Sunday, June 28, 2020

Evolution and Black Lives Matter

I hate evolution.

I don't mean the concept; I mean the word. The problem is that it's so ambiguous. Specifically, it has two entirely distinct meanings. One refers to the historical claim that all animal life descended from a common ancestor. This is something either true or false; and it is regarded by the entire scientific community (absent certain religious fundamentalists) as true, supported by a broad convergence of evidence.

The other meaning of "evolution" is the mechanism of evolution, the causes and process via which one species changes into another. This is not a true/false proposition; rather, there are primary candidates proposed for the mechanism (such as random mutations coupled with natural selection), along with other secondary mechanisms. Nobody believes that we understand the mechanisms entirely (that's why people still study them). The vast majority of scientists believe that there is enough evidence to be confident that we have the basics correct, while a minority disagree.

One result of there being two totally different meanings of the term "evolution" is that there are a lot of pointless arguments, resulting from people talking at cross-purposes. One group screams that it's just a theory, which even scientists dispute, while others insist that it's a scientific fact, which no scientist disputes. But they are talking about entirely different things.

In fact, the entire, huge, religion-science argument about evolution would never have developed to the scale that it did, had Darwin not come up with both aspects of evolution and presented them under a single banner. If Darwin had just proposed common ancestry, and a generation later someone else would have proposed a mechanism, things would have played out very differently (and much better).

There's a similar problem with the phrase Black Lives Matter. What does it actually, specifically, mean? I'm not talking about Black Lives Matter vs. All Lives Matter - of course the point of BLM is that black lives are more threatened/ disregarded than white lives. I'm talking about what exactly Black Lives Matter, as a capitalized phrase, refers to.

An article in the LA Times, back in 2015, titled "Why the term 'Black Lives Matter' can be so confusing," spelled out the problem: "the words could be serving as a political rallying cry or referring to the activist organization. Or it could be the fuzzily applied label used to describe a wide range of protests and conversations focused on racial inequality." According to Wikipedia, the phrase "Black Lives Matter" can refer to "a Twitter hashtag, a slogan, a social movement, or a loose confederation of groups advocating for racial justice."

But it's even more complicated than that. For example, if you want to give money to support Black Lives Matter, who do you give it to? There's a "Black Lives Matter Foundation" in California which received millions in donations from people who were fired up by recent events, but then discovered that this particular foundation seeks to promote closer relationships between the black community and the police - which is not what they were expecting! So by supporting Black Lives Matter, are you supporting creating closer bonds with the police, or dissolving the police?

Then there's an organization called "Black Lives Matter" with thirty chapters across the US, but which is decentralized. Then there's a larger Black Lives Matter movement which includes various related organizations. And then there's the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation. And then, of course, the world is much bigger than just the US, with various BLM groups around the world.

All this, aside from creating confusion and misplaced donations, can also create a real ethical dilemma. Certain BLM groups are neo-Marxists, and some of them are actively antisemitic. For many people, BLM is linked with opposition to Israel. Consider this tweet that was just sent out by the UK Black Lives Matter organization:



So what is one to do if one wants to fight racism, but the phrase/ organization that is associated with this fight, is also associated with people who are engaging in antisemitism?

I'm on a mailing list for a chain of pet stores (of course), and I received an email from the CEO saying that "now is the time to state plainly and unequivocally that Black Lives Matter and to do our part to ensure that this is our truth." The rest of the email expressed some important truths about human and civil rights, valuing diversity and helping people in underrepresented communities. I'm all for that - but are they speaking in suitably broad terms, are they supporting a particular organization, or are they supporting all organizations under this name?

It's all very confusing - and it's difficult to know what to do. Like evolution, it would be better if the terminology was more specific.


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Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Exciting News!


The incredible new home of the Biblical Museum of Natural History is not yet open to the general public. BUT we are able to offer exclusive private preview tours to Friends & Patrons of the Museum (see www.biblicalnaturalhistory.org/support for details of how to join), as well as for certain special private programs, such as this family barmitzvah! Write to office@BiblicalNaturalHistory.org for details. And if you're not in Israel, we can arrange a private live online tour!

