Why Mythologies Like Adam and Eve Are Such Good Thinking Tools
Don't settle for comfortable and familiar thoughts, reach for what you don't know, says Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt.
Stephen Jay Greenblatt is Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University. He is the author of thirteen books, including The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve; The Swerve: How the World Became Modern; Shakespeare's Freedom; Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare; Hamlet in Purgatory; Marvelous Possessions; and Renaissance Self-Fashioning.
Greenblatt is General Editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature and of The Norton Shakespeare, has edited seven collections of criticism, and is a founding editor of the journal Representations. His honors include the 2016 Holberg Prize from the Norwegian Parliament, the 2012 Pulitzer Prize and the 2011 National Book Award for The Swerve, MLA’s James Russell Lowell Prize (twice), Harvard University’s Cabot Fellowship, the Distinguished Humanist Award from the Mellon Foundation, Yale’s Wilbur Cross Medal, the William Shakespeare Award for Classical Theatre, the Erasmus Institute Prize, two Guggenheim Fellowships and the Distinguished Teaching Award from the University of California, Berkeley.
Among his named lecture series are the Adorno Lectures in Frankfurt, the University Lectures at Princeton, and the Clarendon Lectures at Oxford, and he has held visiting professorships at universities in Beijing, Kyoto, London, Paris, Florence, Torino, Trieste, and Bologna, as well as the Renaissance residency at the American Academy in Rome. He was president of the Modern Language Association of America and a long-term fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin. He has been elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the American Philosophical Society.
Stephen Greenblatt: I think the first thing to say about the story of Adam and Eve is it’s one of innumerable origin stories. It happens to be the most celebrated, the most famous and powerful origin story in our culture, central to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, but it’s only one of many, many origin stories. It seems to be something that our species does; and as far as we know other species don’t do it. I don’t think that chimpanzees ask questions about the origin of chimpanzees, or bottlenose dolphins and sperm whales, but we do ask, “Where did we come from? What were the first ones of our species?” And this appears to be a universal phenomenon in culture, to ask about origins. So this is a crucially significant version of the kind of story that is generated. And we might ask, “Why? Why do we want to know? Why don’t other creatures want to know?”
Well, I think there are a number of different explanations—one is our insatiable curiosity, including something like scientific curiosity. Another is our uneasiness, perhaps, about ourselves and the course of our existence: Why is it so hard? Why do we have to labor? Why do we weeds grow in the fields and we have to clear them out in order to get food from the ground? Why can’t we just get everything we need naturally? Why do women scream in pain when they give birth to offspring—a totally natural event that is part of the replication of the species? Why are men so miserable to women, and why do they put up with it? And, maybe above all, why do we die?
So the story addresses these in an incredibly powerful though difficult way, but in very, very tight compass it addresses those questions and more in a way that human beings appear to want and need, as a way of orienting themselves in the world, as a way of understanding their fate.
The fact that the first humans are in a garden where they’re told that they can eat of any tree that they want—they’re vegetarians—and they can eat of any tree in the garden except for one, which they are prohibited from eating. And it happens that the one tree that they’re prohibited from eating is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And it was noticed a very long time ago, say several thousand years ago, that it’s a problem to be prohibited from eating of the tree that will enable you to distinguish between good and evil, since distinguishing between good and evil is presumably what enables you to observe the prohibition in the first place!
So that problem bothered people right away, or at least maybe not right away but at least 2,000 years ago. And then we have various other problems: they’re warned that they will die if they violate the prohibition. He doesn’t explain, unfortunately, what that means, and since there had been—as far as we know—no death in the world up to that point, it must have been rather perplexing. I sometimes think of Adam hearing this for the first time and thinking, “I don’t really know what he means, but next time I talk to him I’ll ask him, what do you mean by "die"?” But in any case we don’t get any explanation given to the first humans as to what it is they’re being told to beware of.
And in fact when they encounter the talking snake, when the woman encounters the talking snake, the talking snake says, “No, you’re not going to die, you’ll become like a god.” He denies that the punishment will be death. And you could say that immediately after the man and woman eat, they don’t die, so they keep going on, and this is a problem that actually puzzles many early commentators: why don’t they die immediately since they were warned that they would die?
It’s a perfect instance of something that I think should puzzle us and interest us: why is it that when we look around or when we look at the polls that are conducted of our own fellow citizens, men and women in the United States, but also more broadly in the world, so many people profess to believe in the literal truth of this literally unbelievable story.
And we could shrug and say it’s religious dogma, we could say it’s stupidity or gullibility, but I’m not inclined to say any of those things. I think that this is an incredibly powerful story. It’s very good to think with. I think it’s extremely naïve to believe that any of us can live without narrative, without stories, without myths. We don’t. Even those people who think that they’re not living with myths—maybe Spock on Star Trek, but people don’t live lives like that. We need ways of orienting ourselves in the world, and this is one of the great instances in the history of our civilization, an instance of a very complex kind, with good sides and bad sides, of people orienting themselves in the world.
