Super Duper Science Rabbi? On the Relationship between Genetics and Torah

Dr. John D. Loike and Rabbi Moshe D. Tendler co-authored an article for the Torah U-Madda journal (“Molecular Genetics, Evolution, and Torah Principles,” The Torah U-Madda Journal 14: [2006] 173-92). The article can be viewed at this link:

http://www.yutorah.org/_shiurim/7.%20John%20D.%20Loike%20and%20R.%20Moshe%20D.%20Tendler%20-%20Molecular%20Genetics,%20Evolution,%20and%20Torah%20Principles.pdf

Their expressed goal was to “approach the issue of how molecular genetics should be viewed within the perspective of Torah” (173). While the reader receives a clear, detailed introduction to both how the process of evolution works at the DNA level and to the molecular genetics revolution, a number of fatal flaws undermine the authors’ exposition of the relationship between science and Torah. As the authors’ method of relating Torah to science is indicative of an unsettling trend becoming ever more common in the field of science and religion, after we identify a few particular issues in their article, we will turn to the larger challenges that are specifically endemic to the authors’ approach.

In the section entitled Religious Principles and Themes in Molecular Genetics, the two authors show the “perspective of Torah” by “propos[ing] three examples that illustrate how specific ideas and themes in molecular genetics reinforce moral and religious values and principles” (184). We will focus on the latter two points. (1)

In their second example entitled ‘Individuality and yet community,’ the authors observe in the genetic world what social scientists, doctors and theologians have noticed elsewhere since time immemorial: that human beings enjoy individualistic and communal qualities that are intrinsically intertwined. Leaving aside that this fact is so obvious its clichéd, they go on to conclude that “[t]his idea raises complex questions about the treatment of other creatures” (185). I must admit that I was shocked by this conclusion, and was left wondering what exactly was “the complex questions” I was supposed to brood over, especially in light of the fact that the authors claimed earlier that they intend to “reinforce moral and religious values,” not that they would establish new ones. Given that the Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Avadim 9:8), Rema (Oreḥ Ḥayyim 223:6), QiẒur Shulḥan Arukh (42:1) and countless other halakhic authorities have already incorporated the “proper” approach to animals in their writings, what was the mysterious point the reader was intended to grasp?

It appears that our authors intimate that “the complex questions” that the genetic similarities between humankind and the animal kingdom suggest lie beyond those already pasqined (ruled) issues throughout halakhic literature. (2) While it is not at all evident how this claim follows from the fact that we share genetic similarities with the animal kingdom – for example, atomically, we share similarities with most things in the universe! –  we have another reason to challenge such an approach: it does not coincide with Orthodox thinking. On the contrary, this approach would more closely fit in with the “Positive-Historical” approach sometimes connected to Conservative Judaism. The authors advocate redefining our relationship to animals based on extra halakhic considerations. While integrating modern scientific findings into the halakhic matrix is essential, legislating acceptable halakhic praxis based upon science based theology is wholly unacceptable.

In the authors’ next example entitled ‘Faith,’ they put forth a most shocking claim. The authors attempt to draw a parallel between the “randomness in DNA mutations” and the actions of God which “appear random.” While the authors posit a notion of ’emunah’ (faith) unknown in the classic Jewish sources – one that “bridge[s] the gap between knowledge and the unknown, so that we can persevere and progress in a world full of random events” – the most disconcerting point that escapes the authors’ attention is the subtle difference between the “randomness” proposed in the evolutionary theory and the appearance of randomness in our daily lives. (3)

While Jewish tradition ostensibly recognizes that the randomness occurring in our lives only appears that way, the processes of evolution are really random: unpredictable, non-teleological adaptive processes. Accordingly, the authors cannot employ the word ‘random’ to both ‘evolution’ and ‘faith’ equally when the word clearly connotes different things in the two cases. In order to observe exactly how the authors equivocate in their employment of the word ‘random,’ we will turn to the approach they espouse when dealing with the similarities between humans and the animal kingdom. As we mentioned in the last example, they explain that the similarities between humankind and animals exist also at the genetic level and that human genes exhibit a close affinity, not only to chimpanzees, but to worms and mice as well. But, almost as a disclaimer, they are quick to point out that:

…this does not conflict with the Genesis account. We may simply say that God, the architect of the world, in some way used the molecular biology of DNA as His blueprint in planning the physiological design of all His creatures. Does this mean that God created each species separately using a unified DNA codex, or did God allow speciation to occur by natural processes as proposes by the evolutionary theory? Some rabbinical authorities would insist upon the former theory while others would be wiling to embrace and maybe even insist upon the latter (178).

In the footnote appended to the final sentence of this quote, the authors lead us to believe that such luminaries as R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, R. David Zvi Hoffman and R. Abraham Isaac ha-Kohen Kook could espouse the latter theory today. But, in truth, one would draw the opposite conclusion from their writings. None of these rabbis would embrace, and certainly not insist upon the latter formulation of God’s influence in the world. This is because the latter theory – “that God allow[s] speciation to occur by natural processes as proposed by the evolutionary theory” – cannot mean anything but that God has no hand whatsoever in the events of the world. The reason the authors feel justified in putting this theory into the mouths of the abovementioned rabbis is because they fail to grasp the full impact of the phrase “natural processes.”

