Saturday, 8 June 2013

Evolution and Original Sin - 1

The inability to reconcile Original Sin as classically taught by the Christian world and what evolutionary biology has shown us about the origin of the human race is arguably the main reason behind the rejection of evolution by many Christians, particularly those in the Reformed tradition. The specific details of how Adam's sin affected the human race varies between the denominations [1] but there is broad agreement that the consequences of Adam's sin have been transmitted in a genetic way to the entire human race.

 The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
The consequences of Adam's sin for humanity 
402 All men are implicated in Adam's sin, as St. Paul affirms: "By one man's disobedience many (that is, all men) were made sinners": "sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned." The Apostle contrasts the universality of sin and death with the universality of salvation in Christ. "Then as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man's act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men." 
403 Following St. Paul, the Church has always taught that the overwhelming misery which oppresses men and their inclination towards evil and death cannot be understood apart from their connection with Adam's sin and the fact that he has transmitted to us a sin with which we are all born afflicted, a sin which is the "death of the soul". Because of this certainty of faith, the Church baptizes for the remission of sins even tiny infants who have not committed personal sin. 
404 How did the sin of Adam become the sin of all his descendants? The whole human race is in Adam "as one body of one man". By this "unity of the human race" all men are implicated in Adam's sin, as all are implicated in Christ's justice. Still, the transmission of original sin is a mystery that we cannot fully understand. But we do know by Revelation that Adam had received original holiness and justice not for himself alone, but for all human nature. By yielding to the tempter, Adam and Eve committed a personal sin, but this sin affected the human nature that they would then transmit in a fallen state. It is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation to all mankind, that is, by the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice. And that is why original sin is called "sin" only in an analogical sense: it is a sin "contracted" and not "committed" - a state and not an act.
405 Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam's descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it, subject to ignorance, suffering and the dominion of death, and inclined to sin - an inclination to evil that is called "concupiscence". Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ's grace, erases original sin and turns a man back towards God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle.
406 The Church's teaching on the transmission of original sin was articulated more precisely in the fifth century, especially under the impulse of St. Augustine's reflections against Pelagianism, and in the sixteenth century, in opposition to the Protestant Reformation. Pelagius held that man could, by the natural power of free will and without the necessary help of God's grace, lead a morally good life; he thus reduced the influence of Adam's fault to bad example. The first Protestant reformers, on the contrary, taught that original sin has radically perverted man and destroyed his freedom; they identified the sin inherited by each man with the tendency to evil (concupiscentia), which would be insurmountable. The Church pronounced on the meaning of the data of Revelation on original sin especially at the second Council of Orange (529) and at the Council of Trent (1546).
A hard battle. . .
407 The doctrine of original sin, closely connected with that of redemption by Christ, provides lucid discernment of man's situation and activity in the world. By our first parents' sin, the devil has acquired a certain domination over man, even though man remains free. Original sin entails "captivity under the power of him who thenceforth had the power of death, that is, the devil". Ignorance of the fact that man has a wounded nature inclined to evil gives rise to serious errors in the areas of education, politics, social action and morals.
408 The consequences of original sin and of all men's personal sins put the world as a whole in the sinful condition aptly described in St. John's expression, "the sin of the world". This expression can also refer to the negative influence exerted on people by communal situations and social structures that are the fruit of men's sins.
409 This dramatic situation of "the whole world [which] is in the power of the evil one" makes man's life a battle:
The whole of man's history has been the story of dour combat with the powers of evil, stretching, so our Lord tells us, from the very dawn of history until the last day. Finding himself in the midst of the battlefield man has to struggle to do what is right, and it is at great cost to himself, and aided by God's grace, that he succeeds in achieving his own inner integrity. [2]

Chapter VI of the Westminster Confession of Faith, "Of the Fall of Man, of Sin, and the Punishment thereof" advances a similar argument:

I. Our first parents, being seduced by the subtilty and temptations of Satan, sinned, in eating the forbidden fruit. This their sin, God was pleased, according to His wise and holy counsel, to permit, having purposed to order it to His own glory. 
II. By this sin they fell from their original righteousness and communion, with God, and so became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the parts and faculties of soul and body.
III. They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed; and the same death in sin, and corrupted nature, conveyed to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation.
IV. From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions. 
V. This corruption of nature, during this life, does remain in those that are regenerated; and although it be, through Christ, pardoned, and mortified; yet both itself, and all the motions thereof, are truly and properly sin.
VI. Every sin, both original and actual, being a transgression of the righteous law of God, and contrary thereunto, does in its own nature, bring guilt upon the sinner, whereby he is bound over to the wrath of God, and curse of the law, and so made subject to death, with all miseries spiritual, temporal, and eternal. [3]
The Westminster Larger Catechism reinforces this:
Question 25: Wherein consists the sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell?
Answer: The sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell, consists in the guilt of Adam's first sin, the want of that righteousness wherein he was created, and the corruption of his nature, whereby he is utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite unto all that is spiritually good, and wholly inclined to all evil, and that continually; which is commonly called original sin, and from which do proceed all actual transgressions.
Question 26: How is original sin conveyed from our first parents unto their posterity?
Answer: Original sin is conveyed from our first parents unto their posterity by natural generation, so as all that proceed from them in that way are conceived and born in sin. [4]

