Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Mazeltov! It's a Tumtum!

With praise and gratitude to the Creator, I am delighted to announce the birth of a tumtum to my hyraxes! Baby hyraxes are absolutely adorable - check out the picture below. And what perfect timing - on the very day that we mention hyraxes in davenning!

"Tumtum" is a term from the Gemara, which refers to someone with no external genitalia, and thus with whom the gender is indeterminate. In humans, this is a genetic defect. In hyraxes, on the other hand, it's perfectly normal. The testicles of males are hidden inside the abdominal cavity, next to the kidneys. The penis is also hidden inside the body except during mating. In fact, for this reason, it took a long time before I could ensure that I had a true pair, and I had to do some trading with a local zoo; it was only this morning that I could finally be certain that I have a male and female.

Now, why would a hyrax have such an odd characteristic? Every other furry animal that I have owned, from dormice to fruit bats, has been easy to sex. Why would God create hyraxes to be so different?

Nor is this the only peculiarity of hyraxes. Although they are superficially very similar to large rodents such as woodchucks, there are all kinds of subtle yet significant differences. Hyraxes have stubby toes without claws. They have two very sharp (as I can painfully attest) pointed teeth sticking out of their mouths. Their fecal pellets resemble those of animals many times their size. They have an astonishingly long gestation period - eight months. But why would they be so different from every other small furry animal?

The answer is very simple. Hyraxes are on a different branch of the evolutionary tree from other small furry animals. The ancestors of the hyrax, such as the hyracoid pictures on the right, were cow-sized herbivores that were closely related to elephants. Hyraxes are therefore more closely related to elephants (and sirenians) than they are to any other living animal. That's why, like elephants, they have a retracting penis, tusks, a long gestation, and other characteristics that make them more similar to large herbivores than to rodents.

So, there's no need to contrive a variety of separate explanations for all the different peculiarities of my furry little tumtum. One simple explanation accounts for all of them. All we have to do is accept that God employed "creative wisdom," to use the phrase coined by Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, in His development of the world.

On Rosh Chodesh, we recite Barchi Nafshi, the special chapter of Tehillim that describes the wonders of the universe as God's creation. Amongst other phenomena, it mentions the hyraxes living alongside the ibexes in Ein Gedi. Thinking about how hyraxes came to be hyraxes gives us further insight and appreciation of the wonder of God's creation.

UPDATE: Here's a picture that I took of Mom and baby:



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31 comments:

  1. Mazel tov! Looks like a toy stuffie! Temujin's young daughter just saw the pic and offered to adopt. How on earth do you keep the kids from smothering it with cuddling? Mom's sharp buck teeth?

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  2. In fact, for this reason, it took a long time before I could ensure that I had a true pair

    Come on, who else laughed when they first read this?

    p.s. Mazel tov!

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    1. I plead guilty. But seriously, I learned something here, which I corroborated by surfing to the Encyclopedia of Jewish Medical Ethics: a tumtum is in fact either male or female, not "neither," and the true sex is discoverable.

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  3. Eight-month gestation -- wow.

    Had to look up the gestation period of common mammals -- the hyrax is up there with gorillas, etc.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gestation_period

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  4. Mazel Tov! What a beautiful creature and an absolutely fascinating story about them and their place in the world! Thank you.

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  5. Mazal tov! Thank you for sharing all these interesting and previously-unknown-to-me facts about this unique animal. So cool!

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  6. Interestingly, Leviticus 11:5 says the hyrax is a ruminant 'Likewise, the shaphan, for though it chews cud, it does not divide the hoof, it is unclean to you"), it does not. It is incapable of regurgitation, the basic characteristic of rumination. It does, however, have a multi-chambered stomach that uses bacteria to break down cellulose. The obvious question that arises is, "Why would the Torah make a factual error calling a hyrax a ruminant when it clearly is not?" Thoughts?

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    1. Ooh, I see that you're a newcomer here... Check out http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2011/03/camel-hare-and-hyrax.html and www.rationalistjudaism.com/2013/04/free-hyrax.html

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    2. Actually, check out just about any post on this blog :p have fun!

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    3. Actually, I'm an old-timer...just missed that one...probably need to review your books again, as well!

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  7. More pics of "Tumtuleh" please, and some with Missus Hyrax as well...to get a better idea of scale for anyone who wants to knit a scarf for the fluffball and to generate a chorus of "oooohs."

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  8. Why would God create hyraxes to be so different?

    I thought everything is a product of evolution, just random copying errors, no wisdom, no plan, no?

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    1. Lazar, if you would read Rav Hirsch (or Rabbi Slifkin for that matter), you would know that evolution could have been set in motion by G-d with a plan in mind as to what was supposed to evolve eventually.

      Even if evolution is random, it could have been set in motion with a plan in m,ind. As my philosophy professor explained, a lottery is random -- six random numbered balls come out when you stop the machine from tossing the numbered balls about. And yet, an all-knowing being, i.e., G-d, who sees the future would know when to stop the machine to get the six numbered balls He desires. So, even (in theory) if evolution is "random," G-d could have set it in motion at the split second when He determined that it would evolve the way He wanted it to evolve.

