Monday, June 08, 2009

Should we reject evolution because of Darwinian attitudes?

Read Rav Shternbuch on the theory of evolution, "Darwin's Theory Revisited," discussed in the comment section of Daas Torah and readable in this image. I admit not walking away impressed. It seems as though he regarded the theory as heresy and therefore should not and did not study it enough to give it proper consideration or to respond to it in a sophisticated and informed manner. For example, the author writes (summarizing Rav Shternbuch) "According to their understanding, people originally started as apes and slowly evolved into what we know as man." Later, he writes "Someone who lives like an animal views human beings as merely another life form and can conclude that their [sic] ancestors were chimpanzees."

However, Darwinian evolution is not that apes became man, or that man's ancestors were chimpanzees. Rather, it is that apes and men shared a common ancestor, which evolved into apes (and chimpanzees) and men respectively. This is a common misconception of those who have not studied evolution. And this is no throwaway mistake -- the entire article seems predicated on it. Thus, he writes that "Looking at history there appears to be a distinct pattern. First there was the Stone Age, and then the Bronze Age, and man continuously rose in his ability to make use of his knowledge to take care of his needs in the world... Scientists noted this pattern and concluded that the world must be in a state of upward progression..." He continues that we Jews meanwhile know that previous generations were on higher levels. This ascription of this view to scientists, besides echoing the famous airplane joke, is quite connected to the idea that the more evolved man evolved from the monkey, which was earlier in evolutionary development. Evolution is not a ladder, but a branching tree.

Meanwhile, while I have seen no evidence that scientists looked at Stone Age, Bronze Age, etc., to arrive at Darwinism, I do know that at Darwin's time there were two competing theories. Progressionism held that the species were developing in a way of progress, becoming "better" each time; non-progressionism held that they were not, and it was anti-progressionism which had the weight of evidence in its favor. The more religiously-inclined were progressionists. Scholars of the history of Darwin and Darwinism debate whether Darwin was a progressionist or an anti-progressionist.

However, Darwins theory, or especially modern evolutionary theory, is decidedlynon-progressionist. Both apes and man evolved from a common ancestor, where there were random mutations, and different things in the environment allowed (in different situations) different mutations to succeed. And at any rate, this is a strange means of attack. Rather than attack the merits of the theory, or whether it described and predicts the facts on the ground, it is an (erroneous) attack on the motivations of the scientists who developed the theory. This is not ad hominem, but it seems close. See also the arguments pro and con in the comment section at Daas Torah. I agree with Rabbi Gil Student who said, for other reasons, "I don't think it is kavod ha-Torah to publish articles like this."

Update: The following text should make it clear that Rav Moshe Shternbuch is arguing against Lamarck, rather than Darwin. Read this text and then read Rav Shternbuch's article again.


BrooklynWolf said...

The better question would be: Should we reject any argument on the basis of the attitudes of its proponents?

IOW, it doesn't make a difference whether evolution is true because Darwin observed changes from Stone Age to Copper and so on, or because he tested and came to the conclusion of evolution or because he might have been dropped on his head as a baby. The truth (or falsity) of evolution stands regardless of Darwin's attitudes.

The Wolf

joshwaxman said...

i agree. this is just a bonus.


Yosef Greenberg said...

How about phrasing the question more like; Should we reject evolution because it is contrary to our tradition? Sure, you could be metaretz, but what lengths should one go to be metaretz the Torah rather than the other way around. Maybe this is indeed a da'ad Torah question. ;)

joshwaxman said...

indeed, one can phrase the question in multiple ways. i agree that this is a daas torah question, and this is indeed my "issue" with daas torah. as i noted in that other comment by referring to the nodah biyhudah who said to consult experts in Mikra rather than rabbonim, sometimes lack of expertise in a specific field can lead to answers that are really off. a deep knowledge of just what the theory of evolution entails, and a knowledge of the history of the development of the theory seems to be a prerequisite. i don't have such a deep knowledge but i did read through The Darwin Reader a week or so ago (available at Amazon for one penny). Rav (IIRC) apprenticed himself to a shepherd for years to learn the metzius of eye diseases of sheep, be able to pasken on bechorot. A knowledge of the metzius is indeed in order.

We could also rephrase the question as "should we deny what is overwhelmingly true and turn off our brains, or use them to kvetch false statements because we feel it is contrary to our tradition?" I think the answer to that question is clear. but then, rav chaim kanievsky holds that you (yosef greenberg) are an apikores, because you agree with Copernicus, and this is clearly against Chazal. i can give you a prooflink if you wish.

this is obviously a hot-button issue.


Anonymous said...

