Thursday, December 13, 2007

About the Neandertals

I just came across a very interesting article in the current issue of American Scientist about what might have caused the Neandertals (aka Neanderthals) to become extinct and modern men to take over. Click here. I know Megaupload is a pain but it's free and the article is too big to incorporate here. Note how the evolutionary time scale as well as evolution itself is treated matter-of-factly with no apologetics. There is no controversy in the scientific community about evolution having occurred. Yeshivot that don't teach it are leaving students unprepared for the introductory biology course in college, where the professors will also be very matter-of-fact.

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17 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

My children attend an independent school. The introductory chapter of their high school biology textbook highlights 3 things: the scope of biology, evolution: biology's unifying theme, and the process of science.

I don't understand how high schools can teach science and/or biology without teaching evolution. Science is not a collection of facts about the natural world that you just pick and choose from. Students will not only be unprepared for college biology, they will be unprepared to learn and do science.

Fri Dec 14, 09:06:00 AM EST  
Blogger Garnel Ironheart said...

To further that, if the students come from a background where scientific facts are denied, they will be helpless to defend their beliefs when presented with evidence to the contrary.

The first question is: how widely should the "truth" be taught? Having met Rav Sliffkin last week and spoken to him about it, I would offer this answer:
a) for those Jews who live in an ideological ghetto and will probably spend their lives in this, teaching proper science is a waste of time. You can teach science without teaching evolution but ironically, in the method criticized above. You sinmply teach those facts that don't contradict religious dogma.
b) for those Jews who believe in the truth of Torah but will go into the real world and be challenged by it, the true story of evolution must be taught. But this should not happen in isolation. There is no reason a Torah observant Jew who is well versed in science and multiple Torah commentaries cannot teach this subject explaining to the students that the firs chapter of Bereshis is very complicated and cannot be understood in a superficial manner because of the scientific evidence to the contrary. By teaching the science to the students though the lens of Torah, one prepares children to face the real world's denial of God and his Creation and allows them to believe in our Truth with open eyes.

Sun Dec 16, 04:28:00 AM EST  
Blogger cipher said...

for those Jews who live in an ideological ghetto and will probably spend their lives in this, teaching proper science is a waste of time.

That's just it - the yeshivot that don't teach it pretty much expect this, so there isn't much motivation for them to change.

Garnel - where did you meet Rabbi Slifkin? Is he speaking around the NY area? I'd try to come down from Boston to meet him. Either I never seem to hear about him coming to the US until after he's left, or I hear about it but I can't make it down.

Sun Dec 16, 01:50:00 PM EST  
Anonymous Garnel Ironheart said...

He came to good ol' Hamilton Ontario after having a few speaking engagements in Toronto. I think he then returned to Israel right after. Defintely worth hearing though

Mon Dec 17, 06:38:00 PM EST  
Blogger Neandershort said...

Such a teacher is on thin ice. Students have to know and appreciate the difference between science and non-science or pseudoscience. Real science is a way of knowing that tests ideas not against anybody’s holy book but against observable reality. If ideas thus tested and confirmed contradict somebody’s holy book that is not the scientist’s problem – not that scientists, being human, cannot address it outside working hours. If a teacher is to introduce our understanding of Torah in relationship to science,in his classroom, i.e. during working hours, he must inform his students that what he is about to say is his personal belief, and/or that of the Rambam and Rav Kook, but not science, which must stay neutral in matters of religion. Science does not deny God or creation; it simply has nothing to say on the subject. But I can understand where Dawkins and Hutchins are coming from as I could not understand before I became aware of Slifkingate and before starting this blog. Will we ever be rid of religiously inspired stupidity?

Tue Dec 18, 06:03:00 PM EST  
Blogger cipher said...

Doc, let me ask you then - if archaeology and carbon dating were to yield evidence that disproved the historical accuracy of the Torah, what would we do with it? It would be evidence that would stand in support of theories that can be tested against our holy book. Granted, the evidence we have now may be subject to intrepretation, difference of opinion - but what if we came up with evidence that just flatly contradicted the Torah, with no wiggle room?

