Norman

    Phil #4,

    I can see how one would think it was about the law given at Mt. Sinai to Moses but if it was then it contradicts its own statement in the next verse 14 that Sin was counted against those between Adam and Moses (You can’t have people not having their sins counted as the statement posit unless they are in a harmonious redeemed relationship with God which clearly those from Adam onward weren’t).

    Paul is making a long discussion here in Rom 5-7 that confuses most of us until we sort it out. His premise is that Israel is analogous to those in Adam and suffers the curse of “spiritual death” that begins with Adam due to Adam receiving the commandment in similar vein to Israel. Israel however receives a more extensive Law than Adam which compounded the trespass began with Adam. Rom 5:20 “The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase.”

    Paul after speaking extensively how through Christ in chapter 6 the faithful are redeemed and no longer have their sins counted against them if they are in Christ. However he comes backagain in Chapter 7 and restates his same premise that the problem begin in the Garden (I’m assuming the Garden because only that location is where Adam would/could have not been under the death curse and I’m not alone in this recognition by Romans scholars).

    Rom 7: But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead. 9 ONCE I WAS ALIVE APART FROM THE LAW; BUT WHEN THE COMMANDMENT CAME, SIN SPRANG TO LIFE AND I DIED. 10 I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.

    However Paul ties Israel explicitly to Adam because of the correlation of the commandment/law that both received. Adam’s story is essentially a microcosm of Israel’s so the same themes and threads parallel each other. That is also why Paul speaks of himself as Israel in the Garden because they are essentially one and the same as far as their needs are concerned.

    In the later part of Romans 7 you have Paul speaking of the members (individuals) of the Body of Death being freed through Jesus Christ. We have to recognize again that Paul uses himself as a representative of the Israel corporate body. (see his definition of the members of the Body in 1 Cor 12)

    Rom 7: 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

  • phil_style

    @Adam, What if we turned things around and said relationship was the fundamental of reality and we propagated the species to increase relationship. As opposed to, seeking relationships for protection and reproduction.

    Good questions!
    And we could go even further, that differentiation is at the core of creation (given that difference is key for relationship – one thing must relate to another). The desire for there to exist an “other” surely is matched by a desire to love the “other”. Is the universe created around the principle that things will differentiate?

    Be fruitful?

  • Norman


    By the way when I refer to the Garden I’m not speaking so much of a physical location in time but as a relational aspect of harmonious relationship with God in which we are not at odds with Him. In that reality through Jesus Christ we are reinstated back into the Garden Relationship. The Garden in Genesis is simply an ANE smymbolic appropriation that allows for a contextual examination of humanitys relationship with YHWH.

  • Jacob Therakathu

    This is one of the greatest problems with christianity at this point of my journey. If evolution is true, then our moral nature is a result of generations of evolutionary fine tuning . The entire evolutionary story is so full of death, suffering, selfishness and pain that I feel that it is truly pathetic for christian theology to explain Adam’s sin as the cause of evil in this world. the entire evolutionary edifice is built on self preservation and fight for survival.. how do you expect an organism derived through that process to behave?.. it will be selfish, of course.

  • phil_style

    @ Norman – we share similar interpretations with respect to the “garden”.

    For me, by far the most important devices in the Gen 2 story are the two trees representing “life” and “knowledge of good and evil”. My literalist upbringing always taught me to see these simply as magic trees, with fruit on them. Now I am able to ponder them (also) as literary devices. Why did the writer use these two ideas (“life” contrasted with “moral knowledge”)?

  • Nate W.

    Phil (#1)
    The connection between knowledge and moral culpability is exactly what I’m trying to get. The common idiom “ignorance is bliss” is more true than we think! We mourn a child’s “loss of innocence”. When does this happen? When they first begin feeling anxiety about a perceived need to be something more than they are in order to be loved and accepted.

    If ignorance of sin is innocence then some might say that because they are loved by God unconditionally they dont need to worry about “sins” in their life unless they feel shame or guilt about them. The problem is that while ignorance might be bliss for me, my ignorance might be hell for another who’s innocence I destroy by making them painfully aware of how far short they fall—treating them as if they need to be more than they are to be worthy of being loved. To love then is to realize that my blissful ignorance of my own sin must be given up for the good of another. If I am confident that I am firmly and unconditionally loved by God then I will note utterly not be able to willfully make another person feel like they are not. It is when I believe that I need to be “more” that I begin to demand “more” from others.

