Archive for March, 2013

James Clerk Maxwell and Religion

March 29, 2013

I argued in Genesis and Genes that many people make a crucial mistake when they confuse Nature with Science:

It happens because many people confuse science with nature. Judaism cannot countenance a contradiction between God and nature. God created the universe and its laws. We don’t think that God is schizophrenic, so there cannot be inconsistencies between Him and His creation. The proposition that there is a contradiction between the Torah and nature would invite the suggestion of multiple deities. But nature is not the same as science. Nature is God’s creation, with its laws and processes. Science is the attempt by human beings to understand these laws and processes. Being a human endeavour, it is not infallible. There is no reason why there should not be contradictions between Torah and science, just like we can expect there to be contradictions between Torah and any other human endeavour.

Insisting, as a matter of principle, that there cannot be contradictions between Judaism and science can have insalubrious consequences. As I wrote in my last post (Concordism and String Theory):

If you handcuff the Torah to some contemporary theory in physics, what will happen if that theory sinks? Retro-prophecy begets quickie emunah – flimsy and fragile. If the science fails – and science is a human endeavour with prominent historical failures – the Torah falls too.

I have now come across a fascinating statement in this context. It appears in a biography of the 19th century physicist James Clerk Maxwell, one of the greatest scientists of all time. His biographer relates that “He summarised [his approach] many years later when replying to an invitation to join the Victoria Institute, an eminent organisation specifically set up to establish common ground between Christianity and science. Over the years he had turned them down several times, but they were so keen to have him in their number that in 1875 the President and Council sent him a special request to join.” In declining the request, I believe that Maxwell, who was a pious Christian, was making the same point that I am making:

“I think that the results which each man arrives at in his attempts to harmonise his science with his Christianity ought not to be regarded as having any significance except to the man himself, and to him only for a time… For it is in the nature of science, especially those branches of science which are spreading into unknown regions, to be continually changing.” The Man who Changed Everything – The Life of James Clerk Maxwell, Basil Mahon, Wiley, 2004, page 37.

“For it is in the nature of science… to be continually changing.” What Maxwell realised is that science is not reliable when it addresses the most profound questions. As I explained at length in Genesis and Genes, science is not a monolith, all of whose results carry the same credibility. Science is strong – though never infallible – in elucidating phenomena which are repeatable, observable and limited. Its credibility rapidly diminishes when it confronts phenomena which stray beyond those parameters. So much so that Maxwell felt that because it is “continually changing”, it would be folly to commit to a particular viewpoint in science – say, when it discusses the origin of life or the age of the universe or whether Adam and Eve could have been real people – and try to pigeonhole his religion into that viewpoint.

I argued in Genesis and Genes that one cannot formulate Torah positions in response to the latest consensus position in science:

When Torah sources clearly and consistently describe a position about the physical universe, then that is the Torah position, whether one finds it conveniently modern or not.

If Maxwell were Jewish, I think he would concur.

Concordism and String Theory

March 21, 2013

David Shatz, a member of Tradition’s Editorial Board, is professor of philosophy at Yeshiva University and editor of The Torah u-Madda Journal. He is the author of an erudite and eloquent essay entitled Is There Science in the Bible? An Assessment of Biblical Concordism, which was recently sent to me by a reader.[1]

Early in the essay, Professor Shatz poses the following question: why is it that many Modern Orthodox Jews are quick to reject attempts by writers like N. Aviezer and G. Schroeder to demonstrate concordism – the idea that the Torah “teaches science and metaphysics in a positive fashion”?[2] Shatz responds,

One answer, I think, is that Aviezer and Schroeder are associated with a method of kiruv which critics regard as potentially counterproductive. Concordists use the “discovery” that the Torah already includes truths that scientists discovered millennia later to instill awe, wonder, and belief in the Author’s omniscience. But when kiruv is done this way, fluctuations in scientific beliefs could induce cynicism over time: when science changes, out go the proofs of the author’s omniscience that were based on a correspondence between Genesis and the old science. If anything, the Author will look ignorant, has ve-shalom, when the science changes. Concordism comes off as a gimmick.

This is an important point, and one which I emphasised in Genesis and the Big Bluff (which I wrote several years before reading Shatz’s essay). To demonstrate where Dr. Schroeder’s approach could go wrong, I used the example of String Theory. I wrote in Genesis and the Big Bluff,

The central thesis of Genesis and the Big Bang is that traditional sources – the Talmud, midrashim and medieval commentators – provide a view of the cosmos which is strikingly in agreement with modern scientific observation and hypothesis. Hence, the subtitle of the book – The Discovery of Harmony between Modern Science and the Bible. But Dr. Schroeder never ponders the possibility – and consequences – of contemporary scientific theories turning out to be wrong. If you claim congruence between Torah sources and scientific theories, and those theories are eventually rejected, what are the implications for the Torah?

Dr. Schroeder introduces his thesis that traditional Torah sources presaged String Theory on page 59 of Genesis and the Big Bang:

To form the universe, God chose from the infinite realm of the Divine, ten dimensions or aspects and relegated them to be held within the universe. These dimensions are hinted at in the ten repetitions of the statements “and God said…” used in the opening chapter of Genesis. The cabalists believed that only four of the ten dimensions are physically measurable within today’s world. The other six contracted into submicroscopic dimensions during the six days of Genesis…

With an amazing congruity, particle physicists now talk of the String Theory, a unified description of our universe in ten dimensions… These dimensions according to the physicists are the four that we know, length, width, height and time, plus six others. These six are contracted into a size far too tiny ever to be observed even by the best of microscopes…

An obvious objection to be made here – and one on which I shall not elaborate in this post – is that the association Dr. Schroeder claims between the Torah and String Theory is extremely flimsy, and is unsubstantiated (except for that vague phrase The cabalists believed…).

But even if the association was more robust, one should beware of aligning the Torah with the latest theories in physics. Genesis and the Big Bang was published in the early 1990s, when String Theory was all the rage in physics. Two decades later, things look very different. String Theory is controversial, entirely theoretical (for the foreseeable future, it will not be possible to test its predictions, since that would require particle accelerators orders of magnitude larger than anything available), and of questionable usefulness to physics. In its 14th August 2006 edition, TIME Magazine published an article entitled The Unravelling of String Theory. The magazine’s science writer, Michael Lemonick, points out that despite its initial popularity, it has accumulated many detractors:

Not Even Wrong, by Columbia University mathematician Peter Woit, and The Trouble with Physics, by Lee Smolin at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, both argue that string theory (or superstring theory, as it is also known) is largely a fad propped up by practitioners who tend to be arrogantly dismissive of anyone who dare suggest that the emperor has no clothes.

Lemonick proceeds to describe some of the problems with String Theory:

The mathematics is excruciatingly tough, and when problems arise, the solutions often introduce yet another layer of complexity. Indeed, one of the theory’s proponents calls the latest of many string-theory refinements “a Rube Goldberg contraption.”

USA Today ran an article entitled Hanging on by a thread, making similar points. Nature published Theorists snap over string pieces.[3] In an article dated 1st June 2009 and entitled What string theory is really good for, reporter Jessica Griggs of New Scientist writes,

The critical voices have in the meantime been getting more strident. They complain about string theory’s weird, unverifiable predictions – for instance, that space-time has any number of dimensions, usually 10, rather than the three of space and one of time we see. Folding 10 dimensions down to four can be done in a mind-boggling 10^500 ways, with no way of saying which of them corresponds to how our universe does it. As if that weren’t enough, the energies needed to create the tiny strings the theory is woven from make them impossible to detect. To its detractors, string theory is long on mathematical elegance, but woefully short on real-world relevance.

Nobel Prize winner Sydney Glashow and his colleague Paul Ginsparg warned that “contemplation of superstrings may evolve into an activity as remote from conventional particle physics as particle physics is from chemistry.”

