Friday, November 9, 2012

Voting for Darwin, Evolution, and Modern Science

One of the more bizarre events in the contentious 2012 election occurred in Athens-Clarke County, Georgia, where 4000 people wrote in "Charles Darwin" against unopposed creationist Congressman Paul Broun (R).  More info on that...)   Broun had denounced evolution and other scientific theories, including embryology and the Big Bang Theory, as "lies straight from the pit of hell."  Opponents of his ideas wrote in "Darwin" in protest.

Charles Darwin, 1809-1882
While there was little chance of Darwin actually being elected (Broun got more that 209,000 votes and was declared the winner) it does raise the question in my mind:  Why are fundamentalist Christians so threatened by science?

And while it is true that there are some creationists among us Jews, they are in the minority.  By and large, most Jews find no problem in reconciling scientific discoveries with religion.  Even in the 12th century, Moses Maimonides (a major Jewish philosopher still studied today) wrote in his Guide for the Perplexed: "The account of Creation given in Scripture is not, as generally believed, intended to be literal in all its parts." (section 2:29)

In his introduction to the same work, Maimonides also said: ""Now, on the one hand, the subject of Creation is very important, but on the other hand, our ability to understand these concepts is very limited.  Therefore, God described these profound concepts, which His divine wisdom found necessary to communicate to us, using allegories...  It has been outlined in metaphors so that the masses can understand it according to their mental capacity, while the educated take it in a different sense."

One of my teachers, Rabbi Moshe Adler, once explained it this way:  "God could have sent down Carl Sagan to explain how the universe was created, but the people of that time would not have understood him.  So God gave them a story."

And indeed, the Genesis version of Creation does seem to follow the basic order of evolution:  Light/energy; land & atmosphere; green plants; egg-laying animals; mammals; and finally, humans.  The only part out of order is the creation of the heavenly bodies, which comes on the 4th day, right in the middle of the process.  Some Jewish commentators have suggested that this was not a chronological statement, but, rather, a theological one:  Putting the sun in the middle meant it was neither a solar god starting the process nor a deity finishing it. It was merely one more physical thing on the list of items being created.  (See Slifkin, Nathan, The Challenge of Creation:  Judaism's Encounter with Science, Cosmology, and Evolution, pp. 235-37.)

What Maimonides was saying is still true today, perhaps even more so in this age of quantum physics and string theory.  Many scientific theories are very complex, and require a high degree of intelligence and many years of study to fully understand them.  For the average person, a simpler explanation will often suffice.  Given that the Bible was passed down orally at a time when science was in its infancy and most people were illiterate, it makes sense that many things were told in simple stories, without going into great detail about how the process actually worked.

Moses Maimonides, 1138-1204
And let me add that Maimonides was an Orthodox Jew, as were many other commentators who sought to reconcile science and religion down through the ages.  So it is definitely possible to be both Orthodox and scientific.  Maimonides even went so far as to say that, when it came to statements by the Talmudic sages that contradicted later discoveries in science, "Do not ask of me to reconcile everything that they (the Sages) stated from science with the actual reality, for the science of those days was deficient, and they did not speak out of traditions from the prophets regarding these matters."   So, we are not required to believe in spontaneous generation, a geocentric universe, the heavenly spheres, or the sometimes strange folk cures described in the Talmud.   (see The Dirt Mouse, the Sweat Louse, and the Dong Chong: A Study of Spontaneous Generation in Jewish Law).

