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Today’s post is the second of two by Matthew Nelson Hill (see first post here). Matthew’s first book, Evolution and Holiness: Sociobiology, Altruism and the Quest for Wesleyan Perfection, recently came out with IVP-Academic. These posts are taken from his follow-up book (IVP, in progress) that deals with the practical implications of understanding evolution for the Christian life.

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We all have instincts that seem to be misplaced in our contemporary human context. We are also faced with what Deirdre Barrett calls supernormal stimuli—or, enhanced temptations that are nearly irresistible in light of our past instincts that we have not yet fully evolved out of.

This combination is a recipe for moral and spiritual disaster, and dare I say: unholiness. Let me explain it with an example.

Fast food French fries are the pornography of food.

Have you ever walked by a room where someone was cooking bacon? It’s absolutely irresistible. You start salivating and looking around to figure out where the smell is coming from. There are really good reasons for this. Bacon is high in protein and fat and has the calories to provide energy for a long time. Our ancestors were selected after generations had lived and died for such sustenance.

So, in a sense, we are hardwired to love fatty foods. We’re almost—and this word is really, really important—almost a slave to fatty foods. And fast food French fries are our food-master.

I say that French fries are the pornography of food because both fries and pornography work on similar human desires.

French fries are food-like substances that are ultimately unhealthy for us; pornography is a sex-like icon that is likewise unhealthy for us. French fries have all the glamorous and seductive parts of food—the fat, the salt, the sugar—but none of the substance that provides long lasting enjoyment or health. Pornography, in much the same way, possesses the glamorous and seductive aspects of a sexual relationship, but is at its core shallow and vapid—it is neither sex nor a relationship.

It shouldn’t surprise us then that both French fries and pornography are highly addictive. As a pastor and a professor working with college students, I can’t tell you how many times I have had to counsel people who have dependencies on food or pornography. Whether it be health complications or broken families, the supernormal stimuli that contemporary humankind faces are very destructive.

Remember, these supernormal stimuli are just that: supernormal. They aren’t natural. They’re conjured up in a lab full of people who know how to manipulate in us these ancient but no longer necessary proclivities. Advertising agencies know that Homo sapiens have evolved to desire copious amounts of sex and be attracted to visual stimuli. So sex is used to sell everything from blue jeans to waffle irons.

The fast food industry knows that Homo sapiens have needed fat, salt, and sugar to survive—that we fall into a kind of trance when we smell bacon or fries—and so they sell food products that are nearly irresistible.

Humans are in a predicament. We exist in a world in which we encounter both our mismatched instincts from ages ago and the supernormal stimuli of the 21st century. Deirdre Barrett, in her book Waistland: The (R)Evolutionary Science Behind Our Weight and Fitness Crisis, expresses the problem in this way:

The most dangerous aspect of our modern diet arises from our ability to refine food. This is the link to drug, alcohol, and tobacco addictions. Coca doesn’t give South American Indians health problems when they brew or chew it. No one’s ruined his life eating poppy seeds. When grapes and grains were fermented lightly and occasionally, they presented a healthy pleasure, not a hazard. Salt, fat, sugar, and starch are not harmful in their natural contexts. It’s our modern ability to concentrate things like cocaine, heroin, alcohol—and food components—that turns them into a menace that our body is hardwired to crave.

See, our problem is a chimera of sorts—a Greek mythical multi-faceted creature composed of drives from our distant past combined with supernormal stimuli. It is a cocktail of temptation unprecedented in humankind’s history. This chimera is very difficult to combat, and—besides contributing to our gluttony and lust—it leads us to develop habits in our lives that pull us away from Christian virtues, from holy living.

But combat it we must, and the more we learn about where we come from the more we are able to do so. We believe God’s Spirit dwells with us, that we can be transformed and renewed; we can become better than we are. We are not slaves to our biology, no matter how strong the seduction of French fries seems to be.

This leads us to the conclusion—corroborated by both science and theology—that we are continuing to evolve. We are evolving biologically, to be sure, but we are also evolving spiritually toward a deeper sense of holiness (hopefully!). And, as Evolution and Holiness discusses, these two dynamics—both biological evolution and spiritual development—can work in tandem for the greater good.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

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  • Robert F says:

    Theology has a teleos; but science does not posit one. Scientifically theorized and observed biological evolution has no goal in sight; you can get to the idea that there is a goal by injecting religious speculation into biological evolution, but science operates without that addition, or any addition, from theology. On the other hand, theology must conform its thinking to scientific evidence, or become misinformed and irrelevant. Theology needs a teleos; science doesn’t. That makes them unequal partners in any human endeavor, with theology being irrelevant to the practice of science.