In March 2010, New Scientist interviewed Roger Penrose.[4] Penrose is a world-famous mathematician who has won numerous international prizes. In 1994, he was knighted in recognition of his services to science. He is the author of several books, including the best-selling Road to Reality. Penrose is perhaps most famous for his collaboration with astrophysicist Stephen Hawking in the study of black holes. The New Scientist interview was entitled Happy-go-lucky, no strings attached. The happy-go-lucky part is a reference to Penrose’s pleasant disposition (he describes himself as an incurable optimist). The no-strings-attached part refers to his deep scepticism of String Theory. Here is the relevant part of the interview:

And that [String Theory], to Penrose, is a Bad Thing. Penrose has no time for strings. “My main objection is all those extra dimensions, which don’t make any sense… String theorists are not facing up to their problems. I don’t see string theory converging on anything. In fact, it’s diverging: it has got wilder and wilder.” That’s part of the reason why… he will publish Fashion, Faith and Fantasy in the New Physics, a critique of modern physics. String theory provides the “fashion”, but there are other targets too.

The prominent physicist Lawrence Krauss apparently devoted much of his 2005 book, Hiding in the Mirror [which I have not read], to a scathing attack on String Theory. Finally, here is what Paul Dirac’s biographer (himself a physicist) has to say:[5]

Although string theory is the only strong candidate for a unified theory of the fundamental interactions, by no means all theoreticians are convinced of its value. A substantial number of physicists worry that the theory makes sense only in more than four dimensions of space-time… More worrying, it has received little support from experiment: string theory has yet to make a clear-cut prediction that experimenters have been able to test. These are among the key signals, several physicists have argued, that the theory is absurdly over-valued and that it would be better to pursue other avenues. One of the most vocal sceptics is the Standard Model pioneer [and Nobel Prize winner] Martin Veltman: “String theory is mumbo jumbo. It has nothing to do with experiment.”[6]

Dr. Schroeder writes for the broad public, whose knowledge of science is usually rudimentary. These readers are in no position to know that among mathematicians and physicists, scepticism of String Theory runs high. But this point is obvious to those who specialise in the intersection of religion and science. One of the most prominent of these specialists is Ian Barbour.[7] Barbour, now retired from academic life, was professor of physics and religion at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, and a pre-eminent figure in the field of science and religion, having been awarded the Templeton Prize in 1999. He begins by reviewing Dr. Schroeder’s approach:

Schroeder holds that other scientific facts can be found in later rabbinic writings. He describes in detail the commentary on Genesis by the thirteenth-century kabbalist Nahmanides… Nahmanides also said that there were ten principles or dimensions of reality corresponding to the ten times that the phrase “and God said” is repeated in Genesis. Schroeder claims that this has been confirmed in a remarkable way by recent superstring theory, which (as we saw) postulates ten initial dimensions…

Barbour proceeds to demonstrate the weakness of this argument:

Moreover, the use of superstring theory seems to me particularly dubious because it is highly abstract and speculative and cannot be tested experimentally at energies available in any existing or projected particle accelerator…

Let us see how a more sober observer of contemporary physics than Dr. Schroeder describes String Theory. Writing a number of years before Genesis and the Big Bang was published, Professor Timothy Ferris said:

Such optimism [about String Theory] may, of course, prove to have been misplaced. The history of twentieth-century physics is strewn with the bleached bones of theories that were once thought to approach an ultimate answer. Einstein devoted much of the latter half of his career to trying to find a unified field theory of gravitation and electromagnetism… Yet nothing came of it… Wolfgang Pauli collaborated with Werner Heisenberg on a unified theory for a while, then was alarmed to hear Heisenberg claim on a radio broadcast that a unified Pauli-Heisenberg theory was close to completion, with only a few technical details remaining to be worked out. Put out by what he regarded as Heisenberg’s hyperbole, Pauli sent… colleagues a page on which he had drawn a blank box. He captioned the drawing with the words, “This is to show the world that I can paint like Titian. Only technical details are missing.”[8]

Now, do these sentiments prove that String Theory is wrong? Of course not. There are many top-notch physicists who believe that it could lead to the deepest explanation of nature yet. Some believe that it will usher in that elusive theory of everything linking all four fundamental forces of nature. But this is far from certain, as should be obvious from the sceptical comments cited above. It is quite possible that String Theory will end up as a footnote in the history of physics. If you handcuff the Torah to some contemporary theory in physics, what will happen if that theory sinks? Retro-prophecy begets quickie emunah – flimsy and fragile. If the science fails – and science is a human endeavour with prominent historical failures – the Torah falls too.


There is another reason to be suspicious of Dr. Schroeder’s methodology, which is not examined in Professor Shatz’s essay. How robust is Dr. Schroeder’s approach? Can one link concepts from physics with religion in ways that undermine Dr. Schroeder’s thesis? In 1961, Murray Gell-Mann introduced a classification of elementary particles called hadrons. For his work, Gell-Mann won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1969. Gell-Mann’s own name for the classification scheme was the eightfold way, because of the octets of particles in the classification. The eightfold way achieved experimental verification when a previously undetected particle which it predicted, omega minus, was identified in a bubble chamber experiment at Brookhaven National Laboratory. The term Gell-Mann used for his scheme – the eightfold way – is a reference to the eightfold way of Buddhism – a choice which is reflective of Gell-Mann’s eclectic interests.

How would Dr. Schroeder approach this? Would he write of the amazing congruity between particle physics and Buddhism, and encourage us to accept the truth of the latter? If not, why not? Is the eightfold classification scheme any less convincing as evidence for Buddhism than associating String Theory with the Torah because the phrase And God said appears ten times in the creation narrative?

Here is a second example. The website is slick, its content sophisticated, the science apparently up-to-date.[9] Various explanations about the speed of light abound, including the history of attempts to measure this constant. The site comes with the usual clarifications regarding frames of reference and problems of measurement. It explains, plausibly, that stating the speed of light in terms of lunar orbits per Earth day allows one to express the speed of light as an absolute quantity, regardless of one’s platform of observation. It is only then that one discovers that this is a Muslim site, which goes on to claim:

But 1400 years ago it was stated in the Quran (Koran, the book of Islam) that angels travel in one day the same distance that the moon travels in 1000 lunar years, that is, 12000 Lunar Orbits / Earth Day. Outside the gravitational field of the sun 12000 Lunar Orbits/Earth Day turned out to be the local speed of light!!! This definition is independent of direction and common to all observers: An observer near a black hole, for example, sees the speed of light outside gravitational fields a zillion km/s but still equal to 12000 Lunar Orbits/Earth Day!!!

So the Quran apparently managed to deduce the speed of light 1400 years ago. Shall we accept this as evidence for the truth of Islam?


I do not claim that that the Torah does not contain scientific truths only recently discovered; perhaps it does. Furthermore, it may be possible to evaluate similar claims from other religions according to some objective scheme that will indicate that the Torah claims are more convincing. But this has not been done, as far as I know, and certainly not in Dr. Schroeder’s books. Evidence for the Torah’s authenticity is only beneficial if it is robust and unique to Judaism. If the “proofs” are so fragile that a similar methodology will yield proofs for the truth of other religions, one has achieved little.

Just as important is the realisation that science is a fallible human enterprise, and that in physics and other branches of science, more wrong turns are taken than right turns. The tendency of some authors to impute infallibility to the latest paradigms – and to pretzelise Torah sources so as to fit with these paradigms – is a consequence of the ignorance of the history of science.


