Academic Freedom In Action

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Yediot Achronot declares, “The Education Ministry’s chief scientist, Dr. Gavriel Avital, was dismissed on Monday following a scandal-filled trial period of less than a year.” What was the great scandal? Did he embezzle money, or harass coworkers? No – he dared to express personal opinions that run contrary to the conventional wisdom of the “intelligentsia” in the areas of evolution and global warming. He was fired for suggesting that students should be taught to critically analyze commonly-accepted theories; this “sparked a public uproar” and had many “scholars calling for his dismissal.”

In the area of global warming, he took an unpopular position: “If they keep writing in textbooks that the Earth is growing warmer because of carbon dioxide emissions, I’ll insist that isn’t the case.” He is far from alone in this view, of course, and it is worth wondering why environmentalists are so resistant to children learning that there is a dissenting opinion.

With regards to evolution, he was calumnied for not taking a position. “If textbooks state explicitly that human beings’ origins are to be found with monkeys, I would want students to pursue and grapple with other opinions. There are many people who don’t believe the evolutionary account is correct,” he said.

He offers what appears to be a completely neutral pair of options — either don’t teach that human beings were born from monkeys, or offer a contrary opinion. Understand, further, that he didn’t say anything about teaching the Biblical account of Creation.

After blowing away the smoke, there is only one difference between Evolution as currently taught in schools, and Intelligent Design: whether or not the probabilities for the random generation and advancement of life are sufficient to explain our presence. And this is where evolutionary biologists circle the wagons and declare that only they are competent to decide the issue. Here, for example, is correspondence from a proponent of evolution, whose first name is Jordan (last name redacted) and who writes that he studied molecular biology for six years prior to penning his letter, to the author of a website opposing the theory:

Yet another website refuting evolution written by an engineer. What is with you guys and hating evolution? Is it because you spend so much time designing things yourself that you just can’t accept the idea that life couldn’t have orginated without a designer? Spent so much time writing computer code that you think DNA couldn’t have posisbly originated by chance? At the univesity I attend, there’s a group pf students who, like you, seek to disprove evolution. The number of students enrolled in biological sciences who are members? Zero. Engineers? 87%. The rest are art students….but they don’t count. :)

Nearly every single anti-evolution website has an engineer at it’s heart.

Jordan is probably correct on the numbers, but he is quite wrong to believe that it is engineers who lack the expertise (or objectivity). Mathematicians and statisticians, physicists and engineers are all more likely to have the necessary background to analyze the numbers. The professor who wrote the website in question, who has apparently published under the pen name “Do-While Jones,” explains as follows:

Engineers build complex systems. We know from experience that designs that aren’t entirely correct fail to function. Computer programs with millions of lines of code don’t work if just a few lines are wrong. Nobody has ever soldered transistors and resistors together randomly and produced a color TV set. Since biological systems are so much more complex than the systems we build, and since the DNA code is so much more complicated than the computer programs we write, we just can’t accept the idea that they happened by chance. We have never seen a complex system arise by accident, and don’t have any good, scientific reason to believe that it is possible. We don’t have the faith necessary to believe in something that is absolutely contrary to natural observations.

Jordan didn’t say that 87% of the members of anti-evolution groups are theology majors. He said they were engineers. We appreciate the confirmation that so many people rejecting evolution are engineers. That’s been our observation, too, but we haven’t done a scientifically valid study to prove it. It is good, however, to have anecdotal evidence to support our observations. Creationists aren’t just dummies who don’t know anything about science. They are smart people who use their scientific knowledge to design clever, useful products.

This corresponds exactly with my own experience. Biologists universally believed that evolution explains perfectly how we got here, but among those in all the other hard sciences, you were much more likely to hear grave doubts — usually expressed quietly, because who is a professor of computer science to oppose the leading lights in evolutionary biology?

The classification of evolutionary biology as a hard science is itself a matter of dispute. A hard science is “Any of the natural or physical sciences wherein facts or truths are derived from empirical investigations or experiments based on scientific method.” Yet no experiment has been offered as a possible disproof of Darwinian Evolution, offering up a null hypothesis (Intelligent Design) in its stead. On the contrary — the very idea of comparing the two possibilities is lampooned, and competent scientists willing to voice to their doubts in public may lose their jobs.

As Dr Avital put it, “there are those for whom evolution is a religion and are unwilling to hear about anything else.”

Hat Tip: Rabbi Dr. Dovid Gottlieb

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33 Responses

  1. Steve Brizel says:

    Like it or not, Dr Avital ran up and was terminated because of his opposition to scientism, as opposed to science, and his willingness to challenge the junk science known as “global warming”, which the East Anglia emails confirmed must be supported even in the absence of hard scientific data. If one understands that religion in general, and specifically, Torah and science , seek to explain the why and how respectively, but that Torah cannot explain the “how” and science cannot explain the “why” of human existence, the posts in reaction to the linked article would be less frequent.

