Archive for January, 2013

Excerpt from Chapter 9

January 11, 2013

Genesis and Genes is now available in Israel, the UK and the USA. It is expected in South Africa in late January 2013. Here is an excerpt from chapter 9, the last chapter in the book.


Rabbi Isaac Hutner (1906-1980) was one of the foremost thinkers and leaders of Torah Jewry in the twentieth century. He was unique in several respects. For example, he managed to seamlessly meld Chassidic and Lithuanian strands of Torah Judaism, to the point where nobody could define him as representing either. Unlike other contemporaneous Torah giants, who channelled most of their energies into the classical practice of elucidation of Talmudic passages, Rabbi Hutner invested much of his genius into the clarification of Jewish philosophy and Torah-based psychology.

In a trenchant passage, Rabbi Hutner wrote about the three ideologies which dominated his century:

We have known three revolutionaries: Darwin introduced materialism into nature; Marx injected materialism into history; and Freud brought materialism into the very soul of man…

Of course, intellectuals from outside the Torah world also saw the connection between Darwin, Marx and Freud. George Gilder, a leading contemporary analyst, writes:

I believe that the notion that the intricate biological structures of the world bubbled up from a prebiotic brew and that ideas are an after-effect of a meaningless random material flux is the most sterile and stultifying notion in the history of human thought. It inspired all the reductionist futilities of the twentieth century, from the obtuse materialism of Marx to the pagan worship of a static material environment, from the Freudian view of the brain as a thermodynamic machine to the zero-sum Malthusian panic over population, treating people more as mouths than as minds.

Rabbi Hutner was convinced that Darwinian biology was fundamentally linked to Marxism and Freudianism. All three are vehicles for materialism, and undermine different aspects of core Torah concepts. Marxism denies Divine providence (השגחה) in the history of mankind; Darwinian biology denies God’s role in nature; Freudianism denies the divinity of the human soul. Rabbi Hutner was equally convinced that sooner or later, Marxism and Freudianism would shift over to make room for evolutionary biology in the dustbin of history.



Excerpt from Chapter 8

January 9, 2013

Genesis and Genes is now available in Israel, the UK and the USA. It is expected in South Africa in January 2013. In the meantime, I intend to post a number of sample passages. Here is an excerpt from chapter 8, which takes the form of a dialogue between ‘Jonathan’ and me.


YB: Proponents of evolution often cite a statement made by Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the founders of the modern version of Darwinian evolution. He wrote in 1973 that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.[1] He argued that evolution is the cornerstone of biology and is central to understanding both living and extinct organisms.  This statement – that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution – has been repeated thousands of times in order to argue that evolution must have a central place in all areas of science education, and that students should not be exposed to criticisms of the theory.

Jonathan: Can you give me a specific example?

YB: Certainly. In April 2009, a senior South African virologist, who happens to be an observant Jew, wrote a letter to the local Jewish press. He stated that, 

Indeed Theodosius Dobzhansky’s maxim that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” is even more relevant today than when it was first published 36 years ago [very recently it was paraphrased in a leading article in the Journal of the American Medical Association that “nothing in medicine makes sense except in the light of evolution” (JAMA Feb 11, 2009 volume 301:663-665)].[2]

 Jonathan: So biologists see evolution as a unifying principle?

YB: Yes. It is a line that has been consistently taken for decades. In 1959, for example, an article in American Scientist could state that Evolution is the greatest single unifying principle in all biology.[3] And a half-century later, here is how the National Academy of Sciences in the USA puts it: Evolution is “the most important concept in modern biology, a concept essential to understanding key aspects of living things.”[4]

Jonathan: What is the connection between this and geosynclinal theory?

YB: Before geosynclinal theory was ditched in favour of continental drift, it was seen as the unifying concept in geophysics, oceanography and other disciplines.

Jonathan: Really? Can you show me how?