The Dalai Lama always says that if science is able to disprove a tenet of Buddhist belief, they have to yield to science. Can you imagine an Orthodox rabbi saying as much?!

Tue Dec 18, 07:03:00 PM EST  
Anonymous Garnel Ironheart said...

There's no need. The Torah, as Rav Sliffkin likes to note, is not a book that can be literally interpreted. I would note, for example, how three simple paragraphs on custodionship in the Torah turn into a huge complex chapter in Bava Metzia, for example. So, as I've pointed out on my own blog, if science contradicts our understand of the Torah, AND we accept that the Torah is true, then the logical conclusion is we don't understand what the Torah is telling us.
Remember that the Torah isn't a science or history book. It is a book dedicated to teaching us God's message for humanity and our People. Everything in it is filtered through that lens. Trying to reconcile pure science with pure Torah is, therefore, useless. A person teaching the story of Creation isn't teaching history but the lessons God wants us to learn from the narrative. There is therefore no conflict.

Thu Dec 20, 10:35:00 AM EST  
Blogger cipher said...

Remember that the Torah isn't a science or history book. It is a book dedicated to teaching us God's message for humanity and our People. Everything in it is filtered through that lens.

Garnel,

I agree with you, certainly. And I realize that is, largely, why we have a tradition of oral interpretation (which has become stagnant, but that's another issue). But do you think that most Orthodox people would agree with that assessment? For example - there is archaeological evidence that would seem to indicate that the Exodus story isn't factual, that Israelite society developed from within Canaanite society. The Exodus story is our foundational myth. If we uncovered enough evidence to prove that the Torah isn't historically accurate on this point, do you think that most educated Orthodox people would accept this? (Let's leave the Hareidim out of it for the moment.) Wouldn't that undermine the foundation of Jewish belief - if, of course, we accepted the findings as valid and didn't resort to denial and cognitive dissonance?

Dr. Stern said, "Real science is a way of knowing that tests ideas not against anybody’s holy book but against observable reality.", but I think we can conceive of a scenario in which science tests ideas that run contrary to a holy book. Or am I misunderstanding what he meant?

(Doc - you haven't responded, so I hope I haven't offended by asking. As I think you know, I'm not Orthodox, and I don't always know where the lines are drawn.)

Thu Dec 20, 12:25:00 PM EST  
Blogger Neandershort said...

Cipher - I didn't know you're not Orthodox; thanks for telling me. Few academics are offended by honest questions. I got busy and couldn't answer as soon as I wanted.

No, I cannot imagine any Orthodox rabbi saying that our beliefs must yield to scientific discoveries, certainly not if he wants to spare himself the suffering of Rabbi Slifkin at the hands of the crazies, but if we understand the first few chapters of Bereshit as myth, in the broadest sense of that word, we liberate Torah from any particular picture of reality. I believe that such an understanding is within the hashkafa of the Rambam and Rav Kook, and it spares us the sort of mental gymnastics we find in Rabbi Slifkin’s work and that of others who write about evolution and Torah. Rabbi Slifkin and other progressive thinkers are uncomfortable with the concept of mythology, probably because they never studied mythology in their haredi yeshivot. But if the Torah speaks in the language of men, and specifically in the language of the men alive when it was given, then it is reasonable to suppose that God used the mythology current when it was given to convey His message.

Also, archeology is such an inexact science, operating with such incomplete data, that it is ridiculous to suggest that it can prove a negative about human history. As if any culture preserves all its historical artifacts for future generations to find. With specific reference to yetziat Mitzraim, hazal tell us that the Jews in Egypt did not adopt Egyptian names, language or dress. Any artifacts they left would have appeared "Canaanite." And Hebrew has remarkably few Egyptian loan words, compared to loan words from Persian and Greek. So we have a society that enviably resisted assimilation and left few clues about its sojourn in Egypt.