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    2. Yehuda, I think you are ignoring Chaos Theory.

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    3. Lazar, that is a serious misunderstanding of evolution. Were you simply being rhetorical or would you actually like to clear up some of the confusion?

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    4. "Random" and "errors" are merely relative and situational conceptual constructs if you really think about it, Lazar. So are ideas like "imperfection" and "failure." You needn't be frightened of them because in a God-created universe, without our anthropo-centric subjective evaluations, they are evidently essential and beneficial working components of the observable process of Creation and existence; a partially comprehensible process which we can (and arguably should) study, measure and strive to understand.

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  9. Whether "copying errors" are random or deliberate "copy-paste" is a question that can only be answered by religion, not science.

    Our shefanim are actually furry little cousins to the elephants? THAT IS SO COOL!!!!

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    1. Kira- I love that phrasing of copying errors vs. copy and paste. Thank you!

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    2. I agree with miriambyk. Kira, that is a beautiful sentence.

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    3. It is not. We can often tell what gene a new gene was derived from, whether it was the result of insertion, say by a virus, a single-pair error, reduction or similar. Religion can't tell us that. Maybe it could tell us if there was some Divine purpose in the change. Even then I'd want to.see how.that was determined

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  10. Albert Raizel WillisMay 1, 2014 at 3:55 AM

    Rabbi Slifkin, you sound quite confident about the family tree of hyraxes. While I'm not at all confident it's wrong, I'm much more wary about accepting it without reservation, especially considering statements such as this:

    "But while the abundance of data has helped resolve some of the conflict surrounding parts of the evolutionary tree, it also presents new challenges. The current version of the tree of life is more like a contentious wiki page than a published book, with certain branches subject to frequent debate. Indeed, just as the spinal column and limbs created contrasting maps of primate evolution, scientists now know that different genes in the same organism can tell different stories.

    According to a new study partly focused on yeast, the conflicting picture from individual genes is even broader than scientists suspected. “They report that every single one of the 1,070 genes conflicts somewhat,” said Michael Donoghue, an evolutionary biologist at Yale who was not involved in the study. “We are trying to figure out the phylogenetic relationships of 1.8 million species and can’t even sort out 20 [types of] yeast,” he said.
    http://www.simonsfoundation.org/quanta/20130604-a-new-approach-to-building-the-tree-of-life/

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    1. Interesting article, Mr Willis, but the good Rabbi needn't dump the obvious and broad bit, namely the major branch distribution of the hyrax family tree, just yet. The article you cite addresses the much greater levels of "resolution" that are now possible thanks to a greater pool of information, more precise measuring and better analysis of what are clearly nearly infinitely complex systems. That was bound to happen, and a number of early researchers anticipated this. And it's occurring in all sectors of science which are uncovering the mind-boggling complexities of the universe. O, what a difference to the scientific revolution (and resolution) a new Cray array and a generous departmental budget can make! Many miles to go before we sleep, for sure.

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    2. Am i missing the point? Isnt it obvious that it would be more difficult to distinguish within a family and genus than within different phylum. Its hard to distinguish from small branches on a tree but big branches are easy to differentiate from each other.

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    3. Albert Raizel WillisMay 2, 2014 at 9:35 AM

      I'm just suggesting that we all keep on top of the latest research which may or may not show that evolutionary relationships among members of the hyrax, hyracoids, elephants, and whatnot inferred from morphological and molecular data have been in conflict. (I borrowed some words of that sentence from this link, which also states "All characters and trait systems in an organism share a common evolutionary history that can be estimated using phylogenetic methods. However, differential rates of change and the evolutionary mechanisms driving those rates result in pervasive phylogenetic conflict. These drivers need to be uncovered because mismatches between evolutionary processes and
      phylogenetic models can lead to high confidence in incorrect hypotheses." -- http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22891620

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    4. These are valid points for an advanced evolution debate, butTemujin was just suggesting that in the case of Rabbi Slifkin pointing out the hyrax's nearest relative, a link which is obvious and valid for this level, questions over fuzziness on the lower branches of the tree would be an overkill. A bit like using a supercomputer to factor-in relativity effects on time when estimating a road trip from Montreal to Miami.

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  11. Great post!

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  12. All we have to do is accept that God employed "creative wisdom," ....

    Why does one have to accept that? Why not just say that this is the product of evolution? Period.

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    1. Day-after HeartburnMay 2, 2014 at 8:55 PM

      Because believing in no God isn't Jewish, and believing in a God whose sole line item in his resume is "kickstarted the world" isn't Jewish either.

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  13. "Amongst other phenomena, it mentions the hyraxes living alongside the ibexes in Ein Gedi."

    It doesn't mention Ein Gedi. Nice post otherwise.

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  14. Mazel tov !

    But, as elephants, can it jump ? ;-)

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