    Morality then is a system of rules set up as guidelines to protect the innocent in light of the fact that others have lost their innocence and, caught up in their shame, would demand what they sense they lack from others through violence and deception. Of course this means that the law is for each of us. Yet, in this we can see that the law (morality)is not an eternal absolute, but a temporary structure set up for our own protection.

    As Peter Rollins says, the law is a “necessary failure”. Ethical laws will never get us any closer to God. When they are broken they inevitably lead to only deeper shame (ie death), yet they are necessary because in them we see what life should look like. They are good, yet powerless—life-giving, yet damning.

    So, to sum up with regard to the original questions, I think that it’s important here to Understand that it is not our immorality that damns us before God, rather it is our belief that God withholds himself from us BECAUSE of our immorality that leads us to damn ourselves before God (or whoever the “other” is by whom a person feels he is judged). I think evangelicalism (and Protestantism?) has overreacted with today’s popular doctrines of total depravity and original sin. We all have sinned. We all fall short of the glory of God. But God has worked patiently since the very first pangs of shame to show us that we are loved nonetheless. We deceive eachother (by our sins against one another) into believing that this just isn’t true. Our problem is a lack of faith that God’s promises to us are true. When are able to believe that we are loved unconditionally the moral acts of the law flow naturally from that. We no longer need the law and are freed from the shackles of shame, bu it is not abolished but rather proven to be true as we naturally live it out. The ethical teachings of the law (and even of Christ if approached as ethical law) are both death and life.

    God is 100% unconditional love. The Word spoken to man from the birth of the universe is Love, according to both Johns (the Apostle and The Beatle).

    I also found the analogy of the ants to be very interesting. If we were designed to be moral creatures—if our key problem is a loss of moral standing before God—then Life/salvation is a restoration of an Eden full of angelic, moral, mindless ants.

    If however we were created to love an to be loved then life is in love, whatever form it takes morally or ethically.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Wilson observes, 

    “All things being equal (fortunately things are seldom equal, not exactly), people prefer to be with others who look like them, speak the same dialect, and hold the same beliefs.”

    Do we ever! And the first good (sufficient) reason for this is, quite simply, efficiency. Have you ever tried to function in a group where you did not speak the same language, did no approach issues from roughly the same perspective, or believed very different things? Imagine the problem. Again, I can’t resist an anecdote. In the first years if our retirement we were townhouse owners in a condo with loads of 20 and 30 somethings. It was a challenge to see why they wanted no rules on late-night summer parties, less green space in order to get more storage space for big boy (and big girl) toys, and the clincher, spending gobs of the budget on outdoor jacuzzis for every patio (in Calgary, Alberta)!

    “It is also a problem that leads to elitism and the arrogance of academic, scientific, and scholarly circles……equally common in the faculty meeting and the Sunday school class.”

    Amen sister! I don’t know how long it took me to figure out that the goal of the discussion of the day (let’s say, how better to engage students on some topic) was not the chief goal being pursued around the table. Egos, lab priorities, point scoring, skewering an opponent, following the leader, mind somewhere else, can’t do thatism, to name a few, were often much higher on the agenda.

    Wilson is one of those I call a Sunday School refugee. He may well have been brought up with a brand of Christianity that many of us would reject. He says he was brought up in the church (in Georgia, USA). Misplaced dogmatism does have its sad reward. Nevertheless, in statements like “The eternal conflict is not God’s test of humanity. It is not a machination of Satan. It is just the way things worked out” , a careful, thoughtful person like Wilson truly is, should be able to say “appears not to be” instead of “is not” and to replace “is” in the second sentence with “may simply be”. That he does not do this is, at least in part, the result of old wounds inflicted by whatever brand of evangelicalism he encountered early in life.

    “Is such a unity of opinion and action what God intended when he declared creation good?”

    Great question. One of the things about God  we can be practically certain about by simply observing nature is that he thinks very highly of diversity – 10 million species of insects and counting! Most of them beetles!! J.B.S. Haldane was correct when he said something like “I don’t know much about God, but I do know he is inordinately fond of beetles.”

    It takes little imagination to extend this to diversity of people, opinions, cultures etc. I cannot imagine that the Kingdom of God is building toward some grey uniformity. In fact, it would be very much like the God of Scripture to be saving the true degree of diversity out there until we are better able to appreciate it. As things stand now (immigration conflicts, fear of anything different, longing for simple answers, communication moving quickly from ‘tweets’ toward ‘grunts’) many appear to still be in a gigantic struggle to reduce contact with as much diversity as possible. 

  • DRT

    Nate W.