I'm not the least bit surprised that millions of people in our world—despite the evidence of genetics, despite the evidence of geology—nonetheless cling to a belief in this story.
When I am reading or looking at an image or a painting or listening to music, I try to make myself as alert as possible to what I don’t get, what seems to me not to be working or to puzzle me or not to make sense. And sometimes it actually just doesn’t make sense; all right we leave it at that.
But actually I think often the thing that seems incomprehensible is the place you want to start digging—not the thing you want to let your eyes slide over and go onto the part that looks super familiar and easy.
So for myself, and since I’m a teacher I encourage my students to be alert to the stuff that doesn’t fit, that looks weird, and to think about why it looks weird and to pay some attention to that. Because our temptation as readers and as lookers, listeners, our temptation is just to seize—like flailing in the ocean—to seize on what we are familiar with already, but then that tends to give you what you already know. I’m interested in what we don’t know.
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.
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How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
A unique exoplanet without clouds or haze was found by astrophysicists from Harvard and Smithsonian.
- Astronomers from Harvard and Smithsonian find a very rare "hot Jupiter" exoplanet without clouds or haze.
- Such planets were formed differently from others and offer unique research opportunities.
- Only one other such exoplanet was found previously.
Munazza Alam – a graduate student at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian.
Credit: Jackie Faherty
Jupiter's Colorful Cloud Bands Studied by Spacecraft<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8a72dfe5b407b584cf867852c36211dc"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/GzUzCesfVuw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Scientists discover burrows of giant predator worms that lived on the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- Scientists in Taiwan find the lair of giant predator worms that inhabited the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- The worm is possibly related to the modern bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois).
- The creatures can reach several meters in length and famously ambush their pray.
A three-dimensional model of the feeding behavior of Bobbit worms and the proposed formation of Pennichnus formosae.
Credit: Scientific Reports
Beware the Bobbit Worm!<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1f9918e77851242c91382369581d3aac"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/_As1pHhyDHY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Meteorologists propose a stunning new explanation for the mysterious events in the Bermuda Triangle.
One of life's great mysteries, the Bermuda Triangle might have finally found an explanation. This strange region, that lies in the North Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda, Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico, has been the presumed cause of dozens and dozens of mind-boggling disappearances of ships and planes.
The idea behind the law was simple: make it more difficult for online sex traffickers to find victims.
- SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) and FOSTA (Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) started as two separate bills that were both created with a singular goal: curb online sex trafficking. They were signed into law by former President Trump in 2018.
- The implementation of this law in America has left an international impact, as websites attempt to protect themselves from liability by closing down the sections of their sites that sex workers use to arrange safe meetings with clientele.
- While supporters of this bill have framed FOSTA-SESTA as a vital tool that could prevent sex trafficking and allow sex trafficking survivors to sue those websites for facilitating their victimization, many other people are strictly against the bill and hope it will be reversed.
What is FOSTA-SESTA?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="723125b44601d565a7c671c7523b6452"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/WBaqDjPCH8k?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) and FOSTA (Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) were signed into law by former President Trump in 2018. There was some argument that this law may be unconstitutional as it could potentially violate the <a href="https://constitution.congress.gov/constitution/amendment-1/" target="_blank">first amendment</a>. A criminal defense lawyer explains this law in-depth in <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RoWx2hYg5uo&t=38s" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">this video</a>. </p><p><strong>What did FOSTA-SESTA aim to accomplish?</strong></p><p>The idea behind the law was simple: make it more difficult for online sex traffickers to find victims. FOSTA-SESTA started as two separate bills that were both created with a singular goal: curb online sex trafficking. Targeting websites like Backpage and Craigslist, where sex workers would often arrange meetings with their clientele, FOSTA-SESTA aimed to stop the illegal sex-trafficking activity being conducted online. While the aim of FOSTA-SESTA was to keep people safer, these laws have garnered international speculation and have become quite controversial. </p><p><a href="https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20180321006214/en/National-Anti-Trafficking-Coalition-Celebrates-Survivors-Senate-Passes" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">According to BusinessWire</a>, many people are in support of this bill, including the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and World Without Exploitation (WorldWE). </p><p>"With the growth of the Internet, human trafficking that once happened mainly on street corners has largely shifted online. According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 73 percent of the 10,000 child sex trafficking reports it receives from the public each year involve ads on the website Backpage.com."</p><p>As soon as this bill was <a href="https://www.pivotlegal.org/sesta_fosta_censoring_sex_workers_from_websites_sets_a_dangerous_precedent" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">signed into law</a>, websites where sex workers often vetted and arranged meetings with their clients could now be held liable for the actions of the millions of people that used their sites. This meant websites could be prosecuted if they engaged in "the promotion or facilitation of prostitution" or "facilitate traffickers in advertising the sale of unlawful sex acts with sex trafficking victims." </p><p><strong>The bill's effects were felt around the world — from Canadians being unhappy with the impact of this American bill to U.K. politicians considering the implementation of similar laws in the future.</strong> </p><p>Heather Jarvis, the program coordinator of the Safe Harbour Outreach Project (SHOP), which supports sex workers in the St. John's area, <a href="https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/newfoundland-labrador/heather-jarvis-website-shutdown-1.4667018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">explained to CBC in an interview</a> that the American bill is impacting everyone, everywhere: "When laws impact the internet — the internet is often borderless — it often expands across different countries. So although these are laws in the United States, what we've seen is they've been shutting down websites in Canada and other countries as well."</p><p>Jarvis suggests in her interview that instead of doing what they aimed to do with the bill and improving the safety of victims of sex trafficking or sexual exploitation, the website shutdowns are actually making sex workers less safe. </p><p>While <a href="https://gizmodo.com/the-uk-wants-its-own-version-of-fosta-sesta-that-could-1827420794" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">one U.K. publication</a> refers to FOSTA-SESTA as "well-intentioned but ultimately deeply-flawed laws," it also mentions that politicians in the United Kingdom are hoping to pursue similar laws in the near future. </p>
Has FOSTA-SESTA done more harm than good?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUxMzY5Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2ODUyNDc4OX0.dSEEzcflJJUTnUCFmuwmPAIA0f754eW7rN8x6L7fcCc/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=-68%2C595%2C-68%2C595&height=700" id="69d99" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="734759fa254b5a33777536e0b4d7b511" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="sex worker looking online for a job" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
Is this really going to help, or is this bill simply pushing sex work and sex-related content further into the dark?
