Shuck and Jive

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Homo sapiens, neither good nor evil

I have two thinkers in mind. The first is Jared Diamond author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, Collapse, and The Third Chimpanzee. In these three works, he provides an excellent analysis of the origin of homo sapiens, what we have accomplished, where we could be headed, and what we might be able still to do.

The second thinker is Patricia Williams author of Where Christianity Went Wrong, When, and What You Can Do About It and Doing Without Adam and Eve: Sociobiology and Original Sin.

In reading these two authors, it is apparent that most of the theology that we have inherited is based on outdated anthropology. Diamond in The Third Chimpanzee reports that from what we know through anthropology and DNA analysis that we share nearly all our DNA with chimpanzees, our closest relatives. Not only that, but chimpanzees are closer to homo sapiens than they are to any other family member in the animal kingdom including other apes. Williams writes that doctrines of original sin are simply false. We are in essence a mix of drives that enable us to succeed and can lead us to our destruction.

The myths of Genesis are human-created as is every bit of language and thought form. The creeds of the Christian church are also human products, of course. The challenge for us is to discover those myths, philosophies, symbols, and values that will enable us to not only to survive but to live in equanimity with all of Earth.

I firmly believe that the way forward is to dismiss the "Divinity" of all human products, (or add "Divinity" to all human products, the result to me is the same, although the latter may sound more "spiritual") whether they be religious or not and take what is life-giving. We have had a marvelous discussion on one of my previous posts, that has led me to wonder if we may be getting somewhere.


  1. Bonobos! Good call! Yes, Diamond says they are the chimps closest to us. They mate facing one another among other things. Thanks!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. I think I may have failed to make a subtle point. I do believe, from what I've studied of psychology, that human beings are capable of great good and great evil. In many ways, it was a necessary evolutionary step (one has to protect one's offspring and the offspring of others in the "tribe", but sometimes that means doing nasty things to those that threaten it). I have not read Williams, and have only read Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse (he did a lecture at my college once--he was great and it was standing room only!), but I would imagine that they would largely agree. It's my further opinion that the Church calls this ability to do wrong Original Sin.

    What I like about the Calvin quote is the import of what he is saying. Remember, he is writing in 1536 to a clerical audience (at least in the early editions), so he is putting the ideas in theological terms. Long before evolutionary science and even psychology had been understood or even conceived of, Calvin said that the impulse to do both evil and good is something so innate, so basic, that we as individual people cannot take credit or blame for either. One of the common criticisms of Calvinism, then and now, is that it apparently implies that the Elect can just kick back and not worry about doing anything good as the hereafter is well and truly sorted out for them. Calvin's counter to this is that doing good is something the Elect are driven to do at a fundamental level--Calvin calls it God.

  5. Damn you, middle ground, why can't I quit you?

    I think that the doctrine/idea of Original Sin/Utter Depravity has some value still. The value is as a corrective of the tendency toward extreme arrogance in people of faith. Similar to how Diamond intended Guns, Germs and Steel to be a corrective to racist anthropologies of development by pointing to fundamental aspects of human develop which elucidate our thinking about history, Original Sin can be a corrective to arrogant anthropologies of personal perfection by pointing out that we are not perfectible.

    I agree that modern science and social science presents humanity as an ambiguous mix of limited agency and biological drives - in a way, this can be taken to make the point of Utter Depravity, which I think is the idea that nothing we do is morally pure. Everything is conditioned by Sin, or in language that reflects our greater understanding of how people work, biological drives, genetic determinism, the grasping ego, etc.

    Now, I basically agree that Utter Depravity has such baggage that it probably isn't the best way to present these ideas. If nothing else, I think we understand much more of what 'human nature' actually is than ever in the past. What I mean is that the idea that this doctrine represented is still present and still meaningful for people of faith - as I said, as a corrective for arrogance, or the idea that "we" can look down on "them" on any level.

  6. Thank you Doug. While I do think there are other purposes for the doctrine of total depravity certainly one important purpose is the knowledge that we all can be wrong and that all our decisions are tinged with a certain amount of self interest that we rarely admit to ourselves.