The Bible and the Perils of ‘Evolution’

‘The Creation of Adam and Eve’; Flemish school, seventeenth century
Museo de Navarra, Pamplona, Spain/Scala/Art Resource
‘The Creation of Adam and Eve’; Flemish school, seventeenth century

For a Dutch professor of biological anthropology in Zurich, Carel van Schaik, to join forces with a German journalist, Kai Michel, to offer “an evolutionary reading” of the Bible took more than courage. It required a wholesale rethinking of that immense text as nothing less than “humanity’s diary, chronicling both the problems our ancestors faced and the solutions they came up with.” It presupposed, without argument, that the Bible is “an inexhaustible and incomparable anthropological resource,” which might come as a surprise to scholars of early Judaism and Christianity.

We are asked to believe that this text, as assembled from writings that spanned the first millennium BC and first century AD, reflects the long evolution of the human species from the epoch of hunter-gatherers 13,000 years ago through the many changes that more sedentary forms of life eventually imposed. According to van Schaik and Michel, these changes included the invention of property, the oppression of women, and sexual activity with animals, none of which appears to have characterized the hunter-gatherers. Regrettably those almost mythical ancient peoples have not told us about this themselves. Although the Bible certainly demonstrates that property, women, and bestiality interested the authors of the Pentateuch, what it does not do is assure us that these concerns were alien to hunter-gatherers.

The present evolutionary interpretation of the Bible is arresting and admittedly grounded in the brilliant book by Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1997). As van Schaik and Michel remind us several times, Diamond maintained that the adoption of a sedentary way of life—the so-called Neolithic Revolution—was “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.” Diamond’s work ranged over many continents and placed great stress on the influence of the environment in human social development. This was a point on which the late generalist historian William McNeill conspicuously disagreed with him because Diamond appeared to neglect the importance of cultural autonomy in determining social evolution. McNeill also pointed to the importance of cultural changes through technology, which can be influential within a similar environment.1

Van Schaik and Michel are firmly on the side of environmental, rather than cultural, causes for social evolution. They claim that a sedentary people had to establish property rights for its individuals (who had had none before), had to monitor the promiscuousness of its women (who had supposedly been shared among the hunter-gatherers), and had to ensure that the animals it was now raising after settling were not available for sexual intercourse. The story of Cain and Abel illustrates the property issue, although it hardly marks the “invention of property,” as van Schaik and Michel claim. Their emphasis on bestiality seems unwarranted, since gratification of this…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!

Online Subscription

Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.

One-Week Access

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.