Out of Eden

The Garden of Eden:

The Biblical account of the Garden of Eden is a parable, an attempt to explain human origins by pre-modern men, designed more to instruct than inform. The story is literally believable only by the most committed fundamentalists, but it is beautiful, evocative, and symbolically important. It decribes the most important single event in the long and eventful history of our species, its birth.

There has been a great deal of scientific investigation into human origins during the last century or so, but it seems as if no matter how much we learn, we remain far from achieving a scientifically respectable account of how we happened.

There is no general agreement, for example, as to whether we were born just once, or at least in just one area during a relatively short period, or whether a common ancestor moved into different areas, the different groups then evolving into humans more or less separately. Similarly, the scientific community is far from united on the question of how we should define the threshold that marks our ancestral transition from hominid to human. Do we establish it morphologically, in terms of changes in cranial capacity and related skeletal changes? Do we define the benchmark in terms of material culture, eg., tools, or the taming and use of fire? Bones and stones and bits of ash constitute the bulk of the tangible evidence we have, but what are we missing if we define our birth purely in terms that such evidence reveals?

The study of human origins is still in its youth, and there is every reason to believe that several generations from now we shall know a lot more than we do now. But I have reached an age where I cannot afford to wait, so I shall perforce sound off, here and now, with my own theories, which must of necessity be at least as much based on intuitive thinking as on deduction from known facts.

In my opinion, the feature that most clearly distinguishes man from other animals is a conscious awareness of self and surroundings that is both temporal and spatial. Here I make an assumption, which as far as I know is moot as far as available scientific evidence is concerned: namely that this unique self-consciousness followed rather closely on certain mutational changes in brain structure which some scientists consider to be the most critical element in the transition we have just discussed, from hominid to human. Or maybe it was an essential part of that morphological change, and the two were bound together in subtle ways that we may better understand in the future. Anyway, man, when he was born, had a new capacity for language, a brain capable of abstract thought, and a unique self-consciousness that made him something special, a first for this planet.

One thing leads to another. With this new awareness or self-consciousness came a sense of mortality that was qualitatively different from the instinct for survival that characterized other animals. Frustrated and fearful of the uncontrollable forces around him, man invented God, lost his animal innocence, and started on the road of cultural as opposed to biological evolution which led to where we are today.

There, I submit, is the true meaning of the parable of the Garden of Eden.

Early Man and God:

God, like man, had humble origins. At least that is the best inference we can draw from the religious practices of those very primitive societies that we have studied, and from whatever evidence the archeologists have brought to bear. We shall never know exactly when man invented God, and the precise circumstances thereof. But we are dealing in parables here, and perhaps a parable of my own can help illustrate my meaning–even though it lacks the grace and the patina of the one about the Garden of Eden.

Whereas man fertilizes woman to beget child, woman provided the vital force for man to beget God. Adam the caveman goes off with his son to hunt for something to eat, but the son has the misfortune to be eaten himself, by some large and unfriendly beast, near a peculiarly shaped rock. As if Adam weren’t already miserable enough about this development, Eve, the mother of the late son and several others, proceeds to give him a hard time. “You”, she declaims, “are the big noise around here, the smartest and strongest character in the neighborhood. This must be so, you told me so yourself, when you dragged me off from a perfectly well-organized family where this sort of thing was never allowed to happen. And there you go squandering my sons as though I could just rattle them off like a tree produces fruit. If you are going to maintain your credibility around here, you great hulk, you had better do something to make sure it won’t happen again…”. So the caveman goes and catches a rabbit or a bird and cuts its throat so it bleeds on the rock. What the hell, he thinks, I don’t know whether it will do any good or not. It may propitiate the beast that ate my boy, so at least he won’t try to do it again. Anyway, I can’t just stand around doing nothing, not with that harridan of a woman yelling at me. And I can’t think of anything better to do.” ………….And five thousand generations later people are still slitting the throats of lesser creatures at that rock in the conviction, now hallowed by precedence of unknowable antiquity, that it will do some good, and that no matter what happens, it would have been worse if they hadn’t gone to the trouble of making this sacrifice.

The foregoing occurred to me as a result of witnessing many such sacrifices during my years in South Asia, and trying to figure out exactly what the people undergoing the considerable expense (for them) of the sacrifice hoped to accomplish. Evidently they were reacting to unknowable and uncontrollable forces in an entirely human way–they felt a compulsion to”do something”.

Contemporary Americans have all sorts of ways of dealing with forces they don’t like or understand, from taking out insurance to bumper stickers. When our species was in its infancy, and very little in the environment was knowable and controllable, there were far fewer options, but there must have been a substantial demand for ways to “do something” about the myriad of problems people faced. Gods had to be there to provide something known that could be appeased or conciliated or propitiated. Human ingenuity rose to the occasion.

The gods soon proved that they could be useful for other purposes as well. Gods provided a rationale enabling the individual to cope with the deaths of those most important to him, and ultimately his own. Critical passages in the lives of both individuals and groups demanded ritual to mark the occasion as something special. Gods added authority to such ritual and thereby strengthened solidarity within the clan. Gods identified with individual tribes and thereby strengthened that group in its morale and combat effectiveness against tribes powered by other gods.

As societies became more complex, so did their gods. Throughout human history, right up to contemporary times, religious beliefs provided a strong underpinning to the cohesion of social groups. Theism was and remains a powerful force–a force for the better in older times, less so now. It is getting harder and harder for many of us to accept a divinity that is clearly man’s own creation as our creator and savior. We are ready to assume that burden ourselves.

Carl Coon

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