The Just-So Stories of the Bible

In Dr. David Madison’s insightful article of July 5, 2024, There’s Too Much Evil and Cruelty in the Bible, he wrote:

Very early in my serious study of the Bible I learned about “etiological myths”, that is, stories imagined to explain why things are the way they are. This is the god’s curse on the woman, to explain why childbirth is painful: “I will make your pangs in childbirth exceedingly great; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16)

This particular etiological myth, or just-so story, with patriarchal sexism thrown in at no extra charge, warrants further comment. How do we know the bible is wrong here? Since not everyone might know the relevant details of human evolution, I’ll expand on that here.

Babies are cute, but their unusually big heads can be deadly to Mom
Babies are cute, but their unusually big heads can be deadly to Mom

Giving birth, for humans, is quite unlike giving birth for most if not all other animals that give birth to live young. Imagine, for example, that giving birth were as problematic and temporarily debilitating for a zebra mare as it often is for a human female. Further imagine that a zebra foal were born as helpless as a human child (that is, imagine that zebra younglings were altricial instead of precocial). In that case, the lions that relentlessly pursue zebras would enjoy easy meals,1 although only for a comparatively brief time of bounty until they quickly hunted zebras to extinction. Because of the way zebras live, by staying constantly one step ahead of lions, they have to be almost uninterruptedly mobile to avoid becoming lion lunch. Zebra mares have to bounce back quickly after giving birth, and zebra foals must be able to run within an hour of being born. Other animals, such as nesting birds, can keep their altricial (i.e., initially helpless) hatchlings somewhat out of reach of predators, relatively safe in their nests, while giving care to them. But the parent birds must remain very fit so they can continue to collect food for their voracious young. Difficult reproduction is not a luxury many other species can afford. Among other things, it’s a testimony to the social power of humans. Humans form complex and powerful communities able to safeguard vulnerable mothers and children from threats that would wipe out many other species. Zebras, in contrast, don’t cooperate with other zebras with the same scale and sophistication as humans. Other species can’t cooperate quite like humans because their brains aren’t big enough to handle the complex computations necessary to make it work. Humans can, so we do; and because we can and do, evolution in due course sees that we must.

Humans no longer knuckle-walk, at least outside of Trump rallies
Humans no longer knuckle-walk, at least outside of Trump rallies2

Given that birth or egg-laying are rarely life-threatening for other animals, why is giving birth such a problem for humans? The biblical just-so story reflects a profound ignorance of evolutionary theory and fact. (The scientific explanation wouldn’t happen for many centuries after the bible was written.) Everything about a species is a product of how it evolved and continues to evolve. The human line underwent at least two profound changes over the last 4 million to 7 million years since our last common ancestor with the chimpanzees: the switch from quadrupedalism (walking on all fours, knuckle-walking in the case of the other ground-dwelling great apes, although the exact history of that habit isn’t clear) to bipedalism (walking on our two hind feet, thus freeing our grasping hands to get us into more trouble); and the tripling of our encephalization quotient relative to our nearest cousins the chimpanzees. The great encephalization apparently occurred in response to selective pressures for greater intelligence that acted on the human line but did not act in the same way on the chimpanzee line. Exactly what that entailed is a matter of some debate, but to function as a human in any human society you have to be a lot smarter than a chimpanzee. And to get smarter you need a much larger cerebral cortex, which in turn makes you need a larger skull. Which is larger from the get-go, i.e. birth.

As the pre-human and then human neonate skull got larger, fitting it through the human female’s pelvic opening became more difficult. Accordingly the shape of the female pelvis had to adapt, by the brutal method available to evolution: killing off the females in every generation who lagged the trend by having insufficiently roomy hips. But this ran into another difficulty: our upright stance, which works better with narrow hips. You don’t see a lot of elite distance runners with extremely wide hips. And given that humans were generally nomadic until only about 10,000 years ago when some humans started adopting agriculture, anything that compromised mobility ran up against another kind of selection pressure. Thus the hominin genome and then the human genome had to do a juggling act between multiple conflicting needs for several million years - the need for ever-bigger brains, ever-wider hips for the females, and getting around efficiently on two feet. One genome also has to handle all the dimorphism - making sure the males get the traits they need while the females get the traits they need. But in reality, genetic diversity means humans exhibit distributions for many traits (and often the distributions are approximately normal). Therefore some women will be better suited than others to giving birth. This is exactly what you would not expect an omni-God3 to arrange, but which makes a lot more sense in light of mindless and indifferently cruel evolution. See my earlier post, For God So Loved the Whales for more examples of how unintelligently and uncompassionately we are designed. In that post I drew from Abby Hafer’s marvelous book The Not-So-Intelligent Designer: Why Evolution Explains the Human Body and Intelligent Design Does Not which among other godly goofs describes the horrors of pre-technological human childbearing in grisly detail.

