Biology in the Bible: Evolution in the Garden of Eden

Reference & EducationCollege & University

  • Author Robert Depaolo
  • Published November 15, 2023
  • Word count 4,131


by Robert DePaolo

This article discusses sociobiological phenomena that influenced the times in which the Old Testament was written. The idea is put forth that there is a central theme inherent in the scriptures that reflects population issues and the need for genetic selectivity in a time when tribes (and the gene pools they represent) were mixing, being absorbed and annihilated as a result of social congestion due to sparse agricultural resources. The idea is that the moral tenets- as depicted through stories, laws and psalms reflect core biological factors, driven by the conflict inherent in trying to both adapt to mixed populations in urban settings and sustain genetic lines.


In discussing human aspects of the Old Testament - that is, material written by man through his own initiative, as well as God's ostensible direction it is important to develop a model by which to interpret the text, particularly since the books might have been written on two levels, one conscious and reflective of the lore of the times and experiences of the authors, another, perhaps subconsciously conceived and reflective of fundamental sociobiological factors.

One conscious motive might be that the stories in the Old Testament are meant to provide an historical account, perhaps with metaphor and a bit of hyperbole mixed in, to describe... what happened... during that period of time.

A second possibility is that the text was written as a primarily moral tome, concerned less with historical accuracy than with imparting lessons to generations of Hebrews. Rather than describing what happened the point was to describe... what happens if... using the travails of the various characters, heroes and villains as examples of what to do and what not to go regarding God's teachings.

A third possibility is that the text was intended as an encoded message addressed strictly to Hebrews as a means of creating a set of moral principles, laws and customs that only they knew and could adhere to - tribal identity and preservation being the underlying themes. This could be described as a tribal distinction model akin to the Egyptian Book of the Dead and the old Islamic belief that only Muslims can truly understand the lessons in the Koran.

A fourth possibility is that the text was in essence a prayer, that is. a way to appeal to God as tribute to his teachings, in which case these stories might have been the literary equivalence of a burnt offering.

Finally, the text could have been written in response to extreme duress during the times in which they were written, which featured high infant mortality rates, hunger, slavery, and general uncertainty about tribal identity fueled by incessant conquest, mixing of genetic lines through rape and dominance of one tribe over another, and the parsed geography in the Middle East featuring pockets of fertile land surrounded by miles of ocean and desert in every direction.

With regard to the conscious motives the preference here is to view the text as a combination of all these factors but given the description of God in Genesis and subsequent chapters it is likely the primary emphasis was on the here's what happens if model. In other words, it might have been a didactic/educational work demonstrating the advantage of being obedient and the danger of being disobedient to the faithful.

That would account for the liberal use of metaphor and symbolism as well as the fantastical nature of some of the stories, such as Samson's bringing down a building (Judges 16:30) or the birth of Isaac to 100 year-old Abraham and his wife Sarah. (Genesis 17:4)

Another factor to consider is the entirety of the text. Was each story written singularly and separately - one chapter having little to do with another? Or, despite the considerable lapse of time between each account and different mindsets of the various authors was it meant to be a continuous, integrative text with each story serving as logical step in the overall sequence of the teaching? While many scholars believe Genesis was written by one author- Moses, JDPT theory offers a different opinion based on certain phrases in the text and differing names given to God as well as the chronology of each text - some being well after Moses' time.

The opinion here is that there is continuity in the Old Testament, that it is an internally consistent work and that the authors probably reviewed the writing of previous authors before making their contributions. In other words, the Old Testament is viewed here as being contextual.

There is another side to the story. While the Old Testament was inspired and, in some instances ostensibly directed by God it was written by man. For that reason, it makes sense to look into a deeper, perhaps more socio- biological impetus behind the scriptures. The question is how can such a subconscious motive be described?


