Monday, August 28, 2006

More on Evolution

A reader sent me a column by Washington Times columnist Fred Reed as it appears on the website of Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb of Ohr Samayach: .

The column is typical of its genre – half-baked fulminations by people with access to the media but little knowledge of the subject. Not surprisingly, writings in this genre are never submitted to peer-reviewed journals, where they would have to pass the scrutiny of trained scientists who are on the cutting edge of research in the field. When reacting to work like this, one does not know where to begin because the thinking is so garbled. So I'll begin where Reed does, with the chemical origin of life. He is correct in that we do not know with certainty how life arose, and perhaps we never will know. We have some working hypotheses, and there is every reason to suppose that life arose by natural processes. But that question is separate from evolution. We know that the first organisms on earth were simple single-celled creatures, because they are the first to appear in the fossil record. You do not find human skeletons in Precambrian rocks. Even if, as proposed by Sir Francis Crick, those first cells arrived here from outer space, the evolutionary process on earth would begin from there.
Reed states that science is supposed to give clear answers, while evolution offers only "intense faith in fuzzy principles." Science is a rigorous method for answering questions about the natural world, and each answer raises a host of new questions – else scientists would by now have learned all there is to know and gone out of business. Scientific theories generate testable predictions. For instance, evolution predicts that human DNA will be more similar to chimpanzee DNA than to fish DNA. When scientists learned how to sequence DNA that turned out to be the case; evolutionary relationships inferred from comparative anatomy and protein analysis mapped onto DNA. That is as clear an answer as any that will be found in the physical sciences.
Like all work in this genre, Reed's column makes much of gaps in our knowledge of evolutionary biology. For instance, we do not know the exact sequence of genetic mutations that resulted in the human eye or insect metamorphosis, therefore mutation and natural selection can not account for it. True, we cannot yet reconstruct the genetic events in the evolution of any organ, but it is common knowledge that members of a population differ in heritable traits; like begets like. Ever since the invention of agriculture, farmers have been breeding their "best" livestock and crop plants, i.e. those individuals possessing traits advantageous for the farmer. The result is countless varieties of plants and animals tailored to different environmental conditions, market preferences and the like. Evolution works the same way, except that nature does the selecting. There are unanswered questions in our knowledge of evolution, as there are in any area of science, but evolution remains the best fit to observable reality. Indeed, it is the only fit that comes under the heading of science.
Like most authors in this genre, Reed misunderstands the concept of "chance" or "randomness." Mutations are random only with respect to the needs of the organism. They are constrained by neighboring bases in a codon and neighboring amino acids in a protein, among other factors. That explains much of the "unintelligent design" seen in nature. Since Reed and his ilk like to cite the human eye as a "perfect organ" that nature could not have designed, I will point out that the human eye is not perfect at all. The lens stiffens with age, so that by the time we are 40 (i.e. with roughly half our lives ahead of us) it can no longer accommodate to close-up objects and we become dependent on reading glasses. Worse, the retina is inside out, with the rods and cones behind where the optic nerve leaves, resulting in a blind spot. Any intelligent engineer would have put the opening for the optic nerve behind the rods and cones, but nature must work with pre-existing material; it does not have the luxury of starting from scratch. Also, point mutations are not the only source of genetic variation. We have learned in the last generation that the genome in eukaryotes (organisms higher than bacteria) is much more complex than we had thought, with genes and pieces of genes moving from place to place on a chromosome and even jumping from one chromosome to another, in the process switching some genes on and others off. There is every reason to believe that the eukaryotic genome has more surprises waiting to be discovered and to shed more light onto evolutionary mechanisms.

