Did the software in the cell, DNA, write itself? Is genetic information the only information that science has ever encountered that was not generated by an intelligent agent? These are some of the questions raised by the scientific and cultural war going on over Charles Darwin’s theory and its modern challenger, intelligent design.
In an April 6 Jerusalem Post op-ed, the writer and editor Larry Yudelson took me to task for arguing in numerous venues that the debate about Darwin is a crucial one for Jews who care about Judaism. If it was simply Yudelson offering his personal opinion that “Darwin is no problem for Jews” (the title of his article), I wouldn’t have sought the generous permission of the editor to respond.
But given that Yudelson also summons no less a figure than Maimonides to the defense of Darwin, along with another rabbinic luminary, Abraham Isaac Kook, a response is necessary.
MAIMONIDES lived seven centuries before Darwin presented his argument that natural selection operating on random genetic variation produced you and me. Yet Judaism’s greatest sage of the past millennium was engaged in a strikingly similar scientific argument in his own time.
That argument centered on the question of whether the universe is eternal and without a starting point (the position of Aristotle) or whether it had a beginning in time at the moment of creation (Maimonides’s view).
Larry Yudelson recommends to us the path of Maimonides, “who opposed his contemporaries who preached the eternity of the world simply because ‘the theory has not been proved’ (Guide II:25), while allowing that were it to be proved, it would not contradict the core Jewish beliefs.”
I wish Mr. Yudelson had read that important chapter in Guide for the Perplexed more carefully. In fact, the sage writes that he rejects the eternity of the world for two reasons not, as Yudelson says, just one.
First, Maimonides rejected Aristotle’s thinking on this point because it “has not been demonstrated.” But second because it makes nonsense of the Jewish religion: “If the philosophers would succeed in demonstrating eternity as Aristotle understands it, the Torah as a whole would become void, and a shift to other opinions would take place. I have thus explained to you that everything is bound up with this problem.”
Maimonides was saying that though parts of the Bible’s text may indeed be interpreted in other than a literal fashion, there are philosophical reasons that make an eternal universe incompatible with the God of the Torah. Simply put, Aristotle makes God’s role in the world, as a creator and guide, superfluous and impossible.
AND DARWINISM does the very same thing, ascribing all creation to blind material processes, as Darwin himself wrote: “I would give absolutely nothing for the theory of natural selection if it requires miraculous additions at any one stage of descent.”
Maimonides would ask if Darwinism nevertheless has been “demonstrated.” Well, Darwin’s followers reached a high point of self-confidence in 1959 with the Centennial Celebration held at the University of Chicago to mark the 100th-year anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species. The event was notable for the total conviction on the part of many speakers that any debate about Darwin was over and done.
But since then, the intellectual trend has changed directions. The Discovery Institute has compiled a list of Darwin-doubting scientists, a list currently standing at more than 500 doctoral researchers at places like Berkeley, Princeton and MIT.
It is now 71 years since Rav Kook died. So obviously in writing the beautiful and poetic words that Larry Yudelson quotes, Kook was not aware of the current state of knowledge about microbiology and the nanotechnology of the cell. Was Kook a close student of Darwin’s writings or of the state of biology even in his own day? Is Yudelson?
In theory, it’s very inspiring and idealistic to write, as Kook did, that: “In general this is an important principle in the conflict of ideas, that when an idea comes to negate some teaching in the Torah, we must not, to begin with, reject it, but build the edifice of the Torah above it, and thereby we ascend higher, and through this ascent, the ideas are clarified.”
In practice, however, there is simply no way to reconcile an idea with its precise negation. The premise of Judaism is that God commands us on the basis of his having created us. The question before us, therefore, is not a simple-minded one of whether the universe was made in six calendar days, but rather of whether the universe has a need for a God, period.
In the philosophical system elaborated by Darwin and his disciples, there is no room for a creator in any sense. To explain the existence of life without reference to a deity was Darwin’s entire purpose.
He developed a theory that answered his own purpose, certainly not ours as Jews. Given that his idea has neither been unambiguously demonstrated nor is it congenial to Jewish belief – the two-fold test of Maimonides – I am bewildered to find Jews who are committed to Judaism rushing recklessly to Darwin’s defense.
The writer is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, a columnist for the Forward, and the author of Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History.