Original Sin: Part 1, Human Biodegradability in a Malthusian World

I have always struggled with Augustinian and Calvinistic notions of Original Sin. These formulations tend to posit some sort of intrinsic defect within the human creature, a stain as it were. As a psychologist I spend a great deal of time thinking about human motivation and have gone on long searches for the psychological fingerprints of Original Sin. If humans are totally depraved then there should be some motivational or cognitive bias, some tilt of the mind, that produces the depravity.

What is the psychological source of sin? What, exactly, is wrong with us?

Generally, we tend to think of human self-interest, selfishness, as the root cause of human sin. In the language of Augustine we are "curved in on ourselves" (incurvatus in se). This self-focus contaminates even our best moral efforts. As Martin Luther said, "Every good work is a sin."

However, I've come to the conclusion that this self-focus isn't an intrinsic defect as is typically posited by Original Sin theories. More and more, I think Original Sin is an extrinsic force, it is situational rather than dispositional.

Basically, we are finite creatures living in a finite world. In short, our situation is Malthusian. You'll recall that Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) was the English clergyman who wrote one of the fundamental essays of economics. It was entitled An Essay on the Principle of Population. In the Essay Malthus made the observation that reproduction tends to outstrip (or will eventually outstrip) resources. When this happens organisms must fight over the diminishing resources in order to survive (this was the key insight that triggered Darwin's thinking when he read the Essay). Taking the long view, Malthus applied this analysis to future human history and predicted that, given the logic of mathematics, population growth would soon outstrip food supply leading to catastrophic human death. From the Essay:

"The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world."

Now, you might have noticed, the Malthusian catastrophe has yet to come to pass. Malthus was working with an agrarian model of economics, limiting his ability to foresee how division of labor (among other things) could create wealth (i.e., the pin factory from Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations). To illustrate how we've been able escape Malthus's predictions, consider the recent analysis given in Gregory Clark's book A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World. As documented by Clark (and others), most of human history has been governed by Malthusian dynamics where birth and death rates, along with available food supplies, set strict limits upon human population. But with the onset of the Industrial revolution wealth began to be created at a rapid clip. And with it a population explosion. This rapid increase in wealth is strikingly illustrated by this chart of Clark's (p. 2):

As can be seen in Clark's graph, since the onset of the Industrial Revolution much of the world has been able to rocket out of the Malthusian trap. (How and why, and why some countries are still stuck in the trap, is the subject of Farewell to Alms.)

So it seems that we can shrug Malthus off. We've escaped his grim prediction.

But have we?

Despite the wealth-creating ability of modern economies, the ability that lifts us out of Malthusian economics, the Malthusian specter is always lingering in the background. It functions, as it were, as a center of gravity. Modern economies are like airplanes. They are high-powered machines that can lift us off the earth and get us into the clouds of prosperity. But as we all know, airplanes crash. And when they do we are back in the Malthusian situation. Only this time with billions of more mouths to feed.

People frequently speculate about these apocalyptic Malthusian crashes. Sometimes it appears in crazes like the Y2K hysteria. Remember how the global economy was going to crash when January 1, 2000 rolled in? How all the world computers and machines or appliances with computer chips would stop functioning? Planes falling out of the sky? Etc.?

But there are respectable Malthusian analyses regarding things such peak oil, the population explosion, and environmental collapse. Some of these are analyses are alarmist, but many are done soberly and with quantitative care. The point is always the same: We are finite creatures in a finite world. And we can't escape that fact.

I've gone into Malthus because my view of sin is largely informed by his Essay. I tend to reject theological notions that sin is a product of an intrinsic human defect. I tend to see sin as extrinsically caused. The problem isn't on the inside, it is, rather, on the outside. And the outside, at root, is governed by Malthusian dynamics. Modern economies tend to hide that fact from us, but Malthus' Essay is still in force.

We are, in short, vulnerable. And in times of economic downturn or times of war or during times of natural disaster when our electric grids and food supply lines get broken we face, again, the ghost of Malthus. He's always there.

