Genetic Engineering in the Ancient World

We have discussed in previous posts the idea that the people of the very ancient world were much smarter than we give them credit for, probably smarter than we are today.  This post will explore the idea that genetic engineering may have been tried thousands of years ago.  By the nature of the topic, the post will be highly speculative and will contain some stuff that is not for the squeamish.

Old Testament Laws Against Mixing Kinds

The Old Testament is famous for puzzling and obscure laws.  Here are a few:

“Keep my decrees.  Do not mate different kinds of animals.  Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed.  Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.”  Leviticus 19:19

At first glance these three rules seem arbitrary.  But they may actually have been a prohibition on attempting to create genetic hybrids of animals or plants. 

This verse comes in the midst of a passage that forbids the Israelites to do a number of different, mostly disgusting things that were part of contemporary pagan practice in Canaan, including child sacrifice, “divination,” self-mutilation, bestiality, and “eating meat with the blood still in it.”  Translated into modern terms, all of these practices could potentially relate to genetic manipulation.  They reflect an attitude towards people as disposable products (child sacrifice); a desire to carve up the human body and make it into whatever we desire (self-mutilation); a desire to find out hidden knowledge or secrets so as to take control of them (divination); and a desire to mix characteristics of humans and animals (bestiality, consuming blood).  We know that these impulses were not confined to Canaan in the ancient world.  See nearly every Greek myth ever recorded, but the particularly the story of the Minotaur.

Of course, we tend to think of these practices as religious, and no doubt they were.  But this doesn’t mean they were not also an attempt to alter the nature of things in the physical world.  Pagan religion is often a path to maintain the agricultural cycle and prevent infertility.  These particular pagans took things one step further and sought to “improve” these natural processes.

The Canaanites may even have had some success with their genetic experiments.  Israelite spies managed to bring back from Canaan a single cluster of grapes so large that it had to be carried on a pole between two men (or possibly between two poles, depending on the translation, which would make it even bigger). (Numbers 13:23)

Genetic Engineering in Really Ancient Times

The Israelite conquest of Canaan took place about 1400 BC according to conventional dating.  This is very recent compared to the dates this blog usually has in view.  It is more than a thousand years after the Sumerians, well after the probable date of the Tower of Babel, and even farther after the speculated date for the Giza pyramids.   Many of the hints of genetic engineering – both in the Bible in other historical sources – come from these even more ancient times. 

Hints from the Bible

There is a strong emphasis in the creation account in Genesis on all things reproducing themselves “according to their kinds.” Almost every time a particular class of plant, bird, fish or animal is mentioned, it is followed by the phrase “according to their kinds” or “each according to its kind.”  This was the intended order of creation. 

It was violated a mere six chapters (but possibly untold thousands of years) later, when the “sons of God” (some of kind spiritual or transdimensional beings) lusted after human women and “married any of them they chose.” (Genesis 6:1 – 3)   Their hybrid offspring were the Nephilim, who were giants.

The speculation goes that these “sons of God” or their hybrid descendants may also have begun to violate animals, either sexually (ew!!!) or through some other, unknown means of genetic manipulation, and that people began to learn these techniques and the attendant values.  The general picture is a slow obliteration of all “kinds.”  There would have been creatures running around that were hybrid animals (chimeras perhaps?), other creatures that were part human and part “divine,” and perhaps “divine” animals and animal/people as well.  The world was on its way to complete biological, sexual, and perhaps even dimensional chaos.  Soon no one would be safe from any kind of sexual violence or grisly experiment.  This was the world that, thousands of years later, the Canaanites were still trying to bring back.

“Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence.  God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways.”  (Gen. 6:11 – 12)  The word corrupt here may mean more than just morally corrupt.  There had been some deep perversion of the natural order of things.  So God decided to destroy all the people and birds and animals (verse 7).  He chose Noah.  My translation of verse 9 says that Noah was “blameless among the people of his time.”  It is possible that a better translation of this phrase is “perfect in his generations.”  That is, Noah was still 100% genetically human.   His family line had not intermarried with the gods and had not been genetically manipulated (Van Dorn 36).   God then asked Noah to gather “seven of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and two of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate.”  He was going to re-start the world using the originally created kinds.

It is possible that the secrets of genetic manipulation were not completely lost after the Flood.  Around the time of the tower of Babel, we get the figure of Nimrod, “a mighty hunter before [or against] the Lord,” who founds a number of ancient cities and is later worshiped as a god by the Babylonians.  Genesis 10:8 says in the NIV that Nimrod “grew to be a mighty warrior on the earth,” but the grammar allows for the translation “began to become a giant.”  (Van Dorn 77)   Perhaps he found a way to alter his own genetic code.  That would certainly have made his city-building task easier, especially if he was planning to use megaliths.


Hints from Other Historical Sources

The general picture we have painted of the world immediately pre-Flood is a terrifying one.  It is also strikingly similar to the picture of mythological times found in cultures worldwide.  

Greek myths, as everyone knows, routinely feature gods impregnating human women, giants, part-god “heroes” (often very badly behaved themselves), and entities that mix characteristics of animal, human, and/or divine.  Not to mention countless “monsters” created by the gods.  It all adds up to a portrayal of a world that is fascinating from a distance, but also chaotic and deeply unsettling.  It is not a world that a sane person would wish to live in.

But this is not confined to Greek mythology.  Stories of giants are found everywhere.  So are stories of human/divine intermarriage, and stories of people mating with various animals (or even inanimate objects such as stones), and producing monsters.  It is a truism that these are common features of myth.  All these very strange ideas are, no doubt, deep in the human mind.  But perhaps there is a story behind the way they got there.  Perhaps this was, in fact, the world that humankind lived in for some generations. 

Finally, I give you a visual image that is not proof of anything, but that might be suggestive.  It is the caduceus, a very ancient symbol that came to be associated with the Greek god Hermes in his capacity as a healer and as a patron of doctors.  It is two snakes entwined around a winged pole.  The symbolic association of snakes with healing in world mythology is too big a topic for a post that has already gone over 1,000 words.  But, if you buy in to the idea that ancient people were very smart and may have engaged in genetic manipulation, it is interesting that this ancient medical symbol resembles a double helix, or DNA molecule.

Sources

Giants: Sons of the gods, by Douglas Van Dorn.  Waters of Creation Publishing, 1614 Westin Drive, Erie, CO 80516, 2013.  Van Dorn’s book was the source for all the original ideas in this post.

Dictionary of Native American Mythology, ed. Sam D. Gill & Irene F. Sullivan, Oxford University Press, 1992.  The Dictionary contains many references to giants, monsters, and to sexual activity between people, animals, rocks, etc.

D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, by Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire.  Scholastic, March 2010.  First published 1962.  This is a classic illustrated book for children that sanitizes the myths somewhat.  Of course there are many other reference books for Greek myths. In addition to many other suggestive stories, D’Aulaires’ mentions that the smith god, Hephaestus, “built for himself two robots of gold and silver to help him about.  They had mechanical brains and could think for themselves.   They could even speak with their tongues of silver.  They also served him as helpers in his workshop on Olympus.” (page 28)  Here again we see at least the idea of very advanced technology in an ancient context in which we would not expect it.

2 thoughts on “Genetic Engineering in the Ancient World

  1. G’ma

    You may be on to something, Jen. Very interesting. One time I heard someone speak of the “giants” as if they were a good thing, but I knew that they weren’t. I need to read this blog again!

    Liked by 1 person

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