Are "Innate evil tendencies" inheritable?

Anthony Zimmerman
2004, Not published
Reproduced with Permission

Despite the good news proclaimed by the Council of Trent that after original sin, "God hates nothing" in those who are reborn through Baptism (Canon 5), a lurking suspicion remains that all is not well with us even after Baptism. For example, this statement recently appeared in the Homiletic and Pastoral Review, November 2003: "As a result of original sin man is burdened with concupiscence, which is an innate tendency towards evil and rebellion against God." This, I believe, is not sound theology. As we will see, bread and butter theologians differ from that opinion.

Our all too evident readiness to sin is the inevitable price that we must pay for the freedom to love God - or to love Him not. It is not at all a nasty novelty implanted into our natures after original sin. Adam and Eve in paradise, even before the fall, were weak toward sin. God placed two trees into the midst of paradise, a tree of life, and a tree of death. Surprisingly, the drama opens with Eve sitting near the wrong tree!

Adam and Eve "lacked experience"

Whether the narration about Adam and Eve be historical or aetiological, in either case, the Holy Spirit makes their fall to be a warning for us. Our first parents appear ill-prepared for their first spiritual combat. Adam had no more knowledge than an inexperienced child or adolescent, so deems pioneer theologian Saint Irenaeus (125-203), He needed experience to grow to maturity. After the fall he converted and did better. We should learn from that, so urges the Bishop of Lyons (Adv. Haer. III,20,2).

The saint did not much value virtue which just fell into one's lap, without our effort.

When reading Genesis 3 using Irenaean glasses, the lesson of the weakness of our first parents is compelling. Eve dallies near to the tree of the forbidden fruit - the wrong tree. She converses with the tempter - instead of showing her back. She entertains heady ambitions, yearns for wisdom beyond human capacity, and lusts to be like God. She can't take her eyes off that dangling piece of fruit. She takes and eats. And Adam? He is right besides her and takes the second bite. This in paradise, and before the sin!

How often have we done exactly as they did! The sacred author knows the weakness of humanity well, and addresses us in earnest.

Now the serpent was more subtle than any other wild creature that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God say, You shall not eat of any tree of the garden'?" And the woman said to the serpent, "We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but God said, `You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.'" But the serpent said to the woman, "You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate (Genesis 3:1-6).

All happened as the Book of Wisdom warns:

For the witchery of paltry things obscures what is right and the whirl of desire transforms the innocent mind (Wis 4:12).

Irenaeus (Adv. Haer. III,23) has the Divine Word treating Adam and Eve with pity after their sin. The Good Shepherd seeks them out specially because they need Him now more than ever. The pioneer theologian observes that God the Word felt concern for the first humans He had made, who would also be His own ancestors. Because He was determined to redeem the human race, it was only right that He begin with the first humans He had created.

The Bishop of Lyons then credits our first parents with a swift conversion after their fall. Adam could have covered his body with other leaves painless to the body, but he purposely used prickly fig leaves to do well-deserved penance for his disobedience. He was sorry now, fearful of God. The saint of Lyons then urges all sinners who have fallen like Adam and Eve to recognize that they need the grace of God to rise again. Let all learn from the sad experience of sin, and progress more wisely and patiently in virtue. Irenaeus presents Adam and Eve as models who pioneered for us the way back to God and to peace of soul after having learned about sin the hard way.

Words attributed to Solomon also relate how Wisdom saved Adam after the fall: "She (Wisdom) preserved the first-formed father of the world ... and she raised him up from his fall" (Wis 10:1). And Sirach, while lauding priests, prophets and patriarchs, gives to Adam the highest praise of all: "Adam, above every living being in creation" (Sirach 49:16). We have good reason, then, to honor our first parents and to be edified by their conversion.

Sin in the world after original sin

Yes, the world is different ever since Adam and Eve admitted sin into it. Sin abounds, whereas virtue is not the popular fashion. As the street-wise Preacher points out:

Because sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the sons of men is fully set to do evil. ... A sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life ... The hearts of men are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead (Eccl 8:11; 9:3).

