Science Reader Question: Original Sin Goes Viral?

secret photo

A bit of culture, or meme, is being inherited horizontally. (Photo by loumiwassim )

This series on evolutionary biology (1st post, 2nd post, 3rd post, 4th post) was prompted by some reader questions on the blog, but in parallel I was discussing some of the same issues via e-mail with theologian Mike Stell. Mike is an ESN contributor. He and I met in person at last summer’s BioLogos conference, and we struck up a correspondence on some of the topics that came up at that meeting. Last week’s post covered our conversation on humanity’s creation in God’s image. This week is our exploration of original sin. I make a couple of references to Nevin; that’s John Williamson Nevin and I’m referring to quotes I read here.


…[W]hat if original sin is a meme? Humans share ideas via symbolic communication — language. This method of spreading information has been formalized in the idea of the ‘meme,’ a packet of cultural information shared via language (or behavior), just as a gene is a packet of biological information shared via DNA. Sharing memes in essence becomes another form of inheritance.

Many theologies place a lot of significance on original sin being inherited from Adam. An evolutionary natural history, with its current estimate of no fewer than 10,000 humans at any given time, makes it difficult to believe that we are all descended from a single human pair. Adam and Eve could have been actual historical people who were made representatives of humanity, as we heard at BioLogos, but then we are not all united to them in the way that Nevin talks about. Memes can be inherited horizontally, meaning that they can be passed between people who do not have a parent-child relationship. This makes it possible that we are all memetic descendents of an actual Adam and Eve even if we aren’t all genetic descendents of them. Since Nevin’s concept of union already allows for material discontinuity — a union still exists between parent and child even when the child’s physical body no longer contains any of the atoms passed to it from its parents — it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to shift from genetic inheritance to memetic inheritance. There is still a continuity of connection stretching back to Adam and Eve.

… [P]erhaps our idea of biological inheritance or descent has narrowed over time as we have learned more about genetics, etc. So perhaps that is no longer the most accurate concept for original sin because it is a narrower concept than what Paul would have had in mind. (This is purely hypothetical on my part.) Perhaps memetic inheritance is closer to “what is the case” and what Paul was writing about, even though both Paul and modern readers have a concept of biological inheritance and descent.

In a sense, this is just another level of translation. We have already accepted that English words will be more readily understood in a modern American context than Hebrew or Greek, so we translate words. We also acknowledge that idioms and grammatical features don’t always map well word-for-word, so we update those accordingly. Perhaps sometimes we also need a translation at an even higher level, the level of concepts and analogies.

How did my memetic account of original sin strike you? Does it seem faithful from a doctrinal perspective? Does it seem plausible historically?


I have been pondering the idea of meme theory and original sin off and on since I read your e-mail. I have always had mixed feelings because of a couple of things. I guess the easiest thing to do would be to just state my questions/issues with it as a viable theory and you can respond, hopefully with some push back on my ideas.

Michelangelo, detail from The Fall and Expulsion of Adam and Eve, Sistine Chapel, photo courtesy of Andreagrossman via Wikimedia Commons

(Michelangelo, detail from The Fall and Expulsion of Adam and Eve, Sistine Chapel, photo courtesy of Andreagrossman via Wikimedia Commons)

One the one hand, memetics seems to be a convenient solution to the problem of an existing group of early hominids. It creates a nice way to think about how there can be a cultural transference of sinful knowledge across a larger group of people. It would even seem to have some Biblical support – Eve brought the fruit to Adam and he “saw that it was good for food” would seem to fit into a generalized meme type framework, at least as far as I understand memetics (I will be the first to admit that I know very little of the actual theory as presented by Dawkins).

I guess one of my issues with it is that it seems to think of sin in Pelagian terms. In other words, that sin is something that learned culturally, rather than something that is part of existence as humans. There are many perhaps who would say that our nature is sinful itself, but that seems to fail to understand what philosophers mean by a nature. I think the important thing in this objection is that it seems to make sin merely mental. In other words, it is a piece of information … which we have picked up in the living cultural of humanity. But that seems to not represent the way we actually interact with sin. Certainly we can learn to sin, or at least learn to sin better. But I also know that my kids did not have to be taught how to lie, etc. They came up with that on their own – vain imaginations to use an old Biblical phrase.

I also wonder how memetics would impact the nature of the redemption. It seems to me that Paul establishes a kind of parallelism which runs between Adam and Christ. This is why the early Church fathers thought of Mary as the 2nd Eve – to complete the parallelism. So how does Christ’s work of redemption find parallel in memetic theory? I think you could certainly make the case the spread of the Gospel can parallel memes – that would actually fit some of the work that sociologists of religion do on the spread of early Christianity.