YB: Alfred Wegener died in 1930. By that stage, he had argued for continental drift for many years. Over the ensuing decades, more and more evidence in favour of Wegener’s proposal accumulated. But as late as 1960, the authors of a geology textbook could make the following breathtaking comment: 

The geosynclinal theory is one of the great unifying principles in geology.  In many ways its role in geology is similar to that of the theory of evolution, which serves to integrate the many branches of the biological sciences… Just as the doctrine of evolution is universally accepted among biologists, so also the geosynclinal origin of the major mountain systems is an established principle in geology.[5]

Jonathan: I think I can see why you call this statement breathtaking. It is because this textbook equates evolution and geosynclinal theory as being central and indispensable in their respective disciplines, and yet, geosynclinal theory is dead and buried.

YB: Right. And it is most significant that this textbook appeared in 1960, by which time geosynclinal theory was already collapsing. But there’s more. Remember the Scopes Trial?

Jonathan: The monkey trial of the 1920s, in which biology teacher John Scopes was prosecuted for teaching evolution in his science class?

YB: Yes. I won’t go into how this trial has been misrepresented over the years. I only want to show you another unifying principle – supposedly so important that it was not subject to scientific refutation – which was cited in the trial. The Scopes Trial decision quoted the following words of Dr. E. N. Reinke, professor of biology at Vanderbilt University: 

The theory of evolution is altogether essential to the teaching of biology and its kindred sciences.  To deny the teacher of biology the use of this most fundamental generalization of his science would make his teaching as chaotic as an attempt to teach… physics without assuming the existence of the ether.[6]

 Jonathan: But you told me that the ether is dead!

YB: Precisely. It was a unifying principle of physics, until the famous Michelson-Morley experiment, when interpreted by Albert Einstein, demolished it. It is now only remembered by historians of science. It is never taught in physics classes.

Jonathan: Fascinating. Can we tie it all together now?

YB: Yes. In each of these examples, there is a clear distinction between nature and science. Before these theories were replaced, science was wrong. It is incoherent to maintain that the Torah is true and that there can never be a contradiction between the Torah and science. That would require the Torah to be in harmony with theories that have been demonstrated to be false. Bottom line: those who maintain that there must be harmony between Torah and science are sloppy thinkers. Any given scientific claim has to be analysed independently to ascertain whether it is consistent with Torah sources or not. One cannot decide at the outset, as a point of principle, that all scientific positions are compatible with Torah sources. There have been many scientific positions in the past which were dropped like so many bags of ballast.


[1] The essay in which Dobzhansky made this statement was first published in the journal American Biology Teacher, volume 35, pages 125-129.

[2] Letter to the editor by Professor Barry Schoub, The South African Jewish Report, 14th-24th April 2009.

[3] Prosser, C.L., The ‘Origin’ after a Century: Prospects for the Future? American Scientist, 47(4):536-550, December 1959.

[4] National Academy of Sciences, Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1998 page viii.

[5] Thomas H. Clark and Colin W. Stearn, The Geological Evolution of North America: A Regional Approach to Historical Geology, Ronald Press, 1960, page 43.

[6] Scopes v. State of Tennessee, opinion filed January 17, 1927 page 8.

Excerpt from Chapter 7

January 8, 2013

Genesis and Genes is now available in Israel, the UK and the USA. It is expected in South Africa in January 2013. In the meantime, I intend to post a number of sample passages. Here is an excerpt from chapter 7.


Some images are so familiar that they become part of our mental furniture. Many of them come from our private lives: pictures of our spouses, children and friends; places we know; objects we own. A large chunk of our mental library is injected into our minds by the media. Some mental images are ubiquitous; these are the icons that form part of the mental library of virtually every person in the western world. One of the most potent of these icons is The March of Progress, by Rudolph Zallinger. It is an image we have all seen dozens of times. On the left is a small, hirsute, hunched ape. To its right is a slightly larger, more upright ape. This progression continues, with the creatures becoming ever more human-like. The last figure is a modern human, fully upright and clutching a spear.  This is probably the best-known icon of evolution. It encapsulates the most potent implication of the theory of evolution: man is the end result of a lengthy natural process by which an ape-like creature evolved, eventually becoming Homo sapiens.

