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.

30 comments:

  1. I think literalists have more of a problem with accepting the notion that they share a common ancestor with a chimp, than the notion that species go extinct.

    Just curious: out of all the concepts, why begin with extinction?

    Anyway, I look froward to your series.

    The parts of evolution I found most interesting were the discoveries that whales have genes for making cow-like limbs, humans have genes for making tails, and chickens have genes for making reptilian-like teeth. Also, endogenous retroviral data is extremely compelling evidence for evolution. Just some interesting material if you plan on delving into these areas.

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  2. I don't understand why you can't say that the fossils are from one of the previous worlds that chazal talk about. The Gemorah in Chagiga clearly says there were several generations before Adam that G-D destroyed. They are the ones that have the river of fire flowing on them for all eternity, I think that is the language of the gemorah. This would fit well with all the different type of humanoid skeletons they have discovered no? Those skeletons of human like species existed but went extinct before the current man came into being. Why is that impossible to say.

    I mean that would explain a lot. The Torah is just a recount of this world and not of the previous 900 and some odd generations that the gemorah says existed before and were destroyed. This can also explain the supposed 4.3 billion years of the world as opposed to the bibles 6000 years no?

    I know you know a lot more than me about this issue so this is all stated as a question to you.

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  3. Rabbi Dovid Tzvi Hoffman points out that such explanations mean that the additional years of the history of the universe took place BEFORE the creation events of the six days in the Genesis account. This means that after fourteen billion years of the world’s history, there were cataclysmic events spanning six days just a few thousand years ago, involving the placement of the sun and moon, the emergence of dry land, and the creation of plant, animal and human life from scratch. But this is entirely inconsistent with the evidence that has emerged, which reveal that no such cataclysmic events occurred in that period. The sun and moon, and plant and animal life, all continued uninterrupted during that period.

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  4. But E-Man's solution does in fact resolve the extinction problem.
    Rabbi Slifkin just raised other unresolved problems in response.

    There probably isn't a SINGLE approach that answers all problems from the traditionalist view. They will have to divide and conquer and try to stay consistent. It's certainly going to be a hard juggling act.

    Rabbi Slifkin is saying that we simply have to revise all previous understandings. This is in fact a SINGLE approach which solves all problems and therefore has its great appeal in its simplicity-- while doing extreme violence to the tradition.

    Each camp seems to have its pros and cons.

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  5. I would also like to add that extinctions really don't have much to do with the issue of evolution as the title implies.

    From what I've read, (and I admit that's probably not much compared to Rabbi Slifkin) mass sudden extinctions indicate a failure of the theory. Evolution predicts a gradual phasing out of older species by slow attrition due to competition with the newer, better evolved version.

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  6. The topic of this post is extinction, not mass extinction. It's not really so related to evolution, but it is one of the first things to discuss with regard to the topic of the history of life on earth.

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  7. So I guess "Natural History" would be a better title.

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  8. E-man mentioned previous worlds. I had in mind the flood in Enosh's time, according to the midrash. (I'm not taking a position; I'm just tossing out ideas.) Maybe one of your readers is aware of a commentator who suggests extinctions took place during this flood?

    When the Rishonim (and Sefer HaChinnuch) said that species are kept in existence, how did they define what we might translate as "species"? Theoretically speaking (again, I'm just tossing out ideas) even though the dinosaur and woolly mammoth went extinct, animals that might be in the same "min"(?) are still around, like, perhaps, the tuatara and the buffalo.

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  9. The flood in Enosh's generation is certainly not going to help here!

    "Min" is not identical to species. However, dinosaurs are undoubtedly different minim from anything alive today.

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  10. > "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?">

    Whether they're right or wrong, these people might be satisfied with the Torah's mention of "tanin." (See below concerning whether it even matters for the sake of this discussion whether they are right or wrong.)

    > "But (R' Lifshitz's) 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." >

    After studying this midrash (for the last 974 generations! :-) ), it appeared that the midrash didn’t rule out different eras of life, either. Therefore, it’s only /somewhat/ problematic to use this midrash as a source for previous eras of life. Besides, perhaps R' Lifshitz wasn't the only rabbi upon whom to rely on this matter. See:
    www.koshertorah.com/PDF/Sod%2520HaShemitot.pdf
    where it says (underneath the headline "authentic Kabbalah" :-) ), "One of the most controversial teachings among Kabbalists is the doctrine of the Shemita(ot), the cosmic Sabbatical epochs of pre-Adamic times. According to many of the great Rabbis, Adam was not the first human to have walked the earth. These Rabbis teach that there were full pre-Adamic human civilizations that had arisen and were eventually destroyed."

    > “As far as I am aware, nobody else from the traditionalist/ literalist camp has addressed the problem of extinction.”>

    Perhaps the kabbalists mentioned in the koshertorah link do. You might strongly rebut their ‘previous worlds’ arguments (as you did in your 8:37 pm post), but this issue you raised in the original post was not about the strength of their positions, but the existence of their positions.