I do wonder if there is some connection between meme theory and formation. If we think of formation in terms of enculturation, which is the way many people consider doctrine (George Lindbeck’s theory of doctrine as cultural-linguistic rather than propositional or experiential) there might be a connection to memetics. I would also think that Jamie Smith’s idea of worldview as formation might find some connections with this. This might also be a way to think of how the medievals understood the idea of “pre-evangelism.”

If you were to take the ideas connected to memes, and marry that to a high ecclesiology/sacramentology, you might be able to connect that to redemption. This is highly speculative you understand, but it might be a way of bringing them together. I can develop this further if you think it might be fruitful.


So, I largely agree that a purely memetic/informational/learned notion of sin is not entirely satisfying. Or at the least, it is difficult to reconcile with all of the passages that equate sin with the flesh. It sure seems as if our physical responses foster sinful activity; we are more prone to sin when we are tired, hungry, fearful, hurt, etc. I’m not entirely convinced that certain behaviors, such as lying, aren’t learned simply because we acquire them at a young age and because we as parents can’t identify how we might have taught those behaviors. But I would be stepping well outside my area of expertise to make any sort of strong claim about whether lying is learned, innate, or what have you, so I’ll grant that it sure seems like kids come by it naturally.

I would say then that sin has both a physical component and a mental component. I think the clearest illustration of this is Paul’s discussion of meat sacrificed to idols. The same act — eating the meat — can be either a sin or not, depending on one’s mental state or conscience, as well as one’s awareness of the conscience of others. Other examples might be when David and his men eat the consecrated temple bread, or when Jesus and his disciples pick food on the Sabbath. Perhaps those latter situations are more about context than mental state, but then again one has to mentally assess the context.

From an evolutionary perspective, I would say that the physical capacity to sin has been present in living beings since well before humans came along. Even bacteria have the potential to develop capacities for harming other bacteria. This admittedly suggests that all of God’s creation, and not just humans, had capacity for causing negative consequences, which may be hard to accept, but I don’t see how to avoid that conclusion given what observation tells us about natural history. (Incidentally, bacteria also have the capacity for selfless behavior, such as when virus-infected bacteria hasten their own death to minimize the number of virus particles they produce and thus reduce the risk to others of infection.) Still, I would say that bacteria killing other bacteria, or spiders that use deceit to live among the ants they eat, etc., fall short of qualifying as sinners, because the corresponding mental component is not present.

What humans brought to the table, in the act of eating the forbidden fruit, is that mental component. In particular, I would describe it as the idea that I can choose what is best for me, rather than letting God choose for me. That’s the decision I see Eve and Adam making. And that is the idea that I would propose we have inherited memetically.

In this perspective, I see the knowledge of good and evil as a gift. God’s Plan A was for us not to take on the responsibility of choosing what is best, because our minds are finite and so we can’t help but be wrong sometimes. But if we were going to assume that responsibility, we’d need knowledge of good and evil to at least have any sort of chance of choosing well, which is why that knowledge and the choice to sin were intrinsically linked. That knowledge is also transmitted memetically, not because it is part of original sin, but as the beginning of God’s redemption plan.

Photo of gas pump

Apologies to Lewis for the American bias of this photo. (Photo by OpenClipartVectors)

If there are physical and mental components to sin, then it makes sense redemption would have both as well. You covered the mental component fairly well already. On the physical side, I’d include the singular act of death and resurrection of Jesus and also the ongoing process of providing healing to counter the physical consequences of sin. Whatever legal transactions may have been satisfied on the cross, it was also a demonstration of the sort of physical self-sacrifice that balances the physical self-interest aspect of sin.

Is that account of sin and redemption more satisfying to you? I think it is more complete.


Classically, Christian authors have said that human beings, as the only rational animal (mankind is not the only rational, created being: ie., – angels) created by God, were created specifically for relationship, or better in my mind, union with God. That we have the opportunity to share in the love which the members of the Trinity share with one another. This union, in the Garden of Eden, was not fully realized, because mankind was made with two potentials: the potential for union (this would require grace, as opposed to what we can do in our nature) and the potential for sin. Leaving aside for the moment, the nature of sin, mankind contained these two potentials, neither of which was actualized in his created nature before actual sin took place.

So, certainly, we can say that mankind as a capacity for sin, but this capacity for sin seems to be tied to his rational nature, not his physical nature. I realize this can move into a kind of dualism, which I want to reject, but for the sake of argument, it does help to talk these separately. Mankind is not sinning by killing an animal and eating it. That is necessary for the sustenance of physical life, our physical nature. Our rational nature can only be fulfilled by God himself – as C. S. Lewis says, we were made to “run on God” like a car is made to run on gas/diesel (I think that he would actually say petrol, but you get the point!). Sin then, can only be something which is part of our rational nature. It has to be based on choice – the idea of free will.

