Is it Just for God to Damn for Sins which have Evolutionary Causes?

Daniel J. Pedersen
Friday 26 March 2021
  1. Introduction and Hypothesis
  2. Fields of Study
  3. Discussion
  4. Conclusion

1. Introduction and Hypothesis

Many Christians believe that the ultimate fate of at least some people is to suffer forever. In order for this extreme ill to cohere with God’s goodness, however, it must be justly deserved and justly meted. The larger question of the justice of damnation depends upon a number of considerations, but two of these in particular bear on the puzzle at hand. Minimally, the justice of damnation requires that the sinner in question must be (1) the voluntary cause of their sin. Further, many accounts of the justice of damnation also require that (2) God be causally unconnected from the sin in question in order to preserve divine standing to blame. We will examine both of these criteria and their variants in more detail below.

Theologians have historically distinguished between the state of sin and sins as acts, with some claiming that sinners are blameworthy for states of sin, while others claim that sinners are blameworthy only for particular sins, acts such as murder (Zwingli 1983, 4-5). In order to make this puzzle as translatable as possible across traditions, the present puzzle only considers sins in the sense of acts, and even then only the uncontroversial example of the act of murder, which, to my knowledge, all Christian traditions which admit damnation count as a damnation-worthy, or mortal, sin.

Traditional Christian accounts locate the origins of sins like murder in the first sin of the first human beings. This plays an important role in securing both human blameworthiness and divine standing to blame. But there are alternative accounts of the origins of acts like murder which appeal to evolutionary origins which predate all humans, and indeed potentially predate them by millions of years. These evolutionary accounts threaten to undermine either (1) the voluntariness of sin, or (2) the claim of divine non-involvement, or both. Therefore, the hypothesis of this theological puzzle is that, if sins have evolutionary causes, it is unjust for God to damn sinners for the relevant sins.

In this puzzle I will focus on a single evolutionary account of human violence as a paradigmatic example. Not only is it relatively well supported, it also bears directly on sins which include murder. That account claims that sexual selection pressures shaped humans’ evolutionary ancestors into the kinds of animals which have a tendency to kill other humans. This evolutionary cause continues to shape human behavior to the present with the effect that, according to this theory, humans sometimes kill one another at least partly because of evolutionary inherited tendencies. When these killings are unjust, they are murders. Therefore, at least some murders have evolutionary causes. Support for this theory lies in analogous chimpanzee behavior. Because chimpanzees and humans last shared a common ancestor between something like five or ten million years ago, if this behavior is held in common between the two species because it was inherited from a common ancestor, it must have evolved several million years before there were anything like modern homo sapiens.

If true – and the truth of the theory is something that will be examined further below – then the theory clearly implies that at least one cause of sins like murder predates the first human beings. That means that the ultimate origin of sins cannot be found in the human will alone. If true, at least some sins have at least some natural causes. And that implies that God is causally involved in the origins of those sins. And that, in turn, potentially undermines divine standing to blame. Because divine standing to blame is necessary to secure the justice of damnation, if sins have evolutionary causes, it is unjust for God to damn for the relevant sins.

2. Fields of Study

2.1 Damnation, human action, and the justice of God

If Christians believe that God is just and that some sinners are damned, they must give an account of how these two claims cohere. For traditional accounts of the origins of sin in the first acts of the first humans this is relatively defensible: most, if not all, traditional Christian accounts of the origins of sin ultimately ground all blameworthy human action in the human will (Aquinas 1947, I-II, Q. 75, a. 1, resp.; Athanasius 1892, I.4; Augustine 2013, XII.6-8; Irenaeus 1885, IV.37.1). That is to say, humans do the bad things they do because some human willed to do evil, and not because of any other cause.