Now, to address some specific errors in Reed's work:
1. Human intelligence appeared too rapidly. We have a fairly complete fossil sequence of proto-humans, and it shows the brain becoming progressively larger over time. We know that, when our ancestors descended from the trees onto open savanna, they became targets for large predators. They (and we) were not large, strong or fast. But with upright posture our forelimbs were free to wield tools and weapons; we could catch our dinner and avoid being dinner with our wits. Larger brains allowed their possessors to evade predators and to catch more prey; more protein in the diet allowed us to build still bigger brains that made us still better hunters, and so forth. The human brain grew rapidly until it literally bumped into an obstacle – the mother's pelvis was only so big. The Bible is not wide of the mark there; difficulty giving birth is the price we pay for being intelligent animals. And until modern obstetrics it was a high price indeed, with death of mother and baby in childbirth being commonplace.
2. Those who deal in human evolution hold The Bell Curve in high regard. They don't. That book was uniformly panned by just about everyone who studies human evolution.
3. Men prefer cute, sexy women; large breasts produce more milk, etc. Balderdash. Ideals of female beauty vary across cultures and even between individual males in the same culture. Most pre-modern cultures idealized women who were "pleasingly plump;" some extra subcutaneous fat was insurance for pregnant women and their unborn children against the periodic famines that characterized pre-modern societies. It is only in recent times that men in advanced societies came to idealize (and idolize) a body type so unrealistically thin that women literally starve themselves to death trying to attain it. Likewise, there is no correlation between breast size and milk yield. Human females probably evolved permanent breasts, and became sexually receptive year-round, to keep the male interested. It was (and is) advantageous for human children to have two parents around – a mother to care for them and a father to bring home the bacon.
4. Why don't Ted Williams' eyes (actually, hand-eye coordination), Muhammad Ali's physique, etc. spread throughout the population? They simply do not confer any survival advantage in modern society unless you are a professional athlete. How many of us work at jobs that require extraordinary (or even ordinary) physical strength, and would starve if we did not possess it? Likewise, modern medicine obviates the need for genes that confer resistance to asthma and a host of other conditions that are now treatable. Rh-negative mothers who give birth to positive babies are now treated with Rh immune globulin to protect subsequent positive babies. We are indeed waiting for natural selection to equip human beings to sit at desks for most of the waking day and eat junk food without contracting heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers, but in the meantime there will be plenty of premature death.
5. Consciousness has physical existence, mapping onto specific areas of the brain. As a function of the nervous system, it is electromagnetic. One must take it into account in describing physical systems with which it interacts.
6. A population must play the genetic hand it is dealt, therefore different populations might solve the same problem in different ways. Primates evolved a highly developed visual system and do well with it. Primitive man in particular was well served by keen vision warning him of approaching prey and predators at considerable distance. Other taxa are served equally well by hearing and/or smell.
7. Kidneys need well developed nerves to maintain chemical homeostasis of blood. Eat a salty meal and you excrete more salt into the urine. Run a marathon in warm weather and you excrete less salt (and less water). Patients on dialysis because their kidneys failed do not have this fine tuning and must eat a very restrictive diet that causes many to become suicidally depressed.

Fred Reed is right that astronomy and geology do not engender as much controversy as evolution, even though they too require an earth that is several billion rather than several thousand years old. That is probably because the average Joe does not really care how old the earth is, but the notion that he is descended from a nonhuman animal gets his dander up. Therefore, anti-evolutionism is usually (not always) found among Christian and Jewish fundamentalists. It should be noted, however, that the controversy is present only among laymen unfamiliar with the theory and the supporting evidence. In the scientific community evolution, owing to its internal consistency and explanatory power, is as robust and well established as any theory in science. The best advice I can give authors such as Fred Reed, and presumably Rabbi Gottlieb, is found in Mishlei 4:7: ראשית חכמה קנה חכמה.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The Slifkin Affair: A Current Analysis

Rabbi Maryles has an incisive post on his blog. It is too long to reproduce here, so follow the hyperlink and then read my comments, which were too lengthy to post there:

One thing I must say about Rabbi Slifkin's latest book, and he says it in the preface, is that it contains no hiddushim. Everything there is firmly rooted in traditional sources including the Rambam, Rav Hirsch and Rav Kook. Having been intrigued by biology since I was a kid (you don't get a Ph.D. in a discipline for nothing), I grappled with the problem for decades. Imagine my pleasure when I saw in Rav Kook's writings an approach similar to mine. As a teacher, I have had students approach me on occasion with questions on this topic, and that is the approach I used with them. So did other biology teachers and professors who are shomrei mitzvot. And now the ban. Since I never felt any allegiance to the banners, I will continue using the same approach with my students. But what of the scientists and teachers who did consider the banners their authority figures? What of the kiruv workers who are now scrambling for an approach that is acceptable to the gedolim and to the people they are trying to be mekarev? And what of all those ba'alei teshuva who sacrificed so much to join our community, only to find out that they joined the Flat Earth Society instead? As I have stated several times, almost as appalling as the shameless public humiliation visited upon Rabbi Slifkin by so-called gedolei Torah on Erev Yom Kippur is the spinelessness and lack of intellectual courage in our community. You can count on your fingers the Rabbanim willing to publicly espouse an approach like Rav Slifkin's: Rav Tzvi Hirsch Weinreb, Rabbi Shmuel Irons (Lakewood Rosh Kollel in Detroit) and Rabbi Milton Polin (rabbi emeritus of Kingsway Jewish Center in Brooklyn, where I daven, and past president of the Rabbinical Council of America) come to mind. Rabbi Slifkin has a page on his website dedicated to letters he recieved after the ban. Many people from right-wing yeshivot wrote in to support him, but I am one of the few who put his name on what he wrote: Gil Student's posek asked not to be named, as did the authority he directed Rabbi Student to consult. Haredi authorities who had supported Rabbi Slifkin in the beginning ran for cover under pressure from the banners. I have been observant from birth and that is not going to change, but
emunat hakhamim is a casualty. Gone. Kaput. Fuhgeddaboudit. I have to keep reminding myself that Torah is not the exclusive property of Rabbi Elyashiv and his adherents; it belongs to all of us. But there are no anonymous postings on their pashkevils (pashkevil = patshegen + evil?). None of them is afraid to sign his name to his work. If we had that kind of manly courage in our camp our emuna would be strengthened and many troubled seekers would find menuhat ha-nefesh.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Pay me now - or pay me later

I remember a commercial for, I think, Fram air filters. The mechanic tells a motorist to "pay me now," and replace his air filter, or "pay me later" for a major repair. This is the situation the Western democracies were in in 1938. They could have fought a relatively inexpensive war over Czechoslovakia, but they chose appeasement instead and ended up with the most expensive war in human history. We are in the same situation today with regard to the war on terror. Many just do not get it - like it or not, we are at war. If 9/11 didn't wake us up, and if the recently thwarted (barukh Hashem) plot to blow up ten planes in the air didn't wake us up, it is hard to imagine what will. Our enemies don't fight like us and don't think like us. Two of the liquid-bomb plotters were parents who planned to smuggle the bomb components in their infant son's bottle and kill themselves and their six-month-old baby for the greater glory of Allah. We will have to fight this war with the enemy's ruthlessness and determination - and if we shrink from it today we will have to pay much more dearly tomorrow.

Ever since 9/11 the New York Post has been spot-on in its analysis of the epic struggle in which we are engaged, and here is an editorial and a column for thought:

Wednesday, August 16, 2006


Roughly translated, the Hebrew word "michdal" means screw-up. It was all over the media after the Yom Kippur War in the context of all the intelligence failures that led to the surprise attack. Now that the Lebanon War (No. 2) has quieted down (for the time being), there will be much discussion about "michdal." Who screwed up, why, and how can we keep it from happening again?