One place to start is with the location of settlements in the Middle East, especially for a species like ours that was migratory, having traveled in small groups from the Great Rift Valley in East coast of Africa to lands as far away as Australia, and for purposes of discussion to the Levant in the Middle East. Most animals migrate in search of resources as seasons change, rivers dry up and edibles become scarce. Homo sapiens would have been no different. It is difficult to determine what the writer or writers of the Old Testament thought and felt during that time without discussing the gradual ending of the Pleistocene Ice Age.

According to Allen Wilson's Mitochondrial Eve theory modern humans arrived on the scene about 250,000 years ago, which was well before significant changes occurred during the Pleistocene Ice Age. They were, like other animals, migratory.

The Ice Age introduced two factors into the migratory equation: availability and impetus: impetus, because less land and resources were accessible due to the drying up of flora which provided fruits, plants and other nutritional sources. Availability, because water ways that once created barriers to migration were frozen or dried up, making more territory accessible by foot. As they moved along various human groups encountered one another as migrations became increasingly centralized. Although the Ice Age was in its end stage many areas on earth were still cold, dry and uninhabitable. Since habitable places were scarce, populations tended to gather and settle in fertile areas. Conflict was inevitable.

The tendency among most animals is to support and sustain their own genetic line. The prototype human tribe featured a certain number of members, which was likely an instinctive process rooted in survival. With too large a group, available resources might not be sufficient. With too few the population might dwindle down to the point of dysfunction or even extinction due to lack of manpower and diminished birth rates.

That number (often referred to as Dunbar's number, which holds that the aboriginal human tribe consisted of roughly 150 members) was threatened by centralized migration. Over time, diverse tribes, languages, customs and most importantly, genotypes combined to create duress and a sea change in the mindset among our ancestors.

Several sociobiological results of that ensued. First, the genetic line was threatened by the potential for increased tribal mixing because in the final analysis sex has no bias. As long as an individual has the opportunity to mate with a member of his or her own species he or she will. That jeopardized the genetic purity of the tribe.

Second, peacefulness often becomes compromised when groups of differing genetic lines interact. For example, there is a tendency among almost all mammals and particularly primates to be aggressive toward strangers who intrude on their inner social circle. That meant the brutality quotient in these new mixed settlements increased, which led to war.

Third, it created a new sociopolitical (and sociobiological) dynamic which would have "confused" the DNA molecules that author of The Selfish Gene Richard Dawkins believed orchestrated much of human behavior. On one hand it was crucial for the genetic line to survive. On the other hand, the tribal parochialism that sustained and purified the genetic line became untenable due to the ease at which large armies could conquer and enslave these small tribes. That conflicting set of circumstances required resolution.

The task was before them. To remain small tribal meant domination and genetic mixing resulting from sexual opportunism by conquerors and eventual dilution of the tribal identity. On the other hand, forming alliances with extra-familial groups would also lead to dilution of genetic ties and tribal identity. Thus, it wasn't just a time when battles occurred among Egyptians, Hittites, Philistines, Assyrians and Israelites. On a smaller but perhaps more elemental stage a battle took place between human DNA and a new, diverse social models called urbanism and nationhood. It would have fomented tension on a grand scale. To deal with that and defend tribal integrity, texts and beliefs became compensatory and increasingly tribal specific. That seems reflected in Genesis.

An Introductory Lesson...

There was a psychological transition from the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis to the God concept that followed that might have its roots in sociopolitical changes that occurred during the time the script was written. In Genesis 2:17 Adam and Eve are promised unfettered access to resources in a place with ample food, waterways ("four rivers") and peace as long as they abstained from eating of the tree of knowledge The warning about eating the forbidden fruit is fascinating on several levels. One is that it virtually traces the evolution of the human brain from the flat fore brain of early humans to the more prominent frontal cortex of modern humans. This brain site is concerned with self-awareness, impulse control and self-regulatory capacities, including the ability to scrutinize oneself, and to feel shame and guilt. In a whimsical sort of way, one could surmise that God's initial most favored species was one that pre-dated Homo sapiens.