Most classically this is narrated in the fall of Adam and Eve where the very first humans became the very first sinners and transmitted sin to their descendants. In the highly influential reading of Augustine of Hippo, Adam’s sin has no prior basis whatsoever (Augustine 2013, XII.6-8; see Bowlin 2012). There is no antecedent cause or explanation of sin either within human nature as created or before it. This first sin is itself purely voluntary. And because the first cause of the first sin lies in the will of the first sinners alone, there is no cause of sin prior to human beings more generally. While Augustine’s account is the most detailed, its basic formal features are held across a range of thinkers and traditions – despite what is sometimes claimed to the contrary (Cf. Hick 1977). In nearly all traditional accounts of the origins of sin, the will of the first humans is the sole source of the first sin. These kinds of accounts of the explanatory terminus of sin are what I will call strict grounding accounts of the origin of sin.

Strict grounding accounts solve at least two important problems at once. First, by accounting for human wrongdoing entirely by human willing, they (1) secure the responsibility of human beings for their own sin. Sinners are not mere victims or puppets, but perpetrators; and they are so necessarily since they could not sin in the first place were their acts not voluntary. Second, by ultimately grounding the origins of sin in the human will alone, strict grounding accounts (2) establish a causal break between God and sin which clearly preserves divine standing to blame. Since God cannot be blamed for that which God is in no way causally implicated, God can justly blame sinners without implicating Godself. Together, (1) and (2) respectively explain why sinners are to blame for sin, but God is not: two minimal criteria for the justice of damnation.

The failure of (1) or (2) or both would be a problem for the justice of damnation for at least two reasons. If (1) failed, it would mean that sins were not properly voluntary. But it is widely regarded as unjust to blame someone for an involuntary act, like hiccupping or having a seizure (Aristotle 1994, III.1). If some sins were involuntary, it would be unjust to blame someone for the relevant sins. Of course, a variety of accounts of voluntariness, and specifically voluntary action, might be offered as remedy for this concern.

The second reason is more serious. If (2) failed, then it would appear that God is in some way the cause of sin. But if God is causally implicated in sin, God risks losing moral standing to blame since God condemns an act that God caused, even participated in (see Todd 2018). It seems that if God is causally implicated in sin, God might easily be morally implicated in sin as well; and if so, when God condemns for said sin, God is committed to self-condemnation, which contradicts God’s essential goodness.

To see this latter point more clearly, consider a mundane example. Say there was a general who ordered their soldiers to capture a town and to do so by any and all means – including by means of war crimes. Now say that this same general who issued the command had the soldiers who carried out his orders arrested and punished for their crimes. Most would find not only the war crimes but also the condemnation of the soldiers by the general who ordered them, unjust. The problem here, of course, is not that the general judged the crimes bad when they were actually good. The crimes truly were crimes. Rather, the problem is that the general loses moral standing to blame (even if the general retains political authority to do so) because the general is involved in condemning a crime in which the general was a party.

If God is likewise implicated in at least some sins, loss of moral standing to blame threatens to make God’s blame of sinners for said sins unjust. If God were to then condemn under such circumstances, God would be unjust. But God is just. Therefore, God cannot blame, and so cannot damn, for at least those sins in which God is implicated. This is the dilemma formed but, just as with the voluntariness criteria, in the discussion we will see if this concern cannot be somehow ameliorated.

Because both criteria are potentially raised by any violation of the strict grounding thesis, I will treat both possible problems under that heading except when finer distinctions are required.

2.2 Primatology

The puzzle outlined above depends entirely on whether some sins do in fact have evolutionary origins. If so, the strict grounding thesis would be false, and that would at least raise questions about the blameworthiness of sinners and, more importantly, God’s moral standing to blame. In this section we look further at such evolutionary theories, as well as objections to them.

Focusing on the sin of murder, we will look specifically at a theory of the evolutionary origins of intra-species human killing (among other pernicious acts). First introduced in his book Demonic Males (Wrangham and Peterson 1997), Richard Wrangham and colleagues have since developed and defended a sexual selection theory of the origins of human group killing over the last several decades (see Muller and Wrangham 2009). If true, this theory implies that the origins of at least some sins are distantly prior to all human beings.

