Archive for December, 2012

Professor Shapiro – Part 3

December 26, 2012

This series of posts deals with correspondence between Rabbi Blue (a pseudonym), Professor James Shapiro and me. Rabbi Blue is a Johannesburg educator at a Jewish day school. He contacted me after the school that employs him implemented a change to the biology curriculum. Rabbi Blue forwarded to me correspondence he had had with Professor Shapiro, a world-famous biologist at the University of Chicago (http://shapiro.bsd.uchicago.edu/). Here is part 3 of the series. 

***

 Professor Shapiro’s response to Rabbi Blue’s email:

Dear Rabbi Blue,

You are right. There is overwhelming evidence for evolution. The more we learn and the more powerful our technologies become, the greater our insight is into the relationship of all living organisms, past and present. Not surprisingly, however, the most recent molecular evidence tells us that the gradualist process envisioned by Darwin in the mid-19th Century cannot account for major events in evolutionary history. These include the horizontal transfer of large amounts of DNA between distant organisms, cell fusions to generate organelles such as mitochondria and chloroplasts, and whole genome duplications at key evolutionary divergences, such as the origins and radiation of flowering plants (what Darwin called “that abominable mystery”) and the origins of vertebrates. These sudden events affecting many characters at the same time are well-documented in the DNA record, and they require an alternative view of the evolutionary process. 

It is essential to separate out three issues in the evolution-creationism debate: the origin of life, the fact of evolution, the mechanisms of evolution. We do not yet have enough information to discuss the origin of life scientifically. All the evidence we have tells us that evolution by descent with modification has taken place and continues today (think about bacterial antibiotic resistance). Our molecular insights tell us that we need to formulate new theories about the processes behind evolution. Darwin’s natural selection of “numerous, successive, slight variations” is neither accurate nor adequate to account for the dramatic genome changes we can document through DNA sequencing. 

***

 My comment: It is refreshing (and rare) to see a contemporary biologist acknowledge any weaknesses within the Neo-Darwinian paradigm, much less that important chunks of it are neither accurate nor adequate. Nonetheless, there is much to say. 

In about twenty years of investigating Neo-Darwinism, I have come across the mantra of overwhelming evidence too many times to count. It’s like getting a cheque for a million dollars: mouth-watering when you see it, bitter when it bounces. When you ask evolutionary biologists to present their overwhelming evidence, the only thing that is overwhelming about their response is the sheer paucity of convincing evidence. Of course, in this short correspondence, Professor Shapiro did not set out to demonstrate to Rabbi Blue what evidence led him to his conclusions. But his one reference to evidence for descent with modification is telling. He refers to bacterial antibiotic resistance. This is a well-known phenomenon, and has been studied to bits all over the world. But it is hardly evidence for descent with modification. That putative process requires, inter alia, speciation – the accumulation of a sufficient number of mutations that leads to the divergence of a daughter species from its mother species. If there were a case in which the mutations seen in bacterial colonies led to changes which indicated speciation, it would count as superb evidence for Neo-Darwinism. But there isn’t. No matter how long and how hard these bacterial mutations are studied, the bugs stay bugs. To state that these mutations can accumulate until speciation occurs, as Professor Shapiro believes, is speculation. Maybe they will, and maybe they won’t. We haven’t seen it happen yet. 

Professor Shapiro is a top-notch biologist. But he is not the only top-notch biologist. Here is what another first-rate researcher had to say on this very matter: 

“[No evidence] exists in the literature claiming that one species has been shown to evolve into another. Bacteria, the simplest form of independent life, are ideal for this kind of study, with generation times of twenty to thirty minutes… But throughout 150 years of the science of bacteriology, there is no evidence that one species of bacteria has changed into another… Since there is no evidence for species changes between the simplest forms of unicellular life, it is not surprising that there is no evidence for evolution… throughout the whole array of higher multicellular organisms.” [Alan Linton, University of Bristol, Scant Search for the Maker, Times Higher Education Supplement, April 20, 2001, Book section, 29].  

Here is another world-class researcher making much the same point: 

“Mutations, in summary, tend to induce sickness, death, or deficiencies. No evidence in the vast literature of heredity change shows unambiguous evidence that random mutation itself, even with geographical isolation of populations, leads to speciation.” [Lynn Margulis, Acquiring Genomes: The Theory of the Origins of the Species, Basic Books, 2003, p. 29].  

Here are first-rank biologists who read the evidence regarding mutations quite differently to Professor Shapiro. They do not assume that mutations can be accumulated until a daughter species forms. They take the evidence as it is. Lots of bacterial mutations have been documented. Many are interesting, but certainly do not demonstrate that one species of bacteria can mutate into another species. 

Richard Lenski was elected in 2006 to the USA National Academy of Sciences on the strength of his long experiment (running since 1988) in continuously culturing that ubiquitous laboratory warrior, E. coli. He has nurtured about 50 000 (fifty-thousand) generations of this bacterium. Lenski has recorded the mutations that have been observed over these long years. These changes are overwhelmingly degradative. Here is an analogy to help the uninitiated to understand this term. Imagine that your car alarm goes off at 2 a.m. This is very annoying. Eventually, after futile tinkering under the hood, you snip the electrical wire that supplies power from the car battery to the alarm system. Peace reigns over the neighbourhood again. Now – was the act of cutting the wire productive? Yes and no. If you are talking about the immediate benefit, you could argue that it was. There was an immediate gain in that silence was restored. But could you argue that in the long term, this was a step which would possibly lead to increased complexity within the car’s operating systems? No! The change was degradative. It degraded the functioning of the system, to give you instant gratification. [See Genetic Entropy & the Mystery of the Genome, Dr. J.C. Sanford, Elim Publishing, 2005.] 

The vast majority of mutations that have been observed are downright lethal or at least deleterious to the organism. Of those touted as beneficial by biologists, virtually all are degradative. Here is a specific example of such a mutation. In Lenski’s experiment, one adaptation was an increase in cell size and in many cultures, a more rounded cell shape. However, although this mutation increased fitness under the specific laboratory conditions, it also “increased the bacteria’s sensitivity to osmotic stress and decreased their ability to survive long periods in stationary phase cultures, so the phenotype of this adaptation depends on the environment of the cells.” [Philippe N, Pelosi L, Lenski RE, Schneider D (February 2009). “Evolution of penicillin-binding protein 2 concentration and cell shape during a long-term experiment with Escherichia coli”. Journal of Bacteriology 191 (3): 909–21. Another interesting mutation reported by Lenski concerns the ability of E. coli to use citrate. See this response by Dr. Michael Behe: http://www.amazon.com/gp/blog/post/PLNK3U696N278Z93O.] 

This is the trouble with bacterial mutations. The poor critters indeed mutate, but the overwhelming majority of mutations are deleterious to the organism. Those that are not are usually trivial. The tiny fraction that confer an advantage do so by paying the price of degrading the overall complexity of the organism. There is no indication whatsoever that an accumulation of such mutations can lead to speciation. If all you do is cut wires under the bonnet, don’t expect your alarm system to improve over time, no matter how satisfying your night sleep becomes. 

The same point may be made for insect “resistance” to insecticides like dieldrin. The insects do not gain any resistance by mutations; they lose sensitivity to the drug. The price they pay is a more sluggish nervous response, hardly a promising avenue for the evolution of more advanced organisms. [Dr. Lee Spetner’s Not By Chance! is a comprehensive treatment of this subject.] 

