G. Richard Jansen
Colorado State University
Fort Collins CO 80523
For most people, there is no more blessed and anticipated event than the birth of their baby. The word "innocence" is not attached to a baby for light and trivial reasons, and it is doubtful that anyone looking at a newborn child can comprehend the idea that a baby may be tainted with original sin derived from the sin of Adam. It is a difficult even repugnant concept yet it endures and, as will be discussed, has merit in helping us understand human behavior, especially the nature of evil. First we need to review where the doctrine of original sin comes from, seek an understanding from neurophysiology, and then consider what it means to us today.
In considering original sin, at first we have a semantic problem, i.e. it means and has meant different things to different people at different times. According to the "Catholic Encyclopedia" , original sin means either the sin that Adam committed or the consequences of Adam's sin which all mankind has inherited as a consequence of our descent from Adam, or in a broader sense our descent from the first man in whom God placed a soul. It is this concept of inherited sin that is the most common understanding of what is meant by original sin. Although he derived it from earlier lines of thought, St. Augustine is generally credited with formulating the doctrine of original sin as has been understood by the Christian world for almost 1600 years.
The many books still being written about St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, and his words are testimony to his powerful intellect and the vitality of his insights and ideas [2-4]. It is well known that he moved from being a rather dissolute youth and young man to being one of the strongest voices in the development and defense of Christendom in all of history. In theology he moved from Manichaeism to Neoplatonism, and finally to Christianity. Augustine clearly was concerned with the nature of good and evil which had originally attracted him to Manichaeism, a belief system that postulated two separate cosmic kingdoms, one of Light or Goodness, and the other of darkness or evil  . Augustine became a convert to Christianity in 386, was ordained a priest in 391 and Bishop of Hippo in 395 AD. In a recent book entitled St Augustine's Dilemma , Dennis Cresswell chronicles Augustine's pilgrimage from Neoplatonism to Christianity, and from salvation by freely choosing a good and virtuous life to predestination and original sin with an emphasis on salvation by faith through the grace of God .The neoplatonic concept, which much influenced Augustine as he formulated his Christian views was of a world derived from "The One" in an orderly and downward progression of forms. The goal of individual souls is to pursue goodness and to ascend back up this progression to a union with "the One", or God .
In "De Civitate Dei", Augustine defines original sin as the open disobedience by Adam of God's will by eating the forbidden fruit. The immediate penalty, as stated in Genesis, was death for Adam and Eve and all their descendants. In Augustine's view this evil act was preceded by an evil will derived from pride, a craving for "undue exultation". In his words "the corruption of the body which weighs down the soul, is not the cause of the first sin but its punishment. And it was not the corruptible flesh that made the soul sinful; it was the sinful soul that made the flesh corruptible". Augustine quotes from Paul, "The acts of a sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery, idolatry and witchcraft, hatred, discord, dissensions, factions and envy, drunkenness, orgies and the like. I warn you that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of heaven" . This is a list of undesirable and for the most part unacceptable behaviors that, except for witchcraft, most people would subscribe to today. And so we come to our time where, although the doctrine of original sin is still part of the theology of most branches of Christianity, it is probably safe to say that few sermons today are being delivered from any Christian pulpit in the United States on original sin.
To gain a neurophysiological perspective on the doctrine of original sin, we turn to the limbic system and the hypothalamus in the brain.. To do this, we need to consider the development of the brain through evolution. Paul MacLean, at the National Institute of Mental Health, has done this in, among other places, his much cited book "The Triune Brain in Evolution" . He terms the oldest part of the brain reptilian, next oldest the paleo-mammalian limbic system, and from an evolutionary standpoint the newest part of the brain he terms neo-mammalian. It is the latter area that through mammalian evolution has grown progressively larger, reaching its culmination in the neocortex of man where conscious thought resides. Compared to the most primitive mammals, the insectivores, the neocortex in great apes and man is 62 and 196 times as large respectively.
A large number of neurophysiological studies starting with the pioneering studies 60 years ago by Papez at Cornell identified the limbic system including the hippocampal formation and the cingulate gyrus as controlling emotional behavior . The limbic lobe, originally described by Broca in 1878 is connected with sub-cortical structures, particularly the amygdala, midline thalamic nuclei and the hypothalamus . The hypothalamus, besides being central in the regulation of endocrine behavior, is also central along with the limbic system in the regulation of basic drives, namely feeding, fleeing danger, aggression, fighting, reproduction, and self-preservation. The amygdala has been described as the "neuronal hub of emotion" in view of it's connections with both the hypothalamus and the cerebral cortex, particularly the hippocampus . The involvement of the limbic system in human aggression, described as "destructive aggression that involves inflicting physical damage on persons or property" is described by Eichelman . This author suggests that such violent behavior is not necessarily part of a mental disease state, but rather may be part of a normal statistical distribution of violent behavior across a population. The higher brain centers in the neocortex of man, where conscious thoughts arise, are able via circuits to the limbic system, especially the hypothalamus and the amygdala, to influence these basic drives, and indeed inhibit them . For example, if cats are decorticated and. the inhibitory centers in the cerebral cortex are severed from the limbic system , A sham rage results which includes lashing of the tail, arching of the back, clawing, attempts to bite and many autonomic reactions associated with anger .
