As someone who writes on controversial topics relating to Torah and science, I often encounter strong disagreements with my positions. Personally, I have no problem with people vehemently disagreeing with me – or modern science. But it is immensely frustrating when they simply do not read what I write, or when they distort either my words or those of others.
Last week, Josh Greenberger, in “No, Evolution Is Not A Fact,” quotes me as saying: “In the scientific community, evolution is regarded as well-proven.” He responds by referring to a list of over 1,000 scientists who – he says – “don’t see evolution as scientifically viable.” However, Mr. Greenberger managed to distort both what they and I said. He cut off my sentence midway through!
What I wrote was: “In the scientific community, evolution is regarded as well-proven – at least, one aspect of it” (emphasis added). I proceeded to explain that “evolution” actually refers to two very different things. First is the historical claim that all species developed from earlier species and thus share common ancestors (i.e., bats and whales descend from mammals that walked on land). Second is the proposed mechanism by which these transformations happened.
The first aspect – common ancestry – is what I described as well-proven. It is universally accepted as fact by scientists in the relevant fields (with the possible exception of some fundamentalist Christians). There is no list of 1,000, or even hundreds of, scientists who disagree with it. It is supported by an overwhelming convergence of evidence from many different areas of biology. These include – as I wrote two weeks ago – the fossil record (forget about the gaps – how does one account for all the fossil intermediate species that do exist?); the presence of vestigial organs (such as the tiny, useless wings of flightless birds); the geographical concentration of similar species (such as the marsupials of Australia); and the overall structure of species.
The second aspect of evolution is the mechanism via which such transformations could have occurred. This question is debated in the scientific community. Most scientists believe neo-Darwinian mechanisms of random genetic mutations, in combination with natural selection, are basically sufficient to explain these transformations (although everyone agrees there is still much to learn). A minority of scientists, usually those of a religious persuasion, disagree.
But it is only this second aspect – the mechanism of evolution – that was addressed by the statement of 1,000 scientists Greenberger quotes. They wrote: “We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.”
They were not expressing doubt that whales and bats come from terrestrial mammals, or that mammals and birds and reptiles all come from common ancestors. They were only questioning whether random mutations and natural selections can account for how these changes happened.
Are the majority of scientists correct? Can random mutation and natural selection indeed account for how evolutionary changes occurred? I’m not qualified to answer that question, but – from a theological perspective – it’s entirely irrelevant. As I wrote, Judaism has always maintained that God works through seemingly naturalistic events, even those that superficially appear random, such as lotteries. Indeed, that is the entire message of the Purim story.
Mr. Greenberg also devotes several paragraphs to explaining why he believes radioactive dating to be an inadequate method for gauging the age of the world. He apparently did not read my article, in which I mentioned that radioactive dating is complicated and irrelevant because there is a much more basic reason to accept that the world is much more than a few thousand years old. It is the simple fact that one finds fossils of extinct creatures such as dinosaurs in many thousands of places around the world, but in the layers of rock in which these fossils lie buried, one does not find fossils of any contemporary species – which demonstrates that dinosaurs lived in a different era. Mr. Greenberg does not address this point.
I have no problem with Mr. Greenberg believing the entire universe is a just a few thousand years old. He is free to believe whatever he likes. But he should admit that this position is one of faith and not pretend that it is consistent in any way with modern science.
Rabbi Yeheskel Lebovic, in “Yes, Jews Must Interpret Bereishis Literally,” likewise does not address the evidence for the antiquity of the world from the age of dinosaurs. Yet, he insists that it is forbidden to interpret the account of Creation non-literally. Rabbi Lebovic acknowledges that the Rambam interpreted some parts of Torah in this manner, but notes that the Ramban vehemently rejected Rambam’s approach. On what authority, though, does Rabbi Lebovic decide we must follow the Ramban and reject the Rambam?
Rabbi Lebovic argues that even the Rambam would not have interpreted creation metaphorically since it has halachic ramifications with regard to Shabbos. Yet, Rabbi Lebovic is going against the explicit statement of Rambam, which I quoted in my article. He writes in the Guide to the Perplexed (2:29): “Contrary to popular belief, the account of creation given in Scripture is not intended to be literal in all its parts.”
As I pointed out, the commentaries to the Guide explain that the Rambam believed Bereishis to be describing, not six days (or even six time periods), but rather a six-part hierarchy in the natural world. Evidently, the Rambam believed that a metaphorical approach to the account of Creation has no halachic ramifications.
Why, after all, should it be treated than other verses in the Torah that have halachic ramifications and yet are interpreted metaphorically? The Talmud, for example, derives from a verse speaking of God’s “eyes” that a person’s obligation to go to Jerusalem during the festivals only exists if – like God – he possesses two eyes. Even though the literal meaning of the verse serves as the basis for an explicit halacha, we interpret the verse metaphorically.
I have no problem with Rabbi Lebovic interpreting Bereishis literally. But he should not tell people it is forbidden for them to follow the opinion of the Rambam and numerous others who take a non-literal approach, especially since he is unable to convince anyone that he has refuted the overwhelming scientific evidence demonstrating the antiquity of the universe. It is a tragic mistake to tell many thousands of sincere, educated, believing Jews that they have no place in Judaism.