Who Needs ID? – Part One

Winds blew some Intelligent Design folks into town, and I wasn’t quick enough to catch the last stage out before they arrived. As a confirmed contrarian, I immediately moved into defensive and skeptical postures. Nonetheless, I came away with a different attitude than before. Given where I started off, I even surprised myself.

Many of my friends greeted the ID people with open arms. After all, everyone “knows” that ID people give a hard time to evolutionists, and everyone knows that properly Orthodox people blanch at the very mention of the e-word. So if the ID people give evolutionists a hard time, they must be our friends.

Maybe I’m not properly Orthodox, but evolution is just not an issue for me. (I know what you are thinking, but spare me. I’ve written this before. Much of what follows is an abbreviated form of an exchange with David Klinghofer in this forum in November 2006.) I recognize that I am in the minority in this regard (although not so sure if this is true for frum folks with scientific background), but I made peace with evolution years ago. I’m neither convinced of its truth (although it explains volumes of collected phenomena that no one in the frum community even begins to deal with) nor convinced of its untruth. Of course I reject one small assumption made by some evolutionists, including the most strident and vocal ones. They believe that not only did G-d have no part in it, but that having adequately explained the Great Mystery of Life, there is no need to believe in G-d, c”v. My belief is that if the Ribbono Shel Olam set up the original conditions, including the physical constants of nature in such a way as to produce the world as we know it, using natural selection and about 15 billion years (a span of time so large I simply can’t wrap my mind around it to decide whether the scenario is plausible or ludicrous), I for one would have no objection. As R Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote in the infancy of the theory – well before he could, in all fairness, properly analyze it, but also before over a century of corroborating evidence – if the theory turns out to be true, we will stand in even greater awe of the wisdom of HKBH. There is wondrous elegance in reducing all of existence to what was contained in the singularity that preceded the laws of nature as we know them. Reducing all there is to a mysterious oneness has great appeal to me.

In other words, it makes no difference to me whether Hashem created the world in six days of miraculous intervention, or telescoped all of the miraculous into some moment preceding Big Bang. As long as the results are attributed to the Will of HKBH, I can live with either scenario, and I don’t really need to know which of these – or some other alternative – is correct.

There are advantages and disadvantages to each. Believing in six literal days makes it much easier to follow the verses of the first chapter of Bereishis – but leaves so much of the observed world, as seen by multiple disciplines, unexplained. (My preference is to leave them unexplained, rather than offer some of the explanations I have heard people propose, which I can only regard as well-intentioned silliness, guaranteed to drive young people off the derech should they ever study real science.) Evolution provides a framework for understanding much of the natural world – but sends those who accept it scrambling to find an acceptable approach to the Creation story. (Just what some of those approaches might be is a topic for some future post, but not this one.)

How to choose? If you have no occasion to ever step over the threshold of modern science, there would seem to be little reason to abandon the plain meaning of the opening of Bereishis. This seems to be the message of quite a few Gedolei Torah who live in communities in which science simply doesn’t figure. Their advice should be vigorously heeded.

For others, there is no compelling reason to choose at all. We live with many valid and opposing options in other areas of Jewish life, including halacha and just about any daf in Shas. We don’t need answers to all questions. It should be satisfying to some people to be able to hedge their bets. Their formulation might be expressed this way: Maybe the evolutionists are right; maybe they are not. Either way, I feel comfortable getting up in the morning and shouting, “Mah rabu ma’asecheh Hashem…!”

Others, however, have different needs. People who spend time in the science classroom or the research lab cannot be expected to sit calmly at the 50 yard line, watching the action on both sides. The language of biology is the language of evolution, and it has been that way for decades. People tend to invest themselves in what they spend their time doing. It is natural to expect that they will not or cannot be expected to function as intellectual aliens within their disciplines. Rejecting evolution for them is the equivalent of asking a frum geographer to join the Flat Earth Society.

What options are available to such people in the frum world? I am aware of two. The first is the Divinely authored and engineered form of evolution I described above. The second is ID.

