I've been reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, a book well-received by the public and less well-received by scholars. I certainly don't agree with everything in it. I reject the author's assertion that everything not empirically verifiable is fictional, and I most emphatically reject his assertion that human rights are fictional. I'm not exaggerating. He writes, for example: "Both the Code of Hammurabi and the American Declaration of Independence claim to outline universal and eternal principles of justice, but according to the Americans all people are equal, whereas according to the Babylonians people are decidedly unequal. The Americans would, of course, say that they are right, and that Hammurabi is wrong. Hammurabi, naturally, would retort that he is right, and that the Americans are wrong. In fact, they are both wrong. Hammurabi and the American Founding Fathers alike imagined a reality governed by universal and immutable principles of justice, such as equality or hierarchy. Yet the only place where such universal principles exist is in the fertile imagination of Sapiens, and in the myths they invent and tell one another. These principles have no objective validity....
"Advocates of equality and human rights may be outraged by this line of reasoning. Their response is likely to be, 'We know that people are not equal biologically! But if we believe that we are all equal in essence, it will enable us to create a stable and prosperous society.' I have no argument with that. This is exactly what I mean by 'imagined order'. We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society. Imagined orders are not evil conspiracies or useless mirages. Rather, they are the only way large numbers of humans can cooperate effectively. Bear in mind, though, that Hammurabi might have defended his principle of hierarchy using the same logic: 'I know that superiors, commoners and slaves are not inherently different kinds of people. But if we believe that they are, it will enable us to create a stable and prosperous society.'"
I hope the same obvious thought that occurred to me is occuring to everyone else: If human rights are fictional, then the Nazis did nothing wrong. It really is that simple. And in fact he later mentions them by name and presents their philosophy as no better or worse than any other philosophy he describes: "Like liberal humanism, socialist humanism is built on monotheist foundations. The idea that all humans are equal is a revamped version of the monotheist conviction that all souls are equal before God. The only humanist sect that has actually broken loose from traditional monotheism is evolutionary humanism, whose most famous representatives were the Nazis. What distinguished the Nazis from other humanist sects was a different definition of 'humanity', one deeply influenced by the theory of evolution. In contrast to other humanists, the Nazis believed that humankind is not something universal and eternal, but rather a mutable species that can evolve or degenerate. Man can evolve into superman, or degenerate into a subhuman."
He goes on to point out that "Biologists have since debunked Nazi racial theory," but that hardly matters because in his worldview there's nothing wrong with Nazis trying to create a stable and prosperous society by persisting in their imagined order that certain races are inferior and should be exterminated. Ironically, he's from Israel.
But it's still interesting to read about the history of civilization. One of the most fascinating parts for me was the agricultural revolution. I've read about the agricultural revolution before in vague terms that jive with his description, so I doubt this is one of the parts of the book that scholars don't like. Those vague terms are that the agricultural revolution formed the basis of our progress as a species, at the cost of making most people's lives significantly worse. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors had more leisure time, healthier and more varied diets, less disease, little or no tooth decay, less arthritis, less risk of starvation, less anxiety about the future, and longer lives than the people who decided it would be a good idea to settle down in one place and depend for their lives on a few varieties of plants that they may or may not be succcessful in growing. Agriculture was supposed to create more food, but thanks to the commensurate population expansion it really just created more work, and then the population expansion made it impossible to go back to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle even if people realized they screwed themselves over. But that's how we've ended up with cities and infrastructure and writing and technology, so, you know, I guess that's cool.
So I was reading about that and had an epiphany: Oh my gosh, this is totally the fall of Adam and Eve. Like many Christians, I reached the conclusion some time ago that Adam and Eve were not historically real people. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints still "officially" insists that they are. (I use scare quotes because as likely as not, thirty years from now the church will have quietly abandoned that doctrine and apologists will insist that it was never official.) As recently as General Conference a week ago, Jeffrey R. Holland said "that the saving grace inherent in [the Atonement of Jesus Christ] was essential for and universally gifted to the entire human family from Adam and Eve to the end of the world," and I wondered why all the humans who lived for two hundred thousand years before Adam and Eve allegedly lived are excluded from "the entire human family." Years ago in General Conference he was more blunt: "I do not know the details of what happened on this planet before that, but I do know these two were created under the divine hand of God, that for a time they lived alone in a paradisiacal setting where there was neither human death nor future family, and that through a sequence of choices they transgressed a commandment of God which required that they leave their garden setting but which allowed them to have children before facing physical death." I marveled at this substantial backtrack from earlier apostles who knew exactly what happened on this planet before that.
So when I was a member, I tried to reconcile a literal Adam and Eve in a literal Garden of Eden with the facts of biology and anthropology, and like many, I settled uncomfortably on some variation of the hypothesis that humans evolved like we know they did but then Adam and Eve were the first ones to be spirit children of God and be morally accountable. But as Holland's weak "I do not know the details of what happened on this planet before that" suggests, this isn't altogether satisfying. It just doesn't make sense to treat this story as historical, and maybe it makes even less sense to treat some parts as figurative and others not, like the LDS Church does. Multiple leaders have taught that Eve being made from Adam's rib is figurative, and it's generally accepted that the talking snake is not really a talking snake (in the endowment ceremony it's depicted as a perfectly human Lucifer, which I'm sure would bewilder the authors of Genesis). But the tree with the magical reality-altering fruit? Apparently that's a literal historical event at the core of LDS theology. And if it wasn't, what does it even mean to refer to "the Fall of Adam and Eve" or to say that "we live in a fallen world?" I recall a quote that I can't find now of Brigham Young saying that the Garden of Eden was a fairy story and that we weren't advanced enough to understand the truth, but he taught that Adam was God, so I'm not sure his alternative would be better.
