A new look at an old book

From The Intelligent Optimist Magazine

Summer 2016

We live by our stories. And our most important story, the bestselling book of all time, is the Bible, with an estimated five billion copies in print. The Bible, as a messenger of truth, has influenced millions of lives. And yet, as a new book tracing the evolutionary roots of the Bible points out, the Bible is also a product of its time—there are very good reasons why the story of Adam and Eve would not be written in the same way today. Another new book presents surprising evidence that psychedelic experiences were very much a part of early Christianity; Jesus may have even used mushrooms. Even as religious leaders and politicians fight drugs, it may very well be that psychedelics provided an ancient pathway to the divine that we can rediscover. Here’s a 15-page package that shines a new and fresh light on ancient truths, not because The Optimist wants to present a controversial perspective, but because we can experience and value truth only when we deeply and openly engage with it. 

Could it be that the Bible has never really received the attention it truly deserves? This must sound like a preposterous question. After all, we are dealing with the Book of Books, the holy scripture of Judaism and Christianity, which millions have scrutinized for countless centuries.

The Bible was written over the course of more than 1,000 years, and for nearly 2,000 years it determined the fate of a large part of the world’s population. Today more than two billion people still revere it as a holy text. The Bible—which has fascinated so many people from so many different cultures over such a long period—has a great deal of essential information concerning human nature hidden in its pages. It is much more than a religious testimonial: it also documents humanity’s cultural evolution.

This realization led us to read the Bible again, keeping in mind the rich harvest of new findings in cognitive science and evolutionary biology to see from this new perspective what it reveals about human nature. We began our journey with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, made our way through the Old Testament’s vast expanses, met Moses and his chosen people along the way, encountered all the kings and prophets, immersed ourselves in the psalms, climbed up into heaven and down into hell, and finally ended our quest in the city of Jerusalem, where the Romans nailed Jesus of Nazareth to the cross—but not without taking one last look at Armageddon, where the final apocalyptic battle against the powers of evil is set to take place.

We discovered that a number of the Bible’s stories appear in a whole new light when viewed from a biological-anthropological perspective. Onetime mysteries suddenly began to make sense. We even began to understand some of God’s more unusual characteristics. Biblical anthropology also offers insight into the process of cultural evolution. It allows us to understand how the Bible offers a key to a better understanding of ourselves in the here and now. In the Bible we find answers to humanity’s greatest questions. We do not mean this in a religious sense. Rather, it teaches us why we fear death, how we deal with great misfortunes, and where our deep-seated desire for justice originated. The Bible shows us how we learned to survive in large, anonymous societies, why our modern lives sometimes seem so pointless, and why we are so often nagged by what we would describe as a longing for paradise. When viewed without its halo, the Bible has something important to say to all of humanity—particularly about human evolution.

Both evolutionary biology and the cultural sciences aided us in our undertaking: we know what happened on earth before as well as after the Bible was written. We know how humans evolved over the past two million years and how and to what degree the prehistoric environment shaped the human psyche. We can regard our emotions and behaviors as adaptations to a world that has long since disappeared—which explains why many of us don’t find life in modern societies all that easy. We can therefore reconstruct the problems the Bible was trying to solve. Armed with this knowledge, we were able to extract many amazing insights from the Bible’s pages and identify the problems that the Bible itself introduced into our world.

We soon discovered that a systematic reading of the Bible helped us reconstruct how religion as well as culture developed in one particular corner of the world, and the driving forces and laws underlying their development. We discovered the key to this understanding in the Torah, the five books of Moses. We were taken aback by the countless and diverse calamities with which the Bible confronts its readers from the very outset. Patriarchy and living by the sweat of one’s brow defined the fate of humankind; people also had to deal with family feuds, murder and catastrophes. All of these problems are crammed into the short book of Genesis. Embedded in the monumental epic of Moses and the Exodus was a whole collection of rules aimed at reining in human conduct (and the Ten Commandments are just the tip of the iceberg).

