The extent of the Fall?

Religion / Science

If one accepts the theological doctrine of the Fall of Creation, then one is led to ask: “is it a universal fall or just a local one?” I’ve been thinking about this as a result of the discussion around the Theology of Alien Life post last week. In that discussion the question of whether or not alien species (if discovered) would need redemption or not was suggested.

Someone quipped (on the Facebook feed I think) that if that need was true, the Fall of Creation through the actions of humankind was the biggest example of theological Exceptionalism ever posited.

So, with all that rattling around in the back of my head, when I came across this bit of news about plant’s preferences for their own kin and their instinctive desire to harm others, I guess I started thinking about Harmitology:

“The research, which appears in the current issue of the American Journal of Botany, suggests non-kin plants will not only compete underground for soil nutrients, but will attempt to muscle out the competition above ground in the ongoing struggle for light.

It follows previous research from McMaster University which found that plants can recognize their kin through root systems and will compete more strongly for soil nutrients and water with non-sibling plants.

‘This is the first study that shows plants are responding to kin at the above ground level,’ explains Guillermo Murphy, lead author of the study and a graduate student in the Department of Biology at McMaster University. ‘When they recognize their kin, they grow differently in shape, taller, with more branches and fewer resources into leaves, therefore allowing their siblings to access precious sunlight.'”

From here.

There’s nothing terribly surprising here biologically speaking. Seems to me that it’s basically an example of the Selfish Gene principle a la Dawkins except at the plant level rather than the genetic.

But why should Nature have this inherent “selfish” quality? If we believe that God is Agape (Love) and Agape can be described at one level as altruism (the polar opposite of selfishness) than the natural world would seem to be organized around a radically different principle than the divine world.

Now to be clear, this is all totally speculative musing on my part, and it’s not self-coherent. And there’s the problem of God’s describing Creation as Very Good on the sixth day according to the Genesis account. And it’s possible to make an argument, I think, that individual greedy actions leads to a systematic equitable distribution of resources (ala Adam Smith)…

But, those caveats granted, does this research from the plant world indicate that at least in the biological sphere, selfishness and not altruism is more common. And if that’s the case, might we argue that Life is in a fallen state? (I’m not sure where one would go with ethics in non-living forms.)

James Hogan, in his book “The Gentle Giants of Ganymede” had the alien races in the Solar System describing the Earth as the “Nightmare Planet”. The altruistic “giant” species couldn’t imagine what it would be like to live in a world that was ruled by selfishness and greed. In the book, they felt sorry for us as humans because we had been forced to endure that experience.

If the fall is real, might the sinful nature of our human experience need to be extended to other parts of creation (like this plant research evocatively suggests)? If the Fall is limited to Terrestrial experience, might other races thinks something like that of us?

Interesting speculative questions. At least they are to me. Today. Who knows what tomorrow will bring. Grin.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. Nick,
    It seems to me there are three basic options here:
    1. Some version of an orginal paradise in which all was already tov me’od until Adam and Eve messed up and threw the whole creation off fromm atom to astronomy. The Fall began with Adam and Eve dividing space and time into prelapsarian and postlapsarian.
    2. The vision of paradise (and later the vision of a “renewed” creation offered in Isaiah and the Revelation to John) is not what was, but a description of God’s intent and goal for creation toward which God is drawing creation in spite of the myriad ways all of creation, in its freedom seems to be uncooperative and unpromising material.
    3. The Fall does not begin with Adam and Eve, but with Satan before the world began. Or perhaps, better, as the universe was being created. After all, how can everything be tov me’od if the serent is already messed up?
    I’m inclined to go with # 3. Though only hinted at in scripture it seems to make sense of the data of revelation and what we know of evolution. Both Milton and Tolkien have fleshed out versions of this. And while neither is inspired scripture, what they describe is based on, and congruent with, what we see in the two books (scripture and creation).