The theory in question goes something like this. Humans and chimpanzees are noteworthy among animals for sharing some common behaviors. Both are territorial animals and both, unusually, have territories linked to groups of related males. Both make use of territories to attract and support females and their progeny with, for example, food. Both also evince an unusual proclivity among animals for intra-species killing. Both also kill in the same groups of related males tied to territory linked with reproductive success, and both frequently target neighboring groups of other related males, sometimes exterminating all the males of a neighboring tribe. Both also seem to exploit defeated neighbors’ territories and to forcibly assimilate their females, thus adding direct reproductive advantages to successful acts of violence. The sum of these parallels in behavior linked with their obvious advantages is, it is claimed, more than coincidental. The behaviors in both cases have obvious reproductive advantages, thus suggesting that they are at least one sexual selection strategy. And, most importantly of all for present purposes, the close parallels between two species suggest that this behavior did not arise independently, but are a shared strategy inherited from a distant common ancestor. If so, that means at least one cause of at least some human killing can be traced millions of years prior to the emergence of homo sapiens.

This “demonic males” hypothesis (hereafter DM) remains highly controversial and we will return to some criticisms of it shortly. But before we do, some clarifications are in order – particularly clarifications with respect to the theological puzzle at hand.

In the first place, there is more to DM as a theory than is relevant for the present theological puzzle. Sometimes, for example, DM is taken as advancing or implying the claim that most or all males (chimpanzee and human) are violent, or that most or all humans are violent, or even simply that when most or all human males are violent, they are so for evolutionary reasons (Sussman and Marshack 2010, 7-8). It is not, of course, clear that DM makes these strong claims, or at least that the success of the theory depends on them. In any case, the theological puzzle depends on far less than DM does.

In contrast to DM, the theological puzzle at hand only need make the following, very modest claim: that at least some (unjust) human killings have evolutionary causes (among other causes); and that in such cases as a murder has evolutionary causes (among others), it violates the strict grounding thesis, and therefore the sinner in question is not justly damned for the murder in question. Since those who dispute DM do not dispute that at least some murders do occur, and since many who dispute DM would nevertheless concede that evolutionary causes at least sometimes inform human behavior, even critics of DM might well agree that some murders have evolutionary causes, which is sufficient to generate the present puzzle.

In the second place, one line of criticism against DM is that it entails a bleak view of human nature which sees violence as endemic to all human societies and, accordingly, is sometimes seen as risking the justification of violence, or at least resignation to it (Sussman and Marshack 2010, 24). The claim that DM justifies violence is simply false. It does so neither directly nor by implication. And, on the contrary, Wrangham and others have taken care to describe their work as diagnosis of an ill with an eye to treatment or mitigation (Wrangham and Peterson 1997, 231ff). 

On the other hand, there is more truth to the charge of an overly bleak view of human nature. However, for theological purposes, much of this controversy is moot. Theologians, at least in the western tradition since the Councils of Carthage (418 AD), Ephesus (431 AD), and Orange (529 AD), are already committed to at least as dire a view of the present human condition as DM suggests. Criticisms of DM along these lines would themselves be challenged by many theologians as Pelagian or utopian. And this is no mere analogy. Sussman and Marshack explicitly ask:

What if Wrangham and Peterson are correct and we and our chimp cousins are inherently sinners? Are we doomed to be violent forever because this pattern is fixed within our genetic code? After 5 million years of human evolution and 120,000 or so years of Homo sapiens existence, is there a way to rid ourselves of our inborn evils? (Sussman and Marshack 2010, 24)

The word choice and rhetoric used in this primatological debate is striking. And it shows how much critics of DM are themselves invested theologically in the study of chimpanzee killing.

There are, however, a number of important objections to the truth of DM which, if sustained, could dissolve the puzzle. If there is no plausible evolutionary cause of any sins, the strict grounding thesis remains unchallenged. If the strict grounding thesis stands, there is no threat to the justice of damnation on evolutionary grounds.