I would have thought that the former is greatly to be preferred. After all, what we are looking for is a way for a frum scientist or student to minimize the apparent tension between science and emunah. Embracing a Divinely driven evolution does just that. A student can sit in any classroom, take part in any discussion, read any paper, without having to pinch himself or herself and say, “Hey, I’m not really supposed to believe any of this!” He can believe any of it he wants – except for the very beginning of the process, which tends not to come up in any discussion because it is outside of the purview of science. Our student will not feel compelled to speak up in class to protest his disbelief, nor feel guilty for not speaking up! The tension is minimized.

If, on the other hand, we would embrace ID, we gain very little. We still put our students at loggerheads with what everybody else in their discipline believes, because – whether for good reason or bad – the ID view is rejected by most. What do we gain by substituting one unpopular alternative to the industry standard (ID) for another unpopular one (the old creationism)?

Let me clarify for those who may not be up on the details of the topic. ID is a scientific formulation, to those who subscribe to it, not a philosophical or theological one. It does not speak about G-d, although it is patently G-d friendly. It argues that there are scientifically valid ways to show design, rather than the aggregate product of natural selection. Furthermore, it argues that therefore the present understanding of evolution (which we will call neo-Darwinian synthesis, or NDS) simply cannot explain the phenomena we know about. This last point is the rub. A frum evolutionist could believe that everyone else’s understanding of how evolution happened (again, other than the Divine role in setting it up) is correct. The ID supporter has to believe that they all are laboring under a misconception. Natural selection alone cannot and did not do the trick. This moves the ID supporter to the margins of accepted scientific thought, or beyond them. Speaking purely practically, why should we put ourselves there?

So when Stephen Meyer of the Discovery Institute addressed an early morning meeting of LA rabbonim, I challenged him with this very pragmatic question. (A few weeks before, I had challenged David Berlinski with the same question, and found him agreeing with me!). I also posed a more theoretical challenge to him.

He responded to both well enough to get me thinking – and to modify my thinking in part. More on that in the continuation of this topic later.

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59 Responses

  1. Michoel says:

    Thanks, I concur with your breakdown of the questions at hand. I’d like to toss a few related thoughts on the table. Sorry for the poor organization.

    Does it make sense for those that lack the keilim to understand the science deeply, to rely on those that have those keilim, even when many of them are evangelical atheists? Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan mentions in one of his books an interesting study. A pool of college students and professors were subject to peer-pressure to such a degree that %80 accepted that an 8 inch line was actually longer than a 10 inch line. That is astounding, no? The tendency to be pulled after one’s associates in outlook is very strong in all groups of people including scientists.

    A parenthetical thought experiment for those that believe in evolution and for those that believe in a young earth: Imagine yourself standing up in a room of your peers and announcing “I have doubts about the truthfulness of evolution”, or “I suspect that scientist are correct about evolution”. Would I be able to make to such a statement and if not, how does that internal dissonance possibly color my perceptions?

    If I told someone that I just flipped a coin ten times and got ten straight heads, if they have a bit of a feeling for probability, they would immediately assume I was lying. If I now brought in 10 witnesses to testify that they saw me do it, they would still be certain that it was a conspiracy. If I brought in 100 witnesses, they would still shrug it off as a bigger conspiracy. If a thousand people testified, they might think that they really saw what they are claiming, but it must have been an illusion of some sort.
    So is the evidence for evolution really so strong that it is greater than 1,000 first hand witnesses? Because for many, the belief that evolutionary mechanisms can produce, say, the instinct to “play possum” in even one species seems far less likely than 10 coin flips with the same result. It bespeaks an external Super-intelligence that is aware of a concept of death, along with thousands of other details that make such an instinct simply shocking.

    It is clear that belief in evolution has been a tremendous boon to atheism and out-growth philosophies. It seems strange that something that can be the cause of so much evil in the world is actually the true picture. This is just a non-scientific hergesh that somehow Hashem wouldn’t run his world that way. One can claim that belief in evolution was so damaging only because folks like Stalin didn’t read Rav Hirsch, but l’maaseh Hashem new that Stalin wouldn’t read Rav Hirsch.

    The choseim of Hakadosh Baruch Hu is Truth and we cannot convey Torah in a way that is not truthful and that certainly includes admitting to verified scientific facts. However, “if” it could be shown that evolution is not true, then we can provide an enormous m’chaiv emunah by showing that it is not true and it certainly would sure up our mesora to all the leitzanim. If the entire world says it is true and we say that our Torah tells us otherwise, and in the end we are correct, that is a colossal kiddush Shem Shamayim.

