Brainless

July 19, 2018

From a recent essay by the paediatric neurosurgeon Michael Egnor:

I watched the CAT scan images appear on the screen, one by one. The baby’s head was mostly empty. There were only thin slivers of brain – a bit of brain tissue at the base of the skull, and a thin rim around the edges. The rest was water.

Her parents had feared this. We had seen it on the prenatal ultrasound; the CAT scan, hours after birth, was much more accurate. Katie looked like a normal newborn, but she had little chance at a normal life. She had a fraternal-twin sister in the incubator next to her. But Katie only had a third of the brain that her sister had. I explained all of this to her family, trying to keep alive a flicker of hope for their daughter.

I cared for Katie as she grew up. At every stage of Katie’s life so far, she has excelled. She sat and talked and walked earlier than her sister. She’s made the honor roll. She will soon graduate high school.

I’ve had other patients whose brains fell far short of their minds. Maria had only two-thirds of a brain. She needed a couple of operations to drain fluid, but she thrives. She just finished her master’s degree in English literature, and is a published musician. Jesse was born with a head shaped like a football and half-full of water – doctors told his mother to let him die at birth. She disobeyed. He is a normal happy middle-schooler, loves sports, and wears his hair long.

Some people with deficient brains are profoundly handicapped. But not all are. I’ve treated and cared for scores of kids who grow up with brains that are deficient but minds that thrive. How is this possible?

[https://www.plough.com/en/topics/justice/reconciliation/science-and-the-soul]

&&&

I wrote along similar lines in Genesis and the Big Bluff, my critique of Genesis and the Big Bang [available on this website for download]. Here is an excerpt from the essay:

On page 147 of Genesis and the Big Bang, Dr. Schroeder touches on the human brain:

The shapes of the interiors of fossil skulls indicate that even the three-layered structure of our brains has existed for at least hundreds of thousands of years… What appears to be the oldest part of our brain is a mass of nerves at the top of the spinal cord. In this region, referred to as the stem, or brain stem, automatic body functions such as breathing and heartbeat are controlled. Overlying the brain stem is the reptilian part of our brain, where the instincts for territorial control and for fight or flight are seated… Above the reptilian brain lies the limbic system… The most recent part of the brain to evolve is the cerebral cortex… The very fact that the brain is layered, with each successive advance in intellectual development literally placed on top of its predecessor, indicates a pattern in development of brain morphology…

Knowledge of the human brain has been completely transformed by the progress made during the Decade of the Brain. This was a designation for 1990-1999 by U.S. president George H. W. Bush to enhance public awareness of the benefits to be derived from brain research. The main engines driving this progress were the new technologies known as PET scanning and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) which enabled researchers to scan the working brain of volunteers as they conducted various mental tasks…

The next era in brain research was characterised by the computer metaphor, in which the brain was likened to a massive information-processing machine. It yielded useful insights, but had to be abandoned eventually. One reason was that the comparison stretched the imagination. Communications expert Charles Jonscher writes:

We don’t just have the power of a single computer in our heads. The true comparison would be a figure more like twenty billion computers. The complexities involved are genuinely difficult to imagine. [Charles Jonscher, Wired Life: Who Are We in the Digital Age? Bantam 1990. It is estimated that the human brain has the potential to perform a quadrillion computations per second, which far outstrips the capacity of even the most sophisticated supercomputers.]

Another reason why the computer metaphor was abandoned is the discovery of astonishing neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to rewire itself. Let us examine some examples. The first concerns a fifty-five-year-old lorry driver who was involved in a motor accident and subsequently underwent a brain scan (see below). The scan revealed a massive congenital cyst which occupied much of his skull. And yet, the lorry driver was a normal individual, whose condition was never suspected until he underwent a scan. The reason for this is that during his childhood, his brain (what there was of it) reallocated a whole variety of functions to different regions of its real estate. [Leonard Yuen, British Medical Journal, 2003, volume 327, page 998.]

The second example is even more astonishing:

There’s a young student at this university who has an IQ of 126, has gained a first-class honors degree in mathematics, and is socially completely normal. And yet the boy has virtually no brain. [Roger Lewin, Is Your Brain Really Necessary? Science, 210 (12 December 1980): 1232.]

The student’s physician at the university noticed that the youth had a slightly larger than normal head, and so referred him, out of interest, to a neurologist:

When we did a brain scan on him, we saw that… his cranium is filled mainly with cerebro-spinal fluid.

This may seem to be a cover story from The National Enquirer, but it is in fact research reported by John Lorber, a neurologist and professor at Sheffield University.

As research during the Decade of the Brain progressed, it turned out that the properties of the mind can be programmed onto any part of the brain. This emerged dramatically in the early 1980s when paediatric neurosurgeons at Johns Hopkins University Medical Center sought to treat children with intractable epilepsy by means of a last-ditch operation of excising the affected half of the brain. They anticipated that this would cause paralysis or loss of speech. To their delight, the results proved extremely encouraging:

We were always amazed. Here they are running, jumping, talking, doing well in school… able to lead a normal life. The worst they suffered from losing half a brain was some impairment of peripheral vision and fine motor skills on one side of the body. [James Le Fanu, Why Us? Pantheon Books 2009, pages 191-192.]

In its August 2003 edition, Scientific American published an article on the cerebellum entitled Rethinking the “Lesser Brain”. The article reviewed research into this baseball-sized, bean-shaped brain tissue and its functions. The authors note that:

What is even more confounding is that people can recover from cerebellar injury. Although total removal of the cerebellum initially disrupts movement coordination, individuals (particularly young ones) can, with sufficient time, regain normal function to a considerable degree. Such plasticity is a general characteristic of the brain…

In the overview, the following point is made:

Removing the cerebellum from young individuals often causes few obvious behavioural difficulties, suggesting that the rest of the brain can learn to function without a cerebellum.

The September 2003 edition of Scientific American was a special issue dedicated to the brain. In the introductory article (page 27), the magazine noted that

The most important realization to emerge during the Brain Decade is that the organ being feted is more changeable than we ever thought. Even in maturity, some areas of the brain can renew themselves – a fact astonishingly contrary to a century of neurologists’ dogma.

One key lesson here is that one cannot conceive of the brain – as does Dr. Schroeder – as a simple assemblage of Lego-like, discrete modules tacked on by natural selection over millions of years. This research also refutes the notion that a gradual increase in brain capacity over eons transformed primitive hominids into intelligent homo sapiens. The brain is an integrated whole.

This is how Professor David Hubel summarises the conundrum raised by the latest research:

This abiding tendency for attributes such as form, colour and movement to be handled by separate structures in the brain immediately raises the question of how all the information is finally assembled, say for perceiving a bouncing red ball. It obviously must be assembled, but where and how, we have no idea.

[END OF EXCERPT]

Dr Egnor continues:

How does the mind relate to the brain? This question is central to my professional life. I thought I had it answered. Yet a century of research and thirty years of my own neurosurgical practice have challenged everything I thought I knew.

The view assumed by those who taught me is that the mind is wholly a product of the brain, which is itself understood as something like a machine. Francis Crick, a neuroscientist and the Nobel laureate who was the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, wrote that “a person’s mental activities are entirely due to the behavior of nerve cells, glial cells, and the atoms, ions, and molecules that make them up and influence them.”

This mechanical philosophy is the result of two steps. It began with Rene Descartes, who argued that the mind and the brain were separate substances, immaterial and material. Somehow (how, neither Descartes nor anyone else can say) the mind is linked to the brain – it’s the ghost in the machine…

In the middle of the twentieth century, neurosurgeons discovered that they could treat a certain kind of epilepsy by severing a large bundle of brain fibers, called the corpus callosum, which connects the two hemispheres of the brain. Following these operations, each hemisphere worked independently. But what happened to the mind of a person with his or her brain split in half?

The neuroscientist Roger Sperry studied scores of split-brain patients. He found, surprisingly, that in ordinary life the patients showed little effect. Each patient was still one person. The intellect and will – the capacity to have abstract thought and to choose – remained unified. Only by meticulous testing could Sperry find any differences: their perceptions were altered by the surgery. Sensations – elicited by touch or vision – could be presented to one hemisphere of the brain, and not be experienced in the other hemisphere. Speech production is associated with the left hemisphere of the brain; patients could not name an object presented to the right hemisphere (via the left visual field). Yet they could point to the object with their left hand (which is controlled by the right hemisphere). The most remarkable result of Sperry’s Nobel Prize­–winning work was that the person’s intellect and will – what we might call the soul – remained undivided.

The brain can be cut in half, but the intellect and will cannot. The intellect and will are metaphysically simple.

&&&

Most evolutionary biologists are reductionists, viewing biology as reducible to chemistry and chemistry as reducible to physics (at least in principle). But there is a vast body of evidence that suggests that not all phenomena are reducible to elementary particles. In particular, the human brain resists all attempts to reduce its wonders into a kludge of goo, a la Francis Crick. There is every reason to believe – on scientific grounds alone – that there is something beyond mechanistic, blind processes going on inside the most complex known object in the universe.

 

 

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Recent Dinosaurs?

March 8, 2018

Genesis and Genes is mostly about how intelligent, educated and well-informed laymen should assess the claims made by science, especially in controversial areas like biological evolution. In the book, I only briefly touched on paleontology. Here is one of the passages in the book that is relevant to that issue.

[Excerpt from Genesis and Genes]

In 2005, a remarkable study appeared in the journal Science.[1] Mary H. Schweitzer of North Carolina State University reported the discovery of flexible blood vessels inside the fossilized thighbone of a “68-70 million year old” Tyrannosaurus rex from the Hell Creek formation in eastern Montana. Previous studies indicated that the upper limit to the preservation of a stable protein such as collagen was only 15 thousand years at 20°C.[2] Dr. Schweitzer commented, “I am quite aware that according to conventional wisdom and models of fossilization, these structures aren’t supposed to be there, but there they are. I was pretty shocked.”

[END of Excerpt]

A friend has now kindly sent me a fascinating video clip that is directly relevant to the above passage from Genesis and Genes. It includes an interview with Dr Schweitzer.

Let it be noted that I disagree with many of the points made in the clip, including the one about the alleged ancestor-descendant relationship between dinosaurs and modern birds (about which I wrote a lot in Genesis and Genes). Still, it is fascinating to see the soft tissue extracted from a fossil which is supposedly about 70 million years old.

Here is the link to the video clip (it is about 15 minutes long):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yJOQiyLFMNY

A few more fascinating details that are not mentioned in the video clip emerge in an interesting article about Schweitzer and her work.[3] Here is a short excerpt:

She had already seen signs of exceptional preservation in the early 1990s, while she was studying the technical aspects of adhering fossil slices to microscope slides. One day a collaborator brought a T. rex slide to a conference and showed it to a pathologist, who examined it under a microscope. “The guy looked at it and said, ‘Do you realize you’ve got red blood cells in that bone?’” Schweitzer remembers. “My colleague brought it back and showed me, and I just got goose bumps, because everyone knows these things don’t last for 65 million years.”

When Schweitzer showed Horner the slide, she recalls, “Jack said, ‘Prove to me they’re not red blood cells.’ That was what I got my Ph.D. doing.” She first ruled out contaminants and mineral structures. Then she analyzed the putative cells using a half-dozen techniques involving chemical analysis and immunology. In one test, a colleague injected rats with the dinosaur fossil extract; the rodents produced antibodies that responded to turkey and rabbit hemoglobins. All the data supported the conclusion that the T. rex fossil contained fragments of hemoglobin molecules. “The most likely source of these proteins is the once-living cells of the dinosaur,” she wrote in a 1997 paper.

SOURCES:

  1. Schweitzer, M.H., Wittmeyer, J.L., Horner, J.R., and Toporski, J.K. 2005., Soft-Tissue Vessels and Cellular Preservation in Tyrannosaurus rex, Science 307(5717): 1952–1955.
  1. Nielsen-Marsh, C., Biomolecules in fossil remains: A multidisciplinary approach to endurance, The Biochemist June 2002 pages 12–14. Available online [Last retrieved 11th September 2011] at http://www.biochemist.org/bio/02403/0012/024030012.pdf.
  1. http://barryyeoman.com/2006/04/schweitzers-dangerous-discovery/

Last retrieved 8th March 2018.

Chromium Opprobrium

December 18, 2017

Perhaps the most serious error that contemporary society makes about science is that all its results are equally credible. One of the main themes of Genesis and Genes is that science operates on different levels; results in some realms of science are credible, while results in other areas should be treated with considerable scepticism. In particular, one should be wary of claims about events that allegedly occurred millions or billions of years ago and are not amenable to direct observation.

This is a point that is misunderstood not only by the vast majority of laymen, but also by professional scientists. Here is an excerpt from Genesis and Genes.

[Beginning of excerpt]

With this in mind, let us consider this statement by a contemporary scientist and author:

Radioactive carbon-14 had a 5600-year half-life in the early universe just as it has now.[1]

This is the voice of faith. The truth is that we do not know and cannot know the half-life of carbon-14 in the early universe. We were not there, and any conclusions made on the basis of current measurements, no matter how plausible, will be based on assumptions about how nature’s laws operated in the past. Often, these assumptions are left unstated, so that the public is convinced that measurement of the cosmic background radiation, for example, is a direct measurement of some parameter that characterised the early universe. It isn’t. The theory from which the measurements derive their importance assumes, at the very least, that certain laws of nature operated at specific rates throughout the past, all the way back to the beginning. We shall never know whether this assumption is justified. Nonetheless, many contemporary scientists are committed to the principle of the immutability of natural laws. Whatever laws are operative today, they maintain, have always operated, and always at the same rate.

[End of excerpt]

One of the most important parameters in Origin-of-Life research is the atmospheric concentration of oxygen. All models that deal with the emergence of life on Earth rely on conclusions about how much oxygen our atmosphere contained at various points of Earth’s history. One reason for this, of course, is that large mammals like human beings need a high concentration of atmospheric oxygen to “operate”. A second reason is that too much oxygen in the atmosphere would lead to spontaneous fires erupting everywhere, not a scenario guaranteed to provide comfort to any emerging life. But perhaps the most important point is that oxygen, being a reactive (that is, destructive) molecule, makes it immensely unlikely that delicate organic reactions could have happened in the remote past. Abundant atmospheric oxygen would simply have wrecked these fragile processes before they had a chance to even begin.

