Professor Shapiro Part 2

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.

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