Retrieved 18th March 2013.
[2] “What we have here, then, is a deep, instinctive resistance to an approach taken by the very medieval thinkers whom Modern Orthodox Jews usually point to and invoke as their models and ideological forebears. Why this instant, reflex-like, dismissal of concordism on the part of some or many Modern Orthodox Jews?” Is There Science in the Bible? An Assessment of Biblical Concordism, David Shatz, TRADITION 41:2 / © 2008 Rabbinical Council of America.
[3] From an article by the physicist Sean Carroll in New Scientist, 19th May 2007.
[4] New Scientist, 13th March 2010, page 28.
[5] The Strangest Man, Graham Farmelo, Basic Books, 2009, page 437.
[6] Martinus Veltman (born 1931) is a Dutch physicist, who, together with his student, Gerard ‘t Hooft (born 1946), shared the Nobel Prize in physics in 1999 for elucidating the quantum structure of electroweak interactions.
[7] Ian Barbour, When Science Meets Religion, HarperSanFrancisco, 2000, page 46.
[8] Timothy Ferris, Coming of Age in the Milky Way, pages 332-333.
[9] See
Retrieved 27th August 2011.

Junk DNA – An Introduction

March 17, 2013

The popular South African magazine, Jewish Life, featured an article by me in its latest issue (March 2013). I reproduce it below.


Junk. Barren. Desert. Could these harsh terms have anything to do with human biology? In the latter part of the 20th century, as the intricacies of molecular genetics were being unfurled, a curious fact emerged. Much of our DNA does not contain instructions for manufacturing proteins, the workhorses of the cell. So if DNA doesn’t do what you thought it would do, it’s junk, right? The term Junk DNA was coined in 1972 by the biologist Susumu Ohno. He published an article wondering why there is “so much ‘junk DNA’ in our genome.”[1] In 1980, two papers appeared back-to-back in the journal Nature. Both argued that much genetic material has no function,[2] and the second article explicitly argued that much DNA in higher organisms is little better than junk.[3] In time, bleak terms like those at the beginning of this paragraph became ubiquitous in the discussion of human genetics.

But this terminology did not involve just an arcane point within genetics. Junk DNA was used to promote a much wider ideology. Many biologists claimed that most of our DNA is functionless detritus that accumulated in our cells as a by-product of merciless evolutionary processes. After all, what other explanation could there be for the existence in our genome of an ocean of inert genetic material? Here is one example of that argument. In 1998, the world’s foremost apostle for evolution, Richard Dawkins, wrote in the journal The Skeptic:

Genomes are littered with nonfunctional pseudogenes, faulty duplicates of functional genes that do nothing… And there’s lots more DNA that doesn’t even deserve the name pseudogene… It consists of multiple copies of junk, “tandem repeats”, and other nonsense…[4]

Dawkins and other evolution junkies believe that there is no explanation for this apparently-superfluous material in our genomes, other than the admission that it is the residue of an evolutionary process:

Once again, creationists might spend some earnest time speculating on why the Creator should bother to litter genomes with untranslated pseudogenes and junk tandem repeat DNA.

Similarly, in Why Evolution Is True (published in 2009), the geneticist Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago wrote that it is a “prediction” of neo-Darwinian theory that we will find the genome littered with useless “vestigial genes”. This sort of claim pervaded the literature for decades.

But that view has turned out to be spectacularly wrong. Since 1990 – but especially after completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003 – many hundreds of articles have appeared in the scientific literature documenting the various functions of non-coding DNA, and more are being published almost weekly. Far from consisting mainly of junk, our genome is increasingly revealing itself to be a multidimensional, integrated system in which “junk” DNA performs a wide variety of functions, often in a regulating or switching capacity, thus controlling critical cellular functions. The nail in the coffin for the “junk” paradigm was the ENCODE (Encyclopaedia of DNA Elements) project, a collaboration of 442 scientists in 32 laboratories. ENCODE mapped the part of the genome previously thought to be inert, and has thus far found function for more than 80% of the genome, which, it turns out, is a buzzing universe of biochemical activity. An article in the journal Science entitled ENCODE Project Writes Eulogy for Junk DNA began with: “This week, 30 research papers, including six in Nature and additional papers published by Science, sound the death knell for the idea that our DNA is mostly littered with useless bases.”[5] The prediction made by the biologists Richard Sternberg and James Shapiro that one day, we will think of what used to be called junk DNA as a critical component of truly expert cellular control regimes,[6] is about to be fully borne out.

Let’s take a bird’s-eye view of this episode. For several decades, it seemed as if vast stretches of DNA did nothing. The consensus developed that this genetic material just accumulates in the genome like, well, like junk in a junkyard. This was portrayed, with strident triumphalism, as decisive evidence for biological evolution, but turned out to be completely wrong.

Some of the questions that motivated me to write Genesis and Genes (Feldheim, 2013) are reflected well through this type of historical episode. How often does a paradigm shift of this sort happen in science? How common is it for scientists to make absolute statements about physical phenomena that are not yet fully understood? How robust is the claim that some argument is supported by the consensus of scientists? And then there’s the Jewish angle. The Talmud teaches that everything that God created has a purpose.[7] Maharal (ca. 1520-1609), one of the greatest Jewish philosophers of the past half-millennium, wrote that even if we do not understand every feature of the human body, yet we are quite certain that nothing in it is superfluous.[8] Was that viewpoint ever compatible with the notion that our genomes are littered with junk? Most importantly, when evolutionary biologists proclaim, as they do often, that there is overwhelming evidence for evolution, is that evidence ever as hollow as the argument from junk DNA turned out to be?

I also wanted to explore how ignorance of the history of science distorts one’s ability to critically assess evidence for controversial ideas. Let’s look at one example. In the context of biology, one often hears a sound bite that originated with Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the architects of the modern version of Darwinism. He wrote in 1973 that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.[9] Imagine yourself as an impressionable student, hearing that nothing in your discipline makes sense unless you pay obeisance to a particular viewpoint. You would likely first come across this gem courtesy of your professor, an authority figure whose name is followed by an imposing alphabet soup of titles. The adage would be frequently repeated and become seared into your mind. Gradually, it would become part of your mental furniture, never given a second thought and never examined critically. But what if you had the benefit of some exposure to history? These days, continental drift (plate tectonics) is the theory that undergirds geology, oceanography and geophysics. But go back about sixty years, and those disciplines were held together by something called geosynclinal theory. Before it was ditched on history’s ash heap in favour of continental drift, geosynclinal theory was seen as the unifying concept in the earth sciences. 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.[10]

So this textbook equated evolution and geosynclinal theory in being quite indispensable to their respective disciplines, and yet, geosynclinal theory is dead and buried. The essential turned out to be transient. Would you be as credulous about evolution’s indispensability to biological research if you knew that similar claims have been made before and turned out to be totally wrong?

I also wanted to explore how scientists approach areas of their work that have obvious and profound philosophical implications, and how their worldview influences their work. In a book review of Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, the prominent Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin made a comment that had all the subtlety of a cruise missile:

We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs… in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.

Professor Lewontin went on to assure his readers that,

It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create… a set of concepts that produce material explanations… Moreover, that materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.[11]

Crucially, I wanted to examine the claim that Judaism must be reconcilable with science. This is a notion that, although popular, is refuted by the historical experience of Junk DNA and similar historical episodes. A dogmatic insistence on marrying Judaism to every consensus position in science would force us to accept that the Torah be compatible with ideas that have been roundly discredited. If so, is there room to differentiate between Nature (what the world is really like) and science (the fallible human attempt to understand Nature)?

There are many more facets to Genesis and Genes, because its subject matter touches on the most fundamental questions about existence. Are human beings nothing more than meat on its path to putrefaction? Is there support in traditional sources for the notion that, somehow, God is involved in an evolutionary process? Do the Talmud and other traditional sources contain oblique references to hominids?

In an age of spiritual turmoil – one prominent figure in the kiruv-movement observed, “How can you teach people about their innate Godliness when they’re confused about their innate humanity?!” – I wrote Genesis and Genes with the conviction that its subject matter is more important than most, and that there is no alternative to being informed on the topic.


