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September 2, 2011 9:44 am

Does Questioning Evolution Make You Anti-Science?

avatar by Shmuley Boteach

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Paul Krugman, Laureate of the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences.

Paul Krugman thinks that Republicans are dumb-ass, knuckle-dragging Neanderthals. In the not-too-distant future he sees a Republican half-wit winning the Presidency and dragging America back to the Stone Age. I could see it now. The Republican nominee for President, delivering his acceptance speech at the convention in grunts, beating his chest, and bopping his wife over the head with the a club as he drags her on to the stage by her hair.

Writing in The New York Times Krugman says, “One of these years the world’s greatest nation will find itself ruled by a party that is aggressively anti-science, indeed anti-knowledge. And, in a time of severe challenges — environmental, economic, and more — that’s a terrifying prospect.” Terrifying indeed. What’s more frightening then the prospect of a bunch of underdeveloped orangutans with their finger on the nuclear button?

But saying that Republicans are anti-science is about as accurate as saying that democrats are anti-God, and one wonders what is more outrageous? The prospect of a primitive party of Republicans getting control of government, or a Nobel-prize winning columnist in the world’s most authoritative newspaper writing broad generalities about how Republicans are unlettered buffoons who hate learning and science.

What seems even more outrageous is the fact that Krugman’s ire was piqued by Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry’s comment that evolution was “just a theory” and that it has “some gaps in it,” and his challenge to global warming, where Perry said, “I think we are seeing almost weekly, or even daily, scientists are coming forward and questioning the original idea that man-made global warming is what is causing the climate to change.”

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Petty Orthodoxy

Thetorah.com is a website that analyzes the weekly reading of the Torah for people who do not take every word in the Torah...

While I cannot comment on climate-change science, I do have a great deal to say about evolution.

I am not a scientist. But beginning in about 1990 I started organizing an annual debate at Oxford University on science versus religion where the focus was almost always on evolution and which featured some of the world’s greatest evolutionists like Richard Dawkins, who appeared several times, and the late John Maynard-Smith of the University of Sussex, who, at the time, was regarded by many as the greatest living evolutionary theorist. While I moderated the first few debates, I later participated in a debate against Richard Dawkins at Oxford which he later denied ever took place, forcing us to post the full video of the debate online where Dawkins is not only the principal proponent of the science side but actually loses the debate in a student vote at the end. I later debated Dawkins again at the Idea City Convention at the University of Toronto, the video of which is likewise available online.

What I learned from these debates, as well as reading extensively on evolution, is that evolutionists have a tough time defending the theory when challenged in open dialogue. Indeed, David Berlinski, the author of The Devil’s Delusion, was, although an agnostic, on the religion side of one of the debates against Dawkins and tore large holes in evolution that Dawkins and Maynard-Smith struggled to address.

This does not mean that evolution is not true or that theory is without merit or evidence. It does, however, corroborate what Governor Perry said. Evolution is a theory. Unlike, say, the laws of thermodynamics, it has never been proven beyond the shadow of a doubt to be true. Indeed, Richard Dawkins and the late and celebrated Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould fiercely debated basic presumptions about evolution. Gould was not a theist and did not believe in Creation. But he argued that the large gaps in the fossil record make a mockery of a theory of gradual evolution, which is why Gould advocated ‘punctuated equilibrium,’ a variation on Darwinism in which evolution takes place in dramatic periods of change followed by long eons of stasis. Gould maintained this position precisely because, as Perry said, the theory of evolution has ‘some gaps in it,’ in the case of the fossil record quite literally.

No scientist has ever witnessed evolution directly and science itself says that this is impossible given the vast amount of time needed for species to evolve. Rather, evidence for evolution is brought primarily from the fossil record and natural selection from some famous contemporary observations, like the peppered moths (Biston betularia) which produce offspring that can be light or dark, much like the same family can have redheads, brunettes and blonds. Before the Industrial Revolution, the vast majority of peppered moths were light in coloration, which helped them to blend in against lichen and trees and avoid predation by birds. Dark-colored moths stood out against this background, and so were more often eaten and killed. However, with the rise in pollution during the Industrial Revolution, the lichens and trees against which the light-colored moths habitually hid from predators were darkened with soot. Suddenly, the light-colored moths were conspicuous to predatory birds, and the dark-colored moths were well camouflaged. The plights of the two populations were reversed—the dark moths survived, and the light moths were eaten and killed.

