Essays, Religion, Reviews, Science.

Modern Jeremiad

Book Book Review, Title The Death of Adam, Author Marilynne Robinson, Rating 2.5, Modern Jeremiad

The Death of Adam

Marilynne Robinson

Book Review

Marilynne Robinson’s The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought could just as well have been entitled  Modern Jeremiad, as its tone is often bleak, accusatory, and angry, sure that the world, and America in particular, has taken a set of massively wrong turns in terms of both its thinking and its behavior. This is a book that marks modern thought as empty of spiritual meaning, and continually contrasts secular (mostly failed) ideas and behaviors with Christianity’s spirituality and ability to offer meaning and moral structure in a modern human’s life. The essays are wildly uneven, and the variation in quality is quite wide; most are readable, but several are nigh on unreadable. If you were to read this book from back to front, you would, roughly speaking, be reading from the best essays to the worst.

The first essay, entitled Darwinism, is the biggest disappointment, particularly as it was the reason I bought the book. Here, unfortunately, the author is murky, imprecise, ill-informed and sometimes plainly misleading. She appears to have only a passing acquaintance with the subject, at least from the modern scientific point of view. It would appear that this essay’s main theme is that materialism in ideas (science) and practice (acquisitiveness) is no substitute for moral and spiritual values; this is an old and strong idea, one argued for many centuries. This essay unravels when the author chooses to use the term Darwinism in several different contexts without carefully distinguishing between them. Since the sub-title of the book is ‘Essays on Modern Thought’, there is a strong implication that this subject would address evolutionary biology. However, to Robinson Darwinism appears to mean at least four different things: Modern evolutionary biological science, the historical progression of social and political ideas that followed from Darwin’s writings, Social Darwinism in and of itself, and the pseudo-scientific ramblings of various people, to include some, but not all, of Dawkin’s writings (some of Dawkin’s work is legitimate evolutionary biological science, and some of it is atheistic crankiness). Each of these have some quite distinct elements, and by conflating them together the author displays some fairly flaccid thinking, much of it from old and long since discredited ideas, or ideas that are on the bleeding edge of scientific thinking, but which are treated by the author, as, well . . . scientific gospel. Certainly the essay struggles to be modern in the sense of being current, or having applied lessons learned.


Charles Darwin, 1881, by John Collier. PD-US.

The most modern and enduring thoughts that emanated from Darwin are found in evolutionary biological thinking, which attempts to describe a mechanism for the observed changes that occur in a biological organism’s physical and genetic structure. The idea for natural selection came from the observations that: natural organisms vary in their physical traits, and seemingly small differences can keep one species from interbreeding with another; most species produce many, many more offspring than can possibly survive in their resource constrained environment, and so only those most fit for survival live long enough to reproduce and pass on their particular traits; the traits that confer higher fitness to surviving organisms can change over time, in part due to changing environmental pressures, providing a very slow mechanism for genetic and physical change of organisms. Robinson repeatedly turns the idea of natural selection on its head, suggesting it is an agent that replaces God and is ‘killing off those who die’, and does not recognize it as a description of the normal state of nature (in every generation most species normally produce more offspring than can survive, which is what Darwin was addressing). Nature works that way whether you believe its origins were from God’s creation or you are trying to explain it as a working scientific theory.(note 1)

There were many influences on Darwin that as he developed his ideas on evolution, among them the ideas of Thomas Malthus, who, during the growing pains of the Industrial Revolution, worried that the food supply would be outstripped by the exponentially expanding human population. This idea provided Darwin with another spur towards a natural selection mechanism for the evolution of life on earth: Competition for scarce resources among living organisms would promote traits that enhanced the ability of those organisms to successfully garner sufficient resources to survive. The author criticizes Malthus for the brutishness of his ideas, mocks him for the failure of his predictions to come true, and then makes a broad attempt to connect the whole of Malthus to Darwin’s evolutionary model. What the author missed is first that Malthus’ ideas were not inherently wrong nor brutish; it was and still is entirely possible for the human population to increase beyond the resources available to feed the entire population. What Malthus did not anticipate was the up-to-now remarkable technological approach to agronomy which engendered tremendous increases in the food supply enough to keep up with the still exponentially growing human population. (Note that modern agronomy is highly reliant on massive quantities of fossil fuels . . . ) Darwin, in any case, was not a full proponent of all of Malthus’s ideas, rather a beneficiary of the astute observation about the limited availability of resources to support life on Earth, and the basic consequences of those limits.

