Darwin Does Bereishis

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Darwin was a Brit, after all, so it would be rather rude of Sir Jonathan Sacks not to comment on his 200th birthday. The Chief Rabbi manages to neatly side-step the thicket of arguments about evolution, and to simply state that its factuality is largely irrelevant to believers. If anything (mirroring the famous reaction of R Shimshon Raphael Hirsch), if it is assumed to be true, it only increases our sense of awe at the wisdom Hashem attached to His Creation.

Happy Birthday, Charles! While your findings fueled your struggle with G-d (or your struggle with G-d fueled your findings), the rest of us ma’aminim b’nei ma’aminim aren’t having a rough time of it at all.

There are some even in this skeptical age who still believes that god is an old man with a long white beard. His name is Charles Darwin, patron saint of scientific atheists.

2009 will be a double anniversary for followers of Darwin: the two hundredth anniversary of his birth and the 150th anniversary of his work The Origin of Species. We will undoubtedly hear the claim asserted that Darwin dealt a death blow to religious belief.

That, it should be said, is quite untrue. What it dealt a death blow to was one very poor argument for the existence of God, namely the argument from design. This argument figures nowhere in the Hebrew Bible. It does not even belong to its world of thought. It belongs instead to the tradition of ancient Greece and to the idea that the most important truths are those that can be proved.

In fact none of the most important truths can be proved: that right is sovereign over might, that it is better to be loved than feared, that every human being however poor or powerless is worthy of respect, that peace is nobler than war, forgiveness greater than revenge, and hope a higher virtue than resignation to blind fate. Lives have been lived and civilizations built in defiance of these truths, yet they remain true.
What might a religious believer say to Darwin’s heirs? The following thoughts are purely hypothetical, but she might say, first, that Darwin helped us understand the ‘how’ of God’s ‘Let there be.’ The Creator created not just life, but life that is in itself creative.

That may be the meaning of the otherwise untranslatable phrase in Genesis 2:3, that on the seventh day God rested ‘from all His work that God had created la’asot’, which means literally ‘to do, act, make’. Jewish commentators understood this to mean that God implanted creativity into nature. God creates something from nothing. Nature creates something from something. Darwin brought new depth to this idea.

She might continue that Darwin helped us understand one of the key ideas of the Bible: the kinship between humans and animals. The first humans were forbidden to kill animals for food. The covenant with Noah after the flood was made also, as Genesis 9 states five times, ‘with every living creature’. The Bible forbids cruelty to animals. This is the polar opposite of the view of Descartes, that animals lack souls and therefore can be used as we will.

She might go on to say, as does Matt Ridley in his book Genome, that we now know, having deciphered the genetic code, that all life in its seemingly endless variety has a single source. In his words, ‘There was only one creation, one single event when life was born.’ The miracle of monotheism is that unity up there creates diversity down here.

She might wonder, as does Lord Rees, President of the Royal Society, in his Just Six Numbers, at the extraordinary precision of the six mathematical constants that determine the shape of the universe, such that if even one of them were fractionally different neither we nor the universe would exist.

She might mention other mysteries, such as, how did life evolve from non-life? How did sentience emerge? How was the uniquely human capacity for self-consciousness born? How did life evolve at such speed that even Francis Crick, co-discoverer of DNA, was forced to suggest that it came from Mars? And the ultimate ontological question: why is there something rather than nothing?

She might refer to the arguments that persuaded the philosopher Antony Flew, late in life, to abandon his atheism. She might cite the curious paradox, noted by Richard Dawkins, that selfish genes get together and produce selfless people. She might wonder at the fact that Homo sapiens is the only known life-form in the universe capable of asking ‘Why?’ And she might add, in the spirit of Godel’s Theorem, that there are truths within the system that cannot be proved within the system.

She would then say: none of these is a proof. Each, rather, is a source of wonder. The Psalm does not say, ‘The heavens prove the existence of God.’ It says, ‘The heavens declare the glory of God.’ Darwin helped us understand how the many emerged from one. The more we know about the intricacy and improbability of life, the more reason we have to wonder and give thanks.

[Thanks to the CR’s faithful servant, Martin Brody, currently exiled to LA]

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17 Responses

  1. Raymond says:

    But my point still stands, that the organism has all the traits it needs to survive, with some of them remaining dormant while others become more pronounced based on environmental circumstances. Yes, those who do not have those traits necessary for survival, die out, but the ones who do live, seems to have had those survival traits all along. That is,nothing was added on. So that tells me that organisms to not evolve into more complex or even different organisms, but remain the way they have been since the beginning of time. And if that is the case, then Darwinism is not true, and G-d did create organisms in their completed state from the very beginning.

  2. nachum klafter, md says:

    Sholom: You are correct that the argument from design is expressed in this midrash. I beleive it has been expressed by many other chachmei ha-mesorah as well. Rabbi Slifkin does not object to the argument from design. He objects to “Intelligent Design” which is different from the argument from design. “Intelligent Design” is an argument that current scientific knowledge about evolutionary theory cannot account for the complexity of intracellular machinery or the regularity of the genetic code. This argument is completely bogus from a scientific point of view because it is not a theory that can be tested experimentally in any way. As opposed to the literally hundreds of thousands of theories that tie together modern evolutionary biology, all of which can be tested and are being tested–some are confirmed, some are rejected, some are refined, etc.