If we don't swim against the current of sin, the current will sweep us downstream on its wicked way. As the crew of Lewis and Clark had to pole their boat against the strong current of the Missouri to reach its upper sources, so also our struggle against evil requires methodical exertion and perseverence from day to day. St. Gregory of Nyssa observed: "We are in a sense our own parents, and we give birth to ourselves by our own free choice of what is good (PG 44, 702).

St. Thomas teaches that if our first parents had not sinned, their descendants might still have done so. "By sinning of their own free will they could have become "children of hell" (emphasis his, Summa Theologica 1, 100,2). It means that if Adam and Eve had not sinned, perhaps it would eventually have become our turn to undergo their test.

Human nature before and after original sin

Theologian Canon Herve treated extensively about the condition of Adam before and after original sin as is found in Church Councils, the Fathers, and theologians. In Volume II, pp 415 ff., of his four volume Latin text "Manuale Theologiae Dogmaticae" that was used for many years in Catholic seminaries (1) he finds that there is no proof in the sources of revelation that the natural powers of will and intellect were diminished by original sin. They reveal that Adam lost supernatural gifts by his sin, but not that he suffered loss to his natural faculties.

Theologians agree, states Herve, that the loss was great. They mention four wounds: the wound of ignorance, of malice, of weakness, and of concupiscence. They discuss whether this wounding of nature occurred only by reason of the loss of the gratuitous gifts, or whether there was also a weakening of the natural powers; in other words, whether the state of man's nature is intrinsically weaker after the fall than it would have been in the state of pure nature (Herve ibid. p. 417).

Herve mentions a hand-ful of theologians who actually hold that our natural faculties were weakened intrinsically by the fall, making them less inclined toward what is good, and more inclined toward what is evil than was case before. He names others that deny that any change took place in the natural faculties, either intrinsically or extrinsically. Herve agrees with a third wording, namely that there was a change, but that it was extrinsic and not intrinsic to our human nature.

The extrinsic difference is the historical fact that man was stripped of grace and gifts that he once had. In historical chronology, he was once in possession of gifts beyond those of his natural faculties, but now he is stripped of them - spoliatus. If grace had never been given to man, he would be merely naked - nudus. [Think of a lady walking along the street before and after a robber snatched her purse.] Except for this history, the nature of man is unchanged before and after the fall.

Herve then observes that even without grace, man can know God as his Creator and his purpose of life. His will remains free, and he can perform naturally good works. He maintains with certainty that the natural faculties of man remain intact after original sin, without having suffered intrinsical harm. He also considers it unrealistic to conclude that one act of Adam would cause a habit of sin in himself such as would wound nature; much less would it induce an evil habit in the natures of his offspring. And he finds it repugnant to hold that God, who is all good and holy, would infuse into the soul of man any kind of positive inclination toward evil; or that He would purposely and directly lessen the natural powers of man to do good. Finally (ibid, 418) he invokes the authority of Thomas who asserts that if any person suffers some detriment in regard to nature, this appears to be not possible except by reason of a personal fault (cf. De Malo 5,2).

We ourselves, if we reflect a bit, can observe that our natures are truly wonderful. Our brains, for example, are equipped with those 100 billion coordinating neurons that enable us to focus and rest our spiritual thoughts on the bracing and helpful props of phantasms, all arranged by God as a magnificent living computer. Should we then find it reasonable that God would put a virus into that computer because Adam sinned? Or that because of Adam, God would now freeze the freedom of our wills to operate that computer to the best of our ability? We find that to be absurd. Surely God wants us to reach heaven. Why, then, should He put brakes on our natural faculties because Adam sinned, and so render our quest to reach heaven more difficult? God is for us, not against us.

Burdened with an innate tendency toward evil?

If it were true that we are burdened with an innate tendency to rebel against God, how might this tendency have begun? Tertullian once offered a simplistic solution. Parents, he innovated, generate not only the bodies of their children but also their souls. And so Adam passed his soul, now inflicted with original sin, down to his children, and they did the same to subsequent generations. The Church did not accept this explanation. Lactantius was foremost in refuting this theory, called Traducianism. He wrote:

A body may be produced from a body, since something is contributed from both; but a soul cannot be produced from souls, because nothing can depart from a slight and incomprehensible subject. Therefore, the manner of the production of souls belongs entirely to God alone. "In fine, we are all sprung from a heavenly seed, and all have that same Father," as Lucretius says. For nothing but what is mortal can be generated from mortals (De opif. Chapter XIX).