The guiding principal here is that God wrote both books, Torah and nature, both are true and, as a Polish Pope was able to grasp, truth cannot contradict truth. If they appear to conflict, one possibility (usually the likelier one) is that our understanding of Torah is inadequate. Another possibility is that the science is mistaken. If you're dealing with archeology, that becomes increasingly likely.

Thu Dec 20, 05:59:00 PM EST  
Anonymous Garnel Ironheart said...

When it comes to archeology, one must put one's biases aside. Regretably, this rarely happens so the archeologist who wants to prove we were never in Egypt will ignore most evidence he finds to the contrary and the one who does will find proof where no one else might see it. Having said that, one of our congregants is an avid archeologist who feels there is ample proof we were in Egypt.
As for the Canaanite influence, I'm always amazed when people bring that up as "proof" of a different history. The Bible itself talks about how our ancestors adopted Canaanite customs and rituals of worship! Of course there's a historical influence and our own books admit to it.
The bottom line is that it really doesn't matter to me how many Orthodox Jews accept such thinking if it's true (as I believe it to be). After all, a billion people believe JC was the son o' God and another billion think Mohammed was a prophet and we have no hesitation to disagree with them, do we?

Thu Dec 20, 07:16:00 PM EST  
Blogger cipher said...

Yeah, when I first posted a comment here, about a year ago, I asked you about evolution from an Orthodox perspective, and I mentioned then that I'm not frum, but then it was a while before I posted another, and I figured you might not remember.

But if the Torah speaks in the language of men, and specifically in the language of the men alive when it was given, then it is reasonable to suppose that God used the mythology current when it was given to convey His message.

I'm very impressed by this. I realize, of course, that Orthodoxy is by no means monolithic, and I try not to stereotype, but I'm delightfully surprised to hear an Orthodox person say this. You really think that Rav Kook, and even the Rambam, would have held this opinion?

I wouldn't, certainly, regard archeology as a "hard" science, which was why I also threw in carbon dating. And I didn't mean Egyptian artifacts - as I recall, the evidence that has been surfacing in recent years has been uncovered in Israel. I came across an article about this a few years ago; I'll have to reread it. My understanding is that, as of now, the available data is subject to interpretation - but that it's becoming less so.

I suppose you're right - it would be difficult to imagine a scenario in which a "hard" science, such as biology, chemistry or physics, could provide us with evidence that is testable against a sacred text. Two different spheres. However, I can see that it could provide evidence that would make it increasingly difficult to hold on to faith. I can certainly sympathize with atheists and agnostics who feel that science renders God "an unnecessary hypothesis".

Garnel -

When it comes to archeology, one must put one's biases aside. Regretably, this rarely happens so the archeologist who wants to prove we were never in Egypt will ignore most evidence he finds to the contrary and the one who does will find proof where no one else might see it.

Yeah, but this is always the case; we all do it. The creationists do it all the time. I still harbor the conceit that scientists as a group are less guilty of this than are people of faith, as a group.

Sun Dec 23, 12:08:00 PM EST  
Blogger Neandershort said...

I'm very impressed by this. I realize, of course, that Orthodoxy is by no means monolithic, and I try not to stereotype, but I'm delightfully surprised to hear an Orthodox person say this. You really think that Rav Kook, and even the Rambam, would have held this opinion?

I gave a talk on evolution in my synagogue (Kingsway Jewish Center in Brooklyn) several years ago on Shavuot night, and I used a book Mishnato Shel Ha-Rav Kook edited by Zvi Yaron, where the Rav is quoted saying as much, and using Moreh Nevukhim as his source. The book (in Hebrew) might be out of print, and in any case would be difficult to obtain in Brooklyn's sefarim stores; it was distributed by the World Zionist Organization. I copied the relevant pages for my notes and I can send them to you if I have your email address.