What does this mean for Augustine's concept of original sin? He never had a course in neurophysiology, and of course had no knowledge of Darwin's ideas on the descent of man, or MacLean's ideas about the Triune Brain. He was, however, a careful observer of human nature, including his own. He realized that there was an innate tendency in humans to be influenced by what he called "the disease of lust". Although lust when not further defined usually is meant to refer to lust in the sexual sense, Augustine had a much broader understanding even while realizing the power of the sexual drive. In the "City of God" he included the following as diseases of lust; the lust for revenge, money, conquering, i.e. aggression, applause, and ruling, we might say power . From his knowledge base, observation, introspection and theological perspective, he termed these basic tendencies and drives as original sin. Long before it was known that the limbic system provided the circuitry and mechanisms by which the higher centers in the neocortex, where conscious thoughts arise, could inhibit lust, aggression, and indeed those behavior now referred to as the "seven deadly sins , Augustine realized that these behaviors needed to be controlled by conscious thoughts, namely the will. From his own feeling, he also felt that man needed God's help to control social behavior. We can debate the theological aspects of Augustine’s concept of original sin, but, in the main, it is an important insight into human nature by a powerful intellect.
But where do those conscious thoughts that control undesirable social behavior come from? We know they arise in the neocortex of the brain [15,16], but how did they get there? Surely the development of moral law and ethics in general over thousands of years of recorded history is in large part where they came from, and which provides the moral culture for civilized societies. Civilization is a long and difficult process. The Code of Hammurabi, the Torah and Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, the Koran and the words of Confucius, Buddha and others have been much involved in the process. However, the "old brain" is still powerful and not always controlled as shown by the human genocides in the 20th century. The holocaust in which six million Jews and millions of others were killed is an example . Rummel, in his book "Death by Government"  concludes that 169 million people have been murdered by the State in the 20th century including 62 million in the USSR, 35 million in Communist China, 21 million in Nazi Germany, and 10 million by the Nationalist government of China prior to 1949. As has been said, civilization is still skin deep, only as deep as the neocortex. The serious adverse effects in the United States of a poorly controlled sexual drive on the family, children, social stability and crime have been well characterized by Moynihan in his much quoted essay as "defining deviancy down" .
Having considered the basis for an innate propensity for evil in mankind , or in theological terms, sin, what about the question of goodness? Does man have a natural or innate sense of goodness, a moral sense? The Greek Stoics though so. It was their idea that the world is governed by a rational principle, the logos, from which Roman law derived the concept of natural law. Natural law got its fullest expression from St. Thomas Aquinas. He argued that the natural law derived from divine law, the highest principle of which is that Awe ought to do good and avoid evil. More recently, James Q. Wilson in his book "The Moral Sense" , suggested that mankind does indeed possess a moral sense. He suggests that such a moral sense would include, at a minimum, sympathy, fairness, self-control and duty. Wilson further argues that human societies are organized around kinship patterns, i.e. families. He observes that children are not typically abandoned in large numbers, in most cultures incest is taboo, and unjustifiable homicide is considered to be wrong. He further suggests that this "moral sense " must have had adaptive value through evolution. In his book " Consilience’ Edward O. Wilson goes further . He posits that there is no God and that morality does not come from divine revelation. Rather he argues that moral precepts and ethics are entirely material products of the mind that have " increased the survival and reproductive success of those who conformed to the tribal faiths" .
The word "innate" has two meanings; one is inborn or existing from birth, and the other is essential or inherent. This latter meaning can include things acquired though one's culture. It surely is difficult in this case as in many cases, to dissect the effects of nature or heredity, from nurture, i.e. the influence of culture and at least 5000 years of moral and ethical teaching. For there to be an "innate moral sense, in the sense of inborn, one would expect that evolutionary pressure had led to the preferential survival of the progeny of those individuals who had more rather than less of a moral sense, as suggested by both Wilsons to be the case [21,22], and also by Mandler in his book "Human Nature Explored’ .