  2. Yaakov Menken says:

    As I said before, I think Dr. Avital could have expressed himself more clearly. I do not believe he intended to dismiss the similarities themselves, as those are obvious. The fossil record certainly demonstrates apparent relationships between various current species, but the gap between “Megilla and Lucy” remains vastly larger than Darwin predicted. The fossil record does not prove that “random processes are sufficient to explain the origin of human beings, even once the world had monkeys and apes.” I believe that is what Dr. Avital intended regarding whether “human beings’ origins are to be found with monkeys.” RNS can ask him more easily than I can, as he has more ready access to an Israeli phone directory.

    “But the fossil record is NOT presented as evidence for evolutionary mechanisms.” RNS has to go tell that to David.

    Responding to Gershon, Torah education does contain alternate theories that Torah educators, view as in accordance with established fact, and in addition, religious schools have an obvious agenda to present religious education. They aren’t deceiving anyone, or doing other than that which they claim to do. The secular science classroom, however, is supposed to present science, not conjecture cloaked as confirmed fact.

  3. Gershon Josephs says:

    “Doesn’t Gershon find it remarkable that Israel’s Education Minister exhibits the same bias?”

    They are biased towards ‘accepted science’. As a religious person, I have no dog in that fight, since evolution (even if proven) presents no threat at all to my Torah True Hashkafah (as you noted). I would rather leave ‘science’ to the scientists and focus on Torah learning. Chazal say Chochmoh Bagoyim Taamin – Science is certainly Chochmah. Let the scientists figure out what the evolution/creation process ‘looks like’, it makes no difference to us at all, we remain secure in our emunah whatever the process turns out to look like.

    ‘Rather than being taught the various theories, children are given a single conjecture and told it is “proven” and must be believed by any modern, “scientific,” thinking person. Is that education, or indoctrination?’

    You are shooting yourself in the foot, actually you are destroying all of Chinuch with that statement. According to you, the ministry should insist that all Torah education also include alternate theories (e.g. the so called “Documentary Hypothesis”), so that we be careful not to ‘indoctrinate’ our children with only one theory!

    I don’t see any toeles to fighting with the scientists here, on the contrary, I see only downsides. Better to have the secular stay away from debating Torah and the religious stay away from debating science. Both can coexist quite happily as you yourself point out. This controversy is needless.

  4. Bob Miller says:

    Doesn’t a definite scientific assertion of common ancestry require something beyond circumstantial evidence? Like maybe a mechanism that is possible?

  5. Natan Slifkin says:

    “I don’t believe Dr. Avital made reference to any debate with regards to the family, genus and species of Homo Sapiens Sapiens. It has nothing to do with genetic relationships, but rather whether random processes are sufficient to explain the origin of human beings, even once the world had monkeys and apes.”

    Rabbi Menken, please could you re-read what Dr. Avital said? He said, “If textbooks state explicitly that human beings’ origins are to be found with monkeys, I would want students to pursue and grapple with other opinions.” It was precisely the familial relationship between humans and monkeys that he was challenging, not the mechanisms via which one changed into another.

    “To offer the fossil record as “proof” of Evolution by random chance simply demonstrates how unproven it is”

    But the fossil record is NOT presented as evidence for evolutionary mechanisms. It is only presented as evidence for common ancestry. (Which is what Dr. Avital was disputing.)

  6. Bob Miller says:

    David said, “The day you find a homo sapiens fossil in the same sedimentary layer as an australopithecus fossil, you will have refuted most of evolutionary biology.”

    Hardly. Instead, we would hear learned arguments trying to invalidate or explain away this observation, so as to leave the broad theory untouched. Otherwise, too much money and too many reputations would be at risk.

    In any event, since when is the ordering of various fossils in various strata enough to substantiate all claims made about the evolutionary process itself?

  7. Yaakov Menken says:

    Gershon asks a great question, to which David helps provide the answer.

    First of all, I don’t claim to know what it means that Hashem created the world in six days. It’s the position of the Ramban (Nachmanides) that these were literal 24-hour days, but there are other positions. Gershon is right that it doesn’t make a difference.

    He is also correct that the evidence for Evolution could be 100% tested, validated, and confirmed, and that would make no difference either, as I said earlier. [With typical dedication to accuracy and verification, I have seen this point made on a few blogs as if it were something of which I needed to be made aware, rather than something I said.] Gershon seems not to be alone in the belief that since it’s not theologically relevant, we shouldn’t be concerned about unverified nonsense touted as fact — and scientists fired simply for asserting the alternatives should be considered.