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  11. > "For Biblical literalists and traditionalists, finding fossils of extinct creatures came as rather a nasty shock.">

    I'd be interested in hearing a sample of their reactions, whether the 'shock' kind or the 'no problem' kind. (I will go out on a limb and suggest that some of these rabbis who said ‘no problem’ would be considered both traditionalists AND rationalists.)

    > "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.">

    I'm surprised I've never heard of this bizarre claim until now. The only wild claim of this sort that I've heard is the one where /G-d/ planted these bones. I would've thought that your post would mention this latter claim instead.

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  12. Rabbi Slifkin:
    > “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...
    "As far as I am aware, nobody else from the traditionalist/ literalist camp has addressed the problem of extinction.”


    Perhaps the reason why nobody else from that camp addressed it is because of this:
    While they believe that the Torah-as-blueprint-of-all-existence is totally comprehensive, they admit that access to understanding pre-history through the Torah by humans is severely limited. (Though its always possible for very righteous people to get various facts about the world. Kind of like on a "need-to-know basis").

    Also, they may have understood the rishonim and Sefer Hachinuch as implicitly referring to all animal life only AFTER Man appeared-- which is the logical starting point for hidden Divine Providence to be active in the world.

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  13. I don't see why providence should only start after man appears.

    Plus, plenty of species have gone extinct since man appeared. My rebbe in yeshivah in Manchester insisted that dodos and all the others are hiding out in the jungle.

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  14. >"I don't see why providence should only start after man appears."

    That probably is a result of your unique view of comparing pre-history to Purim's hidden Providence. They certainly don't share that view.


    >"Plus, plenty of species have gone extinct since man appeared. My rebbe in yeshivah in Manchester insisted that dodos and all the others are hiding out in the jungle."

    For that, see Phil's comment at 5:17 AM. Your response to him is not applicable after man appeared.

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  15. I don't understand what you are saying. What is there in the Rishonim's discussion of providence for animals would indicate that it only applies after man appears?

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  16. The following is an excellent article summarising and sourcing the mainstream view of the Rishonim about Hashgacha Pratit:
    http://www.tzohar.org.il/upload_doc/714620.PDF

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  17. Yeshivish Atheist wrote about how he is interested in the sometimes-common genes of whales, cows, humans, chickens, and reptiles. It is indeed interesting, but it must be recalled that gene similarity doesn't give us a greater reason to believe in evolution /in general/ than the very fact that all these animals have, for example, eyes, mouths, hearts, and stomachs. It does, however, give us a greater reason to believe in an approach about how a /particular path/ of evolution progressed.

    About endogenous retroviruses, did you know that “naturally occurring endogenous retroviruses are REQUIRED for pregnancy in sheep.” Isn't that remarkable? http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/09/060911233630.htm
    (Caveat, I feel that the article engages in some post-hoc speculation.)

    OK, sorry for the diversion. Back to the topic of extinction...

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  18. "Rabbi Dovid Tzvi Hoffman points out that such explanations mean that the additional years of the history of the universe took place BEFORE the creation events of the six days in the Genesis account."

    I don't understand why they have to be BEFORE the six days of creation.

    Also, why can't animals go extinct according to the Torah? And why does the Torah have to mention animals going extinct?

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  19. Retrovitus,

    "It is indeed interesting, but it must be recalled that gene similarity doesn't give us a greater reason to believe in evolution /in general/ than the very fact that all these animals have, for example, eyes, mouths, hearts, and stomachs."

    It's not just about gene similarity. It's about the atavism. Let my explain.

    A whale has the genes for making cow-like biological structures that are exclusive to cows, like cow like limbs but a cow does not have genes for making whale-like biological structures that are exclusive to whales, like whale-like flippers.

    This demands an explanation. Now if one accepts evolution which previously predicted that whales evolved from a cow-like creature and not the other way around, this is no problem.

    However, if one does not accept evolution, he has quite a bit to explain. Why have we discovered whales born with cow-like limbs, but never a cow born with a whale-like flipper?

    "About endogenous retroviruses, did you know that “naturally occurring endogenous retroviruses are REQUIRED for pregnancy in sheep.” Isn't that remarkable?"

    Yes, I did. And it even gets better. ERVs are also required for pregnancy in humans too, as well as just about any mammal (I think). However, it is important to note several things:

    1) The entire ERV is not required, the only gene from the ERV that is required for placental formation is known as the env gene, not the gag gene or the pol gene.

    2) ERV functionality does not explain how they got in the same location in our genome after random integration. Only common descent can provide this explanation. The argument would still work if ERVs were functional, Since the issue here is how they go in the same spot in the genome after random integration. The only way beneficial ERVs would shlug up this argument is if you could show that the ERV must end up in the same spot in different species to produce the desired result. Of course the evidence goes against this.

    The ERV need not be in the same genetic location to support placental formation. For example, the ERV that supports placental formation in sheep, mice, and humans are all in different genomic locations.