    Raymond: No, you’ve got it wrong with the moths. There were always a small number of dark moths in the moth population, but they were easily devoured by predators. When the color of the bark changed because of pollution, the darker moths had a selective advantage, and the overall percentages of the population changed.

    What evolutionary biologists believe usually happens is that a small group within a population expresses traits of a mutation, but that this mutation is irrelevant and shows no slective advantage. Then, the environment changes, and suddenly this formerly irrelevant trait becomes advantageous, causing this small group to dominate and reproduce far more successfully than the rest of the population. Those not expressing the trait may die out completely. Or it may continue to reproduce but becomes isolated from the new group.

  3. Raymond says:

    Maybe what I am trying to say, is that either evolutionists have to be Lamarckists, or they have to acknowledge G-d’s role in evolution. And since Lamarckism has supposedly long been abandoned by scientists, it would seem to me that this points to evidence of G-d’s Hand in evolution, which in turn points to G-d’s Existence.

  4. mb says:

    Raymond,
    Part of the evolutionary process is the development of defensive camouflage in several species, not just limey moths.

  5. Raymond says:

    Something about the theory of evolution has long puzzled me. It is vague in my memory, but I seem to recall some white and black moths in London sometime in the late 1800’s, who seemed to change color according to their surroundings. When London’s sky was dirty from coal burning, the moths turned dark to hide themselves, and vice versa. Somehow, this was meant to provide evidence for evolution.

    But to me, this helps refute it. Essentially, what it is saying is that organisms bring out those traits needed for their immediate survival. But those mechanisms are already built-in. None are newly invented. In other words, any given type of organism does not really change over time, as much as bring out what is needed depending on its circumstances.

    However, doesn’t evolution dictate that there has to be progression of development of a given species? After all, it makes the claim that the most complex type of organism evolved, if one goes back far enough, from the simplest of single-celled beings.

    Am I making any sense what I am saying? Any evolutionary biologists out there?

  6. Tal Benschar says:

    “The Torah seems to agree that in some ways we are very primitive, animalistic beings – in some ways.”

    It’s actually right there in Koheles:

    “18 I also thought, “As for men, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. 19 Man’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath [b] ; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless. 20 All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.”

    Of course, this is speaking about Man without any spiritual connection to the Almighty.

  7. Sholom says:

    To my knowledge, the argument from design does exist within our mesora (even if not in the Hebrew bible).

    The following is a free translation, taken from Medrash Temura.
    “Rabbi Akiva’s Proof For the Existence of Hashem[G-d]

    A heretic once came and asked Rabbi Akiva, This world….who created it? He answered, The Holy One Blessed be He. Said the heretic: Show me clear proof! Said Rabbi Akiva, come back tomorrow.

    The next day the sage asked, what are you wearing? A garment was the answer. Who made it? asked Rabbi Akiva. The tailor, was the reply. I do not believe you; show me clear proof.

    The man protested, But what shall I show you? Do you not know that the tailor made it? Answered the sage, And what of you? Do you not know that the Holy One Blessed be He created this world?

    The heretic left without reply.

    But what is the proof? asked his disciples. Said the rabbi…Just as a house indicates a builder, a garment a tailor, and a door a carpenter, so too does this world tell, the Holy One Blessed be He created it.”

    The argument from design certainly features in the Chovos HaLevavos as well, although I don’t recall if the author brings earlier Jewish sources to substantiate his claim.

    A second difficulty I have with Rabbi Sack’s article is the notion that Darwinism dealt a death blow to the Argument from Design. For two reasons:

    (1) The theory of evolution requires the pre-existence of biological systems, that are capable of adapting to evolutionary pressures, in order for evolution to work. It does not offer a definitive explanation (or perhaps any explanation) for how those systems developed themselves. To my knowledge none of the explanations regarding the origin of life (as opposed to the origin of species) have achieved as much experimental support as evolution, which of course is a theory that requires further study in its own right.

    (2) Even if we could achieve a definitive scientific explanation for everything that occurs in the universe, God would not be squeezed out of the picture. To use an analogy: coming to a complete understanding of how a sophisticated machine operates in no way negates the possibility of a designer. While one needs to be cautious about arguments from design that incorporate a “God of the gaps” line of reasoning, the assertion of design as a feature in creation needn’t employ this style of argumentation.

    I’d appreciate any of your thoughts, particularly if Rabbi Slifkin could weigh in on this issue.

  8. r-w says:

    “a death blow to was one very poor argument for the existence of God, namely the argument from design. This argument figures nowhere in the Hebrew Bible. It does not even belong to its world of thought.”

