Original Sin short version

Original sin is, as the name suggests, to do with origins.  What are those origins?  Science can tell us.  We and the chimpanzees split off from a common chimpanzee-like ancestor only six million years ago.  When Jane Goodall first went to Gombe she found peaceable and gentle creatures living in stable communities.  This was the more remarkable in that, despite the ebullience of  male hierarchies, in most primate societies stability is founded not on male hierarchies but female ones, because males leave their natal troupes while females stay.   With chimpanzees it is the other way round.   They are dominated by unstable, quarrelling males.  How, then, was it that the chimpanzee societies at Gombe in the early sixties  were so stable?  Jane Goodall thought that the extraordinary devotion of mothers to infants was of great importance.  Remarkably, her accounts parallel those of Winnicott and Bowlby, who found that stability in human adults is founded on identification with the mother in infancy.


In 1973 the situation at Gombe changed dramatically.  Almost overnight Goodall’s gentle chimpanzees became aggressive and violent genocidal killers.  The delicate psychological structures within they had lived had collapsed.  The parallel with human history can hardly be missed.  In Rwanda and Cambodia and the Balkans , and in so many other places, people who had lived peaceably with their neighbours for years suddenly turned on them with the greatest violence.  This is what original sin is, it is behaving not like human beings but like algorithmically driven chimpanzees,  and not even like chimpanzees but like chimpanzees who were themselves not behaving in ways appropriate to their own species.  The point to grasp about original sin is that it is not sinful.  There is no such thing as positive evil, says Aquinas, only an absence of good.  Original sin is the collapse of delicate behavioral structures that belong to our species and their debasement into behaviours which are characteristic of less highly developed evolutionary forms.  It is hardly surprising, for we developed from them and still share their genes with them.


Because animals compete aggressively with each other at more primitive evolutionary levels, their aggression is contained by appeasement instincts.  But the chimpanzees, and even more we ourselves, have largely lost these instincts, which explains why we are so violent.  But this collapse back into more primitive behaviours doesn’t necessarily have to take the form of mass genocide.  Compulsive philandering, vain exhibitionism and devious scheming to do down rivals are all behaviours  highly characteristic of chimpanzees.  If there is anything atheists get upset about it is original sin.  How can an innocent little baby be sullied by an evil that it has not itself committed?   It is a misconception.  If there is anything that science tells us Christian doctrine has got right it is original sin.  We inherited it from our chimpanzee-like ancestor.


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