Jewish tradition prides itself on rationality, emphasizing knowledge of God over mere faith. Among rabbinic sages, the figure of Maimonides (1135-1204), a man of science and of Torah, stands out as the ultimate rationalist. So it’s natural to wonder what he would say if he were alive about a modern controversy that, according to the advocates on one side of the debate, pits rational science against irrational religion.
The issue is intelligent design (ID), which poses the question of whether the history of life on earth can be explained, as Charles Darwin said it could, in terms of purely material processes. While Darwinism insists that natural selection operating on random genetic processes was fully sufficient to create you and me, intelligent design theorists believe a designer’s hand is at work. We doubt, for example, that the software in the cell, DNA, wrote itself.
Can we have any hope of inferring what Maimonides’ position would be? Leon Wielseltier, the celebrated literary editor at The New Republic, evidently thought so when he wrote a recent essay tarring Darwin-doubters as naíve creationists and Bible literalists.
One thing ID advocates are not guilty of is reading the Bible literally-we accept that the earth is about 4.5 billions years old and don’t worry about common descent, the idea that men and other creatures share common ancestors. But never mind. Wielseltier recalls that when he was young and foolish, he was troubled by apparent conflicts between science and religion. That is, until he read Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed. In that book, the great sage dispels any compulsion the religious reader may feel to read the Bible only literally, including Genesis I, which describes the earth’s creation.
Now, Maimonides was writing specifically about a scientific controversy, hot in his day, regarding the eternity of the world. Strict Aristotelians said the world had always existed. As Maimonides wrote:
“Know that our shunning the affirmation of the eternity of the world is not due to a text figuring in the Torah according to which the world has been produced in time. For the texts indicating that the world has been produced in time are not more numerous than those indicating that the deity is a body. Nor are the gates of figurative interpretation shut in our faces.”
Since the Bible can indeed be interpreted figuratively when appropriate, a faithful Jew surely may without qualms embrace Darwinism. Right?
Not so fast. Seen through the eyes of our rabbinic arch-rationalist, the answer isn’t so simple. But my guess is that Maimonides, if alive today, would be an ID theorist and a Darwin doubter.
In the very same chapter of the Guide quoted above (II:25), Maimonides goes on to say something that Leon Wielseltier missed. The sage writes that he rejects the eternity of the world for two reasons. First, because it “has not been demonstrated.” 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.”
He 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 Darwinism does the very same thing, ascribing all creation to blind material processes, as Darwin himself said: “I would give absolutely nothing for the theory of natural selection if it requires miraculous additions at any one stage of descent.” There’s no God in that picture.
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 hundredth-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 trend has changed directions and the doubts continue to mount. The Discovery Institute, which drives much of the debate about Darwinism, has compiled a list of Darwin-doubting scientists. The list currently stands at more than 500, including researchers at Berkeley, Princeton and MIT.
That doesn’t sound like a theory that has been unambiguously “demonstrated.” Nor does it sound like one that may be comfortably reconciled with Torah. Maimonides, I suspect, would tell us there is a choice every Jew must make: between God and Darwin. As anyone who takes ideas seriously needs to recognize, you can have one or the other, but not both.
David Klinghoffer is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and the author, most recently, of Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History.