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Uncomfortable Questions and People Who Think Differently

A friend of mine in the US was required by his employer to attend a session about racism. He was given the graphic shown here:



It's a very well-crafted piece, especially for the many of us who are in denial that we are in any way racist and/or don't appreciate the struggles that black people face (which is most of us in the frum community). And it's an excellent model for any area in which one needs to undergo personal growth. You start by identifying the problem - and acknowledge that there could be problems of which you are unaware and uncomfortable acknowledging. Then you engage in a process of learning, in which you still acknowledge that you have much to learn, and listen to people who look and think very differently from you (note to frum right-wing readers: Candace Owens does not count). Finally, you reach a position where you in a place to actually make a difference - while still acknowledging that there is still room for growth.

But I wonder: To what extent do people who favor such training, actually implement this?

Consider some of the lines here: "I seek out questions that make me uncomfortable..." And I was particularly struck by the line at the bottom of the circle: "I surround myself with others who think & look differently from me." Is this really something that the general society of people campaigning for racial equality are doing?

There's a great website called Medium.com, which is a platform for fascinating articles on a wide range of topics. Two recent articles came to my attention, both of which were shocking - albeit in very different ways.

One article is bluntly titled, "Yes My Dear, All White People Are Racist." The (black) author was emphatic that she was being 100% literal. Every single white person is racist. And she added that white people who claim not to be racist are the most dangerous of all, because they are in denial of their inherent racism.

(A hyperlink in her first use of the term shows that she is using a very specific and unconventional definition of racism, in which it refers to "the systemic subordination of members of targeted racial groups who have relatively little social power in the United States (Blacks, Latino/as, Native Americans, and Asians), by the members of the agent racial group who have relatively more social power (Whites)." But this is hardly the definition that is used in everyday conversation - and even with this definition, it's a far cry to claim that every single white person is part of this systemic subordination.)

Okay, so this is a pretty extreme article. But Medium seeks to "welcome thoughtful and civil discussion from a broad spectrum of viewpoints." And I am happy to read things from people who think very differently from me.

So then we get to the second article at Medium, which is also from a person of color - a professor at Berkeley, writing an open letter to his colleagues. He writes in alarm about the lack of diversity of opinion when it comes to analyzing racial problems. Here's an extract: 
"I could not find a single instance of substantial counter-argument or alternative narrative to explain the under-representation of black individuals in academia or their over-representation in the criminal justice system. The explanation provided in your documentation, to the near exclusion of all others, is univariate: the problems of the black community are caused by whites, or, when whites are not physically present, by the infiltration of white supremacy and white systemic racism into American brains, souls, and institutions.
Many cogent objections to this thesis have been raised by sober voices, including from within the black community itself, such as Thomas Sowell and Wilfred Reilly. These people are not racists or ‘Uncle Toms’. They are intelligent scholars who reject a narrative that strips black people of agency and systematically externalizes the problems of the black community onto outsiders. Their view is entirely absent from the departmental and UCB-wide communiques."
Now, it may indeed be the case that the problems of the black community actually are solely caused by whites and by the infiltration of white supremacy and white systemic racism into American brains, souls, and institutions. Other explanations may indeed be incorrect. However, surely that is something that should be discussed and argued about, not taken as an unquestionable fact with which one must not even acknowledge the existence of other views.

Meanwhile, Berkeley confirmed the basic point of the letter by condemning it: "it goes against our values as a department and our commitment to equity and inclusion." Apparently, "inclusion," even for an academic institution, does not mean including questions that challenge a particular narrative, even to refute them. Whatever happened to the value of "seeking out questions that make one feel uncomfortable" and "surrounding oneself with others who think differently"?

Well, at least this letter was published on Medium, who "welcome thoughtful and civil discussion from a broad spectrum of viewpoints," right? Not so fast. Medium has flagged the article for being in potential violation of its rules and has blocked all comments on it. An article declaring that every single white person is racist is within the spectrum; an article complaining about the narrowness of discourse is not.

Of course, it's not just Medium that is guilty of such things. There's an excellent article by Matt Taibi - an award-winning journalist who wrote a book called "I Can't Breathe" about systemic racism in America and police brutality towards blacks, back in 2014. Taibi writes about how the news media is destroying itself by "replacing traditional liberal beliefs about tolerance, free inquiry, and even racial harmony with ideas so toxic and unattractive that they eschew debate, moving straight to shaming, threats, and intimidation."

One striking example of this is with the New York Times, which ran an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton advocating for a military show of force to dissuade riots. The NYT did not only apologize for running the op-ed; the editor had to resign. As my friend Rabbi Scott Kahn commented, "The problem lies in the increasingly narrow range of what is considered acceptable. When printing a United States Senator’s words, ill-advised and offensive as they may be, is cause for losing your job and massive institutional self-flagellation, we can be sure that we’ve taken a wrong turn." And remember, this is a newspaper which had no problem printing an op-ed by Mahmoud Abbas, which entirely distorted the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict!

