Friday, June 18, 2004

Updated: The Aberdeen Bestiary

is a manuscript, written and illuminated in England around 1200.

Here is a page from the Bestiary in which it discusses mice:

From the text:
Of mice

The mouse is a puny animal; its name, mus, comes from the Greek, the Latin word deriving from it. Others say mures, mice, because they are produced ex humore, from the damp soil, of the earth; for humus means earth and from that comes mus, mouse. Their liver grows bigger at full moon, like the tides rise then fall with the waning of the moon.

The import of the above quoted (and bolded) text is that it is a description of spontaneous generation: mice produced from the damp soil. This was one belief about the spontaneous generation of mice. The other was that they were spontaneously generated from rotting wheat.

To that end, I should note that the middle picture on the page is that of the mouse, and the commentators on this Aberdeen Bestiary project note that the grey circles about the mouse are most probably meant to be wheat.

Why is this important? Because it is a 12th century manuscript. The Rambam lived in the 12th century, and so this can tell us a bit about the scientific beliefs of his time.

Why should we care what the contemporary scientific beliefs in the time of the Rambam were? Here comes the controversy...

Rabbi Avi Shafran penned an excellent article for, in which he contrasted two attitudes of scientists. For years, reports of seeing giant quid (in the range of 60 feet) had been dismissed as legend. He quotes a French zoologist:

Just a few years before the monstrous tentacle was obtained and the giant squid passed from the realm of myth to reality, Arthur Mangin, a French zoologist, dismissed sailors' claims that they had seen the animal, urging that "the wise, and especially the man of science, not admit into the catalogue those stories which mention extraordinary creatures... the existence of which would be... a contradiction of the great laws of harmony and equilibrium which have sovereign rule over living nature."

He contrasts this to the Rambam, who discusses a Mishna in his commentary on the Mishna.

The Mishna discusses the laws of impurity involved in a particular sheretz - a mouse, half of which is flesh and half of which is earth. If you touch the part of flesh you contact ritual impurity, and if you touch the part of earth you do not.

The Rambam writes:

"...the existence of [such a creature] is something well-known; countless people have told me that they have seen it, even though the existence of such a living creature is incomprehensible and cannot be explained in any way." [Commentary to the Mishna, Chullin, chapter 9]"

That is, even though it is incomprehensible and defies scientific explanation, the Rambam is willing to believe eye-witness reports of the animal's existence. As Rabbi Shafran writes,

"Both are compelled to state that the reports before them defy scientific explanation. But whereas Mangin counsels a final rejection of the possibility that the report he received might have merit, Maimonides -- even as he notes the inadequacy of scientific knowledge to explain what he has heard - takes pains to allow for the incomprehensible."

This is a nice point, and in fact accords with a scientific attitude. Even though you cannot explain some phenomenon, you do not dismiss is as impossible when you encounter it. You investigate the phenomenon, as well as your assumptions.

(Now, later some rabbi actually went to the Nile to investigate claims of such creatures, and spent several days trying to catch them, and came to the conclusion that they were just dirty mice.)

Unfortunately, Rabbi Shafran casts this in terms of spontaneous generation. That is, the Rambam had reason to doubt their existence because the Mishna was describing the spontaneous generation of mice from earth, and in those days they knew that mice were not spontaneously generated.

In fact, the proofs against spontaneous generation of fruit flies, and frogs (and questioning about mice) all happened in the late 17th century, while in the 12th century they still believes in all this. Evidence of this is the Aberdeen Bestiary above.

Rather, I would say the Rambam (and probably the Mishna as well) were discussing fantastic creatures of 1/2 earth and 1/2 flesh. Nowhere is any mention of spontaneous generation made, and the Rambam should have no reason to doubt the spontaneous generation of mice.

In the comments section on Protocols on this post, I write more about this.

Basically, Shmarya of FailedMessiah took Rabbi Shafran to task, complaining that since spontaneous generation had been scientifically disproved, the Rambam is not being a scientist in his attitude, but is rather defending the Talmud against modern science.

I pointed out that spontaneous generation had hardly been disproven in the Rambam's day, for Rambam was 12th century, and it was disproven in 17th century. (At the least, then, if the Rambam was defending it on spontaneous generation grounds, it would not be denying "proven scientific fact.") Thus, it is likely the Rambam was not dealing with spontaneous generation. Secondly, that this is indeed a scientific attitude - to believe countless eyewitness reports to accept that perhaps such a creature exists. And thirdly, that it is very hard to believe this of the Rambam, who often sides with contemporary science over the cures/scientific attitudes in the gemara.

Anyway, hopefully, that explains why I posted this link and picture. All right, I also posted it because I thought it looked nice... :)

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