The same is true of millions of fruit flies in laboratories all over the world. Suffering infernal indignities, they have taught biologists a lot. They can mutate in a hundred different ways, sometimes producing grotesque creatures with legs growing where there should have been antennae. But they never become anything other than fruit flies. All you see is a rearrangement of existing genetic material. 

In short, Professor Shapiro’s reference to bacterial antibiotic resistance is about as relevant to descent with modification as is the claim that I can walk to the Moon because I have demonstrated the ability to walk across the room. If there were a case of unambiguous speciation, you can bet your life on the fact that it would be cited constantly by Neo-Darwinists. But Professor Shapiro and his colleagues are reduced to using examples – like bacterial antibiotic resistance – which are at best ambiguous and at worst deceptive. 

It is the same with all examples of what forms the supposedly overwhelming evidence for Neo-Darwinism. Whether it is Kettlewell’s moths, the Miller-Urey experiment or Darwin’s finches, the common denominator is that they are meretricious. Once examined closely, they are exposed as so many layers of emperor garments – naked emperors, that is. 

Rabbi Blue, one of the most enduring lessons in the history of science is that practising scientists are, by-and-large, ignorant of the history of science. Repeatedly, they make predictions about the fact that in their discipline, there are only loose ends to be tied, because the basic picture is so complete that there cannot be much more to do. Here is an egregious example to keep in mind when Professor Shapiro makes reassuring noises about the fact that all that remains to do is to fine-tune the mechanisms of evolution: 

When Max Planck was a twenty-year-old graduate student, he was unsure as to the field he should specialise in. One of his professors, Philip von Jolly, advised him against becoming a physicist. He argued that after the discovery of the two laws of thermodynamics, all that was left to do was to tie up loose ends. [It Must Be Beautiful – Great Equations of Modern Science, Graham Farmelo (editor), Granta Books, 2003, page 6.] This was not merely Jolly’s own opinion. This is how the physics community saw things.  Just in case you don’t know – Planck is one of the giants of modern physics, credited with introducing the concept of quantization, which was instrumental – just a few years later – in the revolution involving quantum mechanics and relativity. 

***

 Professor Shapiro’s statement that The more we learn and the more powerful our technologies become, the greater our insight is into the relationship of all living organisms, past and present is even more unfortunate. That was the dogma taught to several generations of students. It went (and still goes) under the provocative name of the Tree of Life. Countless students have been shown images of alleged relationships between organisms depicted as points on a tree. At its base is LUCA, the Last Universal Common Ancestor. The trunk, branches, boughs and twigs all supposedly represent relationships between species, with the outermost twigs representing existing species, while extinct species lie lower. This image – the tree of life – is the icon of those biological relationships which Professor Shapiro claims are understood with crystal clarity. This picture is essential to Neo-Darwinism. It is telling that in the whole of The Origin of Species, there is but one illustration – that of the Tree of Life. 

Things changed dramatically in the early 1990s, when it became possible to sequence actual bacterial genes rather than just RNA. Everybody in the community of evolutionary biologists expected these DNA sequences to confirm the RNA tree. Fast forward twenty years: on 21st January 2009, New Scientist published a cover story entitled Darwin Was Wrong. The subtitle was Cutting down the Tree of Life. The cover story quoted Eric Bapteste, an evolutionary biologist at the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris, France, Michael Rose, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Irvine and John Dupré, a philosopher of biology at the University of Exeter, UK. All share Professor Shapiro’s general loyalty to Neo-Darwinism. 

The article begins with a review of the orthodoxy. “For a long time the holy grail was to build a tree of life,” says Eric Bapteste… “A few years ago it looked as though the grail was within reach.” In other words, exactly what Professor Shapiro says – the target of insight into the relationship of all living organisms, past and present was within sight. 

The article continues, “But today the project lies in tatters, torn to pieces by an onslaught of negative evidence. Many biologists now argue that the tree concept is obsolete and needs to be discarded.” “We have no evidence at all that the tree of life is a reality,” says Bapteste… “The problem was that different genes told contradictory evolutionary stories.” [Emphasis added]. 

A study published in Science tried to construct a picture of animal relationships but concluded that “[D]espite the amount of data and breadth of taxa analyzed, relationships among most [animal] phyla remained unresolved.” [ Antonis Rokas, Dirk Krueger, Sean B. Carroll, “Animal Evolution and the Molecular Signature of Radiations Compressed in Time,” Science, Vol. 310:1933-1938 (Dec. 23, 2005).] 

Professor Carl Woese, a pioneer of evolutionary molecular systematics, observed that these problems extend well beyond the base of the tree of life: “Phylogenetic incongruities [read: contradictions in the relationships pictures] can be seen everywhere in the universal tree, from its root to the major branchings within and among the various taxa to the makeup of the primary groupings themselves.” [Carl Woese “The Universal Ancestor,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, Vol. 95:6854-9859 (June, 1998).] 

Of course, none of this led to evolutionary biologists deserting the paradigm en masse. Instead, the lingo changed – now they speak not of the tree of life but of the web of life or the bush of life. Well, this is exactly the problem with paradigms – they’re much like fly paper: once stuck, it’s hard to leave. But some biologists are using more dramatic language. The New Scientist article continues, “It’s part of a revolutionary change in biology,” says Dupré. “Our standard model of evolution is under enormous pressure.” Rose goes even further. “The tree of life is being politely buried, we all know that,” he says. “What’s less accepted is that our whole fundamental view of biology needs to change.” Biology is vastly more complex than we thought, he says, and facing up to this complexity will be as scary as the conceptual upheavals physicists had to take on board in the early 20th century. 

One should keep in mind that New Scientist is a bastion of evolution diehards. This cover story was as surprising as reading a denunciation of Stalin in Pravda in 1937 would have been. 

At any rate, these results and many others tell you something about the murkiness that characterizes current ideas about the relationships between organisms. Professor Shapiro’s assurances that The more we learn and the more powerful our technologies become, the greater our insight is into the relationship of all living organisms, past and present should be paraphrased as follows: The more we learn and the more powerful our technologies become, the clearer it becomes that common descent is entirely unsupported by the genetic data.

My email adress

December 24, 2012

My email address is bogacz@telkomsa.net. If you experience trouble with emails bouncing, please email bogaczr@telkomsa.net, and write “For YB” in the subject line.

Excerpt from Chapter 4 of Genesis and Genes

December 23, 2012

Genesis and Genes is now available in Israel, the UK and the USA. It is expected in South Africa in January 2013. In the meantime, I intend to post a number of sample passages. Here is an excerpt from chapter 4.

***

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.” [Heaven’s Touch, James B. Kaler, Princeton University Press, 2009, page 16.]

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.” [The History of Astronomy, Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest, Firefly Books, 2007, page 240.]

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.”) [TIME Magazine, January 30th, 2012, page 40. The article is entitled Africa’s Eye on the Sky.]

 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.” [Caleb Scharf, Cosmology: Plucked from the vacuum. Nature 481 (26 January 2012), p. 440]

 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. Various problems with the dark matter model led Mordehai Milgrom, now at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel, to suggest in the 1980s an alternative to dark matter, known as Modified Newtonian Dynamics, or MOND. The basic idea of MOND is that the force of gravity is not constant. Below a critical threshold of acceleration, gravity is stronger than what Newtonian theory predicts. This enhanced gravity ensures that stars remain bound to their galaxies. According to MOND theorists, there isn’t some mysterious matter out there, in such copious quantities as to dwarf the kind of stuff we are familiar with. Rather, one of the most fundamental and familiar forces of all – gravity – is not as familiar as we thought.