The first of these objections is the charge of the limited availability of data or the potential bias of existing data on chimpanzee violence (Sussman and Marshack 2010, 16, 22-24). Data in support of primatological claims like those advanced by DM largely depends on field work. That means a human observer seeing, describing, and documenting particular killings of particular chimpanzees on particular days. Accordingly, data is limited. In addition, much of the field work is carried out by men, which might lead to bias in describing male chimpanzee violence. After all, gender bias has played a major role in past work on sexual selection (Milam 2010), and primatologists have been rightly critical of undue attention paid to male over female sexual selection strategies (Hrdy 1999). More data from as many sources as possible could potentially check bias, but data has been limited. Therefor the lack of data and potential observer bias are tied together.

A second objection is that, even if the data on chimp killing supported the claims of DM, it does not show that its cause is evolutionary. More likely, the objection goes, is that chimpanzee killing is not evolved at all, but a novel response to human encroachment (Sussman and Marshack 2010, 21-22). If sustained, such an objection has the potential to undermine DM at its core.

A third and final objection is that chimpanzee violence is only half the story. Bonobos, extraordinarily closely related to chimpanzees and as related to humans as chimps are, have profoundly peaceful societies. Any theory of human violence in terms of chimpanzee violence is incomplete if it does not also account for bonobo peace (Sussman and Marshack 2010, 14-15). Likewise, and more importantly, the fact that humans are equally related to chimps and bonobos raises the possibility that humans are more evolutionarily inclined to behave like bonobos, that chimps diverged from that peaceful pattern of behavior somewhere along the line (either long ago, or recently as per the human causation objection above), and that human violence is therefore novel – and thus not evolved.

Each of these objections threatens to potentially undermine DM in some respect which, if left unaddressed, would show that there is insufficient reason to believe that sins like murder have evolutionary causes. And if sins do not have evolutionary causes, there is no special problem with God damning sinners who commit them as the strict grounding thesis, supporting (1) voluntariness and (2) divine standing to blame, is left untouched.

In reply to the first two objections about limited data, primatologists sought to document as many chimpanzee killings as possible. This greatly expanded not only the number of killings observed, but also the variety of places those killings were observed and, crucially, the number and variety of primatologists and others doing the observing (Wilson, et. al. 2014). While data is still limited (given the relatively small numbers of chimpanzees in the world as well as the difficulty in observing them), more field work has gone some way to addressing these objections with the effect that they do not have the force they might have had even a few years ago. In fact, new data has shown more strongly than ever that chimpanzees regularly engage in intra-species killing of the kind DM depends on. Moreover, this fits with observations of other primates, which also engage in gendered patterns of violence (Hrdy 1980).

This expanded fieldwork has also helped advocates of DM and related theories of chimpanzee violence to effectively rebut the counter-theory that chimpanzee violence is the result of human pressure, not evolution. It has done so by showing that, across their natural range, not only is chimpanzee violence not correlated with human encroachment, but the truth is often the reverse: the remotest chimps are often more violent (Wilson, et. al. 2014). While this is undoubtedly not the final word on the matter, it has rebutted the charge of insufficiently wide-spread evidence. Even if there remains little consensus as to the truth of DM as a whole, it seems clearer that chimpanzee violence is an evolved behavior.

Next, there is the objection from bonobo peace: that the fact of bonobo peace puts pressure on the comparison of humans with violent chimps. Unlike the above, this objection is a red herring. Humans might well have inherited both bonobo and chimpanzee proclivities, and there is no difficulty whatsoever with multiple sexual selection strategies operating in a single species. But, more importantly, the objection works only by shifting the explanandum of the theory. If the aim of a theory is to explain human violence, it is a change of subject matter, and therefore simply is not an explanation, to say that humans are more like peaceful bonobos. Instead, in order to amount to an objection to DM’s account of evolutionarily inherited violence, counter-theories must have another means in mind by which humans became violent in the recent past (see, e.g. Deane-Drummond 2017; Smith 2017). Here such theories ironically dovetail with the very “European and Christian” theological and philosophical accounts of a fall into sin that some decry as unscientific (Sussman and Marshack 2010, 25). Last and most importantly of all, is the fact that bonobo peace, and the human behaviors that parallel it, already play an important role within DM itself (Wrangham and Peterson 1997, 200ff). To appeal to bonobo peace against DM is simply to give an incomplete and uncharitable account of the theory being challenged. The peacefulness of bonobos might well compel us to offer a complex and multifaceted account of human nature, but it does little on its own to challenge the central premise of the theological puzzle at hand: that at least some human murders have at least some evolutionary causes.

