Thursday, July 30, 2015

Evolution

Rabbi Avi Shafran wrote an article about evolution here:

http://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/192334/skeptical-about-evolution-and-not-because-of-religion

Professor Jerry Coyne wrote a response here:

https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2015/07/29/rabbi-doubts-evolution-but-not-because-of-religion/

A brilliant and highly educated friend of mine responds to Coyne thus (Note: Make sure to read his further elaborations in the comments section!):

Coyne's fancy math tries to obscure the question, but not very well. It is not true according to his model that only 30 speciation events are necessary to form 1 billion species. It is that 30 speciation times are necessary, in which on that day, magically, every single species split, and then went dormant for another 116 million years. Then speciation day 2 occurs, and every single species splits, and goes dormant for another 116 million years. On speciation day 30, by coincidence all existing 500 million species decided to split on the very same day, and formed 1 billion new species. But clearly, in real life, they would be happening at random times. If 500 million species split in 116 million years, that is 4 events per year. He is playing fast and loose with the word "event".
It is an example of the type of obfuscation and game playing with wildly impossible numbers in order to make evolution and formation of life via random chance seem plausible. It is as foolish as the Dawkins calculation which shows that we can get a monkey to type Shakespeare (provided that we know the sentence in advance, and help the monkey along by keeping his right guesses and throwing away his wrong ones). This actually passes as a defense of evolution.
But in fact, evolution is not science at all and is totally irrelevant to science. It should be called natural history. Science is about understanding the world right now and manipulating the forces of nature to achieve some goal. Imagine you go to get your eyes checked for a glasses prescription, and get a frantic call back from the doctor, "Come right back! The prescription I gave you was based on the assumption that you evolved from a monkey. But today, a new paper came out that claims you evolved from a squirrel. I need to redo your vision exam, immediately." You know what? It totally doesn't matter. The human body is what it is, and we need to learn about its workings right now, which we don't know that well. It's presumed past history is just fun and games.
Evolution is the art of imagining backwards what happened billions of years ago, and then imagining forwards how what may have happened billions of years ago may have affected life billions of years later, i.e., today. Much better to study the science of today, today, and leave the wild speculations to historians, as they are almost completely useless for solving the real problems of today's medicine. The problems we face today are the protein structure/function problem, the understanding of the noncoding regions of the genome, understanding complex gene regulatory networks, tailoring medicine to the individual based on his unique biochemistry, etc. These actually involve quantum mechanics and advanced math. Computer models must be devised, which can be checked against the proteins of today for accuracy. They do not involve wild pipe dreams of the distant past. Leave that to historians, and let scientists do their work, which is curing diseases of today, based on the physical laws of right now.

As Lord Ruthersford said, "All science is either physics or stamp collecting." Medicine is physics, evolution is stamp collecting.

44 comments:

  1. I gotta say, I disagree with the post. His/her point seems to be that evolution is a worthless subject so don't bother studying it. I do not understand how this is an argument for or against the evolutionists claims. There ARE many scientific questions and tests one CAN do in evolutionary theory (although MUCH less than other fields of Science). To ignore that is burying one's head in the sand. Also, evolutionary theory can indeed help in the very fields mentioned in the post - i.e. if the mechanism of mutation and spieciation were understood (if there is one) than it could be used to help cure diseases, genetic defects, antibiotics etc.

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    1. You are complaining about the last two paragraphs. The ikkar, from my perspective, is the first two paragraphs.

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  2. Once we have established that theistic evolution is compatible with a Torah-based hashkafah, as Rabbi Shafran has done with style, why do we feel such a strong need to contest the validity of evolution on a scientific basis?

    The only answer that I have been able to come up with is the following: We don't really believe that evolution is compatible with Torah, and we're playing games in our theistic-motivated defence of non-evolutionary creationism by retreating to a scientific argument. But I am very interested to hear other explanations.

    It would seem sufficient for us to discuss the Torah's view on evolution, and leave the scientific debate, which could very well change its consensus in the future, for others. Who exactly benefits from scientific debate in forums of Torah scholarship, rather than in biology journals?