It is doubtful the writer (s) of Genesis had knowledge of evolutionary progressions - unless there was a collective unconscious process involved. Still, the idea of the first man and woman being passive and obedient is surprising. Man is inherently curious, exploratory, creative- otherwise the Bible would not have been written. God would know this, so what is the underlying point? One possibility is that it referenced not an evolutionary past but a theo-natural past possibly reflecting a pantheistic rather than quintessentially Hebrew belief system- bearing in mind that there was a distinct influence of paganism on the beliefs of early Hebrews. For example, 1 Kings 15:12, refers to the worship among jews of the fertility god Astarte. Moreover, during Moses' absence his followers paid tribute to the Canaanite god, Baal The Hebrew and Jewish faith was not solidified initially, despite the efforts of Abraham, Moses and the prophets. Instead, it seems to have evolved over time. In its inital stages there would have been crossover religious influences within the Hebrew belief system. Pantheism might have been a well-entrenched, ancient branch of that religious tree.

Prior to the advent of agricultural settlements, our nomadic ancestors worshiped all elements of nature. As a result, they were, like the few pantheists alive today, submissive to nature. In his introductory book on pantheism, Ethics, Baruch Spinoza suggested all aspects of experience, including life, death, bounty, famine, clement and inclement weather, and fertility were deemed regulated by a God who was omnipresent on whatever journey humans embarked upon. As long as there were males and females, trees, rivers, deserts, winds, rain, animals, grassland and other elements of nature God would have been presumed present and available.

In that context one moral lesson of Genesis might have been a commentary on the genetic, social, moral and experiential pitfalls resulting from the expansion of populations and diversification of gene pools. In that sense, God's message to Adam and Eve might be interpreted to mean; remain tribal/familial, because as you begin mingling with strangers, self-awareness will increase. That will lead to greater scrutiny of your actions because strangers do not readily accept your habits and customs and the laws created and necessitated by the agitation resulting from population diversity will place so many restrictions on you that your tendency to feel shame will be exacerbated.

A modern version of that explanation might be the difference between hanging around the house in one's bathrobe and having to dress more formally when guests come to the house. Behavioral leeway is reduced in the presence of strangers.

If that is even partly accurate it would seem God did not want Adam and Eve - or mankind per se - to hasten too quickly into urban modernity.

As for the serpent? That lends itself to symbolic interpretation. Was the serpent really a Satanic figure or the symbol of an urban advocate inviting Adam and Eve into the inquisitive, hyper-legalized, complex, diverse and restrictive domain of the city? Interestingly, at the head of the staff of some pharaohs there was a depiction of a snake so it might have been Pharaoh as symbolic representation of Satan providing temptation in Eden.

The theme of bailing out from civilizations, with the implied message of returning to a pantheistic lifestyle and worship of a God who was perhaps a prototype of the impersonal, physically indefinable God of Abraham who refused to be named... (I am that I am)... on Mt Sinai is repeated throughout the Old Testament.

Evidence for this can be discerned from various books in the text. For example, in Genesis 2:17 prior to eating the apple from the tree of knowledge Adam and Eve were told they would "surely die" if they did so. Yet after disobeying God they were instead punished by having to till the land (Genesis 3:23). The fact that an agricultural activity equated with a punishment is indicative. God appears to have considered venturing into the permanent farming life and its tie to urbanism a penance for sin. That suggests he did not want mankind (as conveyed in the writings of Genesis) to gather in highly populated, congested settlements in which tribes mixed, in which familial solidarity was threatened and in which mankind could be subject to discord, sin and disaster.

