Don't settle for comfortable and familiar thoughts, reach for what you don't know, says Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt.
The story of Adam and Eve and their eviction from paradise is one of the most famous origin stories on Earth, central to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. But, it's full of holes. Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt illuminates some of these: for example, how could the first humans, who had no prior concept of death, understand God's ultimatum—eat the forbidden fruit and you will die. And when they did eat the fruit, why didn't they die? The same questions have puzzled scholars for millennia, but it doesn't stop massive numbers of people all over the world believing it in a literal sense. This doesn't strike Greenblatt as stupid, or naive, or even surprising, it only strikes him as human. We have always needed the power of narrative to orient ourselves in the world, and the tale of Adam and Eve is one of the earliest and most powerful examples of good and evil on record. To understand why this story exists is to understand something fundamental about human nature, and to pick at the holes in its logic to think deeply. "Often the thing that seems incomprehensible is the place you want to start digging," he says. Stephen Greenblatt's latest book is The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve.
Scarcely noticed in the Eden story, there lurk fruitful scientific ideas about why biology generated morality.
1. Scientist Loren Eiseley saw fruitful science in Genesis (in the exile, not the creation): “The story of Eden is a greater allegory than man has ever guessed.” It can be read as being about biology begetting morality.
2. Eiseley described how through natural selection, “good and evil would enter and possess the world.” He grasped how evolution generated non-genetic ethics.
3. Eiseley contrasted instinctive life versus social-learning-structured life. The former needs no meaningful morality, the later uses the logic of forbidden fruit (of “The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil”).
4. Updating Eiseley’s case, the “world of instinct” is entirely genetically programmed. All traits have fixed genetic scripts, changing only slowly, intergenerationally (phenotypes = subsets of genotypes).
5. But social non-genetic inheritances radically changed the game; in uniquely human ways behavioral and cognitive traits weren’t as genetically determined (phenotypes wider than genotypes, see praxotype + cognotype).
6. Eiseley notes our social transmission-based life strategies need unique adaptive changes (e.g., postnatal brain size trebling, much longer immaturity, persisting parental bonds).
8. It’s obvious how tools are adaptive, but languages and cooperation rules are non-material social tools.
10. That’s the missing link to nature’s moralities—no humanlike creature thrives without received knowledge and rules about “good and bad” choices. The “sapiens” in homo sapiens means wisdom, i.e. choosing well (from Latin for taste, judgement). Our key trick is acquiring the wisdom of others.
12. So all humans face Eve’s dilemma—born with behavioral freedom and curiosity into risky environments, with socially punishable received rules. Rousseau’s we’re “born free” but everywhere in chains is the human condition incarnate (with inalienable social chains, see “relational rationality”).
13. Harold Bloom notes that the earliest Genesis texts depict humans as theomorphic (“god-shaped,” in god’s image as moral choosers and creators). Leon Kass agrees, deeming Eden’s exile a rise, not a fall.
17. Eiseley saw unnaturally selective thinking about evolution as mirroring elite Victorian biases. Dawkins later amplified the same adamantly competition-centric view, but we’re on the eve of grasping how much of life features cooperation (every I is a we, Ed Yong).
18. Darwin called unmoral humans “unnatural monsters,” and out of Eden came not only “endless forms most beautiful” but also endless strategies intertwining competition and cooperation.
PS Hat Tip to Ross Andersen aka @ for tweeting that key Eiseley quote.
Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions