Having read the previous articles on Bereishis and evolution that appeared in The Jewish Press in recent weeks, I think we should return to the beginning (pun intended), and look at what the Torah says.
With regards to the age of the universe, the Midrash is explicit: “All the works of creation were created in a mature state…. Bar Kappara says, ‘Adam and Chava were created like 20-year-olds’” (Bamidbar Rabba, Naso 12:8; see also Rosh HaShanah 11a and Chulin 60a).
The adult trees in the Garden of Eden had rings, but the annual growth cycles rings represent never occurred for those trees. In addition, our calculation of the length of the lunar month depends upon knowing the precise position of the moon a year before it existed. Yes, you read that correctly.
In his first article, Rabbi Dr. Slifkin asked: “Is the universe 5,779 years old or 13.8 billion years?” It seems clear that the correct answer is “both.” We should expect to find a universe that appears vastly older than 5,779 years. Would it make sense, after all, for people and animals to appear on a three-day-old earth?
That being the case, the questions raised in earlier articles become matters of casual interest rather than theological consequence. We do not need to question whether radioactive decay or the speed of light remained constant throughout history. We do not need to extrapolate from an idea broached by the Rambam that was rejected by others. And while it is fascinating that the earliest written description of the “Big Bang” is found in the Ramban on Bereishis 1:1 – he discusses a point of pure energy from which everything else was created – it wouldn’t matter if scientific measurements confirmed what most experts believed prior to 1964: that the universe was eternal.
The same, of course, is true for fossils and evolution. These should cause no “religious objection” for Jews who learn Midrash and Gemara. Yet, evolution remains controversial.
Rabbi Sliflkin perceives “distortions and evasions” on this matter because he conflates several different topics. Yes, scientists agree on the DNA relationship between species, and that primitive species appear – generally speaking – prior to advanced ones in the fossil record. But that does not prove ancestry, much less that species developed per Darwin’s theory of random mutation and natural selection.
Professor August Weismann, considered by many to be second only to Darwin himself in the development of 19th century evolutionary biology, said bluntly: “We are obligated to accept the principle of natural selection because it offers the only explanation of a diversified natural living world without having to assume it was created by a force that desired it and created it intentionally.”
Ponder those words. We must accept Darwin’s evolution, he said, because the alternative requires acknowledging a Creator. How many of those who insist neo-Darwinian mechanisms are “basically sufficient” to explain our existence are similarly unwilling to contemplate another option?
I have noticed a common intellectual journey among those who, like myself, adopted Jewish observance during, or after, acquiring a background in the hard sciences. We all, of course, learned about the age of the universe, planets and life, DNA relationships, and Darwinian evolution. Practically to a one, we continue to accept the scientific validity behind all the foregoing – except the last. None of us changed our attitude towards Darwin’s theory as we adopted religious observance; we felt no need to “disbelieve” evolution in order to become observant. But later (or, in rare cases, earlier) we came to believe that mathematical improbability precludes life or evolution by happenstance since we no longer shared Weismann’s resistance to alternatives.
Sir Fred Hoyle, director of the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge, was an atheist. But he rejected chance a biogenesis (formation of life from inorganic matter) on mathematical grounds: “Life cannot have had a random beginning,” he argued. “There are about 2,000 enzymes, and the chance of obtaining them all in a random trial is only 1 part in 1040,000, an outrageously small probability that could not be faced even if the whole universe consisted of organic soup.”
He was even more dismissive of random evolution: “The chance that higher life forms might have emerged in this way is comparable with the chance that a tornado sweeping through a junk-yard might assemble a Boeing 747 from the materials therein.”
In conclusion: difficulties reconciling “the straightforward reading of the Torah” with “the modern scientific enterprise” arise only from misunderstanding what the Torah tells us. Furthermore, rejecting Darwinian evolution does not require ideological bias; in fact, it may require its absence.