A few ideas about original sin.
Original sin is what it says it is, it’s to do with origins. What are those origins? Science can tell us. We evolved from what was probably a chimpanzee like ancestor and split off from the chimpanzees only six million years ago. That means we must still be very like them, and indeed we share nearly 99% of their genes. When Jane Goodall went to Gombe in the early nineteen sixties she was struck by how peaceable and gentle these creatures were. But in 1973 all that suddenly changed. The Gombe troupe spit into northern and southern parts and the larger northern group started behaving aggressively and genocidally, systematically killing the male members of the southern group one by one, often in the cruellest ways, and taking over their females. You could hardly miss the comparison with human behaviour. In so many places – Germany, Armenia, China, Cambodia, Rwanda, the Balkans among others – people who had been living peaceably with their neighbours for centuries suddenly turned on them, torturing and killing them with extraordinarily zeal, apparently unhampered by humane feelings or moral doubt. How are we to explain this?
The more complex evolutionary forms have been so successful because genes are algorithmically selfish, in the technical biological sense. Algorithm is a term taken from mathematics and means a procedure that if correctly applied automatically ensures the correct result. Genes work automatically in this way to ensure the survival of their host and so of themselves. This must have been very important in the hazardous world of early humanity. If you see a lion coming you don’t waste time working out the best strategy to avoid it – without thinking you run away. One of the most important genetic strategies that ensured the survival of primates was the development of dominance hierarchies. In most primate species you would think it is the male hierarchies that are dominant because they are the most ebullient. But in fact, in most cases it is the females. This is because in most species it is the males who leave the natal troupe and the females who stay. It is the old females who are wise. But this is not the case with chimpanzees.
Here it is the females who leave and the males who stay, and the troupes are thus dominated by male hierarches that even by primate standards are exceptionally unstable and volatile. What holds chimpanzee troupes together then? Jane Goodall was greatly struck by the extraordinary affection of females for their young. What was lacking in social stability was made up for by psychological stability. Here perhaps we see the beginning of the human freedom that transcends algorithms. But whereas algorithmic stability is certain and assured, this kind of stability is delicately balanced and easily destroyed. When this happens humanity unravels and untrammelled selfishness takes over. It is because the bonds of human affection are so frail that subhuman behaviour occurs so easily. Christopher Browning’s Reserve Police Unit 101 and the Final Solution in Poland is a real eye opener. The primitive evolutionary logic is that my best way of ensuring that my social group, and therefore myself, survives is to wipe out competitors. The most ordinary decent people can become genocidal killers at the drop of an SS cap.
This is what original sin is, a reversion to compulsive subhuman behaviours that are truly characteristic not of our own species but of those more primitive from which we evolved. In this state people lose all sense except that of their own immediate advantage. They become compulsively selfish and algorithmically stupid. Genes are rather like satnav. If satnav doesn’t know a building site has been built across the road it will keep on telling you to drive into the middle of it come what may. ‘I took it for granted’ said Alan Greenspan ‘that the banks’ own self-interest would stop them from destroying themselves’. Well, apparently not. St Augustine knew more about human nature than Alan Greenspan. Moral stupidity is the hallmark of original sin. If the Church has got anything right it has got this right.