As a Christian who studies evolutionary biology, I am often asked whether I feel fundamentally torn in my intellectual pursuits. How do I occupy such vastly different mental spaces and perspectives without feeling torn? For me, the key element has always been a recognition of the many ways in which each of these two separate worldviews serves to complement and inform the other. Through the study of human evolution, I’m privileged with a glimpse into God’s blueprint. To know where we’ve come from is to predict where we are going. Similarly, it is only through my Christian beliefs that any of these insights into human nature are given meaning and purpose. In other words, science is eternally concerned with the “is” whereas religion’s orientation points far more doggedly towards the “ought.”

No more so is this the case than when it comes to the study of the human capacity for violence. Through biology one may glimpse the hellish depths to which the human proclivity may sink. Yet it is through Christianity that one finds the ability to speak in terms of right and wrong and to call out injustice. The Christian worldview enables us to envision something better, to know that all is not as it was meant to be. Existing in isolation, both perspectives are woefully incomplete. But together, they just might grant us a path forward.

Our Violent Inheritance

It was long thought that one of the defining features of humanity was its incredible capacity for brutality and the willful committal of gross atrocities against other members of its own kind. In thinking that humans were alone in this, many sought to place the blame for our violent natures squarely on the shoulders of society and human culture at large. Rousseau’s “noble savage,” at peace only when cut off from the corrupting influence of modern civilization, exemplifies this thinking. Conversely, when images of Jane Goodall’s first few research expeditions into the forests of Gombe to study chimpanzees were released, the public was overcome with delight over our seemingly gentle and lovable relatives, the very images of what humanity had once been and might still become. Yet it is becoming increasingly clear that we are far from being the only species of animal capable of engaging in proactive violence, that is, the type of violence requiring careful planning rather than mere reactive outburst. This is demonstrated by chimpanzees’ lethal raiding behavior, in which they systematically murder members of their own species. For just as humans undeniably possess a penchant for violence, our closest relatives, chimpanzees, seem certainly to share in this inglorious attribute.

Before continuing, I ought pause to speak briefly about the ways in which evolutionary biologists seek to make claims about the adaptive nature of certain human traits. Within the field of human evolutionary biology, much of the methodology relies strongly on a comparative behavioral biology approach. This strategy studies our closest living primate relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, as excellent representatives of the form and behavior our last common ancestors with these modern-day cousins may have exhibited. Those traits that are found to be both heritable, that is, relying on mechanisms that can be genetically inherited, as well as beneficial to the individual’s reproductive success (more babies!) are argued to be adaptations that provided evolutionary advantages within the ancestral environment. On the flip side, behavioral biologists also look to cross-cultural analyses of traditional societies, such as hunter-gatherers and pastoralists, to provide further insights into how humans living in ecological settings similar to those of our far-distant ancestors may exhibit some of those same adaptations. Using these two trails of evidence, evolutionary biologists are able to piece together a fascinating picture of how humans in their present form may have ultimately come to be.

While aggression between groups of primate species is fairly universal and explainable via traditional interpretations such as resource and mate scarcity, chimpanzees stand out markedly among non-human primates in that they often engage in what is termed “lethal raiding.”[1] These lethal raids involve large groups of males (and occasionally females) excitedly forming raiding parties or the express purpose of venturing deep into the territory of neighboring chimpanzee bands. Once in foreign land, the raiding party will go silent and creep along the jungle floor in search of lone members of the rival band. If they are successful, they will launch a brutal surprise attack on the unsuspecting individual. If it is a male, then the raiding party will proceed to literally rip their hapless victim apart and brutally mutilate its corpse. If it is a female, then a violent gang rape will ensue with the female often being forced to return back with the raiders to their home territory. All this is done with the perpetrators exhibiting a sense of excitement and delight in the violence that is frankly both gut-wrenching and oddly familiar.

When scientists first observed such horrific behavior from our seemingly gentle relatives, they were understandably appalled and sought in vain for some circumstance that might explain away what could only be conceived of as an awful aberration from the norm. Yet over the years, more and more accounts have poured in to the point where the primatology community is largely agreed that coalitional conflict is a hugely prevalent and influential aspect of chimpanzee social behavior.[2] The significance of this is quite remarkable. No other animal strategically uses an imbalance of power to brutally murder an enemy, not for any immediate advantage, but merely because the opportunity presented itself. Evolutionarily, the behavior seems to be highly adaptive. Those individuals that demonstrate high levels of aggression are more likely to survive and pass on that genetic material to their offspring, ensuring that the trait is preserved and amplified across generations. Furthermore, such an unprecedented level of aggression is remarkably telling in terms of our human evolutionary inheritance and makes us stop for a second look at a specter we thought of as a solely human moral aberration.

Knowing the Good … and Forsaking It

Back when we thought of our species as uniquely capable of willful acts of violence against our own kind, it was easy for those within Christian communities to attribute this seeming idiosyncrasy to the Fall of Man and our spiritual inheritance of Adam’s original sin. While opinions diverge today as to the specifics of this spiritual inheritance, the basic tenets remain relatively constant. Due to the sin of Adam and Eve in breaking God’s command and eating from the tree of the knowledge of good evil, sin came into the world to affect every human being. According to Romans 5:12, “… sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (ESV). It’s perhaps easy to interpret this as espousing a monumental shift in humans’ inherent capacity to commit evil. But with the recognition that our pre-human ancestors were likely equally as capable of violence as modern humans, it’s arguably necessary to further nuance our understanding of what the original sin actually entailed.