Whether the dark matter theory, MOND or neither is correct, the fact remains that when it comes to dark matter, astronomers are in the dark. We have little understanding of the stuff of the universe. It could well be that there is some other phenomenon that keeps stars in their orbits, of which nobody is currently aware. This could dramatically change our picture of the universe, and how currently-understood laws interact with this new phenomenon. To speak of proof regarding the validity of cosmological hypotheses to do with the ancient, unobserved past, when we have yet to learn some basic facts about the universe we inhabit now, is grossly premature.

To complicate things further, throw in some dark energy. This is not techno-speak from a Star Wars film. It is a phenomenon, discovered in the late 1990s, which appears to cause the universe’s expansion to accelerate. And this is not mere musing on a blackboard. The 2011 Nobel Prize in physics was awarded to a trio of astronomers for their discovery of this phenomenon. Adam Riess, Brian Schmidt and Saul Perlmutter were also acknowledged by the journal Science, which named their findings the Breakthrough of the Year in 1998. The problem is that nobody knows what this force could be. According to cosmologist Michael Turner of the University of Chicago, quoted in the January 2006 issue of New Scientist, “Cosmic acceleration is the biggest mystery in all of science.” The magazine went on to report that “… at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in Washington DC, the mystery deepened when Brad Schaefer of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge reported that dark energy appears to be changing – rapidly. Though his experimental method left most cosmologists unconvinced, the result stressed how little we know about dark energy and the need for different approaches.” [Emphasis added]. Needless to say, if there is a force which is accelerating the universe’s expansion, and especially if its strength is varying, attempts to estimate the expansion of the universe in the past – and thus to infer its age – are enormously complicated. It may well be impossible to do so. Professor Kaler again:

“But we have even less of an idea where this [dark] energy comes from than we do about the nature of dark matter. So to dark matter, add dark energy. Either that or something is terribly amiss with our concept of gravity.” [Heaven’s Touch, James B. Kaler, Princeton University Press, 2009, page 16.]

Professor Shapiro Part 2

December 21, 2012

As I mentioned in the post Professor Shapiro Part 1, this series of posts deals with correspondence between Rabbi Blue (a pseudonym), Professor James Shapiro and me. Rabbi Blue is a Johannesburg educator at a Jewish day school. He contacted me after the school that employs him implemented a change to the biology curriculum. This was a consequence of a Department of Education directive to include a section on biological evolution in the South African high-school biology syllabus. Rabbi Blue forwarded to me correspondence he had had with Professor Shapiro, a world-famous biologist at the University of Chicago (http://shapiro.bsd.uchicago.edu/). Here is part 2 of the series.

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Rabbi Blue’s first email to Professor Shapiro

Dear Professor Shapiro, 

I hope this e-mail finds you well. 

I recently got into a serious debate with a colleague concerning the validity of Darwinian Evolution (serious in that it has major implications on our school’s syllabus). Without boring you with the details of the debate, I will tell you quickly the essence of our debate: My position is that there is overwhelming evidence for Evolution and therefore we – as Orthodox Rabbis – should embrace it and not shy away from any possible theological problems. He – on the other hand – says that there is enough dissention in the scientific community as to the whether evolution is acceptable or not and therefore we are not compelled to accept Evolution. He – by the way – is a qualified chemical engineer, where I am merely an Orthodox Rabbi. 

The reason I am contacting you, is that my colleague referred to you as one of the opponents of Evolution – to bolster his claim. Now, I’m not asking for your theological opinion, but I am asking you for your views on Darwinian Evolution specifically and Evolution in general (or is there is difference?). 

My response: 

The statement that there is overwhelming evidence for Evolution and therefore we – as Orthodox Rabbis – should embrace it and not shy away from any possible theological problems is simply incorrect. No classical Torah authority would subscribe to the position that because the scientific community accepts a certain paradigm, the Torah community should embrace the concept. The Torah has its own dynamics and its own methodology as far as determining whether a given concept is compatible with its teachings or not (and therefore, whether it is true or not). 

This would be true regardless of the existence (or lack) of historical precedents. But it just so happens that there is a perfect illustration of the folly of this line of reasoning. I am referring, of course, to the Big Bang. Until very recently, the entrenched paradigm within the scientific community was that the universe was eternal (for an introduction to the subject, see S. Brush, How Cosmology became a Science, Scientific American, August 1992). This view was promoted with the same conviction that now characterises the adherence to Neo-Darwinism within the scientific community, including the denigration of any dissenters. Nobody in the Torah world doubted for one moment that this paradigm was wrong. Nobody took the erroneous position of Rabbi Blue, that we should embrace this worldview because the community of scientists believed that there was overwhelming evidence for it. Science has its limitations, and when the mesorah (our received tradition) presents a position which is at odds with contemporary paradigms, we follow the mesorah without reservation. In the case of the Big Bang, the last fifty years have validated this approach, as the eternal-universe paradigm collapsed. 

Furthermore, the phrase shy away is misleading. Nobody is shying away from anything. Rather, after careful consideration, we reject the view of the scientific community in this case, and therefore insist on introducing biology students to more than the standard material in the syllabus would expose them to. 

Finally, I think that it is regrettable that Rabbi Blue described himself as merely an Orthodox Rabbi, even if it was only meant as an expression of humility. Evolutionary biology is not quantum electrodynamics! The basic arguments of evolutionary biologists can be grasped – and their validity assessed – by the average high school student. Strip away the jargon – allopatric speciation and sympatric speciation, for example – and you get a simple proposition about how speciation is supposed to work. Those properly trained in Talmudic studies have no trouble assessing this evidence. The Aw shucks attitude towards highly-trained scientists is, in this case, unwarranted. 

***

This is how Rabbi Blue described my position to Professor Shapiro: that there is enough dissention in the scientific community as to the whether evolution is acceptable or not and therefore we are not compelled to accept Evolution

This is an entirely erroneous description of my position. The two decisive questions are: What do Torah sources say about the issue at hand? What does the scientific evidence indicate? 

The first question is answered by evaluating the relevant Torah sources objectively, without constantly peeking behind one’s shoulders to see where the scientific community is heading. The second question is answered by analysing the scientific evidence to the best of one’s ability, regardless of the numbers of scientists on each side of the issue. This takes cognizance of the fact that in the history of science, there have been numerous instances in which a minority (or even one individual) turned out to be correct and the majority (often scathing and derogatory in its attitude to the dissenters) ends up being wrong. 

In the case of Neo-Darwinism, the answer to both questions makes it clear that the major claims of Neo-Darwinism are hollow. Without question, the Torah is incompatible with Neo-Darwinism [I am also referring to those Torah scholars who lived long before Darwin, but whose teachings make the incompatibility obvious.] And, the evidence for Neo-Darwinism is scarce (to use a charitable term), while the problems with it are legion. These are the factors that determine my attitude to the issue. The fact that there is also dissention within the scientific community comes in a distant third. I would advocate the same views even if all scientists were committed to Neo-Darwinism. 

***

Rabbi Blue wrote to Professor Shapiro that, “The reason I am contacting you, is that my colleague referred to you as one of the opponents of Evolution – to bolster his claim.” 

This statement has the potential to impugn my integrity. A person who reads this sentence in Rabbi Blue’s email and then Professor Shapiro’s reply might get the impression that I misquoted Professor Shapiro or that I claimed that he promotes a position that he in fact does not subscribe to. I am sure that Rabbi Blue did not intend to do this, but I must correct the misimpression. 

