Genesis of Eden

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Extract: Original Sin from In the Blood, Steve Jones 221-27, 240-2.

[Making a genetic plea for a crime] approached a question central not only to law, but to religion and philosophy. Why should there be evil? If man is born sinful, how should he be forgiven? The issue strikes at the core of belief and of society. The idea of a 'gene for crime' in fact poses a theological question. If certain people are born with a nature that makes it inevitable that they will offend, how can they be blamed, or judged? How can there be equality before God or the law if one group - how large, nobody knows - can claim lifelong immunity from its full rigours, with the evidence written into DNA? Such questions of guilt and forgiveness obsessed early Christianity. They caused many to challenge the very reason for existence of the Church as an institution able to pronounce on human weakness. A failure to resolve them led to a split from which it has never recovered. There is a danger that science will force the law to face the same moral dileinmas and perhaps the saine threat to its integrity. The question turns on human accountability and on who should pronounce on it. The fourth-century British theologian Pelagius argued that man was liable for all his deeds, whether good or evil. He had free will. If he had not, nothing would restrain him from indulging in any sin he chose. Inborn disability was no excuse. Aristotle had been quite wrong to argue that certain people could scarcely help their actions; everyone could, and should, choose to behave well. Pelagius' doctrine was immediately seen by the establishment as dangerous. To allow man freedom to decide minimized the role of God and the power of the Church, His representative on earth. It thus went straight to the heart of the main institution of social cohesion of the time. His work De Libero Arbitrio - On Free Will - was denounced by the religious authorities and its author excommunicated. He sank from sight.

St Augustine had become a Christian after rejecting the doctrines of the Manicheans, a sect who felt that the world was, of its nature, wicked and that nothing could change it. Many of his views descended from those of the Stoics themselves. As Bishop of Hippo, in north Africa, Augustine disputed with Pelagius and claimed that humanity had no choice, no free will, but was programmed to transgress because of the plague of original sin. Sin - estrangement from God - was congenital and universal. It had arisen from the failings of Adam and Eve and would pursue inan as long as he existed. Sin meant that nobody had the ability to decide, on their own, between good and evil and that only God could forgive, should man allow him to do so by accepting His word. Augustine's doctrine was an austere one. As children were born full of sin they were damned if they died before baptism. Hell, he said, was paved with infants. St Augustine could not understand why God had chosen the sexual option, and the opportunity it gave for sin, for the Garden of Eden: 'If it was good company and conversation that Adam needed, it would have been much better arranged to have two men together as friends, not a man and a woman.' He knew full well, though, where wickedness came from. The taint was passed, like a gene, from one generation to the next by the sin of Adam itself, the act of sex. Lust - concupiscence, as he called it - was needed for mankind to survive, but within it there was evil. Pope Innocent III put it neatly in the thirteenth century: 'Everyone knows that intercourse, even between married persons, is never performed without the itch of the flesh, the heat of passion and the stench of lust. Whence the seed conceived is fouled, smirched, corrupted; and the soul infused into it inherits the guilt of sin.' Evil, thought Augustine, was inherited and it was not in human power alone to do anything about it. As was to happen, much later, with the law, the issue of human autonomy - the genetics of sin - divided the Church. The rift centred on its power to judge. Since its foundation, the Church had used its authority to condemn or to forgive. Confessions, indulgences (certificates of forgiveness) and inasses for the souls of the dead all attested to its right to control spiritual fate. Man might be born sinful, but with appropriate treatment he could be cured. If he refused to bow to priestly power suitable punishment (what Augustine called 'benignant asperity' - the burning of heretics to save their souls) was available.

Many Christians disagreed. All over Europe, groups sprang up that denied the Church's right to intervene. If sin was inborn, it was not within mere human authority to judge it. The heresies came in various flavours but all turned on the conviction that priests were claiming rights that were not theirs to exercise. In the eleventh century, dissent spread from the Bogomils, a Balkan sect who believed, like the Manicheans, that the material world was evil. Only the world of the spirit was without sin and the only hope of attaining it was to cominune face-to-face with God. The idea took firm hold around Albi, in southern France. Soon, its adherents the Cathars - the katharol, or pure ones - controlled much of the Languedoc. They rejected the authority of the Church and had lives of simplicity and penance in which salvation lay only in the Lord. The Pope became alarmed at the threat to his power and proclaimed a crusade against them. Thousands of Cathars were killed and many inore tortured into accepting the true faith. Laws were passed to suppress the Albigensian heresy, and the first Inquisition established to ensure that they were applied. It set about its task with zeal. By 1244, with the fall of the fortress of Montsegur in the Pyrenees, the Cathars had been crushed. To celebrate their defeat the victors built a gigantic cathedral at Albi. It contains a vast mural - the largest painting in France - by an unknown genius of the fourteenth century. This depicts, in exquisite detail, the tortures of those found guilty of sin - pride, greed, anger, lust and the rest. Nobody seeing them could doubt that to reject the chance for salvation offered by the Church that commissioned it meant torment for eternity. Triumphal statements, such as Albi Cathedral, though, were only a temporary defence. Within a hundred years the question of inborn sin tore the Catholic Church apart.