  2. Menachem Fromer says:

    Firstly, it seems rather philosophical to argue as to whether Hashem actually created the world 6000 years ago with an apparent state of having existed for billions of years, or if He created it billions of years ago. If He created the apparent billions of years in what would have seemed to be billions of years to us (had we been around), is there really a difference? For an eternal God, these billions of years aren’t really so long. In fact, in “Genesis and the Big Bang”, Gerald Schroeder provides a scientific hypothesis as to how God could describe his Creation experience (so to speak) as having taken 6 days, whereas looking back, we see it as billions of years.

    Secondly, regarding evolution, it must be noted that one of the guiding principles is finding the “simplest” explanation possible for DNA sequences shared by diverse forms of life. Therefore, when scientists observe specific arrangements of DNA that are common to multiple species (but not found in others), they conclude that these arrangements were all present in an ancestral species, which has since diverged to form the current-day species. While they COULD conclude that these arrangements were independently placed in the varying species, this is less likely IF you assume that all species trace their lineage to a single ancient species. Now, however, is where Hashem comes into the picture. If you don’t believe in God, then it is unlikely that these events occurred independently multiple times, so you are forced to subscribe to a theory of common descent. On the other hand, if you believe in God (as I do), then you may want to allow for the possibility that He inserted very similar DNA into a number of species. But why is this any more acceptable than the possibility that He developed them WITHIN host species along the way? When it boils down to it, I think that the big fuss over evolution is the thought that subscribing to it would imply that all is random and things could have turned out very differently, for example, with no life existing at all. But, remember that the initial conditions at the Big Bang could have been such that the world as we know it was practically inevitable (and I believe that God set up these conditions).

    Lastly, as food for thought, there are a number of Jewish sources that discuss examples of macroevolution that I can think of off the top of my head. Therefore, I don’t see any major contradiction between the two:
    1. People having shorter lifespans after the Flood.
    2. Looking old (the ageing process), for Avraham and Yitzchak.
    3. The existence of giant-sized humans (Og, Goliath, Kiryat Arba), which clearly no longer exist.
    4. A two-sided Adam “evolving” into 2 separate sexes: Adam & Chava.
    Of course, these are all examples of human “evolution”, but since the Torah focuses in on human history, we should not expect a thorough dealing with the evolution of other species (at least not at the Pshat level for Torah Shebichtav).

    In conclusion, those who want to believe that all is random will continue doing so. And, those who believe that God is behind it all, can still do so. Since as Jews we believe in an incorporeal God (with no physicality), I don’t believe that scientific study of the physical world will ever prove or disprove God. And, my feeling is that’s the way God wanted it, leaving us free will to believe in Him or not.

  3. Simcha Younger says:


    Its simply that I don’t like to think so much. But I’m game for another round.

    There are a number of closely related, but distinct, debates here, which often get confused. One question is the validity of evolution from a scientific standpoint. A distinct question is the acceptablity of evolution from a religious standpoint. A third question, which was the focus of this article, is if ID is a legitimate approach to the issues under discussion, and this breaks down to two questions – is ID compatible with science, and is ID of interest to religion. A fourth question is only relevant if evolution is incorrect, and that question is why did God create all of the artifacts which suggest evolution, but do not actually support it under solid investigation. If evolution is correct (at least scientifically) then the fourth question will instead be why does the Torah seem to describe a completely different Creation?

    Your last post questioned the validity of the science. If you are correct that evolution is not a tenable explanation for the observed phenomenon, or at least that it is not a convincing explanation, then the question about ID is irrelevant. You (and Bob Miller) also proposed an answer to the follow-up question of why the artifacts are there, by saying that it is to leave room for free-will. You are really now moving the conversation to the primary question – is the science acceptable.

    On this question I would say that there are definitely alot of problems with sceince, and I am also convinced that especially this field of science is particulary dishonest. These failing however do not invalidate that which is good in scince. Even if 4 out of 5 fossils would be fakes, and 4 out of 5 interpretations of real fossils would be sloppy, but the rest is good, honest, and valid, then we would still have sufficient evidence for an evolutionary process. I do not believe that the problems are as prevasive as that, so we are left with a large body of evidence which does suggest evolution.