While the authors meticulously explicate many of the fine points of how evolution works at the DNA level in the opening sections of their article, they abstain from addressing how God could act in the worlds of evolution and DNA respectively. One reason for this lacuna is that the authors do not differentiate between evolution and theistic evolution. In light of this fact, we will momentarily digress in order to define and explain theistic evolution and why it is incompatible with any model which the authors propose. We will follow the categorical scheme developed by Ian Barbour (4) in which he enumerates three models of theistic evolution, all of which espouse a pseudo-naturalistic world in which God pulls the strings behind the scenes ensuring that the world proceeds according to a certain course.

Proponents of the first model advocate that God controls events that appear to be random. For the most part, this approach appeals to either Quantum Mechanics or Chaos theory for the mechanism of God’s interaction. They maintain that there is genuine randomness to nature (as Niels Bohr proved) found in microscopic systems (like atoms), yet God can interact in the world through this physically undetectable randomness. In other words, God influences the physical world at the subatomic level and controls events that appear to be random. As a result, God could (somehow) even control evolution ensuring His desired results.

The second model of theistic evolution is exemplified through the Anthropic Principle, which propounds that God designed the world, from the onset, with built-in potential, such that it was capable of self-organization and transformation. All the amazingly precise conditions that allow for human life to be sustained – the strength of gravity, the mass of a proton, the distance of the earth from the sun, the charge of an electron, etc. – were all fixed by God from the onset in order to ensure the production of life, in general, and the human race specifically. While this approach may at times slide into versions of functional deism, it does, nonetheless, create the necessary opening for a Divinely influenced physical universe.

Advocates of the third model maintain that God influences events without controlling them. This approach is associated with Alfred Whitehead’s model of “process thought” in which all physical events include three components: law, chance and God.

The problem, however, with all three of these models is that they are, by their very nature, teleological. When the aforementioned rabbis first encountered evolution in its nineteenth century guise, there was no inherent contradiction between evolution and teleology. Their contemporary scientists were unable to explain certain key points of evolution, and, for that reason, those rabbis were justified in positing a concordance between the two. But, as contemporary evolutionists have shown, evolution through natural selection no longer must appeal to orthogenesis or any other teleological explanations in order to account for the adaptations in living organisms; in other words, earlier scientists only tolerated such God infused approaches because they lacked the proper science to exclude them. Consequently, the god of the gaps was able to rear his wily head. But, today it is universally recognized by the scientific community that evolution is inherently anti-teleological and theological evolution is an oxymoron. It is no coincidence that Richard Dawkins parabolically refers to the naturalistic processes of evolution as the “blind watchmaker.” The moment one invokes God, metaphysical forces or energy (5) not only does one violate the founding principle of Occam’s razor, one ceases to be practicing science. Which is OK, as long as you know what you’re preaching is not science, or, at least, you refrain from trying to convince others that your claims are scientific. Which leads us full circle to the fatal flaw in the authors’ article: when one mixes theology with science without upholding the integrity (basic assumptions) of both fields, conclusions on both sides of the track are bound to be skewed.

In conclusion, the most destabilizing issue is the authors’ ambiguous employment of key terms and ideas. It allows them to make sweeping scientific and theological claims that, if they were forced to define the terms and arguments more concisely, they would necessarily recant. While this issue could be attributed to the fact that they are dealing with exceedingly complex issues in a limited space, their shortcomings are really indicative of a greater problem found specifically in science and religion pieces. The most obvious explanation for this field’s weakness is the inherent lack of objectivity on the part of scientists and theologians alike when dealing with the topic. Mediators of science and religion are expected, and counted on by their religious communities to broach a harmony between two seemingly incongruous topics. Sometimes they ram together two issues that have nothing to do with one another or from time to time they may pursue connections that are unmistakably absent, as is evident in this article. While this method may prove to be beneficial in philosophy, and – I should stress – could even lead to correct conclusions, it has no place in the world of science. So, while these authors, virtuosos in their respective fields, set out to glorify the Torah U-Madda approach by bringing their knowledge of science and love of Torah together,  regrettably, in the end, they merely watered down both to the point that neither science nor Torah were accurately communicated. (6)

1. It appears that the authors’ first example is simply a non-sequitur. The authors first quote the Talmud (Sanhedrin 38a) evincing that arrogance is an unwarranted trait for humans to entertain. Yet, immediately following this citation, they comment on “[t]he remarkable genetic similarities between human beings and animals” (185), contending that this aspect of genetics “teaches us that human beings have the propensity to behave like animals if they are not in possession of morals and values that give them true human dignity and enable them to realize their zelem Elokim” (185). While both of the authors’ points are clearly true, there is no obvious connection between these insights and their alleged Talmudic antecedent. While the Talmud highlights the importance of humility, the authors’ emphasize that we must overcome our animal instincts. This is not to suggest that the authors cannot find some connection between the two points, but it is not at all apparent to the reader what it might be. While this issue is not as egregious as the next examples, it is indicative of a larger problem found throughout this article that I will soon explain.

2. It seems to me that the authors’ are advocating some type of vegetarianism.

3. See also Carl Feit’s “Darwin and Drash: The Interplay of Torah and Biology,” The Torah U-Madda Journal 2: [1990] (25-36)

4.  Ian G. Barbour, Religion in an Age of Science (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1990)

5. The authors refer to a mysterious “energy received from all the other creations” (181).

6. ‘Torah U-Madda,’ not ‘Torah im Madda’

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