Towards a Biological Explanation of Sin in Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s “A Canticle for Leibowitz”

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Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s 1959 novel A Canticle for Leibowitz is on one level a theological reflection on the human propensity to sin. Not coincidentally, the story is located in an Albertinian abbey in the former American southwest six hundred years after a nuclear holocaust, recounting three separate historical periods over the following twelve hundred years: a dark age, a scientific renaissance, and finally a time of technological achievement where a second nuclear holocaust is imminent. Miller asks the question of whether humans as a species cannot avoid committing acts of sin that cumulatively and continually lead to acts of societal and technological self-destruction; his response oscillates between a fatalistic pessimism (the final extinction of the human species) and a vague optimism (the “new creature,” the mutant Rachel, or perhaps a last group of humans leaving the Earth as the curtain falls). It is my thesis in this article that theological questions about sin (as explored by Augustine and later scholars) can be fruitfully approached by analogous genetic processes; more precisely by reference to the rising science of Epigenetics, which explores how genes can express themselves differently without mutating in response to life stressors. In light of the idea of a genetic and epigenetic expression of moral rules of existence, Augustine’s thesis of original sin as something that is inherited makes new sense. In this light, it may also be possible to approach the question that the Canticle proposes: are we destined to self-destruction, or is there a way out of this destructive cycle?
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Archival date: 2020-08-26
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