Genes in Genesis: Evolutionary Psychology and the Bible as Literature

Monday, April 8th, 2013

Introductory Note:  This essay was completed in March 2011.  The interpretation of Genesis it proposes first occurred to me in 1996 in the course of writing a book commissioned by Oxford University Press,  Shakespeare and the Bible.  I first learned about Evolutionary Psychology and the field of Darwinian Literary Criticism in 2006.


“The Old and New Testaments are the Great Code of Art,” proclaimed William Blake in one of the captions of his etching, “Laocoon” (755). In The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, Northrop Frye replicated part of that proclamation and elaborated some of its implied claims. If indeed the Bible can be said to encode a substantial portion of Western culture’s imaginative, historical and legal heritage, then its first book, Genesis, can be regarded as the Code for the Great Code, since so much of what appears in the subsequent 65 books seems to grow out of it. Genesis’ title is amplified in the names of some of its recurrent themes and images: generation, generations, genealogy, gender, genitalia. The common root of all these words suggests yet another code: that which is carried by genes.[1]

Frye observed that Genesis’ “primary concern is expressed in the Biblical phrase “life more abundant,” and J.P. Fokkelman showed coherence in the book’s motley mosaic of stories with the discovery that its “overriding concern [is] life-survival-offspring-fertility-continuity,” (41) but neither critic associated these concerns with the evolutionary perspective they suggest. Until recently it’s been left to contemporary novelists versed in biology and literature to explore some of the rich meanings that flow from the convergence of Genesis and evolutionary principles, for instance Ruth Ozeki in All Over Creation and Barbara Kingsolver in Prodigal Summer.[2]

Genesis rewards literary analysis because of its complex structure and plot, its concentrated characterization, its vibrant language and its rich but submerged themes, accompanied by what Robert Alter calls “the high fun of the act of literary communication¦ the lively inventiveness …[which] repeatedly exceeds the needs of the message, though it often also deepens and complicates the message”(40-45).  Such analysis can be enriched by combining the relatively rigorous scientific methods of evolutionary psychology with some of the inventive and fanciful tactics of traditional Midrashic interpretation to make sense of the book.[3] That combination seems appropriate to a work which is itself a product of literary evolution–the outcome of a thousand-year history of competition among oral traditions, written documents, individual and group authors and editors assembled in the palimpsest of the received text (Friedman).

Genesis prompts Darwinian analysis because it traces human history back to its beginnings, where it locates the origin of what came later. It chronicles a period of prehistory that figuratively parallels the one and a half million year Pleistocene period that Darwinists refer to as the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation (EEA), the span of time long enough to allow most human traits to evolve (Cosmides 1997).

Darwinian interpretation explores the operation of the principle of evolution in literary works, depicting what Jonathan Gottschall calls

the fascinating multiplicity of ways characters react to and manipulate their environment (the setting and the other characters) to accomplish the prime directive of all life: to live long enough to reproduce and, in species where parental care is necessary (like ours), rear young to reproduce again.¦” (260)

Genesis personifies that principle in its characterization of the Creator. Its God designs both animal and human life during their common emergence on days five and six by pronouncing the two parts of evolution’s “prime directive”: “I have given you every seed bearing plant ¦for food¦and to all which has the breath of life within it.” (1.29) “¦be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth¦”(1.28)[4]

Genesis’ God repeatedly affirms evolution’s positive outcome of reproductive success as the reward of those whom He has chosen and trained–from Adam at the beginning of the book to the sons of Israel at the end: “I will greatly bless you and will greatly multiply your seed, as the stars in the heavens and as the sand on the shore of the sea, and your seed shall take hold of its enemies’gate.”(22:17)

Genesis’ word for “seed” –zera in the original Hebrew”has several meanings that converge with those of “gene” (Alter 1996 xiii-xiv). It signifies the originating kernels as well as the foodstuff of fruit and grain–the source of sustenance for animals and humans. It signifies semen, half of the material agency of reproduction. It signifies individual progenitors and progeny connected by inheritance–the generations of genetic relatives who extend personal existence beyond the bounds of individual mortality. It signifies lineage, the mark of kinship drawing individuals together into a survival unit, a community, and eventually, a nation.[5]

Joseph, the culminating hero of Genesis, epitomizes all of these meanings of “seed.”  He distributes seed during famine; he preserves enough grain to feed the world; he procreates two sons, one of whom is named Ephraim, meaning “he has made me fruitful”; at his death, he joins his father and mother in their tomb; and he paves the way for his wise descendant Solomon “whose people, Judah and Israel, were as many as the sands of the sea.”[6]

Genesis establishes literary coherence among narrative units with genealogies that catalogue the succession of seed through numerous generations, binding its many discrete stories into the history of a single genetic strain. Later uses of the text call attention to the importance of this genetic continuity. The first edition of the King James Bible begins with thirty-four folio pages of genealogical charts tracing lineage from Adam to Christ, while the succession of deaths and births of relatives is still recorded on pages inserted in family Bibles.

The operation of the principle of evolution is determined by the “algorithm” of Natural Selection formulated by Darwin in Origin of Species:

Through the preservation of favoured individuals and races, during the constantly-recurrent Struggle for Existence, we see the most powerful and ever-acting means of selection. The struggle for existence inevitably follows from the high geometrical ratio of increase which is common to all organic beings. ¦

These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms (406).

Genesis begins at “Growth with Reproduction; inheritance” and proceeds to the more complex and turbulent aspects of natural selection: “the struggle for Life,” “Variability,”  “Extinction of less improved forms,” and consequent adaptation.

Natural selection arises from three conditions: 1) individuals compete for the resources to stay alive and procreate, 2) they compete for reproductive success through sexual selection–finding mates and raising offspring that preserve and proliferate their genes, and 3) over long periods of time, species adapt, that is, they change in ways that increase their likelihood of survival and reproduction. Such adaptive changes are carried out through improved design of the physical organism and through the adoption of adaptive behaviors.

Adaptive behaviors are patterns of response to recurrent environmental challenges. The brain circuits, or programs that enable adaptive behaviors, become “incorporated into a species’ neural design.”[7] Assemblages of such software circuits evolved as “cognitive domains,” just as the eye and ear, for example, evolved as hardware. Their blueprints were replicated and transmitted by genes in “the seed,” just as were the blueprints for organs.[8]

Adaptive behaviors produced by natural selection include tool use, kinship selection, status competition, territoriality, coalition building, reciprocity, indirect reciprocity and in-group/outgroup discrimination. These adaptations are observed in primates as well as in remnants of hunter-gatherer societies. This essay argues that evolutionary psychology’s account of the development of cognitive and behavioral adaptations offers a key to decode many of Genesis’ particular incidents as well as its overall design.