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    1. I tell my talmidim that the theory of evolution is compatible with the Torah, but that at least up to the existence of DNA, it defies common sense.

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    2. Evolution is a process that results in heritable changes in a population spread over many generations. There is no evolution before DNA.

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    3. It is not rational to believe that complex information and processes stored themselves on hitherto random molecules without manipulation. One can quibble who or what did the manipulation.

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    4. Not necessarily: https://www.quantamagazine.org/20140122-a-new-physics-theory-of-life/

      Of course, the real question is Who put the laws of nature into place that ensure these results.

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    5. Would you be able to elaborate on that point, Rav Bechhofer?

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    6. One choice quote from the referenced article: "“You start with a random clump of atoms, and if you shine light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant,” England said."

      Defies common sense.

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    7. I'd love to hear a shiur from you on this subject in a more organized fashion... Any chance you either have one somewhere online, or would be willing to give one?

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    8. Both. I'd be willing to give one and I have audio shiurim on the topic online. See http://shiurim.sumseq.com/RYGB/Science%20and%20Torah/

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    9. I wonder if you have a better place to communicate? Would love to ask about one or two other topics...?

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    10. Facebook chat? Back on campus in September? Email? Phone? Your choice. :-)

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    11. I would love to talk some time in person on campus, in the meantime, however, perhaps email will suffice? I looked around the site quickly for one, but to no avail...

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  3. The problem is that both sides set up a false dichotomy.
    Rav Shafran believes in the literal reading of Bereshis Chap 1. He understands evolution like I understand quantum physics (which I don't) but tries to write something a little conciliatory that simply proves his lack of knowledge of the subject.
    His opponents likes to say that evolution proves how life today came about and therefore we don't need Maaseh Bereshis to explain it.
    And then there's the more realistic way - clearly evolution occured. We have too much of a fossil record to say otherwise. It's still happening. Just ask any antibiotic-resistant bacterium you encounter to explain what's going on. Heck, ask the poskim who think that olives and eggs are half the size they were in the time of Chazal despite vastly improved agricultural techniques!
    Could it be that God did it?

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    1. The fossil record does not prove evolution. It does not disprove it, but it does not prove it.

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    2. But the more potential disproofs that are *not* seen, the higher the probability that evolution (common descent) is correct. And the fossil record certainly does disprove the idea that all current species were created exactly as they are and never changed, unless it were done in such a way as to create a great deal of deceptive "evidence".

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    3. The fossil record cannot explain the development of organs. Only bone structures. From that one extrapolates...

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  4. This is a follow up comment from my friend whom I cited in the post:

    So a dentist killed Cecil the lion. Who the heck cares. Cecil is nothing but a random collection of molecules that came together millions of years ago. Cecil during his lifetime may have killed hundreds of zebras by biting them on the neck and waiting till they die, before he released them. Then he and his friends ate the zebras up for dinner. They were allowed. It's survival of the fittest. So this dentist who was fitter, because he is a random collection of molecules from a species that can think, took some tools that were invented by his species, and killed poor Cecil, the zebra killer.

    But of course, it is different here, because lions may now go extinct. So what? That has happened many times in the past, when certain random collections of molecules have ceased to exist. Does anybody get upset if I pour some carbon down the drain? Say my wife burned a cake. Am I allowed to throw out that carbon, or will they come after me for throwing out random collections of molecules? If lions become extinct, then certainly new random collections of molecules will take their place, which are fitter.

    Global warming a problem? Mankind may become extinct as a result? Who cares. We are just random collections of molecules. And we will certainly be replaced by others more suited for hot temperatures. Right now, certain organisms do very well in hot springs. More like them will certainly arise when the earth heats up. Why the big commotion?

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  5. Your friend's first paragraph, about the numbers, is, alas, rubbish. The fellow's point was that *on average* any given species need give rise to another species about once every 116 million years, which seems like plenty of time to do so, given that we know that in just 10,000 years we can get essentially new species (of dogs) with strong evolutionary pressure. Simultaneity has nothing to do with it, and there is no reason there could not be multiple speciation events taking place at the same time in different species.