    I have to observe that you have the happiest site I have seen for quite some time! Senior photo’s, babies and kids, and weddings. Wow.

  • Sally D

    Great topic.

    From a psychological perspective I think that the development of meta cognition is a defining moment along the path of becoming fully human and agents of morality. It is not just about a Utilitarian understanding. Great apes do some wonderful things for one another and some really horrible things too. A good few intelligent animals show altruism and love that is more than just cupboard love. I am certain that God calls this good and delights in them. Some even show rudimentary self awareness but not as far as we know, reflexivity which seems necessary to having a conscience.

    There are human beings who also seem to lack a natural conscience or whose moral development has failed.

  • dopderbeck

    Nate (#20) said: As Peter Rollins says, the law is a “necessary failure”. Ethical laws will never get us any closer to God.

    I respond: Nonsense. There was “law” in the Garden (“do not eat of it…”). If Rollins is right about this, then creation itself is a “failure.” We are creatures of “law” because creation is real, and reality implies limits, which implies law. True freedom is not freedom from law, it is the ability to function well. Ethical principles help train us in the virtues inherent in the true purposes of human existence. Without training in the virtues, we spin out of control and become less human, and ironically, less free.

  • Luke Allison

    phil style # 19,

    See my # 8 post above regarding Margaret Barker….

  • Norman

    Phil #19,

    I think you touch upon an interesting investigation when you stated … “For me, by far the most important devices in the Gen 2 story are the two trees representing “life” and “knowledge of good and evil”.

    I have come to the cautious conclusion that Paul is addressing the dilemma around what exactly constituted the tree of the “knowledge of good and evil” in Romans 7:13-23. This lament of Paul’s recognizes the human futility of trying to live up to the intent of the Law or commandment in its pristine idea. Notice how Paul frames the discussion of THAT WHICH IS GOOD IS TURNED ON ITS HEAD AND BECOMES EVIL because of our own self-centered propensity. This gets to the crux of the matter regarding why a dependence upon our own self-assurance to obtain a pure and sin free life is beyond our natural human abilities. Adam couldn’t do it and neither could Israel who attained to reconcile themselves to God through a massive indulgence in Law Keeping. The story of Christ is that He removes the need for self-perfection (righteousness) by extending God’s grace to his human creation who cannot achieve such. That is the old gospel story that most of us have grown up with and is foundational to a walk of humility that seeks a Godly reconciliation. We need to be careful of reinstituting the propensity of humans to think that in our modern enlightenment we have outgrown the need for God because we are evolving beyond that need. The story of Adam to Israel was that we don’t outgrow it.

    Rom 7: 13 Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. 14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. 15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 FOR I DO NOT DO THE GOOD I WANT, BUT THE EVIL I DO NOT WANT IS WHAT I KEEP ON DOING. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.

    21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.

  • Elizabeth Chapin

    I wonder if child-rearing is a microcosm of the evolution of morality. Our children are born (created) with the capacity for agency, and along with agency comes the possibility of good and evil. Agency is a good thing – it creates the possibility of love. If we act based only out of instinct – even out of the conflict of instincts (individual selection vs. group selection urges) then what is love but an expression of one of those urges simply winning out over another. Perhaps that is how some define love. Anyway, back to the comparison to childrearing and your questions.

    Is such a unity of opinion and action what God intended when he declared creation good?

    When God declared creation good, perhaps God was referring to the creation of human agency – it is one of the ways humans uniquely reflect the image of God. As parents, we recognize the individuality of each child and while some parents promote uniformity and strict obedience without thinking over a healthy development of critical thinking and a moral conscience, most of us can give examples of how well that turned out for some. Without training our kids to make wise choices, once they are no longer under their parents strict authority, they often rebel or wander far from their moral upbringing.

    Were we meant to be angelic robots – similar to the ants?

    I find this idea to be common among those who sing songs like “God is in control” and who constantly seek God for answers on “what to do with my life.” God created us to be cooperative friends – cooperating with God in the care and keeping of the world and in creating and sustaining human communities. We are invited to participate by living lives of creative goodness for the sake of others. Angelic robots are not invited into the creative process. As parents we know it would be easier if our kids acted more like robots than opinionated, passionate, creative individuals – but if they were robots, all we would have is an ant farm instead of the potential for human flourishing.

    When is selfish interest not immoral (by Christian standards)?