God creates each soul from nothing, not from Adam, nor from the parents

CCC 366 The Church teaches that every spiritual soul is created immediately by God -- it is not "produced" by the parents ...

We ask, however, whether our physical genetic heredity from Adam might carry a material gene that induces our spiritual souls to rebel against God. Although the souls of parents do not live in their children, the souls of the children animate the genetic materials received from the parents. Twenty-three DNA chromosomes from the father meet the corresponding twenty-three of the mother when God creates a new human life. Might the genetic patterns of father and mother - and remotely from Adam - be a bridge over which a tendency to rebel against God can cross from parents to their child? For the new soul of the child informs the fused gametes of the parents. As the CCC teaches, the soul is the form of the body:

CCC 365 The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the "form" of the body: i.e., it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature.

We are not two or three souls, plant, animal and spiritual, jostling with each other to gain supremacy. Thomas corrected the Platonists who held that "the intellectual soul is not united to the body as its form, but only as its motor." And against other philosophers he states that "there is no other substantial form in man besides the intellectual soul; and that the soul, as it virtually contains the sensitive and nutritive souls, so does it virtually contain all inferior forms, and itself alone does whatever the imperfect forms do in other things. (Summa Theologica 1,76,4). Applying this to ourselves today, our soul is the form of our genes. Whatever be their origin, they are now our property.

Before we discuss whether an inherited genetic pattern can induce in us a tendency to rebel against God, let us review scientific aspects of genetic inheritance. Embryologists explain that during the process of spermatogenesis in males, and oogenesis in females, both of which growth processes produce new gametes, a "crossing over" of genetic materials occurs between chromosomes. In what is called the Pacytene phase of meiosis 1:

Exchange of chromosomal parts (segments of DNA) occurs between homologous (but not between sister) chromatids. This process is called crossing over and results in a chromosomal recombination of parts from both parents. Genes closely linked on the same chromosome do not assort independently, but remain together from generation to generation. (2)

Each newly produced gamete becomes unique. Chances are that never before has this mixture of some 30,000 genes - or perhaps 65,000 or even 80,000 - occurred in exactly the same way in any other sperm or oocyte, nor will it ever occur again. It appears to me that the "crossing over" and new combinations of genetic materials during meiosis 1 of gametes, tends, by and large, to level the field of inherited talent and addictions. Talented folk do not necessarily have talented children; and addicted parents do not necessarily produce children with a tendency toward addiction. The "crossing over" of genetical materials appears to tap into an ancestral gene pool that is more vast than that of one's immediate kinship. We see every day that siblings are not uniformly alike, nor are children clones of their parents.

In addition, Geneticists point to a second and reinforcing measure that serves to keep our mainstream human genome in good order. This is the dynamic of dominant versus recessive genes:

Each new individual receives two copies (alleles) of each gene, one from each parent. These alleles may be dominant, or they may be recessive. A dominant allele will be expressed in the individual even if only one copy of it is present; recessives require two copies to be expressed. Thus newly emerged recessives will remain "silent" in the population until there are enough of them in the gene pool to make it likely that both parents will pass them along. (3)

This last sentence underlines the ancient wisdom of avoiding marriage with close relatives. Harmful mutations, which might occur rarely in a larger gene pool, may tend to appear frequently in a closed circle of kinship and even become predominant.

Evil tendencies, a created novelty?

Now we ask the hard question: how might "an innate tendency towards evil and rebellion against God," which is at least in part a purely spiritual entity, be bridged from parent to child?

Sorry! There is no bridge.

First of all, the actual tendency that once lived in a parent has died with that parent. If the offspring has a similar tendency, it is initiated as the property of the offspring. It is new, not handed down.

Second, the parent does not generate the soul of the offspring. The parent may, however, beget in the offspring a genetic pattern similar to his or her own, in which the tendency had once existed. We have no experience that similar genetic patterns generate similar psychological tendencies. The very same genes that host specific tendencies today will be hosting unrelated tendencies tomorrow. The genetic hardware can be an operating base for a thousand types of sentient software. Parents beget genes in their children, not sentiments attached to the genes. If the genes that parents beget in their children are like a piano that they pass on by inheritance, the children still need to learn to play the piano, and to play the genes, by their own effort.

