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The Good Book of Human Nature

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The Good Book of Human Nature

An Evolutionary Reading of the Bible

Basic Books,

15 min read
10 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

A professor and an historian offer an evolutionary and anthropological interpretation of the Bible.

Editorial Rating



  • Controversial
  • Analytical
  • Background


Like the Bible it analyzes, this text is lively and varied. Evolutionary anthropologist Carel van Schaik and Kai Michel apply contemporary perspectives from cultural evolution, anthropology and cognitive science to explain their interpretation of the Bible and what it reveals about human nature and the evolution of civilization. This treatment is ambitious, and some will find it controversial. But its examples from history, daily life and the Bible make it a fascinating read. While always religiously neutral, getAbstract recommends this analysis to those who are intrigued by cultural evolution and human nature, but not necessarily to those who prefer a faith-based approach to the Bible.


The Bible from an Evolutionary Perspective

Analyzed in light of advances in evolutionary and anthropological theory and via the lens of cognitive science, the Bible can explain key transition points in human cultural evolution. That cultural evolution left people with three distinct natures. Humanity’s innate feelings and intuitive reactions make up its “first nature.” The millennia that people spent living in “small groups of hunter-gatherers” shaped their first nature, including humankind’s natural desire for fairness and its visceral revulsion at crimes like infanticide. You feel your first nature in your gut. Your “second nature” is culture, which society teaches you, though you must internalize it. Second natures vary based on individual societies. Your “third nature” is your rational, conscious mind. You internalize some aspects of your third nature. When your natures clash, your third nature tells you to act rationally, but your first nature urges you to follow your instincts.

Genesis and the First Fall

The story of Adam and Eve changes when you see it against a broad anthropological background. Similar stories are found in the mythology of the Middle...

About the Authors

Carel van Schaik is a professor of biological anthropology at the University of Zurich. Kai Michel is a historian and science journalist.

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