    But, David’s claims notwithstanding, random evolution is anything but validated. To offer the fossil record as “proof” of Evolution by random chance simply demonstrates how unproven it is; the existence of any phenomenon is not evidence in favor of any conjecture as to how that phenomenon came to be, regardless of the length of the conjecturer’s resume, lab coat, or bekeshe. This is tantamount to offering the sun’s slow arc across the sky as “proof” that a giant wakes up each morning with a flaming ball disturbing him, and he then tosses it to the other side of the world. We see the evidence with our own eyes!

    The proponents of random evolution deal with reality in a matter entirely akin to the fundamentalist Bible-thumper who believes the world both is and appears to be 5761 years old. Both simply ignore contrary evidence. Statistical probabilities, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and the absence of fossils Darwin confidently predicted we would find are ignored by the one, just as Carbon and Argon dating are ignored by the other. It’s called cognitive dissonance. This is what leads David to dismiss Sir Francis Crick himself as unsuitable for involvement in science education, because he promoted a theory of intelligent design. Doesn’t Gershon find it remarkable that Israel’s Education Minister exhibits the same bias?

    The adherents of Evolution cannot handle the implications of the determination that random forces are insufficient to explain our presence. That is the reason they don’t teach ID, not because ID has any inherent defect as a scientific theory. It is also the reason a ranking expert scientist is dismissed for teaching “pseudo-science” simply because he questions the infallible truth of Evolution.

    Rather than being taught the various theories, children are given a single conjecture and told it is “proven” and must be believed by any modern, “scientific,” thinking person. Is that education, or indoctrination?

  8. David says:

    The ministry is correct. The guy has no business equating pseudo-science like “intelligent design” with evolution if he proposes to be involved in science education. Let him go be a rabbi.

    As to questions about evolution’s status as a hard science, you’re flat wrong. It is repeatedly tested and is repeatedly validated and confirmed (heck, even the people who deny it still go and get flu shots, don’t they?). The day you find a homo sapiens fossil in the same sedimentary layer as an australopithecus fossil, you will have refuted most of evolutionary biology. Until then, the fact that fossils continue to fall into patterns predicted by, and consistent with, evolution is pretty good proof.

    Finally, while it’s cute and popular among the religious set to accuse biologists of exactly the vices from which the religious set is suffering (preconceived notions which are not subject to challenge), it would be a simple matter to conclusively refute evolutionary biology– as I mentioned above, just produce that human fossil at the same stratigraphic layer as the pre-human fossil. Now, tell me what evidence would satisfy Gottlieb and his followers as “proof” that “intelligent design” is false?

  9. Gershon Josephs says:

    Rabbi Menken, I don’t understand your position here. You write (correctly) “To the religious person, it would really make no difference at all if the evidence for Evolution was absolute and overwhelming — because the Medrash says that everything looks as if it were created naturally.” Quite so. So why do you bother spending time debating the minutae of Evolution vs. ID (and siding with latter)? What difference does it make? Hashem created the world 6,000 years ago, fully formed and mature, yet looking 15 billion years old (compete with fossils, traces of evolution etc etc). Evolution is 100% true (from a scientific perspective) and it doesn’t affect our mesorah (or emunah) in the slightest, as we know that is just how Hakosoh Boruch Hu created things. Anyone who takes the Mesorah/Breishis literally can simply adopt this position and there is absolutely no need whatsoever for anyone to be concerned with questions from science.

  10. Rudy Wagner says:

    Many posters expressed, one way or the other, the following: The idea that G-d has set up a world in which there are false indicators to mislead us and test our faith to me definetly *is* absurd.

    If you find this absurd (i.e., not in line with scientific theory and even so out of sync to even be considered as a possibility) and you are coherent in your logic, you should also find absurd that nevuah (prophecy) existed and Matan Torah (the giving of the Torah) really happened. According to you the Torah should be at most a historical account. But even this assumption is untenable since it is scientifically absurd that take seriously that people lived hundreds of years and it is absurd to believe that the eser makot (ten plagues) really happened. What about kiriat yam suf (the splitting of the read sea)? Fairy tales. And needless to say about anenei ha-kavod (clouds of glory), the man, the brocho of shmitah (sabbatical year) and so on. And what about that people have a neshama (soul), techias ha-mesim (the revival of the dead), hashgacha pratis (the involvement of G-d into the small details of our lives)? No way…

    Of course all these things should not be taken literally and whoever does it is not deserving any respect from the elite group of “G-d fearing” “scientists” and should not sit at our table.

    And what about tfillin, shabes, kashrus and so on? No no, we take these things literally… for the time being.