    When discussion evolution, it is critical to distinguish between three different matters: (1) how did life start? (2) are all currently living things descended from a common ancestor? and (3) the mechanisms of evolutionary change.

    Status of the evidence? (1) There are no theories with any real evidence regarding the origin of life. (2) The empirical evidence for common descent is overwhelming - similar evidence in any area of personal life would be taken by anyone as conclusive. (3) There is wide agreement about the general mechanisms of evolution, but still debate about many of the details. Note that new discoveries or changes in thinking about (3) do not affect the evidence for (2). This is a common error.

    Indeed, there can be excellent arguments against all or some evolutionary thinking, and without a doubt there are those who use evolutionary science improperly as a battering ram at the gates of religion. But arguments about these issues must be based on a clear understanding, if for no other reason than the honor of the Torah.

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    1. Can you provide specific evidence for 2&3? Whenever I ask, I am told that I wouldn't understand anyway... My experience in my particular areas of expertise is that when someone says that, they don't have real evidence...

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    2. The key point, I think, is point 2; it seems to me that the specific mechanisms are less relevant to the theological point, if one already accepts common descent.

      Here are some references that summarize much of the evidence for common descent - I think it's certainly understandable by the layman (after all, I am not a biologist, and I think I understand it :-).

      http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Common_descent
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evidence_of_common_descent
      http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/comdesc/

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    3. Been through them in the past. Did not see anything solid. Care to quote one or several paragraphs that you think are knock outs?

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    4. My friend responded:

      The point is that if Coyne meant one speciation event per lineage, every 116 million years, he is correct. But if he meant one speciation event in the aggregate every 116 million years, he is wrong. His exact words are: "Over 3.5 billon years, that’s one speciation event every 116 million years." When you read further, he apparently meant per lineage. But his choice of words was then sloppy.

      However, it is more than semantics. If there are 1 billion total speciation events in 3.5 billion years, we should see on average a new species somewhere, every 3.5 years. And perhaps more frequently, as more lineages form. Does that fit with our observations? Why have we only been able to observe in certain classes of plants, as Coyne states. The entire animal kingdom is dormant since recorded data began?

      It is also interesting to note that despite all the intense artificial selection Coyne cites on dogs, (which is arguably more potent than natural selection) they are all still a SINGLE species in the supposed 10,000 years of trials. He then states that had all our knowledge been from the fossil record, assuming all these dogs were fossilized, we would have then MISTAKEN them for not only different species, but different genera, as well, due to their vast morphological differences (i.e., shapes and forms). What does that then tell you about the reliability of the fossil record, in general. These are implied in Coyne's own statements.

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    5. I recommend watching this. Make sure to watch the entire thing and then please explain how how these are not knockouts. BTW his first statement about the consensus of scientists even I do not consider a proof.
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i1fGkFuHIu0

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    6. I can tell you to watch stuff too. Spell it out for me here.

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    7. There are things found in our DNA that perfectly match other primates. These are things that do not belong there like traces of viruses in the same spot in the genome. The chances of having this is extremely low statistically. Also human chromosome #2 has a fusion location that only fits our evolving from a common ancestor to other primates. You really should watch it!

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  6. More from my friend, part 1:

    While I respect and admire the work of Rabbi Slifkin in trying to reconcile evolution with creation, there are major difficulties. We need to understand that evolution is fundamentally an atheistic philosophy, that is designed to remove any need for a creator--all life could have randomly self-assembled from a primordial soup. (There will be those who argue semantically that this is not what evolution says, only that all life emerged from a single cell, but in truth abiogenesis is part of the package.)

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  7. More from my friend, part 2:

    Now, Rabbi Slifkin's basic approach is that actually the Creator could have just put the laws of nature into play, and then these laws would have allowed life to form according to the commonly accepted evolutionary scenario. While this would seem to satisfy the requirement for a creator (and it doesn't bother me in the least how He created things, whether separately, or one from another), but I am wondering if this is true evolution.