We can’t really blame the bible authors for making uninformed guesses about why humans are the way they are. These writers were ancient men who didn’t understand reality very well. They didn’t even know where the Sun goes at night.4 But no modern human has a strong excuse5 for continuing to be fooled by ancient misconceptions, etiological myths, and just-so-stories. In sharp contrast to the simpler (and typically shorter) lives of the ancients, modern humans mostly lead lives that would be impossible without modern science. To pick just one example, about half of the protein in human bodies today came from the Haber-Bosch process of artificial nitrogen fixation. (Without the resulting artificial fertilizers, perhaps half of the existing human population would have to gradually die, unless humans were to get a whole lot better at recycling the fixed nitrogen present in our own bodily wastes. However, even understanding how to do that safely still requires science that ancient humans did not have, such as the germ theory of disease.) No modern human should reject modern science in favor of biblical just-so stories, but many do, thanks to various psychological and cultural causes.

The universe as revealed by God to ancient Hebrews
The universe as revealed by God to ancient Hebrews

  1. As anatomically modern humans spread out of Africa beginning perhaps 70,000 years ago, they took with them newly-developed and novel hunting techniques, the likes of which the megafauna (large animals) outside of Africa had never before seen. Unlike the animals of Africa, which evolved alongside humans and had time to adapt, the largest land species in the rest of the world were practically defenseless. And so paleontologists have mapped a wave of megafaunal extinctions on all the other land masses that humans reached which are suspiciously timed shortly after the first anatomically modern humans arrived in each place - Europe, Asia, Australia, the Americas, New Zealand, Madagascar, etc.↩︎

  2. For any fans of the felon who may take offense, note carefully that I wrote “at least”. Which means I literally made no claim about what happens inside of Trump rallies. For that I defer to Jordan Klepper who has recorded several videos showcasing the towering intellects who flock to such events.↩︎

  3. See the John W. Loftus anthology God and Horrendous Suffering, and his eponymous blog post, for more about the problems of trying to square a common Christian understanding of a caring God with the considerably grimmer reality we experience.↩︎

  4. For the details of ancient Hebrew cosmology, which lives on in today’s Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament to Christians), see Chapter 4: “Christianity and Cosmology”, by Victor J. Stenger, in the John W. Loftus anthology, Christianity in the Light of Science: Critically Examining the World’s Largest Religion. Also see the Wikipedia articles Ancient near eastern cosmology, Firmament, Biblical cosmology, and Jewish cosmology. The history of what self-proclaimed men of God once thought about God’s alleged creation is rather awkward today. This should not instill confidence in the accuracy of divine revelation as a way of knowing.↩︎

  5. OK, as we learned from Robert Sapolsky’s book Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will, nothing is quite really anyone’s fault. Everything that happens, including everything we do, is fully determined by what happened before. And most of what happened to us before was not under our control. However, contemporary humans living lives of comparative privilege in the developed nations have easy access to the hard-won facts of science, which makes excusing instances of modern willful ignorance (or motivated reasoning) seem harder than excusing the unavoidable ignorance of the ancients. Modern ignorance is also far easier to correct, since we have modern science making its case every day by showering us with technological goodies such as smartphones and vaccines. For some reason smartphones have gotten a better reception - there are some anti-vaxxers, but no similarly organized movement against smartphones. However, not even anti-vaxxers volunteer to have themselves deliberately infected by a resurrected strain of smallpox, a deadly scourge eradicated by the very vaccination technology they disparage. Given that smallpox used to kill a large fraction of humanity, there are probably some anti-vaxxers who are only alive today because of vaccine technology, which saved either them or their ancestors. Unfortunately, science hasn’t yet found a way to impart scientific knowledge to everyone. Humans still have to learn science. Modern humans still learn in much the same way as paleolithic humans once learned - by relying almost entirely on our evolved brains to slowly and painstakingly collect and assimilate new information. We can haul our brains across oceans in fossil-fueled airplanes at nearly the speed of sound (to the detriment of Earth’s habitable climate), but our brains themselves are not materially much better than the brains of cave men, although some modern brains contain some better ideas now. Learning science continues to require years of hard mental work, and humans are differently able or inclined to do the work. It’s similar to learning to play the guitar, for which some people are clearly more talented than others, and which not everyone is equally inclined to pursue. Therefore, while many people consume the material benefits of science, fewer people adopt the scientific habits of mind which yielded the material benefits, such as evidentialism and critical thinking. At the barest minimum, a competent modern human should have some grasp on a philosophy of expertise, understanding that everyone must defer to experts on a vast array of things we don’t all have time or ability to fully master. That doesn’t mean that every expert is always correct, just that experts are more likely to be correct within the scope of their expertise than a non-expert would be on the same subjects. If you subscribe to a belief that requires virtually all the relevant experts to be wrong, such as young Earth creationism, or its political repackaging as intelligent design creationism, you’re way out on a flimsy cognitive limb.↩︎