    I would also say that science fails badly (from what I know as a layman) on the particulars of evolution, but has very strong support for the general idea. I am completely unconviced about the suggested details of how evolution works, but I am convinced that the evidence points to some evolutionary process.

    I think of the existing knowledge as scattered dots which fall on a general line. There are alot of blank spaces, but the pattern is clear. I then ask myself – would I have a more coherent picture of a logically satisfying universe if I fill in the spaces and connect the dots, or if I assume that the holes will never be filled in? If we assume that increasing knowledge will fill in the blnaks, then the existing knowledge is already very explainable and coherent. If however we assume that the dots cannot be connected, then the existing evidence does not have any pattern to it (even if we can explain why God put it there). I am therefore alot more comfortable accepting an evolutionary process despite its incompleteness, then rejecting it and being left with a very arbitrary set of oddly suggestive data.

  4. Michoel says:

    These conversations tend to peter out quicker than I personally would prefer. I think that those that more so accept the conclusions of science either 1. get frustrated with those of us that are more agnostic and just through in the towel 2. feel that they may be doing a disservice to pushing the issues on someone that be challenged by questions they raise 3. Or maybe folks just don’t have the time for it.

    Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan zichrono livracha, humorously describes in one of his books, a typical yeshiva guy talking about science. “what do scientists know? They find a bone somewhere and just say it is thousands of years old”. I am paraphrasing and without much accuracy (been a few years). But I am, to some extent, that very yeshiva guy. Everyone has negios, but doing the best I can to compensate for them, I just can’t get my head around the extreme confidence in evolution and other assumptions of scientists. Maybe half a year ago, there was widely publicized story about “a bone found somewhere”. It was announced to be an extremely large vertebrae of a python. Exactly. One. Bone. Bo bayom, it was also announced, with utter confidence, that the ancient Amazon (during such and such period) was 10 degrees higher than previously thought. Haraya, if not, a snake big enough to have a vertebrae that big could not survive. Is it really all that simple? With respect to the abstract that Dr. Klafter cited above (41), if someone in 2002 would have the audacity to suggest that maybe neanderthals noticed that dead bodies lying around the camp tended to attract rats so they decided to toss their dead in a cave, and therefore the drawings found in the cave shouldn’t be assumed to have a connection to the remains and shouldn’t be dated by them… Such a person probably would have been called a kofer. No? And if we would look hard we could probably even now find a credentialed main-stream scientists that still prefers the earlier dating technique over the new one. If so, why? If the new technique is really so straightforward and flaw-proof?

    If genetic mappings are such a clear proof of paths of ancestry, then why is it that we see credentialed scientist maintaining previous “tree structures” even after genetic proof that they are not correct? Whales-camels, etc. I think Rabbi Slifkin (who has been praised as an expert by people in a position to know) actually says that biological distribution is the strongest raya to common descent. Could be he holds that genetics is also very strong proof. But I am left with a lack of ease that things are really so straightforward.

  5. Observer says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein, you say”I meant those who claim that HKBH manufactured a world some 6000 years ago to deliberately look billions of years old, in order to test our emunah”. I’ve always thought about HKBH creating the world 6k years ago seeming old, but for a different reason.

    An old seeming world is a necessity in a world constructed so that its inhabitants can learn the natural rules of the world. To take one example – if the oil in the ground didn’t “look” the way it does, how could we have learned enough to make the kind of use of oil that we do (it’s not just fuel), as well as finding different ways of extracting oil from sources that don’t respond well to typical oil drilling? In fact, if it didn’t look the way it does, we would never have learned how to actually make oil oit of biomass – but in fact we do know how to do so (although it’s apparently not a commercially viable technology at this point) The stuff can’t be distinguished from the stuff that comes from the ground.

    The reason it makes logical sense, is that whether you look at the chumash literally or not (and there are good arguments either way – the Rambam clearly holds that the pesukim of ma’ase bereishis cannot be taken literally.) it seems pretty clear that Hashem created a mature world, with everything in place to move forward with human history. The world HAS to look at least a dozen years older than it really is (assuming a literal reading of the pesukim) because we are dealing with an adult Adam, and Chava of childbearing age. Once you accept that, does it really make all that much of a difference whether the age between reality and perception is a dozen or a dozen million years? The concept, I think, remains the same.