In the Introduction to this book, the author describes a program for her essays, part of which is to read original works, and extract from them a clear idea of the author’s thought, rather than relying on later interpretations, and possible misinterpretations. This idea is as old as a freshman lecture in historiography, but even this powerful idea can be misapplied, as it often has been here. Taking ideas espoused 150 years ago, and treating them as if they represent the current thinking on the subject they initiated is rarely fruitful, and in this case, terminal. Ideas, not just organisms, evolve, and some portions or threads of useful ideas are discarded because they are wrong, or better ideas replace them, etc; ironically, one can find this pattern in the history of Christian theology. (note 2) The author sometimes seems to understand this rather obvious point, but in many instances, clearly does not. For example, as the author points out, Darwin indirectly influenced the Social Darwinism movement via his Descent of Man, among other writings, and helped (unwittingly) to produce a framework for much mayhem. (Darwin himself was decidedly not a Social Darwinist.) The author uses this historical link to damn all Darwinism (via her conflation of Social Darwinism with modern evolutionary biology), in particular by her insistence that there is a clear intellectual chain from Malthus, Darwin, Social Darwinism, Nietzsche and Freud directly to the Nazi’s racial theories, which of course, culminated in the Holocaust. Certainly there are real links there, but doesn’t this conclusion seem awfully glib?


Martin Luther, 1528, by Lucas Cranach the Elder. PD-US.

The Holocaust had many influences, most ignored here by the author, who goes further to say that while religion has been used for evil means, it has not been as evil as science, here specifically in the form of Social Darwinism (a very odd point in and of itself: Social Darwinism is not science, both science and religion have been used for good and for evil, etc.). Nothing I have read on the subject of the Holocaust pretends to know exactly the influences that produced this horrific behavior; these writers generally agree that motivation for evil is ultimately unknowable, but all allude to multiple influences. Ironically, given the author’s constant comparison of Darwinism and Christianity, the most common argument is that Christianity is the main intellectual and cultural cause of the Holocaust, evidenced by its long history of anti-Semitism, which included many past incidents of mass murder, albeit not on an industrial scale until the Holocaust. Martin Luther, for example, is called out by, among others, Lucy Davidowitz in her book War Against the Jews: 1933-1945, as having been a primary historical influence on the Nazi’s racial hatred and thereby on the Holocaust. Luther’s On the Jews and Their Lies described the Jews as ‘the Devil’s people’, advocated destroying their property, expelling them from Germany, and said that "We are at fault in not slaying the Jews."(Martin Luther, On the Jews and Their Lies, part XIII)  . These words of Luther were regularly referenced in the violent Nazi party propaganda inciting the German populace against Jews. Be that as it may, the argument for the Holocaust’s primary cause is weak for either Luther, organized Christianity or Social Darwinism: Nazi evil lay in their deeds, their willingness to put imperial power and megalomaniacal ambitions above any love for their fellow human beings. Like many other power mad human beings, they seized upon the most convenient pretexts to further their ambitions, and the Jews remained for them the scapegoat that they already had been for too much of German and European history. (note 3) Unfortunately, here the author puts the cart before the horse, and does this is several other essays (substitute Social Darwinism for Stalinism, Leninism, Mao, Castro, etc.)

The author also seems to at times understand the limits of science, but many other times asks of science something it isn’t designed to do. As Chet Raymo said in Skeptics and True Believers, ‘Science is an effective, rational instrument for discerning (tentatively, partially, but progressively more accurately) the facts of the world.’ The keys here are tentativeness and rationality, both significant limits; science is not absolute truth, nor does it aspire to be. The author repeatedly misses this point in this essay, calling science to task for being empty of meaning (in the spiritual or moral sense), or having supplanted religion – a moot point. Evolutionary biology makes no such claim, although a writer like Dawkins has been known to, but when he does, he is no longer representing science. The author has recognized this distinction in some of her other writings, but in this essay she conflated science with scientists who strayed from science to make points about religion, or working scientists who made conclusions about religion under the guise of ‘science.’