It is hardly surprising that churches from the Reformed tradition are prominent in their rejection of evolution as their formulation of Original Sin requires the entire human race to be descended exclusively from Adam and Eve for them to inherit the guilt and consequence of Adam's sin. However, if the entire human race was exclusively descended from two people living a few thousand years ago, we would see evidence of a recent sharp 'genetic bottleneck' consistent with that origin. We do not see this. In fact, the amount of genetic diversity we see in the human race simply could not have emerged by the standard mutation rates from two people living six to ten thousand years ago.

A recent (2011) paper in Nature [5] examined the genetic data from a representative sample of human beings in order to estimate the minimum population sizes in the human race from ten thousand years ago to one million years ago.

Population size versus time. Source Nature 475:493-497.

The data show two different genetic bottlenecks, one occurring three million years ago, the other around 20,000 - 40,000 years ago. The geneticist Jerry Coyne observes:

The second bottleneck is the one of interest, for it’s the one associated with a reduced population size as humans left Africa.  For the Chinese, Korean, and European genomes, effective population size fell from about 13,500 (at 150,000 years ago) to about 1200 between 20,000 and 40,000 years ago.  Now this is the effective population size, almost certainly an underestimate of census size, but that only makes the problem worse: we never went through a bottleneck of anything near two individuals, as the Biblical Adam-and-Eve story suggests. [6]

Coyne is a vocal atheist who regards Christianity with little favour, but he's correct when he points out Original Sin is refuted by the molecular data. The evangelical Christian and geneticist Dennis Venema likewise argues that the genetic evidence comprehensively rules out universal exclusive human descent from Adam and Eve:

Taken individually and collectively, population genomics studies strongly suggest that our lineage has not experienced an extreme population bottleneck in the last nine million years or more (and thus not in any hominid, nor even an australopithecine species), and that any bottlenecks our lineage did experience were a reduction only to a population of several thousand breeding individuals. As such, the hypothesis that humans are genetically derived from a single ancestral pair in the recent past has no support from a genomics perspective, and, indeed, is counter to a large body of evidence. [7]

What the genetic evidence comprehensively shows is that Adam and Eve simply could not be the sole ancestors of the entire human race. No amount of appeals to Romans 5v12 is going to make the fossil evidence of anatomically modern human beings [8] dating back nearly 200,000 years ago vanish, or eliminate the fact that no sharp genetic bottleneck dating to only 6-10 thousand years exists. Original Sin as classically formulated has been overturned by evolutionary biology, and Christianity if it is to remain credible needs to acknowledge this, and re-examine the Bible to see if Original Sin owes more to the early church fathers than to the Bible.

This article first appeared on my Facebook page here


1. Unlike Catholic and Reformed Christianity, the Orthodox church is not troubled to the same extent by evolutionary biology as it does not believe in Original Sin as formulated by the Catholic and Reformed traditions: "This Eastern understanding of human origin and destiny is clearly distinct from the prevailing trends of Western thought as expressed in the Augustinian tradition, and later in  Scholasticism and the  Reformation. It does not involve a clear opposition between  nature and  grace, since human nature—our very existence—implies participation in God (i.e., in grace). Without communion with God, human beings lose their very humanity. Furthermore, the sin of  Adam and Eve is not interpreted as transmissible  guilt, requiring retribution. Rather, their rebellion resulted in their mortality and that of their children, as well as in a new cosmic situation in which the  serpent has usurped God’s power and human beings no longer enjoy full  freedom but have become dependent upon the requirements of a constant struggle for survival. Indeed, “death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam” (Rom. 5:14). Fallen humanity is an enslaved, rather than a guilty, humanity; in conditions of fallenness, however, sin becomes inevitable." See Encyclopedia of Christianity Volume 3 (Eerdmans 1999) p 863

2. Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd Ed)

3. The Westminster Confession of Faith (with proofs) Chapter VI "Of the Fall of Man, of Sin, and the Punishment thereof"

4. The Westminster Larger Confession.

5. Li H., Durbin R "Inference of human population history from individual whole-genome sequences" Nature (2011) Nature 475:493-497.

6. Coyne J "How big was the human population bottleneck? Another staple of theology refuted." Why Evolution Is True September 18th 2011

7.Venema D.R. "Genesis and the Genome: Genomics Evidence for Human-Ape Common Ancestry and Ancestral Hominid Population Sizes" Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith  (2010) 62(3): 166-178

8. Mcdougall, I; Brown, FH; Fleagle, JG "Stratigraphic placement and age of modern humans from Kibish, Ethiopia". (2005) Nature 433 (7027): 733–73