Many scholars within the Torah community reject this vision. They argue that our tradition teaches unambiguously that Adam was created by God from scratch. Adam was not the culmination of millions of years of genetic mutations acted upon by natural selection. Nor was he the end result of a long line of hominids, infused by God with a soul many millennia after creation. There are numerous Torah sources which discuss the creation of Adam. I am not familiar with any sources that describe an evolutionary process in which primitive (or even sophisticated) creatures are infused with a soul, at which point they become Adam. In other words, Adam is not merely a label, an allegory for humanity. The idea encapsulated in The March of Progress, which marks a radical departure from the age-old understanding of our origins, requires clear, unambiguous sources in Torah literature.

Professor Shapiro part 5

January 6, 2013

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 ( Here is the 5th and final part of the series.


Here is Rabbi Blue’s next email to Professor Shapiro

 Professor Shapiro,

 Thank you for that clarification, it helps understand these issues a lot. May I bother you with a few more questions? I hope I’m not taking too much of your time. 

Firstly, I’ve heard people say that there is a difference between Marco Evolution and Micro Evolution. Macro Evolution being the evolution from one species to the next; whereas Micro Evolution is the changes that occur within a species. Are these distinctions really valid? Or is the one merely a development of the other? What I mean to say is that given enough time, what appears to be a micro evolutionary changes within a species, eventually – given enough time – develops into a new species.

The other question I have, is that to what extent is Evolution really debated in the scientific community? The image my friend and colleague created is that Evolution is not universally accepted and there is much debate about the validity thereof. I’ve learned to understand from your E-mails and documents you’ve sent that the mechanisms of Classical Darwinian Evolution is contested but not Evolution as a whole – Micro or Macro. 

I really appreciate your time and effort with answering my questions. 

Warmest regards 

Rabbi Blue 


 Here is Professor Shapiro’s reply to Rabbi Blue:

 There is definitely a difference between macro events in evolution, when major new groups appear (e.g. plants, vertebrates), and micro events within species. We know from genome sequences that the major branches are often accompanied by cell fusions (two cells combining to make a new type of cell) or complete doublings of the genome (which typically happens when individuals of different species mate to form a hybrid). These macro events lead to changes throughout the genome and affect many characters at once. Microeveloutionary changes involve single changes and affect only one or a few characters. In between, there exist a whole range of events which lead to

greater or lesser changes in the genome, such as occurs when bacteria acquire a DNA molecule conferring antibiotic resistance or the ability to infect a new host. We really do not know where to draw a clear line between macro and micro events. 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. 

Evolution is not seriously debated in the scientific community, either as to whether it took place (just about everyone agrees it did and still does) or how it occurred (few question the neo-Darwinian gradualist explanation). The mechanism is nonetheless being investigated at many levels (such as genome sequencing and analysis) that will ultimately lead us to realize there have to be novel processes at work in evolution. As in many fields, we often are much slower to question and modify basic principles than we are to gather information which may be inconsistent with conventional wisdom. 

Best wishes,

Jim Shapiro 


My response: 

Here is a slightly different definition of micro-evolution and macro-evolution. Micro-evolutionary changes are intra-species changes. They are small, have been known for centuries, and are entirely uncontroversial. The explanation for micro-evolution is straightforward: there is built-in flexibility within the genomes of all organisms. A classic example is the English sparrow, introduced into North America in 1850. Only a few individuals were introduced, and they were virtually identical to one another. Today, English sparrows live throughout most of the continental United States. Their body types vary according to the region of the US that they inhabit. In colder regions, they tend to have a rounder, chubbier shape. In warmer regions, they are more slender and have longer tails (this is similar, by the way, to the fact that Inuit are plumper than Africans who live in the tropics). Many species seem to display this polymorphism

Macro-evolution is a different kettle of fish. It refers to large-scale changes which, Neo-Darwinists claim, can lead to the process whereby the diversity of life seen today could have arisen from a unicellular ancestor. This is how Charles Darwin put it (in the first edition of Origin of Species): 

I can see no difficulty in a race of bears being rendered, by natural selection, more and more aquatic in their habits, with larger and larger mouths, till a creature was produced as monstrous as a whale.