We are selfish not because of a "fallen" nature. We are selfish because we live as physically vulnerable creatures in a Malthusian world. It is this situation that tilts the mind toward selfishness, makes us competitive, makes us hoard, or preemptively attack. It is our felt vulnerability that makes us sinful.

This vulnerability is nicely described by Marilyn McCord Adams in her book Christ and Horrors (p. 38):

"There is a metaphysical mismatch within human nature: tying psyche to biology and personality to a developmental life cycle exposes human personhood to dangers to which angels (as naturally incorruptible pure spirits) are immune...[this] makes our meaning-making capacities easy to twist, even ready to break, when inept caretakers and hostile surroundings force us to cope with problems off the syllabus and out of pedagogical order. Likewise, biology--by building both an instinct for life and the seeds of death into animal nature--makes human persons naturally biodegradable. Human psyche is so connected to biology that biochemistry can skew our mental states (as in schizophrenia and clinical depression) and cause mind-degenerating and personality-distorting diseases (such as Alzheimer's and some forms of Parkinson's), which make a mockery of Aristotelian ideals of building character and dying in a virtuous old age."

The Bible often links the powers of sin and death. Generally, we tend to spiritualize the connection between the two. I'd like to read the connection more concretely, economically, and biologically. Death and sin are linked by Malthus. The specter of death is what creates the sinful behavior. This is, interestingly, the view of sin and death in the Orthodox tradition. As the theologian S. Mark Heim describes the Eastern view:

Removed from Eden we are "[u]nourished by the divine energy, our existence fades into subjection to corruption and death. In such a state, our mortality becomes a source of anxiety. Futile attempts to defend ourselves from it lead us into active sin and estrange us from trust in God. Now sinfulness is more a result of mortality than mortality from sinfulness. To say that humans are 'conceived in sin' does not mean that some guilt or evil inclination is passed on to them in the act of their conception, but that what they inherit is a mortal human nature, which became mortal as a result of sin."

After the Fall, it is death that makes us paranoid and self-interested. But this is not, simply, some generalized or diffuse fear of death. It is a Malthusian fear, a fear that seeps into you because you are a biodegradable creature living in a Malthusian world.

Next Post: Part 2

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22 thoughts on “Original Sin: Part 1, Human Biodegradability in a Malthusian World”

  1. Very enjoyable essay - thanks. I have been meditating on this for a number of months and just wrote something yesterday that is on violence. I think roughly that the fall is a misleading thought process. What do you make of the Malthusian state prior to the disobedience of Eve and Adam? I.e. what was lacking to them? Then what do you make of the restoration through the death of Jesus? E.g. 1 Corinthians 3:23 - all things are yours, and you are Christ's and Christ is God's. The follow on question is 'how is the state of our energy and motivation transformed? Can the propensity to violence become the mettle of love?

  2. This is why the civilized world works with social contract and treaty...

    So, how do you suggest identifying the motivation of CEO's of big corporations that give themselves pay-raises, even knowing that the company is collapsing around them...Certainly, they do not feel threatened, do they? Resources are not scare for them...

    Do you believe that survival of the fittest drives mankind in obtaing these resources, when they are deemed scarce. I can readily agree in poor societies, but do not think that Western ambition can be addressed so simply. What is the "sin" here? Self-aggrandizment at the costs of another's?

  3. Richard, you might poke around William Rees' work on ecological economics for some ideas on this. In particular, his 2002 article titled "Globalization and Sustainability: Conflict or Convergence?" (Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society 22(4):249-268) gets at the very issues you're pondering.

    In short, following Derrick Jensen, Rees thinks that we have to tell ourselves lies ("myths") in order to justify the collective decisions we make and the collective narratives we adopt. He's a neosocialist, probably, and an atheist/humanist, FWIW, but that will become obvious very quickly.