Here is Professor Shapiro’s statement that I use in my audio-visual presentations: 

“There are no detailed Darwinian accounts for the evolution of any fundamental biochemical or cellular system, only a variety of wishful speculations. It is remarkable that Darwinism is accepted as a satisfactory explanation for such a vast subject – evolution – with so little rigorous examination of how well its basic theses work in illuminating specific instances of biological adaptation or diversity.” [James Shapiro, In the Details… What? National Review (September 16, 1996): 62-65] 

This is true. There are no detailed Darwinian accounts for the evolution of any biochemical or cellular system. What does exist in abundance are “explanations” that the late Harvard paleontologist Stephen J. Gould referred to as just-so stories. “The blood-clotting cascade evolved through the accumulations of numerous, successive, slight modifications of the genome” the student will be told. Oh? Can you actually cite a single example of one such sequence of events? No. This is what Professor Shapiro emphasizes in the above statement, and it constitutes a significant weakness in the Neo-Darwinian position. Most students do not have any notion that what their textbook tells them about the evolution of intricate, sophisticated cellular machinery is nothing more than wishful thinking. This indeed bolsters my argument. But at no point do I say, imply or suggest that Professor Shapiro shares my overall rejection of Neo-Darwinism. In fact, on the very same slide in which I present the above quotation I cite Franklin Harold, a distinguished cell biologist. I always point out that he is a proponent of Neo-Darwinism, and that this is evident from the way he begins his sentence – We must concede. Concede indicates his reluctance in this respect. Here is Harold’s statement: 

“We must concede that there are presently no detailed Darwinian accounts of the evolution of any biochemical or cellular system, only a variety of wishful speculations.” [Franklin Harold, The Way of the Cell: Molecules, Organisms and the Order of Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 205] 

The reason for quoting these two scientists on the same slide should be obvious. They both make the same point, and do so in strikingly similar terms, using the phrase only a variety of wishful speculations to describe what Neo-Darwinian propaganda assures us is nothing less than certain. 

I make a point of quoting as many proponents of Neo-Darwinism as possible in my presentations. Obviously, when proponents of this ideology acknowledge its weaknesses, this has a stronger effect than merely quoting opponents of the ideology. Thus, I quote Lynn Margulis regarding the utter lack of efficacy of mutations in leading to speciation. I point out to the audience that overall, Margulis does not share my perspective. In my discussion of the Cambrian explosion, I quote Simon Conway Morris and James Valentine. Both are committed to the Neo-Darwinian paradigm, but acknowledge the extreme difficulties posed to the standard account of evolution by the Cambrian layer of fossils. I quote Gilbert et al in the context of my discussion of speciation, taking care to point out to the audience that they are evolutionary biologists, and that the comment is taken from a run-of-the-mill journal whose editors, contributors and readers overwhelmingly subscribe to the Neo-Darwinian paradigm. Here is their statement: 

“Microevolution looks at adaptations that concern the survival of the fittest, not the arrival of the fittest… The origin of species – Darwin’s problem – remains unsolved.” [Scott Gilbert, John Optiz and Rudolf Raff, Resynthesizing Evolutionary and Developmental Biology, Developmental Biology 173 (1996): 357-72.] 

I could go on, but I think that the point is clear. I do not misquote Professor Shapiro, nor do I quote him out of context. As can be seen from his email responses to Rabbi Blue, he agrees that there are significant problems with Neo-Darwinism. Later on in this correspondence we shall see him making the following statements: 

“Darwin’s natural selection of “numerous, successive, slight variations” is neither accurate nor adequate to account for the dramatic genome changes we can document through DNA sequencing.” 

And 

“However, we do know for certain that macro events have occurred which could not simply have been a long succession of small changes, such as Darwin postulated.” 

Again, I must emphasise that I take great care when presenting the seminars to point out frequently that I am quoting scientists who do not necessarily share my overall views. I also, of course, cite scientists who do reject Neo-Darwinism completely.

Excerpt from Chapter 3 of Genesis and Genes

December 18, 2012

Genesis and Genes is now available in Israel, the UK and the USA. It is expected in South Africa in January 2013. In the meantime, I intend to post a number of sample passages. Here is an excerpt from chapter 3.

[Lord] Kelvin was eclectic in his scientific interests. His mastery of physics was destined to make a deep impact on a number of disciplines, particularly geology. He had a special interest in physical geology, and his insights would shake this field. The theory he would upset was embodied by the most distinguished geologist of that era, Charles Lyell (1797- 1875). Lyell, a close friend and mentor to Charles Darwin, trained in law, but his interest lay in science, particularly geology. In 1825, he was asked to write for the Quarterly Review, and began to contribute essays and book reviews on scientific topics. He was a talented writer, and the Quarterly Review brought him to the attention of a wide circle of educated people. In 1827 he decided to write a book on geology, and he subsequently set out to gather material for the book. His expedition of 1828 would be his most important. In May of that year, Lyell travelled to Paris, where he had arranged to meet the geologist Roderick Murchison (1792-1871), and together they travelled south, then along the Mediterranean coast to northern Italy. At the end of September, Lyell pressed on towards Sicily, the nearest location to mainland Europe of volcanic and earthquake activity. It was what Lyell saw in Sicily that convinced him that the Earth had been formed by the same processes that are at work today, operating over immense spans of time.

By February 1829 Lyell was back in London, and got to work on his book. He drew extensively on the work of geologists from throughout the continent, producing by far the most thorough overview of geology that had ever been written. The first volume of Principles of Geology (a name deliberately chosen to echo Newton’s Principia) appeared in July 1830.  It was subtitled Being an attempt to explain the former changes of the Earth’s surface, by reference to causes now in operation. The book was an immediate success. After another stint of fieldwork, this time in Spain, the second volume of Principles appeared in January 1832. In 1833 Lyell resigned from the chair of geology at King’s College in London, a position he had accepted in 1831, to devote himself to writing. He thus became probably the first person to make a living as a science writer. The third volume of Principles appeared in April 1833, and for the rest of his life, Lyell devoted himself to updating his book, the twelfth and final edition appearing posthumously in 1875. Lyell was knighted in 1848 and made a baronet in 1864, and was widely acknowledged to be the leading geologist of the era. [Science: A History, John Gribbin, Penguin Books, 2003, pages 319-329.]

I wrote above that Lyell’s Sicilian experience shaped his view of geology. He became convinced that geological processes that are observed today are sufficient to account for all geological features of Earth, if they could be assumed to have operated over enormous spans of time. His approach to geology became known as uniformitarianism, a (dreadful) word coined by William Whewell (1794-1866). The doctrine had been suggested by James Hutton (1726-1797), considered the father of modern geology, but Lyell popularised it and placed it on a firm empirical foundation. Uniformitarianism was distinguished from catastrophism, which viewed the Earth’s geology as being shaped mostly by cataclysmic events such as the Biblical Flood. In contrast, uniformitarian geologists insisted that geology was explainable on the basis of the same processes that operate today. They saw no need to invoke catastrophes such as global floods. The slow, gradual geological processes that are observable today – erosion, for example – are sufficient to explain all features of Earth’s geology. By the 1850s, uniformitarianism was the dominant geological doctrine in Britain, which was then (and for decades to come) the leading international centre of geology.

If the vast reserves of force demanded by the catastrophists were to be rejected, they had to be replaced; Lyell’s substitute was time. He saw time as indefinite or inconceivably large, although he avoided speaking of infinite time. Lyell’s view of the Earth was that it was overall stable through vast ages, being in a state of dynamic balance. Thus, his conception of a steady-state Earth provided no real reference point from which to measure time. But the idea of various cycles in which Earth’s energy was maintained indefinitely amounted to a perpetual motion machine. This is where Lord Kelvin’s expertise made its strongest impact.