We scrutinized the single greatest change in behavior of any species on the planet, the adoption of a sedentary way of life and all of the changes that followed. This was when we ceased to roam the wilderness as hunter-gatherers, as our ancestors had done for hundreds of thousands of years, the time we abandoned the small groups in which everyone knew everyone else for a life of coping with membership in large, anonymous societies. Existence suddenly became much more stressful, and social inequality ballooned.

People began to look for the causes of all the catastrophes, violence and epidemics to develop ways of protecting themselves from these dangers in the future. Cultural solutions were needed, and soon these efforts would result in a cultural “big bang.” Back then—the span of millennia in which first chiefdoms, then states and finally advanced civilizations such as in Mesopotamia and Egypt developed—there were no independent fields of inquiry like science, medicine, law and religion. Instead there existed something of a primordial cultural soup. Slowly individual spheres of knowledge began to differentiate themselves. But all of them remained deeply influenced by religion, for belief in the rule of supernatural powers was woven into every aspect of life. Any type of misfortune was credited to wrathful spirits and gods.

People began to formulate rules and other measures that would eventually develop into entire systems of crisis management aimed at soothing the gods’ rage—in hopes of protecting them from diseases and catastrophes. Much of what we widely attribute to “religion” today began as part of this “cultural protection system.”

We are not trying to say that the Bible directly reflects humanity’s sedentarization, the transition from a nomadic life to more permanent settlement. This would be difficult to imagine, for several thousand years lie between those events and the appearance of the written text. Much more important is that sedentism brought with it a number of problems that remained threatening for long periods. Some of them still pose a danger to this day—diseases are a good example.

In sum, the Bible is humanity’s diary, chronicling both the problems our ancestors faced and the solutions they came up with—among other things, how people dealt with the new cultural concepts of property, patriarchy, monogamy and monotheism. It’s easy to grasp why our undertaking is anything but backward-looking, for an evolutionary reading of the Bible can offer the key to understanding human beings and explain a lot of the problems we still face every day.

Anyone who pays close attention to the first pages of the Old Testament will be struck by how strangely it all began. Genesis tells how God first created heaven and earth and then everything else in the world. And on the sixth day he said to himself, “Let us make man in our image,” and it came to pass. “So God created man in his own image … male and female created he them.” His instructions were clear: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it.”

Then something peculiar happened. After God looked again upon his work, declared it “very good,” and allowed himself a day of rest, he started over. He took earth from the fields, formed Adam from it, and breathed life into him. Then God “planted a garden eastward in Eden” and placed Adam in it. And because God immediately realized that it was “not good that man is alone,” he thought to create a helpmate for Adam. From earth he formed the beasts in the field and the birds in the sky and presented them to Adam, who was allowed to name them. At that point God came up with the idea of the rib. He put Adam into a deep sleep, took one of his ribs, and from it formed a woman. “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh,” Adam realized immediately. “And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.” God had every reason to be satisfied. But he didn’t reckon with the snake.

We all remember the rest of the story: Eve is tempted by the snake to defy God’s commandment and taste the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Adam does nothing to stop her. From that point on, they are both ashamed of their nakedness, and God casts them out of paradise. We have lived east of Eden ever since.

Generations of believers have puzzled over the details. Why did God create humans twice? What happened to the first people? This intense interest is understandable. The creation account seeks to explain the curious course of our history. There are no limits when it comes to conjuring up new interpretations, although there is still no convincing answer to the most important question: What does the Bible want to tell us through the story of Adam and Eve—why did God punish them?

Believers will say there’s no question about it: man’s disobedience. But isn’t this a strange tale? All of humanity is held collectively responsible and punished over hundreds of generations—all because of a single apple? In fact, the Bible does not even mention an apple, speaking simply of a “fruit.” Only in late antiquity did scholars begin to refer to it as an apple because the Latin word for “apple,” malum, was similar to the Latin malum, meaning “misdeed,” “evil” or “calamity.”

