Monday, December 5, 2022

Fire, Corn, and Creationism

At the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in May 2018, the Episcopalian Bishop Michael Curry sermonized on the power of love and fire. On the latter subject, he invoked the writings of the Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

[According to Teilhard] the discovery or invention or harnessing of fire was one of the great scientific and technological discoveries in all of human history. Fire to a great extent made human civilization possible. Fire made it possible to cook food and to provide sanitary ways of eating which reduced the spread of disease in its time. Fire made it possible to heat warm environments and thereby made human migration around the world a possibility, even into colder climates. Fire made it possible, there was no Bronze Age without fire, no Iron Age without fire, no industrial revolution without fire.

Fire was indeed a great biocultural development in human evolution, for the apes have neither sufficient brains nor sufficient thumbs to create and control it. The direct ancestors of humans were doing it hundreds of thousands of years ago; we know this because they left us the remains of their hearths.

The Greeks, who knew nothing of prehistoric archaeology, at least knew where fire came from. It was given to people  by Prometheus, against the wishes of Zeus, who punished him for the deed in a classically Zeusian way: by chaining him to a rock and having an eagle peck out his liver on a daily basis.

Ha! Those silly Greeks! But did you ever wonder what the Bible says about where fire came from?

The answer is easy. Nothing. Fire was such an obvious part of being human that the Bible doesn’t even have an origin myth about it.  It was just always there with people. They didn’t have to discover it, or learn to control it. The Book of Jubilees, which expands on Genesis and figures prominently among the Dead Sea Scrolls, has a detail that Genesis doesn’t. After getting expelled from Eden, Adam and Eve make “an offering of frankincense, galbanum, and myrrh, and spices,” which implies the control of fire, since God generally doesn’t take raw offerings, only roasted offerings. If we go just with canonical books of the Bible, the first offerings are those of Cain and Abel.

            The problem is that there is no learning curve. Neither Adam and Eve, nor their children, apparently have to experiment with fire, or are even given fire. One day they are just using it. Perhaps they simply cadged it from the cherubim brandishing the flaming sword at the entrance to the Garden of Eden; or perhaps they just ate from the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of How to Make Fire – but if so, the Bible doesn’t say.

The anti-intellectualism of the biblical literalist has tended to be focused on biological narratives, specifically denying that our species is descended from ape ancestors over last few million years. But the battleground of archaeology is even more problematic for a 21st century believer in the inerrancy of the Bible, but one rarely confronts it because of the blinding light of Darwin and biology.

 Consider the economic prehistory of the human species. The early 1860s saw the publication of two important English works on the subject: Charles Lyell’s The Antiquity of Man (1863) and John Lubbock’s Pre-Historic Times (1865). Between them, they cemented a significantly non-biblical story about human ancestry: namely, that the earliest state of humanity was a long time of living off the land, without agriculture, as contemporary hunter-gatherers (whom they regarded as “savages”) did.

Now, of course, the discovery and spread of food production is one of the most fundamental issues in archaeology. Humans began to transform animals and plants from wild to domesticated forms, by controlling their breeding, starting around 12,000 or so years ago, thus ensuring a stable supply of food. The problem faced by scholars in the mid-19th century is this:

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. (Genesis 2:15)

According to the Bible, there was never any hunting and gathering. People were farming from day one; or rather, from Day 6. And the disparity between archaeology and the biblical text created a problem for anyone wanting to understand contemporary foragers in places like Australia and South Africa and America in the 19th century. If farming was invented and learned, then contemporary foragers were just people who hadn’t learned it.  If, on the other hand, farming was there from the beginning, then they were degenerates who had abandoned that God-given knowledge. So which was it – were living foragers primordial or devolved? Lyell and Lubbock settled the matter: Hunting-and-gathering was how our ancestors long ago made a living off the land, and only subsequently was agriculture eventually developed. The alternative idea is not only anti-empirical, but also a bit racist.

                Moreover, agriculture arose in different parts of the world, using different available wild resources: In one place wheat; in another, rice.  And that leads to an important and incontrovertible conclusion from modern archaeology: God did not make corn.

                People made corn. In particular, people of Mesoamerica made corn over the course of a few thousand years, from a grass called teosinte, which is still capable of hybridizing with corn. We have their learning curve, in the form of dated ancient cobs. The learning curve for food production is critical, since the Bible directly implies that there shouldn’t be one. Moreover, all the evidence for early corn is in Mesoamerica; there was no corn in the Garden of Eden. (And of course, wherever the King James Version says “corn,” you should read “grain” – because what the Bible says and what the Bible means are often not the same. And while you’re at it, where you encounter the word “unicorns” in the King James, you might want to read “wild oxen”.)

                 With both the creationists and evolutionists transfixed on Darwin, perhaps the scholarly community might take a step back from apes and DNA, and try attacking biblical literalism/inerrancy on a different battlefield. Make the creationist explain fire and corn. Any explanation will necessarily be unbiblical, at the very least, in addition to being inaccurate.

Then you can share a bowl of popcorn with your new friend.