She also has occasion to make silly statements about science, for example, ‘Cats and dogs are quite closely related, but a lifetime of studying dogs would not qualify anyone to speak with authority on the ways of cats. So with the whole earthly bestiary which has been recruited to the purposes of the proper study of mankind.’ This is at best, an overly broad point about the real differences between species, but comes across as deliberately ignorant. For example, the metabolic functionality of dogs and cats is nearly identical, as a phenotypic expression of their nearly identical underlying genome. It is no accident that those traits that are similar or the same between a cat and a dog allow science to study the traits in one organism and apply them to the other, not to mention are clearly useful in refining our understanding of what is not the same, and therefore providing distinguishing characteristics between the two species that makes them uniquely a cat or dog. The obvious extension to humans is that we have successfully used these similarities to study human diseases and work out cures for them using other mammals, among many other things. Does the author really not understand this, or is she just, again, sloppy?

A more troubling example of the author’s odd assertions about science is: ‘Darwinism is harsh and crude in its practical consequences, in a degree that sets it apart from all other respectable scientific hypotheses.’ It is hard to know where to begin with this statement, but I will limit it to two questions: 1. What does the judgment ‘harsh and crude’ have to do with evolutionary biology? (note 1) This a an emotionally loaded, subjective observation that is not usefully applied to hypotheses or theories, and one the author makes no attempt to justify. 2. How is it that scientific hypotheses are ‘respectable’ or not? They are either testable, and add to a useful probabilistic model of the phenomenon being studied, or they are not. They can be well-established, meaning they are reliably predictive for the uses that they are put to, or they can be early and quite tentative and promising; in any event, they are malleable, used to generate testable hypotheses, and are changed or discarded if the hypotheses are disproven or proved to have no predictive value or are superseded by an idea that worked better, etc. etc. etc.

There is much more that disappoints in this essay, and it seems no more than a nearly unreadable muddle – it clearly needed an editor.

Regarding the long Introduction, it does have some interesting ideas in it, for example, ‘Literacy became virtually universal in Western civilization when and where it began to seem essential for people to be able to read the Bible,’ which has stimulated me to look at this further. It, however, suffers from the same kinds of problems that the Darwinism essay does, and adds another problematic theme, found throughout the essays: The author calls some historians to task for cynically pouncing on flaws of character or flawed ideas in order to dismiss a subject being analyzed. There is certainly such a tendency in historical analysis, and it sometimes serves to obscure important facts and interpretations, but it can also legitimately bring a different perspective, rather than just being cheap criticism. Oddly enough, the author herself does a good deal of this throughout the essays, some of which is new understanding, and some of which is nothing more than lazy polemics about something to which she objects, as seen in the Darwinism essay. (In a related phenomenon, historians like to label other historical interpretations not their own as ‘revisionist,’ implying some distortion.)


Thomas Jefferson, 1791, by Charles Willson Peale. PD-US.

A perfect example of this is found in the Introduction where the author chides historians for overemphasizing the hypocrisy of Thomas Jefferson for being a slave owner while he espouses freedom for all men. She points out that Jefferson, in his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, included a passage that attacked slavery as a terrible crime, a passage removed by others, and that Jefferson, in his Notes on the State of Virginia, attacks slavery vehemently; yet even with this, historians still insist on beating up poor Jefferson for his hypocrisy, without acknowledging his accomplishments. Following her advice to use primary sources, we can examine the first draft of the Declaration of Independence and find that he speaks of the abomination of slavery that had been foisted upon us by King George! That is, Jefferson described the slave trade as just another in the long list of crimes that George III had committed against the Colonies that justified the revolution, and in no way does he or the nascent American states take responsibility for their own complicity, brutality and profit in buying, owning and selling slaves.