A similar proof for natural selection is brought from the Galapagos Finch which Darwin theorized was originally a single species of finch but over time each population of finch changed very slowly in response to the demands of the environment in which it found itself. The signal trait that Darwin seized upon to distinguish one species of finch from another was the shape of its beak. For example, the large ground-finch had a big, powerful beak that seemed well-suited to cracking open seeds while the vampire finch had a long, pointed beak, which allowed it to puncture the flesh of other birds and drink their blood. In each case, Darwin reasoned, beak shape evolved over time to provide its possessor with an adaptive advantage.

The problem with both these observations is that they are manifestations of horizontal, rather than vertical, evolution, as it describes how members of a species may change within the range of characteristics that they already possess. No new traits are generated. Rather, the traits that already exist are merely distributed differently.Vertical evolution, whereby natural selection can supposedly create entirely new structures, has yet to be directly observed and is thus a theory.

Other questions remain regarding evolutionary theory, most notably the anthropic principle which maintains that if the physical laws and constants governing our universe were even slightly different, we would not be here to notice it because the emergence of life could not have occurred. Our universe is a delicately interconnected network of laws that is balanced and tuned for the seemingly express purpose of supporting self-aware life.

The English cosmologist Sir Martin Rees argues in his book Just Six Numbers that the values of six numbers determine to a great degree many of the large- and small-scale properties of our universe. If any of these numbers were changed even slightly, the universe would exist in a radically different, and quite unfriendly, form, if it existed at all.

Let’s look at the second number, epsilon, which is roughly .007. Epsilon describes, roughly speaking, how durable matter is, because it tells us how much energy is required to separate an atom into its constituent particles. Clearly, this is a very important number. But the remarkable thing about it is how delicately balanced it is against the other five numbers. If epsilon were .006—a difference of about 14%—the universe would consist entirely of hydrogen. No other elements would form, because the process of nuclear fusion could not occur. The universe would be bland and uninteresting. There would be no planets, very little light, no nebulae, no comets and certainly no life.

The value of epsilon is one of the most profound mysteries of the universe. Scientists have spent their careers trying to understand why it has the value it does. As Max Born, the brilliant and influential twentieth-century physicist put it, “The explanation of this number must be the central problem of natural philosophy.” The Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, in his typically flamboyant way, put it differently: “It’s one of the greatest damn mysteries of physics: a magic number that comes to us with no understanding by man. You might say ‘the hand of God wrote that number….'”

Many leading scientists, like Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project and described by the Endocrine Society as “one of the most accomplished scientists of our time,” therefore believe that while evolution may indeed be an accurate theory as to the rise of life and species, it still requires the guiding hand of a higher power in order to operate. Indeed, Richard Dawkins himself said in a famous interview with Ben Stein that the intelligent life in our universe may have come from “a higher intelligence” consisting of space aliens which seeded our planet with intelligent life.

In the final analysis, however, the Biblical account of creation easily accommodates an evolutionary ascent, seeing as the narrative expressly relates that G-d created first the mineral, then the vegetable, then the animal, and finally human life forms. The only question is whether or not this was guided.

So before Krugman attacks Republican politicians for simply questioning evolution, it would behoove him to recall that the very essence of science is to question and that stifling doubt is a sin that religion was quite guilty of in the past and that science should refrain from repeating it in the present.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is in the midst of founding GIVE, the Global Institute for Values Education, and is the author of the forthcoming book The Church of Evolution. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

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  • tally isham

    Seriously, can you guys lookup the definition of theory. It is not a guess when used in the science. Germ theory is a theory. Gravity is a theory. Evolution is a theory, and it is a real phenomenon just like germs and gravity. Really, you guys aren’t only anti science, but also too stupid and lazy to lookup and understand the meaning of a single word.

  • Nonna D

    The one outstanding feature that I have noticed about anti-theists is; poor ELA skills.

  • Kieran

    Rabbi, try jumping off a cliff. After all, gravity is “only a theory”.

