Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Eden and the Fall of Man. Part 2, Take it or Leave it?

In a previous blog entry I was talking about John Milton's retelling of the Garden of Eden. To begin this second part I'd like to recount briefly the original source for the story, which is told in the first chapters of the Book of Genesis, which appears not only in the Christian Old Testament but also in the Hebrew Bible and the first five books of the Torah, and is most likely a collection of stories, passed on orally, a millenium or more BC, in the Middle East.

In Genesis God makes the Earth and makes Adam out of a handful of dust from the ground, and delivers him to the Garden of Eden where He has caused to "grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil." In other words Adam has everything he needs to eat, he doesn't need to grow anything or hunt. God also provides him with a companion, Eve. What is explicit in this story is that the Garden of Eden is made for humans: "God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.". So God is a human, and further, everything on Earth is for humans.

As discussed in the last post, the tree of knowledge of good and evil is placed in the garden as some kind of obedience test. The two humans are told that they will die if they eat from it, and satan shows up to tempt Eve, saying "in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil." Eve eats the fruit and shares it with Adam. God arrives finding them hiding themselves with fig leaves, suddenly ashamed of their nakedness. They are cast from the Garden of Eden out into the world.

Once outside of Eden, Adam and Eve can no longer just pluck fruit the trees, and pull vegetables from the ground. Only with "the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground". Thus rather than actual death, they suffer the end of their lives in Eden, and the beginning of growing their own food by hard work.


"Ishmael", by Daniel Quinn, is a philosphical novel written in Socratic dialog style. Ishmael is a gorilla which is able to communicate telepathically with the narrator, who has answered an intriguing newspaper advertisement: "Teacher seeks pupil, must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person." The book is primarily about how human beings lived for the last 2 million years prior to the agricultural revolution, and how they live after it (to present day).

The book procedes as a number of conversations between the narrator and the gorrilla, developing ideas and then expanding on them; the book is very well paced and enjoyable to read so you can go do that before reading the rest of this if don't want any spoilers.

Ishmael describes a culture as being the enactment of a story. The story being the beliefs, ideas and principles that the people of a culture originated from. As mentioned above, our story, as takers, is that we own the Earth, that God made it for us, and that everything in the Earth is for us to dominate and use. As a culture, we are enacting that story. This has unfortunate consequences for us as a species, and for the Earth in general.

For non-religious people the story is still the same. You don't have to believe that God made the Earth or that he made it just for humans to enact the story. As a culture we believe that human beings evolved to be the perfect creatures, the most intelligent on the planet, and that we have every right to take what we want. The takers story is so old now, we don't step outside of it to consider the leavers version.

Our Gorilla explains that the Fall of Man, the eating from the tree of knowledge, represents this great change in the way humans lived. The secret knowledge Adam and Eve gained from the forbidden fruit, was the "knowledge of who shall live and who shall die". Now without getting to this idea slowly and carefully the way it is done in the book, it may sound quite far removed from changing from hunter gatherer, or simple herder lifestyles to lifestyles that practice organised farming. But the crucial difference between the takers and the leavers is sustainability. In all of nature except taker humans, there is a natural balance between species based on availability of food. When a pack of lions go out to hunt they bring down an animal, and that is their food. If they run out of prey in an area then the pack starves. If they eat to many of their prey, they will cause their prey to go extinct and will starve. Populations in nature are kept in balance by this simple rule that all of nature follows. Kill what you need to eat, and no more.

What happened when we moved to organised agriculture is we declared war on nature. We no longer take what we need, we kill all animals that enroach on our farms or wander into our cities and towns. Hunger is not something that affects us once we have the food surpluses that agriculture enabled us to create. We are no longer sustainable, taking only what we need. We decimate other species if they don't fit in with our farming activities.

According to Quinn, more food means more people. So agriculture leads to increased population, which means that as people practised farming they would also have needed to expand. That expansion of the first farmers has almost filled the world, and nearly every group of people living in a sustainable way has been wiped out or integrated with our culture. Now if people live in an area where there is not enough food to support them, We now have the knowledge of the Gods. Perhaps that is the knowledge referered to in the Garden of Eden?

The story of Adam and Eve seems to be the story of how some Leavers became the first Takers. The tree of knowledge is the 'knowledge of who shall live and who shall die'.

Population increase would cause the takers to expand out from their initial farms, and in doing so would encounter the Leavers, who not being compatible with the Takers lifestyle would have been integrated or wiped out. So who told the story of Adam and Eve? In Ishmael, Quinn says that the teller of the story are the Leavers. They are describing the evil people that came and took over their lands.

Also of relevance is the story of Cain and Abel, children of Adam and Eve, who's story is also told in the Qur'an and Torah. Cain is an arable farmer and his younger brother Abel is a shepherd. They both present offerings to God; Abel presents a lamb whilst Cain presents some food he has grown in his fields. God is happy with the lamb but not with the crops, and in anger Cain kills Abel, becoming the first murderer in history. God tells Cain, "If you work the land, it will never again give you its yield. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth." This story again sounds like it is being told by early leavers, about the takers, as agriculture began to replace the traditional hunter-gatherer life.

Story of B

As a sequel to Ishmael, the Story of B is also worth reading. Expanding on and retelling the same points as Ishmael. Set in Europe, the narrator this time is a Catholic Priest who is sent to determine whether a colleague of Ishmael, known only as B, is the anti-christ. In investigating, the narrator goes to the secret meetings of B and is adopted by him as a student.

During the novel, Quinn goes into more detail on how hunter-gatherers lived, and how everyone in our culture is in a period after the 'Great Forgetting', when we have all forgotten how humans lived for most of our history. It is humbling to think that we have been farmers for only eight thousand years of a million year history as modern humans.

Both of these books tell the same story, in slightly different yet novel ways, and I really enjoyed reading them both. The ideas are both solid and revolutionary. When I think about how this affects other ideoligies like socialism and capitalism, or religions like Christianity and Buddhism, this is really something that goes off on a tangent of its own. It's really hard to imagine how we could live, if we were to turn back the clock and live as our pre-agriculture ancestors lived, in ways that were adapted to each local region, and each totally isolated from one another, it would be a very different world to the modern one we live in.

Rapidly increasing population and the side effects such as pollution, war and disease are clearly problems that will only get worse if we continue with a global system that is run purely by the greed of individuals and the businesses they run. Perhaps the democratization that the internet is bringing will enable us to start living a more global version of the villages of old?

What I find odd about my reaction to this book, is that I feel like I understood the facts as they were presented, and followed the theories and conclusions drawn by Ishmael, B and their followers. And yet I should have found it life changing and set off on a path determined to help us reverse the great forgetting. Maybe because to change the story of a culture is not possible in one persons head, at least this persons head. Or perhaps the story of the takers was too strong, too hard to fight as a leaver, and therefore, if we want to enact another story, it must be a new one. One that is strong enough to destroy the story of the takers?

What will be the next Adam and Eve story? Has it already been told? I don't know.

One final part of this set of blog posts to come, where I will look at where the story of Adam and Eve shows up in our culture, both explicitly and by analogy.

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