In the Notes we find a few other things: 1. He never intended on publishing this work in America, but was forced to because the draft he sent to France as a response to their questions was published there against his will. It is clear from his behavior through the rest of his life that he nearly always acted to preserve slavery and other Southern institutions regardless of what he said about slavery (see The Negro President by Garry Wills; American Sphinx by Joseph Ellis; Thomas Jefferson, by R. B. Bernstein; and especially Master of the Mountain, by Henry Wiencek, and Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson, by Paul Finkelman). 2. Although in his Notes he called for the abolition of slavery, his moral repugnance centered on the effect slavery had on the morality of the masters, not on the tyranny and brutality imposed on the slaves. In any event, he suggested that the abolition of slavery had to be done well in the future. The older Jefferson got, the more distant that time became. 3. In the Notes, he described blacks as inferior to whites, because they smelled bad, were ugly, and were less intelligent, and proposed that if the slaves were to be freed, they would have to be expelled from the United States, as they were not capable of being participating citizens, and leaving them in the U. S. would be dangerous, as they would seek to destroy their former masters. 4. One of the prime reasons for the founding of the Republican party in 1792 (which morphed into the Democratic-Republican party in 1824 and into the Democratic party in 1858) by Jefferson was to maintain states rights and the agrarian quality of the South (translate – protect slavery, which the Democratic party did with great fierceness). 5. Jefferson supported the 3/5 clause and the Fugitive Slave clause in the U. S. Constitution (from abroad), which is the single most powerful reason why the South held more power in the Federal government, in all three branches, all the way up to 1860. Jefferson would have lost the election of 1800 to Adams without the additional electoral college votes generated by counting slaves without representation. 6. Jefferson lived a life of luxury and privilege which was unsustainable without his ownership of a large slave population. Jefferson bred and sold hundreds of slaves after the Declaration of Independence in 1776 to support his spendthrift ways, and at his death 50 years later, he had by then freed only a handful, and still had 135. Washington, on the other hand, freed all of his slaves at his death.

I would invite the author to visit Jefferson’s Monticello, as I once did, and really inspect his home and grounds. Monticello was deliberately designed to keep slaves out of sight (this has been noted by other observers), either under the house, which is an unheated warren of narrow, dark rooms and passages with dumbwaiters to support the home above, and the slave quarters are out of view; only the whitest of slaves served in the house, among them Sally Hemings, and some of his and Sally’s children. Whatever his relationship with Sally, there was a strong element of coercion in it, and whatever else Jefferson accomplished, he was in a no way a friend of slaves, or any real kind of abolitionist. Robinson’s opprobrium to the contrary, this is not an annoying and cynical point, but goes to the heart of Jefferson’s attitudes and accomplishments, or lack thereof, regarding slavery, and his supposed support for the freedom of all men.

I found the best essays to be The Tyranny of Petty Coercion and Wilderness, which are tight and cogent pleas from the heart for the courage to act in the best interests of community, nation and humankind, against the cynicism of partisan discourse and environmental exploitation, respectively. These are brave explications of thoughts routinely squelched in today’s America via crude peer pressure. The author provides a spot on description of the failure of the political will of liberalism or progressivism as an antidote to the conservative shift of power and money to benefit a rapacious and selfish elite (not, as other critics would have it, the failure of liberalism itself – the author supports the instincts of liberalism to help the disadvantaged, for example).

Her essays on Psalm 8 and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are also of high quality, and a welcome departure from the stiff and angry tone that permeates a good part of the book. Psalm 8 is a frank autobiographical account of the author’s personal spiritual journey. The Dietrich Bonhoeffer essay is a capable exploration of one of the best examples of personal dedication to and sacrifice for one’s principles, rare in any time and place, and particularly compelling in the person of Bonhoeffer. Luther, for all his fame as a man of courage (‘Hier stehe ich, und kann nicht anders’), did not have the strength of resolve of Bonhoeffer; even while he was standing up to the Pope, in the face of being burned at the stake, he was actually already under the protection of German princes who had every political reason to use Luther as a way of removing the heavy economic hand of the Roman Catholic Church, and Luther knew this. When the peasants rose up against their feudal lords a few years later, stimulated in some part by Luther’s call to independent interpretation of the Bible, and thereby some independence from authority, Luther’s response was to tell the princes they had every right to destroy recalcitrant peasants (an inflammatory overreaction that only fanned the flames of the resulting violence; it is hard to avoid the thought that Luther’s vitriol was self-protective and craven). Bonhoeffer had access to similar protections at several junctures in his ethical and bravely public battle with the Nazis (e.g. he was given permission to go, and went to NYC in 1939, and returned after a month to a situation that was clearly life-threatening), but chose to face the threats rather than retreat, and it shortened his life, as he was ultimately imprisoned, then murdered by the Nazis.


