Heretics and Humility

A bicentennial as jubilant as this year’s hasn’t been seen since the commemoration in 1976 of our nation’s birth. The current year-long birthday party being celebrated in essays, articles and symposia honors Charles Darwin. Abraham Lincoln was also born in 1809, but the lion’s share of lionizing has been of the man whose theory about the origin of species has become the touchstone of contemporary biology.

Part of evolution’s upshot, of course, is that living things forever remain mere works in progress, which lends the hoopla over Darwin a tasty irony, since precisely the same is true about science. Even as seemingly perfect a system as Newtonian mechanics was subsumed, subtly but conclusively, by Einstein. Yet those who elevate Darwin’s theory to an article of faith seem unwilling to even consider that the current understanding of how species came about might one day be explained by a different and grander, if currently unimagined, conclusion than the one reached by the famed biologist. The idea that earth’s astounding array of life may owe itself to something other than the random mutation of species into others – a metamorphosis never reproduced in any laboratory – is a forbidden thought. Imagining “a biological Einstein,” to borrow Verlyn Klinkenborg’s phrase, has become heresy.

Thus, efforts to permit open discussion of Darwinism are derided as a “war on science.” And a leading scientific group is boycotting Louisiana because a law there permits teachers to use supplemental texts to “help students critique and review scientific theories.” And the Texas Board of Education is being petitioned to amend the state curriculum so that students are no longer encouraged to explore “the strengths and weaknesses” of all scientific theories – words, the petitioners say, that dangerously suggest that Darwinism could be wrong.

But there are indeed weaknesses in the theory of macro-evolution, noted by scores of intrepid biologists, mathematicians, chemists and geneticists. It is telling how those heretics are treated by the evolution-evangelicals. Celebrated Darwinist Richard Dawkins, for instance, pronounces that anyone who does not believe in evolution is perforce “ignorant, stupid, or insane.”

If American public schools aim to foster critical thinking, it is hard to imagine how ridiculing, much less banning, different points of view serves that goal. The heretic-hunters would do well to consult Darwin himself. “A fair result,” he wrote, “can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of a question.”

What makes so many so certain that the current scientific orthodoxy is the final word? The answer is hubris, the monkey wrench in many a human machine. The merest modicum of modesty would compel the scientifically sure to recall that their counterparts in centuries past were no less confident in their own times’ scientific certainties. And to consider how, centuries hence, people will likely look with pity on the limited understanding of 21st century science.

It took only decades, not centuries, to supplant the “explains-it-all” billiard ball model of protons, neutrons and electrons – presented to us children in the early 1960s as the ultimate understanding of matter’s fundamental nature – with the bizarre particle-zoo that is contemporary quantum physics. The “primordial soup” of the Miller-Urey experiment that our teachers assured us would yield complex components of life within months has still not done so. Astrophysics theories have come and gone like footwear fashions.

A little humility would help us recognize that, no matter our scientific progress, we humans resemble nothing so much as the proverbial blind men first contemplating an elephant, each touching a different part of the pachyderm and concluding that the beast is shaped, variously, like a tree, or a snake, or a sail or a wall. No, not an elephant; we are blind men confronting a rainbow.

Which brings us to a third famous man born in 1809: Louis Braille, who developed the system of raised marks that enables the blind to read. While he opened a world of literature and written communication to the unsighted, he could not help them visualize color or contrast or beauty. There are limitations to our sense of touch.

As there are to all our senses. They are imperfect tools, even in tandem with our intellects, for truly understanding reality, and for conclusively reconstructing the past. Does science have any idea why the universe appeared, or life, or consciousness?

We certainly can, and should, strive to understand what we are able to fathom with the gifts we have been granted. Engaging in scientific inquiry is a noble pursuit and can provide a healthy sense of wonder at the world.

But when conclusions are confidently proclaimed that collide with what we inherently know to be true – like the fact that human consciousness is qualitatively different from that of animals, or that we have free will, or that “right” and “wrong” have essential meanings – we have to stop and ponder our inherent limitations. Stop and realize that there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in our philosophies.

That, as Charles Darwin wrote, in 1872: “[I]t is always advisable to perceive clearly our ignorance.”

© 2009 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

All Am Echad Resources essays are offered for publication or sharing without charge,
provided the above copyright notice is appended.

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44 Responses

  1. Michoel says:

    Frum biologist: “Common descent…of all animals on Earth is not disputed …even by any, scientists of note.” That’s true. Because those that do dispute it are immediately written out of their “scientists of note” status. Study the case of Prof. Richard Sternberg as the alef beis of evolutionary intectual terrorism. (Could be that he accepts common descent) but he is clearly not in agreement with the rest of your statements.

    Mike S.: “My suggestion to Rav Shafran and others is to leave the questions of Torah and science to those who are deeply familiar with both fields.” Would that include you? I see you are very confident to express an opinion. Or do you mean that questions of Torah and science should be left to those who have already expressed themselves as concuring with the idea that evolution and Torah are compatible? There are not that many people around with strong knowledge of both, as well as being big in yiras shamayim. Prof Leo Levi wrote in his book Science and Torah: “It was a bad theory.” He does not hold of evolution. Lee Spetner: “There is no evidence or any argument in favor of that postulate. Moreover, both theory and evidence are against it (neo-darwinian mechanisms of information buid-up).” Rabbi Kaplan does not address evolution in is book, only the age of the universe, and he was careful to point out that they are not the same.

    On the other hand, there is no possible scientific argument against the idea the Hashem created a finished world. Their are theological arguments against that idea, but here, I assume all would agree, expertise in science in not a factor in answering the question “Would Hashem do that?”. See in Emes L’Yaakov on “Chor v’chom … lo yishbosua” where he rights very clearly that Hashem intenionaly made the world (at the Mabul) look older than it is. Rabbi Slifkin in his book, and others, have asked (paraphrasing) “Fine, but would He create a fake prehistory?”. Strong question but it is something for Rabbis to answer, not scientists.