    One way I see selfish interest as not immoral is in the sense of identity development and differentiation. Edwin Friedman does a good job of developing this concept in “A Failure of Nerve.” As our kids grow up their main task is identity development and differentiation – they ask the existential question “who am I?” over and over again in different ways during different developmental stages. Developing a healthy sense of self is critical – my kids need to know that they are not ME! In the same way, while we are created in the image of God – we are not God! A healthy sense of self is critical in developing our Christian identity.

  • Ann F-R

    phil_style #2, I don’t agree w/ your reading of Girard, or at least that quote. My experience working w/ conflict resolution and biblical reconciliation doesn’t support your idea, either, unless I’m mistakenly reading your words and your quote of Girard: People tend to mimic others, thus making them more and more alike. It is the coming together of these desires that results in competition and rivalry. It is the “un-differentiation” that leads to conflict, not the differences.

    Conflict usually revolves around differences in that one, or both parties are asserting that the resolution of the difference(s) must be achieved according to their “morally reasoned” paths. (i.e., at least one of the parties is determined to insist the other submit to their views to dissolve the difference(s). Victory over the other is the goal, and better yet, full obeisance and capitulation to the rectitude of the victor is optimal.) Irresolvable conflict comes from the demand that others “bow down and worship” either a person, or the “god” of an immutable principle or law.

    dopderbeck #24, We are creatures of “law” because creation is real, and reality implies limits, which implies law. True freedom is not freedom from law, it is the ability to function well. I don’t believe that this foundation – law – is as fully biblical as it could be. We don’t read that Jesus and Paul, e.g., identified God as perfected in Law, but rather God as perfect in Love. As Anthony Thiselton pointed out in his commentary on 1 Corinthians, the “rights” of each are limited by the rights of others, and that our exercise of freedom may encroach upon others. (I’m paraphrasing Thiselton from memory. If you’d like the full quote, I can locate it.) Thus, Love self-limits because of the other, and that is how I consider it best to approach the sticky wicket of Law. So, when I try to explain this Love-Law interaction, I address it along the lines that “we will look like (become or embody) the Law, when we are loving God and one another as God has loved us in Christ Jesus.” Our self-limiting and other-serving, by the sufficient grace & power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, is our reflection of God’s law-fulfilling love.

    Last note: EO Wilson is one of the biologists (his specialty was the study of ants) to which Jonathan Haidt refers in The Righteous Mind. According to Haidt (who cited sources, IIRC), Wilson was vilified by the scientific community when he first proposed an evolutionary biological understanding for morality.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Ann (28),
    You note,
    “According to Haidt (who cited sources, IIRC), Wilson was vilified by the scientific community when he first proposed an evolutionary biological understanding for morality.” 

    Haidt is absolutely correct, I remember it well. Wilson’s outstanding book “Sociobiology” was well ahead of its time, as many very important books tend to be. He decided to speculate on what human sociality might look like when considered in light of the fascinating findings on the sociality of other animals, especially social insects. One of my close colleagues had been in grad. school with Wilson, and, being evolutionary biologists to boot, we were all well informed about the “debate”.  Like some confrontations in evangelicalandia, it was almost entirely political, practically no science involved. The despicable tactics, smoke without light, damage to friendships, ridiculous statements and holier than thou attitudes were all in evidence – exactly the same. It all should give us pause.

    Thirty years later, as Haidt recounts, there is now serious work going on in human sociobiology – with appropriate alterations in terminology in deference to still tender.  :)

  • John M.

    It seems that we really complicate our lives by assuming that evolution is the defining narrative and then going backward from that perspective to the Bible and trying to make theological sense out of the narrative we find there. It’s clear from this post and the comments that all we have are convoluted speculations when we do that. Are we trying too hard to squeeze what we read in scripture into the mold of our preconceived ideas?

    Surely there’s a better way…we obviously have huge gaps in our perception and understanding. Maybe we’re trying way too hard. We look askew at those who try to force science to fit into the Biblical narrative. Could it be that we’re trying too hard here to force the Bible into the scientific narrative? Perhaps we should simply admit that there is a whole lot about all this that we don’t understand and that possibly can’t be understood or known from where we stand. Can anyone say “mystery?”

  • Andrew

    Phil (#1), the questioner actually took the knowledge factor into account in his question. He asked, “If we answer that immoral behavior … wasn’t truly immoral until we became fully human” — and here it seems he meant, “until we came to know God and some sort of conscience or moral law” — “the problem still remains that our evolutionary heritage seems to have predisposed us to such things.”

    Getting beyond the question of what it meant when God declared us “very good” — since this one phrase may be better interpreted in a different light than moral perfection — is this an issue of theodicy? Did God set us up to fail by creating us with this evolutionary heritage?