The Reformation took the doctrine of Augustine to its logical conclusion; that everyone, however grand or virtuous, was equally sinful, and that God alone had the right to decide who would be saved. Nothing that human institutions (the Church included) could do could alter an inborn fate. Salvation was by the grace of God, and not by mortal efforts at reform or punishment. Martin Luther was born in 1483. He had trained as a monk but was shocked by the laxity of his colleagues. In south-east France, for example, the peasants were invoking a folk-saint, Guinefort, who they assimilated into the pagan image of a child-protecting dog. Luther saw the epidemic of syphilis raging through Europe at that time as a statement of the decline of the church and a presage of the Last Judgement. He proclainied a Christianity that returned to its biblical roots and condemned many of the religious customs that had grown up since the earliest days, including 'the wicked and impure practice of celibacy'. In his Ninety-five Articles (which may or may not have been nailed to the church door at Wittenberg) he attacked the Church for its corruption. Luther's theology was austere. God alone can decide who will receive His grace. It cannot be earned - or forfeited - by any act of man. The Reformation ignited the wars of religion that plagued the continent for the next century. In the north, at least, the revised faith won, and Protestantism still prevails. Its attraction was that it made everyone equal in the eyes of the Lord: no longer was it possible for the rich to purchase salvation. The Sacrament did not have to be earned by making a confession to a mere mortal. Many of the rites of the Church were dropped as an unwarranted barrier between God and man. The ideas of the Reformation are reflected in the modern legal system: of equality before the law, of justice blind to privilege, inborn or otherwise. The consequences of being able to recognise those programmed to sin were first appreciated not by biologists or lawyers but by the followers of John Calvin, the ultimate genetic determinist. A destiny fixed at birth was, he argued, everything. God alone determines fate. Everyone is born a sinner and all deserve punishment, but God, in his mercy, has admitted some, the elect, to eternal life through predestination: 'by which God admits some to hope of life and sentences others to eternal death. We cannot know with the certainty of faith who is chosen.' Although Calvin himself thought initially that it was not within mortal power to identify the saved or the damned, his attention was soon drawn to the beguiling possibility that - perhaps - some of the elect could be recognized while still on earth. Calvinism today is at its purest in Scotland and in Ulster (where religious wars continued in a desultory way long after their resolution elsewhere). The Scottish reformer John Knox produced his First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women as a polemic against the Catholic queen of the day. Soon, he instituted Protestantism as the official creed. It denied any possibility of salvation - of reform - by good works. Free will, Knox said, had ceased at the Fall of Adam. The Damned would be damned for eternity, quite gratuitously and for no fault of their own. The Saved would enter Heaven, whatever their behaviour on earth. His sect soon became obsessed with the objective measurement of sin. Quinlan's Evangelical Barometer recognized fifteen grades; drunkenness and theatre-going, for example, scoring four, while adultery and parties on Sunday had a mark of six. Although predestination was no excuse for not behaving well, those not admitted to the elect were certain to burn, however virtuous their conduct. The idea of a chosen few and a condemned many is still embedded in parts of Scottish and Ulster society. A Catholic priest visiting Northern Ireland was once greeted with: 'Priest Murphy, speak for your own bloodthirsty, persecuting, intolerant, blaspheming, political-religious papacy, but do not pretend to be the spokesman of free Ulster men. You are not in the South of Ireland. Go back to your priestly intolerance, your blasphemous masses, back to your beads, holy water, holy smoke and stinks; and remember we are the sons of the martyrs whom your church butchered, and we know your church to be the other of harlots and the abomination of the earth'. Thus the Reverend Ian Paisley in antiecumenical mood in 1958. Paisley's view of society descends from that of the new government set up by Calvin in Geneva. It adopted a grave moral tone. Laws were made regulating the style of women's hats and barbers punished for shaving men in a Catholic way. In a short-lived experiment, the city's taverns were closed and replaced with Abbayes in which the entertainment consisted only of copies of the Bible. So impressed was Calvin by the righteous lives of the genevois that he felt that they must be of their nature different from others. Surely, people so blameless could not be condemned to burn. They must, he was forced to conclude, be members of the Elect, born to eternal life. As Calvin put it, like the Israelites of old the inhabitants of Geneva were simultaneously both 'perverse and wicked' and a people to whom 'God will give his blessing ... as a commonwealth humiliated before Him'. Geneva was an island of righteousness in a sea of iniquity. By identifying - as he thought - those with a prospect of salvation and separating them from those liable to be damned, Calvin pointed straight towards an ancient and damaging heresy and to the ethical problem that genetics set, much later, to the law. Implicit in the notion that some, the Elect, are born to be saved is an intriguing idea. It is that certain people are guaranteed eternal life, whatever crime they commit. They are beyond censure by the Church or by the law. This, the Antinotnian Heresy frees the Christian from any obligation to the moral law as set out in the Old Testament. The righteous might prefer to behave well from pure devotion, but there was also the option of simply disregarding the law and surrendering to man's basest instincts. There is no need for judgement or even for good behaviour as some are sure of salvation while others are already condemned. As this heresy trespasses on what the Church (or for that matter the law) sees as its rightful domain, the state has always suppressed the idea with whatever brutality is required. In 1534, John Bockelson took over the city of Munster, whose clergy were among the most corrupt in Germany. They had been exempted from taxes and the city's artisans forced to pay vast sums to Rome. Bockelson, a Dutchman, drove out the priests and founded a new Zion based on a perverted (or, as he argued, a logical) interpretation of Reformed doctrine. He denied that the law had any right to rule its citizens, whose fate had been decided at birth. The rest of the world would be destroyed, and only the Elect of Miinster saved. Anyone who defied him could not be among the chosen; and they were executed. Soon, polygamy was introduced to increase the number of those marked for eternal life and he himself took fifteen wives. Setting up a throne in the marketplace, Bockelson announced that he had been anointed king of the whole world, chosen by God. Sunday was abolished, as was money. Gold pieces of merely ornamental function replaced it. The Church - and the nobility - were outraged. Within months, the city was attacked by its neighbours and, after a lengthy siege, the heretics eradicated. Bockelson was captured and led about on a chain like a performing bear. In I536 he was publicly tortured to death with red hot irons, making no sound throughout his ordeal. The cage that once contained his bones still hangs from the roof of the church in Munster.