Many objections to DM have been answered and the theory is at least as widely held now as ever. However, this should not be taken to imply that the debate is settled, let alone that DM, or even something like DM, is the consensus. Nevertheless, it is equally untrue to say that alternative accounts of chimpanzee violence remain equally plausible. Most importantly of all for present purposes, evidence has increasingly supported the narrower claim that chimpanzee violence is an evolved trait (Stanford 2018). If so, that is a good reason to think that some human violence is likewise evolved. And that is enough to make the puzzle at hand a serious concern.

3. Discussion

Evolved tendencies to kill in the vein of chimpanzees offers a different causal story of at least some sins from traditional theological accounts. The causal chain of this story predates human beings, or anything like modern human beings, by millions of years. The cause of these sins cannot, therefore, lie solely in the human will. Because it cannot, such accounts necessarily contradict the strict grounding thesis and threaten either (1) the loss of voluntariness, or (2) the loss of divine standing to blame, or both. The loss of either would be sufficient to render damnation for the sins in question unjust.

The first threat to the justice of damnation for sins with evolutionary causes is the loss of voluntariness. Voluntariness is usually regarded as necessary to secure blame because it is necessary for act ascription. Unless a person did something voluntarily, they are not the agent of the act in question. Because it is normally considered just to only blame an agent for acts they (in some sense) did, loss of voluntariness threatens the justice of blame – divine or human.

The subject of the compatibility of voluntariness with various causes is an ancient one, and there are many defensible accounts of the compatibility of complete causal determinism with the voluntariness of acts (see e.g. Frankfurt 2017; Fischer and Ravizza 1998). Therefore, the threatened loss of voluntariness is only a worry for those who already hold that for an act to be determined and an act to be voluntary are incompatible.

Nevertheless, although incompatibilism might be a (healthy) minority position within wider philosophical debates about freedom and responsibility, libertarian incompatibilism does important work for many Christian theologians and philosophers, particularly in sustaining free will defenses of the problem of evil (see Plantinga 2001). Therefore, although the solution is obvious in this case (namely, to subscribe to some form of compatibilism), it might also be theologically costly.

A second and more intractable problem is the loss of divine moral standing to blame. As discussed in 2.1, moral standing to blame is (arguably) lost when the agent doing the blaming was also party to the act for which they are blaming others (Cf. Todd 2018, 40-42). Of course, we might conceivably blame ourselves for our own wrongdoing. But the very idea of divine blameworthiness is incompatible with God’s moral and metaphysical perfections. Which is to say, even if I might justly blame myself along with others, the very idea of God having done something worthy of blame is incoherent. And so it seems that at least in the case of divine blame, fault must be asymmetrical: sinners must be worthy of blame while God cannot be. Because many strict grounding accounts assume (explicitly or implicitly) that causal implication is sufficient to morally implicate God, if there are pre-human evolutionary causes of at least some sins, blame for said sins is, on that assumption, unjust. And because strict grounding accounts represent the vast majority of accounts of the origins of sin across time, location, and theological traditions, this is a remarkable consequence.

Any account of the justice of sin which relies on the strict grounding thesis will, therefore, be rendered unsustainable by either the lack of voluntariness or the loss of divine moral standing to blame. But might accounts which do not rely on the strict grounding thesis offer an alternative way to sustain asymmetrical fault and thus divine moral standing to blame?