Indeed, much of the Old Testament seems to revolve around the theme of flight from the city and back to a consanguine, tribal existence. This is seen in Samuel's warning to Israelites before they ventured into nationhood under Saul's leadership (Samuel 8:10-18). It is seen in the episode on the construction of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:6-7) whereby God, apparently skeptical about the venture into building technology (and icon ism) inherent in urban life looked upon the tower and then created confusion among the people by mixing up their languages and preventing them from communicating with one another - thus breaking up the integrated group and ostensibly splitting them into separate tribes. It is seen in Genesis 19:24,26 when God turned Lot's wife into salt pillar for looking back at Gomorrah while the city was aflame. It is perhaps most emphatically referenced in the story of Noah's Ark whereby in Genesis 6:7 God, cognizant of the fact that the "earth's population had begun to multiply" and as a result "mankind had become wicked" commanded Noah to engage in a kind of tribal retreat by building the ark as protection against the great flood. The symbolism in that story seems fairly apparent. God wanted His chosen people to remain not only chosen but in a biological context, culturally, genetically unique and detached from the sins of the city.

The God concept conveyed in the Old Testament did not favor technology or anything that could be construed as pre-science. One might ask why he seemed opposed to Adam and Eve becoming more knowledgeable in Eden.

It is possible this meant that technology - while not sinful in itself was incompatible with the small tribal, consanguine nomadic lifestyle. In a wandering tribe there is no significant amount of technology. Having to travel continuously precluded nomads from setting up large edifices or constructs of any sort. One cannot carry a ziggurat or pyramid from place to place.

It could be asked why a loving God would hold progress is such disfavor. One answer might be that "progress" would have been viewed differently than is the case for modern humans who are trapped within the confines of civilization. Once again sociobiology provides a possible answer. Perhaps God wanted his most favored creatures to - in the words of the famous Vulcan - live long and prosper.

In a small nomadic group, resources are more potentially plentiful because when they are scarse one simply has to move on - as do most migratory animals. In that context, nomadic life would allow free migrations into "lands of milk and honey." Also, because the group number is small starvation is less likely - that is one reason for limitations on the group size to begin with. In addition, since there is a integral tribal and genetic dynamic the social pecking order would be less hierarchical. Dominance and rank would be less defining factors because in a relatively small group the efforts and labor of all members would be essential. That means there would be no slaves, kings, nobles or poor commoners. A climate of social cooperation increased the group's chances of survival. In that case, the nature of God and evolutionary principles would coincide, making the Old Testament more natural and pantheistic than one might assume.

Another factor could be involved. While modern man arrived on the scene around 250,000 years ago agricultural/urban settlements only cropped up around 8,000 years ago. That means for nearly a quarter of a million years, our species lived in small social groups, which not only influenced how they communicated, worked, migrated, mated, ate and drank but also how they worshiped and interpreted the forces of nature. That is such a long span of time that one would expect cognitive templates, emotions, perceptions and even social instincts to have become so entrenched in custom, lore and experience that relatively sudden changes - particularly regarding population expansion and genetic mixing would have created enormous stress. In that context it is possible that the Old Testament might also be construed as an attempt at stress reduction - a way to bring back the good old days and restore a degree of comfort to a newly urbanized and civically distressed species.

Another central theme is the Old Testament is how sexual activity is treated. Sex. In the modern world sex has been considered a taboo subject except under certain conditions. If within the accepted social constraints, i.e marriage and/or commitment it is fine. If it occurs in more random. pleasure-oriented context, less so, even to an extent, to this day.

Polygamy is illegal in most modern societies but in the Old Testament it was very much tolerated. Abraham, David and many other significant biblical figures had multiple wives, escorts and children by several partners. It was not necessarily based on hedonistic pursuits (certainly not in the case of Abraham) but rather on the need to populate the group. For example, because Sarah was barren Abraham was free to sire a child by Hagar (Genesis 17:4)

In order to sustain the core tribal unit and genetic line requires ample reproduction. That would be a particular point of emphasis when there is the potential for ethnic/genetic/tribal mixing in congested populations. In order for the tribe to continue to exist sex must be highly emphasized. In that context, it is not surprising that polygamy and fairly opportunistic sexual practices (for example with King David) were tolerated in the Old Testament. That of course, suggests sociobiology played a significant role in the advent of faith, politics and every other social phenomenon during that time.

