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Homo Lapsus: Sin, evolution, and the God who is love, by Niamh M. Middleton 

08 November 2019

Adam Ford considers the argument that there was a ‘primal decision’

WE ARE driven to ask, yet again, that challenging question for Christian faith: why do we live in a world so full of pain and suffering? Why all the war, conflict, excessive cruelty, and the grinding injustices of social inequality? Is God responsible for designing it this way (a hard sort of loving); or is humanity to blame? Are we blighted by Original Sin, the term coined by St Augustine when reflecting on the writings of St Paul and the Genesis story of the Fall in the Garden of Eden? Did people wreck paradise?

The author of Homo Lapsus, a theologian with a thorough and appreciative understanding of evolutionary theory, has set herself an interesting question. Is there any evidence in the science of evolution to suggest that the biblical myth of the Garden of Eden and subsequent doctrines on Original Sin have their roots in the historical realities of our remote ancestors?

She delves into the theological writings of Aquinas and Luther, into the scientific speculations of Darwin and his contemporary Alfred Russell Wallace, and of the Neo-Darwinists; she explores the disciplines of palaeoanthropology, contemporary philosophy, and biological behaviourism. Overall, Middleton is a spiritual optimist, aligning herself with the belief in the spiritual progress of our species envisioned by Teilhard de Chardin.

Middleton’s answer to her question, clearly expounded and easily readable, is that there is indeed scientific evidence, from the era of our earliest ancestors and of the proto-humans that preceded them, that something went wrong at the birth of humanity, equivalent to the Fall described in Genesis. She agrees with Darwin’s speculations about the gentle nature and family-centred culture of our earliest ancestors, and with Wallace’s belief that divine intervention created humanity, with soul and a sense of morality, out of its primate forebears.

It has to be noted that the words “opinion” and “speculation” figure prominently in this account of our early history. Inevitably, the story that Middleton tells is not as scientifically empirical, perhaps, as some readers might like.

It is the author’s conclusion that a primal decision, made perhaps by a man and a woman, put the behavioural evolution of our species on to a wrong track, leading to the mess that we experience today. It was a decision that had to do with sex and power.

“It is my opinion that a large part of the answer to what went wrong at the outset of our history lies in finding why aggression rather than charm prevailed in the evolution of the human male.”

The Revd Adam Ford is a former Chaplain of St Paul’s School for Girls

Homo Lapsus: Sin, evolution, and the God who is love
Niamh M. Middleton
Deep River Books £12.40

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