One attempt to do just this was offered by John Calvin (Calvin 1997, 180-181). On his account divine moral standing to blame is still required, and it is still sustained through asymmetrical fault. But unlike strict grounding accounts, Calvin does not rely on a causal break between God and sinners to do so. Rather, he relies on a distinction in acts grounded in a distinction in intent (see McCann 2012, 113-132; Todd 2018, 46-49). This amounts to a double-effect account of sin: God caused and foresaw, but did not intend, sin as an unavoidable bad consequence of an otherwise praiseworthy intentional act (see Anscombe 1958, 11-12). Calvin’s solution is promising, but it depends on the controversial admissibility of the principle of double-effect as a starting assumption.

Moreover, even if the principle of double-effect is admitted generally, it is not clear that appeal to it can be made in this case. One key criterion for genuine instances of double-effect is the ill-means test: that the supposedly unintended effect is not actually a means to the intended end (Anscombe 1961, 51). Since, if it were, it would not be an unintended consequence – as intentions are inclusive of the means. For Calvin-style appeals to double-effect to succeed, the means of sin would have to be ill-suited to the divine ends. And, on Calvin’s assumed traditional natural history of the fall of Adam and Eve, this is the case. But when evolutionarily caused accounts of sin are substituted, humans look increasingly well suited to sin – at least sometimes and at least in some ways. And if, like Calvin, we think the display of justice in damnation is one of God’s ends, evolutionarily caused sin looks like a means to an end. Which is to say, sin in such cases looks like it is not a genuine double effect (see Vogler 2002, 220-21). And that would, once again, make damnation in such cases unjust. Despite its promise, the mere repetition of Calvin’s account cannot secure the justice of damnation supposing the sins in question have evolutionary causes.

We can see then that multiple strategies are available to dissolve the puzzle at hand. Despite their complexity, the solutions available all reduce to the following options: one, contest the science (either the natural history, the primatology, or the theory of inherited tendencies to, for instance, kill); two, contest or modify the voluntariness and/or moral standing to blame criteria; or three, abandon damnation for at least those sins which have evolutionary causes. Scholarly attitudes at the moment seem to follow this ranking in order from most popular to least popular solution to the puzzle. But whether theologians choose to abandon damnation as just deserts for incontestable sins, contest millennia-old criteria of just blame, or spar with increasingly well-supported findings from natural science in an effort to support a prior doctrinal commitment, none come without burdens.

4. Conclusion

The puzzle at hand, whether it is just for God to damn for sins which have evolutionary causes, was raised by the threatened displacement of older accounts of the origins of sin with at least a partial evolutionary causal story. This evolutionary story was supported by primatological field data combined with basic principles of inheritance. Because older accounts of sin do important theological work, when they are replaced or modified, the work they do is changed or lost.

Many accounts of the origins of sin either explicitly or tacitly advance a strict grounding thesis of the origins of sin. This thesis secures sinners’ blameworthiness but guards God against the same blame by causally disconnecting God from sin. Even accounts like Calvin’s, which do not rely on the strict grounding thesis, nevertheless rely on a roughly traditional story of the origins of sin in order to secure asymmetrical fault. Unless sinners can be blamed, and unless God also enjoys moral standing to do the blaming, God cannot justly damn for the relevant sins.

This puzzle is not only a challenge to accounts of damnation. It also raises broader questions about justice, evil, divine action, human responsibility, and even the meaning and application of related concepts like forgiveness, mercy, and atonement. Some have even argued that, if true, the idea of evolutionarily caused sin even raises fundamental metaphysical and metaethical doubts about the goodness of creation – and therefore about the goodness of God (see Smith 2017). However, just as with the scientific findings that partly generate the puzzle, the necessity of these consequences and their entailments remains a live topic of debate.


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Cite this article

Pedersen, Daniel J. 2021. “Is it Just for God to Damn for Sins which have Evolutionary Causes?” Theological Puzzles (Issue 1).

Contact the author

Daniel J. Pedersen
Email: [email protected]