And it's not just with regard to racial issues that this problem appears. J.K. Rowling is currently in a firestorm about comments that she made which were seen as anti-trans. It involves issues such as whether women have the right to want bathrooms which exclude trans, which in turn relates to the question of what it takes for a person to legally identify as trans; is it enough for them to merely "self-identify" as a female, or is more required? Now, in order to address such issues, obviously it's very important to study the extent to which people who profess to be trans are really serious about it, the extent of rates of de-transition, and so on. But it seems that there is a serious dearth of such studies, because such studies simply won't be done. And the reason is that nobody dares fund or carry out a study which runs the risk of falling afoul of the socially acceptable narrative.

The willingness to ask uncomfortable questions, and to listen to people who think differently, is not just important for people with suspected racist beliefs. It's important for everyone.


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Friday, June 19, 2020

Return of the Re'em

The Biblical re'em is described as a huge cattle-like creature with magnificent, upwards-pointing horns. This is the aurochs - the wild ancestor of domestic cattle. It's challenging to display one in a museum, because they have been extinct for four hundred years! But thanks to artist Tom Hammond we are able to display this amazing life-size reproduction of a re'em.

Meanwhile, here's a riddle: During the course of Shabbat, how many times do we mention the re'em?

(And watch out next week, when there will be a very special announcement!)

Thursday, June 11, 2020

My Wonderful Friends

I am blessed with some wonderful friends. Good people. Kind people. Intelligent people. Thoughtful people. Sensitive people. People who would never discriminate against someone just because of the color of their skin, and who would actively oppose anyone who did otherwise.

Within this very same group of people, some of them are convinced that the George Floyd riots were understandable and even necessary, and some of them are convinced that the riots were counterproductive as well as inherently wrong. (Just to clarify, for those for whom it is not obvious - I am referring to the rioting, not the protests.)

But it gets even more extreme. Some of the holders of each position are not only convinced that their position is correct; they are convinced that those holding the opposite position are utterly immoral and beneath contempt, and should be silenced.

As for me - well, I heard the position of the first group, and I thought, "You're right!" Then I heard the position of the second group, and I thought, "You're right!" And if you're going to tell me that they can't both be right, then my response to you is - you're right!

But whoever is right, I am convinced that neither side deserves contempt. Can't we try to understand other people's perspectives, or at least politely disagree, instead of just writing them off and condemning them as evil?

(All the above seems to be increasingly true not just about the Floyd riots, but about all kinds of issues.)

UPDATE: A number of people expressed indignation at how any decent person could possibly justify rioting. You can see my Facebook post for some examples in the comments, but meanwhile someone pointed to the fascinating case of the riots in the 1902 Kosher Meat Boycott - I strongly recommend reading the Wikipedia description of these.

UPDATE 2: In response to this post, someone wrote to me at length to condemn me as racism-spouting fool!

Monday, June 8, 2020

Frum Science Textbooks

Are school textbooks threatening to Judaism? Well, that depends on which approach to Judaism you take. In my high school in Manchester, which did secular studies to an extremely high level, there was nevertheless no standard class in biology (though I'm not sure if the problem was evolution, or reproduction, or both).

Threats to Judaism are perceived by some in English literature, along with sex education and gender studies. But the most widely perceived problem is that with science. Teaching about the antiquity of the universe, and especially the evolution of life, is seen as heretical.

Of course, for those who adopt Rambam's rationalist approach to Judaism, while there may be several areas in which modern knowledge and values may pose a serious threat to Judaism, the antiquity of the universe and the evolution of life are certainly not in that category. In my book The Challenge Of Creation, I explain in detail why not only is evolution not a threat to Judaism, but is actually consistent with fundamental Torah concepts. And this book has been well received in many Jewish schools; some schools even order it in bulk for their students.

But what about for those who refuse to accept the rationalist approach? A new phenomenon in American Orthodoxy is the production of alternatives to school textbooks. One such enterprise recently caught my eye. Fundamentals Of Life Science, by Rabbi Yaakov Lubin, has rabbinic endorsements from Rav Aharon Feldman, Rabbi Shmuel Yaakov Klein of Torah U'Mesorah, and others. I would like to make a few critical comments about this work - and then explain why these flaws may actually be beneficial.