  2. Michoel says:

    As occurs to many internet-age writers who opine against evolutionary theory critics, Aharon mistakenly feels that the full context of a quote NECESSARILY impacts the point being made. In this case, it does not. If Rabbi Shafran was trying to show that Darwin was in doubt about his theory, the full quote would indeed show us that this was not true. But Rabbi Shafran’s point was only that all relevant information needs to be examined, and that Darwin himslef would agree. So the quote is perfectly appropriate.

  3. Ahron says:

    As occurs to many internet-age writers who opine against evolutionary theory, R. Shafran incompletely cites a statement by Darwin to support his argument above. (“‘A fair result,’ he wrote, ‘can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of a question.'”)

    Darwin’s full quote (from the Introduction to his The Origin of Species) reads thus:

    This Abstract, which I now publish, must necessarily be imperfect. I cannot here give references and authorities for my several statements; and I must trust to the reader reposing some confidence in my accuracy. No doubt errors will have crept in, though I hope I have always been cautious in trusting to good authorities alone. I can here give only the general conclusions at which I have arrived, with a few facts in illustration, but which, I hope, in most cases will suffice.

    No one can feel more sensible than I do of the necessity of hereafter publishing in detail all the facts, with references, on which my conclusions have been grounded; and I hope in a future work to do this. For I am well aware that scarcely a single point is discussed in this volume on which facts cannot be adduced, often apparently leading to conclusions directly opposite to those at which I have arrived. A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question; and this cannot possibly be here done.

    Darwin is explaining that he has simply catalogued so much data that supports the evolutionary model of development that he cannot present it all in this one volume. Darwin was not suggesting that his model was wrong — only that intrepid and inquisitive readers would rightly wish to examine all of the evidence gathered to date; as is always done and required in scientific investigation and peer review.

    There is today far less question than in Darwin’s day but that evolutionary models accurately describe the development and propagation of life on earth. Anyone who wishes to dissent from evolutionary theory is free to present a scientifically consistent thesis that will be subsequently evaluated by thousands of independent scientists around the globe.

    A pronouncement that “God made it!” does not qualify as a scientifically consistent (or valid) thesis — whether regarding evolution, or regarding particle physics, astronomy, geology, orbital mechanics or any other branch of human knowledge.

  4. Natan Slifkin says:

    “wrote that a premise of Einstein’s relativity – and it was the beginning of his thought experiments on the topic – is that an object’s movement is only meaningful in relation to another object. That makes the geo/helio-centric models (at least at the most fundamental level) meaningless.”

    This is simply a misunderstanding of relativity and its application (or rather lack of application) to this case.

  5. Avrohom says:

    Rabbi Slifkin:

    I’m fine with agreeing to disagree – I believe it is not hypocritical for a religious believer who bases his beliefs on Divine Revelation to denounce a know-it-all attitude among scientists who base their beliefs on physical things, and you feel it is. But I do want to set some factual things straight:

    I did not write that relativity has anything to do with geocentricity. I wrote that a premise of Einstein’s relativity – and it was the beginning of his thought experiments on the topic – is that an object’s movement is only meaningful in relation to another object. That makes the geo/helio-centric models (at least at the most fundamental level) meaningless. I suggested that the Talmud’s seemingly geocentric statements may have been intended in a philosophical or theological vein, not a physical one. Here, too, you can disagree, but that is how I understand things, based on my belief that the rabbis of the Talmud were orders of magnitude more perceptive than we are.

    As to the constructive-ness of criticism and pointing out error, I don’t think you claimed that anything in Rabbi Shafran’s article was “wrong” (you even claimed you have written something similar). You denounced him for daring to write it considering his religious views. That is what I consider inappropriate.

    There, too, though, you seem to disagree. So be it.

  6. Natan Slifkin says:

    Contrary to popular belief, relativity has nothing to do with geocentricity, as I explain in my book. And I think that the Copernican Revolution was just as revolutionary as evolution – it only doesn’t seem that way to you because it has become so deeply entrenched.

    I guess we will have to agree to disagree about the hypocrisy issue. But to clarify, I did not “call Agudas Israel ‘hypocritical’ because one of its people cautioned that science changes.” I called it hypocritical for denouncing the intolerance of some regarding alternate theories about the development of the universe when Agudas Israel exhibits far, far worse intolerance itself – and even from a Torah perspective, there is plenty of reason to refrain from overconfidence, with the Shevus Yaakov as Exhibit A.

    In terms of whether this adds something “constructive” to the discussion – it is just as constructive as those who denounce viewpoints that they consider unacceptable. If you feel that something is wrong, it is often (although not always) valuable to point it out.

  7. Avrohom says:

    Rabbi Slifkin:

    I don’t want to get into a discussion about whether geocentric references in the Gemara and Medresh are meant literally or philosophically (in other words, implies how we humans are to look at ourselves – with an attitude of “for me the universe was created”)

    Also, the most basic premise of relativity, as you know, is that all movement is only meaningful relative to other objects – so there is no real meaning to what is in the “center” of any part of space, much less what is the center of the universe). And the fact that you can find an acharon who takes a position, either in metziyus or halacha, that is different from the normative one is not of any significance.

    None of that, anyway, is “revolutionary” in the sense that germ theory overturned the theory of “humours”, or that Einstein established a fundamental understanding of nature that Newton never dreamed about. It is nothing like the discovery of DNA, or of black holes.

