Thursday, January 20, 2005

The Fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

My wife and I are re-reading through Daniel Quinn's The Story of B again, and we found ourselves debating about the viability about Quinn's hypothesis regarding the Abrahamic story of The Fall of Man (meaning, the Garden of Eden). It's on page 95 (of my edition, anyway), the story of The Tak. In this story, he defines some of the features of totalitarian agriculture ("...chickens may live but foxes must die... wheat may live but chinch bugs must die... Anything we eat may live, but anything that eats our food must die—and not merely on an ad hoc basis. Our posture is not, 'If a coyote attacks my herd, I'll kill it,' out posture is, 'Let's wipe coyotes off the face of the earth..."

He then claims that we have a record of the moment we assumed this attitude, from an outside observer. When asked the viewpoint of "some nomadic herders of ten thousand years ago" regarding who decides what lives and what dies, Fr. Jarred Osborne's answer was, "The Gods." B then identifies the knowledge of who lives and who dies with the knowledge of "good and evil. "What the Zeugen (the Witnesses) perceived is this, that every choice the gods make is good for one creature but evil for another, and if you think about it, it really can't be otherwise. If the quail goes out to hunt and the gods send it a grasshopper, then this is good for the quail but evil for the grasshopper. And if the fox goes out to hunt, and the gods send it a quail, then this is good for the fox but evil for the quail. And vice versa, of course. If the fox goes out to hunt, and the gods withhold the quail, then this is good for the quail but evil for the fox."

He then released the zinger: "When the Zeugen saw what the Tak were up to, they said to themselves, 'These people have eaten at the gods' own tree of wisdom, the tree of the knowedge of good and evil.'"

After going back and forth about how much this explanation makes sense to Jarred and every biblical scholar B has spoken to about it, B goes on. "I felt I had to bring this out in order to drive home the point I've been trying to make about this revolution. Even the authors of the story in Genesis described it as a matter of changed minds. What they saw being born in their neighbors was not a new lifestyle but a new mind-set, a mind-set that made us out to be as wise as the gods, that made the world out to be a piece of human property, that gave us the power of life and death over the world. They thought this new mind-set would be the death of Adam—and events are proving them right."

I hope I have provided enough of the text to demonstrate Quinn's message to one who has not read The Story of B. (I highly recommend it, by the way.) First off, I want to say that I think this explanation to be the most probable I've ever heard... indeed it's the only probable explanation I've heard. Up to now, it was just a really old story, the origin of which we could not possibly know. To begin by presenting our agricultural policy—no, our very worldview where the subject of food and other species are concerned—as the cause of our ultimate destruction of the world, and then go on to say that the second story in Genesis is another culture's "I told you so" before we went an absorbed them, gives Quinn an indirect claim to an authority he seems to deny... a religious claim. Indeed, he has identified the Original Sin, through which Death has entered, but that Death was not the death of individuals, but the ultimate Death of the Whole World: Because we are set upon devouring the whole community of life, once we are done with it, we must then turn upon one another, and then the destruction will be complete.

However, my wife wasn't so much concerned with the particular interpretation of the Genesis story than with Quinn's story of where it came from... a claim she thinks is flawed. Earlier in the book, he writes against those who "angelize" "leaver" peoples (hunter/gatherer/garderner/herdsman types), but then he identifies a neighboring "leaver" tribe as the wise ones who pointed out our error long before the nature of it could possibly be apparent. On the one hand, we can't possibly imagine how life will be in two-hundred years, any more than reniassance thinkers could possibly imagine the ultimate consequences of their own thought revolution. However, somehow the Zeugen managed to do exactly that, or so Quinn seems to suggest. I tried initially to argue that the origin of the story isn't necessarily important, that Quinn is just telling a story... but then I put some thought into it.

I identified a consistant tradition within our own culture that could very well have reacted that way to the mind change that produced what we today call the "Agricultural Revolution." Let us go deeper into speculation about that period of time, and I shall tell a little story that makes even more sense to me.

Once upon a time, there were a group of farmers, of the old type. These types planted their crops, protected them, but had no "agricultural policy" per se. If a wolf or lion came to kill their sheep or cattle (or children), they would kill that individual wolf or lion. If they found rabbits in the vegetable garden or deer in the corn patch, they would kill and eat that. Generally, they weren't very ambitious about creatively increasing yield. Indeed, much of what they ate still came from the wild plants and animals that surrounded them. And when the crop failed, or herds were eaten by predators, they simply sighed, resigned to the will of the gods.

Then one day, someone got the brilliant idea of going out and killing as many wolves as they could, to better protect their sheep. They started building fences. To avoid drought and flood, they came up with the idea of dams and canals, to channel the water advantageously. Little thought-of by them were the species that depended upon the old arrangement of things; their ideas were progressive, and brought greater comfort to the people living there.

There was another group, however, that were appalled by this. To them, drought was the will of the gods, and to dare try to prevent drought—it was unthinkable! To them, success or failure in the hunt, whether by men or by beasts, was the will of the gods, and to attempt to rig the system was a horrible overturning of the natural order of things, a rebellion against God. They argued vociferously against the new changes, predicting dire punishments from the gods if this continued. A few generations passed, prosperity continued, the new way of life spread at an incredible rate (spurred by population pressures wherever this new way of life was adopted), and generally, the prophecies of the nay-sayers were generally forgotten. Indeed, it's a wonder that the Genesis story even still exists.

Does this look familiar? Look at medical history. Every time somebody comes up with a potential new way to prevent or treat disease or injury, there's always somebody piping up with the notion that whatever it is they're meddling with is the province of God, not men, and should not be meddled with. Whether it be air-conditioning (to help sufferers in warm environments), vaccination, or today, genetic engineering, scientists and doctors (and their predecessors) have spent nearly all of recorded history having to answer the charge of "playing God." This is the common thread, which can easily be imagined to reach all the way back to the first to tell the story that ultimately made its way into Genesis.

Now, to comment on the matter itself...

Of course, we always believe that life is better now than it was before, because of these advances... but look at what else it accomplishes. It brings comfort to a generation or two... and as a result of that comfort, that generation or two breeds at a higher rate than the previous generations. More food equals more births. Better medicine equals less death. The two together result in higher and higher population, which requires even more advances to reach previous levels of comfort, which opens the floodgates for even more population growth. There are those who think we can continue this cycle indefinately, that scientific and material progress will ensure that we never outstrip our resources, since we end up discovering more every time we need to.

But what happens when we finally reach the limit on—not iron, oil, or any other mineral resource, but biomass? What happens when the population of the world literally reaches the point where we have eaten everything? According to Quinn, 200 species go extinct every day, and not because we are careless, but because we need to make room for ever more food production. Rain forests are devoured by would-be farmers, for miniscule returns. I have little doubt that, so long as our population has the food to grow, it will grow, with medicine, sanitation, and engineering making possible greater and greater population densities. Every time we think we've conquered yet another source of death, be it disease or strife, we simply bring ourselves closer and closer to that Ultimate Death, that point where we literally experience worldwide famine, and the ecosystem is literally so ripped apart that it can't recover in time for us. Then, we go extinct, and evolution starts over again at the microbal level.

So what do we do about this? I don't know. I mean, it's one thing to say "make less food" or "pollute less" or something, but its quite another to figure out a way to actually get people do do this. Quinn says that its enough to change other people's minds on this matter, that people with changed minds will find ways to implement the change in their daily lives. I do hope he's right, and I do hope that, if I have any readers, at least some of you come away with some notion that there's something going wrong here.

So... go read Ishmael, and The Story of B, and possibly more. I can't think of anything else to say, or do, about this subject.

No comments: