Please stop looking for the ‘original sin’ gene

Think Christian has been running a mini-forum on the question of a “historical Adam.”

Dennis Venema’s contribution was quite helpful for squarely stating that science finds the idea of a single “Adam and Eve” couple as the ancestors of all of humanity to be extremely, and increasingly, unlikely.

I liked Venema’s piece a lot, particularly this bit:

Some Christian groups are beginning to require denying these findings as part of their theology. In particular, there is a concern that moving away from the view that the entire human race descends from one ancestral couple threatens the doctrine of original sin. … These sorts of moves put scientifically knowledgeable believers in such groups in a difficult position – do they deny the science to remain theologically “on side,” or do they risk membership in their faith communities by accepting the science?

As the information coming out of the various genome-sequencing projects trickles down to the pew level, these difficulties are only going to increase.

That’s wise and true. But I’d go further to argue that those insisting on a “historical Adam” are not “on side” theologically, either.

Show me someone who thinks Genesis teaches a “historical Adam” and I’ll show you someone who doesn’t understand Genesis — the genre of it, the title of it, or anything else about it.

Once upon a time a man named mankind was the father of the human race even though he only had three sons despite living to be 930 years old.

If I seriously have to explain to you that this does not constitute a historical claim, then sit down, because we’re apparently also going to have to talk about how Frodo, Miss Marple, Ulysses, Cuchulain, and Amelia Bedelia are not historical figures either.

But what baffles me completely is this bit from Deborah Haarsma’s concluding post in the Think Christian series:

This scientific picture of a group of early humans raises many questions, including particularly difficult ones related to the Fall. Plantinga and pastor Daniel Harrell both suggest a possible solution: perhaps Adam and Eve were two individuals within the group of early humans. This would preserve Adam as a real historical figure and the Fall as a real historical event. However, the spread of sin to the rest of the group is problematic, since it would take many generations to spread genetically through a population of thousands.

Wait, sorry … for a second there I thought she said that sin spreads “genetically.” (Rubs eyes.) Let me read that again:

However, the spread of sin to the rest of the group is problematic, since it would take many generations to spread genetically through a population of thousands.

OK, yeah, she really said that.

You’ve got to hand it to Augustine. Anybody can be a little wrong once in a while, but to be so spectacularly wrong that 1,500 years later people are still saying stuff like this … well, that’s impressive.

I appreciate the concern and the intent of stuff like this, but I think it’s possible to make sense of the book of Romans without resorting to hallucinogenic science and delirious theology that ponders the “genetic” spread of sin.

We can only make sense out of the idea that sin is “genetic” if we’re also willing to make nonsense out of the ideas of justice, mercy, redemption, atonement, and forgiveness. And I’m rather fond of those. So please, let’s stop looking for an “original sin” gene, thanks.

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  • christopher_y

    Eden is described in Genesis as very loosely being in Mesopotamia

    Well, there you go then. Cain found his missus in a cave at Bisitun in the Zagros. She must have been quite surprised, having grown up in the middle palaeolithic, when this bloke came along with a full range of bronze age technology. But maybe that made him more attractive. 

  • Mark Z.

    I think the mindset of the medieval church was “God, by definition, is bigger and louder and shinier and more awesomer than everything else. This also applies to everything connected with God.”

    The first part of this was a serious theological idea. It’s the basis of Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of the Trinity, for example.

    The second part is where we get stories of St. Margaret* flying around like Superman and shooting lightning out of her mouth and being attended by birds that sing the Ave Maria, and then after her inevitable martyrdom her body sprouts thousands of perfect white roses, and the pagan king who killed her falls to his knees and rends his clothes and cries out “Christ Jesus, have mercy on me!” and the next day gets baptized and leads all of Croatia to salvation, and her bones are distributed to churches all over Christendom, and looking at one of them will cure smallpox and ensure safety during childbirth.

    And so, since Jesus was the son of God, and was born under exceptional circumstances, the medieval tendency is to give the exceptional circumstances exceptional circumstances of their own. He was sinless from his birth–how much more awesome can you get? Well, his mother can be sinless from her birth! (I suspect a contributing factor here was that the life of Christ was a matter of canon, and embellishing it could get you in trouble with the church, so the devotional tendency to make up badass fanfiction had to be displaced to his mother and other peripheral characters. I have no evidence for this, though.)