So, how do you measure the atmospheric concentration of oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere billions of years ago? Not surprisingly, the answer is, “With great difficulty.” One of the standard techniques involves measuring the ratio of two isotopes of the metal Chromium in ancient rocks. [Isotopes are versions of the same element; every atom of the element has the same number of protons in its nucleus, but different isotopes contain different numbers of neutrons.]

New research sheds interesting light on the possible pitfalls in this kind of research.[2] A report about research done at the Georgia Institute of Technology begins with the following paragraph:

For researchers pursuing the primordial history of oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere, a new study might sour some “Eureka!” moments. A contemporary tool used to trace oxygen by examining ancient rock strata can produce false positives, according to the study, and the wayward results can mask as exhilarating discoveries.

What is going on? The article continues:

Common molecules called ligands can bias the results of a popular chemical tracer called the chromium (Cr) isotope system, which is used to test sedimentary rock layers for clues about atmospheric oxygen levels during the epoch when the rock formed. Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have demonstrated in the lab that many ligands could have created a signal very similar to that of molecular oxygen.

In other words, you think you’re measuring A, but in reality B is interfering and giving you results that mislead you. The result is

“There are some geographical locations and ancient situations where measurable signals could have been generated that had nothing to do with how much oxygen was around,” said Chris Reinhard, one of the study’s lead authors.

This is not just theory. The article states,

But some researchers confronted with odd Cr signals have thought they had perhaps stumbled upon a radical find, and they developed explanations for how O2 [oxygen] may have been surprisingly bountiful on the lonesome spot where a particular rock layer formed, while molecular oxygen was scant on the rest of the globe. Others puzzled that atmospheric O2 levels may have risen much earlier than overwhelmingly broad evidence has indicated.

“A lot of that could be chalked up to other chemical processes and not to interactions with oxygen,” Reinhard said.

&&&

There are at least two important conclusions to draw from this research. Firstly, when you read popular accounts of scientific research, words like measure pop up frequently, and provide a misleading impression of the process used to obtain the results. Very often, research does not directly measure whatever quantity the scientists are after. Rather, there is a proxy that is believed to serve as a reliable marker for the desired quantity. What the public fails to appreciate, however, is that the line between the proxy and the desired quantity is not straight; it is not even a line. It is a convoluted and intricate curve, and it is vulnerable to many obstacles.

Dr. Gerald Schroeder often confuses the proxy and the desired quantity in Genesis and the Big Bang. Here are typical statements from his book:

Cosmologists measured the age of the universe…; The age of the universe has been measured using a variety of independent… systems; …Phenomena that are readily measurable by modern archaeological, paleontological and cosmological instrumentation;

These remarks are phenomenally misleading. The supposed measurement that is spoken of here consists of numerous intricate steps, each of which depends on its own assumptions and is subject to unstated pitfalls.

This is precisely what you see in the Georgia Tech study. Popular accounts of this type of research omit the necessary caveats, and describe scientists as measuring the concentration of atmospheric oxygen. They do no such thing. There is a complicated process which is believed to reflect the desired quantity. If one understands this, and is aware of how often proxies turn out to be unreliable indicators of various quantities, the credibility of such reports is considerably diminished.

The second major lesson to take home is that – surprise! – science is not infallible. Until the research at Georgia Tech, nobody was aware that ligands could mimic the effects of various isotopes of chromium and thereby throw off the researchers. As the article makes clear, “some researchers confronted with odd Cr [chromium] signals have thought they had perhaps stumbled upon a radical find, and they developed explanations for how O2 may have been surprisingly bountiful on the lonesome spot where a particular rock layer formed…”

All sorts of theories and conclusions flowed from various findings which, in hindsight, turn out to be mistaken. Informed consumers of science would do well to adopt a more sceptical stance towards origin-of-life research.

SOURCES:

[1] Genesis and the Big Bang, Gerald L. Schroeder, Bantam Books, paperback edition 1992, page 29.

[2] http://www.rh.gatech.edu/news/598840/popular-tool-trace-earths-oxygen-history-can-give-false-positives. Last retrieved 18th December 2017.

Rabbi Yosef Bitton and Geology

November 1, 2017

Rabbi Yosef Bitton is the author of Awesome Creation, which I reviewed on this website in 2014. I periodically receive emails sent by Rabbi Bitton to his email list. The missive dated 6 MarHeshvan 5778 deals with geology, and piqued my interest. Here is Rabbi Bitton’s piece, followed by my comments:

***

Another coincidence between science and Tora, that relates to the “evolution” and “age” of planet earth, can be seen in a verse from the book of Yiob (Job). Yiob was a good and honest man who suffered the accidental death of all his children. The book of Yiob, 42 chapters, deals with the subject of Divine justice and when bad things happen to good people. Towards the end of the book, chapter 38, HaShem reveals Himself to Yiob and shows him how little human beings can know about the reality around us. And if our knowledge escapes the grasping of physical reality —material, visible and accessible—, how much more remote is our potential access to the dimension of Divine Knowledge, in this case, the administration of Divine Justice. God demonstrates Yiob the inescapable limitations of human knowledge and thus deterring Yiob (and the reader) from the understanding of Celestial Designs. In this chapter, which is a monologue because Yiob has no answers, God confronts Yiob with a series of fascinating questions on issues related to Creation, the harmony of the cosmos, the mystery of light, the secrets of life on the seabed , and much, much more. It is in this context that we find a verse (38:38) where God challenges Yiob’s knowledge on the formation of the earth. The text says: «[Where were you …] when [the planet] merged into a mass, and the layers of the earth adhered to each other?” This last expression [בְּצֶקֶת עָפָר לַמּוּצָק] which does not appear anywhere else in the Scriptures, led the Rabbis to assert (Yoma 54b) two thousand years ago that our planet is composed of several strata and not, so to speak, of just one piece. The Beur, a contemporary commentary on the Bereshit Rabba written by Rabbi Abraham Shteinberger Midrash Bereshit Raba HaMobar, Jerusalem, Makhon HaMidrash haMeboar, 1980, page 13,), indicates that “the fact that our planet has been created by strata and layers, makes the Earth appear older than it really is, and that is the reason why some non-believers assume that millions of years must have passed between strata and strata “.

It is interesting to know that this coincidence between the Biblical text and geology, was evident only in modernity. For thousands of years scientists did not suspect that below the surface, our planet is made up of different strata. Only after “uniformism” —a concept developed by James Hutton (1726-1797), the father of modern geology— “discovered” that Planet Earth was formed step by step, and consists of numerous layers.

To summarize, the Biblical text states that while our planet was created by Creator in a single instant, it was created composed of different strata, from the center to the surface of the earth. Thus, if a geologist examines the composition of our planet and “discovers” its numerous layers, it will attribute this composition to an evolutionary process that demanded millions of years. From the Biblical point of view, the geologist is not discovering something that contradicts the Tora but something that actually confirms it. The only conflicting element is the “interpretation” that the terrestrial strata implies a process of millions of years. And this “interpretation” is based on taking an initial act of Creation out of the equation. However, when we examine the facts based on the premise of an initial act of Creation, the geological discoveries, a planet with numerous layers, is exactly what we were expecting to find!

***

My default position when reading such claims is scepticism. Did Chazal really discuss stratigraphy? Let’s look at the sources.

Here is the relevant Talmudic passage, followed by my informal translation:

מסכת יומא דף נ”ד עמוד ב: ושתיה היתה נקראת. תנא שממנה הושתת העולם תנן כמאן דאמר מציון נברא העולם דתניא רבי אליעזר אומר עולם מאמצעיתו נברא שנאמר ( איוב ל”ח, ל”ח) בְּצֶקֶת עָפָר לַמּוּצָק וּרְגָבִים יְדֻבָּקוּ רבי יהושע אומר עולם מן הצדדין נברא שנאמר (איוב ל”ז, ו) כִּי לַשֶּׁלֶג יֹאמַר הֱוֵא אָרֶץ וְגֶשֶׁם מָטָר וְגֶשֶׁם מִטְרוֹת עֻזּוֹ.

A braisa discusses a disagreement between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua. The former argues that the world was created from its centre, as the verse [Job 38:38] says, “when the dust becomes hard and the clods of earth stick together” The latter argues that the world was created from the sides, as the verse [Job 37:6] states, “He says to the snow, Fall on the earth, and to the rain shower, Be a mighty downpour.”

The first thing to notice is that there are two opinions in this passage, the second of which is ignored by Rabbi Bitton. Rabbi Bitton’s claim is that Chazal described a stratified world, which suggests unanimity (“led the Rabbis to assert…”). But the Talmud presents us with a debate. The disagreements of these two tannaim – Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua – fill the pages of the Talmud, and we usually rule in accordance with the view of Rabbi Yehoshua. Even if one argues that this passage is not a legal passage and therefore not subject to the usual rules of psak, there is no indication in the Talmud, or any later authority, that Rabbi Eliezer’s view is normative.

We do not decide Talmudic debates on external grounds. As Rabbi Moshe Meiselman expresses it in Torah, Chazal and Science (prologue page xxxi), “Certainly we do not invoke criteria external to the Torah in evaluating the correctness of [early authorities’] views… To do so would be as intellectually invalid and objectionable as preferring the Rambam’s ruling over that of the Rashba in a question in Bava Kama because it happens to be in line with a decision of the United States Supreme Court.”

***

Now to the heart of the matter. The key assertion made by Rabbi Bitton is this: “This last expression [בְּצֶקֶת עָפָר לַמּוּצָק] which does not appear anywhere else in the Scriptures, led the Rabbis to assert (Yoma 54b) two thousand years ago that our planet is composed of several strata and not, so to speak, of just one piece.”

Looking at both opinions in this Talmudic passage gives one context, which is missing when one presents only Rabbi Eliezer’s view. The tannaim disagree about the direction in which the creation of the world proceeded. While Rabbi Eliezer says that it began in the “centre” and proceeded in an outward direction, Rabbi Yehoshua suggests that the creation of Earth started from the extremities and proceeded in an inward direction. There is no indication that either of these tannaim described Earth as possessing different layers. When clods of earth are pressed together, you get a homogeneous ball of earth, not a stratified sphere.

This point is borne out by the classical commentators on the Book of Job. They all agree that the verse cited by Rabbi Eliezer describes the direction by which a solid Earth formed, starting from the centre:

רש”י שם ד”ה בְּצֶקֶת עָפָר: ביום שיצקתי עפר. ד”ה לַמּוּצָק: ליסוד עולם באמצעיתו. ד”ה וּרְגָבִים יְדֻבָּקוּ: סביבותיו לצדדין עד כי נתמלא ארכו ורחבו

מצודת דוד שם ד”ה בְּצֶקֶת: … בעת היה ניצק העפר להיות יציקה אחת והרגבים יהיו דבוקים אחת אל אחת להיות גולם אחד

All the commentators that I have seen take the key word, רגבים, to mean clods of earth. These clods adhere to each other until the Earth is complete. One could, I think, conclude from this that the Talmud is asserting that the Earth was not created as a solid sphere, like a billiard ball. But saying that Chazal taught that the Earth is stratified is unjustified. Certainly, Rabbi Bitton’s translation of the crucial phrase as “and the layers of the earth adhered to each other” is incorrect.

Furthermore, in geology, the concept of strata is not just that Earth is made up of layers. The key point is that Earth is made up of different layers of rock. One can easily see this in dramatic photos of places like the Grand Canyon, where layers (strata) made up of different rocks are clearly visible.

A distinguished Torah scholar, to whom I sent a draft of this post, pointed out to me another relevant issue . Rabbi Bitton writes that “the Biblical text states that … our planet was created by the Creator in a single instant… [but] of different strata”. But then, how can there be a disagreement over whether Earth was formed from the inside or from the outside? Such a dispute implies a passage of time from the beginning of the Earth’s formation to its completion.

***

A number of years ago, I wrote a critique of Dr Gerald Schroeder’s Genesis and the Big Bang. The critique, which can be downloaded from this website, is entitled Genesis and the Big Bluff. I believe that Dr Schroeder and Rabbi Bitton make the same methodological mistake. Their approach consists of finding dubious points of congruence between Judaism and modern science, and presenting them as evidence for agreement between the two. In Dr Schroeder’s case, it was the coincidence between the speculative cosmological concept of inflation and the fact that the Torah uses the phrase Godly wind (וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים) only once in the creation story. I wrote the following:

In 1961, Murray Gell-Mann introduced a classification of elementary particles called hadrons. For his work, Gell-Mann won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1969. Gell-Mann’s own name for the classification scheme was the eightfold way, because of the octets of particles in the classification. The eightfold way achieved experimental verification when a previously undetected particle which it predicted, omega minus, was identified in a bubble chamber experiment at Brookhaven National Laboratory. The term Gell-Mann used for his scheme – the eightfold way – is a reference to the eightfold way of Buddhism – a choice which is reflective of Gell-Mann’s eclectic interests.

How would Dr Schroeder approach this? Would he write of the amazing congruity between particle physics and Buddhism, and encourage us to accept the truth of the latter? If not, why not? Is the eightfold classification scheme any less convincing as evidence for Buddhism than associating inflation with wind of God because the latter phrase appears only once in Genesis?

Neither Dr Schroeder nor Rabbi Bitton addresses this methodological point. [In all fairness, I know of nobody in the Torah community who has addressed this issue satisfactorily]. If vague coincidences between Biblical verses and modern scientific theories are sufficient to boost Judaism’s credibility, what about similar coincidences between science and Buddhism or any other religion?

