Let’s begin with a little primer. According to Christian doctrine, especially in Western Christianity, sin and death entered the world through the disobedience of Adam and Eve, the proto-parents of the human race, who defiantly ate of the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and thus earned God’s enmity and attracted the brutality of the punishment — namely labour and child-bearing — that has been borne by the human race ever since. Of course, no doubt, in context, the story is a mythical-allegorical account of what it means to become human, to become conscious of the choice that we can make between good and evil, and to know that we will die. Thus the story tells us about ourselves, and how, through consciousness, we became aware of our situation in the world, how awareness grew that we can make good and bad choices, and that choices have consequences. The story of Cain and Abel which follows close on the heels of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden of delights into the stony ground of the world where life is hard, and violence reigns, and death is an ever present reality, is an allegory of the gift and curse of consciousness.
The church however did not interpret the story allegorically — or, if it did allow for allegory, also gave it a totally realistic cast as well, assuming that it was an actual historical event that took place at the very beginning, when human beings were first created, and who, in defiance of their creator, took their first halting steps towards autonomy, and sought to become as gods, who alone, knowing good and evil, can be truly autonomous. The result, according to Christian doctrine, is that, ever since their first parents sinned through disobedience, humankind has been inherently corrupt in the core of its very being and essence, a corruption that can only be healed by a creative act of God. Just as God created humanity whole and without blemish, so only a new creation will suffice to remove the corruption which, by their hubris and attempt at self-creation, the first parents of the human race bequeathed to their children and children’s children until today.
There is, however, evidence that this is not true, which is one of the reasons why Steven Pinker’s new book, The Better Angels of our Nature, is a decisive response to the Christian doctrine of the Fall of Man and Original Sin. According to Christian doctrine intraspecies violence, since it springs from an inherent fault in human beings, caused by
Man’s First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought death into the World, and all our woe,
(as Milton put it) and thus derives from a deep-seated urge or drive towards evil, should be relatively constant throughout history. There should be no way for human beings themselves to resolve the problem of human violence and evil; instead, all we should be able to do is to await our deliverance, an event which Christians celebrate with joy and solemnity in the Christmas-Easter cycle, when a “greater Man restore[s] us” to the promise and inheritance that was ours by right of creation, though stolen from us by disobedience. What was lost by disobedience was restored by obedience even unto death. And the restoration was, according to Christians, sealed by the resurrection, which is the guarantee that we have been made whole, if only we, in turn, remain faithful unto death. This is why the martyrs are still celebrated by the church and remembered with so much piety, for martyrs are, in a sense, our warrant that what was promised in Christ will be fulfilled.
However, Pinker puts a lie to all that. I have only been able, since the book arrived yesterday noon, to read seventy pages or so, but it is clear on one thing. Primitive hunter-gatherer societies were dangerous societies. People in early societies, such as might have been represented by Adam and Eve and their kin, stood a far greater chance of dying violently at the hands of other human beings than practically any of us in a world of governments and nation states. If we were inherently prone to this kind of violence — that is, if killing our con-specifics was a natural urge, as the Original Sin hypothesis suggests, and not based on calculations of interest — then governance should have little control over rates of violent deaths.
As Pinker says:
Though war is common among foraging groups, it is certainly not universal. Nor should we expect it to be if the violent inclinations in human nature are a strategic response to the circumstances rather than a hydraulic response to an inner urge. [52; my italics]
I am assuming that Original Sin is not based on calculated advantage but on what Pinker calls “a hydraulic response to an inner urge.” If it were based on calculated advantage, then the problem is context, not the nature of the person. The fact that, in societies in which the monopoly of violence is ceded (whether voluntarily or not) to a government to which all are subject, the rate of violent death declines with astonishing rapidity, seems to indicate quite clearly that violence is not the result of an inner urge to kill, and not, thus, dependent upon a nature altered, as suggested, by an original act of disobedience, but that it is, instead, the result of the lack of certainty in ungoverned societies, and the outcome of a strategic calculation of advantage in circumstances governed by such uncertainty. In other words, there are game-theoretic reasons why Cain killed Abel, probably related to the fact that Cain was a hunter-gatherer and Abel an agriculturalist, and the conflict between these two different groups of early Homo sapiens, and not because one’s sacrifice was acceptable to God whereas the other’s was not.
I don’t want to carry this particular piece of speculation further than this for the moment, but it seemed worthwhile mentioning, since the question of Original Sin and its “metaphysical” status has been at issue lately. If Pinker is right, and, despite John Gray’s more pessimistic assessment of the nature of human violence, it seems to me that he probably is, then there is pretty substantial evidence suggesting that the idea of Original Sin, based, no doubt, on the observation that life in certain circumstances, as Hobbes claimed, is largely “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” is not, despite claims to the contrary, the result of a careful analysis of the nature of being human, and may derive entirely from selection bias, the early writers simply not having the advantage, as we do, of a great deal more evidence than was available to the writers of the Genesis fable upon which Christianity has based so much.