The ‘fallen nature’ of humanity

The ‘fallen nature’ of humanity Photo: The Irish Post/ Palamedes PR
Homo Lapsus: Sin Evolution and the God who is Love
by Niamh Middleton(Deep River Books, $US14.99; available through Amazon UK, £11.53)


Fr Joseph McCannCM


Darwin’s evolution poses the most powerful challenge to belief in God and Creation and Salvation.  Evolution explains human existence as a scientifically determined process, so there is no room for a Creator God nor for human freedom.

When moral choice is eliminated, humanity loses its capacity to sin. Cruel and harmful actions by humans are merely the unfortunate results of survival. Original sin is gone, but salvation and redemption have departed as well.

Author Middleton lectures on theology at Dublin City University. Though herself an atheist she married a Catholic. She remained an atheist for over a decade more until a challenging life event caused her to reorient her life and thought.

She fell back on her earlier religion and drew comfort from it. She became ‘a born-again Christian’ and began studies towards a doctorate in theology. This book, from a US Christian publisher, is transformation for the general reader of her thesis.

In her course of Homo Lapsus: Sin, Evolution, and the God Who Is Love, Niamh Middleton faces the Darwinian challenge squarely. She recognises the evolutionary objections to Christian theology. As a moral theologian, who has studied the scientific evidence for evolution, and has researched Christian teaching on original sin to doctoral level, she is well placed to give a balanced account of the current state of the question.

The term homo lapsus in the title means ‘fallen humanity’ and it refers to the Christian doctrine of the lasting results of the first human sin. The consequences of that first sin means that human beings are weakened in mind and will, open to temptation, and inclined to evil, even though basic human nature is not damaged.

The theological term for this unhappy effect is ‘original sin’. St John Henry Newman towards the end of his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, refers to this strikingly as mankind being involved in “an aboriginal calamity”.


By her title Dr Middleton is signalling that she is intending to discuss the nature of humanity, its propensity for evil and the responsibility of early humans for falling from innocence. She is going to place these theological discussions in the context of the fossil record and the theory of evolution based upon it.

Middleton discerns in the scientific account that things are not quite as simple as they are usually portrayed. Contemporary evolutionary thinking is neither so hard-and-fast, nor is its mechanism so confined to the material as often believed.

Middleton explains that there is uncovered territory there and some of it has been opened up in recent discoveries. She concludes that ample room is left for human freedom, cultural change, communal altruism, and human rationality to be in play as well.

Niamh Middleton’s argument runs as follows: the fossil findings positively indicate areas for the development of self-identity, of a sense of morality and of social relationship with others.  What is more, the evidence points to where moral choice between cooperation and aggression by some early human beings could have occurred and –plausibly– did occur.

Middleton explains the scientific findings clearly. She outlines their importance and hazards deductions and implications. She concludes that nothing in the scientific account of evolution positively rules out divine intervention.

This presents a fascinating read, and Middleton indicates the ramifications for the theology of creation, of sin, and of grace”

Further, the evolutionary account could include a single weighty decision by some influential and arrogant ancestors to send our entire race down a path of aggression, oppression, and violence that has led to the shameful shambles of society that is our situation today.

The history of the relation between religion and science has had many signal moments. One of them was when Charles Coulson, the eminent British scientist and religious writer, issued a salutary warning against slotting the divine activity into areas that science hitherto failed to account for adequately. He called this manoeuvre ‘The God of the Gaps’. Some may think Middleton’s argument is looking for a convenient gap in the interaction of secondary causes in order to fit God and free will in.

Middleton is refuting a strict determinism for the evolution of human behavioural and cultural and bodily development based on evidence. This is not finding a ‘gap’ in the chain of secondary causes to invoke a transcendent cause to account for a material effect. She is pointing to evidence of freedom on the part of homo sapiens to choose among options.

This freedom, in turn, has had observable effects on the history of the human race. Middleton is finding clues that a crime was committed. There was an opportunity for the advance of few over the many and the chance was taken.

All of this presents a fascinating read, and Middleton indicates the ramifications for the theology of creation, of sin, and of grace. It is important that both disciplines – evolutionary theory and theology – regard each other with respect. The world God has created demands both reason and observation, insight and empathy, an understanding and a relationship with reality for us to survive. Middleton is at pains to point this out.

This is a lesson scientists, and anyone concerned for the planet and its population, would also do well to heed. In the meantime, Middleton has given us a sympathetic rendering of what it may have been like to live in prehistoric times, and some grasp of what our evolutionary experience means to human beings today who love to live and live to love.