Off topic But you have to Listen to this SHtikle torah and I thought the Roshie Teivos we made are funny butThis SHeik Takes The cake.

joshwaxman said...

thanks. interesting. :)

Natan Slifkin said...

I didn't like his article at all, but I don't think that your point about man and apes sharing a common ancestor is especially relevant. The common ancestor is certainly a lot more similar to an ape than to a human! And saying that evolution is non-progressionist wouldn't make him any better disposed towards it - that's saying that we are no qualitatively better than animals!

joshwaxman said...

i don't care whether he would be better or less disposed to the theory as a result of the revision. my issue is whether he understands Darwinian evolution correctly, and whether the *particular* criticism is apt.

if Darwinism is non-progressionist, then the entire *argument* he presents is inapplicable. (that it is more similar to an ape does not necessarily connote "better.") although the "no different than animals" is indeed a point he makes. of course, the focus of Darwin does not seem to have been the origin of man in particular but rather the origin of species. he wrote "Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history." that it happens to impact on the origin of man is possibly beside the point, and not a guiding principle of Darwinism and its development.

let him write a revised article, and i will consider that in turn.


מֹשאל רפאל said...

I think that the essential message of the article is that the notion of Yeridat HaDorot does not seem to fit evolution. You justly reject the way this was formulated, but I suggest that it would be a waste to thereby fail to address the real point. How can it be that we see Yeridat HaDorot?

My answer is that Yeridat HaDorot is a spiritual phenomenon, not a biological one. It reflects that Israel once was at a level from which we fell. Yeridat HaDorot takes place at a time scale, the Galut, that is very short compared to the time-scale of the evoluton of man. Man arose, reached very high, and fell. To rise again. There is no contradiction with evolution.

מֹשאל רפאל said...

D'var Acher, for who does not want to hear about "spiritual". Once mankind was not as uniform as today. Group out-of-Africa Aleph was more advanced than out-of-Africa Beth. Because of geograhical separation, mixing was limited for a long time. Parshat Bereshit tells us in Remez that Aleph started spreading over the world. As the two groups mixed, from the point of view of Aleph, the result was Yeridat HaDorot. Ergo: Yeridat HaDorot at a short time scale does not contradict upward evolution at a longer time scale.

Yosef Greenberg said...


I don't know from where you take that I believe Copernicus was right but I assume that you take it as a given.

We could be metaretz Rav Chaim Kanievsky by saying that he meant that we should minimize our significance in the universe, although that does sound a little far-fetched.

Without knowing much physics, is it possible that according to Einstein's Theory of General Relativity there is no "real" non-moving object; rather it is only considered to be moving in relation to the others?

As long as I can find an acceptable reasoning to have both science and Rav Kanievsky work together, I see no reason not to. It worth going the extra mile.

joshwaxman said...

yes, i was assuming. not the heliocentric model with the sun at the center of the universe, but that the earth goes around the sun.

and no insult was intended, not to you and not to rav kanievsky. but in terms of rav kanievsky, i would assume that since the science and proofs are not taught in chareidi schools, he does not realize how silly it sounds to most people who have the benefit of a 20th century secular education. (rav kanievsky was cited, btw, in a kuntres trying to prove prior to Birchas Hachamah that one may not believe in the heliocentric model.) (the chassidic teens in my shul did not know which goes around which, but remember something about spinning.)

people *do* try to offer that teretz, but i do not believe that is what rav kanievsky means. just as the gra and shevus yaakov (in the other post) intended that the earth was flat.

while one can *describe* motion using any arbitrary coordinate system, in fact we can measure what is moving. the fact that a pendulum works shows acceleration of the earth, rather than its being fixed in place.


joshwaxman said...

also, if such a harmonization were possible, why would he consider you and me to be heretics? He said:
כי הנוקט כך הריהו כמכחיש מסורת וכופר באמונתנו

he could just give the harmonization and let us remain Jews in good standing!

(as a side-point, do you believe that Rav Kanievsky is well-versed enough in physics to come up with the relative motion teretz? this is no offense to him, but despite the story of him studying grasshoppers, he is no Torah Umaddah-nik.)

See this post at Avakesh for more details on this surprising controversy:


Yosef Greenberg said...

. the chassidic teens in my shul did not know which goes around which, but remember something about spinning

So I'm disqualified to engage in this discussion if I'm a chossid?

people *do* try to offer that teretz, but i do not believe that is what rav kanievsky means.


the fact that a pendulum works shows acceleration of the earth, rather than its being fixed in place.

Not really. Wikipedia seems to say that the cause for the pendulum moving is gravity. The cause of gravity, however, is unknown according to Wikipedia, Einstein's theory notwithstanding.