Christianity, on the other hand, has often felt threatened by science.   There was a period in medieval Europe when popes were forbidding Christians to go to Jewish doctors, condemning "Jewish medicine" as being from the devil.  (On the other hand, church officials themselves often went to Jews for healing, because they had a better success rate than the Catholic priests who were offering chunks of the "true cross" and other holy relics for cures.)  One might laugh at this, but, as noted above, Congressman Broun still believes modern science comes from the devil, although he is not so crass as to call it "Jewish."  Even more scary, this is a man who sits on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology!  How can you make legal decisions and policies on science when you don't even believe in it?  (See Bill Nye: Paul Broun 'unqualified to make decisions about science, space and technology')

Among the theories denounced by Broun is embryology, a science that is pretty well established in the modern world, much to the benefit of human babies.  Which raises the question:  Does Broun still believe that the father plants a homunculus (fully-formed miniature adult) into the mother?  Does he reject what we see on ultrasound tests?  Tracking of genetic diseases through DNA?  Effects of drugs on the development of the fetus?  Surgical correction of birth defects while still in the womb?

If you reject embryology, how do you account for any of these things?

Years ago, I heard a Chabad Hasidic rabbi say that when scientists first looked through their early microscopes, they actually saw the homunculus, but later suppressed this knowledge.  I find this absurd. What more likely happened is that they saw the nucleus of the sperm cell for the first time but, not understanding what it was, projected their beliefs onto that dark spot and thought they saw a tiny person.  As microscopes improved, it became obvious that this early assumption was wrong.  The vast majority of Jews today accept embryology as proven fact.  Even very Orthodox Jews use in vitro fertilization to try and conceive when natural methods fail.

All of which brings me back to my original question:  Why are Christian fundamentalists so threatened by evolution?  I think the answer lies in how they construct their theologies.   For them, it is absolutely essential for every single word of the Bible to be literally true.  Why?  Because they rely upon those words to prove that Jesus was their messiah.  If you start questioning the literalness of Bible verses, you run the risk of the whole house of cards tumbling down.  In Paul Broun's words, the so-called "lies" of science were intended to "keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a savior."

We Jews, on the other hand, do not believe we need a human sacrifice to be forgiven, nor do we rely upon the literalness of biblical stories as the foundation of our faith.  We are more focused on actions rather than beliefs.  A sin, in Judaism, is a specific negative act committed against Torah laws in the physical world, not merely a belief.  Just thinking about something -- even a seemingly heretical idea -- does not make it a sin.  (Although it could make you seem odd to your neighbors.)

So yes, we take the laws of Judaism literally -- a pig is a pig and must not be eaten, nor can it be allegorized away -- but when it comes to personal beliefs about God and religion in general, there is a great deal of latitude.  Thus we find multiple interpretations of biblical stories in Judaism, existing side by side.  We may argue and debate them (and how we do love to debate!), but in the end, what matters most is how we are living our lives.  Two Jews may be equally strict in observing the Sabbath, but may also have very different interpretations as to why they are doing so.  And both can be correct on some level.

So, for example, one can literally believe that the Noah Flood covered the entire planet, or that it was a more localized mid-east phenomenon as suggested by modern science.  (See William Ryan and Walter Pitman, Noah's Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries about the Event that Changed History, which presents a very strong case for it taking place around the Black Sea.)  Either way, the moral lessons of the story remain the same.  It teaches us, among other things, that God values every species on our planet, and so should we.  Similarly, we can say that whether or not the Exodus happened exactly as described in the Torah, it still contains valuable teachings about freedom that are relevant today.  (There are also Christians who think this way.  See The Bible and Congressman Broun by Adam Hamilton.)

In closing, I find myself still agreeing with Maimonides, again from Guide for the Perplexed:

When I have a difficult subject before me -- when I find the road narrow and can see no other way of teaching a well established truth except by pleasing one intelligent man and displeasing ten thousand fools -- I prefer to address myself to the one man, and to take no notice whatever of the condemnation of the multitude."



Anonymous said...

How would you explain the lithosphere and the combined effects of the various pauses (tropo to helio) to ancient man I can think of no better than "A firmament.." Saving us from the waves in space and the molten waves of rock.

(It is the thinking that some Christians find scary, don't think accept.)


Yonassan Gershom said...