    * Any resemblance to actual saints, pagans, or Croatians is purely coincidental. There are several Saints Margaret; this is not one of them.

  • Ross Thompson


    I can easily imagine Duane Gish claiming that the animals didn’t reproduce either. If he hasn’t make that claim already.

    I’m pretty sure dinosaurs reproduced via mitosis.

  • redsixwing

     Hmm. If Eve (being Mitochondrial Eve as well as the garden one) wasn’t the mother of everyone, but only Eve’s descendants survived the Flood, and sin is somehow transmitted through Eve’s mitochondrial geens, then the stated purpose of using the Flood to wipe out sin backfired spectacularly.

    “You were supposed to wipe out THIS little group, and save THIS big group! Seriously, I don’t know how you got that backward!”

  • EllieMurasaki

    I thought the point of the Flood was to wipe out the giant half-angel mortal people (see Genesis 6, 1 Enoch). Of course my perspective may have been influenced by how I just wrote a short story about precisely that.

  • Ross Thompson

    That said, I know that some fans like midichlorians.  Just putting my own reasons out there.

    My reasons for disliking midichlorians are mostly in the realm of unexplored consequences. If ability with the force is directly related to parasites in your bloodstream, then presumably, anyone can get a blood transfusion from Yoda and become a ninja. The Jedi council could have a midichlorian captive breeding program, so that Jedi can be issued with hypodermics filled with the buggers, for when they need more power. Midichlorians could be genetically engineered for greater efficiency, or you could grow midichorians that don’t grant force powers but out-compete their cousins; inject these into a Jedi and he slowly loses his powers.

    There are libraries waiting to be written about the possibilities, but it’s all just waved away as being magic, despite the fact they’ve deliberately established that it’s not.

  • redsixwing

     Ooh, that sounds like a cool short story. I’m fascinated with anything involving that particular set of giant half-angel mortals, though.

    I may very well be misinterpreting things, it’s been a long time since I read my source text. ^^

  • The_L1985

     I’ve often wondered if our early coexistence with other hominid species might be the origin of “elf” legends.  Both are like humans, but not quite human, and both are never seen in modern times (in the elf legends, it’s because they “went to another world” or somesuch).  The various differences between elves and actual hominids can be explained away as the legend getting distorted over time, like a massive game of Telephone.

  • The_L1985

     If we assume that high midichlorian concentration is the result of a recessive gene…

  • I think if you went to a certain spot in Black Rock Desert, NV, you could probably sift the ground and come up with more than a few grains of love. Or at least something that, if you were to take it, would make you feel very loving.

  • This is the plot to a number of perplexing anime series, isn’t it?

  •  The thing is… None of that “explanation” is actually in the movie. All anyone ever says is “Without midichlorians, we would have no knowledge of the Force.” No one ever says that they cause the Force, or they give people the Force. Based on what’s actually said, you can interpret midichlorians pretty much however you like. There’s nothing actually stated that means more than “Midichlorians let us detect a person’s force-potential via blood test”

    Even before the prequels came out, it always bothered me that the original trilogy is only set about 20 years after the rise of the Emperor, and yet the Jedi have gone from being the official legally-empowered defenders of the Republic to being essentially mythological. Han Solo doesn’t believe in the Force. And yet the Force was apparently established scientific fact in his lifetime.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Behold the power of propaganda.

  •  Though pre-fall Adam does ask Gabriel if angels have sex (Gabriel’s answer boils down to “Yes and it’s none of your business.”), and he asks from the position of someone who has an understanding of the act.

    But yeah, the idea that the Original Sin was sex is not a new one. Pretty sure it was in whatever bible Carrie’s Mother was reading from. And the William Jennings Bryant expy in Inherit the Wind gets tricked by the Clarence Darrow expy into proving that he doesn’t read the book of Genesis literally by shouting that the original sin was sex while on the stand.

  •  It pretty much boils down to “She had a retractible hymen”.

    No, really.

