A Response to Jason

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



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. 



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. 


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? 


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.


One Response to “A Response to Jason”

  1. Jason Says:

    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.

    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 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?

    “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 with religion will only cause some to reject the latter in favour of /atheistic/ evolution.


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