Earlier this week, I had a meeting with a Chassidic Rebbe in Jerusalem. The purpose of the meeting is not relevant to this forum, and I won't be naming the sect. However, during the meeting, we sidetracked to a different topic, which is of interest.
When the Rebbe learned of my interest in zoology, his eyes lit up in interest. He told me that he had read in HaModia that a lion had been caught in Midbar Yehudah. I told him that I didn't think that was possible, since all the lions in this area were killed out around a thousand years ago, but perhaps it was a leopard. The only lions today are in Africa, and a small population in India.
The Rebbe was intrigued: were there not lions in every country in the world? I informed him that no, lions only ever existed in certain countries. Each species of animal is restricted to different regions.
The Rebbe found this remarkable. Why would Hashem decide to put certain animals in certain countries? (He was so taken by this question, that he didn't even get on to the question of how the animals got to those countries after the Deluge!)
"It's complicated," I said. Changing the topic somewhat, I shared with him an insight regarding the lion being the symbol of gevurah, power: It is the only member of the cat family that lives in groups. Big cats are aggressive, and have a hard time getting along with each other; tigers, leopards, jaguars, cheetahs, and cougars all live alone. Only the lion lives in large family groups, being able to subdue its aggression. And thus it epitomizes gevurah, as the Mishnah says: Who is mighty? He that conquers his inclination.
The Rebbe was fascinated by something I had said. What did it mean that the lion, tiger, leopard and jaguar were all "in the cat family"? Were they cats? Surely a lion would eat a cat! I explained that they all have certain anatomical similarities which makes them into one family. The Rebbe found this intriguing.
I had other business to attend to, and I didn't really feel like pursuing the discussion further. But what was happening was this: The Rebbe was asking the exact questions that led Charles Darwin to evolution.
Why are certain animals very similar to each other and very different from other animals? Why do lions and tigers and leopards and jaguars all resemble each other in various ways, while dogs and wolves and foxes and jackals all share different similarities? Why, at a broader scale, do whales and dogs and bats all share more basic similarities, that are not shared with fish and birds?
Why do certain animals live in certain parts of the world? Why do almost all marsupials live in Australia, and nowhere else? Why do islands so often have their own unique species?
The answers to all these questions emerges from a very simple insight: All animals descended from common ancestors. Lions and tigers and leopards and jaguars are all descended from an ancestral cat. Whales and dogs and bats are all descended from an ancestral mammal. And because animals emerged from common ancestors, they are often restricted to the locations of those ancestors.
I suspect that if common ancestry could be evaluated by itself, without any connection to the mechanisms of evolution, the evolution of man, and without any connection to godless atheists, a lot more people would be able to accept it. They would be receptive to Rav Hirsch's description of it being part of God's "creative wisdom."