Choice, the capacity to make decisions based on something other than physical needs, seems to be something that we as human beings want to make an integral part of who we are (at least classically that has been the case – in our current cultural setting, I am not so sure). And this capacity to choose is what is key in Adam and Eve’s first sin, the original or primal sin. But in an evolutionary system of human genesis, what was the first sin? The Genesis story seems to point to the fact that there was a first sin, a first choice which was made? Theologians, Augustine primarily, have said that the nature of the first sin, and all sin after that, is pride. It was understood to be something we (I realize I have not addressed our connection to Adam yet) choose instead of God. Genesis 3 seems to indicate that this was a choice which was based on information which was supplied to us – but where did this information come from? … We would want to say that it was not God himself, because God is not the author of sin. We want to say, at least I think we do, that God did not create us sinful. Christian thinking has always thought of the primal sin as an event, a phenomenon which could be talked about because Adam was a person who lived.

So to think about the effects of the primal sin, the concept which we call original sin, seems to hinge in Scripture on two things: our capacity as rational beings, and the exercise of this rational capacity to choose something other than God.

So, once sin took place, I think that the concept of memetics can help explain some things about how this information got transferred to other people. This seems to what is actually addressed in the Genesis narrative – Eve told Adam that this was good, not bad – God was wrong, Satan was right. But it seems to be lacking explanatory value in explaining how we can say that human nature (as a whole) is affected. The Western tradition of the Church has been insistent that there is such a thing as original sin – a bent toward evil – to reference Lewis and Bonaventure.

Going back to our rational nature, and the capacity for union with God. Once sin enters the world, this capacity must remain unrealized without intervention by God in Christ. Human nature (both rational and physical) have to be healed before this union can take place. This is what Nevin thought the incarnation did – it was a healing of the human nature when human nature was brought into union with God in Christ. The incarnation was not a context for suffering primarily, but an elevation of humanity. Suffering, specifically death, was a result of sin, but the incarnation was more than that. And even if there had been no sin, this union of God and man would still be realized in the incarnation because of the two capacities of primal humanity – the capacity for union, and the capacity for sin. Humanity had to be elevated out of the capacity for sin, even if this was never a realized capacity in time and space. Something more needed to be done to human nature to eliminate one capacity and make the other realized. This was for Nevin, and the patristic fathers of the Church, what the incarnation did for us. Because God joined in union with human nature in Christ, this potential for union with God can be realized. We can participate in the divine nature (2 Pet 1:4).

Bonus Feature!
Mike provided the following biographical sketch of John Williamson Nevin, whom Mike researches and who features prominently in our conversation.

John Williamson Nevin (1803-1886) was an American theologian of the German Reformed Church in America. Born in Franklin County, PA of Scotch-Irish Presbyterian ancestry, he was home-schooled until he entered Union College [Presbyterian and Congregational] at the age of 14. After that, he attended Princeton Theological Seminary where he studied under Charles Hodge. After three years of study, Nevin filled in for Hodge while he studied in Germany for two years. Nevin spent ten years at Western Seminary (now Pittsburgh Theological Seminary) before he joined the German Reformed Church to teach at their newly formed seminary in Mercersburg, PA.

Nevin is an important theologian because he sought to incorporate German theology and philosophy into his thinking at a time when most American theologians, Nevin’s former teacher Hodge chief among them, sought to reject all aspects of German thinking, focusing instead on Scottish Realism. Nevin’s chief theological focus was on the Incarnation. Nevin taught that our union with Christ, a union which is accomplished through the Incarnation, was central to our salvation. This carried over into his doctrine of the Church and the Sacraments both of which he insisted had an objectiveness to them because of the Incarnation. Nevin, following Calvin and Cyprian, taught that the Church was our mother, raising children for union with God through Christ, in the same way that Christ was a union of the divine and the human. Nevin’s most important work, The Mystical Presence (1846), was an early example of Reformation ressoursement, in which he attempts to return to a truly Calvinist understanding of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Nevin’s theology, which came to be known as the Mercersburg School, was not always well received, even in his own communion. Eventually, he left the theological faculty of the seminary when the college associated with the seminary, Marshall College, joined with Franklin College in Lancaster, PA. Nevin served as President of F+M from 1867-1877. He is buried in the same cemetery as his friend, President James Buchanan.

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog. His book Faith across the Multiverse is available from Hendrickson.

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