    I suspect that to answer this we’ll have to dig deeply into the field of evolutionary psychology and frame the question more knowledgeably:

    1. What does it mean, precisely, when an evolutionary theorist suggests that we humans are predisposed to, say, adultery? (They wouldn’t use that term, of course, because of the value judgments it entails, but we can here.) How does that predisposition express itself? Is it in how a man’s neuroendocrine systems respond with the likes of adrenaline, testosterone, serotonin and oxytocin in the face of the pheromones of a fertile woman? Let’s get very specific.

    2. Having answered question (1): Are we then predisposed to, say, adultery, per se? Or are we just wired for sexual reproduction in general, since, after all, all of the hormonal responses above are blessed in marriage?

    3. Would it be logically possible for God to hard-wire an intelligent creature like a human to respond sexually to its fertile mate, in the interest of procreating, and make it only respond that way to its primary mate?

    4. Is this a fruitful line of questioning at all?

    To do justice to any of these questions (esp. #1), I feel I need to know a lot more about evolutionary psychology. Can anybody recommend a good introductory textbook?

  • Andrew

    LT (#6) brings up an interesting point, inadvertently. How can such a mechanism as evolution create a sense of absolute right and wrong?

    In my own field, linguistics, there is a growing theoretical platform called cognitive linguistics which has as one of its axioms that humans are wired to categorize based on input. We develop generalizations over repeated exposure to data input. For many years linguists posited that these generalizations — say, for instance, the difference between nouns and verbs — were innate, part of a universal grammar that came hard-wired in our brains. More nuanced scholarship is showing that we actually construct categories based on input. Those categories show similarities across the world’s 7,000 languages because, functionally, communication works better when we use them. These categories then inform our gut-level sense of what is grammatical in a language and what is ungrammatical.

    I think some would draw parallels to morality. In the same way that our brains are wired to construct categories like “noun,” “transitive clause” or “rounded vowel,” are we wired to construct categories like “lying,” “adultery” and “littering”? Could moral categories be similar across cultures because they are subject to similar functional pressures of living in harmonious groups?

    Critically, in linguistics, these categories develop in communication with others, but we use them even when we’re thinking in private. We don’t need a group to tell us that a sentence is ungrammatical. Could it be that, similarly, we develop our moral compasses in dialogue with our community, but then use them in our private thoughts when we judge someone as having acted immorally? Could this be what we experience as moral absolutes: the natural outcome of a brain wired to create rigid categories?

  • Andrew

    Dopderbeck, I’d love to read your work on these topics. Do you have any articles you’d be comfortable posting references to? Otherwise, perhaps RJS can put us in touch by e-mailing you my e-mail address. I would prefer to remain anonymous on this public forum, or I’d just give you my e-mail address here.

    P.S. What a great conversation this is, from all. Such exciting stuff!

  • Andrew

    John M. (#30), it’s all about plausibility, my friend. If Christianity no longer seems plausible because what we’ve been taught in science class seems *more* plausible, and the two conflict, then we have three options:

    1. Adjust how we understand doctrine in light of science (see above)
    2. Live as committed Christians but continually suspect it’s not really the truest account of the world (cognitive dissonance: yuck), or
    3. Leave the faith.

    I’ll take #1 any day….

  • Bev Mitchell

    You ask,
    “How can we then say that God saw us and pronounced us “very good”?”

    Perhaps we are too quick to moralize as soon as we come to the first few paragraphs in the Bible. Clearly, at least to many, this whole creation thing is a work in progress, the universe, the world, human beings and, especially, God’s timely self-revelation and communication to us and our, often stumbling, understanding of his revelation.

    From this perspective, perhaps we should read God’s “very good” more like “this is something I can work with!”

    Good points, and welcome.

  • Bev Mitchell

    John (30),

    You ask,
    “Perhaps we should simply admit that there is a whole lot about all this that we don’t understand and that possibly can’t be understood or known from where we stand. Can anyone say “mystery” ”

    Do you mean biological investigation should shut down and give in to mystery? Scientific investigation is highly legitimate and even inspired from time to time. God wants us to know more and more about what he has done and continues to do, doesn’t he? When we engage seriously in these investigations, we often must let the new results shape, change and sometimes overthrow what we thought beforehand. This can even spill over into what we thought about our view of the world, and, once we touch our world view, we are very close to our view of God and our understanding of what he is up to. 