***

It seems to me that Rabbi Bitton’s point of departure is that Science and Judaism must be reconcilable. This is what I wrote in my review of Awesome Creation:

Rabbi Bitton, too, sometimes succumbs to the urge to show that, as he puts it, the “Biblical Creation story… is completely compatible with science’s modern discoveries.”

If you start off with the conviction that Torah must be reconcilable with all the latest scientific paradigms, and you then come across the numerous points of divergence that exist, the pressure to conform to your conviction can easily lead to a misreading of Torah sources. As I expressed it elsewhere, if you torture the sources, they will eventually confess…

The correct starting point is that Judaism and Nature are compatible, because God created Nature. But Nature is not the same as Science. Science is the attempt to understand Nature. It is a human endeavour and, like all human endeavours, is fallible.

***

As I pointed out in my review of Rabbi Bitton’s Awesome Creation, it is well-worth reading, notwithstanding several weaknesses. But his post on geology simply lacks rigour.

 

Sforno and Biological Evolution

February 12, 2017

The Pesach 5776 issue of Jewish Observer, a magazine published by Mizrachi of South Africa, features an article entitled Judaism and Evolution in the Biological and Spiritual Dimensions, by Rabbi Shlomo Glickberg.[1]

In this post, we shall look at two classical sources mentioned by Rabbi Glickberg, and analyse whether his reading of those sources is tenable.

&&&

Rabbi Glickberg claims that “[Early] Jewish philosophical sources, which predate by far the evolutionary theorists… show that they considered as possible the feasibility of species’ development.” To substantiate this statement, he quotes the classical Torah commentary of Sforno:

For example, an unambiguous evolutionary statement appears in the writings of Rabbi Ovadia Sforno (Italy, 1476-1550), who brings evidence from the sources (Genesis 1:26; 2:7) that the creation of man in God’s image is in fact the end of a long process, commencing in the creation of a non-cognisant creature, belonging to the animal category. This creature evolved until it acquired a human mind, as well as its physiology of man known to us…

“An unambiguous evolutionary statement”? A long process involving a creature in the animal category?[2] When such extraordinary claims are made, the crucial question is this: are the sources being read in context, objectively, in the manner that their author intended? Or is the contemporary writer projecting his own worldview on words which were intended in an altogether different sense?

This type of citation appears frequently in the writings of Jewish evolutionists, and I dealt with a prominent example in Genesis and Genes. In that case, it was Dr. Gerald Schroeder who was appealing to a statement of Ramban to make precisely the same point as Rabbi Glickberg’s, i.e. that early Jewish authorities supported the notion of a long evolutionary development of man. I will now quote the relevant passage from Genesis and Genes, and then return to Sforno.

[Beginning of Quote]

The view of Ramban/Nahmanides is often brought up in this context. In his Torah commentary, Ramban writes that:[3]

The verse [Genesis 2:7] informs us that God created Adam from the dust of the Earth, and Adam lay there lifeless, as motionless as a stone. Then God blew into him a soul of life, at which point Adam was imbued with motility like that of animals and fish… After this formation, through which Adam became an animate being, God blew into him a supreme soul, over and above the previous formation, and it is at this point that Adam acquired intellect and speech.

Some contemporary authors argue that the transformation from blob of earth to human being can be pictured as taking millions of years. There is nothing in Ramban’s comment that supports this notion. The fact that Man’s creation occurred in three distinct phases – lifeless form; animal vitality; full human being – does not imply an excruciatingly-lengthy evolutionary process any more than the statement that I boiled water, added a teabag and sugar, and stirred implies an experience stretching over decades. This point is made all the more obvious when Ramban insists that the entire creation account be understood as taking six literal days of 24 hours. According to Ramban, Adam’s creation was one event, in which Adam’s body was formed, an animal soul was blown into him, and he was infused with a divine soul… The simplest, most straightforward interpretation of his words does not lend itself to descriptions of Adam’s creation consistent with a lengthy evolutionary account. Ramban insists that “The days mentioned in the Creation account were literally days, made up of hours and minutes. There were six such days, as per a literal understanding of the verses.”[4]

[END OF QUOTE]

There is no reason whatsoever to believe that Sforno, any more than Ramban, described a brutish beast undergoing a lengthy evolutionary process culminating in ensoulment. There is nothing in his words that suggests an evolutionary process, in any sense in which that phrase is understood nowadays. If you read a description of the work done on an assembly line – “I first welded the beam to the chassis and then tightened the bolt” – would there be any sense in speaking of a lengthy process having taken place?

Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz is the author of Sforno Commentary on the Torah, first published by Mesorah Publications in 1987. Here is his take on Sforno’s commentary to Genesis 2:7:

All living creatures, as compared to the mineral and plant kingdom, needed a special “forming” by God to be brought into being… Now, the process of man’s creation was in two phases. First man was formed as a higher, more advanced living creature, granted a “soul of life.” However, he was not as yet endowed with the “image of God” until God placed him in the Garden of Eden, a place conducive for Adam to receive this image thanks to its unique character. The Sforno interprets this “image” as meaning the flow of reason and intelligence emanating from God.

In contrast to Rabbi Glickberg, Rabbi Pelcovitz did not think that Sforno’s words suggested that the development of man was an eons-long evolutionary process. It was one event that was completed on the very day that Adam was created, when he was placed in Gan Eden.

This is a perfectly sensible reading of Sforno, because it is not taken out of context. Rather than projecting 21st-Century preconceptions onto the writings of a 15th-Century scholar, Rabbi Pelcovitz correctly explains that when classical authorities – like Ramban and Sforno – spoke about distinct stages or phases in the creation of man, they were not making proto-evolutionary statements of any sort.

Now, is it possible to read the statements of Ramban, Sforno, and others so that they conform to your philosophical predilections? Anything’s possible. If you torture the sources, they will eventually confess. You can get the verses to admit that God is a three-fold unity, and you can get the sources to admit that man was not created de novo, but was rather the culmination of a tortuous process. Such methods reveal much more about the contemporary writer than they do about classical authorities…

&&&

Rabbi Glickberg also brings up the famous notion of 974 generations:

Thus, for example, it is brought in several statements of our sages that prior to Adam, there were 974 generations which were destroyed because of their sins (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 88:2).

Rabbi Glickberg does not use this notion to argue directly for evolution, but rather to substantiate the belief that an ancient universe, on the order of billions of years old, is fully compatible with the Torah tradition. Still, the age of the universe and biological evolution are intertwined, so it is convenient to use the mysterious concept of “missing” generations to see how they play up in the evolution debate. Here is another excerpt from Genesis and Genes.

[Beginning of Quote]

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (1934-1983) was a prolific writer whose contributions in many areas of Torah are of immense value. Besides addressing straightforward matters relating to Torah and Judaism, Rabbi Kaplan also wrote and spoke about esoterica: Kabbala, the age of the universe, extra-terrestrial life and astrology. Of interest to us is the fact that he promoted the view that human-like creatures evolved over millennia into full-fledged human beings. Here are the sources he cites for his contention:

Chagigah 13b, from Job 22:16, Psalms 105:8, Tosefot, ad loc.Tordan,” Maharsha ad loc. Also see Bereshit Rabbah 28:4, Kohelet Rabbah 1:37, 4:4, Tanchuma, Lekh Lekha 11, Yitro 9, Midrash Tehillim 105:3, Tanna DeBei Eliahu Rabbah 13 (70a, 72a), 26 (103a), Tanna DeBei Eliahu Zuta 10 (15a), Sefer Chasidim 1137.

This imposing collection of sources is supposed to substantiate the claim that “around 974 generations before Adam, or some 25,000 years ago, man developed all the physical and mental capabilities that we possess today.”[5] Before that time, then, there were no true human beings; there were creatures that did not possess all the physical and mental capabilities that we possess today. In Rabbi Kaplan’s words, “This man had evolved from ‘the dust of the earth’ (Genesis 2:7), but he still lacked the divine soul that would make him a spiritual being. God then created Adam, the first true human being with a soul.”

Once more, we are presented with the opportunity to apply the adage that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. We will presently take a tour of Rabbi Kaplan’s sources. Many of these sources make the same point, sometimes in slightly different words, so we will not look at all of them. But we will look at sources that cover all the relevant points. Besides translating all the sources that I cite, I will also provide the original Hebrew sources in the endnotes, for the benefit of those who are able to study them independently. A word of caution: our discussion is not about the age of the universe. We are asking whether the Talmudic sages discussed proto-humans who evolved – whether naturalistically or with God’s tinkering – into full-fledged human beings.

Let’s begin. Rabbi Kaplan asserts that a major turning point in the history of humanity happened around 974 generations before Adam. Where does this peculiar notion – 974 generations – come from? The verse in Psalms (105:8) cited by Rabbi Kaplan states that He remembered His covenant forever – the Word He commanded for a thousand generations.[6] The Talmudic Sages took the Word to be a reference to the Torah; they perceived here an allusion to the fact that the Torah was meant to have been given to mankind one thousand generations after Creation. Yet, we find that it was given to the Jewish people after only twenty-six generations: ten from Adam to Noah, another ten from Noah to Abraham, and a further six from Abraham to Moses.[7] What happened to those 974 generations? There are two basic approaches in the classical sources regarding these missing generations: one school of thought holds that the souls which would have constituted these generations were never born; in other words, they never occupied physical bodies. The other school maintains that these souls did eventually land up in physical garb. But instead of being born prior to the Torah being given to humanity, as was God’s initial intention, they were scattered, as it were, throughout history. And no source expresses in detailed and unambiguous terms the idea of humans evolving from proto-humans.

The first midrash cited by Rabbi Kaplan (called Genesis Rabbah or Bereshit Rabbah) comments on the verse (Genesis 6:7) which states that in the time leading up to the Deluge, God decided to blot out humanity. The midrash reveals that not only was God thinking about those humans who already populated the planet, but that He was also referring to generations not yet born. The sages say,

“I will blot out Man whom I have created from the face of the Earth” (Genesis 6:7). One thousand generations were intended to be created [before the Torah would be given]; how many were blotted? Rabbi Huna said, “Nine-hundred and seventy-four generations…”[8]

Several classical midrash-commentators say that these intended generations were never born. Here are two representative statements:

  • The 974 generations were blotted [in the sense] that they were not born.[9]
  • The Torah was given after twenty-six generations [from Creation], so how can the verse [in Psalms] speak of one thousand generations? [Of the one thousand generations], 974 generations were originally intended to be born but were not actually born.[10]

This also appears to be Rashi’s view. He was commenting on the following Talmudic passage, which also invokes the 974 generations:

[When Moses came to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah] The angels said to God, “You have concealed this treasure [i.e. the Torah] for 974 generations before the world was created, and now You wish to give it to flesh-and-blood?!”[11]

Rashi writes,

These [974 generations] were meant to be born in the two thousand years in which humanity was destined to live prior to receiving the Torah. However, God saw that the world would not endure for such a long time without Torah, so He did not [actually] create these generations. He gave the Torah after [only] twenty-six generations; thus, 974 generations fewer than one thousand were actually born.[12]

As we mentioned before, some classical sources maintain that the 974 generations were eventually given a physical existence. A verse in Job (22:16) is cited by Rabbi Kaplan. It speaks of [beings] who were cut down before [their] time, whose foundation was swept away by a river.[13] The Talmudic passage in which this verse is analysed has two variants of the text [this is common in the Talmud]. The text as it appears in most editions of the Talmud reads as follows:

Rabbi Shimon said, “These are the 974 generations that were cut down…; God planted [their souls] in subsequent generations. They are the brazen people in every generation.”[14]

In his commentary, Rashi writes of the 974 generations that God did not create before the Torah was given[15] Tosafos, in contrast, comment

Rashi explained that these [974 generations] were never born… the correct explanation is that they were not born all together; rather, they were born a few per generation so that they would not destroy the world.[16]

Perusal of the rest of the sources cited by Rabbi Kaplan – Kohelet Rabbah, Tanchuma and the rest of them – yields no surprises. They all contain parallel passages to the sources we examined above, mentioning the basic data with which we are now familiar: 1. the Torah was meant to be given after 1000 generations; 2. it was actually given after 26 generations; 3. the 974 other generations are made up of souls that were either never born as human beings or were born throughout history.

What about Rabbi Kaplan’s reference to Sefer Chasidim 1137? Sefer Chasidim is a classic, written by Rabbi Yehuda HeChassid (died circa 1215), a seminal figure in Ashkenazi Jewry. Study of the relevant passage is fruitful for our purposes. Here is some background. The Talmud establishes that the evil inclination (yetzer hara) begins to influence us from birth.[17] Rabbi Yehuda HeChassid writes that that’s true for most people, but that there are exceptions – people within whom the evil inclination is active even before birth. Rabbi Yehuda HeChassid cites a midrash that indicates that the Biblical figure Esau was one of these people. He then refers to a Talmudic passage about a character by the name of Shabbetai. This fellow lived in Talmudic times and earned infamy when he cornered the grain market and drove prices up.[18] Here, too, Rabbi Yehuda HeChassid writes, on the basis of a statement of the sages, that this scoundrel’s evil inclination was active even before his birth. Now comes the crucial part. Rabbi Yehuda HeChassid concludes by writing that these exceptionally wicked people are born from the souls of the 974 generations, and that they are characterised by insolence and a lack of respect for their parents. So it seems that Rabbi Yehuda HeChassid maintained that those 974 generations were eventually granted a physical existence, and that at least one of them was born as late as the Talmudic period (first centuries of the Common Era).[19]

So, has Rabbi Kaplan demonstrated his point? He asserts that around 974 generations before Adam, or some 25,000 years ago, man developed all the physical and mental capabilities that we possess today, and that this was part of an evolutionary progress from soulless proto-humans to true human beings. Given Rabbi Kaplan’s sources, is he justified in claiming that the Sages described how proto-humans evolved all the faculties associated with modern humans about 25 millennia ago?[20] The starting point for such an endeavour is the existence of clear sources. Having reviewed Rabbi Kaplan’s sources, we do not have any clear, detailed and unambiguous expression of his view that the traditional literature contains references to hominids.