[1] Susumu Ohno, So much ‘junk’ DNA in our genome”, Brookhaven Symposia in Biology 23 (1972):366-70. The entire article can be read here:
Retrieved 28th December 2011.
[2] W. Ford Doolittle and Carmen Sapienza, “Selfish Genes, the phenotype paradigm and genome evolution”, Nature 284 (1980): 601-603.
[3] Leslie E. Orgel and Francis H.C. Crick, “Selfish DNA: the ultimate parasite”, Nature 284 (1980): 604-607.
[4] Richard Dawkins, The Information Challenge, The Skeptic, Vol. 18 (4) December, 1998.
[5] ENCODE Project Writes Eulogy for Junk DNA, Elizabeth Pennisi, Science, Vol. 337 no. 6099 pages 1159-1161, 7 September 2012. The summary can be read here:
Retrieved 2nd December 2012.
[6] Richard v. Sternberg and James A. Shapiro, “How Repeated Retroelements format genome function,” Cytogenetic and Genome Research, Vol. 110: 108–116 (2005).
[7] מסכת שבת דף עז עמוד ב: אמר רב יהודה אמר רב כל מה שברא הקב”ה בעולמו לא ברא דבר אחד לבטלה.
[8] מהר”ל תפארת ישראל פרק ח: וכבר אמרנו שאף אם אין ידוע לנו טעם וסבה של כל דבר ודבר שנמצא באדם למה הוא כך, מכל מקום ידוע לנו שאין דבר אחד לבטלה…
[9] The essay in which Dobzhansky made this statement was first published in the journal American Biology Teacher, volume 35, pages 125-129.
[10] Thomas H. Clark and Colin W. Stearn, The Geological Evolution of North America: A Regional Approach to Historical Geology, Ronald Press, 1960, page 43.
[11] Richard Lewontin, Billions and billions of demons (Review of The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan, 1997), The New York Review of Books, page 31, 9th January 1997.

Adam and Eve – A Postscript

March 13, 2013

In the posts Adam and Eve – A Parable? and Adam and Eve – Part 2, I challenged a statement by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks that Adam and Eve were not real people, but rather a parable for the emergence of human culture. Danny wrote a response, which readers can read in the comments section on the second post. In this post, I respond to Danny’s comments.


Dear Danny,

I appreciate your ardour and sincerity. At the same time, I do think that you misunderstood my posts. I did not address the eternity of the universe, the age of the universe, Plato, Aristotle, Rabbi G. Nadel, Biblical exegesis, or correct punctuation. I made one point: Rambam says that it is a fundamental belief of Judaism that Adam and Eve were real, flesh-and-blood people:

It is a fundamental belief of Judaism that the world was created ex nihilo and that a specific human being, Adam, was initially created and that from his creation until the time of Moses approximately 2500 years elapsed.

In contrast, Lord Sacks claims that Adam and Eve are mere parables for the emergence of culture. These two statements are mutually-exclusive.

The second post was about the view of Rav Sa’adiah Gaon. After writing the post, I finished reading The Great Partnership by Lord Sacks. In an appendix to the book (page 353), Sacks explicitly refers to Rav Sa’adiah Gaon to justify his claim that the rabbis of the tenth century established a rule that if a Biblical narrative is incompatible with reason or observation, it is not to be understood literally. So your appeal to other authorities, such as Ralbag, is irrelevant. If Sacks claims – in a televised debate and in his book (and his statement in the book cannot be written off as a result of nervous flutter) – that he is relying on Rav Sa’adiah Gaon, he has to substantiate that statement without reference to other authorities. So my challenge regarding Rav Sa’adiah Gaon’s words stands by itself.

In my second post, I explained Rav Sa’adiah Gaon’s position, and provided (in the footnotes), the original Hebrew text. Readers can ascertain for themselves that his position cannot be co-opted by Lord Sacks to justify his position. Rav Sa’adiah Gaon is an extreme literalist. Lord Sacks uses broad words like reason when describing Rav Sa’adiah Gaon’s view, without providing the original Hebrew text to justify his translation. Rav Sa’adiah Gaon referred to verses being contradicted by common experience (like seeing that women only give birth to human babies) or simple syllogistic logic. There is no doubt whatsoever that Rav Sa’adiah Gaon understood that Adam and Eve were real people. Claiming otherwise is a distortion of his words.


Danny: Rabbi Sacks feels that evolutionary science is very compelling, yet he is still an observant, believing Jew, if you believed in evolutionary science, how would that influence your religious belief?
My response: The fact that one believes passionately in some notion and also considers oneself an observant Jew does not automatically legitimate the belief. As I wrote in Genesis and Genes:

Jonathan: How do you respond to someone who says that he is comfortable being a Jew and believing in evolution?
YB: I have been involved in kiruv for many years. In that time, I have come across many Jews who profess being comfortable with a variety of notions. You’ll hear people saying, “I am comfortable being a Jew and a homosexual.” Or “I am comfortable being a Jew and believing in Jesus.” Or “I am comfortable being a Jew and practising Buddhist meditation.” This situation only proves that there are lots of Jews who are comfortable being Jewish and ignorant. Whether you are comfortable or not is beside the point. The only relevant question is whether a given position is consistent with normative Torah positions.


One cannot justify any and all beliefs by claiming that one is a practising Jew. Judaism itself determines what its beliefs are, and that determination happens through the Torah’s own dynamics and methodologies, not by looking over one’s shoulder to see what the host culture considers to be intellectually or scientifically compelling. That’s why I wrote in the first Adam and Eve post,

That’s a curious statement [about Adam and Eve being a mere parable]. Lord Sacks is an observant Jew; as such, he is bound by certain axiomatic beliefs and allegiances to certain texts and methodologies.

To claim that a position is consonant with normative Torah beliefs, one must justify the belief with reference to traditional Torah texts and methodologies. In the case of Adam and Eve, Lord Sacks has failed to do so, at least as far as Rambam and Rav Sa’adiah Gaon are concerned.

Blowing Hot and Cold

March 11, 2013

In general, science is strongest when it deals with repeatable, observable and limited phenomena. I explained in Genesis and Genes that

The third adjective [i.e. limited] refers to the fact that the phenomenon under study is to some extent isolated; it is more-or-less modular, and so can be studied independently, without having to take account of numerous interactions… studying the climate would not fit into this category because the climate is influenced by a huge number of factors ranging from the local density of trees to the cyclic appearance of sunspots.

Genesis and Genes is not about climate change. But I did devote substantial space to discussing how informed consumers of science should approach scientific research which is diffuse (i.e. the opposite of limited), and climate research is a paradigmatic example of such research. [Also of interest is my post The Wager, at

Over the past century, climate research has blown hot and cold, with climatologists alternately declaring that we are going to freeze or fry. Readers who would like to explore the subject can begin by reading a brief but detailed history of climate change scares entitled Fire and Ice, available online.[1]

Global Cooling: 1890s-1930s
Around 1850, America and Europe emerged from a lengthy period of cooling, called the Little Ice Age. So when The New York Times warned of new cooling in 1895, it was a prediction taken seriously. On February 24, 1895, the paper announced “Geologists Think the World May Be Frozen Up Again.” On October 7, 1912, the paper reported on page 1 that, “Prof. [Nathaniel] Schmidt [of Cornell University] Warns Us of an Encroaching Ice Age.” The same day the Los Angeles Times ran an article about Schmidt as well, entitled Fifth ice age is on the way. It was subtitled Human race will have to fight for its existence against cold. “Scientist says Arctic ice will wipe out Canada,” declared a front-page Chicago Tribune headline on August 9, 1923. “Professor Gregory” of Yale University stated that “another world ice-epoch is due.” He was the American representative to the Pan-Pacific Science Congress and warned that North America would disappear as far south as the Great Lakes, and huge parts of Asia and Europe would be “wiped out”. Switzerland would be “entirely obliterated,” and parts of South America would be “overrun”. In a New York Times article from September 20, 1922, a penguin found in France was viewed as an “ice-age harbinger”.