Fundamentals Of Life Science is a basic biology textbook, but with two key differences. One is that it does not teach anything about the history of life on earth or about evolution - the most basic organizing principle of biology. But it doesn't merely neglect to teach evolution; there are numerous comments, scattered throughout, which indirectly try to negate it. And on page 78, the book actively claims that there is no such thing as vestigial organs (or "junk" DNA), saying that such "foolish speculations" would directly contradict the pasuk of "Kulam b'chachma asisa - You have made them all with wisdom". (In my book The Challenge Of Creation, on the other hand, I explain how there are indeed many vestigial organs, and rather than challenging Kulam b'chachma asisa, the process of descent with modification attests to a very profound form of chachma.)

The second novel aspect of Fundamentals Of Life Science is that it is liberally sprinkled with hashkafic perspectives. Some of these are valuable spiritual insights - such as the discussion on p. 54 about how the semipermeable cell, which only allows appropriate substances to enter and exit, should serve as a lesson on how we should be careful with our bodies as a whole regarding what enters and exits our mouths. Others are inspirational messages about appreciating all the wonders of the natural world, as revealed by science (though some of these appear to be intended to negate evolution). And yet others (see pp. 121 and 163) are baseless claims about Chazal having supernatural knowledge of the natural world (see my monograph Sod Hashem Liyreyav for a discussion of how this has been distorted far beyond anything claimed in the Gemara), and knowing things long before science caught up.

One section, in the section introducing the scientific method, was somewhat bizarre:
HaRav Aharon Feldman, shlita, adds that the scientific method is the method by which many discoveries were made by science. All problems are solved by applying reasoning to them. The Gemara is the best example of the way reasoning is used. The method of the Gemara is to (1) pose a question; (2) seek sources for an answer; (3) if no sources are found, to pose a hypothesis as a possible solution; (4) to discard illogical solutions until reaching the correct one...
The scientific method is the method through which science uses experimentation to discover solutions. As in Gemara, there are four stages to this method: (1) to ask a question; (2) to do research; (3) to pose a hypothesis; and (4) to experiment until a solution is found. 
This comparison between the Gemara and the scientific method is tenuous at best. Furthermore, it glosses over the crucial difference between traditional religion and science (one that is problem even for rationalist Judaism): in Gemara, if something is attributed to a sufficiently revered source, it is sacrosanct. In science, on the other hand, there is nothing that is not open to question and being tested.

So, given that this book purporting to teach science and biology actually tries to negate the foundational principles of biology, and to encourage people to attribute scientific authority to sages rather than to scientists, why did I write that these flaws may be beneficial?

I'll explain why. Despite the book's attempts to undermine some important aspects of science and factual reality, as a textbook on biology it nevertheless can't help but teach lots of valuable material and inspire people with an appreciation for science. In addition, because Chazal were much less charedi than modern yeshivish people, the author cannot help but endorse things which go against the yeshivish approach. For example, on p. 27, the book notes that Rabbi Shimon engaged in various experiments in order to empirically prove or disprove matters that the sages were discussing. So the author, apparently oblivious to the fact that elsewhere he claims that the sages had the superior ability to extract wisdom from divine sources rather than scientific investigation, is showing here that the Sages themselves did not have such recourse and engaged in experimentation!

So is the net effect of such a book positive or negative? The answer to this largely depends on who is reading it. If it's being used in a school that would otherwise use regular biology textbooks (with suitable theological discussion), then the book is problematic. But if it's being used in a school which would otherwise not have any biology classes at all, then the net effect is probably beneficial. If such a book had been available when I was growing up in England, maybe my school would have taught biology, and I would have benefited tremendously.

The website for Fundamentals Of Life Science has a page which lists dozens of schools that make use of it. I'm not familiar with any of them, but looking at their names and locations, one can make educated guesses as to what kind of schools they are. Some of them look like schools which probably wouldn't teach science with any respect, if at all, were it not for a book like this, and so the book is beneficial for them. But others are clearly schools which cater to students from a broad range of backgrounds, who will be continuing to college. For such students, it is a big mistake to teach them biology without evolution. And this is another example of the problem in schools having principals and educators that are not in hashkafic synchronization with the students. 

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This Time It's Not The Charedim

During the initial rise of coronavirus in Israel, I wrote a number of posts critical of the charedi leadership for opposing health precaut...