    A similar revolution in Torah would mean an undermining of a yesod of our mesora, like denying that Moshe received the Torah, or that we have free will. To many Orthodox Jews, the idea that man evolved from a common ancestor of apes rather than was specially formed by Hashem directly is simply not acceptable. To you, it might be acceptable, but no one is a hypocrite just because he dares to believe, based on the Torah’s plain reading, that man was a special creation but still criticizes some scientists, who have no mesorah and judge only physical evidence, for being so sure of themselves at any time in history, including today.

    The point I made at the beginning is that your calling Agudas Israel “hypocritical” because one of its people cautioned that science changes added nothing constructive to any discussion.

    You can either admit that that’s true, or you can defend what you wrote. What you choose to do will say much.

  8. Natan Slifkin says:

    Yes, of course there been revolutions in our mesorah that overturned previous understandings.
    For example – the original understanding of Torah was that the earth is the stationary center of the universe. Copernicus was denounced as the Bechor of Satan. Eventually, however, his view became widely accepted (although there are still some who insist that it is kefirah).
    Another example is what I mentioned above – that the Shevus Yaakov said, based on Chazal, that the world is flat.
    I have other examples in my books.

  9. Avrohom says:

    Rabbi Slifkin:

    The article deals with scientists, people who are dedicated to finding truths in nature. And what is says is that there have been revolutions in science in the past and so scientists should not assume that today’s scientific wisdom will necessarily be tomorrow’s.

    Do you believe the same about Torah? Have there been revolutions in our mesorah that overturned previous understandings? I don’t think you are Reform. You can disagree with the writer’s interpretations of Torah sources (even though he didn’t write anything about his own beliefs about the creation of species, only about his feeling that we should still be skeptics about science), but you cannot call him a hypocrite for considering science changeable but not Torah.

  10. Ori says:

    Natan Slifkin: And I was not making any reference to Agudah’s “religious beliefs”, but rather to their beliefs about the natural world.

    Ori: Do they distinguish between the two? I’m not asking this to be argumentative, I’m asking this because I’m an outsider who honestly does not know.

  11. Natan Slifkin says:

    Avrohom – nowhere in R. Shafran’s article is there any hint of your interpretation of it. He makes an absolute case for intellectual openness and not being overly dogmatic; he does not say anything along the lines of “we are entitled to be overly dogmatic in our claims about the natural world, to refuse to confront empirical evidence, and to reject critical thinking about our beliefs regarding its development, but other people should act differently.” He didn’t say any such thing and he wouldn’t.

    A few other minor comments on what you wrote –
    R. Shafran is not merely an Agudah person – he is writing these columns as a representative of the Agudah. And I was not making any reference to Agudah’s “religious beliefs”, but rather to their beliefs about the natural world. And I do not expect Cross-Currents to be a confessional site, but I do expect it not to be hypocritical.

  12. Avrohom says:

    Jewish Observer:

    I know it’s school-yard childish to say “he started it” but sometimes it does make a difference where something began. I must point out to you that it was Rabbi Slifkin who chose to not comment on the substance of the posting but rather on what he saw as the irony of the fact that what was posted was posted by a particular poster. I don’t read comments often on postings and therefore don’t post often. But it does seem to me that a blog like CrossCurrents should be a place where disagreeing is fine but personal criticism — like insinuations of hypocrisy aren’t. I apologize to Rabbi Slifkin for thinking I know his motives. But I still don’t think he was adding anything of substance, of benefit to the Jewish people, by what he wrote.

  13. Jewish Observer says:

    “It’s understandable that you are still upset at the rejection of your books by some rabbis, but please don’t personalize”

    – This poster is not willing to judge Rabb Slifkin’s comments on their own merit without making assumptions about his motives.

  14. Avrohom says:

    Rabbi Slifkin:

    I’m not familiar with your books (other than that some say that you show not enough – at least in their eyes – skepticism about some things). If you do really stress the overconfidence of scientists, then I guess you have written pretty much what Rabbi Shafran did. Your preoccupation with whether he as an Agudat Yisrael person has a right to say it seems petty. And it’s logically wrong. See Melech Press’s comment (#13) above. Just because somebody has a deep belief in something based on a revelation or experience doesn’t prevent him from insisting that others who claim to base their beliefs on hard evidence alone actually have hard evidence for a belief they hold.

    As a talmud scholar, you know what a “lishitatayhu” is, an argument leveled against the holder of a position based on another position of that proponent. The arguer doesn’t have to hold that “other position” himself to make his point. He only has to show the inconsistency. The scientific establishment claims to be open and objective. But, Rabbi Shafran claims, it refuses to even allow for dissent in its ranks against Darwinism. Rabbi Shafran’s religious beliefs (like yours) are, I imagine, not based on scientific evidence. But scientist’s beliefs are, at least that’s what they say.

    If you want to defend evolution or evolutionists, fine. But just saying how ironic you find it that people who judged your books negatively (if that is even so in Rabbi Shafran’s case) can dare insist that scientists truly act like scientists is unbecoming somebody of your stature.

    As far as Cross Currents is concerned, I don’t follow it constantly but I know I have seen self-criticism in it. But more important, I don’t think it is meant to be a confessional-site. It is meant (I think) to present a spectrum of unapologetic Orthodox thoughts. If you don’t like that, well don’t read it. And if you want to read criticism of Orthodox Jews and organizations, well there are sure a lot of other sites you can find that do that all the time (and don’t even care if what they write is true!).

  15. Deborah says:

    Darwin confounded adaptation with ORIGINATION. Translated to physics, it refers to the confusion between relativity and the absolute due to the absence of the unified theory.The laws of physics and genetics contradict evolution. There is nothing in the nature of energy that evolves(Maxwell).Throughout the natural world similar effects of one universal energy pattern are being analysed, hence a common ancestor. Scientists assume that one evolves from a previous one, rather than one is seen after a previous one. Neither are their laws correct, but it is the scientific terminology to reject their misinterpretations of facts, in the language they use but as yet not understood. Rabbis Shafran’s equation is a wishful thinking, wisdom accompanies humility whilst the arrogance of ignorance is the very opposite.