  4. BTW, the "myths" of which Rees speaks tend to be those that posit that humans can somehow achieve or attain immortality, which (in view of your thesis here) is a denialist's escape from Malthus' ghost. If we think we can attain immortality, we fundamentally have little reason to pay heed to Malthus...it's all going to burn up and be replaced, anyway, or so the myth goes.

    Hence Rees' atheism, I suppose.


  5. This is an exceptionally intriguing post. From your vantage point, does the Malthusian explanation merely do an adequate job of naming for you the concrete connection(s) between "sin" and "death," or do you feel that it appropriately addresses the whole reality of what Christians call "original sin"?

    I guess I'm wondering to what extent this becomes "the" explanation, or merely one (especially helpful)facet of understanding original sin. It seems like if this is "it," I would want to say a great deal more -- about why the world's competitive fallenness is the way it is, about the powers (created good, fallen, redeemed), about what possibilities there are in resisting selfishness (pre- and post-Christ), about if there is really something "in" us that is fundamentally different than what was (in the beginning) or will be (in the resurrection).

  6. "So it seems that we can shrug Malthus off. We've escaped his grim prediction. But have we?"

    Actually, Malthus has been with us since the beginning of recorded history, on LOCAL levels. A number of cultures have effectively collapsed due to natural shortages and other structural (vs. conflictive) causes. Tainter's "Collapse of Complex Societies" is a good intro on this, but there are many others.


    Now we're entering into the first truly global collective and we can probably expect the same kinds of events to happen on a global level. Energy (peak oil, etc.), population, water resources, environmental blight -- all of the issues you mention -- are indeed on top of the culprit list.

  7. Bob,
    Regarding the pre-Fall state, hmmmm.

    Well, given my affinity for evolutionary theory I tend to read the story of the Fall as a "coming of age story", morally speaking, for the human species. I guess the best articulation of my view is the Irenaean view (as opposed to the Augustinian view) described by John Hick in Evil and the God of Love. In this view there was no prior "perfect" state. Perfection comes, rather, at the end of time. So I see the pre-history of humankind pretty much the same way an evolutionary biologist would see it: As a Malthusian world.

    Your comment got me thinking so much I'm going to devote my next post to answering your question. Stay tuned.

    Thanks for the article. For other interested readers I've found it online here:


    And I don't mind atheists, I often find them more interesting than Christians.

    I don't think this is the whole story. I expect that theologians would find my description of "sin" here to be very, very thin.

    My goal in writing the post is simply to point out that we tend to lean too much upon intrinsic notions of "sin." And that bias has its own kind of thinness.

    I should note that I also agree with McCord Adams that by shifting the "cause" of sin onto the environment that some (how much?) of the theodic burden is shifted off of humanity and onto God. In this I follow both Adams and Hick in their theodicies.

    Yes, I very much agree. A lot of my thinking on this has been informed by Jared Diamond's book Collapse.

  8. Richard - thanks. I was thinking purely from a mythic point of view. Coming of age - or even birth are suitable analogies. I agree that the state in the garden was not perfect. The human lacked knowledge. There seems to be a competition for knowledge today also. As to the 'perfect' or the 'complete', I think there is a problem with our understanding of time. When Jesus is given the words at the tomb of Lazarus "I knew that thou hearest me always, but I have said this on account of the people standing by, that they may believe that thou didst send me" the author of John has him express a form of completeness that the 'normal' human in time does not express. I.e. the fullness of "being in the bosom of the Father". Then when Lazarus is resurrected, this too seen as an analogue to the life of the believer "being in Christ", we have a fulfillment within time as well as whatever ultimate time may reveal as perfect.

    You make me stretch - I will look forward to the next post and as time goes on I may find fuller and better questions.

  9. Bob,
    You are very gracious. But let's always keep the possibility open that I have no idea what I'm talking about.

    I've been thinking some more about your questions...