  •  I think I saw this as a hammer movie. Guy finds the cell that causes evil and thinks he’s developed a dead-cell innoculation. Tries it out in a petri dish and sees that all the Evil dies in the blood sample, then shoots his daughter up with it before waiting around to see that an hour later, the dead cells come back to life and kill all the non-evil cells.

  • Anton_Mates

    Really?  Seems to me that they must have gotten less interested in sex after the Fall, if underwear suddenly seemed really important to them.

    Unless they were just wearing fig leaves so they could sexily peel them off later, I guess.

  • EllieMurasaki

    The attitude ‘sex and sexybits are shameful’ seems to promote obsession with sex.

  • Worthless Beast

    Here’s a fun game: Something my guy did recently. 

    Watch all the Star Wars movies in chronological order – Phantom Menance first, and so on. One per night.  When you get to A New Hope, point at the screen and go “Gah!” at all of the inconsistences that are created by the prequels. 

    Including Han Solo’s possibly unintended and overlooked Flat Earth Atheism.   There are a lot, though.

  • Amaryllis


    “Immaculate Conception” Is Not Equal To “Virgin Birth.”

  • Amaryllis

    ” we’re apparently also going to have to talk about how Frodo, Miss Marple, Ulysses, Cuchulain, and Amelia Bedelia are not historical figures either.”

    But if they were, that’s a dinner party I’d like to be invited to– as long as Amelia Bedelia isn’t doing the cooking, of course.

  • Ian

    It’s worth remembering that Augustine was a liberal by the standards of his time.  His chief intellectual opponents were neo-Platonists who taught that matter itself and anything to do with it was evil.  Augustine was trying to tell a story explaining how there was evil in the world despite the fact that God created everything to be good (including human bodies).  He had much less body-hate than his contemporaries.

  • Amaryllis

     “Personally, I think that Original Sin is passed from parent to child in the form of crappy parenting.”

    Yeah, pretty much. Not so much that you believe that something’s wrong with your kid, but that all the things that are wrong with you get in the way of “bringing up your child in the way he should go.”  And the mistakes you make are passed on to your child, and so ad infinitum, apparently.

    If only you’d been a better mother.


    How could I have been a better mother?

    I would have needed a better self,

    and that is a gift I never received.


    So you’re saying it’s someone else’s fault?


    The gift of having had a better mother myself,

    my own mother having had a better mother herself.

    The gift that keeps on not being given.


    Who was supposed to give it?


    How am I supposed to know?


    Well, how am I supposed to live?


    I suppose you must live as if you had been

    given better to live with…

    I wanted nothing but your happiness.


    I can’t give you that!

    What would Jesus do?

    He had a weird mother too . . .

    from Magi, by Brenda Shaughnessy

  • Haven

    This sounds amazing. In my view, the main problems with midichlorians are that it wasn’t established at the outset of the story, it’s a plot device that has potentially huge implications which are never brought up again, and it clashes tonally. This idea is none of those things, so I think you should run with it regardless.

  • arghous

    Don’t blame me.  I’m just big boned and lumpy helixed.

  • Venema mentions Mitochondrial Eve. I suppose original sin would work metaphorically with that theory if one postulates that she was far more immoral than the rest of her tribe.

    Well, that’s just silly.  Everyone knows that Mitochondrial Eve was born of a Cylon mother and human father, because of the power of True Love. 

  • arcseconds

     I figured somewhere between Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace Lucas picked up a biology textbook, and read about mitochondria and chloroplasts and thought “that is so cool! I’m totally putting that in my next movie.”

  • arcseconds

    I’ll take your word for it that there’s no more stated than that, but you’ve got to admit all of the mystical stuff that Yoda says in The Empire Strikes Back about how the Force is everywhere, in the rocks, the trees, the squiggly things in the Dagobah mud, is a little incongruous with “oh, and it turns out it’s mediated in some way by symbiotic prokaryotes that live in your blood! the concentration of these is directly related to your force potential, and can be assessed by a simple, nearly painless blood test that can be administered with very little training!”