Why was God unable to forgive the theft of a single piece of fruit?

Here is what we think its subject really is: the Garden of Eden story tells the tale of a worsening existence. It is about a cultural step. In the beginning we lived in a world of abundance, and this gave way to the involuntary adoption of a life of tillage and toil. We must follow this trail as it leads directly to a point in history that is deemed a decisive turning point in human cultural evolution: the adoption of a sedentary way of life.

For most of our history, we were nomadic hunter-gatherers. A tiny number of scattered people still live like that today. Hunter-gatherers resided in small, multifamily bands comprising some 30 to 50 members, always on the move. They formed loose networks with neighboring bands and required large swaths of territory. Only occasionally did all members of these “macrobands” come together to arrange marriages or to service their alliances.

Within the individual groups, people lived in close personal contact with one another. They had very little in the way of belongings. Distinct hierarchies were just as absent as significant concentrations of power. Social differentiation was minor, determined by individual abilities or prominent personality traits. Resources—game in particular—were shared. Human existence was generally egalitarian and democratic.

Interdependence among group members was the foundation of communal living. Decisions were made as a group, often after long discussions. An individual’s reputation was of great importance, as was harmony. Every transgression against community life was noted and, if necessary, punished. This might lead to expulsion from the group or even the death of the troublemaker. But these were rare occurrences, for no one stood a chance of surviving on his own, and this meant everyone was at pains to be a good group member. The group was also capable of forgiving misconduct if the culprit showed the proper remorse. Every woman and every man counted.

The emotions of our first nature governed how we lived together. Over hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, innate preferences and moral intuitions ensured that hunter-gatherers functioned in a way the others could count on. We can safely assume that the state of grace that Adam and Eve enjoyed in the beginning of the story—“And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed”—closely matched life in prehistoric times.

With the waning of the last ice age around 15,000 years ago, many parts of the Fertile Crescent, situated between the Nile to the west and the Tigris and Euphrates to the east, were transformed into a virtual land of milk and honey. Herds of antelope, gazelles, horses and wild cattle populated the extensive grasslands. In many places, hunter-gatherers established permanent camps and began to enjoy all of this bounty. In a way their lives were not so far from that in the Garden of Eden—but their luck would not hold for long.

Prehistorians continue to debate whether the end to these paradisiacal conditions around 12,000 years ago stemmed from climate change or human activity. Regardless, there is clear evidence that overhunting caused animal populations to collapse. A return to nomadic life was no longer an option in many of these places, as densities had become too high and neighboring communities no longer tolerated trespassers on their lands. Another problem was the loss, after generations of sedentary living, of a great deal of the knowledge needed to survive in the wilderness. People desperately tried to come up with new strategies for survival.

The early days of agriculture were a haphazard affair. Humans had always collected berries, nuts and wild grains, and seeds would have continually fallen on the ground close to their settlements. This would have led to the seeding of whatever plants they had brought back. The domestication of animals such as goats and sheep also took place during this time. This new life was hard, however, which Genesis sums up in a nutshell.

That Adam and Eve have to make a living east of Eden by toiling in the fields and pulling weeds is a sign of punishment.

The new way of life really did appear to be a curse, and over the centuries things got progressively worse, as evidenced in prehistoric skeleton finds. Sedentary life didn’t agree with humans: people were no longer as tall as their hunter-gatherer ancestors, they suffered from hunger and disease and they died younger. Without decent seeds, fertilizer and effective irrigation techniques, they were lucky to bring in a good harvest. Droughts and floods had a much greater impact than in the past, for people were now closely bound to a particular place.

The biggest question is: How could the authors of the Old Testament have remembered all this? The Old Testament was not set to paper until the first millennium B.C.E.—thousands of years after sedentarization had taken hold. There is a tremendous gap between the two events. The idea of a “collective memory” has firmly established itself in the human sciences. People have always fallen back on the medium of the story to deal with life’s miseries; the best of them survived because they offered explanations people felt were plausible.