As for an "unnecessary hypothesis," that is certainly correct if God is offered as an explanation for how the world works (Why do kids get leukemia? God wants them to. If we all had that driving curiosity many more kids would still be dying of leukemia.) But religious people need God for moral guidance, which science by its nature cannot provide. However, considering all the evil perpetrated in the name of religion, one can get very pessimistic.

Wed Dec 26, 03:12:00 AM EST  
Blogger cipher said...

You may certainly have my email address: jeyges@yahoo.com, thanks. If the book is in Hebrew, I'm afraid it won't do me much good; even to call my Hebrew skills abysmal would be generous! However, I am friendly with an Orthodox rabbi, and I'm sure he'd be interested. He's a scholar himself, so he may have these materials in his library already - but, you never know. I'm also friendly with a Conservative rabbi who is an admirer of Rav Kook; I'm sure he'd be interested in them as well.

If we don't rely upon God as an explanation for the way the world works, and if we concede that the Torah is written in "the language of men" (although I'm not sure whether you're saying that it was written by men who were divinely inspired, or that God wrote it through them but was using contemporary literary devices) - on what basis do we have faith? Is it just a "feeling"? And, by faith, I don't mean that we infer the existence of a creator, so we express gratitude for life; I mean - why do we obey the Biblical injunctions, not to mention the Talmudic ones? In other words - why be frum?

(I sound like a Hareidi, don't I? It's "all or nothing"!)

Fri Dec 28, 12:31:00 PM EST  
Blogger Neandershort said...

Faith, like love, is difficult to describe, but you know it when it's there. It becomes a presence in your life, making itself known in a million ways. I felt it in June 1967 when every 15 minutes the radio would report the latest miracle from the Middle East and I, having been a sickly boy, suddenly stopped getting sick. It was as if God, as it were, in the midst of pushing all those buttons for all of us, found the time to push a little private button for me. I felt it every time I said sheheheyanu at the finish line of a marathon. I feel it every time I confidently run through neighborhoods that our mothers tell us are dangerous and that we shouldn't set foot there (where I live, if you don't want your training to consist of endlessly running around the block, you have to go through those 'hoods). I can almost feel an aura of God's protection, but not in a Jewish-mother way - little corpuscles of strength traveling through my arteries and parking themselves in my arm and shoulder muscles. To be sure, there is a catch; you have to prepare your arms and shoulders to receive them, but I do - see my profile pic.
Faith is a presence and a discipline. We don't wander aimlessly through life; we're never "on a train bound for nowhere." The secular society rails about the family breaking down and children not having guidance; Shabbat forces us to spend quality time with our spouses and children, time that will not be interrupted by the phone, the Blackberry or all those other mechanical servants that have taken over our lives and become our masters. Kashrut makes us reflect on our place in the grand scheme of things; we're not the boss, we can't eat anything we want, we can't kill an animal any old way. Taharat Ha-mishpaha imparts Godliness to one of the most animal of human functions. And tefilin physically express a shleimut and a manliness that was denied us for two millenia of galut but that we are privileged to reclaim. Being frum involves all of our being; body, mind and spirit, a Jewish head and a pair of Jewish arms. How could I debase the mitzva by putting tefilin around a jelly roll or a toothpick?
As a public school teacher I see the filth out there like few others do, and I have to say ashreinu. How fortunate we are that we have both God's presence and His discipline in our lives.

Mon Jan 07, 02:54:00 AM EST  
Blogger cipher said...

Doc, there used to be a movement called Muscular Christianity, which combined a religious world view with vigorous exercise and the cultivation of physical strength. You're like the Jewish version of that!

Wed Jan 09, 05:12:00 PM EST  
Blogger Neandershort said...

Actually Max Nordau preceded me by better than a century.
Click here

Fri Jan 18, 09:22:00 AM EST  
Blogger cipher said...

I had no idea. Even the name was similar.

Sun Jan 20, 06:20:00 PM EST  

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