    • Bob P says:

      Robert–A thoughtful comment. Which makes me think about it. I’m remembering reading “God’s Fingerprints” by NPR religion writer Barbara Bradley Hagerty. One of the questions that book raised for me was, more or less, ‘Just because science (as usually practiced anyway) doesn’t recognize or “need” a teleos, does that mean there isn’t one?’ Science likes to think of itself as dealing with “facts only” as determined by certain rules of experimentation and observation but, to me, that sounds not wholly unlike my conservative Christian up- bringers who claim the Bible is true and inerrant because it says it is. I agree that, as you say, science doesn’t “need” a teleos to keep on its merry way of doing and learning remarkable things. But I think it’s fair to ask whether that doesn’t lead to a certain undeserved hubris about what it’s able to accomplish. Which I do think is where theology, or at least philosophy? becomes relevant to science.

    • Jenkins says:

      Science depends on its philosophical underpinning that requires believing that the universe, which we test and observe is ultimately intelligible. This may not seem to require a telcos, but it sure smells like the idea was cooked up in a telcos saturated culture.

      (Darn , we just can’t escape that cultural context thing)

  • Michael says:

    Are you suggesting that this is a contemporary and new issue? If so, I’d have to disagree. Pornography and decadent foods are as old or older than human civilization. I agree that through today’s media it is highly utilized but is the phenomenon actually new? Also, perhaps I’m stretching the analogy a bit, but French fries aren’t inherently bad, it’s the frequency and quantity of them that we consume in lieu of more nutritional alternatives that is harmful. The same is true​ of bacon. Are you also suggesting that pornography, in limited amounts by a person that recognizes it for what it is, is also not inherently bad?

  • Alex says:

    Great post. Just ordered the book.

  • //We are evolving biologically, to be sure, but we are also evolving spiritually toward a deeper sense of holiness (hopefully!).//

    I think addictions can foment a crisis of relationships in one that needs to be dealt with psychologically and spiritually in order to avoid and Escape physical and spiritual death. Indeed, on a daily basis, I have found I have to rely on a higher power and a 12 step spiritual program in order to resist and transcend intense cravings for alcohol and drugs. Trauma also has the ability to fracture one’s psyche so that one is challenged to Face how unsupported and abandoned one is by one’s peers and family when trauma occurs. One’s relationship with regard to a notion of a loving God is challenged as one drops through the cracks of former reality and faces super normal circumstances that undermines all preconceived ideas about one’s safety in society. One must take on the task integrating ones traumatic experience. One must overcome one’s emotional woundedness if one is to reconnect and have agency restored in a society that does not understand or wish to understand that trauma has changed one’s hope to self-actualize, to live in peace with oneself and with others. In my humble opinion it takes a Transcendent experience via an encounter with the Holy Spirit and the daily reprieve that only constant contact with such a helpful resourceful being that fills this void, restores faith, ameliorates this fear and can sufficiently Empower one to overcome one’s addictions and fetishes and not be overcome by them.

    • John Bruss says:

      Lots of psychological content there. Your last sentence nails it pretty well I believe… though until one has had a transcendent experience, it’s really hard to embrace what you say with a sense of the adventure of life in the context of our struggles. Apart from actual experience as stated, it all tends to sound a bit like “psycho-spiritual” musings that don’t really change anything. I have encountered the transcendence that has actually fills the void, and lived well in that context, and EVEN THEN, I suddenly find myself overcome yet again. Nevertheless, this is the path we must constantly pursue to live life to the fullest. Thanks for the reminder…

  • hill roberts says:

    Bingo! Nailed it. Thnx Pete for sharing.

    Deirdra didn’t say it explicitly, but clearly porn is just super concentrated sex in much the same way FF are food porn. Both stoke the dopamine and oxytocin chemical releases in the brain that stoke the pleasure, want more, want it now addictive spiral. These are much stronger than heroin and have much the same effect. In normal life, our brains only make small doses of the pleasure juice compared to these artificial substitutes — again, it is the refining and concentrating that kills us. As for the addictive “substances” you mention, I have personal experience with both.

  • b a berean says:

    sorry buddy… they are not even close in comparison… the consequences of porn are far, far, far more damaging…
    yes, FF are not healthy… but you don’t eat them in secret, you don’t lie and deceive others including your spouse, about eating them, eating FF doesn’t make you objectify people and treat them like dirt, it does not breed selfishness, eating FF does not fuel human trafficking and other oppressive behavior of human beings, eating FF is not cited as a major reason for divorce in over 50% of marriages, eating FF does not fuel violence against women and children… do I need to go on? this type of comparison minimizes the horrific consequences and damage of porn… recant your comparison! it’s far more harmful than FF! yes, I’m being seriously snarky…

    • Jenkins says:

      Maybe drug addiction would be a better correlation with those terrible consequences, but FF is at least a glimpse for the common folk, into how addiction can take over the will.

    • John Bruss says:

      I can relate to your snarkiness… porn is toxic, pervasive, cancerous, and all it does is steal and gives nothing back. It keeps men from growing up, and only destruction is in its wake. If only the analogy to FF’s were a fair comparison…

  • Tim says:

    Apropos of nothing:
    Actually, french fries aren’t French at all, but rather originated in Belgium. They’re called french fries by Americans for much the same reason that Columbus referred to Native Americans as Indians.

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