Early in the war of the Catholic Church against the heretics of Languedoc, both Cathars and Catholics were besieged by an army of the Church within the walls of Beziers. When the city fell, the commanding general was asked who to slaughter: heretics, his men assumed, must surely be separated from believers. Their leader's reply was simple: it presaged, in more brutal terms, what may become the attitude of the legal system. 'Kill them all,' he said, 'the Lord will know his own'; if there is any doubt about who has sinned, then all must be punished to ensure that the guilty do not escape. Killed they all were, some - perhaps - to be saved and some destined for damnation. The same Draconian logic may apply if, in time, genetics identifies more and more genes that predispose towards crime. AIbi Cathedral was built to celebrate the final victory of the Catholic Church over the Cathars. Its astonishing display of the tortures that the techiiolo of the Middle Ages concocted for the doomed has a message for the law. Those awaiting judgeinent stand with open books in which their lives - and their sins - are recorded. One figure, though, is missing. Instead of an avenging angel deciding the fate of the resurrected there is, in the middle of the vast fresco, an elegant arch. It is a portal driven through the painting to give access to a chapel added in the seventeenth century, at a time when it seemed acceptable to mutilate a three-hundred year-old masterpiece. The building works destroyed the painting's central figure, who once held the scales of justice. Albi's triuinphal statement of the Church's power is now a judgement without a judge. Some hope to place genetics in the breach, to read the book of life at birth, not after death. To do so is to risk the process of 'ustice, and to deny free will to everyone, good or evil. There can be no universal excuse for bad behaviour. If soine are excused because of their genes, then others, with a different constitution, become relatively more culpable. Pre- disposition is a double-edged sword. If most criminals offend because of the genes they carry, the scope for mitigation becoines so all-embracing as to lose its meaning. For the law to survive it inust ignore the defence of original sin, inherited frailty, in much the way as it ignores poverty, inborn or not. Society is not a product of genes but of people, and what they do must be judged by the law and not by science.