  11. Bob Miller says:

    Dr Bill referred above to “a populist/fundamentalist, man – made ikar haemunah”.

    What does this have to do with our genuine Mesorah?

  12. Yaakov Menken says:

    I suppose it is regrettable that rtw was offended, but this is not proof ipso facto that I was wrong. Every reader can make his or her own determination.

    rtw introduced a statement by Rabbi Gottlieb on a very different topic than evolution, taken out of context, and inquired how I would react to someone attempting to put it in the science classroom. Yet Rabbi Gottlieb’s statement, while a completely reasonable philosophical perspective, was no more relevant to the science classroom than is the history of French intervention in the US Revolutionary War.

    When I pointed out that it was irrelevant, rtw did two things: (1) declare that he never intended to deduce “why [Rabbi] Gottlieb adopts the position,” and then, immediately thereafter, (2) “assume [Rabbi Gottlieb’s] position would be that scientists should leave open the possibility in class that the universe is young” — thus presuming to know why RDG adopts his position (although it is expressly contrary to the point of RDG’s article) and, in turn, proving that I was right in the first place. How can rtw demand an apology for daring to point out that he’s distorting RDG’s actual words, in the same comment in which he repeats his fallacious assumption yet again?

    Dov seems to believe that Sir Francis Crick was unqualified to be teaching the structure of DNA, at least during the years when he proposed his theory of Directed Panspermia. I cannot seek better proof that this has everything to do with politically correct beliefs and nothing to do with actual science.

  13. rtw says:

    “rtw tries to evade having intended to distort Rabbi Gottlieb’s philosophical position, before going back to distorting it. As he says publicly, he believes the scientific evidence is conclusive that the universe is billions of years old, and that science is about discovering what the natural evidence shows us.”
    Except he has a philosophical position about science which is that all of the science is misleading. That’s the utilitarian philosophy of science and has been adopted by Christian apologetic philosophers of science. So I took a guess as to what his position would be with regards to teaching science in the classroom. Perhaps the philosophy of science that it seems to work but all the evidence is misleading should also be taught. I can’t know for sure, but I would assume Gottlieb would want that position to be taught, as opposed to what Rabbi Menken seems to be advocating, which is science professors only teaching the “false” view of the universe as being really old. But you still haven’t answered my question, so I don’t *know* that you’re advocating that. If anybody is evading here, it is not me.

    “rtw tries to evade having intended to distort Rabbi Gottlieb’s philosophical position, before going back to distorting it.”
    There you go again…Rabbi Menken, you can argue with me about what Gottlieb may or may not think, but to accuse me of obfuscating my own words — when I know very clearly what I wrote — is egregious. I demand an apology.

  14. Tal Benschar says:

    The idea that G-d has set up a world in which there are false indicators to mislead us and test our faith to me definetly *is* absurd.

    Actually, the Torah itself contains potential false indicators. The Torah states that Hashem said, “Na’aseh adam be tzaleminu” Let Us make man in our image. Who is the “us?” Rashi on the spot says “Even though Hashem didn’t require assistance in his creation, and it left an opening for rebels still, the verse wrote it this way to teach derech eretz and humility, that one who is great should still consult with one who is smaller.” In other words, although there is a danger that the rebels will mis-read this verse as an affirmation of polytheism, chas v’ shalom, the Torah was willing to take that risk for the purpose of teaching us derekh eretz.

    So there may well be an ulterior purpose to putting something in Creation which could lead one down the wrong path.

    (R. Elchanam Wasserman commented on that Rashi, that the reason we are not concerned with that danger is that every child in cheder is taught what the correct meaning of that passuk is and why it used that language.)

  15. dr. bill says:

    Bob Miller, There are many brilliant albeit “doikheck tirruztim” that abound in this area that, in the minds of some, strain credulity. For some. believing them and in fact embracing them tends to negate our gift of intelligence, the tzelem Elokim with which God endowed us. As one very distinguished scholar expressed it – given the choice of re-interpreting a populist/fundamentalist, man – made ikar haemunah or desecrating my God given intelligence, I am machmir to side with God over His creations.

  16. Bob Miller says:

    Steve Ehrlich wrote above, “The idea that G-d has set up a world in which there are false indicators to mislead us and test our faith to me definetly *is* absurd.”

    It seems to me that there are false indicators all over the place, including man-made ones in the blogosphere. If a false indicator contradicting Torah was embedded in the history or structure of the world, we would not be not helpless to find the truth, since the Torah contains it.

  17. Dov says:

    This is all off the topic.

    We can argue evolution and science all we want to, that doesn’t make it wrong for the Department of Education to want a chief scientist that will support scientific education.