  • David

    To believe in creation I must first believe in a creator. To believe in a creator I must consider the truth about myself because the path to God is not about science but about righteousness and our surprising lack of it. To force a belief in creation on those who don’t believe in a creator will only result in the rejection of that belief. Creationists – the foundation of your faith is surely Jesus not Genesis? Or have you started a new religion? Jesus is before Genesis. So live your faith as evidence of Christ within you if he is indeed within you and don’t let this be a stumbling block to others.

    • David

      My apologies Rabbi – I arrived here via a link and didn’t realise where I was!

  • Robert Smith

    ”Evolution is just a theory.”
    No shit Sherlock?
    All scientific explanations are ‘just’ theories.
    There is no such thing as a scientific fact.
    Creationism is not a scientific theory ‘because no amount of evidence can ever disprove it.
    Therefore it is irrelevent and totally uninteresting to genuine scientists.
    You might just as well claim Noddy and Big Ears created the universe. Who could disprove it?

  • David

    Does Questioning Evolution Make You Anti-Science?

    No, Alfred Russel Wallace the co-discover of Evolution (Darwin basically plagiarised him)rejected his own theory, because it did not explain everything. So if the guy who formulated the Theory of Evolution through natural selection could question the theory, why can’t anyone else?

  • noel ferguson

    The problem seems to be that most people get giddy sitting on fences . There is just too much to see from up there so they hop down onto one side or the other and quite naturaly feel less confused as they now have only half the data to deal with . This sits well with evolution theory , survival requires an understanding of ones environment and the smaller the environment the easyer to understand so it makes sense to limit ones range and for a long time humans flourished this way .As their population expanded they spread to new areas ,a gradual process that worked both for areas of territory and areas of understanding . We seem now to be running out of new territory to occupy , at least on this or that side of the fence , I think the time is aproaching when we will either overcome our instinctive fear of hieght or suffer from our limited understanding . Evolution strikes me as a process for which we have a theory , with a few gaps , this process is driven by some principle for which there is also a theory , with a few gaps .

  • Andrew

    Rabbi,

    I find your wilfull ignorance of what is one of the most vigourously tested branches of science irritating. In science we use the word “theory” differently to how we might use it in every day parlance. A “theory” in science is the best explanation for a known set of observational and testible facts about the World, not,(as you and that idiot Rick Perry would have it believed,) idle conjecture or a hunch. Rick Perry’s “just a theory” response regarding evolution betrays his total ignorance of the scientific process, as does his climate change denial. But in keeping with the tradition of the American people’s love for voting for mediocrity in their Presidential candidates, it would not suprise me at all to see him holding emergency prayer meetings in the Oval Office.

    • A REAL American

      Andrew, please test your THEORIES of evolution in a lab and get back to me as soon as you have observable and provable results. Until then these are just THEORIES with no actual proof that they are viable.

      Believing in these THEORIES alone, you are taking a HUGE leap of faith well beyond the leap of someone who believes in the THEORY of Creationism. Creationism doesn’t reject evolution as a possibility, it simply says such a process cannot happen on its own without direction. Most scientists will begrudgingly admit that without direction in a controlled environment their experiments couldn’t possibly produce positive or repeatable results. If it cannot take place in a laboratory without direction and control how could this take place in nature with no direction or control??

      Congratulations–you have elevated the THEORY of evolution into the status of a religion complete with your own unassailable dogma.

      • Ambidexter

        Two things:

        A scientific theory is not a guess. The Germ Theory of Disease is not a guess that itty-bitty critters cause certain diseases. The Theory of Gravity is not a guess that two objects attract each other. Likewise the Theory of Evolution is not a guess about how life changes over time.

        If you want to know about evolution being seen in the lab, google “Lensky e coli”. For that matter, read about antibiotic resistant microbes.

        Creationism is a religious myth. Evolution is something seen every day. Sorry if reality doesn’t meet with your wishes.

  • Taffy Kate

    Rabbi, you are a breath of fresh ar. At last someone thinks with his brain instead of allowing others to think for them.

    • Robert Smith

      A breath of hot air more like…

  • dave

    Why just have annual debates at Oxford University on science versus religion where evolution is featured? Why not annual debates on the existence of God, and the pederasty of priests?