    No doubt it is difficult to find Malthus in Eden if the Garden is read to be a state of peace (e.g., the lion and lamb laying down together). I'll admit that my idea here doesn't fit that piece of biblical imagination very well (literal or not) .

    But the other part of the Eden story, and I think it is the more important part, is the movement from innocence to guilt/shame. Before the Fall there was no "knowledge of good and evil." It was a pre-moral existence. This could be read literally or like an evolutionist would: The pre-moral pre-history of man

    With the onset of "the knowledge of good and evil" (however that comes about) the bible says "their eyes were opened" and they became "ashamed." With moral knowledge and moral emotions we are now firmly, after the Fall, in an era of morality and sin-awareness. Lions don't sin when they kill. But people do. Why? Because we have "the knowledge of good and evil."

    Further, when the couple leaves Eden God makes clothes for them. I'm guessing to cover their private parts. The advent of clothing signals the onset of a kind of sexual awareness that is quintessentially human, which is to say, neurotic. The onset neuroses (i.e., needing clothes, unlike animals who feel no shame) also marks us being in a moral world.

    Regarding this second way of looking at Eden (the onset of morality) I think my model fits fine.

    Regarding salvation. After Eden humanity becomes violent. In Genesis 4 the first murder occurs and in Genesis 6, right before the Flood, God makes this observation: Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight and was full of violence.

    I'd argue that violence is the logical outcome of the Malthusian situation. It's a dog eat dog world. Thus, the work of salvation is twofold:

    1.) The Big Eschatological Picture: The ending of all violence
    2.) The Present Moment: To get me to become non-violent while still in, and this is the hard part, the Malthusian situation. To, in the words of Jesus, "love my enemies." This is hard, and Malthusian temptations are everywhere. Temptations to look out for myself (and my kin and tribe). Thus, we can only pull off #2 through hope in #1: That God will redeem the sacrifice. Or, in the language of Revelation, that the blood of the martyrs is vindicated in the eschaton.

    In short, I think Jesus saves us from the Malthusian situation by commanding us to "turn the other cheek" while simultaneously promising that his Kingdom will come. If we trust in that hope then we can become both non-violent and, in the language of the Sermon on the Mount, give up worrying about how I will survive in this Malthusian world ("Consider the lilies..."). In this we transcend the Malthusian condition. We are saved from sin.

  10. You claim that sin is an extrinsic force, rather than something dispositional. You also claim that our "felt vulnerability" is what makes us sinful. Augustine did think that sin was a turning in on oneself (closing oneself off to God and neighbor) but he also thought that sin was a greedy, angst-ridden "grasping" as illustrated in his discussion of the sinful infant in The Confessions who is sated but nevertheless cries when witnessing another child at the breast. It is not just "felt vulnerability," but pridefully trying to transcend that vulnerability which is sin. Reinhold Niebuhr describes sin in a similar way--we are finite and capable of transcendence but we too often try and break free of our finitude and become like God. Our anxiety regarding our finitude, for Niebuhr, is what makes us sinful. And this anxiety is dispositional or habitual but nonetheless, it is our inherited human condition.

    I don't think our finitude makes the Aristotelian idea of developing virtue an impossibility, according the Adams. I would rather say that our discussion of virtue needs to be couched within a discussion of grace, as Thomas Aquinas tries to do in his recovery and correction of Aristotle. Indeed, biology and the positive reality of sin poise us for a losing game, unless we rely on one who is more powerful than us to heal the ruptures in our human state and elevate us to our goal of happiness and harmony.

  11. Hi Beth,
    I do understand and appreciate your comment. However, the post does signal my rejection of an Augustinian view of sin. In my humble estimation, as a psychologist looking at human behavior day to day, I've never been convinced that the root of sin is people "trying to be like God." I'm not even sure I know what that would look like, behaviorally speaking. The baby at the breast example is a better example of my model (an innate Malthusian response) than the spin Augustine give it.