    Should I be the chief art educator for the Department of Education if I think all art is ugly? Should I be chief literature educator if I think literature analysis and symbolism is all baloney? Should someone be head of Tanach teaching if they think it’s no more special than a comic book?

    I can defend what the guy said as much as anyone else, but that doesn’t make him appropriate for Chief scientist of the department of education.

  18. Yaakov Menken says:

    rtw tries to evade having intended to distort Rabbi Gottlieb’s philosophical position, before going back to distorting it. As he says publicly, he believes the scientific evidence is conclusive that the universe is billions of years old, and that science is about discovering what the natural evidence shows us. If one is unable to understand a universe that is under 6000 years old but looks 15 billion years old, then one should be equally unable to understand how a particle gets from point A to point B without ever travelling between them (the behavior of an electron within a nucleus).

    Dr. Hall seems to be making distinctions without a difference. When doing a drug trial, one compares to a placebo and then determines whether the improvement in patients taking the actual drug is unlikely to have been simply a chance improvement in that group. Science works with probabilities day in, day out.

    “Do Evolution’s proponents accept the possibility that there could be another explanation than the one they promote, and that Evolution can be disproven? And will they give up Evolution if their experiment doesn’t show what they want it to show? If not, they are not scientists and have no place at the table.”

    I couldn’t agree more…

  19. Charlie Hall says:

    Rabbi Menken apparently misunderstands of the use of probability in scientific inference as he discusses “whether or not the probabilities for the random generation and advancement of life are sufficient to explain our presence”. The absolute probability of an event occurring under a scientific hypothesis is completely irrelevant to science. We compare likelihoods of different hypotheses to each other; the one most likely is the one supported by the evidence. Do Intelligent Design proponents accept the possibility that there could be another explanation than the one they promote, and that Intelligent Design can be disproven? And will they give up ID if their experiment doesn’t show what they want it to show? If not, they are not scientists and have no place at the table. If so, they need to propose real investigations that can prove or disprove their theory. (And the onus is on the ID proponents, as they are the ones proposing a revolutionary paradigm shift based on no data.)

    And the inclusion of the term “Academic Freedom” in the title of the essay is completel off base. There is no academic freedom for a scientists to promote non-science. Someone who says that HIV does not cause AIDS, or that cigarette smoking does not cause lung cancer, or that vaccines cause autism has rejected the basic empirical basis of science and does not belong at the table. (I would further add that such a person is a menace to society.) Nobody here would ever suggest that a holocaust denier should be given credence as a historian or that a Reform rabbi should be given credence for his/her halachic analysis; kal v’chomer hiring someone in those categories as the chair of a history department or chas v’shalom or as a rosh yeshiva! Suggesting that someone who rejects the basis of an entire discipline deserves academic freedom is dangerously close to postmodernist nonsense.

    Personally, I think that the concept of empirical support for religious principles is close to heresy: If you accept that Torah can be proven empirically — or even can be a source for scientific hypotheses — you also accept that it can be disproven, chas v’shalom! I reject the entire line of inquiry as unscientific and anti-religious.

  20. Steve Ehrlich says:

    The idea that G-d has set up a world in which there are false indicators to mislead us and test our faith to me definetly *is* absurd. According to this, it wont matter what fossils are found, or what their Carbon date is, or what similarities there are between Lucy and Neanderthals and Us, because, after all, G-d is just testing us. He doth definetly have a heck of a Sense of Humor. I’m sorry, if this isnt absurd, I’m not sure what the defintion of absurd is.

  21. rtw says:

    “rtw says that ‘Rabbi Gottlieb thinks the universe is literally less than 6000 years old’ and then wonders if I “would think that was over-the-line or just legitimate scientific dissent.’ By connecting Rabbi Gottlieb’s statement to anything scientific, rtw demonstrates that he has no understanding of what Rabbi Gottlieb actually wrote.”

    I asked you a hypothetical question of what your opinion would be if Dr. Avital adopted Gottlieb’s position. I didn’t say why Gottlieb adopts the position. But according to Gottlieb we can’t really adduce anything from the evidence we have anyways, so I would assume his position would be that scientists should leave open the possibility in class that the universe is young and all the evidence they have is false since that position is objective truth.

  22. Yaakov Menken says:

    rtw says that “Rabbi Gottlieb thinks the universe is literally less than 6000 years old” and then wonders if I “would think that was over-the-line or just legitimate scientific dissent.” By connecting Rabbi Gottlieb’s statement to anything scientific, rtw demonstrates that he has no understanding of what Rabbi Gottlieb actually wrote.

    As far as Steve’s question, there are no scientific grounds for the belief that the world is less than billions of years old — that we know. That’s the Scientific Creationism hogwash, to which Rabbi Gottlieb most emphatically does not subscribe (and this I know from hearing it personally).