Credit: Евгений Вершинин on Adobe Stock<p>While <a href="https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20180321006214/en/National-Anti-Trafficking-Coalition-Celebrates-Survivors-Senate-Passes" target="_blank">supporters of this bill</a> have framed FOSTA-SESTA as a vital tool that could prevent sex trafficking and allow sex trafficking survivors to sue those websites for facilitating their victimization, many other people are strictly against the bill and hope it will be reversed.</p><p><strong>One of the biggest problems many people have with this bill is that it forces sex workers into an even more dangerous situation, which is quite the opposite of what the bill had intended to do.</strong> </p><p>According to <a href="https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-anti-trafficking-activists-cheer-but-sex-workers-bemoan-shutdown-of/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Globe and Mail</a>, there has been an upswing in pimps sending sex workers messages that promise work - which puts sex workers on the losing end of a skewed power-dynamic, when before they could attempt to safely arrange their own meetings online. </p><p><strong>How dangerous was online sex work before FOSTA-SESTA? </strong></p><p><a href="https://www.beyond-the-gaze.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/BtGbriefingsummaryoverview.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The University of Leicester Department of Criminology</a> conducted an online survey that focused on the relative safety of internet-based sex work compared with outdoor sex work. According to the results, 91.6 percent of participants had not experienced a burglary in the past 5 years, 84.4 percent had not experienced physical assault in the same period, and only 5 percent had experienced physical assault in the last 12 months. </p><p><a href="https://www.pivotlegal.org/sesta_fosta_censoring_sex_workers_from_websites_sets_a_dangerous_precedent" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">PivotLegal</a> expresses concerns about this: "It is resoundingly clear, both from personal testimony and data, that attacking online sex work is an assault on the health and safety of people in the real world. In a darkly ironic twist, SESTA/FOSTA, legislation aimed at protecting victims of and preventing human trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation, will do the exact opposite."</p><p><strong>Websites are also being hypervigilant (and censoring more content than needed) because they can't possibly police every single user's activity on their platform.</strong> </p><p>Passing this bill meant any website (not just the ones that are commonly used by sex traffickers) could be held liable for their user's posts. Naturally, this saw a general "tightening of the belt" when it came to what was allowed on various platforms. In late 2018, shortly after the FOSTA-SESTA bill was passed, companies like Facebook slowly began to alter their terms and conditions to protect themselves. </p><p>Facebook notably added sections that express prohibited certain sexual content and messages:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>"Content that includes an implicit invitation for sexual intercourse, which can be described as naming a sexual act and other suggestive elements including (but not limited to):</em></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>– vague suggestive statements such as: 'looking forward to an enjoyable evening'</em></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>– sexual use of language […]</em></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>– content (self-made, digital or existing) that possibly portrays explicit sexual acts or a suggestively positioned person/suggestively positioned persons."<br><br> </em></p><p>Additionally, sections like this were also added, prohibiting things that could allude to sexual activity: </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>"Content in which other acts committed by adults are requested or offered, such as:</em></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>– commercial pornography</em></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>– partners that share fetishes or sexual interests"</em></p><p>Facebook wasn't the only website to crack down on their policies — the Craigslist classifieds section being removed and Reddit banned quite a large number of sex-worker related subreddits. </p><p><strong>Is FOSTA-SESTA really helpful?</strong> </p><p>This is the question many people are facing with the FOSTA-SESTA acts being passed just a few years ago. Is this really going to help, or is this bill simply pushing sex work and sex-related content further into the dark? Opinions seem to be split down the middle on this — what do you think?</p>