And yet! The question remains; does the "essential nature" of man include a propensity to do good as well as a propensity to do evil? Niebuhr decidedly thought so and posited that the essential nature of man contains two elements. In his book "Human Nature"  he wrote; "to the essential nature of man belong, on the one hand, all his natural endowments and determinations, his physical and social impulses, his sexual and racial differentiations, in his character as a creature embedded in the natural order. On the other hand his essential nature also includes the freedom of his spirit, his transcendence over natural processes and finally his self-transcendence". He continues "The virtues which correspond to the second element in his nature, that is, to the freedom of his spirit, are analogous to the theological virtues of faith, hope and love" .
Recent research in animals has shown the importance
of hormones, specifically oxytocin, vasopressin and estrogen in mating,
pair-bonding (i.e, affiliation) and parenting behaviors . However,
the maternal instinct and pair-bonding are a long way from the "love that
passeth all human understanding". We know much, as discussed
earlier, about the neurophysiological pathways involved in aggression,
violence, lust and hate. However, when one searches the scientific
literature one finds little about love, in the broad sense used in the
gospel and letters of John and by Paul in his letters. An interesting approach
to a neurophysiological understanding of love is that of Walter Freeman
in his book "The Societies of Brains; A Study of the Neuroscience of Love
and Hate" , in which he predicts that neurochemistry will become increasingly
important in understanding societal aspects of human behavior. Freeman,
however, is not discussing love and virtues in the sense used by Niebuhr
and others. Data are not yet available that confirm that the essential
goodness of man is "inborn", in contrast to being derived from culture
Perhaps Wright summarized the situation best when, writing from an evolutionary perspective he said; " We are potentially moral animals— which is more than any other animal can say--- but we aren’t naturally moral animals. To be moral animals, we must realize how thoroughly we aren’t " . It is fair to say that one of the roles the great religions in the world has played is to do just that.
And yet, and yet! Why do humans have such a great capacity for love, and why is love so important in the Bible, and in the writings of many philosophers? Can neurophysiology and natural selection really explain the essential truth in what Paul wrote nearly 2000 years ago; " If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres"........"And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love"  Why can art and music make us think there is more to our lives than our animal nature? What are the neurophysiological pathways involved that can so emotionally touch us, bring us to tears of joy and make us feel the presence of God, whatever that presence is, when we listen to" Ave Verum" by Mozart, "Ave Maria" by Schubert or the "Messiah" by Handel. Can all of this ultimately have been derived from a strike of lightning in a primordial mix of methane and ammonia followed by eons of molecular collisions or was a divine spark involved? Of what possible survival value or reproductive advantage could this have been? Because we don't yet understand these things does not mean that there is not a self-transcendence in man that enables him to feel the presence of God.
In their book "The Development of Social Cognition" Pryor and Day devote three chapters to moral development . Many factors were evaluated as to their importance in moral development. It is somewhat interesting but perhaps more revealing of the Zeitgeist of our secular society that the thousands of years of moral teaching and the role of religion were not mentioned. More recently, an excellent discussion of moral development in the context of social cognition and personality is that of Walker and Hennig , and the reader is encouraged to read this comprehensive review. Included is a discussion of the classic work of Kohlberg in which moral development is seen to progress through five phases Only the first phase characteristic of children, includes "the dictates of authorities define right and wrong". Walker and Hennig conclude that "Kohlberg paid scant attention to notions of religion, faith and spirituality because of the perceived need to establish the legitimacy of his enterprise and because of the American requirement of an areligious moral education program" .
The doctrine of original sin, as formulated by Augustine
1600 years ago was a perceptive understanding that man has an innate will
to do , in his words, evil. A reasonable current perspective on this
is the knowledge that the oldest regions of the brain, especially the limbic
system including the hypothalamus, control and in fact promote those aspects
of self preservation that lead to territoriality, aggression, violence,
fighting and lust. These basic drives are very strong. Fortunately,
in mankind, they are restrained by inhibitory influences coming from
the neocortex that act on the limbic system. These inhibitory
influences derive from conscious thoughts that are in turn derived from
moral and ethical teachings, the development of law, and civilization.
Augustine's view that original sin derived from pride and included such
behaviors as lust for revenge, applause, power and its abuse thereof is
informative in helping us understand the demise of one presidency and the
apparent unraveling of another. The fact that in our century there
have been conservatively over 100 million victims of genocide would suggest
strongly that man's capacity to do evil is still mightily present.
Dostoevsky said that "without God, anything goes". Augustine knew
this centuries earlier, as did Blaise Pascal who is recorded as saying
in his Pensees "Original sin is folly in men's eyes, but it is presented
as such. You should not therefore reproach me for the lack of reason
in this doctrine, since I present it as being without reason. But this
folly is wiser than all men's reason, sapientius est hominibus [ is wiser
than human (wisdom)
(1 Cor.1:25)"] .
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