The Atlanta Constitution also commented on the impending ice age on July 21, 1923. It reported on the great increase of glaciers in the Arctic. Even allowing for “the provisional nature of the earlier surveys,” glacial activity had greatly augmented, “according to the men of science.” The Christian Science Monitor reported on the potential ice age as well, on July 3, 1923. “Captain MacMillan left Wicasset, Maine, two weeks ago for Sydney, the jumping-off point for the north seas, announcing that one of the purposes of his cruise was to determine whether there is beginning another ‘ice age,’ as the advance of glaciers in the last 70 years would seem to indicate.”

Swedish scientist Rutger Sernander also predicted a new ice age. He headed a Swedish committee of scientists studying “climatic development”. According to the Los Angeles Times on April 6, 1924, he claimed that the conditions “when all winds will bring snow, the sun cannot prevail against the clouds, and three winters will come in one, with no summer between,” had already begun.

Global Warming: 1930s-1970
Today’s global warming advocates – and certainly the general public – rarely realize how unoriginal their claims are. The USA entered the “longest warm spell since 1776,” according to a March 27, 1933, New York Times headline. One year earlier, the paper reported that “the earth is steadily growing warmer” in its May 15 edition. The Washington Post felt the heat as well and titled an article simply ‘Hot Weather’ on August 2, 1930.The Los Angeles Times beat both papers to the heat on March 11, 1929: “Most geologists think the world is growing warmer, and that it will continue to get warmer.”

Meteorologist J. B. Kincer of the federal weather bureau published a scholarly article on the warming world in the September 1933 Monthly Weather Review. The article began by discussing the “wide-spread and persistent tendency toward warmer weather” and asked “Is our climate changing?” Kincer proceeded to document the warming trend. Out of 21 winters examined from 1912-33 in Washington, D.C., 18 were warmer than normal and all of the past 13 were mild. New Haven, Connecticut, experienced warmer temperatures, with evidence from records that went “back to near the close of the Revolutionary War,” claimed the analysis. Using records from various other cities, Kincer showed that the world was warming.

British amateur meteorologist G. S. Callendar made a bold claim five years later that many would recognize now. He argued that humanity was responsible for heating up the planet with carbon dioxide emissions – in 1938. He published an article in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society. “In the following paper I hope to show that such influence is not only possible, but is actually occurring at the present time,” Callendar wrote. He went on the lecture circuit describing carbon-dioxide-induced global warming.

On November 6 the following year, The Chicago Daily Tribune ran an article titled Experts puzzle over 20 year mercury rise. It began, “Chicago is in the front rank of thousands of cities throughout the world which have been affected by a mysterious trend toward warmer climate in the last two decades.”

The trend continued into the 1950s. The New York Times reported that “we have learned that the world has been getting warmer in the last half century” on August 10, 1952. The following year, the paper reported that studies confirmed summers and winters were getting warmer. “Arctic Findings in Particular Support Theory of Rising Global Temperatures,” announced the paper during the middle of winter, on February 15, 1959. Glaciers were melting in Alaska and the “ice in the Arctic ocean is about half as thick as it was in the late nineteenth century.” A decade later, the New York Times reaffirmed its position that “the Arctic pack ice is thinning and that the ocean at the North Pole may become an open sea within a decade or two,” according to polar explorer Colonel Bernt Bachen in the February 20, 1969, piece.

Global Cooling: 1950s-1970s
The first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970, amidst hysteria about the dangers of a new ice age. The media had been spreading warnings of a cooling period since the 1950s, but those alarms grew louder in the 1970s. Three months before, on January 11, 1970, the Washington Post told readers to “get a good grip on your long johns, cold weather haters – the worst may be yet to come”, in an article titled Colder Winters Herald Dawn of New Ice Age. The article quoted climatologist Reid Bryson, who said “there’s no relief in sight”.

Fortune magazine won a Science Writing Award from the American Institute of Physics for its own analysis of the danger. “As for the present cooling trend a number of leading climatologists have concluded that it is very bad news indeed,” Fortune announced in February 1974. The article emphasized Bryson’s extreme doomsday predictions. “There is very important climatic change going on right now, and it’s not merely something of academic interest.” Bryson continued, “It is something that, if it continues, will affect the whole human occupation of the earth – like a billion people starving. The effects are already showing up in a rather drastic way.” [Reality check: the world population has increased by 2.5 billion since that warning.]

Fortune had been emphasizing the cooling trend for 20 years. In 1954, it picked up on the idea of a frozen Earth and ran an article titled Climate – the Heat May Be Off. The story informed its readers that “despite all you may have read, heard, or imagined, it’s been growing cooler – not warmer – since the Thirties.”

The claims of global catastrophe were chilling indeed (double-entendre intended). “The cooling has already killed hundreds of thousands of people in poor nations,” wrote Lowell Ponte in his 1976 book The Cooling. If the proper measures weren’t taken, he cautioned, then the cooling would lead to “world famine, world chaos, and probably world war, and this could all come by the year 2000.” The November 15, 1969, issue of Science News quoted meteorologist Dr. J. Murray Mitchell Jr.: “How long the current cooling trend continues is one of the most important problems of our civilization,” he said. Six years later, the periodical reported that “the cooling since 1940 has been large enough and consistent enough that it will not soon be reversed.” In 1975, Nigel Calder, a former editor of New Scientist, said that “The threat of a new ice age must now stand alongside nuclear war as a likely source of wholesale death and misery for mankind.” His analysis came from “the facts [that] have emerged” about past ice ages, according to the July/August issue of International Wildlife Magazine.

The New York Times ran warming stories into the late 1950s, but it too came around to the new fears. In 1975, the paper reported that “A Major Cooling [is] Widely Considered to Be Inevitable.”

Global Warming: 1980s-Present
I don’t think it is necessary to impress on readers the extent to which we have been bombarded with the most recent version of the climate Armageddon, so I won’t elaborate. Global warming has replaced the media’s ice age claims, but the results somehow have stayed the same – the deaths of millions or even billions of people, widespread devastation and starvation. The recent slight increase in temperature could “quite literally, alter the fundamentals of life on the planet” argued the January 18, 2006, issue of the Washington Post.

The warm currents of the Gulf Stream, according to a 2005 study by the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, U.K., have decreased 30 percent. This has raised “fears that it might fail entirely and plunge the continent into a mini ice age,” as the Gulf Stream regulates temperatures in Europe and the eastern United States. This has “long been predicted” as a potential ramification of global warming.


The above brief description of climate predictions (and there is much more in Genesis and Genes about the subject) suffices, I believe, to convince reasonable people that very little credibility can be assigned to long-term scientific predictions about the climate and, especially, about the interaction of humanity with the global climate. Climatology is a worthy scientific subject, to be sure. But the climate is influenced by hundreds of factors, and its study involves massive extrapolations, relies on complex mathematical models, is largely devoid of large-scale rigorous experimentation and is subject to massive doses of political interference. The correct posture to adopt under these conditions is one of extreme scepticism. [The implications for evolutionary biology and cosmogony/cosmology are obvious.]


I emphasised in Genesis and Genes that one of the failures of contemporary science education is its preoccupation with test tubes, microscopes and partial differential equations at the expense of even a modicum of science history. If climate researchers (and the public!) were better informed about the history of their subject, the shocking shilly-shallying of the past century would be less likely – or so we hope. Sadly, most people who do science know almost nothing about Science, and that is partly due to the fact that they have no training in the history and philosophy of science. Santayana’s adage about those who cannot remember the past being condemned to repeat it applies in science as often as it does in politics.