 The Neo-Darwinian worldview – in which all species descend from one or a few ancestors – requires millions of macroevolutionary events. There is not the slightest evidence that such events can occur. The evidence offered to the public always consists of examples of microevolutionary events, with the promise that if you string enough such events together they will amount to macroevolutionary changes. Generations of students have thus been hoodwinked by the example of Darwin’s finches. Small changes in beak size (which are temporary – the average beak size reverts to normal after ordinary rainy seasons) are cited as evidence for evolution. The students unfortunately do not know enough to distinguish between these trivial changes and the grand claims of common descent. 

No microevolutionary events have ever been observed to combine into anything remotely resembling macroevolution. And there is plenty of evidence to suggest that organisms can only tolerate tiny amounts of changes to their genomes before they become sterile or revert to their ancestral genome spontaneously. 


As far as debate within the community of biologists is concerned, let us begin with a historical note: How much discussion of quantum mechanics was there in the 1920s within the community of physicists? Well, if you were not working in Cambridge, Göttingen or Copenhagen, then there was almost none. For most physicists, there was no such thing as Quantum Mechanics. If they even heard of it, it was dismissed as extravagant and useless mathematics. There was nothing deeper than Newtonian Mechanics. 

How much discussion of plate tectonics (or continental shift) was there in the 1930s? Virtually none. Its most vigorous proponent, Alfred Wegener, froze to death in a polar expedition in 1930 and it would be years before his ideas were considered anything but those of a nutcase. 

When practising scientists say that a particular theory is not debated seriously within the scientific community, what they mean is that in any given field and at any given time, most scientists function within the reigning paradigm. The most influential philosopher of science in the twentieth century, Thomas Kuhn, did a marvellous job in describing how the most productive work done by the vast majority of scientists is in solving puzzles within the regnant ideology. [Thomas Kuhn, The structure of Scientific Revolutions, third edition, The University of Chicago Press, 1996.] Little attention is paid to all the loose ends – those parts of the paradigm which are not explained and, indeed, unexplainable. It is only when the difficulties accumulate to the point where the theoretical structure of the theory collapses that the bulk of the community of scientists takes cognizance of dissenters. 

Secondly, Rabbi Blue’s question and Professor Shapiro’s answer presuppose that all the dissent that exists is also openly expressed. Thus, if we find one in a hundred biologists expressing scepticism of Neo-Darwinism, it must be that the other 99 scientists adhere to the orthodoxy. This is part of a widespread romantic picture in which scientists are depicted as being perfectly objective, perfectly virtuous beings led only by the evidence. They have no agendas – no financial stakes (in the sale of textbooks, for example), no political or religious convictions, no background or training in which they were conditioned by their textbooks and professors to think in particular ways (they just start their research with a tabula rasa). Need I point out that this is about as accurate a description of scientists as it is of politicians? Part of the reason for there being less debate than is desirable is that open debate in this area is actively stifled. I am not going to use this brief correspondence to document this phenomenon. For an introduction to the subject, watch the documentary Expelled or contact Dr. Richard Sternberg, late of the Smithsonian ( [Interestingly, Sternberg and Shapiro have collaborated on several research papers.] 