A Further Response to Jason

December 16, 2012

Following the post A Response to Jason, I received another communication from Jason. It is reproduced below, with my responses.

Jason:

Thanks for spending the time to respond on this critical issue. However there are many places where I strongly disagree. For the sake of (partial) brevity I won’t address every point you made but only the ones I believe are central to the debate.

You explain how there have been many scientific revolutions in science and imply evolution could be next. I very highly recommend the essay ‘The relativity of wrong’ by Isaac Asimov (http://hermiene.net/essays-trans/relativity_of_wrong.html or a summary at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2tcOi9a3-B0). It deals with this issue by explaining that science is /convergent/ and errors made by science keep getting smaller and smaller not the other way around. Therefore it is unjustified to say science is an unstable discipline. (After the controversy regarding Uranus and the Ulcers would you honestly say it is plausible for scientists to now tell us that Uranus doesn’t exist and Ulcers are not at all caused by bacteria? (It took about 50 years for Darwin to surpass scientific scrutiny and finally become vindicated)) Evolution is almost certainly wrong in some minor way but to say it is completely wrong is unwarranted and, I believe, results from a misguided understanding of the history of /empirically/ based science.

My Response:

There are two distinct points here, and they should not be confused. The first point is that scientists “are human beings, subject to all the weaknesses, foibles and failings of other human beings”, as I put it in Genesis and Genes. Scientific research is so removed from the day-to-day life of ordinary citizens that the average person has a massively distorted view of how contemporary science is done. In Genesis and Genes I quote the physicist and philosopher Sir John Polkinghorne who writes that “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.”

It is necessary to correct this caricature before proceeding to arguments about cosmology and evolution. One cannot adequately analyse these important subjects as long as one harbours illusions about scientists and how science works. This is where the cases of Uranus and Dr. Robin Warren come into the picture. Uranus is a classic case of wearing theoretical spectacles behind the eyes. When you expect to see five planets, five planets is what you will see. As two distinguished philosophers of science put it, “In a sense, the old saying ‘seeing is believing’ should be supplemented by another, ‘believing is seeing.’” Scientists see things through particular paradigms, and that often colours their judgment. [Physics, the Human Adventure, Gerald Holton and Stephen G. Brush, Rutgers University Press, 2005, page 282].

The example of Dr. Warren [and, more recently, Professor Daniel Schechtman, discussed briefly in a review of Genesis and Genes in The Algemeiner, here] introduces the reader to the fact that:

  1. The entire scientific community can be wrong. Consensus is no guarantee in science, even in the realm of repeatable, observable and limited science.
  2. When the reigning paradigm is challenged, the response is often ridicule, professional isolation, and mockery.

All of this is only tangentially related to the concept of scientific revolutions. Nonetheless, as I explained above, it is a necessary prelude to a meaningful discussion about controversial scientific research.

In summary: Jason asks, “After the controversy regarding Uranus and the [discovery by Dr. Warren of the cause of] ulcers, would you honestly say it is plausible for scientists to now tell us that Uranus doesn’t exist and ulcers are not at all caused by bacteria?” Answer: No, but that’s not the point. These are examples – and Genesis and Genes contains lots more – of components in the process of becoming an informed consumer of science. If you don’t understand how science works, your assessment of various scientific results will be unrealistic. Every generation has its own Uranus and Dr Warren, and you will be ill-equipped to assess the evidence unless you have become an informed consumer of science.

The second point is that science is dynamic, and scientific results are subject to change in significant ways. [I have never written that science is “an unstable discipline”.]

Consider, as an analogy, the idea of political change. Political changes happen along a spectrum, from incremental to revolutionary. On one extreme, many instances of political change can be described as organic and continuous e.g. the re-election of Barack Obama as president of the USA. At the other extreme, you have cataclysms that occur very infrequently, but have enormous consequences, like the French Revolution or the Bolshevik Revolution. In between, you will find an enormous variety of political change, and it will be difficult to define exactly what type of change constitutes a revolution. As a South African, I can assure you that the transformation from Apartheid to democracy was revolutionary, although not quite as revolutionary as was the French Revolution. You could add hundreds of examples from history to this brief sample – the Mexican revolution, the Arab Spring, the invasion of ancient Egypt by the Sea Peoples – and slot them on the continuum according to some scheme that ranks the change in terms of various factors – the amount of bloodshed involved; whether a permanent change of regime occurred; international impact etc.

Philosophers of science do much the same with paradigm shifts in science. In science, too, there are many incremental changes – a new measurement of the speed of light to an accuracy of twelve decimal points, say – but also revolutionary changes, with lots of results falling in between.

One of the key resources in this regard, which I quote a number of times in Genesis and Genes, is Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. This book is regularly featured in lists of the 100 most important books – not scientific books, books – published in the 20th century. In great detail, Kuhn, who is widely considered to be one of the most influential philosophers of science in the 20th century, analyses precisely the question that Jason and I are discussing. Asimov may disagree, but professional philosophers of science like Kuhn maintain a position that is much less rosy than Asimov would have you believe. My research in the history of science leads me to concur with Kuhn. One example of a revolution in science is the transformation from the eternal universe model to Big Bang cosmology. Most contemporary readers take the Big Bang for granted; there is hardly a teenager around who doesn’t know that the universe began this way. But that’s an opinion born of ignorance. Big Bang cosmology is a new kid on the block. As recently as the 1960s, it was dismissed as religious claptrap by leading astronomers and cosmologists [an excellent resource is Simon Singh’s Big Bang, Harper Collins, here]. Big Bang cosmology supplanted a tradition going back as far as Aristotle that the universe was eternal, a tradition embraced by the entire scientific community until very recently. The transformation from eternal universe to created universe [whatever form that creation took] involved a gigantic change in worldview and has enormous implications, both in science and in philosophy.

My advice: read Genesis and Genes. It analyses these issues in great detail.

Jason:

Allow me to explain, on one foot, what I believe to be the argument for evolution: Imagine I were to claim South African English and American English are unrelated languages and do not share a common ancestor, how would you answer me? Presumably you would point to the fact that languages can be directly observed to change incrementally over short periods of time, the enumerable [sic] ancient manuscripts and the fact that there are many striking similarities between the two languages. I don’t think linguists not being able to explain everything about this change and not knowing /exactly/ how it took place doesn’t in any way detract from this /patently/ obvious truth. Life is based on DNA and DNA is a language. Why should life and DNA be any different?

My Response:

This is an excellent example of what, in biology, would amount to micro-evolution. Small, intra-species events are common and entirely uncontroversial. The fact that an ancestral species of finch, for example, could evolve into thirteen varieties (as has happened on the Galapagos Islands) is unsurprising, and perfectly explainable on the basis of standard evolutionary theory. Just as I have no problem with the hypothesis that the Indo-European languages descended with modification from some ancient proto-language, so too I have no problem with seeing how thirteen varieties of finch descend from one ancestral pair of birds.

But this is a far cry from macro-evolution. Macro-evolution is the appearance of completely novel biological structures and body plans. According to evolutionary biologists, at some point in Earth’s history, there were only one-celled organisms around; at some point much later on, there were organisms with wings, lungs, brains, echo-location systems, nervous systems, fangs and a myriad other organs and body plans. The English/American analogy breaks down completely here.