John Calvin. PD-US.

There are several on John Calvin, to include the two on Margaret of Navarre and Puritans and Prigs, which I won’t comment much on here, but which I generally found interesting, as I knew little more than the basics about Calvin. However, I didn’t buy her extended supposition, that because some of Calvin’s works show him to be more benign than he is often described, some of the basic historical facts around Calvinism are quite wrong, such as the rigidity of the ascetic, controlled life and the theocratic structure of Puritan communities. She is right to say these accounts can be exaggerated, and they often miss the richness and happiness of some of the lives of people in these communities, but she herself exaggerates in minimizing the real effects of this and other theocracies on those who do not strictly worship and follow the government-dictated religious rules. Thomas Jefferson’s best contribution to America was his insistence on freedom of religion, a point of view he developed in part as a reaction to New England’s theocratic history, and his agreement with Roger William’s own insistence on freedom of religion, which insistence was precipitated by direct governmental interference with William’s ability to worship freely in Puritan Massachusetts, and his later migration to and formation of Rhode Island as a haven where he and others could worship in the manner of their choice, a rarity in Western civilization in those times, times dominated by state-mandated adherence to one Christian sect or another. The Puritans came to North America to be able to worship their version of Christianity freely, as it was often suppressed in the England of their time; ironically, they perpetrated the same coercive political model that had caused themselves much suffering.

If you are interested in her views on Darwinism, this book is not recommended, but if you are interested in some heartfelt discussions of the quality of modern life, and a more friendly view of our Puritan heritage, this book is recommended.



1. The idea that natural selection is brutal was recognized not just by Christians who argued against the theory of evolution, but also by scientists as early as Darwin himself. Ever since the publication of the Darwin’s Origin of the Species many arguments have been made about the inherent cruelty of the natural selection model, and in particular, since it is generally agreed that cruelty when applied to humans by humans is immoral or evil, that such cruelty as embodied by the mechanism of evolution allowed religious opponents of evolution to make various claims about the immorality of the evolutionary model, and even today to make claims that evolution is a manifestation of secular humanism, an ethical doctrine, and thereby opens the door for the teaching of Creationism in biology classes. Stephen Jay Gould, in his essay Nonmoral Nature, pointed out the application of morality to the blind processes of nature is bound to disappoint, as again, life just happens, whether modeled by the concept of natural selection or conceived as God’s Creation, or both. Most living organisms consume other living organisms, and even some of those which don’t, for example, the fungi, even they rely on the byproducts of dead organisms for their own survival. Some do it in very cruel ways, indeed, if one were to apply human ethical standards to their behavior; but of course one cannot do such a thing. Ironically, going down this path of condemning the cruelty of natural selection as a way of condemning the model of evolution brings one quickly full circle to the question of why God would have made nature so cruel. Gould suggests that this inappropriate mapping of morality onto natural behavior helped to give rise to the misguided eugenics movement and various aspects of Social Darwinism.

2. Alfred North Whitehead, in his essay Science and Religion, suggests that ideologies, theories and theologies of both science and religion have historically shown a strong propensity to evolve, and that rather than being timeless and unchanging, their most stable features are that they are continually changing, although the rate of change can vary widely.

3. One Catholic writer, James Carroll, suggests in his book Constantine’s Sword, that the Roman Catholic Church played a significant role in the European history of anti-Semitism, and that the primary source of anti-Jewish violence was the push to convert the Jews to Christianity, an event which was believed necessary to bring about the Second Coming. He suggests that the Church’s ‘Jew-hatred’ began very early in its history, among some of the first Christians, themselves mostly Jews. He argues that the Holocaust was not directly perpetrated by the Church’s institutionalized anti-Semitism, but helped to lay a foundation for it (an argument also made by several Holocaust historians). The Church’s history is rife with examples of leaders who promulgated anti-Semitic policies and actions, but also there are many counter-examples of the Church’s efforts to slow or stop the same. It is too true that tribalism, hatred, populism and the use of scapegoats exist with or without organized religion; it is difficult to disentangle these behaviors and determine with any precision exactly where the influence is greatest, but surely the Church is not the only important influence upon European anti-Semitism or by extension, the Holocaust.

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