This is what an evolutionary reading of the Bible offers: By seeking to expose the core of these stories—preserved memories in the form of myths, rituals, beliefs, songs and sayings—we can recognize the challenges humans faced after the greatest change in behavior that mankind had ever experienced, and which continue to trouble us all. This is why the Bible still has something to say even to those who don’t believe it is God’s word.

The story of Adam and Eve reflects more than our desire to comprehend why life for most of us consists of so much drudgery, for it also manifests two other important problems of our new existence: the invention of property and the oppression of women.

The first and only rule that God had issued in Eden was to not eat from “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” It was God’s property, and because Adam and Eve did not follow this simple rule, they were ejected from paradise. Indeed, the invention of private property is the most consequential outcome of the adoption of sedentism; respecting someone else’s property is the first commandment of the settled world. Today property rights are so familiar that we take them for granted. Nomadic hunter-gatherers owned only a few everyday objects, such as a spear and a butchering knife. Game, large fish and honey were shared. Anyone who tried to keep all of the meat for himself would suffer a loss of reputation—and if it happened repeatedly, the perpetrator would face more severe sanctions. The land itself belonged to the group. Anyone who claimed, “That is my tree—you may not eat of its fruit” would have been ridiculed.

With the arrival of sedentism, all of this inevitably changed. Agriculture demanded that certain things could no longer be shared. How can one have a good harvest if everyone helps himself to the fruits of the field? But establishing this new concept of property required an enormous intellectual effort to convince members of a community that certain things now belonged to a single individual or family. As there was no property worth mentioning in the world of the hunter-gatherer, our recognition of it never became anchored in our first nature. In order to effectively protect their belongings, people had to come up with new ideas—a classic task for our third nature, our ability to reason. What are needed are cultural rules that help to establish the new idea. It took a few generations for the new rules concerning private property to establish themselves and become part of our upbringing; this is how respect for other people’s property became a part of our second nature. Its position is tenuous, however: “property” is a concept we have to teach children (“Give her back her toys! They’re not yours!”).

In light of this perspective, we have to ask ourselves just what the actual scandal in paradise was. That Adam and Eve failed to heed God’s first commandment was certainly not it—at least not to nonreligious sensibilities. The real scandal lies elsewhere. When humans adopted a sedentary lifestyle, a fundamental rule of human coexistence was cast aside, an everyday norm developed over the course of hundreds of thousands of years: food must be shared, selfishness is shameful. The new concept of property subverted the prehistoric reliance on solidarity. What was commonly owned—nature’s food supply—suddenly became monopolized. We have to imagine how an everyday, even necessary activity—the gathering of fruit—was not merely forbidden but criminalized. The scandal reverberates to this very day. If we had found it reasonable that God punished Adam and Eve for picking the forbidden fruit, their story would not have captivated us for so long.

Sedentarization brought about a number of processes that sparked radical changes in human societies. Thus begins our journey down a one-way street leading to a world in which life is ever richer in terms of material goods but also socially and emotionally impoverished. Relationships with people outside the family become less and less important. Property has to be protected, with violence if necessary. Wherever the new stockpiling economy is successful, population numbers begin to soar. Competition is everywhere, social distinctions grow larger, hierarchies are born, and a privileged class arises.

Poor Eve. Just look at all she was made to suffer. God cursed her with the words “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.” If that were not enough, he added, “And thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” The biblical exegetes upped the ante with their interpretation of Eve’s role in committing the original sin, which brought bitter suffering down upon everyone who came after her.

This bias against women is quite a recent phenomenon. The relationship between the sexes was actually much more balanced among hunter-gatherers. Men were the dominant sex, but women were able to return to their families at any time or even to switch partners; pair bonds were not necessarily exclusive, and in practice the notion that a woman was bound to one man for her entire life was alien. Sometimes women even maintained parallel relationships. Engaging in sexual relations with several men was in a woman’s best interest, allowing her to establish a network of potential fathers for each of her children.