[END OF QUOTE]

The trouble with Jewish evolutionists – Rabbi Kaplan, Dr. Schroeder, Lord Jonathan Sacks, Rabbi Glickberg – who so desperately want the Torah to be up to date with the latest paradigms – is that rather than reading the sources, they read into the sources.

We’ve been there before. In a different age, for example, there were those who insisted that the Torah be interpreted in a manner consistent with an eternal universe, to ensure that it conformed to Aristotelian dogma. We can only imagine what they would have felt had they lived long enough to learn of Big Bang cosmology.

Eventually, the truth wins out. It’s only a question of how many casualties fall along the way.

SOURCES:

[1]

https://s3cdn.joomag.com/pdf/0/167/167463/0860295001460356404.pdf?name=Mizrachi+SA+Jewish+Observer+-+Pesach+2016&1460338638

Last accessed 5 February 2017.

[2]

פירוש רבי עובדיה ספורנו לספר בראשית (ב, ז) ד”ה וַיִּיצֶר ה’ אֱלֹהִים: אמנם להווית בעלי חיים לא הספיק זה, אבל הייתה יצירת היוצר יתברך על אופנים מתחלפים, וזה כי ליצירת האדם בירר עפר מן האדמה חלק נכבד ממנה. שם ד”ה וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים: נפש חיונית מוכנת לקבל צלם אלהים, כאמרו (איוב ל”ב, ח) וְנִשְׁמַת שַׁדַּי תְּבִינֵם. מכל מקום וַיְהִי הָאָדָם לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה, היה עם כל זה חיה בלבד בלתי מדברת עד שנברא בצלם ודמות

[3]

פירוש רמב”ן לספר בראשית (ב, ז): … והכתוב הזה כפי משמעו ירמוז כן, כי יאמר שיצר השם את האדם עפר מן האדמה והיה מוטל גולם כאבן דומם, והקב”ה נפח באפיו נשמת חיים, ואז חזר האדם להיות “נפש חיה” שיתנועע בה כמו החיות והדגים… וזה טעם לנפש חיה, כלומר ששב האדם להיות נפש בה חיים… אבל אונקלוס אמר והות באדם לרוח ממללא. נראה שדעתו כדברי האומרים שהם בו נפשות שונות וזאת הנפש המשכלת אשר נפחה השם באפיו היתה בו לנפש מדברת… ואם כן יאמר הכתוב וייצר ה’ אלהים את האדם יצירת תנועה שהיה האדם נוצר, כלומר בעל תנועה, כי היצירה היא החיות וההרגש, שבהם הוא אדם לא גבול העפר… ואחרי שיצרו בהרגשה נפח באפיו נשמת חיים מפי עליון להוסיף הנפש הזאת על היצירה הנזכרת, ויהי האדם כולו לנפש חיה, כי בנשמה הזאת ישכיל וידבר, ובה יעשה כל מעשה

[4]

פירוש רמב”ן לספר בראשית א, ג ד”ה ויהי אור: ודע כי הימים הנזכרים במעשה בראשית היו בבריאת השמים והארץ ימים ממש מחוברים משעות ורגעים והיו ששה כששת ימי המעשה כפשוטו של מקרא.

Ramban’s commentary on Genesis 1:3: The days mentioned in the Creation account were literally days, made up of hours and minutes. There were six such days, as per a literal understanding of the verses.

[5]

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, Sefer Yetzirah: The Book of Creation, Redwheel/Weiser LLC, 1997, Revised Edition, page 187. The sources are cited in note 67.

[6]

תהלים קה, ח: זָכַר לְעוֹלָם בְּרִיתוֹ דָּבָר צִוָּה לְאֶלֶף דּוֹר

[7]

עץ יוסף על מדרש רבה סדר בראשית פרק כ”ח אות ד [ו, ז] (ד”ה זו התורה): והתורה ניתנה בדורו של משה שהוא דור כ”ו שעשרה דורות מאדם עד נח ועשרה דורות מנח עד אברהם וששה דורות מאברהם עד משה.

[8]

מדרש רבה סדר בראשית פרק כ”ח אות ד [ו, ז]: אֶמְחֶה אֶת הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר בָּרָאתִי (בראשית ו, ז) אלף דור עלו במחשבה להבראות וכמה נמוחו מהם רב הונא בשם רבי אליעזר בנו של רבי יוסי הגלילי אמר תשע מאות ושבעים וארבעה דורות מאי טעמא (תהלים קה, ח) דָּבָר צִוָּה לְאֶלֶף דּוֹר זה התורה

[9]

ביאור מהרי”פ שם (ד”ה ומלאו את כל המדינות סריות): שנמחו תתקע”ד דורות ולא נבראו… [מהרי”פ הוא מורינו הרב רבי יחזקאל פייוויל, מורה מישרים דקהילת קודש וילנא].

[10]

 אשד הנחלים שם (מובא בליקוטים במדרש בהוצאת וגשל ד”ה זה התורה): והיא ניתנה לכ”ו דור ואיך יאמר לאלף דור אלא ודאי תתקע”ד דורות עלו במחשבה אך לא נבראו

[11]

 מסכת שבת דף פ”ח: … אמרו [מלאכי השרת] לפניו חמודה גנוזה שגנוזה לך תשע מאות ושבעים וארבעה דורות קודם שנברא העולם אתה מבקש ליתנה לבשר ודם

[12]

 רש”י שם (ד”ה תתקע”ד דורות): באלפים שנה שקדמה תורה לעולם היו עתידין דורות הללו להבראות שנאמר (תהלים קה, ח) דבר צוה לאלף דור וראה הקב”ה שאין העולם מתקיים בלא תורה כל כך והעבירן ולא בראן ונתנה לכ”ו דורות הרי שחסרו תתקע”ד מאלף

[13]

 איוב כ”ב, ט”ז:  אֲשֶׁר קֻמְּטוּ וְלֹא עֵת נָהָר יוּצַק יְסוֹדָם

 [14]

 מסכת חגיגה דף י”ג: תניא אמר רבי שמעון החסיד אלו תשע מאות ושבעים וארבעה דורות שקומטו להבראות קודם שנברא העולם ולא נבראו עמד הקב”ה ושתלן בכל דור ודור והן הן עזי פנים שבדור

[15]

 רש”י שם (ד”ה על אשר קומטו): על תתקע”ד דורות שהעביר מן העולם קודם מתן תורה ולא בראן כדקתני לקמן ונתנן בגיהנם ועליהם נופל

[16]

 תוספות (מסכת חגיגה דף י”ד ד”ה וטרדן) ואיכא למאן דאמר ושתלן. פירש רש”י לפי לשון ראשון נתן נשמתן בגיהנם ולא נבראו ותימה הוא וכי עביד דינא בלא דינא כי מה פשעו להיות בגיהנם ונראה לפרש וטרדן שלא נבראו ביחד כי אם מעט לכל דור ודור כדי שלא יחריבו העולם

[17]

מסכת סנהדרין דף צ”א

[18]

מסכת יומא דף פ”ג

[19]

ספר חסידים תתשל”ז: הנפש נבראת שתהא זכה וטהורה מעון שהרי אין יצר הרע שולט עד שיצא מרחם אמו כמו שאמר (אנטיגנוס) [אנטונינוס] בפרק חלק לפתח חטאת רובץ וכן כתיב כי יצר לב אדם רע מנעוריו משננער לבא בעולם א”כ עשו הרשע שעקר מיטרון של אמו כדאמרינן בבראשית רבה ושיחת רחמה וכן אמר ביומא פרק יום הכיפורים אילחישו לה ולא אילחישת קרי עליה זורו רשעים מרחם אלא אלו שבבטן יש להן יצר הרע הן אותן שנבראו מן תתקע”ד דור שבבטן יצרם הם עזי פנים שממרין באביהן ובאמן

Loose translation of Sefer Chassidim:

The evil inclination (יצר הרע) does not dominate until one emerges from the womb, as mentioned in Tractate Sanhedrin. Two exceptions to this rule are Esau and the person mentioned in Tractate Yoma [שבתאי אוצר פירי] whose mother ate on Yom Kippur when she was pregnant with him. Those who [unlike most people] have an evil inclination before they are born were born from [the souls] of the 974 generations; they are insolent, and rebel against their parents.

[20]

Rabbi Yisroel Lipchitz (1782-1861), (author of the classical mishna commentary תפארת ישראל/ Tif’eres Yisroel), invoked the 974 generations in his famous דרוש אור החיים. His discussion depends on his approach to certain Kabbalisitc statements. It therefore does not constitute a clear, detailed and unambiguous expression of Rabbi Kaplan’s idea. Perhaps that is the reason that Rabbi Kaplan did not include it in his sources.

 

Another Swipe at “Established Science”

December 26, 2016

One theme of Genesis and Genes is that the public should beware of claims of established science. This means that certain issues are no longer open to discussion, because the evidence is supposedly so solid as to warrant no more doubt. Critics of established science are deemed quacks, obscurantists, anti-science or worse, regardless of how cogent and evidence-based is their criticism.

Claims that certain positions constitute established science are not new. Let me provide one example from astronomy.

For several decades in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a debate raged among astronomers about whether or not the Milky Way was the sum total of the material universe. Many astronomers believed that there were no stars beyond our galaxy. The galaxy made up everything, and beyond it lay empty space. Others believed that there were other galaxies beyond our own, known at the time as island universes. [Kant and Laplace are credited with developing this view]. The disagreement culminated in the “Great Debate”, a 1920 confrontation between Harlow Shapley and Heber Curtis, in which this issue was discussed.

The pivot around which the debate revolved was the existence of faint, fuzzy patches of light known as nebulae. Were they galaxies that existed very far away from the Milky Way, or were they clouds of gas that existed within (or on the outskirts of) our galaxy? In 1890, Agnes Clerke (1842-1907), an English astronomer and science writer, summed up the prevailing belief about the existence of other galaxies in System of the Stars:

The question of whether the nebulae are external galaxies hardly any longer needs discussion. It has been answered by the progress of discovery. No competent thinker, with the whole of the available evidence before him, can now, it is safe to say, maintain any single nebula to be a star system of co-ordinate rank with the Milky Way. A practical certainty has been attained that the entire contents, stellar and nebular, of the sphere belong to one mighty aggregation…[1]

So you see, it’s settled. There are no galaxies beyond the Milky Way. There is no need for further discussion. If you are a competent thinker, there is nothing more to say (and, of course, if you express doubt, you must be an incompetent thinker).

Needless to say, this established science view turned out to be incorrect. As astronomy progressed it became evident that numerous galaxies exist beside our own. Today, it is believed that there may be 200 billion galaxies in the observable universe.

&&&

The Big Bang Theory is a paradigmatic example of established science. Practically everyone knows that the universe began some 13.8 billion years ago in a humongous expansion of spacetime (the less informed imagine something very fiery, like the Mother of All Bombs). There is certainly evidence for this view, but there are problems too (which is the case for all scientific theories). Perhaps the chief difficulty with [the Standard Model of] the Big Bang is the horizon problem.

Here is the bare bones on the horizon problem. If we look in one direction into space to a distance of, say, 10 billion light years, and then look in the opposite direction, again to a distance of 10 billion light years, we would be looking at two regions of space that are 20 billion light years from each other. Since the universe is believed to be only about 13.8 billion years old, no light (or anything else) from one of these regions could have “communicated” with the other region. There would not have been any opportunity for these two regions of space to have physical contact which could have led to temperature differences between these regions, for example,  being averaged out. And yet, we find that the entire observable universe is astonishingly similar in its physical properties in all directions (it is isotropic).

Two possible solutions to this conundrum have been proposed. The first is inflationary cosmology, which solves the horizon problem at the expense of gigantic problems of its own. Basically, accepting inflation to solve the horizon problem is like treating an itchy nose by cutting it off: the itch is cured, but the cure comes at a steep price. Problems with the inflationary model have been noted by top-notch scientists like Roger Penrose and Paul Steinhardt.

The second solution has been proposed independently by several teams. One team is led by Professor João Magueijo, whom I briefly introduced in Genesis and Genes:

Magueijo received his doctorate at Cambridge, and was awarded the research fellowship previously held by the physics Nobelists Paul Dirac and Abdus Salam. He has been a faculty member at Princeton and Cambridge, and is currently a professor at Imperial College London. Magueijo is famous in physics circles for his work on VSL cosmology. The acronym stands for Varying Speed of Light. Undertaken in 1998 together with Andreas Albrecht, VSL proposes that the speed of light was much higher in the early universe – some 60 orders of magnitude faster than its present value. The work is an alternative to inflationary cosmology. Magueijo describes his work in his 2003 book, Faster than the Speed of Light.[2]

If Magueijo and others are right, the horizon problem is solved at the expense of a key aspect of contemporary physics: the immutability of the speed of light.

Recently, Sputnik News provided an update about Magueijo’s research.[3] He and his colleagues are collecting evidence to bolster their claim. If they are right, one of the cornerstones of modern physics – that the speed of light is constant in a vacuum – will come crashing down.

Of course, that’s a big if. But my point is relevant regardless. I wrote this in Genesis and Genes:

In contemporary science, the dominant theory often doesn’t dominate – it monopolizes. This means that the public – and scientists – are often not even aware that there are competing theories.

My (educated) guess is that everyone reading this post has heard of the Big Bang Theory. Far fewer people – those more informed than the average member of the public – have heard of inflationary cosmology. And perhaps one person in a million has heard of VSL, the alternative to inflation that posits a varying value for the speed of light. But VSL is there, a real and legitimate research program.

This state of affairs, in which the dominant theory monopolises the news, distorts the public’s ability to assess the claims made by scientists. An illusion is created whereby the dominant theory is perceived by the public as the only theory. The consequence is that it becomes politically and socially difficult to criticise this entrenched position.