What evolutionary biologists do at this point is appeal to extreme extrapolation. If Natural Selection is capable of producing the tiny changes that we see in cases like Darwin’s Finches, then it must be able to produce the gigantic changes needed to go from one-celled organisms to the fantastic array of life we see today. There is no basis in logic or evidence for that conclusion. In Genesis and Genes, I quote numerous authorities who articulate this simple but profound point. For example, in 2001, evolutionary biologist Sean B. Carroll wrote in Nature:

“A long-standing issue in evolutionary biology is whether the processes observable in extant populations and species (microevolution) are sufficient to account for the larger-scale changes evident over longer periods of life’s history (macroevolution).” [Sean B. Carroll, The Big Picture, Nature 409 (2001): 669.]

To assume that macro-evolution is micro-evolution writ large has no basis in logic. You may as well say that because you saw someone walking from the living room to the kitchen, then it must be possible to walk from here to Mars.

My advice: read Genesis and Genes. I devoted almost an entire chapter to the subject of micro-evolution and macro-evolution, and argued in far greater detail than I can do here.

Jason:

“But as we move along the spectrum of scientific results, particularly towards claims about events that are forever shrouded in the mists of time or space, inaccessible to direct observation and measurement, not corroborated by experiment, never to be repeated and harbouring profound philosophical implications, one’s scepticism should increase exponentially.”

Following from Dan’s original comment and your response, surely the above quote applies to religion as well? How is that I can directly observe G-d? You can point to the argument from tradition, but is this argument not an extrapolation into the past (i.e similar to the evidence for common descent)? If you assert your statement was only intended for science, can you please explain why you draw such a stark dichotomy between religious ideology and scientific findings?

I don’t understand how one can be such an extreme skeptic when it comes to evolution and doesn’t simultaneously deny religion. It is often said the concept of common descent is a threat to religion and therefore we should reject common descent. However I think just the opposite: Common descent’s great probability (whether one accepts it or not) combined with the assertion of common descent being false and being incompatible with religion will only cause some to reject the latter in favour of /atheistic/ evolution.

Thanks

My response:

Genesis and Genes is devoted to one subject. It guides its readers in becoming informed consumers of science and capable interpreters of scientific evidence, particularly in the fields of biology and cosmology. Even to accomplish this modest goal, I had to abridge what would have been a 5000-page book into 400 odd pages in order to make it accessible to the public. Why should anyone expect that in the same book I should also argue for the truth of Judaism? Do you expect every text on cosmology to include a disquisition on the author’s theology? Andrei Linde and Alan Guth would certainly disagree with you.

There is no contradiction in being a sceptic and investigating certain systems of thought and concluding that some are more reliable than others. Having spent years investigating Judaism, I came to the conclusion that the evidence of its truth is compelling. I cannot say the same for evolutionary biology. But Genesis and Genes (and this website) deals with one aspect of the story. Compartmentalising is an essential component of rational thought.

Professor Shapiro and Rabbi Blue – Part 1

December 13, 2012

About 18 months ago, I was contacted by Rabbi Blue (a pseudonym), a Johannesburg educator at a Jewish day school that had just implemented a change to the biology curriculum. This was a consequence of a Department of Education directive to include a section on biological evolution in the South African high-school biology syllabus. Rabbi Blue forwarded to me correspondence he had had with Professor James Shapiro, a world-famous biologist at the University of Chicago (http://shapiro.bsd.uchicago.edu/). In the coming days, I intend to post the Shapiro-Blue correspondence and my response to it here, in parts.

In South African private schools – and all the Jewish day schools here are private – it is not legally problematic to include supplementary material in biology classes. For years, I have presented audio-visual seminars on biological evolution at schools and elsewhere. In the past, I lobbied to have these seminars incorporated into the high-school biology syllabus at Jewish day schools in Johannesburg. Unfortunately, that has not happened. I am sometimes invited by individual schools to present the seminars, but this is always on an ad hoc basis.

I have divided Rabbi Blue’s email into separate parts, in order to make it easier for readers to follow the points.

***

Rabbi Blue:

Dear Yoram, I hope this e-mail finds you well. I must begin with an apology for not contacting you earlier and continuing our dialogue since early last year. My work – both at shul and school – has been overwhelming, leaving little time to indulge in this type of communication. The discussion we had (so long ago) was centred around Torah and Evolution. Unfortunately, I have not investigated the matter much further than when we left off. The one thing I did manage to do was to have a correspondence with Professor James Shapiro.

My response:

Dear Rabbi Blue,

I am delighted that you have gone to the trouble of corresponding with Professor Shapiro. It indicates a level of involvement and interest which is sadly missing in the majority of cases of people who formulate opinions in this area.

No apology is necessary as far as I am concerned. The students in your school, however, are a different matter. Let me explain. I find one statement in your email disturbing. You write, “…leaving little time to indulge in this type of communication.” I consider it a grave error to describe this correspondence as an indulgence. Not because of you or me, but because of the students who are being affected. The school’s decision to accept the new biology syllabus as is (without supplementary material) is quite possibly one of the turning points in the students’ lives, whether they are aware of this or not. I wrote in Genesis & the Big Bluff that the (non)reaction of the South African rabbinate and the South African Board of Jewish Education to this syllabus change was unfortunate. If the Department of Education had changed the English syllabus to introduce a film study of Basic Instinct, say, there would have been an uproar, and justifiably so. No administrator, teacher or principal would have been able to postpone action on this matter due to being too busy to indulge in the debate. Regardless of your convictions, and those of the school administration, biological evolution is controversial, and is opposed vehemently by eminent Torah personalities. It is not unheard of that students who are introduced to evolutionary biology end up forsaking Judaism altogether. It should never have happened that decisions about such weighty matters would be made in the ho-hum manner suggested by your reference to indulgence. This is far more important than anything like teaching (including lessons in Talmud, chumash and halachah), writing report cards and parent-teacher meetings.

I find it remarkable that the USA is periodically convulsed by court cases about the admissibility of supplementary material for school biology courses. I do not think that the litigious route followed in the USA is the way to go. But at least the participants in the debate there know what’s at stake. It is so different to the apathy that I have sometimes encountered here. That is why I wrote the following passage in Genesis & the Big Bluff:

“Other schools, however, which are ostensibly committed to Torah ideals, took a different approach. In one case, after initially displaying enthusiasm for the audio-visual seminar, the school administration back-pedalled. A brief email to me from the teacher concerned explained that concerning your presentation to the kids, I have spoken to both the Principal and the Biology teacher and they both felt that there is not enough time in the schedule to facilitate the presentation. So there is enough time in the school’s schedule to teach material which can have the most serious repercussions to the students’ emunah. But there is not enough time to afford the children a glimpse of the many serious difficulties inherent in Neo-Darwinism. A principal and a teacher took a decision that may adversely affect the spiritual health of hundreds of children over the coming years using the same criterion that would be used if the subject at hand were the next school outing.”

 Rabbi Blue:

The reason for this correspondence [with Professor Shapiro] is because in previous e-mails you listed a few academics who dispute Evolution and one of the names was Prof Shapiro. I decided to investigate the list and found that most of them were prejudiced to the
subject from the outset (all of their biases were due to their religious beliefs – some Christian and others Muslim) and therefore (in my mind) disqualified themselves from having an honest and objective view point.

My response:

Rabbi Blue, this is what your approach would amount to in a different context: I would like to investigate the possibility of drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico. I found that all the so-called experts were biased. So I spoke to nobody from the energy sector, and also to nobody in the environmental lobby. Their biases were due to their economic interests and environmental concerns and they therefore (in my mind) disqualified themselves from having an honest and objective viewpoint. Sounds ridiculous? It does to me.

