Adam, Eve, and Evolution

by Marian Van Court

The traditional interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve is that they disobeyed God by eating the forbidden apple, which is the origin of Original Sin. I shall present a new interpretation (based largely on the principles of evolutionary psychology) that the story symbolizes the major step in our evolution from animal to human, a transition which spanned millions of years.

Occasionally people refer to Adam and Eve eating from the tree of knowledge. They leave off the "of good and evil" part, which is crucial. The Biblical passage clearly states that they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. If it were merely the tree of knowledge, the passage would make no sense whatsoever. God said:

Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

Later, the Serpent assured Eve that what God had told her was untrue, and that her fears were unfounded:

Ye shall not surely die. For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods . . . .

Adam and Eve ate the apple, and when God realized this, He said:

Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.

Thus, God confirmed that what the Serpent had said when he tempted Eve was, in fact, true. Now they have souls, and their consciousness lives forever, even after their bodies are gone. They have become as one of us.

In the traditional interpretation, the Serpent is considered wicked. Its plain from the text that the Serpent was perfectly truthful in everything he said to Adam and Eve, and the fact that he was telling the truth is somehow overlooked, as is the fact that God deceived them, at least until the point at which they ate the apple. This is an inescapable conclusion, and God admits as much later on. The fact that God lied to them is also ignored or glossed over by the traditional interpretation.

God told Adam and Eve if they ate from that one tree, they would die. But clearly, they ate from the tree, and they didn't die!! It could be argued that, in the very broadest sense of the word, that they did die, the change in them being so great, their former selves and their former lives being lost forever. However, a stronger case could be made that God simply deceived them. Maybe it was for their own good, but He deceived them, nevertheless. God goes on to confirm everything the Serpent predicted, and Adam and Eve became as gods. How did the Serpent know all these things?

Perhaps it makes sense to view God and the Serpent as two aspects of the same entity. God loved Adam and Eve, and didn't want to see them suffer, but, having planted the tree in the Garden, God knew it was inevitable that at some point they would eat from it. In this story, God and the Serpent may represent the two opposite poles of a conflict similar to the one parents feel as their children grow up, need them less, and venture out into the cold, cruel world. Parents want their children to become independent, but they also want to keep them at home, forever safe.

What exactly is meant by knowledge of good and evil? It means morality, a distinctly human trait. It means the entire array of emotions, beliefs, and behaviors that goes along with it, such as the assumption of free-will, desire for approval and respect, fear of rejection, guilt, pride, envy, admiration, desire for revenge, ambition, anxiety, shame, remorse, love-- in short, all the emotions that make up the glue holding human social groups together, motivating members to suppress hostile impulses, forgo selfish interests, and work for the common good. Eventually, this leads to the development of civilization, along with its numerous ramifications.

Acquiring the knowledge of good and evil means evolving from animals to human beings. Becoming human was both a blessing and a curse. There was much to be gained from it--as the Serpent said, "your eyes shall be opened". But it entailed a steep price. God said to Eve, "I will increase your labor and in labor you shall bear children." Why specifically that? Because becoming human meant becoming more intelligent, and in order to do that, their brains had to grow larger, resulting in extremely painful births which lower primates, with smaller head-to-body ratios, do not experience. This evolution of larger brains, along with an un- avoidable increase in pain during childbirth, is at the very heart of the process of becoming human.

Before, they were naked, but unashamed, their sexuality uninhibited, like animals. Afterwards, they suddenly realized they were naked, and they stitched loincloths from fig leaves. Strong social restrictions on sexual behavior characterize any civilized people, and make up an integral part of the whole cluster of moral beliefs and behaviors that distinguish us from lower animals.

When Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden, they began the long, Faustian journey to human-hood, striving for understanding and mastery. God said to Adam, "You shall gain your bread by the sweat of your brow until you return to the ground." No longer could he pluck fruit from a tree when he got hungry the way a monkey does. He cultivated the land, tended his flock, and put away food for hard times. He had the intelligence to envision the horror of famine, and he knew if he didn't work hard and plan wisely, he and his family would starve.

Back in the security and isolation of The Garden, good and evil were hardly salient concepts. But suddenly they become very real, and very potent forces, in human social groups where survival itself is uncertain. Good is whatever helps the group as a whole to survive and prosper--courage, honesty, unselfishness, intelligence, hard work. Evil is whatever harms the group--cowardice, dishonesty, selfishness, stupidity, and laziness.

The concepts of good and evil were integrated into the culture. Parents taught children to share, to be honest, and to consider the feelings of others. The concepts became internalized, along with all the whole vast array of emotions, both powerful and subtle, that go with them. For example, a man feels instinctive rage when he discovers his wife with another man. People feel spontaneous resentment upon witnessing the selfish or deceitful behavior of others. They experience fear and anxiety when they imagine themselves ostracized by the group for engaging in forbidden acts. And they feel pride after being praised for making a major contribution to the group. All of these pleasant and unpleasant emotions form a system of positive and negative reinforcement that molds the behavior of individuals and keeps the group working successfully as a unit.

The importance of the group is paramount, for we know that human beings must band together in order to survive. Groups with a highly developed morality survived in greater numbers than those without it, thus the genetic predisposition increased in the population. The most successful hunters and warriors received the admiration and gratitude of all, as did the most ingenious inventors--in short, those who contribute to the group. Thieves and murderers were executed or banished. Adolescent boys dreams of glory constituted specially potent fuel for the creative process that constructed technology and civilization. This entire dynamic, the network of prescriptions and proscriptions, facilitated group co-operation, cohesion, morale, progress, and ultimately, survival.

How does the story of Adam and Eve end? They (or shall I say "we") are still evolving. Will we become more and more human--smarter, more compassionate, more creative--until eventually we become one with God? Maybe in some symbolic sense we will come full circle back to the Garden. The story of Adam and Eve is a beautiful and powerful allegory. I hope what I have suggested fits the original text from Genesis reasonably well, and that it at least provides an interesting alternative interpretation to the traditional one.


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