A careful reading of the book of Genesis points to a spiritual turning point in human nature that had far more to do with the recognition of our own moral failings than with a monumental shift in our behavior itself. Recall that it was the tree of the “knowledge of good and evil” that Adam chose to eat from (Gen 3:6), rather than the “tree of the tendency towards evil deeds.” It’s possible that from Adam humans derived not the capacity for sin and evil, but rather the naming of it, the ability to differentiate between the good and the evil. This would seem to align quite well with the statement in Genesis, “Then the Lord God said, ‘Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever’” (Gen 3:22). In this light, the term “original sin” refers to that first sin (disobedience to a command explicitly uttered by God) as could rightly be called such. For before that point, humans, having no sense of the nature of good and evil, would have been unable to sin in the truest sense of the word absent an actual understanding of what right behavior entailed. Paul speaks somewhat to this idea in his letter to the Romans: “… sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law” (Rom 5:12-13). In reference to the Genesis story, it was not that disobedience to God out of prideful ambition was the first act of evil. Rather it was the original act that might rightly be called “sin,” for it was done in spite of knowing right action to be the contrary.

The Function of Humanity

Well, if that’s the case, one might ask, then why did God forbid Adam and Eve from eating of the tree in the first place? Does God not want us to discern right and wrong, justice from injustice? Biblical scholar Peter Enns and philosopher Jared Byas argue in their guide to the book of Genesis that Adam and Eve are better understood not as once-flawless superhumans whose very natures became grossly corrupted by their disobedience, but rather as naïve children who were intended to “grow into obedience” but were tricked into following the path of disobedience.[3] In this line of thinking, God commanded Adam and Eve not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because doing so would be a sort of shortcut, a way of avoiding the long path one must follow to grow into obedience. In an act of pride, Adam and Eve sought to carve their own way towards truth rather than pursue it in the obedient fashion God intended. As Proverbs 1:7 puts it, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” To truly attain the knowledge of good and evil requires far more than an intuition, a maxim, or even a magical fruit. It all starts with obedience and the relationship one develops over time with God himself.

Yet the question still remains as to how we interpret the biblical description of the first human beings, Adam and Eve, as “made in the image of God” (Gen 1:27). How can something made in God’s image have been capable of evil from the outset? Biblical scholar John H. Walton, in his book The Lost World of Genesis One, argues that much of Genesis 1 can be understood as the story of God bestowing function and purpose on creation rather than as a literal cosmology.[4] In that vein, the creation of man in God’s image had less to do with man’s literal state of existence than with man’s function and purpose as “stewards over creation.” Similarly, God’s repeated statement throughout Genesis 1 of “it was good” is less a statement of creation’s moral perfection at the outset of its existence than that it is “functioning properly” as intended by God. Therefore, morally flawed humans that inherited their tendency towards violence from pre-human ancestors can still be said to bear the image of God in that they are able to functionally serve as God-like stewards over a similarly morally flawed but functionally perfect creation.

As we seek to reconcile the scientific with the religious, they seem to come together most clearly in their demonstration of humans’ inherently flawed nature. While biological knowledge gives us insight into the mechanism by which violence and aggression are selected for within the human lineage, the Christian faith points us to another equally powerful and also uniquely human trait: our moral reasoning. Being a human created for a purpose by God enables us to name the good and the evil. We are empowered to call out the just and the unjust and consciously choose paths of righteousness while shunning the immoral. A chimpanzee acts in accordance with the nature it has developed without knowing of an alternative. Yet humans are empowered to rise above our inheritance and choose to do better, to be better. We are not the products of blind determinism but rather of rational agency. We were made in the functional image of God, but it is in our naming and pursuing of the good that we move beyond our function to embrace the wisdom that God has in store for us as moral agents in an otherwise flawed world.

For someone like me, forever straddling the line of religious faith and scientific fact, there is true comfort in this. In so many ways, the scientific worldview is one of strict material mechanisms. It answers the “how” of existence to considerable satisfaction while leaving much to be desired in its wrestling with the question of “why.” As I’ve grappled with the various sources I might turn to in pursuit of a “why,” a reason for my own existence, my faith is the one thing that has given me any inkling of true satisfaction. Through God I’m given function and purpose as his steward and image-bearer, a small but far from insignificant light in the day-to-day morass of injustices I can’t help but see around me. In reflecting my stewardship, I choose to love others as well and as deeply as I am able while naming the good and the just with every capacity that I’ve been given. That is our true inheritance, and our ultimate purpose.


[1] Wrangham, Richard W., and Dale Peterson. Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996. Print.

[2] Wrangham, Richard W., and Luke Glowacki. “Intergroup Aggression in Chimpanzees and War in Nomadic Hunter-Gatherers.” Human Nature 23.1 (2012): 5-29. Web.

[3] Enns, Peter, and Jared Byas. Genesis for Normal People: A Guide to the Most Controversial, Misunderstood, and Abused Book of the Bible. Englewood, CO: Patheos, 2012. Print.

[4] Walton, John H. The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009. Print.

Hailey Reneau ’17 is a Human Evolutionary Biology concentrator in Pforzheimer House.