Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Of Men and Monkeys

Do men and monkeys have the same evolutionary ancestors? The Theory of Evolution says they do. We all descend from common biological ancestors starting from the first sign of life on earth. Over the billions of years of evolutionary time these original cells reproduced mutated cells.

Most mutations were bad and the cell would not survive to reproduce another cell. But occasionally over evolutionary time some mutations were favorable to reproduction. Thus a newer cell now reproduced with the ‘new improvement’.

This is called the struggle for existence (often incorrectly called - survival of the fittest). Over time these cells have become more complex and mutated into different species. They did so adapting to environmental conditions called environmental niches. This is how man ultimately evolved from lower species of animals.

In an oversimplified nutshell - this is the Theory of Evolution as formulated by Charles Darwin.

I have absolutely no doubt that evolution is taking place. It can be easily demonstrated in a laboratory. But one doesn’t need a laboratory to believe it. One only needs to see how bacteria have become increasingly resistant to antibiotics. The environment of those antibiotics enabled only those bacteria that mutated into a resistant strain to survive.

The question is, can we say that all species including man evolved from a single cell progenitor at the beginning of life on earth? I’m not here to debate this point religiously. There is massive evidence to suggest that this is indeed what happened. But as of yet there is no scientific and conclusive proof of it. Nor do I believe there is any conclusive evidence for speciation.

To the best of my knowledge new species have never been created in a lab from another species. That does not however prove it didn’t happen. The theory is still a viable and important key building block of evolutionary theory with evidence to support it.

Although this is one of the most controversial subjects in Orthodoxy today - to the best of my knowledge there is nothing in the Torah that contradicts the Theory of Evolution. Some would argue vehemently with that premise and say that things changed after the ban against Rabbi Natan Slifkin’s books. But I do not believe anything really changed after that point. Whether one believes in it or not - there was wide spread acceptance of the fact that evolution does not contradict the Torah. I believe that still to be the case.

The only thing that we as believing Jews must accept is that God created it all and that it was not random. Although one can make the case of randomness being part of God’s plan – I’m not sure that is acceptable as a Torah belief.

There are various scenarios that allow for believing in both creationism and evolution. God in His infinite wisdom was behind it and guided it. The basic elements of the Theory of Evolution do not contradict the Torah. There is the problem of man’s independent creation but even that can be explained in terms that do not leave one a heretic.

The question arises, how is one to teach evolution in a science class? Does a scientist include God or not? Is randomness to be included in the theory without including alternative theories like a God-guided evolutionary process?

From a strictly religious perspective one would certainly say, yes - God should be included. But from a purely scientific perspective one should leave God out of it.

Personally I have mixed feelings about it. As a believer, I find it inappropriate to teach random mutation as the sole explanation for the origin of species. On the other hand inserting God into the science classroom is inserting a spiritual aspect into a field dealing exclusively with the physical universe.

I suppose the best of all possible worlds for believing Jews is to teach God in a class dealing with religious subjects – Limudei Kodesh. On the other hand the rule in the science classroom should be teaching evolution without mentioning God in any context. This is how I learned the Theory of Evolution and retained my beliefs.

It would be just as wrong to mention God in a negative sense – pointedly teaching that God was completely out of the picture and had nothing to do with evolution. God should not be mentioned at all. That should be left to the student’s own convictions. With a good Torah education a student’s belief in God should not be affected.

This brings up a story reported in Ynet. Dr. Gavriel Avital (pictured) was fired from his job as chief scientist of Israel’s education Ministry. He was fired for saying ‘Darwinism should be analyzed critically along with biblical creationism.’ He has also questioned current scientific dogma that man is in major part responsible for global warming. For purposes of this post I am leaving the environmental issue aside.

Is it fair to fire a scientist for advocating critical thinking on this issue? He was – after all – not espousing Creationism either. He was merely saying that the same critical thinking should be applied to both. On the one hand, logic dictates agreement with him. On the other hand as the chief scientist in charge of education– is it really fair for him to insert God into the scientific mix? I understand that his own views, like mine, include God. But I don’t know that it should be part of a science course.

If one were taking courses in a completely religious environment like a yeshiva college, I could understand his advocacy of that approach. God should consistently be a part of one’s thoughts throughout the day. But in a secular environment, it is inappropriate.

When the head of the education ministry advocates inserting God into a science curriculum he is inserting the spiritual into the physical. That is not the job of science. It is the job of religion. In a Yeshiva one can set up Hashkafa classes to discuss God and evolution. In a public non religious school system this should not be done. God should be neither advocated nor denied.

I’m sure Dr. Avital was well intentioned. He is a believer and wants to make sure that belief is not stifled by rejecting biblical creationism. He is right about that. God should not be rejected. But as I said God should not even be mentioned. I would oppose it being mentioned in any context. If a student brought it up in the science classroom in a secular school - I would tell the student to ask his rabbi. Science is about the study of the physical universe – not the spiritual universe.

Should Dr. Avital have been fired? I admire him for standing up for his beliefs and from a religious perspective I support him. But from an objective perspective if he insisted on inserting God into a science classroom in a secular environment – no matter how well intended - the answer unfortunately is - yes.