    There are many theories as to what the six days of Creation mean. And what Rabbi Gottlieb wrote was, similar to what Steve attributes to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, that the world can be less than 6000 years old while appearing to be billions of years old. We don’t have the tools in our hands to determine one way or the other, because they go outside the realm of science:

    Let’s first understand that G-d certainly can do this if He wishes. There is no logical impossibility in imagining such indicators of false age. Furthermore, something like this is part of the naive understanding of Genesis. Adam was created as an adult. Observing him a few minutes after he was created, we would assume him to be at least twenty years old: he was created with misleading symptoms of greater age than he possessed. The trees created in the Garden of Eden presumably had tree rings. Tree rings usually indicate the age of the tree, but in this case the rings are misleading evidence of age the trees did not possess. So the idea is not inherently absurd.

    This is directly relevant to what I said about bias with regards to Evolution. To the religious person, it would really make no difference at all if the evidence for Evolution was absolute and overwhelming — because the Medrash says that everything looks as if it were created naturally. Adam was physically a 20-year-old at the moment of his “birth.” In some ways, the infinitesimal probabilities for Evolution are at least as problematic as if they added up.

    I think Rabbi Slifkin is going further afield in misunderstanding Dr. Avital. I don’t believe Dr. Avital made reference to any debate with regards to the family, genus and species of Homo Sapiens Sapiens. It has nothing to do with genetic relationships, but rather whether random processes are sufficient to explain the origin of human beings, even once the world had monkeys and apes.

    This is what rtw is dismissing as “Hoyle’s Fallacy,” which is simply a classic example of dismissing counter-evidence with ad hominems rather than addressing it. The Wikipedia page actually does a pretty good job of explaining the argument, despite the obvious biases of the writers. The Second Law of Thermodynamics (Entropy) is no problem, because it means that “one has not quite grasped how powerful a force natural selection can be.” [The fact that the actual power of natural selection in development of new species is based upon conjecture is not addressed. When I was a child we were taught the black & white moths in England were evidence of natural selection — when no new species ever arose.] The fact that an optic nerve is useless without an eye, and an eye is useless without an optic nerve (among thousands of similar examples)…. Uri Zohar quotes this example (there are thousands of others, of course) from a biology textbook that calls it a conundrum with only one possible answer: “slow trial and error with natural selection.”

    That natural selection truly has godlike powers, it seems.

  23. Steve Ehrlich says:

    I’d like to ask Rabbi Menken if he also believes the world to be literally < 6000 years old. Because one of the pillars of evolutionary theory is that these sorts of changes in species occur very gradually and dramatic changes only occur across aeons of time. So Rabbi Menken, I'm curious… do you believe the world to be that young? BTW, if I'm not mistaken, the Lubavitcher Rebbe's approach to the existance of dinosaurs and the age of the earth was that, really, the world is < 6000 years old, but that HaKadosh Baruch Hu put dinosaur bones in the earth to test our faith, for His own reasons. Once you are prepared to say stuff like this, I guess science isnt much use…

  24. rtw says:

    “Since biological systems are so much more complex than the systems we build, and since the DNA code is so much more complicated than the computer programs we write, we just can’t accept the idea that they happened by chance.”
    Incidentally, there’s a name for this “logic.” It’s called Hoyle’s Fallacy. It is unfortunate that Rabbi Menken is making assertions when, if he’s quoting such an argument, he clearly hasn’t done the research. I hope readers will take this post with a skeptical grain of salt.

  25. Natan Slifkin says:

    Rabbi Menken, you appear to have misunderstood what I wrote. I wasn’t talking about similarities between man and apes, but rather about the notion of them sharing a common ancestor. As you say, Dr. Avital claims that “there are those who argue with the idea that one actually came from the other, regardless of those genetic similarities.” Indeed there are – but they are not scientists in biology-related fields. So why is their opinion relevant in a science class?

  26. chareidi leumi says:

    >Andy has an interesting point. The Israeli secular school system claims to have no bias, yet it teaches both Evolution and Biblical Criticism without entertaining the contrary opinion in either case.

    This is not true regarding tanach. The secular system actually teaches classic rabbinic interpertations side by side with critical theory. In fact, outside of the university level, I would say the traditional approach is the greater component of (the very little) Tanach to which students are exponsed.

  27. rtw says:

    Rabbi Gottlieb thinks the universe is literally less than 6000 years old. That’s about a thousand years after the Sumerians invented glue. Hypothetically, let’s imagine Dr. Avital had written the following: “If textbooks state explicitly that the universe is older than 6000 years, I would want students to pursue and grapple with other opinions. There are many people who don’t believe the Old Earth account is correct.”

