Today's Washington Post recounts a story of maternal heroism that may shed some light on humanity's capacity for sin, suggesting that "sin" may be an evolutionary side effect of a useful trait:
Villagers say the shrinking ice floes mean they see hungry polar bears more frequently. In the Hudson Bay village of Ivujivik, Lydia Angyiou, a slight woman of 41, was walking in front of her 7-year-old boy last month when she turned to see a polar bear stalking the child. To save him, she charged with her fists into the 700-pound bear, which slapped her twice to the ground before a hunter shot it, according to the Nunatsiaq News. [Doug Struck, Inuit See Signs In Arctic Thaw; String of Warm Winters Alarms 'Sentries for the Rest of the World,' Washington Post, Wed. March 22, 2006, p. A1 (emphasis added).]
I'm in awe. The mother's desire to save her son was so powerful that it overwhelmed all other considerations. It caused her to charge the bear, disregarding the obvious danger and risking almost-certain death in the hope of saving her offspring, even though the "rational" choice would have been to flee and leave him to his fate.
The Mixed Evolutionary Consequences of Single-Minded Desire
Humans seem to have a built-in propensity to focus on what we want to happen, or on what we want to be true, and to discount or even ignore contrary advice and information that we'd rather not have to deal with. (Litigators and political campaign consultants know this quite well and seek to take advantage of it.)
We don't fully understand why this is so. In fact, we have very little real understanding of why people think and act the way they do, because we just don't understand that much about how our brains work.
In particular, we don't really understand desire; see, for example, this article about the discovery of a genetically-based variation in brain function that seems to predispose its bearers to cocaine addiction. But it's indisputable that when humans do desire something, they have a noteworthy capacity to ignore relevant information that they find inconvenient.
Clearly, from an evolutionary perspective, a propensity to single-minded desire can be useful. In the case reported in the Post, the mother who attacked the polar bear helped to save her son's life — thereby increasing the chances that her genes, as carried by her son, would survive to be passed along to future generations. It's not hard to think of other examples where similar behavior would likewise afford a survival advantage to individuals, families, and/or other groups: Soldiers who risk death to save their buddies. Struggling entrepreneurs who work 20 hours a day to get a business off the ground. Impoverished parents who eat less than they need so their kids won't go hungry.
We can conjecture that single-minded desire is influenced by a combination of one or more genes. Assuming that's the case, natural selection would have led to those genes being well-represented in our genetic makeup. Up to a point, parents who had that particular gene set would have been more likely to successfully raise their children to reproductive age (thus potentially keeping those genes alive for one more generation) than, say, a mother who "rationally" fled at the approach of the polar bear and left her son behind. Over time, we would expect that on a percentage basis, more and more of the population would carry the hypothetical genes for single-minded desire (with the percentage possibly stabilizing at some equilibrium level).
But our ability to disregard information we don't want to deal with, in the single-minded pursuit of what we want, is not always a good thing. Too many teen-agers have killed themselves in the pursuit of speed because they didn't realize they weren't immortal. Respectable people have slipped into drug addiction or alcoholism because deep inside they just weren't convinced it would ever happen to them. Corporate executives are sometimes so committed to reporting strong earnings that they resort to falsifying company financial statements (pace the Enron trial going on here in Houston). Married people cheat, and heavy people (over)eat, even though if asked they probably would admit that they "know better." These phenomena are surely as old as humanity; Paul implicitly hints at them in Romans 7.18-19:
For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing."
Possible Implications for Sin and Salvation
In one sense, I suspect, what we call "sin" is just a variation on this theme: For whatever reason or reasons, in making decisions, we tend to give greater importance to what we want, and to disregard information that contradicts or is inconsistent with what we want. Sometimes that's a good thing; other times it isn't. It seems to be in the same good-news / bad-news category as, for example —
- the genetic variation that gives its carriers resistance against malaria, but it also causes sickle-cell anemia in people who carry two copies of that variation; or
- the recently-discovered genetic mutation that appears to protect some people against the AIDS virus, but it also makes them more susceptible to the West Nile virus.
Suppose this speculation is correct, that sin is indeed an evolutionary side effect of a useful trait. What would that say about our traditional notions of sin and free will — and especially about original sin? And if we were to start rethinking those things : what would that do in turn to our theories of salvation?
The foregoing needs more work, obviously. Still, it seems to offer some intriguing explanatory possibilities. I'll be interested to see where it leads.
I'm very excited by this idea. It resonates with something I've thought for a long time, which is that sin relates to a feature of human psychology called 'irrational belief' (http://www.rebt.org/WhatisREBT.htm) but which I prefer to call 'absolute evaluation'.
We are constantly making value judgements. Value judgements may be relative ("I like this" "I hate that" "This is preferable" "that is inconvenient") or absolute ("I need this" "That is dreadful" "I can't bear not to have this" "that must not happen"). Absolute evaluations tend to be associated with neurotic responses. We all do this, just some people are crippled by it while others manage to control it to some degree.
The literature describes a number of effects of such 'irrational beliefs' (to revert to the usual terminology) which - I believe - tally remarkably well with the features of original sin as described by Aquinas.
The originator of this psychological theory is Albert Ellis, and he argues that we are biologically predisposed to irrationality. It could be that the evolutionary reason for this is exactly as you suggest - it promotes single-mindedness.
In my practice as a psychotherapist I use Ellis' ideas all the time, and am often impressed by how well they work. In my life as a Christian I am aware that my attachment to sin seems to have this neurotic, absolutist quality.
I suggest we identify original sin with this biological predisposition - it's not immoral to be this way, but it causes immorality. The only permanent cure for it is resurrection.
The next question (for me as a Catholic) would have to be: what does this mean about how we understand baptism, or indeed any of the sacraments?
Posted by: Alec Brady | November 08, 2006 at 02:27 PM