Professor Shapiro – part 4

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 4 of the series.

Here is Rabbi Blue’s second email to Professor Shapiro: 

Dear Professor Shapiro, 

Thank you so much for your prompt and lucid reply. 

In the Jewish (Orthodox) world there is lots of room to work with the latest scientific discoveries and observations including Evolution. I could refer you to some interesting material, if you are interested… But I don’t want to preach; that’s not the reason I contacted you. 

I believe that many religious people are disturbed by the phrase “random mutations” – often used when describing Evolution – because they believe that there is nothing random about the universe. They therefore have a knee-jerk reaction to it, without necessarily thinking deeply about the scientific  endeavour in general and without looking at the evidence. What do scientists mean when they use the term “random mutations”? What role do random  mutations play in the mechanisms of Evolution? 

Best regards,

Rabbi Blue 

***

 My Response: Rabbi Blue has misunderstood the issue of random mutations. It has little to do with a belief that nothing is random within the universe. Consider the fact that nobody in the Torah world has ever kicked up a fuss over physicists’ constant use of the term random in the context of quantum mechanics. The fact that certain atomic nuclei decay randomly does not bother anyone in the Torah world. There is no problem with events that appear to us to be random (like the spontaneous disintegration of radioactive nuclei). It just means that these events are completely unpredictable (except on a statistical basis). 

The problem is that Neo-Darwinism conceives of the history of life as unguided. This is the sense in which the word random is used in this context. Unguided means that there is no purpose in biology; no end-goal; no direction; no certainty that human beings would ever appear on the planet. In his book Wonderful Life, the late Stephen J. Gould described it as follows: if the “movie reel” describing the history of life on Earth were wound up and replayed, there is no reason to expect that it would resemble the first “screening”. It could be that no life would emerge, and even if it did, one would expect a completely different suite of life-forms to emerge.  There is no reason to expect that human beings would emerge. This idea is certainly anathema to Torah Jews. 

***

 This is Professor Shapiro’s reply to Rabbi Blue’s second email: 

The origin of “random mutations” lies in ideology and ignorance, not science.

The ideology was materialism (even though materialism is quite compatible with deterministic processes) in opposition to supernatural creationism. The ignorance was due to a lack of knowledge about the mechanisms of heredity. Random mutation was simply a default assumption before we knew about DNA. Now that our knowledge of DNA allows us to study the processes of genetic change with molecular precision, we can see that it is not random but follows certain rules, which may be flexible. I have written extensively about this under the rubric of “natural genetic engineering.” My work is an extension of Barbara McClintock’s original discovery that living cells have built-in mechanisms for restructuring their genomes. The fact that genetic change results from internal biochemical action rather than chance subjects it to various kinds of regulation. One of the future research agenda items is to explore how far this regulation has played a role in the evolution of adaptive traits. My papers on this topic are rather technical; so I have not attached any of them. If you wish to pursue this matter further, they are available on my web page (http://shapiro.bsd.uchicago.edu). 

I would appreciate knowing the interesting materials you mentioned concerning Judaism and science. I have some knowledge of this subject and know that textual literalism is a form of idolatry. But it never hurts to learn more. 

Best wishes,

Jim Shapiro 

***

My Response: 

Professor Shapiro writes, Now that our knowledge of DNA allows us to study the processes of genetic change with molecular precision, we can see that it is not random but follows certain rules, which may be flexible. Two important points need to be made: 

Imagine an experiment in which an inkwell is tipped so that its contents spill onto paper. The claim is made that the resulting patterns of ink are random. Professor Shapiro (this one is a physicist, not a biologist) counters, “There is nothing random about them. The blob is completely determined by factors such as the viscosity of the ink, the diffusion coefficient of the paper, the angle at which the inkwell was tilted, the ambient temperature, blah, blah, blah.” This misses the point. Of course there are physical factors which influence the appearance of each blob of ink. In that sense, the resulting smudges follow certain rules. What is important is that the end result is not the product of design or purpose. It could have been produced by the cat knocking over a jar of ink. 

The sine qua non of Neo-Darwinism is that it is an unguided process. This is so basic that it is almost not worthwhile quoting relevant sources. But for the sake of completion, here are a few: 

The late S.J. Gould often discussed the “radical philosophical content of Darwin’s message” and its denial of purpose in the universe:

“First, Darwin argues that evolution has no purpose… Second, Darwin maintained that evolution has no direction… Third, Darwin applied a consistent philosophy of materialism to his interpretation of nature. Matter is the ground of all existence; mind, spirit, and God as well, are just words that express the wondrous results of neuronal complexity.” [Stephen Jay Gould, Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History, W.W. Norton & Co. 1977, pg. 12–13].

A popular college evolutionary biology textbook declares that 

“[B]y coupling undirected, purposeless variation to the blind, uncaring process of natural selection, Darwin made theological or spiritual explanations of the life processes superfluous.” [Douglas J. Futuyma, Evolutionary Biology, 3rd edition, Sinaeur Associates, 1998, page 5.]

Even the theistic evolutionist Kenneth Miller has written in his popular high school biology textbook that the implication of evolution is that it works “without either plan or purpose” and is “random and undirected.” [Kenneth R. Miller & Joseph S. Levine, Biology, 5th edition, Prentice Hall, 2000, page 658.] 

The fact that there are certain mechanisms behind mutations, and that they are subject to rules, is beside the point. Neo-Darwinism is understood by its proponents to be, overall, an unguided process, much like spilling bottles of ink. There is simply no telling what sort of blot will emerge, regardless of physical-chemical processes that underlie the event. 

The second crucial point is that genomes contain enormous amounts of encoded information. The implication of Professor Shapiro’s statement i.e. that this information is merely due to certain known rules is dubious. I recommend Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell for those interested in pursuing this issue. 

***

Professor Shapiro concludes his email by writing I have some knowledge of this subject [Judaism and science] and know that textual literalism is a form of idolatry

I do not know what Professor Shapiro’s sources are. But the statement that textual literalism is a form of idolatry is preposterous. Some Biblical statements cannot be read literally; this often applies to statements about God (in particular, statements suggesting His corporeality). That does not mean that one may proceed to treat whatever one wishes as metaphor or allegory. 

Has Professor Shapiro (or, for that matter, Rabbi Blue) conducted an investigation as to what classical Torah sources say about what may be allegorised? For example, have they studied Rav Saadiah Gaon’s parameters for allegorization[1]? Have they studied the view of Yad Rama[2]? Have they distilled Maimonides’ views on the matter from his voluminous discussions on the subject[3]? In the works that purport to show that Judaism and Neo-Darwinism are compatible (and, especially, in Internet writings on the subject) there is nothing remotely resembling a rigorous approach to this question. The unequivocal conclusion of these sources is that the parameters are exacting. With few exceptions, Biblical passages are to be taken literally. Of course, this does not mean that only the literal level exists. Biblical texts contain many meanings. Nonetheless, the literal meaning of most Biblical passages cannot be denied. There are no credible sources in classical Torah literature, for example, that take Adam to be anything other than literally the first human being, made by God in a way that did not involve a lengthy evolutionary process. 

References:

[1] רב סעדיה גאון, ספר אמונות ודעות ז:ב

[2] ספר יד רמה על מסכת סנהדרין, אגרות הרמה בעניין תחיית המתים פיסקא ברם זכור אותו האיש לטוב ורבנו סעדיה גאון ז”ל שמו…

[3] רמב”ם מורה נבוכים חלק ב פרק כט ובמאמר תחית המתים ובמקומות אחרים.

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