    I wonder if Rabbi Menken would think that was over-the-line or just legitimate scientific dissent.

  28. Yaakov Menken says:

    Several commenters engage in the exact sort of argument which Jon Baker claims is used in a book by a well-known Rabbi. First, define Intelligent Design as “supported only by the Bible” and “not science.” Then Evolution becomes the only scientific theory of our origins, and the only one worthy of being taught to children in a science classroom. And why not? This technique has successfully been employed in United States courts as well.

    Again, the only difference between Intelligent Design and Evolution is “whether or not the probabilities for the random generation and advancement of life are sufficient to explain our presence.” Sir Francis Crick himself (with James Watson, the discoverer of the DNA molecule) found the probabilities so overwhelmingly dubious that he promoted a theory of Directed Panspermia, genetic seeding from outer space. He later changed his mind, concluding that random advancement was certainly more probable than the idea that we are some sort of galactic farm experiment, a conclusion with which most of us would probably agree. But it is nonsensical to dismiss Crick’s theory as “unscientific” when it results directly from his research into the complexity of the DNA molecule which he had discovered.

    I do not believe that my friend Rabbi Slifkin is correct. The common genetic code between man and ape is nothing new; the Gemara itself points out that man is created in the image of a monkey as well as, l’havdil, the image of G-d. Dr. Avital appears to be saying that the chasm separating Magilla from Lucy is sufficient that there are those who argue with the idea that one actually came from the other, regardless of those genetic similarities. He certainly could have misstated his case, because Intelligent Design could as easily be accomplished by extraterrestrials performing genetic upgrades on a pair of gorillas, but I do not believe he intended to dismiss the similarities themselves.

    For that matter, I also certainly misstated, because it is not correct to say that anything categorized as evolutionary biology isn’t hard science. It is only the theory of evolution itself which wanders well outside the domain of that which can be tested. Contrary to what Rabbi Slifkin stated, if we found mermaids, biologists would find a way to classify them.

    Evolution is extrapolation to the point of wild conjecture from a very limited data set. There is a scientist at Oxford University who looked carefully at the data on male and female sprinters, and confidently predicted that women will outrun men in the 100 meters at the 2156 Olympics. This was published in Nature in 2004.

    Some questioned this on biological grounds — the differences between male and female biology give men more muscle and women more fat for the same amount of body weight, and therefore he ought to be wrong. Others, however, disproved his assertions without any reference to biology; they merely pointed out that if you continue to extrapolate from the same data, women sprinters will exceed the speed of sound at some point during the 23rd Century, and the speed of light not long thereafter.

    “Go find a counterexample” is not a valid disproof of a null hypothesis — and evolutionists, as demonstrated by these comments themselves, dismiss the null hypothesis as “unscientific” and refuse to examine the possibility that the probabilities are overwhelming. They simply close their ears to the point of claiming that Dr. Avital, Chief Scientist for Israel’s Education Ministry, does not exist — as Joel Shurkin has “never heard any non-biologist question evolution” precisely as Dr. Avital has done. If he never heard in 30 years of science journalism what I heard plenty of times in four years at Princeton, this only proves that he never gave the issue serious consideration.

    I’m not immune to that — I was educated to believe that Evolution was proven fact, and as Rabbi Slifkin actively points out, this belief is not necessarily contradictory to belief in Torah. [I even wrote a paper on the unscientific nature of so-called “Scientific Creationism,” a position of mine which has not changed.] Jon turns the truth on its head. It’s not that Intelligent Design is unscientific, it’s that those who do not believe in G-d, and do not want to believe in G-d, are inherently biased against anything which says we didn’t show up here by chance. It is extremely common for those who come to Torah observance to eventually drop their belief in evolution, because without the bias, we simply find the math doesn’t make sense — it’s akin to saying 2+2=5 if we wait long enough.

    Andy has an interesting point. The Israeli secular school system claims to have no bias, yet it teaches both Evolution and Biblical Criticism without entertaining the contrary opinion in either case. As for an article, I’d suggest he begin with Crick’s literature on Directed Panspermia and work from there.

    The comments regarding global warming merely confirm that the debate is exactly on the topic that Dr. Avital specified, so there’s nothing to add on that issue.

  29. dr. bill says:

    2 points:

    1) the title, using the word “academic,” characterizes the problem incorrectly. An academic can maintain various positions that ought not to be the basis for dismissal. An employee does not (and should not) have similar privileges.

    2) Nothing in these realms is proven in a mathematical sense. Germs may be little devils and all of science just an elaborate theory. To a very different extent, some engineers that I know have this propensity to demand “proof” as often exists in their engineering domains but not in the more abstract sciences. It is never useful to argue with people who demand proof where only reasonable hypotheses, refined and even changed over time, are how the domain operates.