P.M. Olmert assured us at the outset that the war would be quick if not easy, and would result in the return of the kidnapped soldiers and the total destruction of Hezbollah as a military threat to Israel. The war took a month, during which about a million residents of the north were displaced. Damage to civilian areas was extensive, and the economic disruption was intolerable. With a cease-fire in place, for the time being, the kidnapped soldiers remain in enemy hands, and Hezbollah's capability does not appear to be severely degraded; up until the cease fire over a hundred rockets were fired at the north every day. True, we gave back far more than we got in terms of damage, but in the Middle East perceptions are more important than realities. Hezbollah has declared victory, as have its patrons Syria and Iran. Its stature in the Arab world is enhanced immeasurably. Arabs are already entertaining the possibility of crushing Israel sometime soon. Hezbollah openly declares it has no intention of disarming, regardless of ceasefire agreements and U.N. resolutions, and the international community has no intention of disarming it by force. Iran and Syria can and will resupply it with all the armament Israel destroyed and then some. Since Hezbollah is part of the Lebanese government, having the Lebanese Army deployed along the border is like having the fox guard the chicken coop. Neither it nor an international force led by the French (!) will keep Hezbollah from doing whatever it pleases. Israelis in Haifa and throughout the Galil will never feel truly secure. So what went wrong?

1. Israel's political leadership made the same mistake America's leadership made in Iraq, namely over-reliance on air power. Iraq shows that air power alone does not win wars; it prepares the battlefield but must be followed by boots on the ground and plenty of them. This is especially true when Hezbollah's rocket launcers are small, easily maneuverable and well hidden in civilian areas. The reserves should have been called up at the outset. Since Israel's economy cannot sustain a prolonged call-up of reserves, there should have been an all-out blitzkrieg operation as soon as the decision to go to war was made.

2. There was a perceived unwillingness on the Israeli side to take casualties. If 15 soldiers are killed in a day's fighting, the media play it up as the end of the world. Of course to us (but not to our enemies) every life is precious, and our hearts go out to the families of every soldier killed or wounded. But it is not the end of the world. Omaha Beach anyone? Antietam? Gettysberg? The London blitz? The casualties from this operation were proportionately far less than in the War of Independence in 1948-49. Again, in that part of the world perceptions count for more than realities. If Israel is perceived as reluctant to take casualties when its very existence is at stake, the enemy is emboldened to try to outlast us.

3. The military had its hands tied by two concepts that have hamstrung it since before the beginning of the state: havlaga (self-restraint) and tohar ha-nesheq (purity of arms). Taken together, they mean that Israel has to be the nice guy at all times. Israel must fight by the Queensberry rules while the enemy can gouge and bite. These concepts are suicidal when the enemy deliberately uses its civilians as human shields, attacking our restraint as a point of weakness. As soon as the decision to go to war was taken, the government should have declared all of Southern Lebanon a free-fire zone and given the civilian population 24 hours to leave or take the consequences. Warning every town that we're coming only warns the enemy to move its rocket launcers around. Click here for a similar analysis of the screwup in Iraq.

What now? A cease-fire is in place and seems to be holding, but Hezbollah is not destroyed and openly declares its intention to keep its arms and fight again. Residents of the north are returning to their homes, and the destruction will be repaired. But it is only a matter of time before Hezbollah and its Syrian and Iranian puppeteers decide to attack again, with missiles capable of reaching Tel Aviv. In that part of the world the loser must not only lose but perceive themselves and be perceived by others as losers. Hezbollah does not see itself as the loser, and is not seen as a loser in the Arab world. They think they can beat us, and they will soon try. Smart people learn from their mistakes. When the next round comes, we must go whole hog, go for broke and damn world opinion. Else why bother?

Click here for a New York Post editorial on the subject.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006


Today, August 9, is the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, Japan at the end of World War II. Some 40,000 people were killed that day, most of them "innocent Japanese civilians." While the loss of life is regrettable, and historians will forever debate whether use of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was necessary, there is little doubt that the resulting American victory left America and the world, including Japan, better off than if the other side had won. Keep that in mind as Western civilization, not just Israel, is embroiled in a war for its existence, and the effete liberal media indulge in an orgy of weeping and gnashing of teeth over relatively minor civilian casualties among the enemy. Failure is not an option. We must win this war, and when the enemy hides behind their own wives and children civilian casualties are inevitable. Israel has gone far out of its way to minimize harm to enemy civilians, I might even say too far. The lives of our soldiers (and our civilians, whom the enemy shamelessly targets) must take precedence over those of the enemy. That is the brutal calculus of war. War is terrible, but the one in which we are now engaged is terribly necessary. There is nothing pretty about it. If you don't have the stomach, don't watch the news.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Darwin at AMNH