    According to evolution, any form of life is possible, as long as it has ability to survive long enough to reproduce. But similarly, no particular forms of life are required. Humans could have needles like porcupines, and two more eyes for seeing behind them, which could probably be useful in escaping predators, and ability to breathe in water, like amphibians.

    Are we saying that G-d didn't care how they turned out, he just sat back and folded his hands and watched? But what if land animals never evolved at all? It was probably a single accident that they did. Would he have given the Torah to a special nation of fish? What about all the species we need for various mitzvos? Lulav and esrog, sheep for korban pesach, wheat for matza, barley for omer, etc.? Are we saying that once G-d saw there were such things, he came up with a mitzva to use whatever happened to be at hand?

    So I don't find it satisfying that G-d didn't care what we look like, and whatever random results came about, He was fine with. So even if we say that, well, G-d whispered to certain regions of DNA, please mutate this way, then we are really saying it was not random, and G-d built it all. If we take that approach, then we are discarding the cardinal principle of evolution which holds that through random events and natural selection, everything could come about. If it could not come about that way, then I am back to Creation, as I don't care what the mechanism was, G-d could do it however he liked. I don't know whether the scientific community would anyway accept this type of intelligent design theory.

    Furthermore, as an engineer, I know how hard it is to design a working device, and the idea that any random act of throwing together parts, or generating random computer code and expecting it to work is ridiculous. You probably couldn't even take a working computer program and scramble the order of lines and find that it still works. Any complex device is interdependent on all other parts of the device, and substituting a random part at any point will probably throw the entire system out of kilter, and may not even fit, to begin with. The idea that one random improvement in a gene will add functionality is very remote. If all the other genes are not upgraded, as well, the new gene will probably do nothing.

    Our military (and civilian trauma centers) would very much like to have a better replacement blood supply for wounded soldiers and patients, and has invested money in trying to produce artificial blood. Here's a great idea: since we slaughter cows for food, why not preserve their blood and save for trauma patients? But to the best of my knowledge, cow blood would not be compatible with the human body, although it works well in cows. Each animal's blood must be designed to work with its own tissue types. The same holds true for any organ or gene product. Each animal is an integrated system with all of its parts designed to work with each other. The evolutionary model that suggests that changes in a gene will give an advantage to the organism is very improbable, and it is more likely that tinkering with any given gene will hurt or kill the organism.

    I know very little about the fossil record, but my opinion from analyzing the mathematics of evolution is that whenever and wherever those animals may have lived, each was a magnificent creature in its own right, and none arose via a throwing together of random parts.

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    1. "So even if we say that, well, G-d whispered to certain regions of DNA, please mutate this way, then we are really saying it was not random, and G-d built it all. If we take that approach, then we are discarding the cardinal principle of evolution which holds that through random events and natural selection, everything could come about. If it could not come about that way, then I am back to Creation, as I don't care what the mechanism was, G-d could do it however he liked."

      If we don't care what the mechanism was, then why are we so forcefully against the possibility that it was evolution? Or, to avoid using what has become a loaded term, why are we so forcefully against the possibility that G-d brought about his intended species on earth through seemingly random DNA mutations?

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  8. More from my friend, part 3:

    If we have to invoke a creator who whispered to DNA how to mutate in order to make the specific beings He wanted, we are effectively saying that G-d created the world over a long period of time, but made it look like it was through random evolution. But once we do that, why not just say G-d created the world in six days and made it look like it was through random evolution over a long period of time.

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    1. We could say either way. Saying that G-d created the world over time, making it look like it was through random evolution, speaks to some people because it seems reasonable that if G-d made the world look like it was created through DNA mutations, then perhaps he created it through DNA mutations. Saying that G-d created the world in six days speaks to many other people for a variety of similarly strong reasons.

      But again, why the attack? If we can agree that belief in the former is not heretical, and it could strengthen some people's emunah, then why are we fighting against such a belief?