Having said all of this, the truth is that there is a voluminous literature concerning criticism of Neo-Darwinism. Of course, much of the discussion has had to take place outside of professional journals. In said journals, concepts such as irreducible complexity are verboten, unless you refer to it with the most derisive remarks (preferably, without stating any facts). Ever since the publication of Darwin’s Black Box by Dr. Michael Behe, for example, there have been numerous papers in professional journals purporting to have demonstrated how irreducibly-complex cellular structures could have (or have) arisen (they all fail miserably, by the way).[1] A similar phenomenon followed Dr. Behe’s publication of The Edge of Evolution. Dr. Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell has precipitated a deluge of responses regarding the ability of natural systems to produce significant amounts of information. [I am well aware that these books’ primary purpose is to promote Intelligent Design. But the promotion of ID invariably involves a dismantling of Neo-Darwinism.] 

Within the literature, there is constant criticism of major aspects of Neo-Darwinism. Here is a typical statement, from Michael Lynch of Indiana University:

“… it is quite remarkable that most biologists continue to interpret nearly every aspect of biodiversity as an outcome of adaptive processes. This blind acceptance of natural selection as the only force relevant to evolution has led to a lot of sloppy thinking, and is probably the primary reason why evolution is viewed as a soft science by much of society.” [2]

Here is the opinion of evolutionary theoretician Armin Moczek:

“Given its importance and pervasiveness, the processes underlying evolutionary innovation are, however, remarkably poorly understood, which leaves us at a surprising conundrum: while biologists have made great progress over the past century and a half in understanding how existing traits diversify, we have made relatively little progress in understanding how novel traits come into being in the first place.” [3]

These statements are acceptable to the community of biologists because overall, the writers pledge allegiance to the paradigm, much as Professor Shapiro does. But if you string together the numerous instances of such criticisms, you find that there is an enormous amount of dissatisfaction with the paradigm. 


 In conclusion, I would like to address Rabbi Blue. 

Think about these three statements made by Professor Shapiro: 

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. 

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.

 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.

 These criticisms go well beyond anything that the typical, tendentious textbook will convey to the biology students at your school. The students will be exposed only to the sanitized, white-washed version of Neo-Darwinism peddled by the likes of the NCSE.

 I assume that Professor Shapiro stands by his words. Furthermore, he does not consider himself to be a crank or someone on the fringes of science. I assume that he would want biology students to be exposed to the fact that competent scientists – such as he – reject the textbook picture that nothing but the accumulation of slight, successive modifications (in the form of unguided mutations) have led to the plethora of life forms that we see today. He is right. But having dealt with Professor Shapiro, I hope that you will still be able to appreciate that he is not the only voice of reason in this debate. Take a look at and you will see a list of about 800 (eight-hundred) scientists who profess scepticism of Neo-Darwinism. Some of them reject only certain aspects of Neo-Darwinism, as does professor Shapiro, and some reject it altogether. Many are just as accomplished as he (for example, Philip Skell was a member of the US Academy of Sciences and Henry Schaefer has been nominated for the Nobel Prize 4 times). There is no reason to deny your students exposure to their views. This is true as far as their technical training is concerned – every good scientist is a sceptic, and the students at your school should be exposed to competing viewpoints simply as part of their training. As you indicated in your email, you are aware that you have not conducted a thorough investigation of this subject. I assure you that if you make an effort to contact dissenters from Neo-Darwinism, you will find many of them to be as approachable, knowledgeable and rational as you found Professor Shapiro to be. 

But there is more. אמונת חכמים does not mean that we pat גדולי תורה on the back when they happen to make pronouncements that conform to our prejudices. A school that purports to be a Torah institution should never have taken decisions as momentous as this – whether to accept the biology syllabus change – without guidance from גדולים. I doubt that this will now change. The horses have bolted and shutting the stable door won’t do much good. But one fact remains. In South Africa, as opposed to the USA, integrating supplementary material into the syllabus is relatively fuss-free. Your influence can be used to ensure that my audio-visual seminars will be integrated into the biology syllabus. This will at least give the students some exposure to the fact that their textbooks (and course content) are deeply flawed and also introduce them to relevant Torah sources. 