  2. Fr craig says

    I’ve long decided that there is no “fall’, either in reality or metaphorically. Humans are self-centered because we are bred through and to self-preservation (evolution). This changes my whole notion of any ‘atonement’ theory, of course. Why should our loving God want to punish us for the way we are bred to be? I think that, in the fullness of time, God himself comes to tell us that we can trust him (obedience) even to and through death (Jesus’ trust/obedience = new humanity), redeeming us from fear, even fear of death. If we believe this (the resurrection) we are finally able to begin to love others as ourselves, and the Kingdom draws nearer. Admittedly, a very slow process.

  3. I was wondering about this last summer as I was out on a walk by the river. This is basically what I wrote in my journal that day.
    No living creature can give itself life. And all creatures were created by God. Thus, all life is a gift, but one which no creature is able to give. The only life creatures can give, therefore, is their own.
    Life can only be sustained by life; life must feed on other life. But most creatures are unaware that life is a gift. For them, life can only be protected, or taken away. Made in the image of their Creator, human beings know that they were given life, and can choose to give life — their own.
    In other words; with this awareness, human beings can rise to the altruistic nature of their Creator.

  4. Scripture shows a different relation between humans and creation and different natural mechanisms. Key passages are the ones that note that:
    1. It doesn’t rain, water wells naturally from the ground
    2. All animals are vegetarian
    The mix of the Garden and the Flood change the whole created order.

  5. Just reflecting on this final line of a comment above “In other words; with this awareness, human beings can rise to the altruistic nature of their Creator.”
    It’s a beautiful image.
    The problem though is that it’s awfully close to the idea that: if we just will it, we can manage to perfect ourselves. Which terrifies me if true, because it puts the whole onus of life on our shoulders and removes grace from the equation.
    And I guess I’d have the same concern following Craig’s suggestion – if there’s no Fall, how do we account for the pain and suffering in world which we believe a loving God created? Though Craig’s idea of there being a redemptive revelation over time is something with which I can surely agree.

  6. That’s an interesting suggestion Matt – are we in getting into the questions of infra vs supralapsarianism here in #3?

  7. Perhaps selfish desire and altruism, though seemingly opposites, actually end up working together to drive evolutionary ‘progress.’ Maybe it’s like squeezing a wet watermelon seed between your fingers, thereby causing the seed to squirt out (this is a standard analogy used in explaining how sailboats work).

  8. Yah D.C., I think you can make that argument. Adam Smith’s invisible hand of the market is apparently really present when you run the economic simulations. Perhaps we could argue something similar is taking place here.
    Sort of like the Portuguese proverb: Our God draws straight with crooked lines.

  9. Thanks for your comment Nicholas about grace. I certainly don’t want to be a Pelagian here. Let me rephrase that to say, “With this awareness, human beings can take the first step toward our Creator, with grace supplying the rest.”
    As for Fr. craig’s suggestion that there is no Fall; the evidence that we have of evolution and natural selection might seem to support that view. OTOH, it seems to me that whatever makes us human beings this odd mix of angel and savage must literally be “prehistoric.” That is, we can’t know what happened when human beings first became aware that they were created, and that therefore there must be a creator.
    I wonder what power might have been unleashed in the world if we had been able to live in total trust of that Creator. I guess I’ve entered into an area of speculation that at least for now, science can’t go to. But I guess that’s one reason I love the Book of Genesis. It’s the best attempt to imagine, with some divine inspiration, who we are and how we got to be that way.
    BTW, I’m not sure why me name didn’t come up in the first post. I wasn’t trying to be anonymous.
    David Kendrick