RE: "firmament," I agree -- some Jewish translations render it as "atmosphere." And there most certainly did have to be an atmosphere before there could be life as we know it, or we would fry from radiation or be constantly bombarded with meteorites like the moon. Even with an atmosphere, we get whacked with solar flares now and then.

Yonassan Gershom said...

More on homunculus: In 1694, Nicolaas Hartsoeker, a student of Antonie van Leeuwenhoeck, drew a tiny man curled up inside a sperm, which was called an "animalcule'" back then. Of course tyhe fact that he drew it that way does not mean it actually is that way -- although such drawings might be what the Chabad rabbi was referring to.

To see a reproduction of this drawing, go to, along with an interesting discussion of why your DNA is not really a "blueprint" (which would imply everything being minutely laid out in total detail from the moment of conception) but rather, more like a recipe.

Anonymous said...

Even if Noah's flood was a Mediterranean basin event only, it was still all of the world they knew. Then there is the use of the word earth, in many ancient cultures middle earth was where there culture was based, not the whole planet, an alien concept.

Moses crossing the Red Sea, does it really affect the importance of the story if in fact is was the Reed Sea?

Just when do coincidences stop being just coincidence? Very recently I argued on David Schwartz's blog that now was not the time to start eating the forbidden sea food. But surely It would be OK to continue to do so for a little longer? This morning I was confronted by this.!/photo.php?fbid=383121361769412&set=a.106387756109442.14065.100002146555857&type=1&theater


Shunraya said...

Rav Gershom, I can't help but wonder whether the Christian tendency to take the literal meaning might not be a matter of language and cultural as well as ideological.

You and I grew up on a tradition of midrash aggadah and midrash halachah. We were taught that the p'shat was not all there is, and that we would learn the deeper meanings if and when we were ready for it. The fact that we knew it was there made it a certainty that we would always be searching for those hidden meanings that we weren't 'old enough' to learn yet. Thus we learned to try to read past the literal meaning.

The whole notion of midrash aggadah is built on non-literal truth, what Kaddushin calls 'indeterminacy of belief'. A midrash highlights one truth by diminishing another; we are aware that it is not meant to be historical fact.

The same is true, though in a different way, of midrash halachah. We are used to suspending our decision-making in order to sustain mutually-contradictory positions, until we can find the third pasuk that reconciles them. 'Elu v'elu divrei Elokim Haim...' Contradictions are merely a sign of deeper truth.

The Christians have the text, but without that whole tradition of midrash--of suspension of belief--that goes with it. Moreover, they have it in translation. They are thus not exposed to all the word-plays, allusions, repetitions of key words in different contexts...all the things that give us the sense of deeper layers of meaning. Without those things, reading simply a translation, one might be tempted to believe that one has understood the text enough to know what it is telling us. However, those tantalizing hints ensure that we are always aware that no matter how well we know the p'shat, there are always deeper meanings. This gives rise to a certain humility before the complexity of the tradition. We can never think that we've learned all that it has to teach us.

Shabbat Shalom!


Anonymous said...

Reading a Buddhist text it explained that it was four hundred years between Buddha's life and the written recording. That it was written in Pali which was not the Buddha's language and that the monk who recited the teaching to record was known for his arrogance.

While Christan branches acknowledge the Bible was not written in modern English, I have never seen a Christian text that details the distance between the words of Christ and modern teaching. Somehow we are expected to believe the translation is perfect, or as perfect as it can be. That is never true.

When I read Jewish texts I see so much referencing. You do not expect me to have faith what you tell me is true, but show me where you got the information from.

Never once has Rabi Gershom expected me to accept his teaching because he is a trained Rabi. This is far more convincing, Your lack of preachiness is refreshing and more convincing.


KateGladstone said...

So ... What do we do when people want to benefit from a science that they reject? E.g. — suppose a man & his wife disbelieve in embryology: maybe they even write & sell books/videos against it. They want a child, they cannot have one, the MD suggests _in_vitro_ & they do this (but still they make a career of disbelieving it) ... she conceives, ultrasound shows a fetal problem that can be fixed during pregnancy ... the couple asks "Do so," the MD does so, the couple continue to preach against embryology (including to their child when s/he's old enough to understand & to join them on their TV show).
Should an MD treat anyone who opposes the science that the treatment comes from?