    Really? Note Isaiah ch. 40, Psalms 19 and 94. And for its “world of thought” there are numerous passages in Talmud/Midrash suggesting it, and then of course the medieval philosophers like Ibn Pakuda, Kuzari, Ralbag etc. I would suggest it to be the most powerful argument (despite Hume, Kant and moderns like Dawkins – all of whose critiques have been overcome by numerous “refinements” – e.g. A. Whitehead, the anthropic principle, certain forms of the “inteligent design”-theory etc.). The very fact of science, totally dependent on the premise of “LAWS” of nature, in itself and of itself argues for it.

    Does it prove the theist’s “religious truth”? No. No philosophical proof does that, nor can it (and ultimately we are dependant for that on the “religious experience”-argument of the revelation at Sinai). Moroever, the teleological argument ultimately depends also on some form of the cosmological argument, and even then one can rightly argue that to jump to the theist’s position there is always a transcedental fallacy. Nonetheless, the TA is certainly the most indicative and powerful “arrow” pointing to Gd.

  9. Barry Simon says:

    “What does bother him is the certainty of some that it is impossible that the world a hundred years from now will look at evolution fundamentally differently from the way it views it today.” This is either a straw man or wrong depending on how you interpret “fundamentally different”. Biologists are scientists and are open to new evidence and new theories.

    Of course they accept that there could be revolutions akin to the relativity and quantum revolutions in physics that we give us a different picture. But those revolutions didn’t change the fact that Newtonian physics describe a large part of the natural world remarkably well, so well, we’d be crazy not to use and accept it. Similarly the evidence for evolution as it is currently understood as a description of large parts of nature is so overwhelming that it will largely survive any r’s put in front of it.

  10. dr. bill says:

    i always find these discussions (not the CR or many above) boring and, pardon me, a tad naive. the Torah was given to man at a particular point in time. The Torah’s mode of expression / literature and its world-view regarding history and science reflected that era. If you think that such a view makes its message any less eternal or its mitzvot any less binding, then develop/create and enjoy any belief system that you wish. But do not treat it as an absolute and please allow others to maintain thiers.

    When quoting ma’amarei chazal whose literal meaning seems to imply otherwise, realize that “an eye for an eye” means something else as well.

    Aping the CR above: how something eternal and fixed like the Torah nonetheless evolves is a dilemma that Darwin (as well as some chachmei hamesorah and academic scholars of the halakhic process) might help explain. you might say “everything is fixed and yet everything evolves,” the riddle goes back to parmenides and zeno. but wrt Torah it may be yet more profound.

  11. Ori says:

    Raymond: On the other hand, I think there can be no denying that us humans at our Earthly core really are very primitive, animalistic beings

    Ori: Adam (= Adam) comes from the same root as Adama (= Earth). The Torah seems to agree that in some ways we are very primitive, animalistic beings – in some ways.

  12. Raymond says:

    I think what has bothered me most about the Evolution question is that I feel so utterly ignorant about the subject. And every time I think about learning what evolution is all about, I imagine having to go back to school once again for several more years, to learn all kinds of complicated scientific ideas with their endlessly dry details couched in very complicated statistical analysis. As it is, my head is already filled with too many college degrees. At this point, I would rather just sit back and enjoy the incomparably beautiful music of Bach, Handel, and Mozart.

    From a purely amateur, common sensical stance, my sense about evolution is that part of it seems extremely hard to swallow, while its other aspect seems to be undeniably true. More specifically, I find it extremely hard to believe that the complexity of life evolved from a single cell, or even some simpler life form, no matter how old our universe is.

    On the other hand, I think there can be no denying that us humans at our Earthly core really are very primitive, animalistic beings. Driving in any major city, or watching our fellow Jews diving into the crowd after Sabbath prayers to get some overcooked beans/potatoes/onions/spices, is all the proof I need of our essentially animalistic nature.

  13. Bob Miller says:

    “What does bother him is the certainty of some that it is impossible that the world a hundred years from now will look at evolution fundamentally differently from the way it views it today.”

    So the true believers in evolution can’t imagine that views on the subject will evolve?

  14. Natan Slifkin says:

    What about the possibility that the Gedolim a hundred years from now will look at evolution fundamentally differently from the way that they view it today?

    That’s what happened with the Gedolim and Copernicus.

  15. Alvin says:

    G. Josephs,

    Well, the Torah seems to set the creation of adam totally apart from the creation of the animal world. Evolution sees man as just an evolved primate. You might be able to somehow read evolution into the Genesis account of man’s creation, but — with all due respect to Rabbi Sacks — it isn’t exactly a simple reading of the verses. So maybe we should all be a little bothered by evolution (or at least the way it is understood today). And a little less cynical about people who are bothered by it.

  16. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    I have told that to Rabbi Shafran – and he to me. I know Rabbi Shafran for many years. Evolution does not bother him immensely. Perhaps a bit more than it bothers me (which is not at all), but not much.

    What does bother him is the certainty of some that it is impossible that the world a hundred years from now will look at evolution fundamentally differently from the way it views it today.

  17. G Josephs says:

    > the rest of us ma’aminim b’nei ma’aminim aren’t having a rough time of it at all

    Try telling that to Rabbi Shafran. Evolution seems to bother him immensely.