Even assuming what you said above, is it possible that the cause is earth's spinning on its axis?

do you believe that Rav Kanievsky is well-versed enough in physics to come up with the relative motion teretz.

I know I'm not well versed in physics and I came up with it, so I'll assume this much for him in the least.

And now a great find. (deserves bolding.)

I just heard from someone in Yeshiva that in a more recent sefer from Rav Chaim Kanievsky he reverses that psak. I'm unsure whether he agrees with this way or he simply doesn't consider it kefira.

(It was a shiur on the Gemara in Pesachim)

I'll try to get you the source tomorrow.

Kol Tuv

joshwaxman said...

"So I'm disqualified to engage in this discussion if I'm a chossid?"
no. but they don't speak English either. my guess is that you knew before getting into all this all about the heliocentric model vs. the geocentric model, and which was current. but among some chassidim and chareidim, they lack this level of familiarity, such that a "psak" that the geocentric model is correct and the only non-heretical position is quite frankly a joke.

i'm not going to get into the physics arguments, but in terms of
"is it possible that the cause is earth's spinning on its axis?"
yes, precisely. and that the earth spins on its axis means that we have a heliocentric model, and do not have the sun moving around the earth every day.

"I just heard from someone in Yeshiva that in a more recent sefer from Rav Chaim Kanievsky he reverses that psak."
excellent! i would love to hear the details. however, in this day and age, where we have *video* evidence, besides all the mathematical and physical proofs, whether he reverses the psak or not is irrelevant. How could such a psak have come to be in the first place?! And how could chareidim seriously be arguing the geocentric vs. heliocentric models, and which is heresy, in letters to the editor in the 21st century?! This state of affairs surely informs on the other big disputes, where the evidence is purportedly not as clear-cut. It is the same dismissing of evidence because of hashkafic cringe-factor, and the same apologetic approach.

If the process gives us obviously ludicrous answers in one area (though those engaged in it don't see it), then what could it tell us about other cases where the same or similar processes are being used?


Yosef Greenberg said...

Hey, lets see the new quote first and we'll see how he's possibly meyashiv his first statement.

What video evidence?

And how could chareidim seriously be arguing the geocentric vs. heliocentric models, and which is heresy, in letters to the editor in the 21st century?

I agree with you on this one. I find it really hard to call someone who agrees with reality to be a kofer. As long as the reality is in question, I still see it. In your view view of Rav Chaim, he's still living in that question. The question still stand on when things can be considered "reality".

joshwaxman said...

for example, from space, and using telescopes, we see earth and all the other planets rotating on their axes, facing the sun at different times. when the space shuttle does not stay in geosynchronous orbit, we see the earth turn. here is a video:

just as we can see from space that the earth is not flat.


joshwaxman said...

in terms of rav kanievsky, shlita, i think we are in agreement.

but it still is exceptionally shocking to encounter it. as divrei chaim wrote in a recent comment thread,
"I do not think this is 100% accurate. I don't know of anyone, no matter how chareidi, who thinks a baby born in the 8th month will probably die, or who believes in spontaneous generation, or who denies that the earth rotates in an orbit around the sun. In all of these cases the science is accepted despite what the "pashtus" of Chazal say."

but what happens when we see that Rav Kanievsky, working from old science (which is nothing to be ashamed of, any more than when Chizkuni did his contemporary science), says something that is factually incorrect? we don't make a terutz for him that he is talking about pnimius, because that is misrepresenting him and doing him a disservice. the same for the gra and shevus yaakov. and the same for chizkuni, a rishon. and the same for rambam. it is strange to suddenly do so for Chazal, especially when many rishonim were willing to take the same approach we are willing to take vis a vis the rishonim and acharonim...


joshwaxman said...

shkoyach, btw, again, on the Rav Kanievsky revision thing. it truly is exciting and i am looking forward to hearing the details.


מֹשאל רפאל said...

Who calls the truth Kefira, condemns himself. This applies to Rabbanim like Kanievsky and Eisenstein, and the whole Gamut that came out against Rav Slifkin.

joshwaxman said...

certainly possible. i think there is a possibility of technically being kefirah according to a formal definition of the term, while still being correct.

for example, if Hashem is really corporeal, then one who asserts this would be correct, but simultaneously a kofer, by Rambam's rules.

at a certain point, every religious believer or disbeliever believes himself to be correct, such that allegations of kefirah will not (or might not) resonate. but at a certain point, one goes so far outside of Judaism as to no longer be maintaining the core beliefs. For example, a Baal worshiper.

but yes, truth vs. "apikorsus" is something that many are struggling with...


Yosef Greenberg said...

I didn't see the sefer yet. Its from Chazon Shamayim, where he quotes Rav Chaim.