  16. Natan Slifkin says:

    Avrohom – I noted that it is indeed true that many scientists are too overconfident; I also make this very point in my books. However, for a spokesman for Agudath Israel to be making this point is a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black, and this makes it severely inappropriate.

    Are many scientists in fact haughty and not open to any possibility of doubt of their ‘faith’ in evolution? Absolutely. But is Agudath Israel open to any possibility of doubt of their faith that evolution (and even the age of dinosaurs) is false? They are even less open than the overly-dogmatic scientists.

    One of the reasons why certain Cross-Currents essays turn off so many people is their triumphalism and constant criticism of others. When such criticism is also true of the authors’ community itself – and certainly when it is even more true – this makes it all the more disappointing.

  17. Avrohom says:

    Rabbi Slifkin,

    It’s understandable that you are still upset at the rejection of your books by some rabbis, but please don’t personalize your feelings by criticizing Rabbi Shafran and Agudath just because he wrote the posting. Deal with what he wrote, not what you associate him with. Are many scientists in fact haughty and not open to any possibility of doubt of their ‘faith’ in evolution, or is that not true? I’m no expert but what I have read leads me to think that there is more truth to this posting than your personal experience is letting you see.

  18. Ori says:

    Nataמ Slifkin: the people that Rabbi Shafran represents and incessantly defends are far more guilty of that which he criticizes certain scientists for.

    Ori: But do we expect Rabbis, who supposedly have a truth handed down from Sinai, to be as open as scientists who are empirically trying to find out what is true?

    It seems that for scientists to be dogmatic is a rejection of what science stands for. For Rabbis, it’s just the way Torah is transmitted. Or am I missing something?

  19. Natan Slifkin says:

    Avrohom (comment #24) – the reason why so many of us reject this article is that the people that Rabbi Shafran represents and incessantly defends are far more guilty of that which he criticizes certain scientists for.

  20. L. Hershman says:

    Although not extraordinarily well done, Ben Stein produced a documentary last year on this topic – “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.” For someone unfamiliar with the ID/evolutionary biologist tensions, it is an entertaining introduction, with some good examples of how the hubris described by R. Shafran has crippled some scientists’ and journalists’ careers. My favorite part was the last clip with Richard Dawkins, where after swearing to his 99.9% certainty that G-d does not exist, when asked how life originated, suggested it came from outer space.

  21. Avrohom says:

    Many of the comments here have set up Rabbi Shafran as a proponent of “intelligent design” or a disbeliever in evolution. Maybe’s he is both but nothing he wrote says that. The point of his posting seems simple enough, that scientists can be haughty and oversure of themselves, that the scientific establishment (like some posters here) has made evolution a faith that cannot be questioned, and that the last word in our understanding of nature hasn’t been written yet. I don’t think any of that is crazy. What is a little strange is how anxious so many here are to jump on him (and the Agudah and its gdolim) just because he pointed out pretty obvious things.

    The respected science journalist Sharon Begley (of Newsweek) recently wrote an article that many people also got all upset about. She didn’t question evolution but she did call attention to a study that undermines a pretty basic part of the current understanding of how it can and cannot work.

    She writes in her blog that “Among the things that scientists don’t like is having their grant proposal denied, having their papers rejected by eminent journals, and not getting tenure. Among the things they really, really hate (based on the comments I got on my column last month on Lamarckian inheritance) is for a science writer to describe studies that show that the Modern Synthesis (the marriage of Mendelian genetics and Darwinian natural selection acting on random variation (which forms the basis of evolutionary biology) is not the last word. “Why is a creationist writing for Newsweek??!!” and “there is no evidence of Lamarckism!!!” were among the more polite comments.”
    And she ends her entry with these sentences: “This study is the first to show that genetic defects in neuronal transmission and hence memory, caused by a mutation, can be at least partly reversed by an experience a mother has long before she is pregnant. Might this happen in people? Obviously it is way too soon to speculate, so let me leave it at this: the reflexive antipathy of many biologists to the possibility of Lamarckian inheritance reflects badly on the scientific community’s reputation for openness to new ideas and to data that challenge existing ones.”

    That last sentence is exactly Rabbi Shafran’s point.

  22. Yaakov says:

    “If a creator were the cause of species, he could also use genetic similarities and homologous structures in his creation. Such data is then neutral in its implications.”

    The data is aboslutely not neutral, but, as usual, the people who already know their conclusion before analyzing the data don’t know the data very well. There’s every evidence that our DNA was not “designed.” It’s mostly garbage. Not garbage as in, “We have no idea how that got there,” but garbage as in, “That part of the DNA is a transposon. That part is a duplicated gene which no longer works (but, don’t worry, there’s still a working gene). That part doesn’t do anything any more but did in a distant ancestor. That part is a copy of viral DNA which was incorporated into a distant ancestor’s DNA.” I think the problem is that many people here are used to authority emanating from people who speak from the gut and whose ideas then become dogma. Science does not operate like this. This is not to say scientists are never wrong, but that an edifice is not built upon sand. Scientists know the mutation rates of DNA and how closely or distantly one species is related to another. Essential parts of DNA are conserved whereas the majority of garbage can mutate much more quickly. It’s not coicidence the there is more similar garbage in more simlar places in more closely related organisms. I don’t want to get too technical, but suffice it to say that well accepted science is not going to disintegrate before your boich svarah.

    “It is also a form of intellectual primitivism to assert that he will not consider theories that are motivated by religious belief. The motivation behind a theory is irrelevant to its validity. ”

    I find it hard to believe anyone has ever said that. Consider, sure (if there’s time). Expect to find true, no. When people are forced to have certain beliefs, one doesn’t expect their justifications to be convincing.