    We could imagine the ‘force theme’ playing over the mystical stuff, then the usual bumped record sound followed by an advertising jingle as Yoda turns from mystical-mode into medical-advertising-mode :]

  •  You actually could pull the while thing off,  had the prequels been written better, by casting old Ben and Yoda as having gone a bit peculiar during their respective hermitages, and playing up the mystical elements that were largely vestigial during the last years of the old republic: deprived of the support network of the powerful and influential Jedi Order, and after twenty years stewing over “where they went wrong”, they’ve basically decided that the Jedi went astray and were divinely struck down for having strayed from the true yadda yadda.

    That is, they’re working off the Scofield Reference Journal of the Whills

  •  Amaryllis, that’s beautiful. Thank you for sharing. And I think you are right – it’s not just about thinking there is something wrong with your kid – it’s about the ways you are damaged yourself. I was too lazy to explain properly. This idea also gives me hope, though. As screwed up as things are, it seems to me that for maybe the first time humanity is really grappling with the darkness which has been passed from generation to generation. I know a lot of people are very critical of our tell-all, Jerry Springer age, but light is the best disinfectant.

  • Chrissl

    RTCs or whoever is trying to say original sin is “genetic” are working from the idea that “blood” relationships — ancestor-descendant relationships in particular — have a sort of mystic force or sacred character that makes them inherently more powerful (or important) than any other type of relationship. This certainly seems to have been a prevalent worldview in the ancient world.

    I have encountered a very thought-provoking analysis of differences between liberals and conservatives that says, among other things, that one big difference is where you think obligations and rights come from. Liberals tend to believe that more obligations are chosen — people choose to marry, choose to have children, choose to take an ideological view. Conservatives tend to believe that more obligations are inherited — people marry and have children because it’s their duty to their families, and carry on the (perceived) familial viewpoint and ideology for the sake of family honor.

    This would explain why some people struggle with the idea that original sin could pass other than by direct descent.

  • EllieMurasaki

    No, I don’t see how it would. If original sin equates to the concept that we are all capable of doing hurtful things, then it’s heritable, since it’s an inherent part of being human and being human is heritable. And if it doesn’t so equate, then what the hell is original sin?

  • arcseconds

    Matter = evil sounds more like Manicheanism or Gnosticism to me than neoplatonism.  I’m pretty sure that neoplatonism sees matter as being an emmenation from the Divine, just like everything else.  Certainly matter with any kind of form is intimately involved with the Divine (because that’s what having a form is).  Neoplatonism doesn’t even really have a concept of evil, whereas some forms of gnosticism think material creation is a product of the Evil One.

    However, it does seem as though at some point Christianity did take on board a full-blown Manichee-style evil concept.  My understanding is that this wasn’t really present in the Hebrew religion of the day, and it can’t really be found in pagan sources, so I’ve always wondered where it came from.  Maybe from Manicheanism itself?

    Anyway, as I was saying, the pagan neoplatonists (I’m thinking of people like Porphyry here) didn’t really have the same kind of manichean concept of Eevvilll as the Christians did.    Plato (and for that matter Aristotle) doesn’t really think in terms of evil at all, but if anything in terms of badness, and badness is really a kind of falling down from what you should be (or what you really are), quite analogous to sickness.   We pity the sick and try to help them get better — we don’t hate them and try to destroy them.

    So, why the body for neoplatonists (less clearly for Plato, given how raunchy some of his dialogues are) is definitely of a lower order, and the better sort of human would despise it (think Hypatia throwing her menstrual cloths at an irritating admirer), it’s all kind of aristocratic.   The great unwashed won’t get it and will fornicate, eat, and drink to their hearts’ content, but what more can be expected of them? They get to reincarnate anyway, and maybe they’ll do better next time — there’s no urgency.

    They had this kind of nonchalance about theology, too.   It didn’t really matter what the lower orders believed in too much — it was felt that pagan religion preserved the truths of philosophy (i.e. neoplatonism) in mythic form appropriate for consumption by the masses.  The idea of a catechism would be completely foreign to them.

    That’s the way i remember it, anyway.

  • arcseconds

    Maybe, but it’s just as likely to be other homo sapiens sapiens.