These were the last words in your email to me: 

I have not changed my position on the matter that Evolution is in no-way heretical and can be (and for educational purposes, should be) taught in Torah schools.

 כפירה is very narrowly defined in הלכה. However, aside from כפירה, one need also consider the categories of מגלה פנים בתורה שלא כהלכה, דורש דרשות של דופי and מלגלג על דברי חכמים. They, too, carry a consequence of אין לו חלק לעולם הבא. 

As I emphasised throughout this exchange, it is imperative that you consider the fact that we are talking about hundreds of teenagers (over the coming years) who will live with the consequences of the decisions taken by you and the school administration. Are you satisfied that those who were involved in taking this decision – the principal, you, and perhaps the biology teacher – have wide-enough shoulders to decide on issues whose consequence is possibly אין לו חלק לעולם הבא? 

I wish you much הצלחה in your endeavours. 

Yoram Bogacz 


[1]: Here is one example, by Jamie Bridgham, Sean Carroll and Joe Thornton:  “Evolution of Hormone-Receptor Complexity by Molecular Exploitation,” Science 312 (7 Apr 2006):97-101. Professor Thornton states on his University of Oregon website that one of his main research goals is to illustrate how a complex, tightly integrated molecular system – one which appears to be ‘irreducibly complex’ – evolved by Darwinian processes hundreds of millions of years ago.

[2] Lynch, Michael. 2007. The Origins of Genome Architecture. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, xiii

[3] Moczek, Armin. 2008. On the origins of novelty in development and evolution. BioEssays 30:432-47.

Excerpt from Chapter 6

January 4, 2013

Genesis and Genes is now available in Israel, the UK and the USA. It is expected in South Africa in January 2013. In the meantime, I intend to post a number of sample passages. Here is an excerpt from chapter 6.


To round out the picture, let’s look at other claims made by evolutionary biologists in the context of ornithology. Two of Nature‘s “evolutionary gems” looked at birds. The first showcased Differential dispersal in wild birds. First the hype: the findings illustrate “the large effect of immigration on the evolution of local adaptations and on genetic population structure” and that “evolutionary differentiation can be rapid and can occur over surprisingly small spatial scales.” Don’t try too hard to look for the rapid, large evolutionary changes that were allegedly discovered. In one study we learn that females of the bird species Parus major (commonly known as the great tit) bred on the western end of the Dutch island of Vlieland tend to lay 1.15 eggs per clutch more than females bred in populations on the east end of the islands.

The other study cited by Nature also came complete with orotund declarations: we’re supposed to see “marked evolutionary differentiation” at “small spatial and temporal scales.” To wit, the journal informs its readers that over a span of about 35 years, great tits from the eastern part of the Wytham woodland in southern England saw a decrease in adult body size that amounted to a net average change of about 1 gram (less than 10 percent of total body mass). Fledgling birds likewise saw a small change in body mass. Birds in the northern part of the wood did not experience such a change.

Evolutionary biologist Keith Stewart Thomson wrote in 1997 that “a matter of unfinished business for biologists is the identification of evolution’s smoking gun,” and “the smoking gun of evolution is speciation, not local adaptation and differentiation of populations.” Before Darwin, the consensus was that species can vary only within certain limits. Centuries of artificial selection had seemingly demonstrated such limits experimentally. “Darwin had to show that the limits could be broken,” wrote Thomson, “[and] so do we.”[1] Call me phlegmatic, but neither the Galapagos finches nor the birds in Nature’s evolutionary-gems publication excite me as evidence for the non-teleological development of life in all its glory. The fact that, on average, one population lays one more egg per clutch than the other population is hardly a riveting discovery. Is this reason to believe that birds evolved in the first place – with fantastically complicated flight feathers; with highly specialised lungs adapted to process a high through-flow of oxygen; with a neurological system able to control the myriad aspects of flight; with the ability to lay eggs; and countless other adaptations? This is hardly the stuff that’s calculated to get the editor-in-chief of Nature rushing to the printing plant bellowing S-t-o-p the pre-ss!