In chapter 1 of Genesis and Genes, I focussed on systemic features of contemporary science which should be taken into consideration by informed consumers of science when assessing the credibility of various scientific claims. But I did not discuss one extremely important source of obfuscation which mediates the interaction between science and the public – the press.

Despite all the vacillation in climate predictions over the past century, some reporters refuse to adopt a neutral stance when it comes to the climate. CBS reporter Scott Pelley went so far as to compare climate change sceptics with Holocaust deniers. “If I do an interview with [Holocaust survivor] Elie Wiesel, am I required as a journalist to find a Holocaust denier?” he said in an interview with CBS News’ PublicEye blog. He added that the whole idea of impartial journalism just didn’t work for climate stories. “There comes a point in journalism where striving for balance becomes irresponsible,” he said. The ridiculousness of this comment ignores an essential point: 30 years ago, the media were certain about the prospect of a new ice age. And, as we saw, that is only the most recent iteration of a century-long process of intellectual oscillation.

When one reads statements such as Pelley’s one is immediately struck by how familiar his attitude is to informed consumers of science. Pelley can equate doubts about climatology to Holocaust denial because the intolerance he preaches emanates from science itself: senior scientists refer to the advocates of unpopular theories as “quasi-scientists”, “crackpots”, and purveyors of “utter, damned rot”. [The references are to Nobel winners Daniel Schechtman and Robin Warren and to the pioneering geophysicist and meteorologist Alfred Wegener.] Those who are confident in their knowledge should not need to stoop to this type of vulgar vituperation; let them refute their opponents by presenting better evidence.

So don’t be surprised if, when pointing out the numerous, severe shortcomings of evolutionary biology you are declared ignorant, stupid or insane [courtesy of Richard Dawkins]. And don’t be surprised if, when pointing out the gigantic lacunae of modern cosmology, you are deemed a reactionary, fanatic or fundamentalist. Eventually, the truth will prevail.


Retrieved 11th March 2013.

Missing Mass

March 7, 2013

Ask just about any educated person today about the origins of the universe, and the terminology swiftly rolls off the tongue: Big Bang; background microwave radiation; 13.7 billion years.

But how much do we really know about the universe? One thing all experts agree on – and the general public seems to be completely ignorant of – is that we don’t know what makes up 96% of our universe.

In Genesis and Genes, I began the section on Dark Matter as follows:

Nobody – including astronomers and cosmologists – knows what the universe is made of. Visible matter – the kind of stuff that people and planets are made of – is outweighed by a factor of 6 or 7 by invisible, cold dark matter. To put it another way, something like 95% of the universe is made up of stuff we can’t detect, except that it seems to exert a gravitational pull.

 I quoted numerous authorities on this subject, including the distinguished astronomer and author, James Kaler:

Our Galaxy, its stars revolving around the center under the influence of their combined gravity, is spinning too fast for what we see. Galaxies in clusters orbit around the clusters’ centers under the influence of their mutual gravities, but again, they move faster than expected. There must be something out there with enough of a gravitational hold to do the job, to speed things up, but it is completely unseen. Dark matter… We have no idea what constitutes it.

A popular history of astronomy weighs in with this:

Over 90 per cent of our Universe is invisible – filled with particles of mysterious dark matter. And astronomers have no idea what it is.

Nobody knows anything significant about what makes up more than 90% of the universe. And this is acknowledged even by those who pretend to be able to answer ultimate questions in naturalistic terms. Lawrence Krauss is a world-famous physicist and an ardent atheist. His latest book, A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing (Free Press, 2012) was reviewed in the January 2012 issue of Nature, the world’s most respected science journal. Nature appointed Caleb Scharf, an astrobiologist at Columbia University, to review Krauss’s book. Here is what he had to say on our subject: 

He [Kraus] notes that a number of vital empirical discoveries are, ominously, missing from our cosmic model. Dark matter is one. Despite decades of astrophysical evidence for its presence, and plausible options for its origins, physicists still cannot say much about it. We don’t know what this major mass component of the Universe is, which is a bit of a predicament. We even have difficulty accounting for every speck of normal matter in our local Universe.[1]

It is important to appreciate that dark matter is not something that was initially discovered in a laboratory, and whose existence was then used to explain some phenomenon. It is also not an entity whose existence was implied by some cosmological theory, and then applied to the problem of energetic stars. Dark matter is entirely hypothetical. Its existence was postulated to explain how the stars in spiral galaxies can orbit at such breakneck speeds without being flung off into the void. In other words, when astronomers tallied up all the mass in the universe, they came face to face with a phenomenon which they could not explain using known physical laws: those laws would indicate that stars in spiral galaxies should indeed be flying off in all directions. Since they aren’t, there must be something out there to prevent them from doing so. What that something is remains anybody’s guess, as Professor Kaler pointed out above.

Recently, TIME Magazine reported on an effort to elucidate the nature of dark matter.[2] The TIME writer begins by pointing out that “Together, [dark matter and dark energy] make up a whopping 96 percent of the cosmos—but to this day, nobody can say with any confidence what either one of them actually is.”

TIME reports on a planned 2020 space mission named Euclid that will try to “sniff out the nature of these similarly named but (presumably) unrelated phenomena.” It then offers a bit of history. “The mystery of dark matter goes all the way back to the 1930s, when Caltech astronomer Fritz Zwicky noted that some galaxies seemed to be orbiting each other so fast that they should be slowly separating—each galaxy remaining discrete and intact, but the distances among them opening wider and wider. In the 1960s, the Carnegie Institution’s Vera Rubin and others realized that something similar ought to be true within individual galaxies—that they were whirling so fast they should rip themselves apart. And by the 1980s, astronomers were forced to accept the idea that the gravity from some mysterious, invisible form of matter had to be holding them all together.”

In Genesis and Genes, we also considered Dark Energy. I wrote

To complicate things further, throw in some dark energy. This is not techno-speak from a Star Wars film. It is a phenomenon, discovered in the late 1990s, which appears to cause the universe’s expansion to accelerate… The 2011 Nobel Prize in physics was awarded to a trio of astronomers for their discovery of this phenomenon. Adam Riess, Brian Schmidt and Saul Perlmutter were also acknowledged by the journal Science, which named their findings the Breakthrough of the Year in 1998. The problem is that nobody knows what this force could be. According to cosmologist Michael Turner of the University of Chicago, quoted in the January 2006 issue of New Scientist, “Cosmic acceleration is the biggest mystery in all of science.”

I pointed out what seems to be an obvious point:

Needless to say, if there is a force which is accelerating the universe’s expansion, and especially if its strength is varying, attempts to estimate the expansion of the universe in the past – and thus to infer its age – are enormously complicated. It may well be impossible to do so. Professor Kaler again: “But we have even less of an idea where this [dark] energy comes from than we do about the nature of dark matter. So to dark matter, add dark energy. Either that or something is terribly amiss with our concept of gravity.”

Here is what the recent TIME report had to say on the subject:

Dark energy is something entirely different—indeed, in some ways it’s the exact opposite: it’s a still-unknown force, discovered in the 1990s, that makes the universe expand faster and faster all the time. (Einstein originally came up with this idea, but eventually abandoned it). You can think of dark energy as a type of antigravity, but exactly what type — whether it fluctuates in strength over time, for example — is yet to be determined.

Finally, TIME tells us about what the new research program is meant to accomplish:

Euclid will tackle this problem as well, by looking at the distances among tens of millions of galaxies at many different stages of cosmic history—with objects more distant from Earth representing images that come to us from earlier in time. Using measurements of the primordial light left over from the Big Bang, theorists can predict how those distances should change as the universe evolves, both with and without dark energy in its various possible forms. By comparing the theories with what Euclid actually sees, they’ll be able to get a handle on which theory matches what’s happening in the cosmos.


