Professor Shapiro and Rabbi Blue – Part 1

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.

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3 Responses to “Professor Shapiro and Rabbi Blue – Part 1”

  1. Matt Says:

    A simple but important question: Was Prof Shapiro ever made aware that his correspondences with Rabbi Blue were being posted on your blog? Was he ever given an opportunity to respond to your in-line remarks?

    • Yoram Bogacz Says:

      Yes, Professor Shapiro was made aware of the material being posted.

      I don’t know if Rabbi Blue checked with Professor Shapiro beforehand as to whether he wanted the material to be passed on to third parties. He sent me the whole correspondence at once. I made my comments and posted the material, and also sent everything to Professor Shapiro.

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