Yonassan Gershom said...

Yes, the doctor should treat them. Maybe someday they will realize the hypocrisy of their actions vs beliefs. But I do not think the medical profession should have litmus tests of belief systems --that is a VERY slippery slope.

Johnny Wishbone said...

I stumbled across this as a result of reading someone else's blog post about the general attitudes of Judaism towards cats, and I was reading that as part of research into the attitudes of various major world faiths towards cats in general.

So, as a student of science (degree in engineering, medical student) and someone who was raised Christian (melkite greek catholic, as my background is Lebanese, but we just went to the ordinary catholic churches, as there aren't many melkite churches in California), this article, and moreover the resulting comments interested me. I think that some of the possible explanations you and the other readers came up with are good, and the issues raised therein are certainly a part of the issue, but because you probably aren't well-versed in the various christian theologies, there are certain subtleties you may not be perceiving (through no fault of your own, of course) which would fill in some of the gaps and be helpful in understanding this utter lunacy.

It's a bit late for me to try to weave them into a coherent thesis, so I'll just list some bullet points, and I'd be happy to elaborate at request:

* This is as much an American issue as a Christian issue. As a phenomenon in the western world, rejection of science is found in a widespread and popular way, almost exclusively in America, and where you find it outside America, Latin America, the Phillipines, etc, you will find the influence of American missionaries who espouse this kind of ideology/theology.

* It's a messy topic, spilling into sociology, history, politics, and, naturally, theology. You have to remember that the history of America doesn't start in 1776, it starts in 1620, when the "pilgrims" set up their colony in Massachusetts, and you could make the argument that it begins in 1517, the beginning of the protestant reformation. I would actually go with the latter, because, in particular, it marks the birth of the particular christian theology known as Calvinism, which is the great granddaddy of fundamentalist evangelical christianity, which is the theology of most people who adhere to creationist doctrine.

* You have to remember that America was founded by religious zealots (in 1620), and the philosophy of life created by their theology remains with us to this day. It underpins so many weird american attitudes about everything, including, as you know, science.

* These particular protestant zealots espoused a fundamentally anti-intellectual brand of christianity. They particularly seized upon Jeramiah 8:9. They weren't anti-learning, but they were definitely little interested in anything outside religion, and putting food on the table. Many of them were sharp with business, particularly import/export, as many were smugglers for several reasons, including avoiding the taxes imposed by catholic ("papist" was their favored epithet) kings, which was considered almost a holy calling.

* As America became more populous, these insular communities diffused into the greater population in the country, as did many of their ideas, including the rejection of the wisdom of the world, and the concomitant anti-intellectualism, which persists to this day in the form of this creationism crap. Another idea, predestination, a Calvinist doctrine, also survives with us in many ways, some positive (protestant work ethic), some negative (protestant work ethic).

I might add more later, but those are the ones I can think of at the moment. Cheers.


Yonassan Gershom said...

Thank you for your thoughtful reply, John. I am aware of Calvinism, more in the debate about predestination (which he believed in) vs free will (which is a strong part of Judaism) but I had not thought of Calvin in terms of anti-science. I will have to pursue that further. Can you recommend a good book to get me started?

I am also familiar with the Pilgrims & Plymouth Colony history, whose charter, BTW, did not allow Jews to live there. I agree there is much of this influence still alive in America. (During Trump's convention speech, I tweeted that it sounded as if he were channeling Jonathan Edwards. A secular version of "Sinners in the hands of an angry God")

I am currently working on a new book, "Let there be Scirnce: Musings on religion and research." My "musings" will be more from a Jewish POV since that is my expertise, but I am very interested in other perspectives, too. Thank you again for your insights.

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