Having religious convictions does not ipso facto mean that one’s analysis is faulty. You, as the investigator, must make sure that you are objective. You do that by scrutinising as wide an array of opinions of people who are technical experts in their fields. You deliberately seek out arguments from both sides of the spectrum and apply the best analysis that you can, to see whether or not the arguments hold water. You don’t achieve objectivity by speaking to one expert because he is a nice chap while ignoring other experts – without even considering their opinion – because you consider them to be biased from the outset.

Furthermore, seeing that you disqualify all religious people from participating in the debate, what makes you take notice of Professor Shapiro’s opinions? On his web page, in the CV section, Professor Shapiro lists the following information about himself:

Board, University of Chicago B’nai-Brith Hillel Foundation, 1983-88, 1996- (Chairman, Finance Committee, 1984-1988; Chairman, Fundraising Committee, 1996-2000)

Board, KAM-Isaiah Israel Congregation, 1990-1995, 1998-2002

I have no intention of scrutinising Professor Shapiro’s precise level of observance. But being a member of a board of a synagogue suggests that he has at least a rudimentary belief in a Creator, and yet you deemed his views objective. What is the threshold of religiosity that disqualifies others but not him?

Furthermore, how do you justify your own efforts in Jewish outreach (kiruv)? For example, in the early days of Chai FM [a Johannesburg Jewish radio station], you gave a series of talks based on Rabbi Dr. Dovid Gottlieb’s exposition of the Kuzari Principle [see www.dovidgottlieb.com]. The idea, evidently, was to argue that there is unique evidence for Judaism. You were obviously hoping to present a cogent, coherent, objective argument. Why did you expect anyone to be convinced? Any agnostic or gentile (or just a sceptical Jew) could have brushed you off on the grounds of religious bias. You are an Orthodox Jew, aren’t you? So you must be biased and incapable of presenting a reasoned argument! Such a critic would have been perfectly correct in refusing to even lend you an ear, given your approach to the investigation of biological evolution.

Furthermore, the critics of Neo-Darwinism come in all stripes. Some are religious, but some are agnostics, and others are atheists. Prominent examples of the last two categories are David Berlinski, Thomas Nagel, Antony Flew, Bradley Monton, Jerry Fodor and Steve Fuller.

Furthermore, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Proponents of Neo-Darwinism are overwhelmingly atheists, and many are militant anti-religious warriors. Here is a short list: Richard Dawkins, Eugenie Scott, Daniel Dennett, William Provine, Barbara Forrester, Jerry Coyne, Richard Lewontin, and E.O. Wilson. In the July-August 2007 edition of American Scientist, Professor Provine describes the results of a survey he conducted among American biologists to gauge their attitudes to religion. More than 95% are atheists. Similar numbers apply to the National Academy of Sciences in the USA. The idea that in such a community the conclusions drawn from the facts can be expected to be more objective than the interpretation of scientists with religious convictions is ludicrous.

Excerpt from Chapter 2 of Genesis and Genes

December 13, 2012

Genesis and Genes (Feldheim, 2013) is now available in selected bookstores in Israel, the UK and the USA. A shipment is making its way to South Africa . In the meantime, I intend to post a number of sample passages. Here is a passage from Chapter 2.

***

Human beings have always been interested in heredity. Why does David have his father’s chin, dimple and all, but his mother’s lips? Why do animals and plants so faithfully reproduce their kind, generation after generation? To be sure, offspring are different from their parents, but the differences seem to be limited to a small range of possibilities, so that the defining characteristics of the species are maintained. At least as far back as the ancient Greeks, thinkers have advanced explanations and mechanisms for these phenomena, some more vague and speculative than others.

In the modern era, one of the most influential thinkers in the area of heredity was Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829). His comprehensive theory of biology is beyond the scope of this book. What interests us is the fact that Lamarck is credited with the idea that an organism can pass to its offspring characteristics that it acquired during its lifetime (this process is known as heritability of acquired characteristics). The essence of Lamarckian heredity is that an organism’s experiences or behaviour during its lifetime can lead to changes in its physiology which are then inherited by its offspring. The modern conception of heredity is radically different. According to modern genetics, the experiences of biological organisms can never lead to heritable changes. It is genetic mutations – entirely non-teleological and unrelated to the organism’s life experiences – that are bequeathed to the next generation.[1]

The standard example used to explain Lamarck’s approach to inheritance of acquired characteristics is the neck of the giraffe. According to Lamarck, a proto-giraffe stretching its neck to reach leaves high in trees would strengthen its neck muscles. Gradually, as this creature struggled on a daily basis to reach the uppermost leaves, its neck would not only become stronger, but also longer by a tiny amount. Lamarck believed that this physiological change, acquired through the experience of this animal, could be passed on to its offspring, who would be born with slightly longer necks. Extrapolated over eons, the process would result in giraffes possessing the prodigiously long necks we observe them to have. This is how Lamarck himself described the process:[2]

“The giraffe lives in places where the ground is almost invariably parched and without grass. Obliged to browse upon trees it is continually forced to stretch upwards. This habit maintained over long periods of time by every individual of the race has resulted in the forelimbs becoming longer… and the neck so elongated that a giraffe can raise his head to a height of eighteen feet without taking his forelimbs off the ground.”

Sources:

[1] Here is a typical statement regarding the dominant view of heredity today:

Mutation is the central player in the Darwinian theory of evolution – it is the ultimate source of heritable variation, providing the necessary raw material for natural selection. In general, mutation is assumed to create heritable variation that is random and undirected. 

[An environmentally induced adaptive (?) insertion event in flax, Yiming Chen, Robin Lowenfeld and Christopher A. Cullis, International Journal of Genetics and Molecular Biology Vol. 1 (3), pages 038-047, June 2009. The paper can be read here: http://www.acadjourn.org/IJGMB/PDF/pdf2009/June/Chen%20et%20al..pdf. Retrieved 11th July 2011.]

The key point is that heritable variation is random and undirected. It cannot occur in response to an organism’s experiences or environmental pressures, as per Lamarck.

[2] Jean Baptiste de Lamarck, Zoological Philosophy, translated by H. Elliot (1809; translated and reprinted London: Macmillan, 1914), page 122.

A New Review

December 12, 2012

A new review of Genesis and Genes has appeared in The Algemeiner. You can read it here:

http://www.algemeiner.com/2012/12/07/the-myth-of-the-almighty-scientist-genesis-and-genes-by-yoram-bogacz-review/

The review was written by Rabbi Moshe Averick.

A Response to Jason

December 12, 2012

Jason wrote a thoughtful letter, reproduced below with my responses. However, a little background is in order. I wrote Genesis and Genes because I like comprehensive answers to difficult questions. I disdain superficial, sound-bite sized attempts to deal with complex subjects. 

From experience, I know that many of the difficulties that people encounter in dealing with conflicts between Judaism and science – real or imagined – stem mainly from two problems. One problem is the lack of a suitable background with which to approach the evidence. A second problem is a piecemeal and shallow approach to the issues. I don’t pretend that Genesis and Genes is exhaustive; no book of its kind could ever be. But I did devote several hundred pages to overcoming the two obstacles mentioned above. So when readers post comments or questions that are dealt with extensively in Genesis and Genes, I find myself in a dilemma. I do not want to shirk the responsibility of dealing with the questions adequately. On the other hand, I cannot reproduce Genesis and Genes on this website in toto. So when you read posts like the one below, keep in mind that my answers are but brief encapsulations of much lengthier treatments in Genesis and Genes

***

Jason:

Sorry for the long comment, but I think it’s all fairly relevant. 