    “What he is alluding to is the confusion between scientific method, which of course must be employed in the investigation of theories whatever their motivation, and scientistic materialism, which asserts the acceptability only of certain types of conclusions regardless of the evidence for or against them.”

    Ummm .. no. Wouldn’t science be awefully stupid if it were acceptable to postulate, “Ich mein, because that how the abeshter feert the velt,” to every scientific question? Why do the planets revolve around the sun? Because hashem said so. Why does it rain? Because hashem said so. Why are there volcanoes? Because hashem said so. The scientific method ASSUMES naturalism. Now, whether naturalism is all there is or not is debatable, but no scientist advocates using the supernatural as part of the scientific method.

  23. Ori says:

    Scientists gag on “G-d did it” because you could answer everything with it. They’d rather say “we don’t know”, or “we can’t figure this out”. But of course, being human, they’d much rather say “here’s our best guess”.

    I’m not sure how to solve this. Muslim philosophers in the middle ages suggested that “G-d did it” is the universal solution and that’s OK. Christian philosophers said that G-d is rational and therefore His works should be intelligible. That’s probably a large part of the reason modern science came from Christendom and not Dar-al-Islam.

  24. Mike S. says:

    Melech: Of course when confronted with multiple bodies of evidence, one can always say that it is G-d’s will, and go no further. But then one is not doing science. A scientist, confronted with a pattern of evidence must look to see if he or she has an explanation that yields testable consequences; if he does and the tests are done and prove in accordance with the theory, then he may have something of value. It is not the motive of a person proposing the theory that matters, it is whether it yields testable consequences that agree with evidence that matters. Evolution does; ID doesn’t.

    When scientists over-reach and attempt to draw metaphysical conclusions from scientific data, by all means feel free to ignore them. This would certainly include any statements that science proves (or disproves) the existence of G-d. By definition, science can have nothing at all to say about an omnipotent being not bound by the laws of nature. Likewise, statements about mutations being “random” and evolution not having a “purpose” are scientific only to the extent that one uses what the philosophers of science call an operational definition for the terms in quotes. When that is done, biology is not anything that an Orthodox Jew need find troubling; when scientists say things like that using broader definitions they are no longer making scientific statements.

  25. Melech Press says:

    Mike S. appears guilty of precisely the ignorance of which he accuses Rabbi Shafran. He confuses the difference between the data with which science deals, an area in which scientists are expert, and the philosophy of science, an area in which most scientists are no more expert than are most mechanics. In the case of Newton, there is a great deal of data which remains valid even under quantum theoretical frameworks and the application of that data is essentially independent of the theorizing. That is not the case with regard to the neo-Darwinian synthesis, where much of the data is irrelevant to the debate. For example, Mike cites genetic interrelatedness as data which supports evolutionary theory, but, of course, it does nothing of the kind unless one begins by postulating the truth of evolutionary theory. If a creator were the cause of species, he could also use genetic similarities and homologous structures in his creation. Such data is then neutral in its implications. The same is true of phenomena such as antibiotic resistance; even if it is not the result of existing alleles, which it may well be, it is not necessarily related to speciation. I do not mean to imply that there is not evidence which appears to support evolutionary phenomena, but that there is much less evidence for the assumption of randomness driving such phenomena.

    It is also a form of intellectual primitivism to assert that he will not consider theories that are motivated by religious belief. The motivation behind a theory is irrelevant to its validity. Dawkin’s frequent assertions that he must believe in the neo-Darwinian synthesis because of his atheism neither proves nor disproves the truth of evolutionary theory. What he is alluding to is the confusion between scientific method, which of course must be employed in the investigation of theories whatever their motivation, and scientistic materialism, which asserts the acceptability only of certain types of conclusions regardless of the evidence for or against them.

  26. Shloime says:

    “If American public schools aim to foster critical thinking, it is hard to imagine how ridiculing, much less banning, different points of view serves that goal. The heretic-hunters would do well to consult Darwin himself. “A fair result,” he wrote, “can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of a question.””

    Ay, there’s the rub. You have no intention of fully balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of the question. As a personal exercise, try defining transposon, atavism, or redundant pseudogene. Did you get any of them? Scientists are open to contrary evidence. What’s obvious to everyone outside the movement is that ID is about an agenda, not evidence.

    P.S. Kind of an ironic point for a website that censors comments.

    P.P.S. Even if you’re way off, you write well.

  27. S. says:

    Heretics? I don’t get the title; was Darwin a heretic? Are scientists heretics?

  28. G Josephs says:

    ‘GJosephs completely misses Rabbi Shafran’s point. Of course Rabbi S. is not prepared to admit that God does not exist, but then he does not claim that his belief in God is the result of critical analysis of empirical evidence, the results of which might change with time.’

    Oh I see. So as long as you don’t claim your beliefs are based on evidence, it’s ok to be 100% convinced you are right, and no humility is required at all? Amazing.

  29. Mike S. says:

    The picture of science Rabbi Shafran is presenting is, to put it mildly, unrecognizable to any scientist. If I may offer an analogy that may make this clear to your readers who are unfamiliar with science, it is roughly the equivalent to picture of Judaism one might get from a 5 minute glance into an early class of an after school Talmud Torah.

