Concupiscence and Evolution

Augustine takes a great deal of time thinking about Adam and Eve prior to the fall and what their lives would have been like. This includes reproduction. There was a time when Augustine didn’t believe they would have reproduced in the way that humans do after the fall; instead he believed God would have provided a different way. Eventually he decides that sexual reproduction would have been the case, but that the conjugal act would have been completely governed by reason. Adam and Eve would decide that they need to reproduce, come together, and reason will compel their bodies to act properly for procreation.

The reason Augustine takes this approach is due to his views on lust. Augustine certainly had his own struggles with lust and I think this absolutely shaped his views. Using the language of “concupiscence” predominantly, Augustine attributes sexual desire and lust to the fall. He understands it as a punishment for sin. Concupiscence for Augustine did not exist prior to the fall, and even after it exists, there is a dual punishment of not only having concupiscence, but also that it overrides reason.

Part of my dissertation is examining Reinhold Niebuhr’s take on original sin and to put his take into conversation with insights from the sciences. Although he is Augustinian in many ways, he does not read the account of the fall in Genesis as literal, for Niebuhr it is symbolic. If we look at the evolutionary origins of humans, it is clear that sexual reproduction existed long before modern humans were alive. So the question can be asked as to whether concupiscence also predates human existence.

I thought an obvious place to start would be to consider the pleasurable aspects of human reproduction and see if there is something there that could be inherited. Scholars are able to speak about the evolution of the male orgasm in terms of adaption, but there is also disagreement as to whether this is actually the case, or how it came about. This is complicated by the fact that many of the markers used to identify the achievement of orgasm may not be able to be studied in other organisms because it is unobservable or we cannot communicate with them. The male orgasm seems to be adaptive because it provides pleasure when engaging in sexual reproduction, providing motivation to engage in coitus. And even if scientists did have a consensus on the evolution of the male orgasm, it still would not provide enough of a basis to support the claim that concupiscence predates human existence because it would only be in reference to men. That being said, there is even more controversy about the science of the female orgasm so I feel that this is not something I want to pursue for the dissertation, but I did find it interesting enough to raise the question.

Ultimately I do believe that concupiscence does indeed predate the existence of modern humans (I would actually say the same about sin, but to hear more about that you’ll have to read the dissertation) but the evolution of the human orgasm does not provide sufficient evidence to make a scientific claim. I would say that sexual reproduction has existed for a very long time and it is advantageous because it provides addition genetic mixing, so the reasoning for why engaging in coitus is more likely to occur if it is pleasurable makes sense to me. Also contrary to Augustine, I would say that concupiscence predates rationality in animals, and that concupiscence does not necessarily have to always override reason. I do agree with Aristotle that humans have a weak spot when it comes to pleasure and that because of this we are likely to seek out things that will increase our pleasure even when we know it isn’t the right thing to do.

I’m not trying to make this post a sexual ethics post, I will simply say that reproduction and sexual activity are not always combined in many species, including humans. Having a predisposition towards sexual desire does not mean one must act in ways that are unethical, but it does present us with challenges that are partly beyond our control. We are the product of sexual reproduction, we cannot choose otherwise, and part of that legacy is inheriting traits and tendencies, but I am not a reductionist so I do not think that is the sum of human nature. Human nature is paradoxical and there are things from our past that shape the way we see the world and act in it, and is that not at the core of the truth to which original sin attempts to speak?

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