The fact that women knew how to best use their charms was a natural part of their sexual freedom. Sexual freedom was effective in egalitarian groups because it brought all members a bit closer together by creating an invisible “network of love.” This was all over as soon as this group’s way of life fell apart and every man started worrying about his property and demanding absolute faithfulness from his wives.

The new concept of ownership had led to a situation in which sons remained with their fathers, and daughters were married off into other families. They served to help forge alliances or were simply viewed as tradable goods. As these were arranged marriages and thus not generally love matches, the women did not necessarily harbor strong feelings of solidarity with their new families. Only after they had borne children to the son of the household did things change, for then a shared genetic interest had taken hold that bound the entire family together.

In this new state of affairs, patriarchs did all they could to prevent their wives from sleeping with other men. And where wealth and power prospered, men turned to polygyny. This is commonplace in the stories of the Old Testament, where nearly everyone had more than one wife. When women become the property of men, their power has to be reined in, and a large share of this power lies in their sexual attractiveness. The Bible underscores this point. Adam and Eve have to reach for the fig leaf, and God himself fashions them clothes. The patriarchal world raises a woman’s fidelity to her husband to the level of commandment; a woman’s sexual obligation to only one man is a cultural rule, not a biological one.

And so the story of Adam and Eve reveals three important themes: the wonder at why life involves so much drudgery, the difficulty in coming to terms with the concept of property, and the peculiar fact that women are meant to be subordinate to men. These are three of the most urgent problems with which humans have had to cope ever since they began living in sedentary societies—the true original sin. In this respect, things haven’t changed all that much in 10,000 years. These problems (and more) underlie many of the early parts of the Bible. Genesis does not deal with what we, from our modern perspective, see as the supposedly “eternal” questions of salvation or the meaning of life. In reality, the people back then worried about the calamities confronting them when they were plunged into a new way of life: injustice, violence, oppression, illness and misogyny. With neither science nor philosophy, with no medicine or political ethics, people found in religion a coping strategy—and an extremely successful one.

But although religion’s monocausal solution (“God”) did indeed help people come to terms with these problems, it did not eliminate them; they remained as pernicious as ever—and precisely this ensured that the biblical stories have continued to move us ever since. 

This is an edited excerpt from The Good Book of Human Nature: An Evolutionary Reading of the Bible, by CAREL VAN SCHAIK and KAI MICHEL (Basic Books, 2016). Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, a division of PBG Publishing, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.


Carel van Schaik, co-author of The Good Book of Human Nature, spoke with The Optimist about what he and co-author Kai Michel learned from examining “humanity’s diary.”

The Bible is the most popular book of all time. It has been studied by many scholars over the centuries. Yet it seems that no one ever looked at the Bible from the perspective of biological evolution, as you have done. Why is that?

“We have tried to read the Bible as a historical account of what the people at the time were going through. We tried to keep God out of it. Why did the people feel the need—the urge to write down exactly these things and not other things? They didn’t write about normal family matters, for instance. We were thinking of calling the book ‘Humanity’s Diary.’ You write in your diary the stuff that bothers you. And so if you read the Bible from that perspective and realize that, sometime before, people had undergone the most dramatic change in lifestyle that any species has ever undergone—the invention of agriculture, which led to an enormous amount of changes in their lives—then the stories make a lot of sense. From this perspective, the Bible is an account of what these people were going through and how they tried to make sense of what had happened to them.”

What was your biggest discovery while doing your research?

“I think the ‘aha’ moment for me was birth pains. Somewhere in Genesis it is said that women are going to be punished by suffering birth pains. We now know that hunter-gatherer women didn’t have birth pains, or at least not to the same extent. Recent research shows that even in the last few thousand years there have been changes in female anatomy so that giving birth became a bit easier. These people underwent transformation to living an agricultural lifestyle that produced all kinds of rather dramatic changes—even in their bodies—for which they were not prepared. It hit them like a freight train, and the Bible was written to explain and support these dramatic changes.”