    If your quote from Niebuhr is correct then I'd take his assessment as consistent with my view. It is true that we "inherit" our anxiety about our finitude and that we are placed into a "Condition." But just because we have felt anxieties on the inside does not mean that sin is intrinsic. Those felt anxieties are produced by the Malthusian situation. No doubt that the extrinsic situation produces certain psychological responses "inside" us, but we need to be clear about the order of the causal chain: The extrinsic circumstance creates the internal worry. The environment is driving the show. Not the other way around.

    I do realize that my view is at odds with the vast stream of Christian thought.

  12. Richard,

    Count me as one of those lonely fews "at odds with the vast stream of Christian thought." Augustine had many brilliant insights but his anthropology has whiffs of Manicheanism in it. Original good has a far more profound legacy than "original sin."


    George Cooper

  13. I am wondering how you piece the rest of your theology together starting with this definition of sin. Perhaps a post on how you define salvation? What did Jesus die for? You have talked about these issues separately in other posts, but I don't recall you tying your beliefs on sin and salvation together.

  14. How does this analysis jibe with Julian Simon's response to Malthus?

    Simon posited that, even though there are finite physical quantities of things in the world, we can treat them like they're infinite. And the reason is one of three things happen. Either:

    a) we find more of the resource (possibly through synthesis), or
    b) we figure out how to get more out of the resource than before, or
    b) the price of the resource rises past the price of the next best substitute, and we switch to it.

    Simon said these three alternatives came from human intelligence, calling it the ultimate resource. And not being able to see it's limits, he assumed it was infinite. So stated in a Simonian way: infinite human intelligence in a finite world.

    I don't share the view that human intelligence is infinite. But I do share the optimism that we have not yet discovered the limits of our intelligence. As a consequence, I don't fear the Malthusian collapse.

    Have you read Simon? How does that influence your thinking?

    (Sorry for being so late to the discussion. I hope it's not too late to get a response.)

  15. I have re-read a pretty good summary of Simon, and I need to correct my above statements.

    Simon was positing that resources are (in fact) infinite. He says this by recognizing that a thing doesn't become a resource until a human mind makes it one. For example, oil used to be this smelly stuff that was actually a curse to have on your land until human intelligence turned it into a resource.

    Additionally, human intelligence is a function of two things: how much we have learned up to this point, and how many people there are to learn it. So, to Simon, more people meant more brains. And people replace more resources than they take. Additionally, since we have not learned everything that there is to learn, human intelligence is effectively infinite.

    These corrections don't, I think, change the summary that he might make: Infinite human intelligence in a finite world. But I suspect he might say that the finiteness of the world doesn't matter.

    If Simon is right, then Malthus is wrong. Malthus seems to play a pretty foundational role in your essay. If he's wrong, does that change the rest of your conclusions?

    I suspect that you might still be right. Prior to the industrial revolution, we may have developed a heuristic to fight *before* resources become scarce. That heuristic may persist even though the resource constraints have changed. So, you might be right. Maybe we react like we're finite humans in a finite world, even though it's not true.

    (Still hoping that I'm not too late to get a response!)

  16. mjh,
    I don't know Simon's work well. My understanding is that there are very few economists who share his optimism. That is, Simon's work is best seen as a correction to extreme Malthusian pessimism but by no means a refutation. But I'm no economist.

    For my project I don't think the Simon/Malthus debate affects my argument much. I think the human mind is shaped by local pressures that are undoubtedly Malthusian in feel. Globally, perhaps Simon is correct, that the total world population will never plummet. But locally, in places like Darfur or even in the current US job market, the pinch upon human psychology feels more Malthusian (i.e., not enough to go around).

  17. Thanks for the response. Your answer is what I suspected. I didn't state it very clearly, though..

    Re: Simon vs. Malthus, I get the impression that Simon receives a lot of agreement from economists, but not a lot of agreement from ecologists.

  18. "Finite creatures in a finite world" seems to be a presupposition, a sort of belief statement, an unproven premise, a bias -- whatever you might call it -- which makes what follows more or less inevitable. Like saying, "Since God created the world in six days, the world is 6,000 years old."