    Allow me to briefly address 2 themes that are common in these sorts of arguments. It is certainly true that Newton’s laws of mechanics and gravity have been superseded both by relativity, for conditions of fast and dense objects, and quantum mechanics in the realm of the extremely small. However, there are several points to understand here:
    First, this happened not because scientists were philosophically uncomfortable with Newtonian physics, although some were, but because experimental evidence demanded it. Second, although Newtonian physics is not now considered correct, it remains a very accurate approximation in the circumstances where it has been supported by evidence; you can comfortably play air-hockey, or design automobile tires or even send spacecraft to the Moon using Newtonian physics. Which brings me to my third point, namely, although Newtonian physics has been superseded, the vast amount of factual evidence that supported Newtonian physics for centuries remains valid. Indeed, one criterion that had to be met by both relativity and quantum mechanics was the ability to derive Newtonian mechanics as an accurate approximation in the region in which it agreed with experimental results. Similarly, if our current understanding of evolution by natural selection is to be superseded, any theory that subsumes it must account for what we know of both the genetic interrelatedness of species from the simplest bacteria to the most complicated plants and animals, the genetic diversity and mutation rates within species, the fossil record, evolution we have seen like antibiotic resistance, and the rest of the evidence that supports out current scientific understanding. These are facts that will not disappear.

    The second theme I would like to address is the notion that scientists somehow blindly believe in Darwin, and won’t consider alternatives. It’s just nonsense. For one thing we all understand far more about how genetics work than Darwin, who knew absolutely nothing of genetics, or even the developers of the neo-Darwininian synthesis of the early twentieth century. Indeed our understanding of evolution is progressing rapidly as me make use of the tools of modern microbiology and apply sensitive new instruments to the fossil record. And there are many contentious issues among scientists that are hotly debated; for example the importance of horizontal gene transfer, and the role of retroviruses in mammalian evolution. What is not hotly debated are well established facts, like the biochemical similarities among life forms, and what will not be considered are “theories” that are motivated by religious belief and that do not confront the substantial body of physical and chemical evidence.

    I would urge Rabbi Shafran and others not to try to defend the honor of our Holy Torah by presenting inaccurate pictures of science to knock down. In the first place, G-d’s seal is truth, and we cannot defend His Torah dishonestly. In the second, it makes Judaism look foolish in the eyes of anyone who knows something about science; just the opposite of how people will react to the Torah properly presented, as promised in parshat Vaetchanan. In the third place, while this may help “rally the troops”, at least among those who know no science, if they ever learn something of science they will begin to wonder if you also misrepresented other things, and many will leave the path of Torah, chas v’shalom. My suggestion to Rav Shafran and others is to leave the question s of Torah and science to those who are deeply familiar with both fields.

  30. Michael says:

    David N. Friedman wrote:
    “It is the correct prediction to believe that life forms “emerge” only by design of some kind of super-intelligence which has caused such intricate life to emerge in a specific and very complicated process. It is another correct prediction to assert that intelligent beings such as modern humans working with modern computers cannot replicate these life processes and only recently have we been able to simply chart a DNA structure or a simple hormone which is necessary for a single blade of grass to grow.”

    When I wrote that evolutionary theory has predictive value, I mean in the here and now. Take comparative genomics for example. One of the utilities of this field is that you can identify a gene with a given function in one organism, and then query whether a homologous gene exists in other species. The query is testable because when you find a candidate homologue, you can explore its biological function and see the similarities and differences between it and the first identified gene. The approach to this task must be directed. It requires assumptions about how the genomic sequences of various species would be related. Broadly speaking, the notion of speciation and the generation of a timeline of species divergence facilitates these assumptions. This is because we have an idea of how DNA is passed down from one generation to another, and the sources of variation (mutagenesis, genetic recombination, etc.)
    My question is, how can we use the idea of Intelligent Design in this kind of predictive manner? To be fair, I have seen some ID writings that explain that the field is not gap driven, but rather seeks to explore the patterns that are found in nature. In normal life, if we found patterns like this we would conclude it was designed, so too we shouldn’t ignore the evidence in nature. OK, but what then? If I then make my hypothesis that the universe has a designer, what testable predictions would we make? I ask that, because that is the next scientific step. Science is a human endeavour. It is exploratory and constantly changing. G-D is the ultimate and immutable. By definition (and this is one of the limits of science) science cannot accept that G-D as the best solution because there could not be any more progress. What experiment could we devise to test the supernatural? And so, if ID ever became mainstream science, the conclusion would not be that G-D must exist but rather that there is some other “black box”(lehavdil) to explore that is the source of these patterns. I don’t understand why that would be a path encouraged by Jewish thought.

  31. Frum Biologist says:

    “But there are indeed weaknesses in the theory of macro-evolution, noted by scores of intrepid biologists, mathematicians, chemists and geneticists.”

    No there isn’t and no it wasn’t. Common descent (the real term for “macroevolution”) of all animals on Earth is not disputed by scores, or even by any, scientists of note. There’s aren’t any known weaknesses in it; it is as much as a fact as the planets orbiting the sun. It happened, get over it, so we can focus on things that really matter to the frum community and stop bloodying our foreheads against a rock-solid wall to “prove” that’s it’s made out of swiss cheese.

  32. Melech Press says:

    GJosephs completely misses Rabbi Shafran’s point. Of course Rabbi S. is not prepared to admit that God does not exist, but then he does not claim that his belief in God is the result of critical analysis of empirical evidence, the results of which might change with time. Science does make such claims, and they are true of most areas of scientific thought. However, the neoDarwinian synthesis is the sole area of modern science in which critical analysis is ruled out. One can readily review scientific theories and raise problems, even if one does not have a better theory to offer. Even this approach is precluded by most of the fundamentalist Darwinians, who attack questions and questioners from within the evolutionary community with almost as much vigor as those from without. (as witness the comments of Dawkins, whose own colleagues at Oxford do not think much of him as a scientist). As to Intelligent Design, it is a perfectly respectable scientific theory that can be criticized as to whether it offers evidence for its positions. The efforts to rule it out a priori is no more legitimate than the effort to rule out any other theory that proposes a methodological approach that reasonably explains the available data. The efforts to make questioning evolutionary doctrines illegal is nothing less than the most blatant censorship of ideas.