      Why do we have a problem saying, "It could have been either way, we don't know for sure. You should believe whatever makes sense to you and will strengthen your connection to G-d", when it comes to evolution?

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  9. My friend's responses:

    To Yeshivish:

    Because we don't yet know how the genome works (we don't really understand cancer, etc.), any opinions on what specific regions of the genome do, or their origin are only speculative. Your claim that certain regions are remnants of viruses or useless transposons is only a supposition.

    An example is that a fellow notices some screws in his car. Then he goes home and sees some in his refrigerator. He gets upset and calls his refrigerator company and complains, Hey, somebody crashed his car into my frig before you sold it to me. I see the screws that were left from the collision. I want a new, undamaged frig.

    To Mordechai:

    I am sorry that I appeared to be attacking well-meaning people. The truth is it doesn't matter to me how you believe the world was created. Only that there was a creator. But those religious people who want to have it both ways, and believe that G-d created the world thru evolution, really don't have such a stable marriage. Evolution in it's pristine form holds that complex life forms can SPONTANEOUSLY self-assemble through random steps from raw materials. This is not what such a marriage believes, rather, that life can only assemble via G-d's guidance.

    Second, what does such a marriage hold about shabbos? While it doesn't bother me if somebody says G-d created the world in 15 billion years, rather than 6 days, insofar as creation goes, but what am I supposed to make of the concept that we celebrate shabbos because G-d rested on the seventh day?

    Third, my main irritation is not directed at those believers who want to believe G-d worked through evolution, but at the evolutionist lobby which wants to outlaw intelligent design from being taught in public schools. I don't know the parameters and curriculum that the ID people want to implement, but I get the feeling the evolutionists would not allow such a marriage to be taught, as they feel evolution doesn't require any creator and can work completely spontaneously.

    Fourth, as an engineer, I think the idea that any complex device or life form can self-assemble by itself, is ludicrous. Again, I am not upset at those who believe a creator guided the process, only at those who believe it could happen completely randomly. The math is so far out of this world, it is negligible.

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    1. The only reasonable explanation of finding traces of Endogenous Retro Viruses' in the exact same location as the chimpanzee is that we share a common ancestor. The probability that our supposed separate ancestor and those of other primates got the same virus in the exact same location is nearly impossible statistically. I have no problem if you invoke the Gossse Theory because that would explain why God made it look that way,and I would have no way of refuting it, but otherwise you have to face the extremely low probability of ERVs being found in at least 7 locations in our and other primates genome. If you are not convinced by this kind of argument then you shouldn't be impressed with the fine tuning of the Universe either or any other strong proof using probability.

      Also, human chromosome #2 has a telomere in middle which is only at the end of the sequence--this being the exception. This was predicted by evolutionary biologists when they realized that humans have fewer chromosomes than other primates. The only explanation was some kind of fusion, which they found. If they wouldnt of found it evoltion would be in a lot of trouble. This is just one example of the many predictions that evolution makes.

      Another example is that marsupials are only found in Australia's geological record . Conveniently only appearing after the time that it split from other continents.



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    2. I don't understand how correspondences in DNAs proves anything. I would expect correspondences. Furthermore, once you get to DNA, I don't have a problem with someone believing in evolution. I think they are wrong, but not more than that.

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    3. Response from my friend;

      Because we don't know how genome functions, especially noncoding regions, we can't say what role of any given sequence is. I personally believe there is no junk DNA. If you are so sure that certain DNA is simply remnants of past random events, ask yourself this. Would you allow a scientist to take an embryo of your unborn child and excise those parts of the DNA that you consider useless? This will probably be possible in near future. I know I would be quite nervous doing that.

      As far as number of chromosomes, one can envision reasons why less is better. We know in computers that a processor accesses off-chip RAM. But designers began to realize that certain operations are more efficient if the processor itself has some RAM, right on-chip. Perhaps humans are more intelligent because the info on two chromosomes has been combined in closer proximity.