 There is a lot for informed consumers of science to chew on here. Let’s begin with the last paragraph above. It gives a hint of something that most members of the public are unaware of – that cosmology is mostly about theory. Of course, it starts with various observations, but then there is a wallop of theory, inference, statistical analyses and more. One should be parsimonious when using the word proof in the context of cosmology. 

TIME refers to dark energy as a “still-unknown force”. Readers of Genesis and Genes will recall what I wrote about Peter Tait, one of the leading physicists of the late 19th century and a colleague of Lord Kelvin: 

Tait’s lectures were based entirely on Kelvin’s arguments. He examined each in turn and admitted that the results drawn from them depended upon the twin assumptions that science knew all of the physical laws now in operation and that these laws have remained unchanged since the Earth was formed. He saw no reason to doubt either assumption.

 The arguments advanced by Kelvin and Tait turned out to be wrong largely because they were unaware of radioactivity, a phenomenon unknown to science until the end of the 19th century. I made the point in Genesis and Genes that neither Tait nor Kelvin displayed even basic prudence about their calculations. For example, Tait, writing in the North British Review in 1869 asserted that “there was not the slightest possibility of error” in extrapolating back to the beginnings of the Earth and Sun on the basis of their thermal loss [and thus calculating their age to be, at most, 25 million years]. 

Dark matter and dark energy should give pause to those who accept uncritically all the absolutist statements about cosmology and cosmogony that emanate from PBS, National Geographic, Carl Sagan-wannabes and the general media. If we don’t know what 96% of the universe is made of, is it not a little premature to state the universe’s age, complete with a decimal point – 13.7 billion years? 

Is it only religious fundamentalists/fanatics/obscurantists/biblical literalists who should harbour scepticism about claims that have to do with the ancient past? 


 [1] Caleb Scharf, Cosmology: Plucked from the vacuum. Nature 481 (26 January 2012), page 440. doi:10.1038/481440a.


Retrieved 4th March 2013.

 This report is also interesting:,8599,2113093,00.html

Adam and Eve – Part 2

March 5, 2013

In the post Adam and Eve – A Parable? I pointed out a troubling statement made by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in a public, televised debate with Richard Dawkins. Lord Sacks stated that Adam and Eve were not real, flesh-and-blood people. Rather, according to Lord Sacks “… Adam and Eve is clearly a parable, because there was no first human… obviously, the Bible is telling us about the first dawn of civilisation.”

I believe that there is no way to justify this statement through appeal to classical sources. Not only do we find that all authorities considered Adam and Eve to be real people, we also find that Rambam/Maimonides maintained, in the third section of The Guide for the Perplexed, that such a belief is fundamental to Judaism:

It is a fundamental belief of Judaism that the world was created ex nihilo and that a specific human being, Adam, was initially created and that from his creation until the time of Moses approximately 2500 years elapsed.[1]

At the end of the post, I pointed out that, when challenged by Richard Dawkins regarding how he (Sacks) distinguishes between literal and allegorical passages, Lord Sacks makes an intriguing statement. He responds by saying that the rabbis of the tenth century established a rule that if a Biblical narrative is incompatible with established scientific fact, it is not to be understood literally. I commented that the only tenth-century rabbi I could think of that Lord Sacks could have had in mind is Rav Sa’adiah Gaon, and to present his viewpoint the way Lord Sacks did is inaccurate and misleading.

A reader asked me to describe Rav Sa’adiah Gaon’s position regarding the allegorisation of verses. A second reader asked about verses that appear to sanction lex talionis – An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and similarly gory justice. In this post, I will address these points. [Disclosure: I was first acquainted with Rav Sa’adiah Gaon’s approach by reading a manuscript of a book by Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, still not published as of this writing.]

Rav Sa’adiah Gaon (882–942) addressed allegorisation in his classic Emunos Ve’deos (אמונות ודעות). His discussion takes place in the context of the resurrection of the dead (תחיית המתים), which he understood to be a literal event which will take place when God so chooses.

Rav Sa’adiah Gaon’s point of departure is that every verse in the Bible must be understood literally, unless there is one of four reasons to interpret it in non-literal fashion.[2]

The first reason is that a verse is contradicted by simple experience.[3] Hence, the verse that Eve was the mother – the progenitor – of all life is contradicted by the fact that we see that women do not give birth to other forms of life. Hence, Rav Sa’adiah Gaon concludes that the phrase “all living things” is not to be taken literally, but must mean all human life.

The second reason to deviate from literalism, according to Rav Sa’adiah Gaon, is that a verse is contradicted by simple logic.[4] Rav Sa’adiah Gaon is not referring to philosophical speculation, but rather to simple syllogistic logic. His example of contradiction by simple logic is the verse that says that God is a consuming fire. This is impossible not because God’s incorporeality has been established philosophically. Rather, it is impossible for simple syllogistic reasons. God created everything ex nihilo, including all physical phenomena. Hence God cannot be identified with a physical phenomenon. That which created the physical universe ex nihilo must be distinct from that created world. Hence, this verse must be interpreted metaphorically. Here comes a crucial point. Having rejected the most literal meaning of the verse, Rav Sa’adiah Gaon did not proceed to invent whatever struck his fancy as a nifty interpretation. He suggests that the verse is referring to God’s vengeance, which is like a consuming fire, because another verse (in Tzefaniah) states that “as fire shall my anger consume the entire earth.” His alternative interpretation to the literal one is not arbitrary. It is based on the Torah. There is no license to interpret the Torah in accordance with one’s whims or philosophical leanings, even when necessity dictates deviation from literalism. The metaphor itself must be rooted in the Torah.

The third case in which we do not interpret a verse literally is when the literal meaning of one verse contradicts the literal meaning of another verse.[5] Rav Sa’adiah Gaon gives the following example. The Torah prohibits us from testing God. But a verse in Malachi says that one may test God. Therefore, we understand the verse in the Torah to be limited in accordance with the parameters imposed by the verse in Malachi. Here, the interpretation lies in the verses themselves and is corroborated by the Talmud – we may test God in matters relating to tithing (I shall not elaborate on the technicalities).

The fourth case of rejecting the literal meaning of verses is when the Oral Law explicitly instructs us to do so.[6] Thus, even though the Torah speaks of forty lashes in the context of flagellation, Chazal tell us that it means thirty-nine.

We have explained, briefly, Rav Sa’adiah Gaon’s position. As far as lex talionis, it fits into the fourth category. Chazal tell us explicitly that the verses which speak of an eye for an eye refer to monetary compensation.


Where does all of this leave Lord Sacks? Rav Sa’adiah Gaon is the last person in the world who would have understood Adam and Eve as a parable for the emergence of culture. He – and all classical authorities before and after him – understood Adam and Eve to be real, flesh-and-blood people. There is no classical authority who advocated Lord Sacks’ approach – that whenever the scientific community reaches a consensus, the Torah must bow before that consensus and re-interpret verses. I surmise that Rav Sa’adiah Gaon would be appalled if he knew that his approach was associated in the slightest fashion with evolutionary biology.

But if not Rav Sa’adiah Gaon, who did Lord Sacks have in mind when he spoke of those tenth-century rabbis? We await a response from the Chief Rabbi.


[1] מורה נבוכים חלק שלישי פרק נ: כאשר היתה פנת התורה שהעולם מחודש ואשר נברא תחלה היה איש אחד ממין האדם והוא אדם הראשון, ולא היה באורך הזמן אשר מאדם עד משה רבינו רק אלפים וחמש מאות שנה בקרוב.

[2] ספר האמונות והדעות מאמר ז והוא שאנחנו כל בני ישראל מאמינים, כי כל אשר בספרי הנביאים, הוא כאשר נראה ממשמעו והידוע ממלותיו, אלא מה שהנראה והידוע ממנו, מביא אל אחד בארבעה דברים.