Third, a tendency to rebel against God is essentially a spiritual entity, not a sentient production housed in electro-chemical movements. Parents cannot bequeath to their offspring their own souls, nor thoughts existing in their own souls.

Fourth, a tendency to rebel against God normally pre-supposes a supernatural awareness of God that is based on a received revelation and faith. But parents cannot generate faith in their children by genetic heredity. Therefore neither can parents generate in their children's souls innate tendencies against the faith.

Genes are molecular components of matter and energy. Birds can fly if there is an atmosphere that supports the flapping of their wings. They cannot fly in space. And sentient tendencies can operate in electro-chemical movements circulating on a genetic base, but they cannot distill themselves into spiritual tendencies.

A genetic disarray may possibly induce a thirst for alcohol in offspring. On the other hand, favorable genes may limber the fingers of gifted children to ply the piano. But genes cannot become spiritual, even though they constantly resonate and focus our spiritual operations.

A tendency to rebel against God is essentially a spiritual entity that has no roots in or hold on a genetic pattern. Parents pass on genes to children, but the genes are totally bereft of spiritual thoughts and tendencies. Children get a new soul, made directly by God, which is not a hand-me-down from parents. Children start with a blank spiritual page on which they do their own writing.

Does God, then, induce tendencies to rebellion?

If genes cannot pass a tendency to rebel against God from parent to child, might God Himself, who is Spirit, create in souls the spiritual entity of "an innate tendency towards evil and rebellion against God"? Perish the thought. It is blasphemous.

Though we believe that God deprives souls of the supernatural gift of sanctifying grace and justice in punishment for original sin (see Trent, Canons 1 and 2), this withholding of a gift not owed to us is not contrary to His holiness. Whereas if God were to positively infuse into our souls a tendency to rebel against Him, that would indeed be contrary to His holiness. God cannot do that.

The Good News is that, by way of Baptism, we receive the gifts of faith, hope, and charity that unite us to God positively. Even should the devil attempt to claim us as his own because of original sin, the priest exorcizes him at the time of Baptism. Before he pours the saving waters the priest points the devil to the door. "Upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life" (Gen 3:14).

Trent: Concupiscence "comes from sin and inclines to sin"

One problem remains, namely the words of Trent Canon 5 that concupiscence "comes from sin and inclines to sin." The explanation, I believe is, that there is a wall of division between the natural drives and concupiscence. It is not our natural drives that come from sin. God made us what we are. Our healthy and sometimes exuberant drives seek their intrinsic ends with persistence and vigor, and rightly so. But they do so without paying the least attention to moral standards. Eyes see what there is to see; they have no blinders that come down automatically when they gaze upon pornographic pictures, Ears impose no filters against malicious gossip. It is we ourselves, with our reason and will and with the help of the grace of God, who choose to make the actions of the drives to be our own, or refuse to do so.

When we freely choose to indulge spontaneous drives that are unreasonable and therefore disorderly, that is an act of concupiscence. Thus concupiscence "comes from sin and leads to sin."


God did not directly damage or weaken our natural faculties of mind and will because of original sin. Our natural drives, however, cling to what is natural, whereas Christ calls us live in supernatural intimacy with God: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:15). Our drives are more comfortable with the things of earth than with those of heaven. As Paul writes: "For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do" (Romans 7:18-19).

Our struggle is to obey the call to the supernatural despite our nature's reluctance to do so. We are not born with wounded natural powers, but with all-too-healthy natural drives that, like stubborn donkeys, remain innately reluctant to climb the steep and narrow road that leads to heaven. A bird in the hand, they like to insist with secular wisdom, is worth two in the bush.

God has made us beautiful, in His own image and likeness. We thank Him with the Psalmist:

  1. Canon J.M. Herve in the seventeenth edition of his four volume Manuale Theologiae Dogmaticae, Vol. II (1934) pp. 417-418).
  2. O'Rahilly-Mueller, Human Embryology and Teratology, Third Edition, p. 20-21).
  3. Ian Tattersall, The Monkey in the Mirror, p. 47, drawing on the book of Jeffrey Schwartz, Sudden Origins.