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]