This piece appeared as a newspaper op/ed on May 30, 2020.
I see an important insight in the book of Genesis: namely, that the question of good and evil does not arise until human beings enter the picture, after all the other creatures had already been created.
That question of “good and evil” arises only to the extent that a creature can do things destructive of the wholes of which it is a part—whether that “whole” is a family, a society, a species, an ecosystem, or the whole biosphere?
Animals, ruled predominantly by instinct — and by learning achieved in the generally quite predictable environment into which they are born — have little range of possible conduct. They therefore have little chance to do anything destructive of the structures of their world.
(When a shark kills, it is following a behavioral program that got crafted in its ancestors because it both led to survival and was also compatible with the long-term viability of the system off of which it feeds.)
As the great ecologist Gregory Bateson once said, “No creature can win against its environment for long.” And that’s why the various organisms that emerge together in an ecological community are harmonious with each other in terms of perpetuating the Whole they comprise.
(The lions and the zebras and the grass work together — even as they devour each other — to make a perpetual motion machine powered by the sun.)
Only when something breaks out of the established order does serious destruction take place. And while pre-human events like the collision between the North and South American plates can lead to a disorderly mixing of different animal communities, it is only the emergence of humankind that makes possible a systematic break-out from the long-established biological order.
For starters, with us human beings the power of instinct to govern our behavior has been much reduced. That reduction of the role of instinct was necessary to make room for the important role of learning and flexibility required for us to become cultural creatures.
(We are born as ready to grow up to be members of a Mandarin Chinese society as of the society of the Israelites of the Old Testament or as the members of American society in the 21st century.)
That kind of flexibility – that kind of indeterminacy –brings with it a greater possibility of acting in ways that degrade the world around one. I.e., it creates the possibility of evil.
Human flexibility, by itself, would have sufficed to require humans to think in terms like “good” and “evil.” But the problem of “evil” – of destructiveness of living-serving order – was compounded by what happened when our kind stepped out of merely “cultural” life and made the breakthrough to “civilization.”
(The lives of hunter-gatherers, though full of culture, maintained a structure continuous with our primate ancestors. Only with civilized society does humankind make a real break.)
To quote an earlier column here, “the Rise of Civilization Brought the Reign of Power.”
The breakthrough into civilization created something unprecedented in the story of life on earth: i.e. a life-form — the “civilized society” — that it was not shaped by the forces of biological evolution but by the creative process of the creature itself.
When our species made this unprecedented break-out from the biological order, humankind inadvertently plunged into an unprecedented kind of anarchy. Societies were compelled to interact with each other regulated by no order – neither natural nor devised by humankind – that could protect the well-being of the Whole.
That anarchy made a struggle for power among civilized societies inevitable, a struggle that dictated that only the more powerful societies will be viable. And since the rise of civilization created open-ended possibilities for innovations in how societies organize themselves – some conducive to power, some not – it was inevitable that only those cultural ways conducive to success in the struggle for power could survive and spread.*
(In all seven places where civilization emerged on its own, civilization developed along the same tragic course of chronic war, tyranny, slavery.)
Therefore it was inevitable – given this “selection for the ways of power” — that civilization would develop in ways that people did not choose — would not have chosen — but could not avoid. The reign of power took the mere possibility of evil and subjected humankind to the inevitability of evil’s playing a central role in the human saga.
That was the context — the world shaped by the kind of chronic warfare, conquest, enslavement, and barbarous slaughter described in the Bible – in which the book of Genesis told the story that put the problem of evil at the center of the human dilemma.
But now – because the anarchy that was inescapable at civilization’s beginning is no longer inevitable for our future — the human story has the potential to move to a better phase. If that anarchy can be overcome in coming generations, humankind can move from the story in which the Fall is the focus, to a story where the human world has more of the beautiful elements of the Garden of Eden.
*Andy Schmookler develops some of these ideas in his book, The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution.