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

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
. 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 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
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
. 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

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
of artificial nitrogen
. (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
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

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
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.↩︎

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
who has recorded several videos showcasing the towering
intellects who flock to such events.↩︎

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.↩︎

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
. Also see the Wikipedia articles Ancient
near eastern cosmology
, Firmament, Biblical
, and Jewish
. 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

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
and critical
. 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
, or its political repackaging as intelligent design
, you’re way out on a flimsy cognitive limb.↩︎

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Debunking Christianity 

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