Has your view of Christianity changed while writing your book?

“Yes, it has become more benign. When I grew up, we used to say that we believe in ‘nothing.’ When I began writing the book, I had no strong opinions about religion, for or against, except it wasn’t for me. And now that I’ve read all of the Bible, I have developed a very serious admiration for the people who pulled all that stuff together in a time when they had neither science nor the scientific method nor the kind of logic that we now feel we have to follow in arguments. Yet they came up with an extremely logically rigorous system, with these monotheistic rules with one God punishing you for all these different things. When you have a lot of gods, you’ll get a lot of collateral damage when one god is fighting another. Scientists would say you have too many degrees of freedom in your equation and there’s no way you can figure the system out. But if you have a monotheistic situation, you can reverse-engineer God’s reasoning and start to observe the world very carefully. You look for patterns and correlations. If God doesn’t like this, he would like that, et cetera. We shouldn’t look at these stories from a modern-day perspective but from the perspective of that day, and see how incredibly impressive that achievement was. So, yes, I have changed my appreciation of religion in a major way.”

For many the Bible contains eternal universal truths. Your book suggests that these truths are much more related to evolutionary circumstances. Would a Bible written today contain different truths?

“I guess everything we now call science would have been part of it. The whole approach of the people who wrote the Bible was scientific. The Old Testament is very much a scientific analysis of the world, explained through the model of
a monotheistic God to take care of business
in society.”

Do eternal, universal truths like the Ten Commandments exist? Or are such truths always the product of their times?

“According to the Bible, the Ten Commandments are written by God. So what do you write down? You don’t need to write self-evident things like ‘Love your kids,’ or ‘Eat your food.’ You need to write down commandments to do things that
you might otherwise not do. The first is: ‘Hey, it’s
me—I’m God. I’m the only one—don’t worship
anybody else. Don’t build any idols of me.’ God needed to establish his authority because what he had to say was very important, and people should take that very seriously. Then God says: ‘You shouldn’t kill.’ Interesting. During the hunter-gatherer times, you were allowed to kill as a form of revenge. If somebody kills my wife and children and I can get the bastard later on, I’m perfectly entitled do that. Nowadays, of course, if I do that, I go to jail. Because we have delegated that responsibility to the state, and that has meant a tremendous reduction in violence. But that concept of ‘You shouldn’t kill’ is new. It’s culturally invented, and that’s something that has to be taught to us. In that way, the Ten Commandments are still relevant today, because we’re still living in this world where our genetic endowment and our innate predispositions still haven’t fully caught up with this new form of life. Today, we might expand the Ten Commandments a bit and include for example that you always drive on the correct side of the road. The reasoning would be the same: We have to learn the things that don’t come natural to us.”

The Bible is a men’s book. It was mostly written by men. And it serves mostly men. Do you think the message of your book can help tear down the patriarchy in institutional religion?

“That’s one of the main messages of the book. I won’t argue that the hunter-gatherer era was a paradise for women, but it was certainly a lot better for them. There was no lifelong monogamy; polygamy, if it occurred, was voluntary. Women could dissolve a marriage by simply walking away. They had their own economy: they were gathering while the men were hunting. There was a limit to the extent that a man could abuse his wife, because other people would step in to protect her. It was a reasonably egalitarian society. Then agriculture comes, and with it comes property. And that property has to be defended—which is the men’s job. The man with his sons and other male kin, defending the farm. You get a patriarchal system. Women are married in and out; they lose their freedom. Everything had to change. Women had to be put in their place, they had to be kept quiet. So the patriarch came to write a book and interpret everything as God’s will. It was God’s will that the women should only desire their own husband. Men shouldn’t desire other women either, because in a polygamous system you don’t want promiscuity. The Bible presented a religious justification for treating women like second-class citizens: the place of women became God’s will.” | Jurriaan Kamp

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