    My guess is there’s more difference in looks among modern humans than there is between modern humans and Neanderthals :]   

    It’s often been put forward that myths of faeries etc. are stories of (in Europe, at least) pre-Indo European inhabitants.   Aren’t the Tuatha de Danaan supposed to disappear into barrows?  Also, I understand neolithic arrow heads were often identified as ‘elfshot’ in folk tales.

    Forest-dwelling hunter-gatherers existing on the margins of an expanding
    agricultural society would account for a lot, especially if they were
    shorter in stature.

  • This belief in quasi-genetic inheritances of non-heritable properties reminds me of the distorted echoes of Lysenkoite genetics I’ve heard that persist across Russia, where people will say their country has inherited some kind of problem with getting its shit straight, as though it were woven into the actual DNA of the Russian people.

  • vsm

    So, get out as early as you can, and don’t have any kids yourself?

  • histrogeek

    True enough. Except for the Shakers, all those other groups were basically retreads of neo-Platonism. Still I always feel that getting advice on sexual ethics from Augustine is like trying to get advice on an after-dinner cocktails at an AA meeting.

  • Tricksterson

    Well, the Serpent at least is an obvious phallic symbol and there are some stories that use the idea that Cain was the offspring of Eve and the Serpent, not Adam and Eve.

  • Tricksterson

    I just want to read a crossover novel with Frodo, Miss Marple, Ulysses, Cuchulain and Bonnie Bedelia.  But now of course you’ve given me an idea for who should write it.

  • Tricksterson

    Or that planet in Serenity where most of the people starved to death because they became incapable of harming anything.  Except the ones who became psychotic cannibals that is.

  • Tricksterson

    I thought more like 2- 4%.  And a little from Denisovans who are a spinoff from Neanderthals.

  • Tricksterson

    I’ve heard one theory by way of Stephen King (who presumably didn’t take it seriously) who got it from his fundamentalist mother (who did) that the people in Nod were those who evolved from apes and by marrying into them Cain gave them souls.

  •  I thought more like 2- 4%.  And a little from Denisovans who are a spinoff from Neanderthals.

    Might be.  I didn’t remember the exact number.  I just remember that it was a big enough percentage to be noticeable, but not big enough to, say, fuel the plot of an episode of Star Trek or Doctor Who wherein someone regresses to Neanderthal state.

    Oh, who am I kidding?  The mere suggestion of such a thing would probably be enough for a television writer.

  • Tricksterson

    According to something recently read in Discovery Denisovan DNA somehow found it’s way to New Guinea.  Anyway they were definitely “east of Eden”

  • Tricksterson

    According to the Bible wasn’t it one of Cains descendants who inveted metalworking?  Or was that just iron-mongery?

  • Tricksterson

    In Darths & Droids a wonderfu reimaginingg of the movies in webcomic form, this is exactly how Anakin gets his Jediness, by blood transfusion.

  • Tricksterson

    I always thought Neanders were more candidates for Drawhood, than Elfdom, except for the advanced tech part.  Short, hairy, exceptionally strong, sound familiar?

  • Tricksterson

    Should have been Dwarfhood

  • christopher_y

    Hmm… we could be getting into realms of dangerous speculation here (that’d make a change, wouldn’t it?) The Jewish Encyclopedia’s discussion of Cain’s name says:

    The etymology of [Genesis] iv. 1 is a linguistic impossibility. The name was originally that of the Kenite tribe (see 2). The word  (“ḳayin”) is read in the Masoretic text of II Sam. xxi. 16, and translated “lance”; the corresponding words in Arabic and Syriac mean “smith.” The tribe may have derived its name from the fame of its smiths.

    Which certainly makes him look like a metal worker. 

    However, later in Genesis, the origin of both bronze and iron working is attributed to his descendent Tubal-Cain (originally, according to JE again, plain Tubal, and referred to an Indo-European tribe near the Black Sea who traded items in both metals). This is obviously as confused as any orally transmitted tradition. I don’t think we gain much wisdom by trying to read it too closely.

  • rmwilliamsjr

    i find it curious that the underlying theology of federal headship and imputation are legal metaphors, not biological. there is no necessary genetic connection either between adam and the human race nor between jesus and those to be found “in him”. they are God’s choice of heads to represent the group, mankind and the elect.