Can you please explain why, on one hand you cite an article that expresses great distrust in medical authority and yet on the other, you say a doctor knows best in matters of his/her own specialty? If it’s that you were initially referring to speculative and not established science then why shouldn’t we trust the core principle of evolution (common descent) which has been accepted by the great majority of generations of biologists? While science is fallible, shouldn’t we leave the decision of what deserves to be deemed true to the experts who best understand the complexities and subtleties of the matter? 

My Response:

As I explain in Genesis and Genes and on this site (see, for example, the post A Further Response to Dan), scientific results come in a variety of shades. The most reliable results arise from enquiries that concern observable, repeatable and limited phenomena. It is here, in science’s backyard, that we have most confidence in results. Even in this domain, however, results are imperfect, and not impervious to revision. My discussion of Drs. Warren and Marshall in Genesis and Genes is a case in point. The causation of disease by a bacterium falls squarely within the repeatable and observable part of science. Since the 1970s, good gastric biopsies had been available, so it was possible to establish whether bacteria could survive in the stomach. Still, until Warren and Marshall came along, the science taught to generations of students and presented to the public as incontrovertible fact was wrong. 

Jason is alluding to what I wrote in the post Credulity and Scepticism:

“More to the point – as far as Dan’s comment goes – is the fact that scepticism does not mean that we never take things on authority. On the contrary; part of being rational means trusting those who have proven their expertise. I may not understand precisely why a doctor prescribes medicine A as opposed to medicine B, or why my mechanic thinks that the tappets need replacing, but if he has proven himself competent in the past, I would most likely trust his expertise in this case.” 

This is what I meant. In most circumstances, a doctor who dispenses medicine is swimming in very familiar waters. The medicinal effects of the drug have been demonstrated through clinical trials; the physiological and even molecular functioning of the drug is sometimes understood, at least partially. This gives us confidence in the doctor’s ability to treat the condition. It is rational to rely on his expertise even when we do not ourselves understand the mechanism. But as we move along the spectrum of scientific results, particularly towards claims about events that are forever shrouded in the mists of time or space, inaccessible to direct observation and measurement, not corroborated by experiment, never to be repeated and harbouring profound philosophical implications, one’s scepticism should increase exponentially. 

As far as expertise is concerned, the arguments put forward to support evolutionary biology are not, in my opinion, complex and intricate. Yes, I too have heard a million times how there is overwhelming evidence for evolution. It’s like a guy threatening repeatedly to open up with a machine-gun, but always coming up with a pea-shooter when push comes to shove. The complexities and subtleties that Jason invokes are just not there. In my experience (close to twenty years), an informed and intelligent observer can easily assess whether the evidence – even for core principles like common descent – is adequate. In my opinion, it is not. 

***

Jason: 

To quote Rabbi Hirsch on the issue of evolution: 

“Even if this notion (evolution) were ever to gain complete acceptance by the scientific world, Jewish thought, unlike the reasoning of the high priest of that nation (presumably Charles Darwin), would nonetheless never summon us to revere a still extant representative of this primal form (an ape) as the supposed ancestor of us all. Rather, Judaism in that case would call upon its adherents to give even greater reverence than ever before to the one, sole God Who, in His boundless creative wisdom and eternal omnipotence, needed to bring into existence no more than one single, amorphous nucleus, and one single law of “adaptation and heredity” (Darwinian evolution) in order to bring forth, from what seemed chaos but was in fact a very definite order, the infinite variety of species we know today, each with its unique characteristics that sets it apart from all other creatures.”

(The Educational Value of Judaism, in Collected Writings, vol. VII, p. 264) (source: http://www.zootorah.com/controversy/sources.html

My Response:

I discuss Rabbi Hirsch’s position in greater detail in Genesis and Genes. His position is more nuanced than one is led to believe through the above quotation. For example, Hirsch expresses a healthy scepticism towards what the historical sciences can achieve, as evidenced by the following comment: 

“One who visits the Dead Sea region today and sees the sulphur springs and the volcanic terrain will interpret the destruction of these cities as an ordinary natural occurrence… The causes would then appear natural, without need to refer to God… But the words from God, from Heaven show that this view is incorrect… You are confusing the cause with the effect… You hold that the catastrophe was caused by the character of the terrain as you see it now, when in truth the present form of the terrain is only an effect of this catastrophe… The geological theories of the origins of the Earth are probably based on similar errors. The visible phenomena upon which these theories are based are real, but the conclusions based upon them are false. These theories, too, confuse the causes with the effects. The phenomena which they interpret as the causes of geological upheavals are in reality only the effects of upheavals called forth by God when He formed the Earth.” [The Pentateuch T’rumath Tzvi, The Judaica Press 1986, page 96 (commentary on Genesis 19:24). Emphasis added]. 

A second point to be pondered is whether the position of an individual Torah authority, or even a few authorities, can legitimately be considered representative of normative Judaism. There are innumerable examples in history where this is not so. This is a point that I hope to write about soon. 

Jason: 

It would appear to me that since the cliche (but nevertheless true) statement that there is no longer any serious debate among biologists of /if/ evolution occurred and not /how/ it occurred, the /occurrence/ of evolution has indeed met Hirsch’s criterion of “gain[ing] complete acceptance by the scientific world.” Aren’t we therefore justified to trust the idea of common descent in the same way as we would trust a doctor whose methods are the culmination of at least a century of scientific inquiry? Why can’t we, as Hirsch put it, accept that evolution can, not only exist in harmony with the teachings of the Torah, but enhance it as well? 

Thanks 

My Response: 

This is exactly where, in order to provide a comprehensive answer, I would have to reproduce Genesis and Genes. So, very briefly, 

  1. It is not true that there is no significant debate about evolution.
  2. There have been many cases in the past in which the majority or even the entirety of the scientific community embraced a certain paradigm, only to ditch it later.
  3. To a large extent, belief in evolution is not based on scientific findings but on a prior commitment to certain worldviews and ideologies. 

In Genesis and Genes, I cited a statement submitted by Stephen Jay Gould and a group of scientists and historians of science to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993. It is essential reading for those exploring these issues: 

“Judgments based on scientific evidence, whether made in a laboratory or a courtroom, are undermined by a categorical refusal even to consider research or views that contradict someone’s notion of the prevailing ‘consensus’ of scientific opinion… Automatically rejecting dissenting views that challenge the conventional wisdom is a dangerous fallacy, for almost every generally accepted view was once deemed eccentric or heretical. Perpetuating the reign of a supposed scientific orthodoxy in this way, whether in a research laboratory or in a courtroom, is profoundly inimical to the search for truth… The quality of a scientific approach or opinion depends on the strength of its factual premises and on the depth and consistency of its reasoning, not on its appearance in a particular journal or on its popularity among other scientists.” [Brief Amici Curiae of Physicians, Scientists and Historians of Science in Support of Petitioners, Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993). This statement is cited in The Nature of Nature: Examining the Role of Naturalism in Science, Bruce L. Gordon and William A. Dembski (editors), ISI Books, 2011, page 119 footnote 45. Emphasis added] 

Given these factors and others – and again, I stress that much of Genesis and Genes deals precisely with these issues – it is prudent to be extremely sceptical of claims about biological evolution, especially if one happens to be a Torah-observant Jew.