  10. Jeffrey L. Shy, M.D. Neurologist says

    I already commented on the last post that “the fall” as it is understood in the West has become a problematic doctrine for us. Both late Augustine and St. Anselm have “gifted” us with what Karen Armstrong has termed (at least re Augustine) a “difficult heritage.”
    As science has dismantled the literal nature of the Genesis cosmology, we need to consider re-making our theological derivatives. I believe that we might be able to marry a theology of process (of creation’s evolution “towards” God/the divine) with the idea of the incarnation as it was conceived of “before all worlds.”
    I was re-reading, this week, a book by Philip Jenkins, “The Lost History of Christianity” about the Syriac-speaking Churches of Asia where he mentions, almost in passing what may be one of its most beautiful creations, the so-called “Odes of Solomon” (dating from probably the early 2d century) in which a view of the incarnation as a divine gift of generosity is hymned and related outside of obsession about the fall. Anyone for a quote?
    From Ode 7
    “For there is a helper for me, the Lord. He has generously shown himself to me in his simplicity, because his kindness has diminished his dreadfulness.
    He became like me, that I might receive Him. In form he was considered like me, that I might put him on.
    And I trembled not when I saw him, because he was gracious to me.
    Like my nature he became, that I might understand him. And like my form, that I might not turn away from him.
    The Father of Knowledge is the Word of knowledge.
    He who created wisdom is wiser than his works.
    And he who created me when yet I was not knew what I would do when I came into being.
    On account of this, he was gracious to me in his abundant grace, and allowed me to ask from him and to benefit from his sacrifice.
    For he it is who is incorrupt, the perfection of the worlds and their Father.
    He has allowed Him to appear to them that are his own; in order that they may recognize him that made them, and not suppose that they came of themselves.
    For towards knowledge he has set his way, he has widened it and lengthened it and brought it to complete perfection.
    And has set over it the traces of his light, and it proceeded from the beginning until the end.
    For by him, he was served, and he was pleased by the Son.
    And because of his salvation, he will possess everything. And the Most High will be known by his holy ones:
    To announce the coming of the Lord, that they may go forth to meet him and may sing to him, with joy and with the harp of many tones…
    Let the singers sing the grace of the Lord Most High, and let them bring their songs.
    And let their heart be like the day, and their gentle voices like the majestic beauty of the Lord.
    And let there not be anyone who breathes that is without knowledge or voice.
    For he gave a mouth to his creation: to open the voice of the mouth towards him, and to praise him.”
    [BTW, the Odes are all like that. They are quite simply so stunning, I think that I should paste them into my New Testament as a Christian Psalter. ]

  11. Christopher says

    Be careful with the Dawkins piece. Sarah Coakley, in criticizing Girard, also criticizes those who put conflict at the heart of things, including Dawkins approaches. There is also ample evidence for a “cooperation gene” as she notes in her recent work.

  12. It’s distressing, to me personally, as well as to Richard Dawkins, how thoroughly misunderstood the concept of the selfish gene has been (he has said as much in the years since it was published). The concept does not necessarily mean that selfish behavior will always predominate altruistic behavior in a given population. Rather, it simply means that genes which tend to increase the reproductive success of their hosts will tend to increase in frequency in the population, at the expense of those genes who either do not improve or who decrease the reproductive capacity of their hosts.
    Therefore, genes predisposing an organism toward cooperative behavior or altruism might be ‘selfish’ insofar as they tend to push out genes for selfishness. Dawkins himself has said that he could have just as easily titled his book ‘The Cooperative Gene.’
    Not that this makes no assessment of the moral value of cooperative versus selfish behaviors–behavior either enhances reproductive success, has no effect on it, or negatively effects it. Indeed, it can be demonstrated mathematically that in a population containing genes for ‘altruism’ and ‘selfishness’, altruism will predominate, but the individual’s benefit from selfishness prevents the ‘selfish’ gene from ever being removed from the population.

  13. Just to clarify (and to counterbalance some of the stridency of my previous post), my intent was not to say that anyone here is misrepresenting Dawkins’ concept. From the summary Christopher provided of Sarah Coakley’s writing, it sounded to me as though she has overemphasized the ‘selfish’ aspect without recognizing that even the most socially beneficent, altruistic behavior can be selfish insofar as it is driven by genes that increase their frequency as a result.
    That’s what I get for trying to communicate before I’ve had my morning coffee. Apologies to any offended, aggrieved, or otherwise.

  14. The creation story is incomplete without Job – in chapter 3 he wills his de-creation confronting El/Eloah/Shaddai with his lament. In chapters 48-41 YHWH replies with nature red in tooth and claw – from afar his eyes look // and his eaglets suck up blood //and where the slain are, there is he.
    Job is not a peaceable kingdom but a parable of survival for those made of star dust and ashes. There is no fall – only poetry.

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