    So, it’s not a question of force fitting anything into anything (square pegs in round holes, for example). It’s more like a puzzle where we are still looking under the table and even under the carpet for missing pieces. When we find new pieces that actually fit the puzzle somewhere along the edge we already have, we put it in, there is no forcing it. Sometimes we even say it’s obvious, why didn’t I think of that before? As the picture emerges, we sometimes have to change our idea of what this or that part of the scene is depicting. And so it goes. 

    This boils down to the practical realism approach many are taking these days. The assumption that we can be absolutely correct is rejected. We can, of course be certain, but being certain does not protect us from being wrong. Instead, if we are practical realists, we think we can be close enough to make progress. As Christian ‘practical’ realists, we have no problem confessing that only God knows perfectly. Yet, as practical ‘realists’, we believe there is a reality that we can make great progress in understanding. Appealing to mystery only comes into play when we are dealing with matters that, in our long-considered opinion, would take direct revelation from God to explain and, as far as we can see, God has decided not to reveal to us.

  • Kendall

    Man is fallen, yet he is also made in the image of God. What could be more clear?

  • LT

    @Andrew, #32:

    Could this be what we experience as moral absolutes: the natural outcome of a brain wired to create rigid categories?

    How does this answer anything? It seems like a giant punt on the issue.

    There is no question that the brain is “wired” in such a way. But how did it get that way? And what is that wiring? I don’t see any rational explanation from evolution for it, whereas the Bible has a perfectly rational explanation, that man was made in the image of God and therefore shares his moral understanding though it is finite and flawed by sin.

    Virtually everything you say about wiring and “gut-level” categories and the like have no real basis in an evolutionary scheme. There’s no explanation for it other than “it is.”

  • John M.

    Andrew, #34, thanks. I have experienced a good deal of number one on your options list, and I agree that number three is not a viable option. But, as I inquire and search for wisdom,knowledge and understanding, I am never totally free from at least some cognitive dissonance, because I simply don’t have it all figured out yet.

    When I was in my 20’s, i thought that most things could be known, and that I knew a lot of those things. Mystery was just a sliver on the margin of my thinking, and I didn’t like even that little bit being there. Now that I’m in my 60’s, what I think I know has shrunk to a sliver, what I think can be known (outside of revelation) is considerabley smaller, and mystery dominates a large portion of my grid. I am learning not only to like and embrace mystery, even to love it! I also find myself saying, “I don’t know” much more often. The more I learn, the less I “know.” That’s where I was coming from in my post.

    I really appreciate you acknowdledging my comments.

  • John M.

    Bev Mitchell #36 thanks for your response. No, I don’t mean that scientific investigation should shut down. And yes scientific findings in my lifetime, and Scot’s blog and
    RJS’ posts in particular have provided numerous puzzle pieces for me.

    I’m pretty sure,though, that I have yet to complete the border to my puzzle,much less the entire picture. And that is where mystery comes in for me. And yes, on this discussion particularly, I find a lot of dissonance between my theology and evolutionary thought.

    My point is that wherever we begin it is seemingly impossible to synthesize traditional biblical theology and the assumptions of evolution on this subject. What we produce from the assumption that evolution is the starting point is very convoluted and speculative. How far can we go until the whole story unravels? Think here, the resurrection of all humaniity from the dead, the New Heavens and earth, etc. Does God start all over with a new big bang and billions of years of evolution to create the end of the story or does He do it as a fiat creation of which formerly evolved/created members of humanity are resurrected, given new bodies and placed, finally in a perfect world. Do we also have to evolve into that state or…?

    Just saying that I think there are some things we can’t fully understand or explain. (See my reply in numer 39 to Andrew)

    ” Appealing to mystery only comes into play when we are dealing with matters that, in our long-considered opinion, would take direct revelation from God to explain and, as far as we can see, God has decided not to reveal to us.”

    That is exactly where I’m coming from. I would simply add, that there are some events that he has revealed, but has not explained the how, what, when or where! That leaves open the opportunity to inquire, discuss, grapple with and speculate about the possibilities. And this, for me is where we touch mystery.

  • CDL

    I’ve wondered whether Genesis 3 is perhaps more literal that we might at first guess. DNA analysis seems to suggest that human beings do, in fact, all share two common ancestors (“mitochondrial Eve” and “y-chromosomal Adam”). I sometimes imagine that somewhere in our evolution God breathed life into us in a way that goes beyond biological life. Much like C.S. Lewis’s Aslan (in THE MAGICIAN’S NEPHEW) brings out certain animals, breathes on them, and causes them to talk, to become sentient beings (hnau as he would call them in OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET).