Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Dowd on Original Sin

One especially interesting point that Michael Dowd makes in Thank God for Evolution is that the Genesis story of The Fall and Original Sin can be reframed in evolutionary terms. Lessons from Evolutionary Psychology can be applied to the basic questions that millennia ago led our ancestors to create the story of Adam, Eve, the Fruit and the Serpent.

What I'm about to say is a highly truncated summary, in my own words. It's worth it to see Dowd in the original to get it all.

The story of The Fall is an attempt to explain how and why we, as human beings, so often do things that we know aren't good or smart but can't seem to help doing to satisfy some sort of immediate gratification.

Drawing on a body of literature in Evolutionary Psychology, Dowd suggests that The Fall actually offers a useful allegory for the development of human brains from those of our pre-human ancestors. The oldest and most basic part of our brain, which dates back to reptiles and their predecessors, controls three basic instincts: to eat, to reproduce, and to defend ourselves. He calls this our Lizard Legacy. As the higher portions of our brains developed, along came such things as ethical codes that place limits on how we satisfy those instincts. Those are comparable, Dowd suggests, to the "Knowledge of Good and Evil" that is imparted when Adam and Eve eat of the Fruit.

(There's a lot more there, involving the other elements of the brain, but I'm boiling this down for space and time. Do check out the whole thing.)

I think this is some of the most valuable material in the book. I've read enough of the anti-evolution literature to understand that part of what drives its passion is the mistaken belief that equates acceptance of evolution with an "anything goes" kind of ethic. Dowd devotes a significant portion of his book to pointing out that while our "Lizard Legacy" plays an important part in protecting us, it also can lead us astray without mediation and discipline from our other brain functions. A thoughtful reader will see that this is not a prescription for "Anything goes" ethics -- far from it. And it's a good corrective to those of us Religious Liberals who may be too willing to see only humanity's basic goodness and sidestep our capacity for self-centeredness and immense evil.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments on this blog are moderated retroactively. Comments will be published immediately, but spam, slander, abuse personally directed at other commenters or at third parties, or comments that hijack the thread will be removed without further discussion, explanation or apology. Comments that I am unable to read (for whatever reason) will be deleted.

Comments that challenge the viewpoints expressed here within the bounds of civility and good manners are welcome. Blogger limits comments to 4,096 characters.