This two-part post is from a chapter titled “Gardens” in my book Crossfire Canyon, under construction. I haven’t posted on AMV for a while and thought I’d run this out there.
As a reliable account of the origin of life on Earth, the Old Testament story of the Garden of Eden may itself stand only a hair’s breadth from being cast out of the paradise of credence. “It didn’t happen, couldn’t have happened that way,” scientists say as they pronounce the Eden story indefensible. Over the last century and a half, they have promoted science-based and evidence-supported stories to supplant the Creation Story: narrative strains of Darwinism and neo-Darwinism, the yet-developing evolutionary tale.
The degree of interchangeability between the two storylines could be framed as a boxing match between contraries—Creationism v. Darwinism—with each side claiming to have landed multiple knock-out punches. Or perhaps, given both sides’ claims to Higher Truth, the contention is more like a jousting tournament. Despite the pageant’s being over a hundred-and-fifty years old, sterling knights on either side continue to try to unhorse each other, resulting, at times, in such heated language as to lay the nobility of both sides open to doubt. Rampant name-calling and disrespecting of persons abound, along with the dusting-off-of-feet on each other’s narrative grounds.
The evolutionary take on human origins is epic: Man began a long squirm out of the sea in a form far different from the one he has now. Some kind of environmental condition or trigger (and/or mutation, genetic drift, or accident of discovery) began to draw this creature out of its depths. In its pre-man body, in its blood and body salt and water content, early land-going ancestors developed the cellular equipment to internalize the sea and cart it around with them on land. Such transitions in physiological structure or in behavior that creatures make as they negotiate changes in their traditional environments or survive the demands of new ones are called “adaptations”. Charles Darwin named the process whereby organisms better adapted to their environment produce more offspring “natural selection”. In the Darwinian take on life’s origins, some fishy creature did eat the fruit of a Tree of Knowledge—or did breathe its forbidding fragrance. Because it transgressed natural boundaries (thou shalt surely die), there were revealed to it clever, verboten ploys for survival. Shame on it.
After attaining such knowledge, there was no going back (except in a few cases). The creature left behind the garden sea and did know others of its kind, producing a steady stream of transformations, some of which split off to pursue other interests. The environments hosting and, at times, driving these transformations continued to exert pressure, sometimes to the point of killing off completely some species we presume to have been unable to adapt quickly enough to survive. Such extinctions could be thought of as the snuffing out of the unfittest. Despite their failings, a fair number of these creatures have not been wholly lost to us. Their names are chiseled into the fossil record.
While the evolutionary narrative presents itself as shiny and new, non-teleological, rational, evidence-based, and—best of all—shame-free, some strands in its fabric do look familiar. According to Derek Bickerton in his book, Adam’s Tongue: How Humans Made Language, How Language Made Humans, in recent versions of the evolutionary tale, the environment approached omnipotence in its demands upon species: it played God. Bickerton quotes the neo-Darwinist George Williams (May 12, 1926 – September 8, 2010): “Adaptation is always symmetrical; organisms adapt to their environment, never vice versa.” Bickerton adds, “True, some biologists favored a more nuanced version, but for the majority, the organism was impotent, the environment all-powerful, and any interaction between the two ran along a strictly one-way street” (Bickerton 92).
In sneaking that word “all-powerful” into the sentence, Bickerton gives a head bob toward “that other” narrative. The God-man relationship in the Garden of Eden—and, indeed, the whole, long troubled relationship between both parties throughout the OT—was likewise a narrow, one-way street. God said; man did. Man never told God what to do, offered suggestions, dropped hints, or even cleared his throat, “ahem”. No, for man’s part, it was always, “Amen”.
True, here or there a patriarch debated options with his creator or wrestled an angel for a prize. For all we know, God granted these men what they asked because it amused him to do so, just as he forbade them certain privileges without discussion or otherwise ignored chances to intervene in their affairs or inform them of other options. In the OT, man was feckless, unless God favored him—or at least tolerated him enough not to destroy him. The key to survival in the OT story: Obedience, the bending of the human will to God’s demands. Obedience to an outside influence powerful enough to sustain your life, snuff it out, or at the very least raise beads of sweat on your brow—that was the Old Testament model of adaptation. In God’s terms for survival, if man didn’t do what God said, God destroyed him, frequently using the environment as hit-man. He sent flood waters to drown recalcitrant mankind and all but a fraction of life along with him. He bade the earth open up and swallow sinners who had resorted to old practices as security against uncertainty. He conjured the sea to crush the foreign army that pursued his darlings. He tormented and culled people with plagues. For those who dared to maintain their old ways against the decretae of this all-powerful God, the end of the world came abruptly. The earth gaped wide and sucked them down like a blue whale consumes krill—up to 40 million a day.
Okay, that krill part is a bit of an exaggeration. More to the point, this all powerful, vengeful model for God, with his “obey or die” dictum, and the all-powerful model of the environment, with its “adapt or die” commandment, were the ones I grew up with. Religion provided me the omnipotent, punishing God; my schooling served up the environmental model. In fact, up until very recently, the Environment Almighty take on the history of the earth formed the backbone of the dominant narrative strain of evolution. It made me uneasy in the same ways as did that fiercely jealous Old Testament God. The idea that my continued existence depended on a power so unforgiving, so potentially fatal caused me to hope that neither God nor Environment would find reason to turn a narrowed, disapproving eye upon me.
And yet . . .
To be continued in part two.
The illustrating painting is by Jose Maria Velasco (1840 – 1912) and is titled, in English, Flora and Fauna from the Miocene Cenozoic Period. Evolution of Continental Life on Earth.