Thursday, September 01, 2011

Genetics and the fall

Maverick philosopher posts here on the fall, arguing that there need be no inconsistency between the Biblical account of man’s fall (which has the world beginning with two human beings, who are then punished by God for an act of sinful pride), and the genetic account, which has human beings beginning with about 10,000 individuals, who in turn were descended from apes.

Genetics may not contradict the Biblical account (assuming a ‘spiritual’ rather than a ‘literal’ account), but it seems to contradict Augustine. As I commented a year ago, Augustine aims to prove that original sin exists, citing the ‘host of cruel ills’ which the world is filled with. These can be restrained by laws and punishments, but law and punishment is itself a means of restraining the evil desires that we are born with. Even great innocence is not a sufficient protection against the evil of this world, for God permits even young infants to be tormented in this life, teaching us ‘to bewail the calamities of this life, and to desire the felicity of the life to come’ (City of God XXII).

But genetics suggests the explanation of this host of cruel ills is not original sin at all. Pain is explained as a self-defence mechanism, teaching us which dangers to avoid. Fear is an awareness and an anticipation of danger – felt as unpleasant because it is the anticipation of something unpleasant (pain or death). That danger exists at all is explained partly by the competition for survival, partly by the fragility of DNA. Likewise death. Genetics and science tell us that no one was responsible for this predicament, in the way that Augustine (and the Bible) tell us that our ancestors (Adam and Eve) were responsible. Now Maverick writes:

But in the encounter with the divine self which first triggered man's personhood or spiritual selfhood, there arose man's freedom and his sense of being a separate self, an ego distinct from God and from other egos. Thus was born pride and self-assertion and egotism. Sensing his quasi-divine status, man asserted himself against the One who had revealed himself, the One who simultaneously called him to a Higher Life but also imposed restrictions and made demands. Man in his pride then made a fateful choice, drunk with the sense of his own power: he decided to go it alone.
But does self-consciousness explain pride and selfishness? Against: if the essence of self-consciousness involves pride and selfishness, and if pride and selfishness are bad, how can self-consciousness be good? Yet surely self-consciousness is good. Moreover, does self-consciousness explain pride and selfishness anyway? Many animals, who are not supposed to be self-conscious, also exhibit pride and selfishness. Indeed, according to Richard Dawkins, a gene is selfishness itself. Its sole aim is to replicate itself. Thus, bacteria and wild yeast and giraffes are selfish.

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