    Here is an excerpt from ERV (the blogger, Abagail Smith):

    "So far we know humans, mice, and sheep have ERVs that perform the same function, but all of them are different! Syncytin-1 and Syncytin-2 in humans are different from Syncytin-A and Syncytin-B in mice, which are different from enJSRV in sheep! Each of these species independently acquired a retrovirus that became endogenous and performs the same function."

    http://mcb.asm.org/cgi/content/abstract/23/10/3566

    http://www.pnas.org/content/102/3/725.full

    http://www.pnas.org/content/103/39/14390.abstract

    http://endogenousretrovirus.blogspot.com/2006/09/more-syncytia-sweetness.html

    Anyway, yeah, these things are very interesting. A post delving into these issues would be great.

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  20. > "The flood in Enosh's generation is certainly not going to help here!"

    May I ask you to elaborate, keeping in mind that you wrote, "QUITE ASIDE FROM THE ISSUES OF THE AGE OF THE UNIVERSE AND EVOLUTION, fossils of extinct creatures inherently pose a challenge to traditionalists." (not yelling)

    > "For Biblical literalists and traditionalists, finding fossils of extinct creatures came as rather a nasty shock.">

    If I may repeat a request I made earlier: I'd be interested in hearing a sample of their reactions, whether the 'shock' kind or the 'no problem' kind.

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  21. >> "The flood in Enosh's generation is certainly not going to help here!"

    >May I ask you to elaborate

    The idea that all fossils can be attributed to a global flood several thousand years ago is utterly inconsistent with paleontology, geology, archeology, anthropology, etc.

    >I'd be interested in hearing a sample of their reactions

    See the books "The Dragon Seekers" and "Terrible Lizard" for an example of reactions by Christians, such as their denying that anything went extinct. I mentioned in the post how Netziv and others in the Jewish world struggled to deal with it, and how when I was in yeshivah, I was taught that nothing ever went extinct except for results of aveiros performed by the Dor HaMabul.

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  22. What happened to the clause:
    "keeping in mind that you wrote, "QUITE ASIDE FROM THE ISSUES OF THE AGE OF THE UNIVERSE AND EVOLUTION,"?

    It seems to me that your statement, "fossils of extinct creatures inherently pose a challenge to traditionalists" is true only if one ignores that clause above. I can't tell how important that clause was to you. Was I placing too much importance on it?

    If I may clarify my personal opinion, which might help save you time in our discussion: I believe that many animals went extinct, and I don't point to previous worlds. And I don't think the mabul did them in.


    Changing topics, besides the Netziv and your rebbe in Manchester, is there evidence that other famous rabbis were troubled (or not troubled -- a rabbi's silence on the matter can be interpreted either way) by the discovery of extinctions (not including those who rely on previous worlds)?

    On a different note, I'm sure a lot of people will latch on to this new discovery by Mary Schweitzer of the hadrosaur soft tissue. I'm not stating my position, but ... "This will either be nothing or the biggest revolution in paleontology ever,” says Tom Kaye, a paleontologist in Seattle. (Science Magazine)

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  23. Dod's hiding out is not impossible. It is impossible for us to calim that we KNOW there are no do dos. Hashem could have made a few of them migrate to some isolated spot to chill.

    There have been numeroous exampels fo animals said to be extinct, only later tio find that they are not. I believe that there was a recent case of this in Japan about some kind of fish that peopel belived was extinct for 30 years!

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  24. Reuven Meir, this website is intended for people who work within a rationalist perspective. No offense, but I don't think that it's the place for you. Try ohr.edu, frumteens.com, etc.

    (Dodos existing in some unknown location is extraordinarily unlikely, given their physiology - flightless, relatively helpless - and distribution. And the idea that EVERY allegedly extinct species is hiding somewhere is ludicrous beyond words.)

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  25. You can find a dodo at a zoo in Twycross:
    http://www.jasperfforde.com/images/dodozoo.jpg

    Just kidding, by the way.

    I suspect Reuven Meir was just making a rhetorical argument, and not actually promoting a belief that no species ever went extinct. I'm not sure if this kind of argument falls within the rationalist sphere.

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  26. I don't see any reason not to think that Reuven Meir was being serious.

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  27. I'm not sure exactly how this article, which came out yesterday, connects with your topic, but I thought you'd be interested:

    http://dsc.discovery.com/news/2009/
    05/20/early-earth-life.html
    Life on Earth May Have Begun Much Earlier (Than Previously Thought Possible)

    "The antiquity of life may not be very much less than the Earth itself," Mojzsis (from the University of Colorado) said."

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  28. For the benefit of your readers:

    It appears that R' Slifkin has been involved in a discussion about extinction before, at Aishdas.

    http://www.aishdas.org/avodah/
    vol13/v13n044.shtml (and 045,046,047)

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  29. Just found this:
    http://www.dafyomi.co.il/sotah/
    reviewa/so-ra-048.htm
    "The Shamir worm, and the delicious 'Nofes Tzufim' became extinct - with the Churban Beis ha'Mikdash"

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  30. Isn't my last comment sort of a tiny refutation of this statement: "In classical Jewish thought, there is no reference to extinct creatures, at most only one of the two Leviathans and Behemoths." ?

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