In Genesis and Genes, I went on to describe another incidence of established science, this time in the context of evolutionary biology:

[Beginning of Quote]

Here is another example of the monopoly phenomenon that is directly relevant to the primary focus of this book. This is the evolution of dinosaurs to birds. This hypothesis is a staple of museum displays, documentaries, biology textbooks and encyclopaedia entries. The standard teaching is that birds evolved from maniraptoran theropod dinosaurs. This, too, is portrayed as something that we know. As is the case with Black Death, even well-informed members of the public have virtually no chance of discovering that there are many competent scientists – committed to the Darwinian worldview, so that they cannot stand accused of religious bias – who strongly disagree with the mainstream view for straightforward technical reasons. Here is one example. Larry Martin is a paleo-ornithologist and the curator for vertebrate palaeontology at the University of Kansas Natural History Museum. He is one of the world’s foremost experts on birds of the Mesozoic era. In an article which appeared in the now-defunct periodical The Sciences (March/April 1998), Martin wrote:

I began to grow disenchanted with the bird-dinosaur link when I compared the eighty-five or so anatomical features seriously proposed as being shared by birds and dinosaurs. To my shock, virtually none of the comparisons held up. For example, the characteristic upward-projecting bone on the inner ankle in dinosaurs lies on the outer ankle in birds. In some cases I even discovered that the supposedly shared features occurred on entirely different bones. That is a bit like saying that you and I are related because my nose resembles your big toe.

The simplest argument against the dominant hypothesis is that the fossil record is incompatible with the dino-to-bird scenario. As Professor John A. Ruben of Oregon State University points out, “For one thing, birds are found earlier in the fossil record than the dinosaurs they are supposed to have descended from. That’s a pretty serious problem, and there are other inconsistencies with the bird-from-dinosaur theories.”[4] What are some of these other inconsistencies? Flying is an extremely energy-intensive activity. When they fly, birds need to produce energy at a furious rate. This means that they need to process oxygen very efficiently. Birds, which are, of course, warm-blooded, need about twenty times more oxygen than cold-blooded reptiles. They have a unique lung structure that allows for a high rate of gas exchange which makes flying possible.

Now, it’s been known for decades that the thigh bone (femur) in birds is largely fixed and makes birds into “knee runners”, unlike virtually all other land animals. In 2009, however, the discovery was made by Oregon State University researchers that it is this fixed position of bird bones and musculature that keeps their air-sac lung from collapsing when the bird inhales. Their unusual thigh complex is what helps support the lung and prevent its collapse. “This is fundamental to bird physiology,” says Devon Quick, an OSU zoologist. “It’s really strange that no one realized this before. The position of the thigh bone and muscles in birds is critical to their lung function, which in turn is what gives them enough lung capacity for flight.” Why is this discovery so pertinent to the issue of evolution? The OSU scientists said that every other animal that has ever walked on land has a moveable thigh bone that is involved in their motion – including humans, elephants, dogs, lizards and – in the ancient past – dinosaurs. The implication, the researchers say, is that birds almost certainly did not descend from dinosaurs. Professor Ruben of OSU continues, “But one of the primary reasons many scientists kept pointing to birds as having descended from dinosaurs was similarities in their lungs.” His conclusion: “However, theropod dinosaurs had a moving femur and therefore could not have had a lung that worked like that in birds. Their abdominal air sac, if they had one, would have collapsed.”

Researchers committed to the dino-to-bird hypothesis typically brush aside this criticism. The main reason for this is, of course, their commitment to the evolutionary story. The Science Daily report from which these quotations are taken continues: “The conclusions [of the Oregon State University researchers] add to other… evidence that may finally force many palaeontologists to reconsider their long-held belief that modern birds are the direct descendants of ancient, meat-eating dinosaurs…” Professor Ruben adds, “But old theories die hard, especially when it comes to some of the most distinctive and romanticized animal species in world history.” He continues, “Frankly, there’s a lot of museum politics involved in this, a lot of careers committed to a particular point of view even if new scientific evidence raises questions.” In some museum displays, he says, the birds-descended-from-dinosaurs evolutionary theory has been portrayed as a largely accepted fact, with an asterisk pointing out in small type that some scientists disagree. [Frankly, I have yet to see such an asterisk. The dino-to-bird model is always presented as established fact; something we know.]

 [End of quote]

Informed consumers of science are aware that the history of science is replete with issues that were once settled, until they were upset by new evidence. The consensus position is not always correct. Especially when it comes to fundamental and controversial issues like the origin of the universe and of life, one should harbour some scepticism even when the majority of scientists proclaim that there is nothing left to say.

[1] Edward Harrison, Darkness at Night, Harvard University Press, 1987, page 114.

[2] Magueijo is also the host of the Science Channel series, Joao Magueijo’s Big Bang, which premiered on May 13, 2008.

[3] https://sputniknews.com/science/201611261047857919-variable-light-speed-theory-universe/

[4] Discovery Raises New Doubts About Dinosaur-bird Links, ScienceDaily (June 9, 2009).

Dark Matter – An Update

October 9, 2016

In Genesis and Genes, I devoted some space to the notion of Dark Matter. I recently read an article in Nature about developments in this area, and I’d like to update my readers about this fascinating subject.

What follows is an excerpt from Genesis and Genes (for the purpose of this post, I have omitted the endnotes that appear in the book). I will then comment on the article in Nature.

&&&

Nobody – including astronomers and cosmologists – knows what the universe is made of. Visible matter – the kind of stuff that people and planets are made of – is outweighed by a factor of 6 or 7 by invisible, cold dark matter. To put it another way, something like 95% of the universe is made up of stuff we can’t detect, except that it seems to exert a gravitational pull. Here is how one distinguished astronomer and author, James Kaler, puts it:

Our Galaxy, its stars revolving around the center under the influence of their combined gravity, is spinning too fast for what we see. Galaxies in clusters orbit around the clusters’ centers under the influence of their mutual gravities, but again, they move faster than expected. There must be something out there with enough of a gravitational hold to do the job, to speed things up, but it is completely unseen. Dark matter… We have no idea what constitutes it. Rather, there are many ideas, but none that can be proven.

A popular history of astronomy weighs in with this:

Over 90 per cent of our Universe is invisible – filled with particles of mysterious dark matter. And astronomers have no idea what it is. Theoretical physicists working on the kinds of particles produced in the Big Bang say that dark matter cannot be anything ordinary – it has to be something very exotic.

I don’t wish to labour the point, but I must. The public is subjected to absolute statements about our knowledge of the universe and its history so frequently that the average person is simply inured to the fact that there remain basic questions about our cosmic abode. To wit, we do not know what it is made of. Consider this. The most ambitious project in astronomy in the early 21st century is the SKA, or Square Kilometre Array, a network of radio telescopes that is gargantuan in every respect: complexity, size and cost. An article in TIME magazine about the instrument begins by asking the project manager what it is that astronomers wish to discover with this machine:

For someone whose job title could read Man Most Likely to Blow Your Mind, Bernie Fanaroff looks pretty conventional… Consider the fact, says Fanaroff, that we have no idea what 96% of the universe is made of. Cosmologists have known for some time that only 4% of the universe is stuff like dust, gas and basic elements. Dark matter, says Fanaroff, accounts for 23% to 30%; dark energy makes up the rest. (Dark, Fanaroff explains, is the scientific term for “nobody knows what it is.”)

That’s not an exaggeration – nobody knows anything significant about what makes up 96% of the universe. And this is acknowledged even by those who pretend to be able to answer ultimate questions in naturalistic terms. Lawrence Krauss is a world-famous physicist and an ardent atheist. His latest book, A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing (Free Press, 2012) was reviewed in the January 2012 issue of Nature, the world’s most respected science journal. Nature appointed Caleb Scharf, an astrobiologist at Columbia University, to aggrandise Krauss’s ideas about the universe popping out of absolutely nothing, but even he could not hide the gigantic lacuna in Krauss’s thesis:

He notes that a number of vital empirical discoveries are, ominously, missing from our cosmic model. Dark matter is one. Despite decades of astrophysical evidence for its presence, and plausible options for its origins, physicists still cannot say much about it. We don’t know what this major mass component of the Universe is, which is a bit of a predicament. We even have difficulty accounting for every speck of normal matter in our local Universe.

It is crucial to appreciate that dark matter is not something that was initially discovered in a laboratory, and whose existence was then used to explain some phenomenon. It is also not an entity whose existence was implied by some cosmological theory, and then applied to the problem of energetic stars. Dark matter is entirely hypothetical. Its existence was postulated to explain how the stars in spiral galaxies can orbit at such breakneck speeds without being flung off into the void. In other words, when astronomers tallied up all the mass in the universe, they came face to face with a phenomenon which they could not explain using known physical laws: those laws would indicate that stars in spiral galaxies should indeed be flying off in all directions. Since they aren’t, there must be something out there to prevent them from doing so. What that something is remains anybody’s guess, as Professor Kaler pointed out above. Many astronomers believe that there is matter out there; matter which for whatever reason, we cannot see. This is why they refer to this hypothetical entity as dark matter. They appear to have considerable fun in speculating on the nature of this hypothetical matter: is it made up of MACHOs (Massive Compact Halo Objects)? Or is it WIMPs (Weakly Interacting Massive Particles)?

But since the whole exercise is built on speculation as to what could possibly be acting as a brake on those wayward stars, other scientists do not believe that dark matter even exists. And there is nothing to contradict their view. All you have to do is propose a plausible mechanism to restrain energetic stars from flying off into the cosmic sunset. [END OF QUOTATION FROM GENESIS AND GENES.]

&&&

A recent article in Nature, written by Jeff Hecht and cleverly entitled Dark Matter: What’s the Matter? provides a welcome update in this regard.[1] Hecht begins by introducing the subject:

Most of the Universe is missing. The motion of the stars and galaxies allows astronomers to weigh it, and when they do, they see a major discrepancy in cosmological accounting. For every gram of ordinary matter that emits and absorbs light, the Universe contains around five grams of matter that responds to gravity, but is invisible to light. Physicists call this stuff dark matter, and as the search to identify it is now in its fourth decade, things are starting to get a little desperate.

A little later, Hecht discusses a new attempt to crack the problem, one that has both supporters and detractors within the scientific community. Hecht is not optimistic about the latest approach:

It looks unlikely that primordial black holes are the mysterious dark matter. And as time passes without a confirmed detection, even the most heavily backed theories are beginning to look less likely. A series of experiments have systematically searched for, and failed to find, the theoretical candidates for dark matter — one by one, the possibilities are being reduced. A raft of experiments designed to finally detect, or refute, the remaining candidates are now underway, each with vastly different approaches to the problem. As more options are crossed off the list, physicists may have to explore new ideas and reconsider alternative theories… — or accept that nature may have hidden dark matter just out of our reach.

When Genesis and Genes was written, MACHOS – massive Compact Halo Objects – were still considered candidates for Dark Matter. No longer:

Decades of research have narrowed down the possibilities. Early favourites included not only black holes, but also other massive compact halo objects (MACHOs) made of ordinary matter. A series of studies, however, gradually ruled out most of the possibilities… But in the view of theoretical physicist John Ellis of King’s College London, “MACHOs are dead.”

The other candidate for Dark Matter I mentioned in Genesis and Genes was WIMPS – Weakly Interacting Massive Particles. WIMPS still hold some promise for resolving the Dark Matter conundrum:

Although MACHOs have fallen by the wayside, another candidate has hung around. A decade ago, physicists were largely convinced that dark matter was made up of weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs)…

WIMPs remain the leading candidate for dark matter. “Supersymmetry is beautiful mathematically,” says physicist Oliver Buchmueller of Imperial College London. “With just one weakly interacting particle, we can explain all the dark matter we see in the Universe.” Indeed, so well does the lightest of these hypothetical particles fit the bill for dark matter that it has been called “the WIMP miracle”, says physicist Leslie Rosenberg of the University of Washington in Seattle.

But only in theory:

But supersymmetrical particles have proved maddeningly elusive. Physicists at CERN, Europe’s particle-physics laboratory, are searching for WIMPs with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) by smashing protons or atomic nuclei together to recreate the conditions of the early Universe… The longer the puzzle goes unsolved, the more twitchy the scientific community will become. “People are a little nervous,” says Rosenberg.

Hecht goes on to discuss the difficult – and rather exotic – ways in which scientists use particle colliders to try to detect recalcitrant particles:

Researchers won’t see dark matter directly. Instead, they look for signs that energy and momentum in collisions have gone missing when they should have been conserved. Ellis compares searching for evidence of dark matter to watching billiard balls roll away after the cue ball hits them on the break shot. If the balls on one side of the group were invisible, and only the balls rolling away on the opposite side could be seen, the path and nature of the unseen balls can still be deduced, he says. Physicists are using the paths of the particles they can see to identify the paths of the dark matter that they can’t.

So far, nothing has come up.

Dark Matter is a fascinating scientific problem. For informed consumers of science, a number of issues are important in this context:

  1. We don’t know what 95% of the universe is made of! That’s astonishing. Members of the public should be aware that when peremptory remarks about the universe are made by scientists, or in magazine articles, or in documentaries, they hide enormous assumptions about how much we really know. As I explain in Genesis and Genes, Dark Matter (and Dark Energy) may one day turn out to be made of exotic particles; then again, it is quite possible that the scientific picture of our universe is seriously wrong, a possibility freely acknowledged by astronomers such as James Kaler and physicists like Mordechai Milgrom. Don’t be duped by those who insist that matter and energy form the fundamental substrate of our universe. This view originates in an ideology – scientism – and not in evidence from Nature itself. The only reasonable response to knowing how little we know about the universe is humility.

2. It is worth bearing in mind the similar situation that pertained in biology before the Junk DNA paradigm collapsed (see my previous post, Francis Collins Does Teshuva). In that context, many biologists dismissed about 95% of the human genome as junk, because they did not know what it did. This turned out to be a spectacular failure, delaying by several decades the onset of the age of epigenetics. In my view, physicists and astronomers are generally more open to the possibility of paradigm shifts than are biologists. They are also more likely to admit, in public, that major lacuna remain in our knowledge of the physical world.