After Sunday's race I walked a mile south on Central Park West and took in the special Darwin exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History. It was geared to the general public, not to science professionals, and I did not learn much that I did not already know, but seeing actual artifacts from Darwin's work, specimens, journal entries, pages from the first printing of Origin of Species and the like, gave me a new glimpse into his greatness. I also saw video clips of contemporary biologists telling how evolution informs their daily work. One commented that evolution is the "glue" that binds together what would otherwise be a collection of disjointed facts - almost exactly what I write in my letter to parents at the beginning of the school year, "Evolution is the unifying concept that binds the above topics into a coherent whole." Here in New York I never had trouble with parents over my teaching of evolution; the experience of teachers in other parts of the country is far different. It was instructive to me that Darwin had his theory thought out but kept it under wraps for twenty years until he was about to be scooped by another naturalist, for fear of the firestorm it would ignite in the society of his time (150 years ago). Sure enough, he was vilified by the religious community and others, but it did not take long for his theory to conquer the scientific world, because it was and still is the only scientific explanation of the data it addresses.
The exhibit closes in two weeks. Too bad. I know of a few highly placed people in our community who can benefit from it.

Hope and Possibility

I had the privilege Sunday morning to run a five mile race in Central Park. Now, I've run plenty of races in Central Park and my running madrega isn't what it used to be. But this one was different. It was the "Hope and Possibility Race," organized by the Achilles Track Club, an international organization of disabled athletes. It includes a "Freedom Team" made up of wounded American veterans. Some were in wheelchairs, some used handcycles and, though without use of their legs, had arms bigger than mine, and mine aren't exactly toothpicks. Some ran on an artificial leg, some on two. All had on the back of their shirts, "We were just doing our jobs." What they didn't say is that all of them volunteered for their "jobs;" the military here in America is not drafting people anymore. Running alongside them is a most humbling experience. How dare I complain about the heat, the hills, my arthritic knee or anything else? I would imagine it is like a kid in yeshiva 80 or so years ago finding himself in the presence of the Chafetz Chaim or Rav Kook. You're nothing next to them. What do you do? What do you say? What do you say to someone who sacrificed a leg, two legs, his eyesight, so that I can run in a public park in shorts and a sleeveless top and not worry about the religious police carting me off to jail? I would call out "God bless you," but oh how trite. Then there were all the firefighters cheering them and us on. They were cheering us! They, who ran into the Twin Towers when everybody else was running out, who lost 343 good men that day, many of whom don't even have a proper kever.
May God be with every one of them as they rebuild their lives, and with every soldier still out there "just doing their jobs."

Friday, August 04, 2006

Islamic Mafia

Iranian Haman Ahmadinejad showed his true colors again, letting it be known that the solution to the current conflict in the Middle East is the elimination of Israel. Not, God forbid, that he should stop arming and supplying Hezbollah. Saad Bin Laden, Osama's favorite son, reportedly was dispatched to Lebanon to help Hezbollah orchestrate terror attacks inside Israel. Iran is Shiite. The Bin Ladens and Al Qaeda are Sunni, as is Hamas. Shiites and Sunnis were at each others' throats for centuries, but they are in complete agreement when it comes to killing Jews. I mentioned an Islamic Mafia in an earlier post. Just as the Gambinos, Colombos, Gallos etc. are forever killing one another but are a common danger to honest and law-abiding citizens, so the various factions of the Islamic Mafia are a common danger not only to Jews and Israel but to all freedom-loving people everywhere. Ahmadinejad says that the solution is the elimination of Israel. We say that the solution is the elimination of the Islamic Mafia. And if that means a wider conflict encompassing the entire Middle East and perhaps beyond, better sooner than later. As Ahmadinejad's mentor Adolf Hitler taught us, every day we delay is another day for the enemy to prepare.