  6. Michoel says:

    Dr. Klafter,
    and another thing…
    It has been a few years already since I read Rabbi Slikin’s original Science and Torah work so I might be misrepresenting him. He makes the point (echoed here by RYA and in the what he brings Rav Hirsch zt”l) that indeed initial natural laws ARE evidence of a creator. So according to you, that ID is not sensible and not al pi Torah either (and indicative of Hashem doing a poor job of hiding the fact of creation), what is the practical difference between the development of life and the development of physical laws? Either way, we have actual scientific evidence of a Creator. Please correct me if I am misunderstanding you (or maybe you don’t agree with R. Slifkin on this).

  7. Michoel says:

    Dr. Klafter writes: “Hence, one cannot subscribe to the notion of a Young But Old-Appearing Universe and also subscribe to the notion of Intelligent Design. Otherwise, you are taking a position that HaShem attempted to hide his role in the Creation, but He did a very poor job…”

    He did a job which was Perfectly “good enough” for His Purpose. Not perfect in scientific sense but Perfect in the sense of accomplishing His goals for the briyah. Allowing scientists ample room to believe with emunah shleimah that their is no Designer and allowing those that wish to see Design to see it.

    I think that you are attributing a formal “intelligent design” perspective to those that believe in (or are still open to) a recent creation where it really is not necessary to do so. I don’t think that this was fundamentally the approach of Rabbi Avigdor Miller v’syato. Being non-scientists, sometimes yeshivaleit that take this approach might use ID terminology that we “picked up on the street”. The basic vort of this view is: It strikes one as very profoundly counter-intuitive that for example 1. There is a musag of vision. 2. That we have organs capable of extremely precise vision. 3. That those organs connect to our brains and not tuchuses. 4. That there is such a things a spectrum of visible light. 5. That food developed independently from the same initial colony of single celled organisms, (through hundreds of millions years of tiny mutations when it did not and could not serve the purpose of human nutrition) containing the exact nutrients that we need for … vision! and this food has colors, and smells and tastes that we can see and smell and taste. One celled organisms that had no capacity for hearing, developed toward having ears. But if there was no concept of sound waves, it would have been a wasted effort of a couple of billion years. They did not develop organs for hyrdaliosophism which would not have been useful. But vision and hearing sure are useful.

    So the frum evolutionist will say “meah achuz”, we agree with all that but it does not demonstrate a Creator in scientific sense. To which I say, So what? It most certainly DOES demonstrate a Creator in the terms of scientific iniyim, hainu bnei adam.

    Yet we see people who are largely steering the boat of evolutionary theory who are outspoken atheists. So that tells me that they are, in some regard, deeply irrational. And I therefore tend to suspect them of being irrational in other areas as well.

    I don’t see goosebumps and ostrich wings as earth-shattering. I do agree that they can be explained well by evolution but that is not the same thing as evidence for evolution. And very often, when we laymen read scientific articles as critically as our brains allow, we are left underwhelmed and suspicious. Are the articles of lots of creationists far more underwhelming? Sure. But so what?

  8. Michoel says:

    Simcha, and cc Dr. Klafter:
    I still do not chop your chiddush although I’ll rely on Dr. Klafter that it is indeed brilliant. If you could bring it down a bit further without diluting it to batel b’shishim, I would really like to put my head around it. From what I think you are saying, I have to thank you for forcing a more clear expression of the idea of a universe created to look old. I believe, like Bob Miller is alluding to, that the world was created to hide the fact of its haschala. Not old for the sake of being old.

    Dr. Klafter: “But I am not sure… how destructive this in so many ways.”

    Aderaba, If Rav Elya Weintraub posts on Cross-Currents, I would like to ask him also!

  9. Michoel says:

    Dr. Klafter,
    Thanks for the dating info. I see a few things in the abstract. So until very recently (at least 2003) the standard way to date cave drawings was in no way inherent to the drawings themselves. Correct? And the conclusions of previous researchers was widely divergent from the newer conclusions, albeit both resulted in very ancient dates.