    Here are a couple interesting quotes from German philosopher Schopenhauer: "He who is capable of thinking a little more deeply will soon perceive that human desires cannot begin to be sinful simply at that point at which, in their chance encounters with one another, they occasion harm and evil; but that, if this is what they bring about, they must be originally and in there essence sinful and reprehensible, and the entire will to live itself reprehensible. All the cruelty and torment of which the world is full is in fact merely the necessary result of the totality of the forms under which the will to live is objectified, and thus merely a commentary on the affirmation of the will to live. That our existence itself implies guilt is proved by the fact of death."

    And: "...the sole thing that reconciles me to the Old Testament is the story of the Fall. In my eyes, it is the only metaphysical truth in that book, even though it appears in the from of an allegory. There seems to me no better explanation of our existence than that it is the consequence of a misdeed, punishment for a forbidden desire."

  19. I think that Malthus will ultimately be proven correct. Just because it has not come to a head yet does not mean that it won't eventually. If you carry that population graph to its eventual conclusion there is simply no way to remain sustainable at the current rate. I fear we may be in for a Soylent Green type of future.

    See our blog at - http://www.delcowireus.com/

  20. “More and more, I think Original Sin is an extrinsic force, it is situational rather than dispositional.”
    I find this either/or logic strange in light of the historical understanding of original sin. Why not both/and? No one, that I know, doubts that our situation has an effect on us, that nurture does in part determine who we are. But are we to focus on this to the exclusion of any depositional defects in the human condition? Apart from being rife with historical pride, Richard, this essay seems closed to really listening to what original sin is.
    Original sin, contrary to what you have said, is not a defect in our humanity, but a consequence to us and the world by the choice of Adam. Taken literally or symbolically (or both, I don’t care), the point is, yes, our problem is extrinsic and intrinsic. We are born into a world with a problem, and we are a part of that problem. The first Adam did something that caused an ‘original exile’. The story of scripture makes no sense without this—and every subsequent exile is merely a recapitulation of this arché story.
    I don’t doubt that there are many factors (Malthusian, or whatever) that will impact our choices and personality in this life; however, do we really believe that if we undid all of these factors that we could free ourselves from this problem? That perhaps we could shield ourselves from all these extrinsic factors? The answer to this is always the same: it would be, but we can’t? The ‘god of the gaps’ returns, this time on the moral/anthropological plane.
    Saying that we are “physically vulnerable creatures in a “Malthusian world” simply contradicts your earlier claim that our problem is not an “intrinsic defect” to humanity. For you seem to suggest that in a perfect world we will not lack the nourishment of Eden, we won’t be finite, and/or we won’t be vulnerable. But why do we think that vulnerability is a bad thing? Or that being finite is a bad thing? Or that sometimes lacking something is a bad thing? Do these really entail all there is to our problem at a cosmic/system level? And how then did the last Adam, Jesus, succeed in this very same Malthusian world, with all these extinct forces bearing down on him??? How does he become a model for us, if it had nothing to do with things intrinsic?
    Richard, I am very much enjoying your blog! Yet, I’m finding myself in over my head in waters out from what I know to be that of historic Christian teachings… I'm listening, but I'm listening to early church fathers, too...(and it was more than just Augustine who had something to say about the state of humanity)
    (and it was more than just Augustine who had something to say about the state of humanity)

  21. Hi Ryan,
    I think the key to keep in mind is that I'm a heterodox. I'm coming from a non-creedal tradition so I'm not particularly worried about "historical Christianity."

    In short, as you read here just know I'm coming at Christian theology "from the margins." I don't fit well within the main stream of orthodoxy.

  22. I’m not bothered by heterodox views in the slightest! Nor am I worried about voices from the margins (we need them!)—as long as we don’t forget to listen graciously to the now side-lined Augustine, too (and read without all the colorings of the Calvinists).

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