I'll try to find the sefer now. I was told that its in the introduction.

(Too bad its not on hebrewbooks.)

Juhani said...

Firstly, the data that has been found and used to try to prove the evolution of man is negligible. Even though one could assume that there would be convincing evidence from a time span of hundreds of thousands of years, no such evidence has been found. This issue could be illustrated by the fact that has often been stated: all of the fossil materials found would fit on a billiard table or a writing table. This shows how little evidence there is. The quotes below also show the lack of evidence. In the first quote, Lyall Watson, a well-known researcher of the theory of evolution, notes how the evidence is very defective and that it would fit into one coffin and there would still be space left over:

The number of fossils in the pedigree of man is even smaller than the number of fossil researchers. The surprising truth is that all the evidence of the evolution of man could be fitted into one coffin and there would still be space left over. (1)

The researchers of primates can, therefore, be forgiven their groping over the gap of millions of years, from which time we do not have a perfect skeleton of an ape, let alone of the predecessor of man. (…) We have to read the evolution story of primates only from a few handfuls of broken bones and teeth. Besides, those fossils have been found thousands of kilometers from each other on locations on the Continent of the Old World. (Scientific American, June 1956, p. 98)

joshwaxman said...

thanks. no pressure, though.

without addressing the merit of your arguments, are you saying that there has been evolution of all other animals, but not of man?

all the best,

Mike S. said...

I do know enough physics to talk about relativity, and the argument is nonsensical.

First, let me dispose of the Wikipedia nonsense. While it is true in a metaphysical sense that we don't know what causes gravity, in the ordinary sense of physics, we do know what causes gravity: the curvature of spacetime in response to an energy tensor. And the pendulum oscillates either because of gravity (in the Earth restframe) or because the Earth restframe is accelerated relative to that of a freely falling body--the descriptions are equivalant. the rotation of the plane of oscillation a pendulum over the course of a day is because the Earth rotates relative to an inertial frame at its location; in common terms, because the Earth is rotating rather than standing still.

It is true that one cannot define absolute rest, so one can arrive at a perfectly consistent picture of the Solar system with the Earth at rest. One can also arrive at a consistent picture of the physics of sweeping in a frame where the broom is absolutely at rest and the person using it is pushing himself and the remainder of the universe back and forth--the picture is consistent, but not very informative. For instance if I and my neighbor are both sweeping, I can work the broom at rest picture for only one of us, and the other is swing his broom relative to the universe oscillating around my broom. Of course a similar description would work fo a frame where his broom is at rest, and I and mine are all oscillating.

With regard to the solar system, the dominant effect is caused by the mass of the Sun--yes I can describe the motion in a frame where the Earth (or any other body you choose) is at rest, but choosing one where the Sun (or the center of mass of the solar system) is at rest gives a much cleaner and more insightful description of why the Solar System
behaves as it does. No sensible person would try to explain why the bodies of the Solar System have the motion they do from an Earth centered frame.

Pliny said...

I posted the following at the RationalistJudaism blog, hoping to settle a matter between R' Slifkin and another poster:

The late George Gaylord Simpson, former professor of paleontology at Harvard University, wrote:

On this subject, by the way, there has been too much pussyfooting. Apologists emphasize that man cannot be descendant of any living ape–-a statement that is obvious to the verge of imbecility–-and go on to state or imply that man is not really descended from an ape or monkey at all, but from an earlier common ancestor. In fact, that earlier ancestor would certainly be called an ape or monkey in popular speech by anyone who saw it. Since the terms ape and monkey are defined by popular usage, man’s ancestors were apes or monkeys (or successively both). It is pusillanimous if not dishonest for an informed investigator to say otherwise (1964).

joshwaxman said...

"It is pusillanimous if not dishonest for an informed investigator to say otherwise"

Indeed, and that would support R' Slifkin.

However, what R' Shternbuch presented was more than just 'my zeide was not a monkey!' While it is indeed likely that he would similarly object, the construction of his theological objection, set up in that article, was somewhat predicated on the conception of evolution as a ladder, rather than as a branching tree. Thus, for example, the paragraph beginning with the word 'Scientists'.

It is not necessarily true that older creatures must be worse-off than present creatures. Different environments can lead to different mutations yielding better chance of survival. A monkey is better at swinging on a tree than a human, and given a specific environment, would be considered better than a more-intelligent animal incapable of swinging from trees. Smaller might be 'better', larger might be better, the ability to breath on land, on water, might be better. There could be a time (pre-meteor impact) that being a dinosaur was better than being a small mammal.

So it is not that they take all examples of primitive to advanced which they see alive in their own days and assume that each was a further step in the evolutionary ladder, which is a direct contrast to yeridas hadoros.


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