  30. Andy says:

    Two questions for the author of the post:
    1. Does the author believe that ‘teach the controversy’ applies across the board, say even in the domain of religion and the origins of the Tanach?

    2. There is so much out there on Evolution vs. ID, can the author please direct me to an article he believes makes a convincing case regarding the failure of Evolution to demonstrate, in his words “whether or not the probabilities for the random generation and advancement of life are sufficient to explain our presence”?
    Thank you.

  31. Natan Slifkin says:

    Rabbi Menken, you are conflating two different issues: common ancestry, and evolutionary mechanisms. Intelligent Design only relates to the second – evolutionary mechanisms. But Dr. Avital was challenging the former – common ancestry. This has nothing to do with math; it relates to paleontology and biology. And it could easily be disproved, by finding animals that do not fit into the family-tree pattern of nested hierarchal classification (e.g. mermaids, griffins) or by finding fossils in all the wrong places (e.g. Jurassic rabbits and Cretaceous horses). One can only wonder if those who deny common ancestry can also offer ways in which their view can be disproved.

    Furthermore, note that Dr. Avital did not challenge it on the basis of any empirical evidence – just on the grounds that “there are people who disagree.” Sure there are; but you won’t find any professional biologists who disagree with common ancestry (the ID movement scientists, such as Behe and Denton, all accept it). You might as well say that schools should also teach the theory that the moon landing and holocaust were hoaxes, since there are many people who believe that. Would you approve of this as “not taking an approach, being neutral, and offering both options”?

    Finally, while there may well be biases with some scientists, there are nevertheless plenty of religious scientists who accept common ancestry and even Darwinian explanations of evolutionary mechanisms. But those who reject common ancestry are invariably those with a clear religious agenda. So Dr. Avital’s statement that “there are those for whom evolution is a religion and are unwilling to hear about anything else” is extraordinarily hypocritical.

  32. Joel Shurkin says:

    Political correctness has nothing to do with it. First, there is no dissenting opinion that the climate is changing and getting warmer. The controversy is over the variables causing the warming, i.e., how much is human caused and how much is the result of natural cycles, and about models of what will happen. That climate change is happening is accepted by the broad consensus of scientists in the field. (I am currently writing a book on climate change in Alaska, where warming has altered every-day life so profoundly that it went beyond controversy years ago. Even Sarah Palin agrees it is happening. She set up a formal procedure whilst governor to help the state cope with the change, a better system than in any other state. I’ll be happy to introduce you by telephone to a community of Yu-pik Eskimos who are the world’s first refugees of climate change.) Second, text books do not say “that human beings’ origins are to be found with monkeys.” Evolution doesn’t say that; Darwin never said that, no biologist I know of says that. It shows a profound misunderstanding of evolution. Creationism or intelligent design is not science, it is religion disguised as science. Your statement of whether biology is a “hard” science shows an equally profound ignorance of both evolutionary biology and the scientific process. Evolutionary biology has been proven in the laboratory and in the field for more than 100 years. And no, you are not likely to hear “grave doubts” from non-biologists. I have been a science journalist for 30 years, am science writer emeritus at Stanford, and never heard any non-biologist question evolution or the science behind it. Never. Again, the dispute is in the details, not whether it is real but how it works.

    Israel’s economy increasingly is based on its remarkable prowess in engineering and science. It is one of the world’s leaders, bless them. Having an education minister spew the nonsense this guy did is appalling. Your defense is puzzling.

  33. Jon Baker says:

    The Education Ministry has a point. If you hire someone to be a chief scientist, and he turns around and actively undermines science education in secular schools by touting a position supported only by the Bible, he’s not fulfilling his job. His “two neutral oprions” are about as unbiased/neutral as [book and name redacted]: First, assume that all scientists are liars. Then we can proceed in an “unbiased” fashion. IOW, if you assume that science is wrong and a literal reading of the Bible is right, then you can prove that science is wrong and a literal reading of the Bible is right. I’m sure you can see the flaw in that argument.

    Never mind that plenty of moderns, e.g., the Tiferes Yisroel or R’ Kook, had no problem with taking the Creation narratives figuratively in the face of the truths of modern geology, biology and palaeontology. So his position isn’t even necessarily true for religious people either.

    As for global warming, note that he didn’t actually deny it’s taking place, only that carbon-*dioxide* (not carbon stam) emissions were the major/sole culprit. He’s probably right, since it’s carbon emissions in toto that are being blamed for it.

    I know climate change is happening, my barber told me so. He spends the summer on the family farm in Italy where he grew up, and for the past three years, the fig crop has failed, as has his persimmon tree in Brooklyn.