Good, Evil, and Evolution
Sunday I had the honor and pleasure of speaking at an “Artist Beit Midrash” presented by Jewish Artists Initiative in Los Angeles, CA. Traditionally, a Beit Midrash is a study group in which weekly Torah readings are mined for deeper meanings. This group was unique in that it centered on a general theme instead of a chapter of scripture. That theme was the Jewish doctrine of Yetzer HaTov and Yetzer HaRa—the good and evil inclinations in the human soul.
Are human beings fundamentally good or essentially evil? Jewish philosophy proposes we’re both, observing that we seem to possess equal potential for doing right and wrong. In classical Judaism, the Yetzer HaTov is analogous to an angel on our shoulder reminding us to obey God’s law; the Yetzer HaRa is like the devil on our other shoulder urging us to break it. Our work, classically considered, is to side with our angels.
From a more spiritual perspective, our good inclination can be thought of as a tendency toward altruism: prioritizing our community, environment, and sense of God over our immediate self-interest. Our evil inclination can be thought of as a tendency toward greed: pursuing self-gratification even at the expense of the people, ecosystems, and divine energies that surround and support us.
Spiritually speaking, our work is to accept both our good and evil inclinations—and to keep them in equilibrium. Judaism asks that we balance the self-concern necessary to honor our God-given individuality with the social, environmental, and spiritual conscience needed to love and sustain the world.
Nature asks a similar effort of all its creatures.
Evolutionary biology theorizes that those of us best suited to our natural environment survive and reproduce, passing our genes to subsequent generations. If we don’t fit well with our surroundings, we can become better adapted using two approaches: competition and cooperation. Competition requires us to become more powerful than those around us also striving for food, shelter, etc. The predator with the sharpest teeth wins; the prey with the fastest legs also wins. Cooperation requires us to become more sociable with those whom we share a habitat. Here, whoever partners best wins: bee and flower, algae and coral, etc.
It seems to me that the energy of competition is analogous to Yetzer HaRa and the energy of cooperation to Yetzer HaTov. In nature, either inclination pushed to its extreme can cause a creature to ruin itself, its community, and/or its environment. Only a dynamic balance of self-concern and care of others, rivalry and mutualism, creates an environment in which we can evolve, and keep evolving.
So… Since the 16th century, religion and science have been competing for a vital title: Truth. Many people believe these two ways of interpreting our world can’t ever be harmonized. This blog exists to point out commonality-after-commonality between spirituality and science, begging this question: After centuries of competition, isn’t it time we consider some cooperation?
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I meant to state that I felt this connection between spirituality and science, not religion and science – I have just been involved in a debate about the difference between religion and spirituality, and can’t believe I made the typo/mistake in my comment!
Thank you for your comment, Christy, and your correction! I’m hoping this blog contributes, if even a little, to the spirituality/science balance you’re seeking. Looking forward to hearing from you again, in response to future posts.
I definitely think it’s time we consider some cooperation (between religion and science). I’ve been searching for many years for a balance between the two…I feel such an interconnection between them that grows ever stronger as I go along my path…
Sorry I missed the Artist Beit Midrash. I wanted to go but couldn’t make it. AND it is a pleasure to read your reflections here.
The “Yetzer HaRa” is more along the lines of our “base” inclination (not simply our “evil” inclination). This as opposed to the “Yetzer HaTov,” the “higher” inclination. The “yetzer hara” is the source of our sexuality, for example. We MUST have and acknowledge both for our survival, but human beings create ways to elevate and contain aspects of our “yetzer hara” for good purpose (hence religious ritual, mitzvot, etc.). Much of our evolution has risen from the purely primal “yetzer hara.”
Thank you for your comment, Laurel. Your distinction about Yetzer HaTov and Yatzer HaRa is on-point and contributes another dimension to my analogy, allowing me to rewrite a key sentence in my blog post this way:
“Only a dynamic balance of carnality and spirituality, lust and grace, creates an environment in which we can evolve, and keep evolving.”
Sorry I missed the opportunity to meet you Sunday, and hope to remedy that next time I’m at JAI.
Adam, only SOME complexity theorists consider consciousness to be emergent…here, we’re not confusing consciousness with self-reflexive thought, but as the container for perception of all kinds, in which case it’s a dimension of every level of organization. Plus, complexity is relative to the observer.
And Leanne, thought creates existence, but existence creates thought, too. Where do you think you got that idea? 🙂
I gave a related lecture at Burning Man this year. More on this here:
You caught me! I overly generalized about complexity theorists, and stand corrected.
I like your description of consciousness as “a container for perception of all kinds.” I wish I’d been at Burning Man to take in the symposium.
Food for thought. I believe people are inherently good and I am sticking to that, as thought creates existence.
Thank you for your comment, Leanne, and for continuing the conversation with your statement that thought creates existence. It’s a basic spiritual notion, of course, and contemporary science has interesting things to say about it. Some interpreters of quantum theory believe consciousness (thought) is the primary substance of our universe, giving rise to the particles and atoms of which we’re made. But then complexity theorists consider consciousness/thought to be an emergent phenomenon, appearing only after systems of particles and atoms grow sufficiently complex.
Definitely food for thought!