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As a story of creation, the Book of Genesis long, long ago crumbled under the weight of science, notably Darwin's theory of natural selection. But Genesis isn't just about the beginning of the human race. It is also about the beginning of evil--about how and why sin and suffering entered human experience and stayed there. And here the verdict of science is more ambiguous. In some ways, the Bible's account of evil actually draws strength from the very Darwinism that undermined its account of history.

This doesn't mean that paleontologists have found hominid bones with "Adam" stamped on them along with evidence that Adam disobeyed God, thus condemning the rest of us to lives of toil and hardship. But it does mean that this biblical story line, as transmuted by later thinkers into religious doctrine, has produced some ideas that resonate with modern Darwinian theory. In particular, the Christian doctrine of original sin makes more sense as evolutionary psychologists learn more about why people do bad things.

The doctrine of original sin says that at birth we all inherit Adam's sinfulness. This is partly a claim about blame--it holds us accountable for Adam's sin even before we've done anything wrong--but it is also a claim about human nature; it says we are inclined to do wrong, that we have a hereditary dark side. As St. Augustine put it in the 5th century A.D.: After Adam sinned, our "soiled" and "corrupt" nature was "already present in the seed from which we were to spring."

As scientifically minded nitpickers have noted, there is a flaw here. The idea that Adam's choice of cuisine somehow affected biological inheritance involves the generally discredited Lamarckian notion that acquired traits get transmitted genetically. Still, a more generic version of Augustine's assertion--that sin results from biological drives passed through the human lineage ever since its origin--makes scientific sense.

By Darwinian lights, the classic sins, such as gluttony, lust, greed and envy, are the unchecked expression of impulses that arose by natural selection. During evolution, individuals with strong innate yearnings for food, sex and material goods did a better job of surviving and reproducing than individuals less drawn to these things. So we inherited genes conducive to such yearnings. In the same manner, anger (another of the deadly sins) became a naturally engrained tool of survival, aimed, for example, at those who would take our food or our mates.

In the essentially pre-technological context of human evolution, impulses such as gluttony, greed, even lust, were often blunted by scarcity. Only amid the material abundance that came with agriculture and grew thereafter could self-indulgence regularly reach grotesque levels. (Sodom and Gomorrah lay in the fertile plains. Their residents sinned amid plenty while Abraham herded his flock in rustic innocence on dryer terrain.) Similarly, anger acquired a new layer of evil with the invention of knives and spears, to say nothing of guns.

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