Theological answers are never so much in demand as when senseless tragedy strikes: whether accident, disease, or crimes like we saw on 9/11 or at Virginia Tech – or even the ubiquitous horror of animal suffering. Predictably, we hear explanations invoking “God’s mysterious will” – at best unsatisfying, at worst corrosive of faith. How can a good God tolerate either physical or moral evil? Our spiritual leaders despair of finding answers, but convincing answers have actually been around for years and are gradually becoming more widely known.
Some years back I was reading about the studies on chimpanzee behavior done by Jane Goodall and others, and I was struck, as many have been, by the close outward parallels between their “bad” behavior and ours: deceit, bullying, theft, infanticide, cannibalism, political intrigue, aggression, war -- every form of self-centered nastiness that we humans think we invented.
Thinking like the comparative biologist I am, it suddenly recurred to me that the simplest reason for these or any other similarities being shared between modern species is that they were inherited from a remote common ancestor in which these traits originated. Since the urge toward ruthlessly selfish behavior, enforced by natural selection, is evidently common to all living creatures, it is most plausibly traceable billions of years back to the first living things on this planet. In consequence, the fact of evolutionary common descent provides a straightforward explanation of what Christian theology has traditionally called original sin: our universal human urge to act selfishly, supposedly owing to some mysterious inheritance from Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.