      As far as marsupials, the existence of species indigenous to certain reasons doesn't bother me all that much. We know esrogim don't seem to grow too well in Boro Park. BTW, I think I remember seeing that one of the meforshim mentions the splitting of continents. At any rate, I am an engineer, not historian, and I prefer to think about how things work, not where they may have came from.

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  10. It might look random to those who have a predisposition to see it as random. We can choose among many facts to put a theory together. Is it the theory that best accounts for all facts in their totality? What about the facts of the creative process itself, which preceded our orderly universe?

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    1. "Carson's views on evolution and creationism have also been controversial.[111] In a 2006 debate with Richard Dawkins, Francis Collins, and Daniel Dennett, Carson stated: "I don't believe in evolution...I simply don't have enough faith to believe that something as complex as our ability to rationalize, think, and plan, and have a moral sense of what's right and wrong, just appeared."[112]"

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ben_Carson#cite_ref-112

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  12. On a related topic, please see my letter to the Jewish Action concerning an article there that portrayed Rav Hirsch as a supporter of the theory of evolution.

    https://www.ou.org/jewish_action/06/2015/letters-summer-2015/

    Professor Aviezer asserts that “both Darwin and Rav Hirsch viewed evolution as the mechanism used by God to produce the animal kingdom.” He cites the following (Collected Writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, vol. 7, p. 264):

    If the notion of evolution were to gain complete acceptance by the scientific world, Judaism would call upon its adherents to give even greater reverence to God, Who in His boundless creative wisdom, needed to bring into existence only one amorphous nucleus and one law of ìadaptation and heredityî in order to bring forth the infinite variety of species that we know today.

    However, this is not a verbatim quote from the Collected Writings. Rav Hirsch’s actual words are:

    Even if this notion were ever to gain complete acceptance by the scientific world, Jewish thought, unlike the reasoning of the high priest of that notion, would nonetheless never summon us to revere a still extant representative of this primal form as the supposed ancestor of us all. Rather, Judaism in that case would call upon its adherents to give even greater reverence than ever before to the one, sole God Who, in His boundless creative wisdom and eternal omnipotence, needed to bring into existence no more than one single, amorphous nucleus and one single law of ìadaptation and heredityî in order to bring forth, from what seemed chaos but was in fact a very definite order, the infinite variety of species we know today, each with its unique characteristics that set it apart from all other creatures.

    Rav Hirsch adds that “this would be nothing else but the actualization of the law of ‘lemino,’ the law of species, with which God began His work of creation. This law of lemino, upon which Judaism places such great emphasis in order to impress upon its adherents that all of organic life is subject to Divine laws, can accommodate even this ‘theory of the origin of species.’”

    Nowhere in those words is an expression of agreement with the theory of evolution. The words only say that if the theory is accepted universally by the scientific community, one could look at it as describing a Divine wisdom utilized during the creation of animal species. This doesn’t mean that Rav Hirsch looked at the creation of the animal kingdom that way.

    In the sentence just prior to those above, Rav Hirsch explicitly expresses his view on the veracity of the theory. After asserting that man’s attempts to explain natural laws “does not alter his moral calling,” Rav Hirsch tells us the following:

    This will never change, not even if the latest scientific notion that the genesis of all the multiple of organic forms on earth can be traced back to one single most primitive, primeval form of life should ever appear to be anything more than what it is today, a vague hypothesis still unsupported by fact.

    With such unequivocal skepticism, Rav Hirsch cannot serve as a source of support for the theory of evolution. Rabbi Natan Slifkin agrees that Rav Hirsch “personally did not believe in evolution” (www.ZooTorah.com/controversy/BetechAffair.pdf).

    Rav Hirsch’s intent was to offer a way for those who supported the theory to pursue a Torah-observant life. However, he personally did not support it.

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    1. Yes, RSRH is often misquoted in this issue.

      BTW, for those with FB access, there is an extensive conversation at

      https://www.facebook.com/bigdei.shesh/posts/10153476446008389

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