Many Western and non-Western cultures alike are contaminated by a highly dangerous idea with destructive consequences – the idea of man’s “fall” from some “higher” state – an Eden, if you will. Different groups holding this idea give it different incarnations – but the implications are the same. The myth of the Fall is detrimental to human ambition, flourishing, and improvement; it stifles attempts to find creative solutions to the dreadful problems that have been plaguing humankind since its very beginnings. But beyond being destructive, the Eden myth is simply false. There never was a “better” state from which human beings have “descended.” We shall explore why the Fall is an illusion that ought to be abandoned.
The myth of the Fall is held by often mutually antagonistic groups, all of which pose considerable obstacles to the progress and flourishing of many individuals. On the one hand, fundamentalist religious conservatives see man as literally fallen from the Garden of Eden, where God had designed for him a “perfect” existence. I fail, of course, to see anything perfect about an existence where man had no technology, no love of learning, and no knowledge of good and evil. But this very existence is also embraced by people who claim to be on the opposite side of the political spectrum – radical left-wing environmentalists, who have their own vision of Eden.
Like the Eden of the religious conservatives, the Eden of the environmentalists involves no technology and no active, systematic progress of human knowledge and capacity. Rather, man’s “unity” with “Nature” is celebrated in this vision. According to the environmentalists, there was once a time – probably the pre-Neolithic hunter-gatherer days – when man existed in “harmony” with this strange entity called Nature, which seems to encompass everything other than man. Allegedly, humans did not disturb the “balance” of ecosystems and took good care of the Earth in those days – whatever that means. Alas, there was never such a balance to begin with. We shall see that both the religious and environmentalist visions of Eden are plainly wrong.
Life for early man – far from being blissful or even remotely enjoyable – was, in Thomas Hobbes’s words, “nasty, brutish, and short.” Life expectancy in the Paleolithic period was anywhere from the mid-teens to the mid-twenties. Food was continually in short supply, as there was no guarantee of plentiful game to hunt or berries to forage. And if a plentiful catch did occur, there were scant safeguards to prevent the food from spoiling. Predators and disease were rampant; sanitation and health care were non-existent. Without a scientific method, a person with even the best of intentions often ended up hurting one’s fellow human beings while intending to help them.
Every conceivable vice, social problem, weakness, and fallibility of human beings today has always existed throughout human history; the only difference is the magnitude of such problems, which were most certainly greater in prior eras. Without the benefits of technology, education, and the relative safety and comfort of our times, people were far more prone to engage in violent conflicts over resources and to allow emotional clashes to escalate into bloodshed. Rape, slavery, female subjugation, ceaseless wars, adultery, substance abuse, murder, theft, and other detestable conduct were more common then than now – as there were fewer alternatives to such conduct, and fewer disincentives from it. Every problem facing mankind has always existed in some form – due to hostile natural forces or the irrationality and stupidity of many humans. But the solutions to many of these problems could only come in the form of technological and societal progress – a departure from the non-Eden of the past.
The Eden myth in all of its incarnations originates from the rather strange notion that there is something written in the cosmic laws of nature that the default state of human beings is to be happy, comfortable, justly treated, and in “harmony” with their surroundings. There is no natural law which guarantees this or even tends toward it. The term “comfort” did not even acquire its present usage until the 17th century, and what the ancients meant by “happiness” differs dramatically from prevailing modern views. To suggest that human beings are guaranteed anything good by God, Nature, or what have you, has no evidential support; indeed, all the evidence speaks to the contrary. Humans are faced with millions of perils, injustices, and vulnerabilities. Survival is far from guaranteed, and people of merit and virtue rarely get the rewards they deserve. When natural disasters, political oppression, and disease strike, they rarely discriminate between the good and the evil. There is no natural justice, goodness, or equilibrium, and 99.9% of all species ever existing are now extinct. There is no special protection given to humans from the forces that wiped out many of their distant relatives.
The Eden myth suggests that there is natural guarantee of happiness and justice given to humans, but humans have chosen to stray from the origins of that guarantee – God, Nature, or an analogous reified entity. Therefore, humans suffer – but not because suffering is the default state, but rather because humans did something wrong in rejecting the bliss of the default state. The Eden myth might state that humans deserve lifelong suffering for the sins of Adam and Eve or their ancestors or post-Renaissance Western civilization – but it is in some ways much less grim than reality. The appeal of the Eden myth to many people is that it suggests the existence of an underlying balance and goodness about the world as such – implying that somehow, beneath all that nastiness, everything is fundamentally all right. It is not.
There is nothing to suggest any guarantees given human beings with regard to anything pertaining to their survival, happiness, or fulfillment. There is no cosmic justice and no cosmic “balance.” Rather, whatever justice people wish to obtain, they must create the conditions for. Human technologies, social systems, and esthetic and intellectual accomplishments erect a fortress of civilization which enables us to somewhat resist the onslaught of the elements. The fortress is currently quite shabbily built – with numerous gaping holes and inadequate structural support. Moreover, it is far from complete; indeed, even its foundations have not yet been completely laid. Humanity is still in a state of general barbarism – unable to even figure out ways to prevent individual humans from dying and to prevent human social and political systems from degenerating into either tyranny or chaos. But for all of our massive problems, our ancestors had it worse.
If we are to overcome the extremely genuine and massive threats to our existence coming from virtually all directions, it is essential not to take comfort in the demotivating illusions of a cosmic balance. The longing for a fictitious past bliss leads many to stifle the ambitions of some humans to create a better future. The advocates of the Eden myth seek to thwart the advocates of technological and societal progress – seeing them as taking humankind even further away from its original bliss. But only progress can help us avoid the gruesome destruction and oblivion that are currently in store for every single living individual, unless human ingenuity can enable us to pursue a better path – one which we must follow to push back the hostile aspects of nature and humankind alike and create a safer, happier, more prosperous existence.