 3. All the methods that have been devised to detect Dark Matter rely on complicated statistical analyses to infer particles of Dark Matter. This is not a simple matter of observation, and lends itself to different interpretations. Here, too, the history of science would indicate that healthy scepticism be maintained when certain results are proclaimed.

REFERENCES:

[1] http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v537/n7622_supp/full/537S194a.html

Retrieved 7th October 2016.

Francis Collins does Teshuva

July 26, 2016

In Genesis and Genes, I mentioned Francis Collins a few times. Recently, important remarks of his have come to light, which I’d like to discuss. Below, I quote the relevant section from Genesis and Genes and then discuss Collins’ statement. In this section of Genesis and Genes, I conduct a conversation with Jonathan, a fictitious character who embodies many individuals with whom I have spoken and corresponded over the past few years. For the purpose of this post, I have omitted the endnotes that appear in the book.

 

YB: Because he [Francis Collins] has written on the subject of junk DNA.

Jonathan: Junk DNA? I thought the T-shirt said, I know I’m important because God don’t make no junk.

YB: Good point, but not a sentiment shared by evolutionary biologists.

Jonathan: So what is junk DNA?

YB: Here’s the basic story. In the 1970s geneticists discovered that only a tiny percentage of our DNA codes for proteins.

Jonathan: What does “code for proteins” mean?

YB: It means “contains the instructions for manufacturing proteins.” Some DNA contains the encoded information necessary to make the crucial workhorses of the cell – proteins. But most DNA does not have that function.

Jonathan: OK. So what’s the story?

YB: The term junk DNA appears to have been coined by the biologist Susumu Ohno of the City of Hope National Medical Center in Los Angeles. In 1972, he published an article wondering why there is “so much ‘junk DNA’ in our genome.” In 1980, two papers appeared back-to-back in the journal Nature. Both argued that much genetic material has no function, and the second article explicitly argued that much DNA in higher organisms is little better than junk. Two biologists wrote to Nature to express disagreement. Thomas Cavalier-Smith considered it “premature” to dismiss non-protein-coding DNA as junk, and Gabriel Dover wrote that “we should not abandon all hope of arriving at an understanding of the manner in which some [DNA] sequences might affect the biology of organisms in completely novel and somewhat unconventional ways.” But the majority of biologists accepted the notion of junk DNA. The suggestion was that most of our DNA is functionless junk that accumulated in our cells as a by-product of merciless evolutionary processes. This became the dominant view among biologists, and the term junk DNA pervaded the literature – both professional and popular. But that view has turned out to be spectacularly wrong. Since 1990 – and especially after completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003 – many hundreds of articles have appeared in the scientific literature documenting the various functions of non-coding DNA, and more are being published almost every week. Far from consisting mainly of junk, our genome is increasingly revealing itself to be a multidimensional, integrated system in which “junk” DNA performs a wide variety of functions.

Jonathan: Sounds familiar by now.

YB: Yes. We’ve seen how, so often, the glow of evolutionary dawn doesn’t last until noon.

Jonathan: How was junk DNA used to argue for evolution?

YB: Initially, the functions of these stretches of DNA were not understood. It seemed as if they did nothing. So many biologists said that junk DNA just accumulates in the genome like, well, like junk in a junkyard. In retrospect, it’s rather like cavemen coming upon an IPod and declaring that it’s only moderately useful for throwing at peaches high up in the trees.

Jonathan: Can you give me an example of a typical statement along these lines?

YB: I could give dozens of examples. Here is one, from the evolution-populariser Richard Dawkins. It’s a paragraph from an article he wrote in the journal The Skeptic in 1998:

Genomes are littered with nonfunctional pseudogenes, faulty duplicates of functional genes that do nothing, while their functional cousins (the word doesn’t even need scare quotes) get on with their business in a different part of the same genome. And there’s lots more DNA that doesn’t even deserve the name pseudogene. It, too, is derived by duplication, but not duplication of functional genes. It consists of multiple copies of junk, “tandem repeats”, and other nonsense which may be useful for forensic detectives but which doesn’t seem to be used in the body itself.

Dawkins, like numerous evolution junkies, believes that there is no explanation for this apparently-superfluous material in our genomes, other than the admission that they are the residue of an evolutionary process:

Once again, creationists might spend some earnest time speculating on why the Creator should bother to litter genomes with untranslated pseudogenes and junk tandem repeat DNA.

In one of his most recent books (published in 2009), The Greatest Show on Earth, Dawkins observed that “the greater part… of the genome might as well not be there, for all the difference it makes,” and that this fact is “useful for… embarrassing creationists.” Similarly, in Why Evolution Is True (also published in 2009), Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago states that it is a “prediction” of neo-Darwinian theory that we will find the genome littered with useless “vestigial genes”. This sort of claim permeated the literature for decades.

Jonathan: But why is it relevant to Collins?

YB: Because atheists like Dawkins and Coyne were not the only people to make the point. Believers like Collins also used the junk DNA argument to argue for evolution.

Jonathan: Really?

YB: Yes. Collins has written a number of best-selling books promoting theistic evolution. In 2006, he published The Language of God. He wrote that

Mammalian genomes are littered with such AREs [ancient repetitive elements] with roughly 45 percent of the human genome made up of such genetic flotsam and jetsam.

Notice that Collins makes a spectacular claim. He says that almost half of the human genome is flotsam and jetsam. And this convinced Collins of the reality of evolution, because he, like Dawkins, could not fathom why God would insert so much of this useless material into the human genome:

Unless one is willing to take the position that God has placed these decapitated AREs in these precise positions to confuse and mislead us, the conclusion of a common ancestor for humans and mice is virtually inescapable.

 

Jonathan: It seems like a decent argument.

YB: It’s a terrible argument, for a number of reasons, but I’ll focus only on one.

Jonathan: What’s that?

YB: Things changed. We know now that many features of the human genome that were thought to be junk in fact have important functions. It’s fascinating to track how, over the years, the terminology changed.

Jonathan: What do you mean?

YB: In older publications, it was always junk DNA, or, as Collins puts it, flotsam and jetsam, or some other pejorative sobriquet.  As perceptions changed and biologists realised that they might ultimately be humiliated when junk DNA was discovered to be anything but, they changed tack. If you track the evolution of the terminology – excuse the pun – you will see how the prevalence of junk DNA diminishes in favour of non-coding DNA. This is in recognition of the fact that these regions of DNA, even though they do not code for proteins, nevertheless have other, very important, functions.

Jonathan: Has Collins seen the light?

YB: Yes and no.

Jonathan: What do you mean?

YB: Well, Collins published another book, The Language of Life, in 2010, in which he takes a far more cautious stance vis-á-vis DNA. Gone are the strident declarations about how junk DNA constitutes incontrovertible proof of universal common descent.

Jonathan: What does he say?

YB: Read for yourself:

The discoveries of the past decade, little known to most of the public, have completely overturned much of what used to be taught in high school biology. If you thought the DNA molecule comprised thousands of genes but far more “junk DNA”, think again. [Emphasis added].

Jonathan: Mm…

YB: Mm indeed. Furthermore, Collins now has the chutzpah to scold others who dismissively refer to long stretches of non-coding DNA as gene deserts:

It appears there are also long “spacer” segments of DNA that lie between genes and that don’t code for protein. In some instances, these regions extend across hundreds of thousands or even millions of base pairs, in which case they are referred to rather dismissively as “gene deserts.” These regions are not just filler, however. They contain many of the signals that are needed to instruct a nearby gene about whether it should be on or off at a given developmental time in a given tissue. Furthermore, we are learning that there may be thousands of genes hanging out in these so-called deserts that don’t code for protein at all. They are copied into RNA, but those RNA molecules are never translated – instead, they serve some other important functions.

Other than die-hard materialists such as Richard Dawkins, plenty of scientists are coming to see that the junk DNA paradigm must be ditched. For example, Richard Sternberg and James Shapiro, both of whom are prominent biologists, write that one day, we will think of what used to be called junk DNA as a critical component of truly expert cellular control regimes. In the end, it is clear that Collins’ 2010 book is a significant retreat on the claim that junk DNA dominates our genome. He explicitly admits that non-coding DNA has other functions:

It turns out that only about 1.5 percent of the human genome is involved in coding for protein. But that doesn’t mean the rest is “junk DNA.” A number of exciting new discoveries about the human genome should remind us not to become complacent in our understanding of this marvellous instruction book. For instance, it has recently become clear that there is a whole family of RNA molecules that do not code for protein. These so-called non-coding RNAs are capable of carrying out a host of important functions, including modifying the efficiency by which other RNAs are translated. In addition, our understanding of how genes are regulated is undergoing dramatic revision, as the signals embedded in the DNA molecule and the proteins that bind to them are rapidly being elucidated. The complexity of this network of regulatory information is truly mind-blowing, and has given rise to a whole new branch of biomedical research, sometimes referred to as “systems biology.” [Emphasis added].

 

Jonathan: But still, doesn’t Collins deserve credit for absorbing the new evidence and adjusting his view accordingly?

YB: He deserves very little credit. First of all, in his later book, The Language of Life, he doesn’t tell his readers about what he wrote just four years earlier, in The Language of God. They would have no inkling that the solemn words of rebuke for those who speak of “gene deserts” were written by someone who himself completely botched the junk DNA argument. Secondly, he goes on to argue for universal common descent on the basis of – wait for it – junk DNA.

Jonathan: No!

YB: Yes. His latest book is The Language of Science and Faith, co-written with Karl Giberson and published in 2011. Collins and Giberson look at the vitamin C GULO “pseudogene” found in humans and other primates (as well as some non-primate species), and they contend that it is “not remotely plausible” that “God inserted a piece of broken DNA into our genomes.” They conclude that this “has established conclusively that the data fits a model of evolution from a common ancestor”. So even though Collins himself was forced to retreat from his early tirades about junk DNA by the accumulating evidence that that genetic material actually performs highly-sophisticated tasks that were earlier missed by biologists, he continues to belt out the broken record message of “broken DNA”. This is bound to rebound on Collins. There is a cascade of research these days that’s uncovering more and more crucial functions for genetic material previously dismissed as “junk”. Collins is painting himself into a corner by citing one example – what he considers to be a broken gene – even though his view from just a few years back (that about half the human genome is junk DNA) has proved to be spectacularly wrong.

Jonathan: Can you give me an example of research that is finding surprising functions for non-coding DNA?

YB: Sure. We won’t go into the technicalities, but here is the synopsis of a recent research article from the journal RNA. This is a run-of-the-mill scientific journal whose editors, contributors and readers overwhelmingly subscribe to the evolutionary scenario:

Pseudogenes have long been labeled as “junk” DNA, failed copies of genes that arise during the evolution of genomes. However, recent results are challenging this moniker; indeed, some pseudogenes appear to harbor the potential to regulate their protein-coding cousins. Far from being silent relics, many pseudogenes are transcribed into RNA, some exhibiting a tissue-specific pattern of activation… In another remarkable discovery, it has been shown that pseudogenes are capable of regulating tumor suppressors and oncogenes… The finding that pseudogenes are often deregulated during cancer progression warrants further investigation into the true extent of pseudogene function. In this review, we describe the ways in which pseudogenes exert their effect on coding genes and explore the role of pseudogenes in the increasingly complex web of noncoding RNA that contributes to normal cellular regulation.

 

Jonathan: This is really shocking! If so many functions have been discovered for sections of the genome that were previously not understood, how can anyone continue to argue for universal common descent on the basis of non-coding DNA?!

YB: I agree. When you, as a non-scientist, are trying to form an opinion about evolution, don’t be intimidated by the fact that opinions are expressed by acknowledged experts in their fields. As we have seen in this book, the logic presented is often shoddy and the integrity questionable. [END of QUOTATION]

Now, however, comes news of Collins conceding defeat on this front. Here is what Marvin Olasky writes [https://world.wng.org/2016/06/admission_of_function]:

July 11 is the 10th anniversary of the publication of theistic evolutionist Francis Collins’ The Language of God, which became a New York Times bestseller largely because of Collins’ reputation as director of the National Human Genome Research Institute. That book, in turn, helped Collins gain new fans and a nomination from Barack Obama to head the National Institutes of Health.

Confirmed by the Senate, Collins has been in that position ever since, and I’m glad he’s there. But his book, and a talk about it I heard Collins give in New York, also displayed what Collins now admits was arrogance. Collins claimed on page 136 that huge chunks of our genome are “littered” with ancient repetitive elements (AREs), so that “roughly 45 percent of the human genome [is] made up of such genetic flotsam and jetsam.” In his talk he claimed the existence of “junk DNA” was proof that man and mice had a common ancestor, because God would not have created man with useless genes.

Last year, though, speaking at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco, Collins threw in the towel: “In terms of junk DNA, we don’t use that term anymore because I think it was pretty much a case of hubris to imagine that we could dispense with any part of the genome, as if we knew enough to say it wasn’t functional. … Most of the genome that we used to think was there for spacer turns out to be doing stuff.” [END of QUOTATION].

There are a number of lessons to be drawn from this:

  1. Collins deserves at least some credit for conceding defeat and, more importantly, for ascribing his past mistakes to “hubris”. I pointed out again and again in Genesis and Genes that science is done by people. Laymen often stand in awe of scientists, imagining them to be super-heroes who are totally objective, operating without any conditioning, biases or worldviews. The reality is, alas, completely different. Scientists are ordinary individuals (albeit often highly-intelligent and possessing an aptitude for mathematics) who receive no training other than in their narrow, technical fields. The vast majority of scientists have never taken a course in the psychology of research. They know as little as the man in the street does about the history and philosophy of science, and are therefore often pathetically unaware of their own weaknesses as individuals and of historical failures in their respective fields. The admission by Collins that he has retracted from his previous position, and that he was blinded by hubris, is as refreshing as it is rare. One can hardly imagine someone like, say, Richard Dawkins making the same admission.

  1. SCIENCE CAN BE WRONG. It is astonishing how difficult it is to get ordinary members of the public to appreciate this elementary fact of the history of science. Don’t confuse Nature with Science. Nature is what it is, and Science is the attempt by humans to understand Nature. Like all human endeavours, Science is fallible.

