Saturday, May 9, 2009
Evolution, part 1: Extinction
I plan to post a variety of material relating to evolution. This post will begin with the topic of extinction.
For Biblical literalists and traditionalists, finding fossils of extinct creatures came as rather a nasty shock. In classical Jewish thought, there is no reference to extinct creatures, at most only one of the two Leviathans and Behemoths. The Rishonim all explained that one component of Divine Providence is that species are kept in existence; the Sefer HaChinnuch insisted that no type of animal ever goes extinct.
The discovery of fossils of all kinds of extinct creatures therefore presented a challenge. For rationalists, there isn't much of a difficulty in formulating a response. Yes, the evidence clearly shows that there have been many species of creatures that went extinct long ago. The Torah does not mention them, but there is no reason for it to do so; it was not relevant or meaningful to the generation that received the Torah. As for classical theories of divine providence, they simply have to be revised in light of this new information.
However, for traditionalists, literalists and mystics, such a response is not so easy. How can Torah, which incorporates all wisdom, make no mention of all these creatures? How could the Rishonim be incorrect with their explanations of providence?
Netziv thus resorted to explaining that these creatures were all the result of prohibited cross-breeding performed by the generation of the Deluge. However, few are willing to present this answer today (although one of my rebbeim in my yeshivah in Manchester taught me this explanation). Likewise, there are those who claim that all fossils are simply the fabrications of paleontologists, but even within the traditionalist camp, many are reluctant to make such claims.
R. Yisrael Lifschitz proposed that these creatures were from previous worlds that the Midrash describes as God having created and destroyed. But his answer was problematic for a variety of reasons; primarily, because that Midrash does not appear to be referring to different eras of life on our planet (for more details, see The Challenge Of Creation).
As far as I am aware, nobody else from the traditionalist/ literalist camp has addressed the problem of extinction. But the truth is, probably most of them don't even realize that, quite aside from the issues of the age of the universe and evolution, fossils of extinct creatures inherently pose a challenge to traditionalists.
Posted by Natan Slifkin