One remarkable aspect of the evolution debate is that as the confidence of some evolutionary biologists leaks away in the face of remarkable new discoveries, bombastic announcements to the public continue unabated. So you can have Nature producing a document specifically targeted at the broad public and proclaiming that evolution is as well established as the fact that Earth orbits the Sun, while thoughtful biologists seriously question the dogma. Here is the opinion of evolutionary theoretician Armin Moczek:

“Given its importance and pervasiveness, the processes underlying evolutionary innovation are, however, remarkably poorly understood, which leaves us at a surprising conundrum: while biologists have made great progress over the past century and a half in understanding how existing traits diversify, we have made relatively little progress in understanding how novel traits come into being in the first place.” [Emphasis added].[2]

What Moczek considers a conundrum was understood by the average peasant before Darwin, and has only been consolidated by the evidence accumulated since then. Biology has made progress by describing and explaining specific processes, phenomena, pathways and events when you already have an organism. When you have a bird, with its myriad fantastically-complicated arrays of systems, the methodology of biologists is capable of shedding light on those processes that characterise the life and activities of the bird. They can tell us, too, about the limited flexibility of the bird’s genome. But trying to explain the origin of the bird using these same principles is to push the gates of credibility until the hinges scream.


[1]: Keith Stewart Thomson, “Natural Selection and Evolution’s Smoking Gun,” American Scientist 85 (1997): 516-518.

[2]: Moczek, Armin. 2008. On the origins of novelty in development and evolution. BioEssays 30:432-47.

Professor Shapiro – part 4

January 2, 2013

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 ( 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 ( 

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. 


[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.

Excerpt from chapter 5

January 1, 2013

Genesis and Genes is now available in Israel, the UK and the USA. It is expected in South Africa in January 2013. In the meantime, I intend to post a number of sample passages. Here is an excerpt from chapter 5.


Edward Tyson was born in Somerset in 1650, and was educated first at Oxford and later at Cambridge, where he received his medical degree in 1677. Tyson moved to London where he practised as a doctor and also performed anatomical observations and dissections, publishing much of his work in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, having been elected as a fellow in 1679. As one of the leading physicians of the time (he became a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians), Tyson was appointed physician and governor of the Bethlehem Hospital in London in 1684. This was an institution for the insane whose character at the time of Tyson’s appointment gave us the word bedlam as a synonym for pandemonium, from the common pronunciation of its name. This was the first asylum for the insane in Britain (the first European institution was founded in Granada, Spain). Asylum, with its connotations of protection and care, is a misleading term. The inmates were abused and were treated as a source of entertainment, with Bedlam becoming a place of amusement for fashionable people to visit, rather like a zoo. Tyson changed this state of affairs, introducing reforms such as employing women nurses instead of the male nurses who were little more than jailers. He also established a fund to provide clothing for the poorer inmates.

Tyson is regarded as the founder of modern comparative anatomy, which looks at the similarities and differences of physique of different organisms. His most important dissection, in the context of our discussion, took place in 1680, when a hapless porpoise swam up the Thames and ended up with a fishmonger who sold it to Tyson for seven shillings and sixpence (a sum recouped by Tyson from the Royal Society). Tyson dissected the “fish” at Gresham College, with Robert Hooke in attendance to make drawings as the dissection proceeded, and was astonished to discover that the animal was in fact a mammal, with an internal structure very similar to that of the quadrupeds (animals with four feet) that lived on land. In his book Anatomy of a Porpess, published later that year, he presented his discovery:

“The structure of the viscera and inward parts have so great an Analogy and resemblance to those of Quadrupeds, that we find them here almost the same. The greatest difference from them seems to be in the external shape, and wanting [i.e. lacking] feet. But here too we observed that when the skin and flesh was taken off, the fore-fins did very well represent an Arm, there being the Scapula, an os Humeri, the Ulna, and Radius, and bone of the Carpus, the Metacarp, and 5 digity curiously jointed…”

Tyson performed many other famous dissections, including that of a young chimpanzee (mistakenly described as an orang-utan) which was brought to London as a pet by a sailor in 1698. The young ape was ailing. Tyson studied its appearance and behaviour while it remained alive, and dissected it as soon as it died, this time with William Cowper assisting with the drawings. They published their findings in the splendidly-titled Orang-Outang, sive Homo Sylvestris: or, the Anatomy of a Pygmie Compared with that of a Monkey, an Ape, and a Man. The 165-page, heavily-illustrated volume showed that human beings and chimpanzees were built to a very similar body-plan. At the end of the book, Tyson listed the most significant features of the chimp’s anatomy, noting that 48 of them resembled the equivalent human features more than they did those of a monkey, while 27 more closely resembled those of a monkey than those of a human. He concluded that a chimpanzee resembles a human more than it resembles a monkey. This was a turning point in the quest to classify the relationships between organisms on the basis of anatomical resemblance.

Since Tyson’s time, numerous examples of similarities in bone structure in different organisms have been discovered. The classic example – presented in biology textbooks, television documentaries, magazine articles and museum displays – is the forelimbs of vertebrates. [Vertebrates are creatures that possess a spinal column. It is a category that includes mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish.] Thus, although a bat has wings for flying, a porpoise has flippers for swimming, a horse has legs for running, and a human has hands for grasping, the bone patterns in their forelimbs are similar. Take, for example, a human hand and a dog’s forepaw. There is one bone in your upper arm, between your shoulder and elbow: the humerus. Between the elbow and your wrist, there are two bones: the radius and the ulna. Then come the carpals of your wrist, the metacarpals (tubular bones between the wrist bones and each of the forelimb digits) and the phalanges (the skeletal parts of the fingers). A very similar arrangement exists in the dog’s forepaw.

In time, the similarity between the bone arrangement in the flipper of the porpoise and land-dwelling animals described by Edward Tyson came to be known as homology. The term was coined by Richard Owen (1804-1892), one of the leading biologists of the nineteenth century. He is best remembered for coining the word dinosaurian (meaning terrible reptiles) and as the driving force behind the establishment of the British Museum of Natural History in London. He is also remembered as an outspoken opponent of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. In the late 1840s, Owen coined the term analogy to describe functional similarity and homology to describe structural similarity. Let’s take a moment to appreciate the difference between the two. In biology, similar features come in two varieties: functional and structural. For instance, bird wings and insect wings are both used for flying. Both types of wing function in the same way: the wing is shaped like an aerofoil, producing lower air-pressure on its upper side and higher air-pressure on the underside, thus creating lift. Flapping the wings provides forward thrust. But the internal structure of birds’ wings is very different to that of insects. A bird wing consists of flesh, supplied with nourishment and oxygen by a network of blood vessels. Structural stability comes from bones in the wing. Insect wings contain no bones or blood vessels. They consist of a thin membrane stretched tightly around a network of wiry structures, like a kite. So bird wings and insect wings serve the same function but have a different structure. This concept works in reverse too. As we mentioned earlier, the structure of the flipper of a porpoise is very similar to the structure of a bat’s wing i.e. the arrangement of bones is similar. But these appendages have very different functions. The porpoise uses its flipper to swim, while the bat uses its wing to fly. The similarity is structural, not functional. In the case of the forelimbs of humans and dogs, we saw that the arrangement of the bones is similar. But although the bone pattern is the same, the individual bones are quite different in shape, function and other respects. Dogs cannot grasp objects with their digits or oppose their thumb to the rest of the toes. Human hands are not made to walk on for any length of time. The similarity is one of homology (structure or pattern), not analogy (function).