  • aow

    so you want to replace a scienetific theory with what? the jottings of nomads “written” several thousand years ago who saw people in burning bushes and rods that turn into snakes…. Ok. fine, just don’t ask anyone else to belive such claptrap!

  • Tony McGill

    We base our science and math on models, hypothesis and “facts”. What we presume is that we are “all knowing”. For an example if one takes our math. Even my little boy knows that one plus one cannot make two. For this to happen two things must be equal. Only in our “all knowing” realm is this so.

  • Mitchell

    I’m sick of this term “anti-science”. It should be replaced with “anti-reality”. And, also, this article is horseshit. Even if evolution were the shaky, questionable theory you claim it to be, to say the alternative is MAGIC is fucking absurd. The bible is a ludicrous document with no basis in reality. THINK FOR ONE SECOND; how can you justifiably use (pseudo-)scientific reasoning to claim that evolution is questionable without applying that same reasoning to your magic man in the sky? Tell me, please…

    • A REAL American

      Mitchell, talk about horseshit—how many billions upon billions upon billions of accidents needed to take place for chemicals to appear out of nowhere in order to produce gases that formed planets and stars and eventually single celled organisms?? The probability of these things happening in a set order without any outside direction is beyond belief and is just a guess at best with no possibility of being proven or replicated.

      The big bang theory assumes two or more particles collided or imploded, but what created these particles or caused the implosion?? How can you produce something from nothing? That is a physical impossibility or as you call it—MAGIC!!

      Now take this impossibility and apply the chaos that results from the explosion or implosion–how does order form from disorder without any direction–another MAGICAL theory.

      There is no possibility that life just MAGICALLY appeared on this planet and evolved from a single celled amoebae into a complicated human with emotions, intellect, wisdom, creativity, etc. The probability of such a thing happening on its own without any direction based on speculative and completely unprovable theories (something from nothing and order from chaos) transcend all logic and puts you squarely in the realm of MAGIC.

      The more logical explanation is the process was directed by some force.

  • Phil

    Rabbi, your stupidity is breathtaking and your arrogance and push for the nonsensical biblical explantion of creation are astounding. Please, go for a swim and don’t come back. Earth will be all the better for it.

    Oh wait, take loonies like Perry with you. Do us all a favour.

    • A REAL American

      Phil…and what is so “sensical” about big bangs and humans descending from single cell amoeba? How can something be created from nothing? Where does that something come from and who ordered it into existence?

      If you believe in the big bang theory then you are assuming the existence of particles (which is beyond anyone’s ability to prove) and that these particles either collided or imploded to form gases which formed planets that eventually formed a “simple” life form which over billions of years evolved into complex creatures capable of thought, speech, emotions, intellect and creativity.

      You are assume much but do not offer a shred of evidence for these assumptions. What created these particles and what caused them to collide or implode? How many billions of accidents had to happen for these particles to form the gases that formed the planets and the stars? How can order be produced from disorder without any direction? Lots of questions with absolutely no provable answers.

      So who’s arrogance and nonsensical explanations should we believe–yours which comes with absolutely no offer of proof or a highly educated Rabbi who has provided documented proofs and has successfully debated these theories with some of the best known scientists and atheists over the last 20 years??

  • Leslie

    “the laws of thermodynamics” .. Here we go again that evolution is just a theory and not a law.
    The author has no idea what a scientific law and theory is. A simple wikipedia lookup will give you the details. BTW what else should I have expected in this website?

  • George Baldwin

    Yes….question gravity in your spare time

  • Dick Snyder

    All well and good, but PErry and his ilk lack the intellect or knowledge to argue the case. In addition, how does any intelligent person justify the ridiculuous idea, which most creationists must cling to, that the universe is 6000 years old and dinosaurs existed alongside humans.

