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Doing without Adam and Eve: Sociobiology and Original Sin.

Doing without Adam and Eve: Sociobiology and Original Sin. By Patricia A. Williams. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001. xvii and 227 pages. Papes. $18.00.

Patricia Williams seeks to correlate the insights of sociobiology with that of a scriptural anthropology properly liberated from traditional views of original sin. For Williams, the dominant Christian tradition has tended to read into the story of Adam and Eve a "catastrophic transgression," the "Fall," in order to give credence to the seriousness of Jesus' death as atonement (p. 21). This reading is unwarranted both scripturally and scientifically. Consequently, freedom and responsibility, good and evil are to be reinterpreted in light of new readings of scripture and our evolutionary history.

The Western theological tradition, as guided by Augustine, has emphasized that human freedom is found in a necessary obedience to God, while being shackled to the bondage of obedience to evil in sin (p. 46). Given this incompatibility between necessity and freedom, Williams sees the Protestant doctrine of original sin as incoherent (p. 55). Instead of the traditional Christian understandings of the Fall, we should adopt Harold Bloom's interpretation of Genesis, in which Adam and Eve's behavior is far less evil and more childish. Indeed, their punishment is overly harsh in light of their infraction.

The question of sin raises the wider issue of how to understand evil. Here, Williams follows Roy Baumeister's psychological interpretation of evil. We mythically construe evil as the result of people's egocentricism. We assume that the world is normally peaceful, that victims are pure, that harm is gratuitous and intentional, that evil behavior is from uncontrolled emotions, and that the evil person is an outsider or alien to the community. These assumptions, which are paralleled in Christian views of sin, are all open to challenge.

The question of human evil raises the issue of a biological basis for evil, or, for that matter, good. Hence, Williams looks to sociobiology, the genetic study of animal social behavior. It employs statistical theory to help interpret group behaviors and dynamics (p. 124). A major concern of sociobiologists is the nature and origin of altruistic behavior: Why has altruism evolved? In response to the view that altruism is an unintentional result of the "selfish gene," the survival, even in self-sacrifice, of one's genetics as shared with other related organisms, Williams responds by seeking an interpretation of charity on the basis of sociobiology. She points out that natural selection does not select genes but organisms; it produces organisms aware of other organisms, not genes, though it is true that charity toward kin permits the effective reproduction of shared genes (p. 132).

Williams's study culminates with four findings (pp. 157-58): (1) with regard to freedom, our actions are not determined by our evolutionary inclinations, (2) we sin "because we have natural, evolutionarily necessary desires that may become inordinate, especially in environments different from that in which our ancestors evolved," (3) "Charity is not natural to us, although it can arise in us by naturalistic means. Natural to us are our sociality and altruism," and (4) we are not suffering because of a God-inflicted punishment on Adam and Eve; our suffering arises from our limitations in a developing universe. This latter point raises the question of theodicy: we evolved to be cocreators with God; God becomes a cosufferer with us (p. 197).

This book wants to correlate highly complex material, biblical, doctrinal, and from the social sciences and biology. After a fashion, it offers a kind of theodicy, a defense of God in light of evil. With respect to Genesis 3, Williams favors a Jewish over an Augustinian interpretation of the "Fall," seeing this story as recapitulated in the lives of all people and not as the transmission of original sin across the generations. This reviewer puzzles over two matters: (1) To what extent is charity, apart from faith, marked by ambitio divinitatis (the attempt to be our own gods for ourselves)? (2) To what extent is sociobiology not an "objective" science but thoroughly contoured by Epicurean and Hobbesian suppositions? In any case, this book is worth one's thorough engagement.

Mark C. Mattes

Grand View College

Des Moines, Iowa
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Author:Mattes, Mark C.
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 2005
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