  1. Decades of fruitful research were lost because students were taught the dogma of junk DNA and thus discouraged from investigating the properties and functions of these sections of the genome.

  1. Don’t be fooled by peremptory pronouncements. Over the past half-century, scientists insisted that we know that most of the human genome is junk. It is common in these situations for dissenters to be ridiculed and frozen out of research grants. Especially when it comes to fields that have bearing on profound philosophical questions, one should treat absolute statements by scientists with a sack of salt. There is much more that we don’t know about nature than we do

Poor Review

April 17, 2015

The latest issue of Dialogue Magazine contains an essay I submitted, entitled Poor Review. It is reproduced below.

Your life depends on the Krebs cycle.

Even if you haven’t heard of it, your body is powered by the string of chemical reactions named after a German Jewish scientist who was forced to flee his homeland in 1933. In 1953, Hans Krebs was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine/physiology for his seminal discovery of the eponymous cycle. But there’s a twist to this happy story. In June 1937, when Krebs submitted his crucial paper to Nature, it was returned to him. The paper was eventually published in the obscure journal Enzymologia.

Copernicus’s heliocentric cosmology, Galileo’s mechanics, Newton’s gravity and equations of motion – these ideas never appeared in journal articles. They appeared in books that were reviewed, if at all, by associates of the author. The peer-review process as we know it was instituted after the Second World War, largely due to the huge growth of the scientific enterprise and the enormous pressure on academics to publish ever more papers.

When it comes to peer review of scientific papers, the general public entertains unrealistic, highly-idealized visions of a process by which scientific research is assessed. In theory, peer review is supposed to act as a filter, weeding out the crackpots; in practice, it often turns out to be a way to enforce orthodoxy.

Since the 1950s, peer-review has worked as follows: a scientist wishing to publish a paper in a journal submits a copy of the paper to the editor of a journal. The editor forwards the paper to several academics whom he considers to be experts on the matter, asking whether the paper is worthy of publication. These experts – who usually remain anonymous – submit comments about the paper that constitute the “peer review”. The referees judge the content of the paper on criteria such as the validity of the claims made in the paper, the originality of the work, and whether the work, even if correct and original, is important enough to be worthy of publication. Often, the journal editor will require the author to amend his paper in accordance with the recommendations of the referees.

Prior to the War, university professors were mainly teachers, carrying a teaching load of five or six courses per semester (a typical course load nowadays is one or two courses). Professors with this onerous teaching burden were not expected to write papers. The famous philosopher of science, Sir Karl Popper, wrote in his autobiography that the dean of the New Zealand university where Popper taught during World War II said that he regarded Popper’s production of articles and books a theft of time from the university.

But at some point, universities came to realize that their prestige – and with it the grants they received from governments and corporations – depended more so on the scholarly reputation of their professors than on their teaching skills. And this reputation could only be enhanced through publications. Teaching loads were reduced to allow professors more time for research and the production of papers; salaries began to depend on one’s publication record. Before the War, salaries of professors of the same rank (associate professor, assistant professor, adjunct professor, full professor etc.) were the same (except for an age differential, which reflected experience). Nowadays, salaries of professors in the same department of the same age and rank can differ by more than a factor of two, based on their publication output.

One consequence of all this is that the production of papers has increased by a factor of more than one thousand over the past fifty years. The price that has been paid for this literary fecundity is a precipitous decline in quality. Before the War, when there was no financial incentive to publish papers, scientists wrote them as a labor of love. These days, papers are written mostly to further one’s career. One thus finds that nowadays, most papers are never cited by anyone except their author(s).[1]

Philip Anderson, who won a Nobel Prize for physics, writes that:

“in the early part of the postwar period [a scientist’s] career was science-driven, motivated mostly by absorption with the great enterprise of discovery, and by genuine curiosity as to how nature operates. By the last decade of the century far too many, especially of the young people, were seeing science as a competitive interpersonal game, in which the winner was not the one who was objectively right as [to] the nature of scientific reality, but the one who was successful at getting grants, publishing in Physical Review Letters, and being noticed in the news pages of Nature, Science, or Physics Today… [A] general deterioration in quality, which came primarily from excessive specialization and careerist sociology, meant quite literally that more was worse.”[2]

More is worse. As Nature puts it, “With more than a million papers per year and rising, nobody has time to read every paper in any but the narrowest fields, so some selection is essential. Authors naturally want visibility for their own work, but time spent reading their papers will be time taken away from reading someone else’s.”[3] The number of physicists has increased by a factor of one thousand since the year 1900. Back then, ten percent of all physicists in the world had either won a Nobel Prize or had been nominated for it. Things are much the same in chemistry. The American Chemical Society made a list of the most significant advances in chemistry over the last 100 years. There has been no change in the rate at which breakthroughs in chemistry have been made in spite of the thousand-fold increase in the number of chemists. In the 1960s, United States citizens were awarded about 50 000 patents in chemistry-related areas per year. By the 1980s, the number had dropped to 40 000. But the number of papers has exploded. One result of this publish-or-perish mentality is that groundbreaking papers are often rejected because they are submitted to referees who are incapable or unwilling to recognise novel ideas. Consider these examples:

1. Rosalyn Yalow won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1977. She describes how her Nobel-winning paper was received: “In 1955 we submitted the paper to Science… the paper was held there for eight months before it was reviewed. It was finally rejected. We submitted it to the Journal of Clinical Investigations, which also rejected it.”[4]

  1. Günter Blobel also won a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, in 1999. In a news conference given just after he was awarded the prize, Blobel said that the main problem one encounters in one’s research is “when your grants and papers are rejected because some stupid reviewer rejected them for dogmatic adherence to old ideas.” According to the New York Times, these comments “drew thunderous applause from the hundreds of sympathetic colleagues and younger scientists in the auditorium.”[5]
  1. Mitchell J. Feigenbaum thus described the reception that his revolutionary papers on chaos theory received: “Both papers were rejected, the first after a half-year delay. By then, in 1977, over a thousand copies of the first preprint had been shipped. This has been my full experience. Papers on established subjects are immediately accepted. Every novel paper of mine, without exception, has been rejected by the refereeing process. The reader can easily gather that I regard this entire process as a false guardian and wastefully dishonest.”[6]
  1. Theodore Maiman invented the laser, an achievement whose importance is not doubted by anyone. The leading American physics journal, Physical Review Letters, rejected Maiman’s paper on constructing a laser.[7]
  1. John Bardeen, the only person to have ever won two Nobel Prizes in physics, had difficulty publishing a theory in low-temperature solid-state physics that went against the paradigm.[8]
  1. Stephen Hawking needs no introduction. According to his first wife Jane, when Hawking submitted to Nature what is generally regarded as his most important paper on black hole evaporation, the paper was initially rejected.[9] The physicist Frank J. Tipler writes that “I have heard from colleagues who must remain nameless that when Hawking submitted to Physical Review what I personally regard as his most important paper, his paper showing that a most fundamental law of physics called ‘unitarity’ would be violated in black hole evaporation, it, too, was initially rejected.”
  1. Conventional wisdom in contemporary geophysics holds that the Hawaiian Islands were formed sequentially as the Pacific Plate moved over a hot spot deep inside the Earth. This idea was first developed in a paper by the Princeton geophysicist Tuzo Wilson. Wilson writes: “I… sent [my paper] to the Journal of Geophysical Research. They turned it down… They said my paper had no mathematics in it, no new data, and that it didn’t agree with the current views. Therefore, it must be no good. Apparently, whether one gets turned down or not depends largely on the reviewer. The editors, too, if they don’t see it your way, or if they think it’s something unusual, may turn it down. Well, this annoyed me…”[10]

In a paper playfully entitled Not in our Nature but nonetheless published in Nature, Juan Miguel Campanario gives many examples of papers, now considered classics, which were rejected by the world’s most prestigious science journal. Here are two examples:

  1. In 1981, Nature rejected a paper by the British biochemist Robert H. Michell on signalling reaction by hormones. This paper has since been cited more than 1800 times.
  1. A paper by Michael J. Berridge, rejected in 1983 by Nature, ranks at 275 in a list of the most-cited papers of all times, having been cited more than 1900 times.[11]

In 2006, Nature published an essay by Charles G. Jennings, a former editor with the Nature journals and former executive director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. As an editor, Jennings was intimately familiar with the peer-review system, and knows full well how badly misunderstood this process is by the public. He writes:

“Whether there is any such thing as a paper so bad that it cannot be published in any peer reviewed journal is debatable. Nevertheless, scientists understand that peer review per se provides only a minimal assurance of quality, and that the public conception of peer review as a stamp of authentication is far from the truth.”

Jennings writes that “many papers are never cited (and one suspects seldom read)”. These papers are written, to a large extent, because “To succeed in science, one must climb this pyramid [of journals]: in academia at least, publication in the more prestigious journals is the key to professional advancement.”[12] Advancement, in this context, is measured by career rewards such as recruitment and promotion, grant funding, invitations to speak at conferences, establishment of collaborations and media coverage.

In September 2001, Science reported on a conference on peer review. The article states that traditionally, peer review was considered the “least bad way” to weed out weak manuscripts or research proposals and improve promising ones. But

“that common wisdom was questioned last weekend at a meeting attended by hundreds of editors of medical journals and academics. In a meta-analysis that surprised many – and that some doubt -researchers found little evidence that peer review actually improves the quality of research papers.”

The article continued

“Mention ‘peer review’ and almost every scientist will regale you with stories about referees submitting nasty comments, sitting on a manuscript forever, or rejecting a paper only to repeat the study and steal the glory.”[13]

Sydney Brenner received a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002, and is revered for his contributions to molecular biology. He was interviewed in February 2014, and the title of the interview is itself illuminating: How Academia and Publishing are Destroying Scientific Innovation.[14] Brenner is fiercely critical of peer review:

“But I don’t believe in peer review because I think it’s very distorted… I think peer review is hindering science. In fact, I think it has become a completely corrupt system. It’s corrupt in many ways, in that scientists and academics have handed over to the editors of these journals the ability to make judgment on science and scientists… Now I mean, people are trying to do something, but I think it’s not publish or perish, it’s publish in the okay places [or perish]. And this has assembled a most ridiculous group of people… I campaigned against this [culture] because I think it is not only bad, it’s corrupt. In other words it puts the judgment in the hands of people who really have no reason to exercise judgment at all. And that’s all been done in the aid of commerce, because they are now giant organisations making money out of it. “

The 2013 Nobel Prize-winning biologist Randy Schekman recently announced that he will no longer submit papers to ‘luxury’ science journals because they corrupt the publication process. Writing in The Guardian, he titled his piece How Journals like Nature, Cell and Science are Damaging Science.[15]

***

The very existence of a blog called Retraction Watch is telling.[16] The site tracks retractions “as a window into the scientific process.” Typical entries, of which there are hundreds, read “Another Nature stem cell paper is retracted”[17] or “University of Texas Southwestern cancer research group notches ninth retraction.”[18] The blog’s editor, medical doctor turned journalist Ivan Oransky, explains that “A retraction means there is something deeply wrong” with a given academic paper. “About two thirds of the time, that’s actually something that’s considered misconduct – the official federal definition of which is falsification, fabrication, or plagiarism.”[19]

But Retraction Watch’s latest scoop made the regular entries pale into insignificance. In July of this year it reported on the busting of a “peer review and citation ring”, causing SAGE Publishing, a major publisher of scientific journals, to retract sixty (!) papers from its Journal of Vibration and Control.[20] Among the scandal’s victims was Taiwan’s education minister, who resigned “to uphold his own reputation and avoid unnecessary disturbance of the work of the education ministry, after the incident ignited a wave of public criticism.”[21] This is what Slate wrote about the debacle:

It may not be entirely fair to liken a “peer review and citation ring” to the academic version of an extortion ring, but there’s certainly fraud involved in both. Retraction Watch, a blog dedicated to chronicling which academic papers have been withdrawn, is reporting that SAGE Publishing, a group that puts out numerous peer-reviewed journals, is retracting 60 papers from its Journal of Vibration and Control after an internal investigation uncovered extensive evidence of severe peer-review fraud.

Apparently researcher Peter Chen, formerly of National Pingtung University of Education in Taiwan, made multiple submission and reviewer accounts – possibly along with other researchers at his institution or elsewhere – so that he could influence the peer review system. When Chen or someone else from the ring submitted a paper, the group could manipulate who reviewed the research, and on at least one occasion Chen served as his own reviewer.[22]

The Washington Post [23] and The Guardian [24] carried similar stories.

***

Why does all of this matter?

First, the narrow point. In Big Science, certain topics – like, say, the weaknesses of evolutionary biology, are well nigh verboten. I hope that by now, the following point is obvious: The claim that scientists critical of evolutionary biology who are not published in Nature, Science et al cannot be accomplished scientists (why, otherwise, haven’t they published there?) is hollow. These journals will not publish material which undermines the cherished paradigm. Contrary to popular misconceptions, Big Science is not open, objective, and tolerant. Even those scientists whose research is done within the paradigm – including virtually all those named above – often find the system to be rigid and even hostile towards those who are truly innovative.

But there’s a broader point to be made as well. I have written and lectured on the interface of Judaism and science for many years. I mostly deal with issues of ultimate origins – of the universe and humanity. These are controversial and fascinating issues, and should be explored dispassionately and in detail. Probably the biggest obstacle I face in trying to convey Judaism’s views on these matters is the public’s distorted view of what scientists are like and what scientific work consists of. Among the general public, there is a pervasive view of scientists as paragons of morality and objectivity. It’s as if the mere fact that one has an aptitude for mathematics or wears a lab coat somehow bestows immunity from human vices.

In Genesis and Genes, I wrote:[25]

The physicist Sir John Polkinghorne is a prominent writer about the intersection of science and theology. In Science and Theology he coins a marvellous phrase:[26]

Scientists do not look at the world with a blank gaze; they view it from a chosen perspective and bring principles of interpretation and prior expectations… to bear upon what they observe. Scientists wear (theoretical) “spectacles behind the eyes”.

