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Chinese Dinosaurs and Challenging Camels
There was an era when life was chaos. When monsters ruled the land. When primitive creatures fought tooth and nail.
But enough about the elections in Bet Shemesh already. (Ba-da-dum!) I'm not discussing it in this post, even though there is a breaking news item that the Israel Supreme Court just rejected the appeal by the charedi parties against the disqualification of the previous elections, and ruled that there will indeed be new elections. There are two breaking stories in the news that are of relevance to anyone interested in the field of Torah and science.
First is the discovery that Pompeii-like volcanic ash was responsible for the instant death of thousands of species found as fossils in the Jehol beds in China. Actually, the relevance here is not so much the cause of death, but rather the fossil beds themselves. Thousands and thousands of fossils have been found in this location, including nearly 1000 species of invertebrates and 140 species of vertebrates. The latter category includes fossils of amphibians, reptiles, dinosaurs, pterosaurs, birds and mammals (you can see the full list at this link). These are all from species that no longer exist. The mammals, for example, are primitive species with splayed legs like those of reptiles.
For people who insist that the creation account in Genesis is to be taken literally as factual history, there is a big problem here. Are these fossils from Day Five or Day Six of creation? If they are from Day Five, then there should not be any fossils from terrestrial creatures, which were not created yet. But if they are from Day Six, then why are there only fossils of primitive species and none of contemporary species?
If somebody wants to simply admit that they have no answer for the scientific challenges, I'm fine with that. Because the other breaking story of relevance is "Camel Archeology Contradicts Bible" - that carbon-dating of the earliest known domestic camel bones shows that they were introduced to Israel hundreds of years later than the patriarchs. A journalist contacted me for my comment, but I had nothing to say. I'm not a zooarcheologist and I have no means of refuting this claim. Nor do I know how to reconcile such a thing with the Torah. Rav Kook writes that "we should not immediately refute any idea which comes to contradict anything in the Torah, but rather we should build the palace of Torah above it," but I don't know how to apply that in this case. (Fortunately, I am long past the stage of my life where such questions keep me awake at night. Now I stay awake at night agonizing over more pressing problems, such as how to best educate my kids, how to raise funds for my museum, and how to get my python to start eating again.)
In light of the fact that I have nothing to say with regard to the Camel Challenge, I can't complain if others want to have a similar lack of response to the Chinese Dinosaurs (although I think that it is wrong to insist to non-charedi audiences that they should not even attempt to deal with such questions). But what I do protest is if people claim that there is no challenge from the Chinese Dinosaurs. Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, for example, in Torah, Chazal and Science (p. 493) claims that it is forbidden to believe that the world is more than 5774 years old, and further insists that there is no legitimate scientific evidence challenging the Biblical account of creation. His purported rationale for this is that "the laws of nature were different back then." Rabbi Meiselman claims that scientists have no way of knowing otherwise, and that all their conclusions are based on an unproven premise that the laws of nature were always constant.
In fact, the consistency of historical processes is not a presumption of modern science - it is a conclusion, drawn from observations of the uniformity present in geology and other phenomena. This was the subject of the very first post that ever appeared on this blog, William Smith and the Principal of Faunal Succession.
(In a possible attempt to counter this argument, Rabbi Meiselman claims on p. 504 that the results of a universe that developed under completely different laws of nature over six days perfectly mimic that of a universe that developed under a single set of laws over billions of years! I'm simply lost for words that such a proposal could be put in print, and that a book espousing such a thing can be taken seriously by anyone.)
The Chinese dinosaurs present another refutation of the notion that there is no scientific challenge to the literalist approach. Here we have amphibians, reptiles, dinosaurs, pterosaurs, birds and mammals, all of which happily (or unhappily) lived their lives and died, all before contemporary species appeared in the world. And yet Rabbi Meiselman and others would insist that all this presents no reason to believe that the world is any more than 5774 years old - and they insist that it is forbidden to believe otherwise. This is despite the statements of numerous widely-respected Torah authorities who say that it is perfectly acceptable to believe otherwise.
If people want to confess that they have no answer to challenges from science, that's fine. But don't take real challenges and claim that they have no basis. Especially if you're going on a crusade to claim that anyone saying otherwise is beyond the pale of Judaism.
UPDATE: The best (and indeed only) response that I have seen regarding the Camel Challenge is by Prof. Aaron Koller at The Times Of Israel.