  33. One Christian's perspective says:

    “As for humility, are you prepared to humbly admit that you yourself might be very wrong in all of your theories, and it is indeed quite possible that God does not exist, and that even if He does exist, it is quite possible that in no way did he write the Torah, …” – G Josephs

    In the past, following my own desires and free will, I grasped evolution as a viable theory that allowed me to participate in my whims without guilt. From within the darkest places of my heart, I reasoned if there was no G-d, to whom would I be accountable ? I could do whatever I wanted and in doing so, I became a gerbil on the wheel of life – running, running, running. Yet, my life was incomplete even though I was an over-achiever. My accomplishments provided fleeting pleasures. My addiction was to seek the next accomplishment. I searched for the meaning of my life and only found more questions. When I stopped searching and cried out to G-d, He captured my heart. Today, I read the words of David and say, I relate to your struggles and like you, I have someone to turn to and he is your G-d. He has been my Shepherd through life’s trials and pain as well as joys. The Bible is a living testimony of man’s experience as they encounter the living G-d. Their story is G-d’s testimony. You can easily say G-d did not write the Bible, but there are many in the Bible who would disagree with you. I don’t doubt Darwin conceived a theory from what he observed but, truthfully, that theory will never bring me peace and comfort as I watch a loved one die and it certainly will not ease the ache in my heart when I see the expression of hurt and pain on the faces of those overwhelmed by foreclosures, dementia, cancer or the loss of a loved one. All of the wisdom and knowledge of men, is nothing compared to the riches of G-d’s wisdom and knowledge. All of the accomplishments of man is nothing compared to the power of G-d. The thing is, you can pray to G-d if you sincerely want to meet Him and be found by Him but Charles Darwin remains dead in the ground. When I look at the heavens and see what human technology has captured with telescopes in space, my heart rejoices. When I see the beauty of the earth, I thank G-d for presenting us with such a field of colors, shapes, designs and structure. In amazement, I ponder how very different is the palette of the southwest from the north east. I love to smile at a baby -whom I have never met before- and wait for him/her to smile back; what joy ! Evolution has never explained emotions, spiritual hunger, the need to love and be loved, let alone the beginning of matter or meaning of life. By faith, I believe everything we see, has been made by the hand of G-d because He wants us to know Him. To me that captures the essence of humility in its purest form.

  34. Ralph Kostant says:

    I would add to what Rabbi Slifkin wrote by observing that to my knowledge Darwinian evolution is not taught as a pristine, perfect, complete and final dogma in science textbooks in elementary schools, high schools or universities. (Obviously, I can’t speak for the presentation of the material given by individual teachers.) Rabbi Shafran concedes as much when he notes that aspects of Darwinian theory have indeed been critiqued by “scores of intrepid biologists, mathematicians, chemists and geneticists.” The main point is, however, that to have scientific significance those criticisms are generated by the methods of science or mathematics, and expressed in the language of those disciplines. Accordingly, those same methods may be used to test and either substantiate or reject the criticisms. The same cannot be said for creationism, intelligent design, or any statement of belief. I personally believe that macro-evolution occurred under the constant direction and guidance of the Creator of the Universe, who exists beyond time, energy and matter, which are entirely his creations. However, that is my personal belief, and has no place in a public school science classroom.

  35. G Josephs says:

    ‘And a leading scientific group is boycotting Louisiana because a law there permits teachers to use supplemental texts to “help students critique and review scientific theories.’

    What ‘supplemental texts’? Do you mean the Bible? Intelligent Design? None of those texts are scientific, and could hardly be used to ‘review’ scientific theories. As for humility, are you prepared to humbly admit that you yourself might be very wrong in all of your theories, and it is indeed quite possible that God does not exist, and that even if He does exist, it is quite possible that in no way did he write the Torah, and that y9our current understanding of God and Torah could easily be replaced one day, through additional research, with something else quite different, for example Reform Judaism? Until you have the humility to admit that, I don’t see how you can be lecturing the Scientists, who actually have shown the ability to ‘reform’ their ‘fundamental beliefs’, which is something you cannot do.

  36. Natan Slifkin says:

    Rabbi Shafran writes that “there are indeed weaknesses in the theory of macro-evolution, noted by scores of intrepid biologists, mathematicians, chemists and geneticists.” A clarification is needed here. The weaknesses that these scientists note is NOT in the fact of macro-evolution – of all living things being related, as shown by multiple lines of evidence such as the general pattern of physiology, the nested hierarchal taxonomy that has been successfully predicted, the fossil record, DNA, and other such evidence. They only note difficulties in the MECHANISM by which this is alleged to occur. But they all concur with the evidence that it has occurred. Of course, one might choose to disagree, but one cannot claim that “intrepid biologists” disagree.

    Also, while certain people in the scientific community do indeed occasionally show hubris and a lack of critical thinking, I find it extremely odd and ironic for Agudath Israel of America to be pointing this out, in light of the statements of many icons of the Agudah vis-a-vis the antiquity of the universe, spontaneous generation, and so on.

  37. Dale Campbell says:

    Good thoughts here (I’m a new reader),

    Humility is key. And I think that’s true of ‘faithful’ Dawkins followers, and of the sometimes overly-confident ‘Intelligent Design-ists’.

    cheers,

    Dale Campbell

  38. David N. Friedman says:

    Thank you Rabbi Shafran for commenting on what many traditional Jews (and Christians) believe is one of the great intellectual frauds in history: Darwinian evolution. For Michael who has commented previously, to be clear, please understand the complaint. Evolution is a fact but “evolution” has many meanings and the meaning which is most commonly promulgated is the broad one which seeks only material explanations for all of life, including origins. Natural selection, chance and random mutations are simply inadequate to explain all in science and I am not speaking about “gaps”-I am speaking about most of science.