Theoretical spectacles behind the eyes. Why does Polkinghorne need to tell his readers that scientists view the world not with a blank gaze, but from a chosen perspective and with prior expectations? Isn’t that only human? The answer:[27]

“Many people have in their minds a picture of how science proceeds which is altogether too simple. This misleading caricature portrays scientific discovery as resulting from the confrontation of clear and inescapable theoretical predictions by the results of unambiguous and decisive experiments… In actual fact… the reality is more complex and more interesting than that.”

The caricature of scientists as supermen is pervasive. The layman is so removed from the experience of actual research that he harbors an image of this profession that is massively distorted. We picture the scientist as popping into existence in the laboratory, like the Greek goddess Athena popping out of Zeus’ head, without any experiences, prejudices, views and background that could impinge on her interpretations and expectations. But scientists are human beings, subject to all the weaknesses, foibles and failings of other human beings.[28]

When I wrote these words in Genesis and Genes, I was focusing on the conditioning to which all scientists are subject and which deeply influences their research. This essay, with its exploration of the mechanics of a crucial component of the scientific edifice – the institution of peer review – is intended as a cautionary note to those who do not understand that scientists are indeed subject to all the weaknesses, foibles and failings of other human beings. They are subject to many forces which influence their research agendas, assumptions and conclusions.

The general public, blissfully shielded from the sludge-like reality of science publishing, takes peer-review to be flawless. Non-experts often mistakenly believe that individual scientists who serve as editors or referees on papers are always open-minded and completely objective in reviewing papers. Peer-review is seen as a gold-standard which guarantees the legitimacy of a paper. Indeed, this mirage is promoted by science propagandists like Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, who wrote in 2005 that “The gold standard for modern scientific achievement is the publication of new results in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.”[29] But the examples in this essay are more than sufficient to demonstrate that the peer-review system is deeply compromised. It is an efficient way of strangling new ideas, rather than a vehicle for promoting truly novel ideas. The peer-review system often stifles true innovation, allowing the reigning paradigm to squash all competition unfairly.

Stephen Jay Gould, one of the most prominent evolutionary biologists of the late 20th Century, sought to dispel the myths promoted by the likes of Coyne when he observed that “[t]he stereotype of a fully rational and objective ‘scientific method,’ with individual scientists as logical (and interchangeable) robots, is self-serving mythology.”[30] The mathematician John Lennox echoed these sentiments, writing that “… the Enlightenment ideal of the coolly rational scientific observer, completely independent, free of all preconceived theories, prior philosophical, ethical and religious commitments, doing investigations and coming to dispassionate, unbiased conclusions that constitute absolute truth, is nowadays regarded by serious philosophers of science (and, indeed, most scientists) as a simplistic myth.”[31] Lawrence K. Altman made a similar point in an article in the New York Times:

“Many nonscientists perceive reviewers to be impartial. But the reviewers, called independent experts, in fact are often competitors of the authors of the papers they scrutinize, raising potential conflicts of interest.”[32]

Professional jealousy is not the only vice involved. Dr. Altman explains that good old-fashioned greed is also a factor. Journals have huge economic interests in preserving the current flawed system, and research scientists play along because peer-reviewed papers are necessary for them to maintain their positions:

The public and many scientists tend to overlook the journals’ economic benefits that stem from linking their embargo policies to peer review. Some journals are owned by private for-profit companies, while others are owned by professional societies that rely on income from the journals. The costs of running journals are low because authors and reviewers are generally not paid.

A few journals that not long ago measured profits in the tens of thousands of dollars a year now make millions, according to at least three editors who agreed to discuss finances only if granted anonymity, because they were not authorized to speak about finances.[33]

***

What’s the solution? Many scientists believe that the system is broken beyond repair. But others, who certainly recognise the ills that plague the peer-review process, believe it’s salvageable. Experiments are being conducted to improve – or sidestep – the current system. For example, some journals no longer grant referees the protection of anonymity. Instead, reviewers are identified and their critiques of papers are made available to the author of the paper being reviewed. The author is then able to defend his paper. This may ameliorate the problem of reviewers who hamper the publication of a paper for less than noble reasons (such as professional jealousy). Another possible solution, already being tried, is the creation of websites that will publish any research paper, whether it is deemed “acceptable” by the establishment or not, as long as it is submitted by credentialed scientists. But this debate, I think, misses the point.

The point is that scientists are human beings. They are fallible; they suffer from professional jealousy, prejudice, greed and every other human failing, to the precise extent that other human beings suffer from these moral maladies. There is nothing in the typical scientist’s training that makes him less vulnerable to subjectivity and prejudice than any other person.

Nothing fundamental is going to change until the science establishment realises that facility with partial differential equations or the ability to fiddle with the knobs and switches of an electron microscope are not guarantors of ratiocination. Character training is just as important. Until the “self-serving mythology” of a scientific method that is impervious to human frailty and is thus rational and objective is recognised as such by scientists and the wider public, and until such time as scientific training incorporates elements of self-analysis and character improvement, one can expect that peer-review, as well as all other elements of modern science, will fall far short of the ideal.

 NOTES:

[1] See the essay by the physicist Frank J. Tipler entitled Refereed Journals: do they insure quality or enforce orthodoxy? The essay appeared in Uncommon Dissent: Intellectuals who find Darwinism Unconvincing, William A. Dembski (editor), ISI Books, 2004. Several of the quotations in this article come from this essay.

[2] Philip Anderson, in Brown, Pais and Pippard, editors, Twentieth Century Physics, American Institute of Physics Press, 1995,page 2029.

[3] http://blogs.nature.com/peer-to-peer/2006/06/quality_and_value_the_true_pur.html

Retrieved 1st June 2014.

[4] Walter Shropshire Jr., editor, The Joys of Research, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981, page 109.

[5] New York Times, 12th October 1999, page A29.

[6] Mitchell J. Feigenbaum, in Brown, Pais and Pippard, editors, Twentieth Century Physics, American Institute of Physics Press, 1995, page 1850.

[7] Ibid. page 1426.

[8] Lillian Hoddeson, True Genius: The Life and Science of John Bardeen, Joseph Henry Press, 2002, page 300.

[9] Jane Hawking, Music to Move the Stars: A Life with Stephen Hawking, Trans-Atlantic Publications, 1999, page 239.

[10] Walter Shropshire Jr., editor, The Joys of Research, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981, page 130.

[11] Campanario, J.M. 1993, Not in our Nature, Nature 361:488.

[12] http://blogs.nature.com/peer-to-peer/2006/06/quality_and_value_the_true_pur.html

Retrieved 1st June 2014.

[13] Science 21 September 2001: Vol.293 no. 5538 pp. 2187-2188:

[14] http://kingsreview.co.uk/magazine/blog/2014/02/24/how-academia-and-publishing-are-destroying-scientific-innovation-a-conversation-with-sydney-brenner/

Retrieved 27th May 2014.

[15] http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/09/how-journals-nature-science-cell-damage-science.

Retrieved 27th May 2014.

[16] http://retractionwatch.com/

Retrieved 31st July 2014.

[17] http://retractionwatch.com/2014/08/01/another-nature-stem-cell-paper-is-retracted/

Retrieved 4th August 2014.

[18] http://retractionwatch.com/2014/07/31/ut-southwestern-cancer-research-group-notches-ninth-retraction/

Retrieved 4th August 2014.

[19] http://www.forbes.com/sites/billfrezza/2014/07/13/bad-science-muckrakers-question-the-big-science-status-quo/

Retrieved 6th August 2014.

[20] http://retractionwatch.com/2014/07/08/sage-publications-busts-peer-review-and-citation-ring-60-papers-retracted/

Retrieved 4th August 2014.

[21] http://retractionwatch.com/2014/07/14/taiwans-education-minister-resigns-in-wake-of-sage-peer-review-scandal/#more-21533

Retrieved 4th August 2014.

[22]http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2014/07/08/sage_publishers_journal_of_vibration_and_control_is_retracting_60_papers.html

Retrieved 30 July 2014.

[23] http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/07/10/scholarly-journal-retracts-60-articles-smashes-peer-review-ring/

Retrieved 30 July 2014.

[24] http://www.theguardian.com/media/2014/jul/10/academic-journal-retracts-articles-peer-review-ring

Retrieved 30 July 2014.

 [25] Yoram Bogacz, Genesis and Genes, Feldheim, 2013, pages 10-11.

[26] Science and Theology, John Polkinghorne, Fortress Press, 1998, page 10.

[27] Ibid. page 9.

[28] Dr. Niles Eldredge, a distinguished paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, put it this way, “Many scientists really do seem to believe that they have a special access to the truth. They call press conferences to trumpet new discoveries… and they expect to be believed – by their peers, and especially by the public at large. Throwing down scientific thunderbolts from Olympian heights, scientists come across as authoritarian truth givers, whose word must be taken unquestioned.” Speaking as a highly accomplished scientist himself, he unceremoniously shatters this misleading façade: “That all the evidence shows the behavior of scientists to be no different from the ways in which other people behave is somehow overlooked in all this.” See this article http://www.algemeiner.com/2011/06/12/does-dr-niles-eldredge-believe-in-darwinian-evolution/. Retrieved 14th June 2011.

 [29] http://edge.org/conversation/the-case-against-intelligent-design

Retrieved 5th August 2014.

 [30] See Stephen Jay Gould, “In the Mind of the Beholder,” Natural History, Vol. 103 (2):15 (1994). I came across this comment in the following article by Casey Luskin:

 http://www.evolutionnews.org/2012/02/intelligent_des056221.html#fn19

Retrieved 4th August 2014.

 See also

 http://www.evolutionnews.org/2014/07/for_critics_of_087681.html

Retrieved 4th August 2014.

[31] God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? John C. Lennox, Lion, 2009, page 33.

[32] http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/02/health/02docs.html?pagewanted=2&_r=0

Retrieved 4th August 2014.

[33] Ibid.

Review of Awesome Creation

July 30, 2014

The Cosmos is all that is, or was, or ever will be. Thus spake the late astronomer and author Carl Sagan, expressing his belief that reality consists of nothing but matter and energy. Sagan’s atheist slogan may have been borrowed from the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus (circa 500 BCE): “This cosmos, the same for all, was neither made by God nor man, but was, is, and always will be.” Heraclitus was conveying a notion that held sway for millennia and was endorsed by modern science until very recently – that the universe has always existed. He is quoted in Awesome Creation, a Study of the First Three Verses of the Torah, by Rabbi Yosef Bitton (Gefen Publishing House, 2013).

Rabbi Bitton eloquently presents the Jewish response to claims of the universe’s eternity: Bereshis bara! The universe was created by God out of nothing; it has not always existed. And Big Bang cosmology, now accepted by the overwhelming majority of the scientific community, involves a rather reluctant acknowledgement by many scientists that a cherished philosophical notion had to be forsaken.

In recent decades, a veritable cottage industry has arisen within the Torah community, with authors claiming to harmonise the respective viewpoints of the Torah and Science on the question of ultimate origins (of the universe and humanity). These authors make it their business – a lucrative business at that! – to pander to readers whose point of departure is, “How do you reconcile Judaism and Science?” without realising that they are not asking a question but rather expressing a prejudice. It never occurs to them to ask, “Are Judaism and Science necessarily reconcilable?” Having decided at the outset that the two viewpoints must always coincide, these authors proceed to make sure – if necessary by torturing classical sources until they confess – that Torah sources submit to political correctness.

Awesome Creation, for the most part, avoids this pitfall. It does an excellent job of elucidating the key terms in the first three verses of the Torah. What does tohu really mean? And bohu? How about raqia’? Does darkness mean the mere absence of light or is it a tangible entity? Rabbi Bitton analyses these words on the Torah’s own terms, using the Hebrew text, Chazal and classical authorities. And in pursuing the legitimate meanings of obscure terms, the author is sufficiently confident to criticise well-known writers – Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, for example – for mistranslating certain phrases. Mostly, the author succeeds in sticking to his objective that “Science is used in this work only to the extent it contributes to the understanding of the Biblical text, which is the main goal of this book.”

But not always. Rabbi Bitton, too, sometimes succumbs to the urge to show that, as he puts it, the “Biblical Creation story… is completely compatible with science’s modern discoveries.” Nu nu… At any rate, writing that Ramban anticipated a post-Newtonian conception of physics or that Rambam identified primeval darkness as… [an] invisible form of energy was unnecessary. Overall, however, Rabbi Bitton’s scholarship is dispassionate and focused.

Awesome Creation makes the occasional innocent mistake. The famous astrophysicist Arthur Eddington was not an uncompromising atheist (he was a committed Quaker, and, because of his pacifism, faced imprisonment in 1918, when he was 35 years old and still subject to conscription in WWI) and citizens of the “eternal and stationary universe of Aristotle” did not ponder elliptical orbits (nobody did that until Kepler). But I quibble. On scientific matters, Awesome Creation is almost always accurate and informative.

One of the novel features of Awesome Creation is its willingness to cite lesser-known sources (a point the author acknowledges in a recent interview (see http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/interviews-and-profiles/modern-science-is-discovering-what-the-torah-said-thousands-of-years-ago-an-interview-with-rabbi-yosef-bitton/2013/09/17/2/)). This is innocuous and even illuminating, except for the odd occasion when this practice goes overboard. Do we really need Jorge Luis Borges to tell us that Nature and the Bible are two books written by the same Author? Galileo said so 400 years ago (and Rabbi S.R. Hirsch used the same idea in his 18th Letter). But again, this is nitpicking. Mostly, Awesome Creation sticks to standard sources. And even when novel rabbinic sources are cited, they are not there to convince the reader that radical and fringe views are legitimate Torah viewpoints, because in hashkafa anything goes. [See, however, note 4 on page 63].

Awesome Creation is stimulating, original and accessible and I warmly recommend it to anyone who is interested in the Torah’s account of Creation.