Rambam, Hominids and Dr. Schroeder

In Genesis and the Big Bluff (available on this website), I criticised Dr. Gerald Schroeder for claiming, in his book Genesis and the Big Bang, that Rambam/Maimonides wrote of hominids who were at some point given a divine soul and made fully human. As I wrote:

Dr. Schroeder claims that In the time of Adam, there coexisted animals that appeared as humans in shape and also in intelligence but lacked the ‘image’ that makes man uniquely different from other animals, being as the ‘image’ of God. (Genesis and the Big Bang, page 151). This is supposedly based on a statement from Guide for the Perplexed by Maimonides.

The passage in The Guide cited by Dr. Schroeder has nothing whatsoever to do with hominids. Rambam does not discuss any biological phenomenon in that passage. Rather, he speaks of a process of educating and training one’s children. As I wrote,

This passage has nothing to do with literal birth. Maimonides argues that the [Hebrew] root [y.l.d.] is to be understood here in the sense of training one’s children or raising and educating one’s children. That is why he invokes the example of the prophets’ sons. There, too, sons of prophets does not connote a biological relationship. It connotes a process of training one’s protégé. Maimonides argues that the root [y.l.d.] is used here by the Torah in the sense of producing a perfected human being through proper education. His point is that until the birth of Seth, Adam had failed to train his existing children properly and to bring them up as perfected human beings. Thus, Adam begot all of his children – before and after Seth – in the same biological manner. They were all equally members of the human species. It was their moral character that set them apart.

I was pleased to discover recently that I was not the first writer to point out that Dr. Schroeder was wrong on this point. Genesis and the Big Bluff was published on this website in October 2009. But a very similar critique of Dr. Schroeder appears in Jewish Tradition and the Challenge of Darwinism, published in 2006 by the University of Chicago Press. The book is edited by Geoffrey Cantor, a professor of the history of science at the University of Leeds, and Dr. Marc Swetlitz, who has taught history of science at MIT and the University of Oklahoma. The chapter which is of interest to us was written by Dr. Shai Cherry, an Assistant Professor of Jewish Thought at Vanderbilt University. Cherry writes (pages 174-175):

Moving to day 6, Schroeder posits that there were hominids, which lacked the image of God, present at the time of Adam’s birth. The existence of these prehistoric men, Schroeder claims, is attested by Maimonides in his Guide of the Perplexed. Yet Schroeder’s literal hermeneutic has led him astray. Maimonides does indeed refer to men without human form and calls them animals. However, Maimonides was not discussing zoology. For Maimonides, form was an Aristotelian, not a physical, concept. The form of human beings is intellectual perfection. Thus Maimonides maintained that among humans, very few have attained human form, i.e., intellectual perfection. Instead, many people were to be compared to animals.

Precisely. My treatment of this subject in Genesis and the Big Bluff is far longer and more comprehensive than Cherry’s, and includes quotations from all the major commentators to The Guide. Nonetheless, Cherry is quite right to reject Dr. Schroeder’s claim about human precursors.

Bottom line: There is not a single classical Torah source that discusses the transformation of hominids into full-fledged human beings.

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