    A predictable evolution of life with current evidence is NOT demonstrated by Darwinian mechanisms so that Darwinian forces have been quickly re-defined by “neo-Darwinian” forces which have also been altered by advances in DNA, retrofitted so that an “evolution” can be asserted but not proven. Exasperated scientists quickly admit that Darwinian evolution is not proven but it is always assumed and this creates a kind of bigotry against those of us who assert a super-intelligence has directed the evolution of life. It is the correct prediction to believe that life forms “emerge” only by design of some kind of super-intelligence which has caused such intricate life to emerge in a specific and very complicated process. It is another correct prediction to assert that intelligent beings such as modern humans working with modern computers cannot replicate these life processes and only recently have we been able to simply chart a DNA structure or a simple hormone which is necessary for a single blade of grass to grow.

    Rabbi Shafran reflects the opinion of many scientists when he predicts that future scientists will look with pity upon our current day understandings and that a radically different worldview which makes Darwin 99% irrelevant, will emerge.

    The non-religious who look with awe upon nature fail to appreciate what makes them awestruck cannot simply be chemical reactions but part of a designed plan for life. This is the Carl Sagan perspective–a kind of wonder at the pretty colors of distant galaxies but a stern refusal to see the guiding hand of a Creator.

    All of this brings to the fore the bottom line question: how should traditional Jews engage in this debate? It is my contention we should be actively supporting the contention that the Almighty created the physical universe and protest the stand of the atheists who deny God at every turn.

  39. mb says:

    “That, as Charles Darwin wrote, in 1872: “[I]t is always advisable to perceive clearly our ignorance.””

    Surely this goes for those in the Cheredi world (yourself included, as you have previously admitted) that take a fundamentalist and literalist understanding of the creation narrative and the 5769 year old universe, and reject as heresy any opinions that counter that claim.
    The 100 years since the publishing of the Origin of the Species, scientific research has done much to support his theories, and not the literalists.

  40. Nathan says:

    “As it happens, this particular scenario [of the Theory of Evolution] was exploded with the discovery that amphibians evolved legs while still almost wholly aquatic, for reasons we can hardly guess, but certainly not for walking boldly on land.”

    (Seen in Chapter 2, Page 36 of: The Science of Middle-Earth by Henry Gee, 2004, Cold Spring Press, Cold Spring Harbor, NY 11724, ISBN 1-59360-023-2.)

  41. Nathan says:

    From the 1987 New Book of Knowledge Encyclopedia, Volume B:

    A worker bee lives up to 6 weeks. First, for 3 days she cleans out brood cells for new eggs. Then for 2 days she feeds pollen and honey to older larvae. Then for 6 days she feeds the younger larvae on royal jelly from glands in her head. Then for 4 days she builds wax cells. Then for 4 days, she receives pollen and nectar that are delivered to her hive. Then for 1 day she guards at the entrance of the nest. Then for 3 weeks she gathers nectar and pollen. As she gathers, she has 4 different dances whose meanings are understood by the other gatherer bees. Nobody teaches her these things.

    How could this have evolved by random chance, as required by the Theory of Evolution?

  42. Nathan says:

    “Generally speaking, however, the molecular machinery that allows organisms to generate variety can not run fast enough to respond to catastrophic changes in their environment.

    That is why mass extinction due to extra-terrestrial impacts force us to rethink evolution.”

    (Seen in page 80 of: The Three Big Bangs by Philip Dauber & Richard Muller, 1996, Helix Books, Addison-Wesley, ISBN 0-201-15495-1.)

    For a much more comprehensive treatment of this subject, read SING YOU RIGHTEOUS by Rabbi Avigdor Miller (of blessed memory).

  43. Nathan says:

    “The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that matter seeks it simplest state, yet the world exhibits a vast structure of increasing complexity. Some scientists label this a manifestation of anti-chance. But it could only be an infinite Intelligence that could bring order out of a chaotic universe. And this infinite Intelligence is nothing other than G_d.”

    (Seen in Part I, chapter 8, page 55 of:
    Encounters by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, 1990,
    Moznaim Publishing, Brooklyn.)

  44. Michael says:

    Why is this topic relevant to a blog on current topics in the frum world?

    To the extent that those with a secular point of view believe that the Theory of Evolution has conclusively demonstrated the lack of necessity for a creator, I agree that this post is relevant and warranted. I am sure that there are individuals who celebrate February 12 as the birthday of the Emancipator (ie Darwin). By turning evolution into a belief, they miss the implications that the gradual yet constant evolvement of science has for all of its theories. It is necessary to deal with the dogmafication (I googled that term and I am not the first to use it!) of evolution and take it out of the realm of belief and into the realm of science.

    That said, I don’t think that the questioning of evolution within a scientific context is particularly relevant to a frum worldview. In point of fact, evolutionary models are useful in a scientifically predictable manner. That isn’t to say that the theory has no gaps in it, but like everything in science, as we make more observations we tweak the models-perfectly acceptable if you are not assuming that they are Torah miSinai. Debunking the Theory of Evolution by demonstrating its gaps is only a useful strategy against those who view it as a belief (ie that life must have started this way). But as it explains a lot of our observations, to dismiss it one would need to provide a theory that better explains the data, and can be used in a scientifically predictive manner. I don’t see why this needs to necessarily be a part of the frum agenda. We believe that Hashem created the world, and that any way that we use to study the world will necessarily be limited. What is theologically wrong with saying that within our current limits of observation, it looks like He set up a world whose life can be described more or less by an evolutionary model? I am not implying anything about Rabbi Shafran’s intent. To the extent that this piece was written because of evolutionary believers, I am in support. I just feel that sometimes religious critiques of evolution attempt to target the science, and I wonder whether that is the appropriate forum.