However, setting aside literal vs. figurative for a moment and looking at general themes, in my opinion the LDS interpretation of the story is superior to the mainstream Christian interpretation. Framing the Fall as a positive and necessary step in God's plan without which humankind could not progress introduces its own plot holes (why did God tell them not to eat the fruit if they needed to eat the fruit, why did Eve say the serpent tricked her if she knew she needed to eat the fruit) but it makes a lot more sense than God being like "Oh crap, I just started and these stupid people I created have already screwed up my whole plan for this world. You'd think I would've had a little more foresight. Why did I put that stupid tree right there where they could reach it? Heck, why did I even create that stupid tree? Ugh, now I have to come up with a Plan B to save them and all their descendants whom I'm going to hold a grudge against just for being born." So I still bring that interpetive lens to the story, and that's probably why the agricultural revolution jumped out at me. It was an irreversible disaster and it was progress, and the two cannot be uncoupled.
I figured this seemingly obvious correlation must have occurred to many people before me, but I couldn't find much about it. I found someone asking about it on the RationalWiki forum and on the atheism subreddit almost a decade ago. On the former, it generated some legitimate discussion. On the latter, the top comment was "Personally, I think you're giving illiterate, nomadic, middle-eastern goatherds a little too much credit." The unconcealed bigotry there is pretty astonishing. Illiterate does not mean stupid, and I'm not sure what them being nomadic or Middle Eastern has to do with literally anything. Also, why does this atheist attribute a writtten narrative to illiterate people in the first place? Derp. Anyway, I don't presume that the authors of Genesis possessed a lot of modern knowledge about anthropology any more than they possessed a lot of modern knowledge about geology, astronomy, or biology. I don't presume that there's an intentional one-to-one correlation between every aspect of the figurative accounts in Genesis and the actual history of the Earth and humans. But if there is any objective reality to the theological concept of the Fall of humankind, I think it's more likely to be found in the agricultural revolution than in a magical fruit tree. And I'm fascinated by the possibility that this part of the creation myth developed out of some communal or genetic memory of real events even if the authors didn't understand those events. Or, you know, revelation, but that's actually less fascinating to me in this instance for some reason.
The other thing I found was a paper by Harry White of the Department of English at Northeastern Illinois University on "Adam, Eve, and Agriculture: The First Scientific Experiment." I don't know that he's an anthropologist or a biblical scholar, and there's a case to be made that English majors should shut up about topics outside their area of expertise. (Note to first-time readers, if any: this is funny because I have a bachelor's and a Masters in English.) I have seen neither a corroboration nor a refutation of the specific correlations he points out - in true English professor fashion - between the Bible story and the realities of hunting-gathering and agriculture (explaining, for instance, why the forbidden food item is fruit instead of peas) and I think their meaning would be impossible to prove or disprove anyway. I'll just pass along some less specific quotes that surprised me by how well they resonated with my understanding of the story. "If we would actually read the Bible in place of listening to what others tell us the Bible says, we will find that Genesis depicts no fall by which humankind dropped from a higher to a lower state of being. There was no ontological descent. The movement was horizontal and not vertical: Adam and Eve were simply displaced from the garden where food was abundantly available: 'No more free lunch.'...
"Despite the difficulties and frequent dangers of trial and error research, there are many advantages to learning on one’s own. One of the most important has to do with the difference between knowing that and knowing how. One may know that certain plants are poisonous because God, her husband or her mother told her so, but that kind of knowledge does not give the person the ability to discern poisonous from edible plants, or if need be, knowledge about how to make plants grow that are nourishing and good to eat. Knowing that something is the case does not automatically imbue a person with know-how....
"The word knowledge which appears in the phrase 'tree of knowledge' specifically indicates knowledge of an experiential type. The Tree of Knowledge which Eve and Adam eat from stands for what we would now identify as practical, empirical knowledge. What they bequeath to all humankind is neither evil nor sinfulness, but an understanding of the significance of practical knowledge gained through experience. What Eve acquires is very much the same kind of knowledge that the ancient Greeks understood Prometheus to have given to humankind....
"In the end we really aren’t told because it does not really matter what if anything Adam and Eve find out about the tree itself, whether what God told them about it was true or, as the serpent tells them, not quite so. What really matters is that Eve and Adam become like God by acquiring the skill needed to know things without having to be told; and if that’s the case, well then, they might as well leave God’s garden - 'If that’s what you really want, you don’t need me anymore' - and start cultivating plants on their own - which in fact is what they do."
In LDS theology, obtaining experiential knowledge is one of the primary purposes of life on Earth. Before our births we lived with God as unembodied spirits, and we were happy, but we couldn't make any more progress without being tested, making mistakes, learning from them, and yes, suffering so that we could learn to appreciate what it's like to not suffer. God, even with all His power, couldn't just download all the requisite knowledge into our brains. That's what I was taught, and of necessity I'm agnostic about it at the moment but it makes as much sense to me now as it did then. I don't know what to do with this insight, I just thought it was cool, okay?
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender Christian male, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic and asexual, so you can't, unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.