[3] שם: אם להכחיש מוחש כמו שנאמר על חוה, כי היא היתה אם כל חי.

[4] שם: או להשיב מה שיש בשכל, כמו שאמר כי ה’ אלקיך אש אוכלה.

[5] שם: או לסתור דבר אחר כתוב, כמו שנאמר ובחנוני נא, אחר שאמר לא תנסו את ה’ א’.

[6] שם: או להכחיש מה שקבלוהו קדמוננו, כמו שאמר ארבעים יכנו לא יוסיף, ואמרו רבותינו שהם שלשים ותשע מכה.

Of Mice and Men and Medicine

March 2, 2013

Science is not a monolith. There are various realms of science, and scientific results slot into a continuum of credibility. Informed consumers of science differentiate between those areas of science in which results are robust and other areas, where results are much more speculative.

In general, science is strongest when it deals with repeatable, observable and limited phenomena. I explained in Genesis and Genes that

The third adjective [i.e. limited] refers to the fact that the phenomenon under study is to some extent isolated; it is more-or-less modular, and so can be studied independently, without having to take account of numerous interactions… studying the climate would not fit into this category because the climate is influenced by a huge number of factors ranging from the local density of trees to the cyclic appearance of sunspots.

In medical research, it is often difficult to study a limited phenomenon. Biological organisms are so complex that there are always myriad factors that need to be taken into consideration. This does not mean that we shouldn’t conduct medical research. It does mean that greater scepticism should be applied by members of the public when assessing scientific claims about medical research than about other, more limited areas of research.

The New York Times recently reported on a 10-year study conducted by a 39-member team that has enormous implications.[1] In this post, I will summarise the article and draw some conclusions about it.

The New York Times begins by stating that “For decades, mice have been the species of choice in the study of human diseases. But now, researchers report evidence that the mouse model has been totally misleading for at least three major killers — sepsis, burns and trauma. As a result, years and billions of dollars have been wasted following false leads.” The study does not claim that mice are useless models for all human diseases. But, its authors said, they do raise troubling questions about diseases like the ones in the study that involve the immune system, including cancer and heart disease.

The paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, may explain why every one of nearly 150 drugs tested at huge expense in patients with sepsis has failed. [Sepsis is a frequently-fatal reaction that occurs as the body tries to fight an infection. It afflicts 750 000 patients a year in the United States, kills one-fourth to one-half of them, and costs the nation $17 billion a year. It is the leading cause of death in intensive-care units.] The drug tests were all based on studies in mice. And mice, it turns out, can have something that looks like sepsis in humans, but is very different from the condition in humans.

For more than a year, the research group tried to publish its findings in several journals, without success. [Readers of Genesis and Genes may remember that the crucial paper by Warren and Marshall, detailing the research that would eventually win them a Nobel Prize, was rejected by the Gastroenterological Society of Australia, which deemed it in the bottom 10% of papers submitted.] Crucially, reviewers did not point out scientific errors when rejecting the paper for publication. Instead, the most common response was, ‘It has to be wrong. I don’t know why it is wrong, but it has to be wrong.’ And it’s not as if the results obtained by the researchers were ambiguous. “When I read the paper, I was stunned by just how bad the mouse data are,” Dr. Mitchell Fink, a sepsis expert at the University of California, Los Angeles, said. “It’s really amazing — no correlation at all. These data are so persuasive and so robust that I think funding agencies are going to take note.” Until now, he said, “to get funding, you had to propose experiments using the mouse model.” Furthermore, there were always indications of the shortcomings of the mouse model. One major clue that mice might not really mimic humans in many cases is the well-known fact that it is very hard to kill a mouse with a bacterial infection. Mice need a million times more bacteria in their blood than what would kill a person.

The paper showed that there was no correlation between the genetic responses of mice and those of humans in certain circumstances. One objection of reviewers was that the researchers had not shown the same gene response which had been seen in humans had happened in mice. “They were so used to doing mouse studies that they thought that was how you validate things,” said Ronald W. Davis, a genomics expert at Stanford University and a lead author of the new paper. “They are so ingrained in trying to cure mice that they forget we are trying to cure humans.” But when the group looked for the expected similarities between humans and mice, there were none at all. The drug failures became clear. For example, often in mice, a gene would be used, while in humans, the comparable gene would be suppressed. A drug that worked in mice by disabling that gene could make the response even more deadly in humans.


In Genesis and Genes I quoted the physicist and philosopher Sir John Polkinghorne, who writes that scientists wear theoretical spectacles behind the eyes. Contrary to naive visions of how science is done, scientists do not approach research with a tabula rasa. There is extensive conditioning that impinges on what one sees and, crucially, what one does not see.

I gave several examples of this in Genesis and Genes. One was the discovery of Uranus. Briefly, even though Uranus had been seen by astronomers more than 20 times before it was “discovered” by William Herschel, it was always misidentified as a star. Those who saw Uranus before Herschel “saw” a star because everyone just knew that there are five planets, not six.

This is how two distinguished philosophers of science describe the phenomenon,

Perhaps we may also see here an example of an important human trait, which colors all scientific work and which even the greatest thinkers can never hope to overcome entirely: We all tend to deny the importance of facts or observations not in accord with our convictions and preconceptions, so that sometimes we ignore them altogether, even though, from another point of view, they would stand before our very eyes.[2]

The mice study is a good example of wearing theoretical spectacles behind the eyes. Until now, these spectacles precluded researchers from seeing the limitations of the mouse model of disease, limitations which, from another point of view, now seem to stand before our very eyes.


Medical research is complicated, and involves myriad factors relevant to the pathogen, the human body, and the interaction between the two. One question which is always important to informed consumers of science is, “What assumptions are being made in this research?” In chapter 3 of Genesis and Genes we saw how the assumptions made by Lord Kelvin and colleagues in calculating the age of the world completely misled them. They assumed, for example, that the Earth does not generate any heat. Other than sunshine and the primordial heat left over from the formation of the planet, there is nothing to replenish the Earth’s store of energy. It turned out to be a fatally-flawed assumption once the process of radioactivity was discovered and elucidated, and destroyed Kelvin’s thesis.

In medical research, where mice are the workhorses (work-mice?) of the laboratory, it had been assumed for decades that if mice studies work for some aspects of human physiology and pathology, then they work for all aspects of same. If the new study is correct, this is an assumption that has led to the waste of billions of dollars and has thrown research in these areas off for decades.


In the first chapter of Genesis and Genes, I described the Proof Continuum in some detail. This refers to the spectrum of meanings which the term proof has, depending on the discipline which is discussed. We saw that the term proof has a wide variety of meanings when applied to mathematics, economics, geology, psychology, archaeology, physics and other intellectual disciplines.

One of the truly outrageous claims made by proponents of evolutionary biology is that evolution – not in the limited sense of change over time, but in the broad sense of common descent through natural selection acting on random mutations – is as well established as the fact that the Earth orbits the Sun. It is a statement that ignores basic aspects of the history of science. Even in science’s backyard there are so often paradigm shifts that underline the fallibility of the scientific endeavour. The mice study, if correct, is an example of how, over decades, certain assumptions mislead researchers, even though the subject matter is accessible to direct experimentation. Before this study was published, if anyone had suggested that our model of disease research in mice is possibly seriously flawed, it is very likely that he would have been dismissed with a snort of indignation by medical researchers, snug in their “knowledge” that their models are accurate. We know better now. When claims are made about events that are forever shrouded in the mists of time or space, inaccessible to direct observation and measurement, not corroborated by experiment, never to be repeated and harbouring profound philosophical implications, the correct response is to harbour profound scepticism.


[1] See
Retrieved 28th February 2013.

[2] Physics, the Human Adventure, Gerald Holton and Stephen G. Brush, Rutgers University Press, 2005, page 8.