    • Steve Cook

      @ Dick Snyder. The Bible does not actually teach that the Earth/universe was created in six days. But rather each “day” is a creative time period. Just like how your father might say “back in my day ice cream cones were only a nickel, he is referring to the time of his youth, not a specific 24 hour day. The Bible does not specify the length of each of the creative periods. Yet all six of them have ended, it being said with respect to the sixth day (as in the case of each of the preceding five days): “And there came to be evening and there came to be morning, a sixth day.” (Ge 1:31) However, this statement is not made regarding the seventh day, on which God proceeded to rest, indicating that it continued. (Ge 2:1-3) Also, more than 4,000 years after the seventh day, or God’s rest day, commenced, Paul indicated that it was still in progress. At Hebrews 4:1-11 he referred to the earlier words of David (Ps 95:7, 8, 11) and to Genesis 2:2 and urged: “Let us therefore do our utmost to enter into that rest.” By the apostle’s time, the seventh day had been continuing for thousands of years and had not yet ended. This would indicate the passing of thousands of years from the commencement of God’s rest day to its end. The week of days set forth at Genesis 1:3 to 2:3, the last of which is a sabbath, seems to parallel the week into which the Israelites divided their time, observing a sabbath on the seventh day thereof, in keeping with the divine will. (Ex 20:8-11) And, since the seventh day has been continuing for thousands of years, it may reasonably be concluded that each of the six creative periods, or days, was at least thousands of years in length.
      That a day can be longer than 24 hours is indicated by Genesis 2:4, which speaks of all the creative periods as one “day.” Also indicative of this is Peter’s inspired observation that “one day is with Jehovah as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day.” (2Pe 3:8) Ascribing not just 24 hours but a longer period of time, thousands of years, to each of the creative days better harmonizes with the evidence found in the earth itself.

      • Mitchell

        Why do you even bother? Really…

      • Tommy

        Steve,

        You are indeed a sad, sad person. If only life was as easy as your simple hypothesis based on a book that was conceived by a group of people years after the supposed events. There is only one true and provable sentence in the bible and that is “Printed and published by”.

      • So we are still living in God’s sabbath rest. Does it explain why prayer is not answered, and that no one can find any sign that God is there at all? The Jewish sabbath was strictly held. Men were struck dead for lifting a finger on the sabbath. God is not likely to break His own law, is He? Does it explain why the Christian churches are so corrupt? Presumably, the Devil is no respecter of God’s sabbath, so he has free range while God slumbers. Might explain a lot, eh?

    • A REAL American

      Dick Snyder–I am not sure that a politician has the knowledge to argue a case, but that doesn’t mean he is wrong.

      The problem with your argument is that you are basing it on ignorance your ignorance. From your words I can see that you have no idea what is written in the Torah (the Old Testament).

      The Torah was written in Hebrew–how’s your Hebrew? Hebrew cannot be translated literally word for word into English without losing the concepts behind the words. An example is the word TSUVAH–which is commonly translated as REPENTANCE, but the actual meaning is RETURN. But if you say RETURN what does that mean, you have to describe the process of RETURNING and to whom you are RETURNING to which is why the word is translated into English with using a concept only vaguely similar to the original intention of Man returning or turning to God. The translator chose a word but was not able to fully describe the process intended in the original Hebrew. Only when you learn the entirety of the passage in its original Hebrew can you decipher the true intent and meaning behind it.

      The first passage in the Torah says In the Beginning… it doesn’t state that this is the beginning or the beginning happened now. In the beginning suggest a period of time took place and this was the beginning. How long that period of time was, we don’t know. Cosmologist assume billions of years with 6 distinct periods of time in which the universe and cosmos and the Earth were formed. As Steve Cook points out–each day of creation corresponds to a period of time not necessarily 24 hours. There is no conflict between the cosmologist theory of 6 periods of time and the story recounted in Genesis.

      The Torah also states that God created and destroyed many worlds before forming this one. That can be an explanation of dinosaurs who were destroyed before the formation of the world in which we live. Again, this is not in conflict with science since the world formed and changed radically before humans came onto the scene. Another possible explanation is that the world wasn’t formed new–Adam was created as an adult and trees and animals were already formed–and not seedlings or unfertilized eggs. In other words there was already a chicken in existence before an egg was ever hatched. This allows the possibility that fossils were part of a mature world that was formed.

      All of these possibilities may be difficult for you to believe, but to me they are no more difficult to believe that the possibility that NOTHING took shape and formed into SOMETHING (which transcends logic) and this something imploded or collided for no apparent reason to form gases that formed into planets, etc…. and all this happened purely by accident with no direction or purpose. This to me is the most ridiculous hypothesis possible.

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