A remaining question is how perhaps the most influential aspect of the Old Testament might derive or be somehow related to the sociobiology of man - the Ten Commandments.

An interesting aspect of Jewish law is its merger with faith. It is spiritual enough to have fostered the advent of three major religions and a number of derivatives. Yet it is so legally pristine that is also created a template for legal systems around the world. The question is why?

One possibility is that it is consonant with how the mind works thus would tend to be accepted by members of our species. For example, we tend to think proportionately - and that is conveyed in the Decalogue. We are family oriented and so is the Decalogue. We know that stealing and murder are aberrant behavior patterns and that message is conveyed in the Decalogue. But is there something more biologically fundamental involved?

Looking at each commandment, one could engage in a bit of dialectic by asking...what would happen if the commandments were violated? Perhaps the most obvious answer is that it would create social upheaval. For a species inexorably devoted to social concerns; not just for survival but for all aspects of human culture that would be disastrous. Our offspring are helpless for long periods of time. Our teeth, sheer muscle strength and comparative lack of speed minimize our efficiency in terms of hunting prey and escaping from predators.

In the course of evolution one way around all that was to foster a super-intense level of cooperation within the group. Hunting. sharing, communicating, loving, child rearing and passing on tool making methods all required a quintessentially social outlook. Remove or compromise that and our species would have been in dire straits. Arguably, all the commandments in the Decalogue serve the purpose of social cohesion under the rubric of a monotheistic system.

An old saying goes...there is nothing new under the sun The fact that the Decalogue and the Torah seem derivative of Hammurabi's code does not mitigate the fact that sociobiological factors were in play with the advent of urbanization Indeed it reinforces the idea that in religious, legal and political contexts the same principle holds true - that we are creatures woven into the natural world with behavioral and emotional traits reflective of that.

In that sense the separation between faith and nature might be moot, and in the final analysis all major religions might have a nature-based, pantheistic foundation with sociobiology being an inherent factor in the development of each.

That does not mean changes could not occur because they obviously did. At one point a religious model favoring the core genetic family/tribe expanded. That might have led to dilution of faith if not for imaginative thinkers.

That perhaps provides a new way of looking at the transition from Judaism to Christianity. Beyond the fact that Jesus of Nazareth spoke about a heavenly place beyond the stars, as opposed to the traditional Jewish concept (at least by the Sadducees and other groups) that paradise could be found on earth, he also ushered in a totally new approach to tribal integrity. It was para-sexual, and extra-familial. Unlike Abraham, Moses and other central figures in the Bible there is no mention of a wife, consort or progeny. Did this mean Jesus was opposed to marriage - perhaps thinking family life and the material concerns that went along with it put restraints on His mission and subsequently, that of His apostles? That is open to question, but another possibility comes to mind. Jesus did "multiply" members of the tribe but did so with words. Language was the seed he spread around the world through His teachings and those of His followers.

He seemed to be one of the first to espouse something called the family of man- the Buddha being another strong exponent. He felt the tribe could be sustained and expanded by incorporating everyone into the family unit, including Romans, Jews, the poor, and people of various religions. In that sense, while some have compared his mission to that of David or Moses, who brought a specific group of people into the theo-political fold he might instead be compared to a latter-day Abraham because in spreading the seed of humanism among classes, ethnicities and races throughout the world He might well be described as the father of many nations.

If there is merit to the above arguments one might reasonably assume there is a tertiary aspect to the Old Testament (the first and second being faith and law) and also a different but still reverential way to conceptualize the God who stewarded the development of the Jewish. Christian, and Muslim faiths. It is that God and nature are intertwined, that the foundation of all religions is pantheistic, that God not only created the natural world but is woven into it, and that the words, beliefs and actions of all religious thinkers have, in the final analysis, been shaped by natural forces.

Robert DePaolo - Retired practitioner in the fields of clinical, educational and neuropsychology. Former Professor of Psychology NH University System, Author of eight books and many articles on science, psychology, crime, religion and politics

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